ESA: Can you tell us about the experience you had taking students to Morocco this past spring 2014? Where did you all go, what did you do?
RD: We traveled to the North of Morocco over a long weekend, from Thursday to Sunday. We started with lunch at DARNA, The Women’s Association of Tangier, a community house helping local women in need. Later on, we explored Tangier and its most notable landmarks: the Grand Mosque, the Kasbah, the Petit Socco, the Grand Socco, the Spanish Consulate, the American School of Tangier, the Tangier American Legation... Did you know that the American Legation building was the first American public property outside of the United States? We also visited the old city of Tetouan and its unique medina. And we stayed at host family houses in the blue city of Chefchaouen in the Rif Mountains. Over the weekend, we enjoyed a guided tour through the city, we hiked, we weaved, we rode camels, we had a henna workshop, we had lots of fun during an Andalusian music performance and we delighted in the Moroccan cuisine (the couscous, the harira soup, the bayssar... mmmm!!!). The whole weekend we were accompanied by Abdeslam, our guide, a wise man that introduced us to Morocco: politics, economy, social habits, traditions, gender issues, etc. We definitely made the most of the weekend.
ESA: How did the students respond to the experience?
RD: Very positively. Most of them described this trip as “terrific” or “by far their favorite experience of the entire semester” - many of them said it was “unforgettable” and “life-changing”. The weeks before the trip they all were concerned with what kind of accommodation, food or communication they were going to have in Moroccan houses. By Sunday, they all shed tears when saying good-bye to their new friends.
ESA: What did you hope the students would get out of the trip?
RD: As novelist Chimamanda Adichie warns, “We risk a critical misunders- tanding because of the danger of a single story”. I hoped that the students would understand that there is not a single story of Morocco, likewise there is not only one Spain, but many. As one of the students said while crossing back the Strait of Gibraltar, “You realize that although we live half a world apart, everyone is actually more alike than you thought”. Mehdi, Doua, Zaid, Abdeslam, Anuar, Akram, Chaymae... the Moroccan students they met - and lived with for four days - shared with them their stories, their thoughts, their fears and their hopes. And they realized the differences are much less important than the similarities.
ESA: Do you remember a moment on the trip when you thought, this is a truly beneficial trip for these students?
RD: There is a photo that is able to envisage that moment when I thought “Yes, this is what I was hoping for them to experience”. We arrived in Chefchaouen and headed to Doua’s house. Doua is a smart English Litera- ture student at the University of Tetouan and was born in Chefchaouen. She usually helps us coordinating with the host families, so her family house is a sort of a main office before students move in with their host families. So there we were, altogether having tea and pastries with Doua’s parents and the other Moroccan students who arrived to pick them up. With open arms and a welcoming atmosphere, there was no room for fears, just smiley faces and laughter.
ESA: Did the experience in Morocco bring something to you on a personal level? And on a professional level?
RD: Every time I travel in Morocco I learn new things on both a personal and a professional level. In general, the way we perceive the Arab world is contaminated by stereotyped images and preconceived ideas in which we shouldn’t naïvely trust. The reality is much more complex and complicated. And not always easy to be unveiled and deconstructed. I believe that the personal stories I have the opportunity to hear in first person when I am in Morocco help me expand my horizons. And what is education but expanding horizons?
ESA: You will be taking more American students to Morocco with ESA in the future. What hopes/aspirations can you project on those trips for the exchange between the two cultures?
RD: Metaphorically, I would like them to close their eyes and observe what they see. I hope we can spend as much time as possible with the Moroc- can students, listen to them, make things together, get involved with their community and share as many thoughts and experiences as possible.
I think it was John Dewey who once said that education is not preparation for life but life itself. My aspiration is that these trips become an important part of the students’ lives.