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Midshipman Arabic Majors Seek Linguistic Challenge in Morocco

Posted on: February 12, 2014 08:00 EST by the International Programs Office

Midshipman 1st Class Jeremy Vasquez and Midshipmen 2nd Class Dominic Bellissimo and Maxwell Chomic spent the fall semester in Morocco. Here, they chronicle what it was like to meet the challenge of living in a culture with multiple languages and dialects.

We searched for a program that would teach us Arabic while providing paths to be trained, surrounded and tried in a culture completely different from our own. The Kingdom of Morocco is quite peculiar in dozens of ways.

Linguistically, the official language is Classical Arabic, yet French is the dominant language of business and industry and the dominant vernacular by far is referred to as “Darija” or the Moroccan dialect of Arabic.

Often cited as the hardest to understand of all Arabic dialects in the Arab world, Darija is as different from Classical Arabic as Spanish is to Latin.

Additionally, the average Moroccan will often use several French words or expressions in the middle of a dialogue without skipping a beat. At first, despite our years of Arabic training, we found ourselves at a loss for words as it was impossible to understand. However, with our new language training and experience, we slowly but surely began to settle into meaningful conversation. This was necessary since we elected to live with host families who did not speak English.

The host family experience combined with being located in the “medina,” or the old-fashioned walled city of the Moroccan capital Rabat, delivered unbeatable insight into the dense culture of the country. Morocco appears culturally homogeneous by its statistics, sporting a 99% Muslim population and a 99% Arabo-Amazigh ethnic population, but the touches of culture from other societies are ubiquitous such as Spanish Pastilla, the French language and education, Andalusian art, Portuguese beach towns, old Arab culture, sub-Saharan music, Amazigh traditions and pan-Islamic cultural points just to name a few.

We started assimilation on day one when a Moroccan man gave one of us the friendly goodbye gesture of a handshake accompanied by a kiss on each cheek. That same day we all tasted what we would be drinking every day for the next few months, the famous Moroccan mint tea that is served every time a guest is present or often at regular intervals in the Moroccan home.

Later in the semester we celebrated Eid el-Kabir, the “Big Holiday,” where each family sacrifices a male ram in honor of the Prophet Abraham’s obedience and willingness to sacrifice his own child to appease his God.

Along with the obvious holiday celebration habits and the loud, blasting call to prayer five times a day, we observed the cultural customs and tradition that answered our respective semester-long project questions like how do Moroccans make friends, why do Moroccans eat what they eat, and what are the nuances of inter-gender relationships in an Islamic state?

We were surprised to discover how liberal Morocco was compared to our preconceptions of the Muslim. The natives never failed to inundate us with their hospitality, often asking us over for dinner upon first meeting. This was true all over Morocco.

We rode camels in the Sahara, hiked the lightly inhabited mountainsides of a native village, climbed the highest peak in the Arab world, visited unforgettably gorgeous and windy beach towns and the largest mall in Africa in the heart of Casablanca, wandered the streets of large cities where the former colonizing language was actually Spanish and not French, watched snake charming, played with monkeys, and observed some of the most beautiful Islamic artistry known to man.

Although personal space is not a custom of Morocco, especially while in the crowded public spaces of Rabat, we found our own spaces to love and enjoy along with our new friends, adventures, and education.

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