Alex Avtgis ’11 – While most of the globalized Western world employs modernization in order to boast of their pluralist hybridities (cultural, social, or otherwise), Morocco can proudly claim the latter without needing recourse to the former; a dynamic cornucopia of Arabic and Moorish influences, Berber native ancestry, and communities originating from several Sub-Saharan African nations traditionally subsist under the royal name of the state, without ever acknowledging the multiple foreign and European influences – be they French, Spanish, Japanese, or American – which also intertwine in Morocco’s present day.
Yes, fresh and highly modern influences do exist already. Cell phones are found in every pocket, be it the pockets of rural jellabas (a Moroccan tunic) or urban designer jeans. Televisions talk constantly, and the internet informs homes across the country. You can locate the centers novelle (new) in every major city (coastal or inland). Some even boast of large corporate Megamalls. In certain parts of Rabat, such as the trendy Agdal, you’d think you had lost yourself somewhere along the way in Chicago or Indianapolis.
And you’d also think that would surprise me, as a Westerner coming for his first time to an African country. But that’s not what I’ve noticed the most.
I live in the capital city of Morocco, Rabat, and arguably the most representative of the entire country. Characteristically, it’s not overly sensational like Marrakech, exorbitantly touristy like Tangier, highly relaxed like Essaouira, surprisingly rural like Boujaad, or fanatically bustling like Casablanca. It combines all of these spices into a nice complex blend, which I breathe in (deep!) every beautiful morning from the leisure and comfort of a second-story bedroom window.
What I have found most astonishing about this charming capital is its constancy in revolving around a romanticized Medina khdeema (old city). Even after hundreds of years, the city’s pulse directly stems from those ancient, cement structures which inhabit the three square miles encased by red stone brick.
Though the city has expanded for miles southward over a short decade or so – through which it can now boast one of the best and prestigious universities on the African continent – most of the life and activity occurs in this conservative, coastal center. All energy found in the Villa Novelle centralizes right outside of the old medina’s busiest hub; where the dusty Avenue Mohammed V intersects the equally worn Avenue Hassan II marks the location, on average, of the most foot, taxi and motorbike traffic found in the entire city.
See, when this intersection dies out, there won’t be a soul wandering the newer French city. What you could find is the chatter of elderly patriarchs (always accompanied by the hurried scurries of younger relatives bearing cups of tea on metal trays), female conversation floating from windows and doorways, the smell of roasting onion and beef rising from street vendors, the calls and scrapple of animated alley soccer games – all of which are screened only for kdema’s citizens.
At times, life inside of it is like life in the Wabash fraternity. There are certain walls which simultaneously bind and liberate individuals, both foster and inhibit growths, and all the while provide concrete boundaries which forge and force relationships to occur.
In short, everybody knows everybody. A shocking story reveals this best – when I was jumped during the first few days, and had both a copy of my passport and an IPOD stolen, it was the medina which came to my aide; I credit the networking of its inhabitants. Immediately following the incident, my host brother rallied the entire police force in a five mile radius by walking from post to post and talking to ‘friends’. While the ensuing search revealed nothing, the situation was resolved hours later, when a fruit vendor, who was also my brother’s friend, informed him of the thief’s home.
When my brother returned triumphantly with my passport and IPOD, I knew it was only possible by the help of a friendly, small city. He confirmed it was. The laughs we now share over the topic confirm my love and deep gratitude I have for the opportunity to study abroad.
That’s only one of many such encounters I have with the kdema’s numerous characters. Everytime I pass the reggae vendor on ‘fish and vegetable’ street (which we’ve appropriately named after its two main foodstuffs), who sits all day listening to music, we smile at each other. It’s the same simple relationship I have with Karim, my friend at the hookah café down the street, who gives me a hug and calls me his brother.
And that doesn’t stop at the peer-level. I’ve been invited over to over for coffee, tea and discussion by a myriad of people who are old enough to be my grandparents.
Alas, I mustn’t keep you any longer. I’m being kicked out of the café in the new city – I should’ve known. Find attached some pictures of Rabat and others documenting some my journeys outside the beloved city.
To me, it isn’t funny I just used the adjective beloved. I guess I have developed a deep love for it; the same way that the freshman must be seeing our dearly beloved Alma Mater right about now, with the leaves falling golden and the warming promises against DePauw circulating.
Before I forget – I recently completed my search for a place to stay during my independent research period. As I turn back home, and navigate the kdema’s ancient streets tonight, I will probably grin as I put the key in my apartment off avenue Sidi-Fatah; I am both proud and happy to continue calling this ancient community my home for the next month.
In Photos: Top Right, Chefchaouen city view; at left, looking up a cathedral bell tower in Casablanca; second right, Casablanca’s Cathedral; lower left, Beni Mallel street vendors.