There were about twenty young adults crammed into our tiny windowless classroom in Fez, which had a small AC unit that often stopped working. Fourteen of us were Duke students, participating in the 2017 Duke in the Arab World program in Morocco, and the others were all young Moroccans who had volunteered to engage with us in a conversation about citizenship.

It had been one young Moroccan’s idea to write down stereotypes on the board, and we’d compiled two long lists for “stereotypes about Morocco” and “stereotypes about America.” The first list was full of words like “dirty, conservative, developing, poor,” while the other included the adjectives “white, rich,” and “free,” and the Moroccan student took charge and led a discussion about what these things implied.

Once the conversation had run its course, he concluded on our behalf that “both countries have both things,” and stereotypes were therefore meaningless and grounded in ignorance. I rolled my eyes.

As a large group of American students studying abroad in Morocco, we were often privy to this kind of discourse from Moroccans who felt as though they had to defend their country, culture and religion from our privileged, judgmental gazes. When our professor invited some young Moroccan women to come in and talk about being female in a Muslim society, one of the speakers seemed to have framed her entire presentation on the basis that we were all going to reject her talk of feminism and equality and instead project our American biases about Islam and women in the Middle East.

When these sorts of instances initially occurred, it saddened me to think that Moroccan students would think so lowly of their American counterparts; after all, our program was comprised of people who’d chosen to study in Morocco instead of Spain or Greece precisely to overcome these stereotypes and get to experience another people and way of life. I quickly realized, however, that just because our hearts and ears were open, it was still incredibly hard to overcome a lot of our societal and cultural differences and truly feel immersed.

On a daily basis, my roommate and I would struggle to find cafés with reliable wi-fi and  properly-functioning outlets. On the occasions when we discovered a squat-toilet, we would make a point of avoiding going to the bathroom whenever we were in that vicinity again. We tried all sorts of different strategies to see what would allow us to get the best sleep without sweating too much, including sleeping naked, leaving our bedroom’s large doors open, and sleeping with cold, wet towels around our necks. (It was about 115 degrees Fahrenheit on any given day in Fez). 

As much as we were enjoying our host families, our meals, and our new surroundings, I couldn’t help but feel the distance between myself and the country; I felt as though despite the homestays and the increasing familiarity with the local language, I was still limited to a tourist’s perspective. I was keenly aware of how many amenities I missed on a daily basis, and though I was more than willing to enjoy all the up’s and down’s of the adventure, I was hyper aware of how much it was just that: an adventure, a trip, just as temporary and selfish as any other vacation I’d taken in a foreign country. All the people I encountered and conversations I had, I felt like there was a glass wall between me and them, held up by the fact that I was only there for six weeks to collect all my insights, pick apart, analyze, and go home to my air-conditioned bedroom.

All my dreams of deep cultural exchanges and widenings of perspective shattered, I wondered about the tendency of these programs to offer entirely new ways of seeing the world, and our tendency to expect such a thing. If we truly expect to relate to people of a different continent, country, religion, culture, and background, we need to stop framing the encounter as a one-in-a-lifetime experience that will change the way we understand the world. I believe that this was the frame of mind that lots of student in the program shared, and it made it easy to “other” the behaviors and occurrences we witnessed every day. If men harassed us, they were Moroccan men. If a restaurant had bad service, they were bad Moroccan waiters. Any problem that didn’t fit into our expectation of an idyllic, rewarding, life-changing trip in the magical land of Morocco was a national, geographical, inherent country-specific flaw.

It should have been easier to accept that we were a bunch of privileged American kids having fun on a trip in a beautiful country, trying our best to learn the language and meet new people and get to know the culture. The fact that there was a lot of poverty, a bit of danger and discomfort, and several other bumps along the road should not have been shocking or disappointing. Life outside of the place you grew up in will always be startlingly different, and that’s the point. What I most gained from my time in Morocco wasn’t a new understanding of other people, but a deeper appreciation for my own understanding of citizenship, my own spirituality, my unique background and family life and my way of relating to people and understanding things. I became a little more knowledgeable about Islam and what society is like in Morocco, a little better at Arabic, and I met lots of cool students and families from cities all over the country. My world wasn’t turned upside down, but it was pieced together a little bit better, and I think that’s the best one should hope for when embarking on these kinds of journeys. That, and, honestly, functioning air conditioning.  

Daniela Flamini is a Trinity junior. Her column, “musings of an immigrant” runs on alternate Mondays.