America's Unofficial Ambassadors

We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.

“This may be my first visit to Morocco, but it won’t be my last.”

After returning home to the United States, School-2-School teacher Eric Northard writes about his experience at the Sidi Moumen Cultural Center in Casablanca, Morocco.  Thank you, Eric, for your meaningful thoughts and reflections.

By Eric Northard

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I’m home in Minnesota after two weeks with the Sidi Moumen Cultural Center (SMCC) in Casablanca, Morocco. It’s so hard to find words to capture such an incredible experience. The first thing that comes to my mind is how much I miss the deep connections that were a part of this experience from the very first day. I was embraced (both literally and figuratively) as soon as I arrived in Sidi Moumen, and I felt this warm welcome during my entire stay in Morocco. I am profoundly grateful for this opportunity, and I cannot thank my hosts at the SMCC and School-2-School enough for this amazing experience.

As you can imagine, there are a myriad of thoughts running through my mind as I process this experience. I am left with images and impressions. The first is the beauty of Moroccan culture, especially during the holy month of Ramadan. The muezzin’s call to prayer, heard from different mosques throughout the city, permeates the calm of evening. It has left an indelible imprint on my soul. I forged bonds with the Sidi Moumen community as we fasted together and joined, in gratitude, for the evening iftar (break-fast) to celebrate the meaning of the Ramadan season.

I continue to be in awe of the Moroccan people that I came to know over just two weeks in Casablanca. The students and staff at the center were phenomenal hosts, and they were so eager to practice English, and learn about the United States. I was happy to see that they continue to Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook with my students. I am looking at building on this for the next year, and engaging more of my students in digital exchange. My real dream is to facilitate person-to-person exchanges between our students, and I am optimistic we can develop this. The relationships I made at the center, and in Casablanca, laid a great foundation for deepening our connection.

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I have been contemplating the depth of Moroccan hospitality. Whether they are asking “labaas”? (how are you?), or urging me to eat (“koolee– Eric, koolee!” as my host Amina says in Arabic), my Moroccan hosts both at home and at work were deeply concerned about my well-being at all times. In fact, I was rarely alone. Whether walking down the street, or commuting from place to place, my hosts insisted on accompanying me. Anywhere we went together, my Moroccan hosts insisted on paying. At each meal, I was served first to make sure I had the best of everything. I’m quite sure my new Moroccan friends would literally give me the shirt off of their backs if need be. In fact, they did give me several shirts and a fez to remember the experience. Their generosity is amazing.

Now picture this – a stubborn, independent American lands in Morocco and is immediately engulfed by a culture that expects the guest to be cared for. I’ve been programmed to think I should do everything myself. I’m used to coming and going on my own schedule, and making arrangements for myself. In Sidi Moumen, I had two choices –insist on retaining my independence, or allow myself to experience the Moroccan roles of host and guest. I chose the latter and I’m so glad I did. During my time in Sidi Moumen, I gained insight into the realities of a collective culture. It became clear to me that to assert independence would have been acceptable to my hosts, but they would have been concerned about me. They wanted to make sure I was safe, well, and included at all times. My stubborn American independent streak would have denied them peace of mind, and the opportunity to ensure my well-being.

I think there is a lesson in this for us in the West. While our culture fosters individual expression and decision-making, sometimes we take this to the extreme. Sometimes our individualism prevents us from connecting with others, and can lead to less-tolerant societies. In a culture that is more collective, such as that in the Maghreb, social cohesion is seen in many aspects of life. Meals are shared communally, with all eating from one central bowl or dish. In matters of religion, Moroccans understand that theirs is an Islamic society, and this underlies all facets of social life. You can see this clearly during Ramadan, as everyone, even non-Muslims, refrains from eating or drinking in public during the day. There is a clear understanding that people who are young, elderly, ill, or traveling can eat and drink as needed, but this is also done with discretion. This is not dictated by law, but it is practiced nearly universally as a sign of respect for one’s neighbors. This tolerance, this deep awareness and appreciation of others, is often absent in the Western World.

Going forward, I will continue to reflect on the people and activities that were part of my life in Sidi Moumen. I am continuously thinking about the relationships that were nurtured and built at SMCC, and I am envisioning ways to continue these relationships as I reenter my life back home. This visit was so much more than I had hoped for, and I can’t wait to see where it will take us next. As I said to my hosts, “this may be my first visit to Morocco, but it sure won’t be my last.” The first time I came as a guest, the next time I will come as a friend.

 

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This entry was posted on July 1, 2016 by in Volunteer Related.
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