How to Meet People Abroad: Rabat, Morocco

spices2Melibee’s Katy Rosenbaum tackles this month’s How to Meet People Abroad!  Katy’s several years living in Morocco will make this post especially useful for pre-departure orientations, expats abroad and travelers too.

If you are the type of traveler who is interested in meeting and interacting with locals, it’s pretty hard to find a better place than Morocco. After all, according to a recent poll, Morocco was ranked as the third most welcoming country to foreigners in the world. I’d be willing to bet that more Moroccans than Americans know about the rich history of friendship between the two countries: in 1786, a Treaty of Peace and Friendship was signed by the Emperor of Morocco and John Adams and Thomas Jefferson signed a translated version the next year. This is the longest unbroken treaty relationship in the history of the United States.  In addition, Moroccan culture truly embodies the Muslim practice of hospitality, and it is a real privilege to be able to spend so much time in such a warm and welcoming place.

If you are willing to take risks, laugh at yourself a bit, and go out on a limb, meeting locals in Rabat or really anywhere else in Morocco is fairly easy. Here are my top eight recommendations for getting out and meeting locals in Rabat, and in Morocco in general! Let’s count them down!

8. Share food! It is traditional to share food when someone comes over to your home as a form of hospitality, but it is also a custom to share food while traveling. If you sit in enough train compartments or long-distance busses, chances are you will be offered cookies, bread, or even hard-boiled eggs on your journey. A great way to make connections is to bring enough to share and offer your snack around with your neighbors. I have ended up having some really interesting conversations with travel-mates this way– some of which have blossomed into actual friendships! Sharing food is a great way to break the ice and start up what might become a moment of friendship or something that continues once you get off the train or bus!

7.  Be open to spontaneity. Almost any situation can turn into a friendship if the timing is right. Someone at the table next to you in a cafe might strike up a conversation. The woman who sells tomatoes near your homestay might invite you over for lunch. The student next to you on the tramway may become a friend. Trust your gut instinct and be willing to spend time with strangers of the same gender if things feel right.  If you aren’t sure, go with a friend the first time and stay in a public place.

Generally speaking, the pace of life in Morocco is less focused on productivity and more focused on relationships: it is an illustrative example of a collectivist society, opposed to the individualist model we see in the U.S. Business meetings often occur over a cup of coffee, and building a relationship can be just as important for getting work done as documentation. Because of this element of society, and because hospitality is an important part of Islam, it is key to be aware of the importance of building relationships and to be open to spontaneity.

6. Sign up for a homestay.  As with any homestay experience, some people have better experiences in homestays than others. The benefit to homestays is that in many situations, you will be adopted into the family, and their friends become your friends. If you are looking for company, your homestay family might be able to connect you to peers that they know of– and people that they trust.

Making msmen (Moroccan pan bread) with her host mother! (Photo courtesy of Katy Wells)

Living with a Moroccan family will give you more insights into Moroccan culture than any other experience you may have. As with in any homestay, there will likely be moments that are difficult, and coming in with clear expectations and flexibility is important! But all in all, staying with a family provides a window into Moroccan culture and family life nearly impossible to experience in any other way!

If your study abroad or volunteer program does not offer a homestay option, think about contacting local educational organizations to see if they may be able to facilitate this process.

5. Join a networking group. There are several groups in Rabat that meet on a regular basis that may be interesting for meeting locals. Some of them reach out to ex-pats specifically, but they will all provide a space to interact with Moroccans from different sectors of life. Some of these include:

  • The Couchsurfing Meetup Group: This is an easy group to get your feet wet with when you first arrive in-country. Made up of some ex-pats and many young Moroccans interested in getting out and meeting people from all over the world, this group lends itself well to young people who may not speak French or Arabic well.
  • AIWA (American and International Women Abroad): This group is probably suited towards people who are living in Rabat for a long period of time, ex-pats, people looking to network to find a job, or people conducting research. Though the name of the group would indicate that it is full of foreigners, in reality, this group is probably made up of  70-80% Moroccan women who are interested in practicing English. It is an ideal group for networking, and an opportunity to get to know a group of women that is an older population. It’s great for meeting people who you might not be able to meet in other ways, but beware– it’s pricy and best suited for long-term visitors or people staying a year or longer.  Click here for more information.

4.  Become a “regular” somewhere. Whether it’s going to the same hanout (small store) near where you are living, finding your favorite vegetable seller or olive-stand, or making one of the local cafes with wifi your go-to study spot, it’s always a good idea to become a “regular.” This is also a good strategy for personal safety: if local store owners or cafe waiters know you, they’re more likely to tell people who may be harassing you to back off or warn you away from specific people or locations. Additionally, you may end up making a friend! Shopkeepers generally have their pulse on what is happening in the neighborhood, appreciate your business and a friendly face, and can be interesting gatekeepers to the local area!

3. Play ball! Soccer is without a doubt the most popular sport in Morocco, and most Moroccan men grow up with pick-up soccer games on the streets in their neighborhood, an open field, or the beach. This probably is a tip that is better for males than for females, but an idea to make friends is to but bring a ball to the beach, start a soccer game on an empty lot, or see if you have any friends who might invite you to a soccer game. Sports are a great way to bond with people and forge friendships– even ones that bridge linguistic gaps!

2. Volunteer. Volunteering is sometimes difficult to do in Morocco, since the concept of volunteerism is not quite the same that it is in the United States. That being said, many local associations are looking for English teachers or people to interact with youth or the elderly. Ask your program director what kinds of volunteer opportunities might be available: it’s easy to forge friendships in these situations! Some places to look might be: local development associations, cross-cultural centers, language schools, or non-profits.

Students from Morocco Exchange meet with volunteers from Hope for Sale to discuss stereotypes and get to know each other. Photo courtesy of Nora Jane Montgomery.

1. Be open to intergenerational friends, specifically older Moroccans or local kids. You may end up with an “adoptive Moroccan parent” who enjoys spending time with you and can show you a different side to Moroccan culture. I have spent many days sitting with women my mother’s age: learning to cook from them, helping them clean, looking at pictures, and talking about life and how Morocco has changed over the years. There is a wisdom and openness that can come with age that makes some of these relationships as strong and important as those with my peers. Additionally, getting to know kids– through interacting with them, not just giving them toys or candy (!) — can also provide a welcome relief from some of the stresses involved with study or travel abroad. Kids seem to accept perceived quirks from foreigners more readily than many adults, and it can sometimes be a breath of fresh air to be able to interact with local young neighbors.

As an aside, most visitors and students to Rabat or Morocco in general will tend to receive contradictory advice in regards to culturally appropriate and safe ways of interacting with Moroccans. Morocco is an incredibly diverse country with residents who span a wide spectrum in terms of a conservative or liberal mentality. Many people base their advice on their own experiences which may or may not be relevant to everyone. In terms of this, I would advise the following:

  • Trust your gut instincts: intuition can be very powerful!
  • Err on the side of realistic caution, but do not assume that everyone is out to get you, because they aren’t!
  • Be safe, but take measured, calculated risks with a friend if the opportunity presents itself and your instincts don’t set off any warnings.
  • Take all advice from people who are not used to working with students or volunteers from your country with a grain of salt, particularly if they are students or tourists who have not spent at least a year or more in-country!
  • A basic rule of thumb: the closer you are to a touristy area, the more careful and conservative you should be with taking risks. If you’re out in the countryside and a woman who you were on the train with invites you to her house to have a cup of tea? If you’re in a touristy area and someone invites you in their house for a cup of tea? It could be a scam: proceed with more caution!
  • If you are hearing vastly contradictory advice about how to behave,  there is usually a middle ground, and that is probably the safest route. In terms of gender, until recently (and still in some sectors of society!), the concept of friendship between genders was taboo, and it has some dimensions that can be quite different than in the US or Europe. It’s important to go into friendships– particularly with someone of a different gender– with your eyes open, knowing that the concept of friendship is different. I would say, as a rule, it’s probably not a good idea for a single woman to get in a car alone with a man in Morocco unless it’s someone who works in her program or is an official taxi driver. It’s also not a good idea for her to be in a room alone with another man unless she knows him very well pr has a professional reason for the interaction.But meeting someone for coffee? Walking around the medina? Tutoring English? Getting a meal in a restaurant? I’d recommend first bringing a friend, but if things feel good and safe, why not?

Morocco’s rich diversity of culture and the tradition of hospitality means that there are opportunities to make deep, meaningful friendships. Whether you are in Rabat or a small village, flexibility, adaptability, and a willingness to be spontaneous are all great ways of meeting and getting to know people.

katyrosenbaumheadshotAbout the Author: Kathryn (Katy) Rosenbaum’s love of exploring cultures and language stemmed from an early age when she kept a “foreign treasures” drawer under her bed with maps, stamps, coins, and even candy wrappers in foreign languages. This interest in knowing “The Other” continued as an adult, and after working with immigrants and refugees in Atlanta at a women’s health clinic, Kathryn joined Peace Corps Morocco as a health education volunteer. She stayed in-country with Morocco Exchange, where she developed, managed, and led short-term cultural immersion programs for U.S. university students. Katy is completing her MA in International Education at NC State.