Casablanca’s humid ocean breeze mixes the sounds of motorbikes, car horns and call to prayer that provides a suitable soundtrack for reflection.
For the past month I’ve been working as the Photo Instructor for Rustic Pathways’ Advanced Photography Workshop in Morocco. I taught photography to a small handful of incredibly thoughtful and motivated high school students with the help of a crew of indispensable Moroccans who guided us around their beautiful country. The trip itself was a fast-paced tour that had us cruising across a large portion of the country to see many of Morocco’s famous sights.
Similar to my time in Ghana (also with Rustic Pathways), I find myself humbled by all the things I don’t know about these far away places I visit. What I enjoy most about traveling is its profound ability to shake me out of simplistic thinking.
What struck me immediately about Morocco is its incredible diversity. The influences of Arab, European, Berber and Sub-Saharan African cultures are visible in the people, language, architecture and a host of other places. Though many see America as the proverbial “melting pot” of cultures, Morocco appears to be a truer example of the phrase. The harmony between the various people groups and cultures is amazing and bizarre, if only because Moroccans seem to think nothing of it. In the US we like to pat ourselves on the back for even the most basic cooperation across ethnic or cultural lines. We also seem unable to shake the demons of our sordid history with various people groups. In Morocco it is a daily performance of understated cooperation regardless of background.
The visual diversity of the country is also incredible. The trip took us from lush coastal cities to the unforgiving heat of the desert before finishing through the winding, red-dusted roads of the Atlas mountain range. Many of the students would fall asleep on the bus only to wake up to an entirely new landscape outside their window.
As a lover of history, I found myself dumbfounded at several moments by Morocco’s storied history. The region has been populated by some of the same people for millennia, and many of the buildings still standing and in use after 800 years. Staying in homes that are twice the age of the US had me laughing, mostly because of American’s inability to grasp their tiny place in history up to this point. Coming from a country that regularly experiences crises of history, identity and authenticity, it was refreshing to walk the centuries-old streets of Fez and Marrakesh that wind into a complex labyrinth of shops, cafes, tourist traps, mosques, schools and homes. Similar to the nonchalant attitude toward the ethnic diversity of the country, Moroccans appear pleasantly casual about the history of places they visit and use on a daily basis. My most asked question was likely, “How old is this?” And the answer of, “It was built in the 14th Century” was said with dramatic effect similar to, “The sky is blue.”
I will also leave with a much clearer, though more complex, understanding of Islam’s role of shaping—and being shaped by—various cultures. This was my first time spending a significant amount of time in a Muslim country and I’m thankful to Rustic’s local staff for answering my hilariously naive questions.
Finally, I leave Morocco with a slew of once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Most notably I slept under the stars on a sand dune in the middle of the Sahara Desert and heard, for the first time, the sound of absolute silence. It’s an environment I’ll never forget. I also found a new love for mint tea and an inability to eat bread without olive oil. I’m also pretty sure I will be finding sand in my pockets, shoes, hair and under my fingernails for the rest of my life.