Morocco: A Tapestry of Culture

Story and photos by Emilie Changeux

Through Northeastern’s global co-op program, I’ve had the great opportunity to co-op in Morocco for six months. When I was applying to the position at the High Atlas Foundation, a non-profit organization that specializes in agricultural, women’s empowerment, water resources, health and education projects, I never really fully grasped what I was getting into. Other than being anxious for my first time having a 9-5 job, it only just hit me as I got off the plane that I was going to a completely new place, with a totally foreign language in a continent I have never stepped foot in before. I was going in practically blind. But even now, after only being here for one month, I’ve realized that going in without setting any expectations was the best thing I could’ve done.

El Badi Palace, Marrakech

Right from the start, just from my first week of exploring Marrakech, it was clear to me how much of a mixing pot Moroccan culture and history is, and what an opportunity it was to learn.

The most shocking aspect of Marrakech that I first noticed was the dynamic of French and Moroccan influence on the city. Due to the country’s history experiencing French colonization, and unfortunately the neo-colonization that is still very much present, Marrakech can look like a totally different place just by walking from one neighborhood to another. 

French Fireplace in Bahia Palace

Gueliz, the French quarter and center of luxurious tourism, is very much modeled after modern French cities, with its balconies, wide avenues, street cafes and boulangeries. Just a short walk away towards Jemaa el-Fnaa, Marrakech’s famous bustling square, the city transforms into a jumble of historic red brick houses and store fronts, all packed together with labyrinth-like alleyways. Marrakech’s integration of French and traditional Moroccan culture is especially evident in the Bahia Palace, where French authorities “renovated” the beautiful 19th century Islamic building just to add fireplaces, so that the officers staying there wouldn’t feel cold during winter.

Artisan Lamp Store, Marrakech’s Medina (Souk)

Even today, while Morocco’s official languages are Standard Arabic and Standard Moroccan Berber (more respectfully referred to as Tamazight), and most people speak Moroccan Arabic Darija, French is still Morocco’s primary language of commerce, higher education and government. Anyone who doesn’t speak French is at an immediate disadvantage when it comes to official affairs, or even when reading street signs. 

There is a long way to go to reverse the effect of colonization in African nations like Morocco. However, I was happy to see the recognition of Tamazight, the language of the Amazigh people, as an official language. 

Coming into Morocco, I had no idea how prevalent indigenous culture was. Especially coming from the United States, where Indigenous people are continuously oppressed and ignored to the point where many of their languages and traditions have become extinct, it has been amazing to see how Amazigh culture is still very much alive. 

One of the High Atlas Foundation’s missions as an organization is to promote development in a way that is completely ethical and supported by local communities, especially by incorporating their skills and traditions. Going on a trip into the Atlas Mountains, near the snow-capped city of Oukaimeden, we were able to meet a local women’s association who was looking to transfer their expertise in making rugs, especially ones with Amazigh patterns and symbols, into a cooperative business. 

Usually on our trips, I’m forced to communicate with people through a Darija-speaking coworker since I can’t speak Arabic. This time, both me and my coworker were depending on a Tamazight speaker for translation. Although inconvenient, our barriers made for amazing conversation with these women. It was incredible to reflect on the sharing of knowledge and skill among all these women from different backgrounds; university students from Virginia who shared their knowledge of business and marketing, the Moroccan High Atlas Foundation team members who acted as facilitators and brought confidence to the group and the local women who shared with us their stories, perspectives and craft. 

Another surprising aspect that speaks to Morocco’s multiculturalism, or inter-religiousness in this instance, is Morocco’s long history with Jewish communities. I had the opportunity to go to Demnate, a town nestled in the Atlas Mountains, and witness the revival of a thousand-year-old custom of celebrating Hiloula. In Judaism, Hiloula is a festival honoring a saint on the anniversary of their death. 

Coin from Demnate (1299)
Hiloula Speech from Moroccan-Jewish members & Azizal Province Governor

In Demnate, a city where people of Jewish, Muslim, and Amazigh religion have all co-existed for centuries, this is an important cultural celebration of tradition and recognition for a person who made a difference in their community, regardless of religion. This day was incredibly special because Hiloula was celebrated for the first time in 70 years, since the Jewish population in Demnate has gone down to a couple of families when they once made up ⅓ of the town’s population. It was very inspiring to feel this regained sense of partnership and connection in a place that has such a rich history of cooperation, and I feel privileged to have been there. 

I’ve had the chance to have so many eye-opening experiences and conversations with all kinds of individuals. The importance of collaboration from people of so many backgrounds is probably the most impactful thing I’ve learned from my co-op, and puts into perspective how much communication is key to really experiencing the world. I’ve promised myself that once I’m back home in the U.S, I’ll do my best to participate in my own community and meet people I’ve never had the chance to talk to.

The world is very small, and it’s up to us to connect. Only by learning from others, seeing new perspectives and creating interactions can we have a better understanding of the world we all live in. As one person from Demnate eloquently put it: “We are all born from the earth, and in the end we will all be buried in the earth.”

The story is featured in VOL 7 ISSUE 2 SPRING 2023 (Print Edition).

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