Year Abroad in Rabat: Part 2. Very Mixed & Clashing Feelings

“It is weird being back at Sussex Uni/in England.” “Yes, I spent a year in Morocco.” “I was studying in the capital, Rabat.” “I loved being there, I really miss my flatmate, also the food.” “I really enjoyed the university I was in, it was a nice change.” These have been my conversation starters for months, particularly now that the academic term is beginning. At first, it was nice talking about my year abroad often, but, now, I’m commencing to feel like a broken record, stuck in a never-ending loop. The problem is that there is a lack of depth and truth in my words. I just keep basing my answers on the cliché “just-came-back-from-an-exchange” student commentary, which doesn’t even really represent how I feel about my time abroad.

On the one hand, I do miss things about Rabat, and I had great moments there, but on the other hand, by the end of the year, I couldn’t wait to come back to the UK, and, sometimes, I even regret doing the exchange. To be completely honest, I have mixed feelings about my year abroad. Very mixed and clashing feelings. First, there is a difference between how I feel about my experience living in Rabat (and Morocco in general), and how I feel about my experience studying in EGE. Then, within both aspects of my exchange, there are negatives and positives. And, as I’m unable to prioritise the different resulting elements, I end up unable to conclude whether doing the exchange was a good idea or not. To understand this dilemma, I should speak about both aspects of my year abroad more deeply. In this post, I will focus on the first one.

Life in Rabat was certainly different to life in Brighton, where I normally reside. Firstly, instead of staying in a dorm in a university’s campus residence, I settled for accommodation in the private sector. I rented a room in a 3-bedroom flat, located in a residential block just next to EGE (1-2 minutes away walking). The house was clean and homely, with a large living room and a decent-sized kitchen. The common areas had a traditional style, with not much decoration, but some antique touches, as well as paintings on the walls which added some colour to it.

The room I was initially allocated was spacious, with pastel orange walls, a big white wardrobe, and a comfortable old-style bed, as well as a small terrace. There was also a TV and a chair, though I never really used either. A few months after arriving, I did end up switching my room after one of my flatmates asked as a favour. The one I moved into remained my chamber for the rest of the year. I was very similar, just with blue walls, a long tea table, a sofa, and no terrace. I was actually happy about this change because the other room got too warm when it was hot outside.

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For my first time renting privately, I thought of myself as lucky. I couldn’t complain much about where I was staying. It was much cheaper than my rent in the UK, yet I shared with only two people, not the usual eleven. There were only two salient issues: there wasn’t heating (during winter, I had to wear a lot of layers whilst in the flat), and the shower’s water was, more often than not, cold as ice (I had to boil water in saucepans to clean myself with warm water). The later was the most annoying problem of the two, because trying to get hot water, to begin with, was hard: it involved using a lighter and getting way too close to a gas bottle. However, eventually, I learnt to manage these issues, and live with them.

Aside from hot water whenever I wanted it, the only other thing I really missed from living on campus at Sussex was the free internet (WiFi) and having a cleaner. Fortunately, the former wasn’t expensive, whilst the later was made easy through sharing clean duties with my flatmates. Yes, my flatmates. I shared the house with two other girls, both Moroccan students, but in different universities/centres, and at a higher level (master & PhD). One of them greeted me when I first arrived (the PhD student). She showed me around the house, and she even invited me to have dinner. I immediately felt very welcomed by her. The kindness didn’t stop there: she really helped me to settle in during my first weeks in Rabat.

The day after I arrived, she showed me key places in the neighbourhood, Madinat Al Irfane (which means “The City of Knowledge” in Arabic). Al Irfane is known in Rabat as the student area, as it is full of universities, faculties and institutes, with some apartment blocks here and there. At some points during the day (e.g. noon), the streets in the neighbourhood were busy and chatty, but during others (e.g. evening), everything looked very empty and lifeless.

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A key spot to know in Al Irfane was Le Campus, a small set of shops and cafes situated in a roundabout. This became the place I frequented the most whilst living there, as I needed to go to the shops to top up my Moroccan SIM card (until I discovered you can do it online) and to casually buy groceries and food. When I went to Le Campus, I normally spoke in Arabic, which became regular practice for me. At first, the vendors seemed surprised by my command in the language: they often tried to speak to me directly in English or French, or where confused by how I wasn’t speaking in either of those two languages. But, eventually, Arabic became our main communication method, unless I was unsure of how to say something (in that case, they helped me).

My flatmate also showed me other important places in Rabat, including the areas Hay Riad, Agdal, and the City Centre/Medina. Hay Riad was a residential neighbourhood that resembled a suburban district: it was a rather posh and middle-classy area, with company offices & government buildings. It also had a big supermarket, inside a shopping centre, called “Marjane”, where I did most of my monthly grocery shopping. Marjane operated like a big Asda-George: you could find anything in there, and it wasn’t expensive. Alternatively, Agdal was another area to shop in, though it had a more “high street” appearance, with a lot of clothing shops, restaurants, banks, and cafes. It also had apartment blocks: many students, as well as normal citizens, lived there. The best thing about the neighbourhood was that it was well connected to Al-Irfane, thanks to a modern tram that ran regularly.

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Lastly, there was the City Centre, where the main train station was located. It reminded me of a typical Spanish city centre, with government buildings, informal vendors, a variety of shops, restaurants and cafes, all next to the Medina. It is important to note here that many cities across Morocco have an area called the Medina, it isn’t specific to the capital. A Medina is characterised by its old-fashioned and historic-site appearance, made up of narrow streets full of people, craft shops, and vendor stalls. They are normally the oldest, or one of the oldest, zones in a city, and it is easy to get lost in them if looking for something specific, but also not hard to leave as simply walking straight would get you out somewhere.

In addition, a Medina is a good place buy things like food and clothing for cheaper prices, but you have to be smart and not show ingenuity, particularly as a tourist, because it is all about bargaining. Indeed, during my time in Morocco, I had to learn to bargain properly, as I had never been good at it (I’m not good at standing for myself against others). Knowing Arabic helped me often, to both show knowledge of the culture and to develop trust quickly, but still, I often gave up easily. Bargaining just made me uncomfortable, not simply because I thought I was often being deceived, but because in most cases, when converting to £, the product/service I wanted to get wasn’t even expensive. I felt bad for trying to get cheaper and cheaper prices.

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Rabat had many other neighbours apart from the mentioned above, but I never got to explore them properly. The mentioned are the ones I frequented the most, as they were easy to get to from Al Irfane. My main transport method in Rabat was the taxi, which was fortunately very cheap and reliable. I never used the public buses because I was advised against it, and, sadly, the tram didn’t go through the whole city. In a way, the taxis functioned like public transport: a single ride was shared by as many people as could fit in, even if strangers to each other. You could get on an empty taxi, and then the driver would randomly stop get someone else waiting down the road. This system was safer than I thought at first: I ended up feeling very comfortable using the taxis after the first few rides.

As with the vendors in Le Campus, I normally tried to speak Arabic with taxi drivers, but sometimes, if instructions were too tough, I had to resort to French Google Translations. I never had major issues, though sometimes, giving directions to the location of my flat was hard, and I had to settle for telling them to take me to Le Campus. I was actually lucky that taxi drivers in Rabat rarely tried to rip-off foreigners/tourist (i.e. the price counter was normally on). I didn’t have that experience in other places I visited in Morocco, such as when I went to Casablanca for a vaccination. The trick I ended up finding was making sure I got the taxi away from train/bus station (to seem less like a tourist) and with a Moroccan inside (so the counter is on).

Looking back to my time there, I’m confident to say that I adapted to living in Rabat, and Morocco in general, very well. I didn’t have a major cultural shock, I never felt totally lost, and I never hated living there. I found it easy to move around, to eat out and submerge myself in the Moroccan cuisine, and to do most of the things I used to do back in Brighton. Most of this was thanks to my helpful flatmate, who made everything very easy for me: she was always there to help me, even when I didn’t ask for it. She ended up becoming my closest friend whilst I was there. We didn’t go out together much, as we were both busy, but we talked often about how our days had been, and any random issues we had. We kind of looked after one other, and I didn’t feel the age gap between us at all. I never had such a close flatmate in either of my two years living in halls at Sussex, and I made even more friends there. I still miss her a lot.

Another reason why living in Morocco went fine was because it reminded me a lot to Spain. Culturally and geographically speaking, Morocco has a lot of similarities to Spain, particularly in comparison to the UK. This is not surprising, as Morocco and Spain have a very intertwined history. Hence, the country wasn’t that new or strange to me. I barely felt as if I was living in a Muslim-majority country, compared to the usual Christian-majority countries I live in. It was only very noticeable during Ramadan, because everything was closed, and nobody was on the streets during the day. I also didn’t feel as if I had to dress or act differently as I usually did in Brighton, except perhaps being more warm and sociable: Moroccans were very welcoming people, and more communal-life oriented than I was used to.

The only major change in my behaviour was being more cautious about my own safety, primarily because if something were to happen, I would struggle to communicate it properly in French or Arabic. I just used my common-sense, and I avoided going anywhere unusual without knowing where exactly I was heading first, as well as without telling my flatmate. I also didn’t travel during the night, and I tried to go through busy places if on the streets during the evenings. Yet, these aren’t things I never did in Britain. I was just more thoughtful about them because I wasn’t familiar with the country. In addition, I will admit my prudence was influenced by the pre-exchange warnings on how, supposedly, common are crime and street harassment in Morocco. Nevertheless, I never had a major issue, just an uncomfortable situation once with a man on a train that didn’t escalate.

Living-wise, I only really had four significant problems in Morocco: weather, customs, tipping, and border controls. I could barely go out during the day when I first arrived, on the summer, and a few months before I left, in spring, due to the heat (it gives me awful headaches). I had to go to Casablanca airport to pick up the suitcases I shipped to Morocco from the UK, which ended up being a hours and hours process of waiting around in a warehouse, as well as running around between different offices. It took me a while to get my hand on the tipping culture in the North African country, as I struggled to know when and how much I was expected to tip in different situations: sometimes I thought people were just being nice, but then I realised they expected some money for their help, and other times I tipped too much because, when changing to £, the price wasn’t that high for me.

Without a doubt, my most frustrating moments in Morocco were all the passport checks during border control when leaving and entering the country. One time, I was so overwhelmed that I even cried. To cut the story short, I was normally asked too many questions about where my parents were from, and I was stopped for long periods of time whilst my documentation was taken away. Once, I was asked for my second Senegalese passport randomly, which I don’t even own, and which legally I’m not even entitled to (i.e. not my parents’ nationality). Another time, the officer asked for my national Spanish ID card (this shouldn’t be asked for), and started tapping it with his desk, clearly to see if it was fake.

All those times it was obvious that it didn’t register with the officers how I was Black and Spanish: they thought I was a fraud/my documentation was fake. The times I complained and asked for an explanation of those situations, I never received an answer. This issue became increasingly annoying as it kept happening whenever I left or entered the country. It was the main negative aspect of living in Morocco: travelling as someone Black/ with a Sub-Saharan African background. I never had any racist incident whilst in the country, but the burden of getting in/out was too much.

At first, I didn’t even want to make a big deal out of it, I thought I was being maybe paranoid, but as soon as I discussed it with others, such as my Moroccan flatmate and a professor from my home university, they were quick to point out it was racism. All I could think to feel better about these constant situations was how “lucky” I was to have a Western passport and a university student card, as it made things much easier, but that thought also made me upset: those were privileges that others like me didn’t have, and they still didn’t deserve to be treated that way. As much as, legally, I’m a European citizen, I’m still (proudly) Sub-Saharan African. I’m used to micro-aggressions and so on, but neither so direct nor from authorities.

It is weird and sad how most of my time living in Rabat, and Morocco in general, went fine, yet because of the border check problems, I feel reluctant to visit the country again. However, the reality is that this can, and will, happen to me in other places (it already did once, when I went to Palestine and had to go through the Israeli border officers). I guess it is something I have to live with, particularly since I like to travel and want an international career. Besides, even if it makes me feel awful for a few hours after the situation has passed, it alone can’t completely taint my whole experience in the place. It doesn’t for my exchange. The true dilemma comes when I combine it with the other side of my year abroad, the important side: studying in EGE.

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