Meeting in Morocco

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by Layth Mattar | Arabic Language and North African Studies Program, Summer 2018

For every study abroad trip, there is always one factor that is impossible to prepare for: the friends who will be studying alongside you. Unlike the food, language, culture, and sights of the region, there will be no Wikipedia article on those who may have the greatest influence on how you reflect on your experience. Whether they are newly made friends or ones brought from home, they will define your experience one way or another. I was extremely lucky during the summer of 2018 when I studied at Al-Akhawayn university in Ifrane, Morocco because I did not just develop a friend group, I developed the best group of friends I could have asked for. They looked out for me and made sure that my experience would only be the most excellent it could be.

From left to right, Sarah, Yaza, Curt, Grace, and Layth overlooking a gorgeous Moroccan valley

My group of friends comprised of five people, including myself. Two of them were Emory students, Sarah and Yaza, and the other two, Grace and Curt, were from other universities. Looking back, I think I know why we developed such a strong relationship so quickly. A seldomly referenced facet of studying abroad is how exhausting it can be, and I do not mean through lack of sleep. Being immersed in a foreign culture can feel like swimming in an ocean, but when you explore with your friends it feels more like a cruise. They become a comfort zone that you can rely on and take with you through your adventures and novel experiences.

So how did my friends impact me to the point where I constantly reminisce about our adventures together? Through unique lessons taught and experiences shared. Instead of spending my weekends in my room alone, I was able to travel with them to places like the blue city of Chefchauoen or a forest full of monkeys that had no qualms with interacting with people.

Layth (left) and a monkey bonding over peanuts

I was the youngest in the group, so it is no surprise that they were all able to teach me something. Sarah was able to show me authenticity. I learned by watching her be genuine to others and observing how others were genuine to me. This is an important lesson in a foreign country since caution can go a long way sometimes. Yaza taught me the importance of going out of my way to interact with students native to the country. Through her, I developed an extended family of Moroccans that still reach out to me today. Curt was able to teach me how to find joy and laughter in every scenario, especially those that are simple consequences of traveling in foreign countries. Concepts like squat toilets and showers can be intimidating at first, at least until the person next to you starts laughing at this surprise. After that, they seem like nothing more than a friendly and new experience. Finally, Grace was able to teach me how to slow down and really understand the things I was experiencing. Study abroad flies by and, not to quote Ferris Beuller, if you do not slow down you just might miss it. There something really unique about sitting under a cherry tree with someone in a country across the sea and just listening to the sounds and machinations of a culture that is different from your own.

Without these people, my study abroad experience would have been radically different, to the point where I would not look back at it with the fondness I do today. These individuals had such a profound impact on me. I sincerely hope that all study abroad students are able to find what I found: a family.