The Trees of Morocco: The Role of Humor in Cultural Diplomacy
Austin Bodetti, Fulbright Student Researcher, 2019–2020
When I look back at my participation in the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, few memories make me smile more than “The Trees of Morocco,” my 2020 presentation on the kingdom’s most engaging flora. You may be wondering what I, an American with a bachelor’s degree in Islamic studies and no botanical expertise, had to say about the plant life of the Maghreb. As it happened, my audience of Americans and Moroccans had the exact same question.
I first flew to Morocco in September 2019, planning to study the relationship between Islamic law and the kingdom’s environmental policy. However, I had received a special, two-part grant from the Fulbright Program that delayed the start date of my project. Before I could undertake a nine-month study of Islam and environmentalism, I would prepare for my research with six months of Arabic classes funded by the Critical Language Enhancement Award, or CLEA.
Thanks to CLEA, I entered 2020 with a new lease on life, not to mention a much stronger command of Modern Standard Arabic and Darija, the Moroccan dialect of the language. I could read newspapers, watch television programs, and — of the greatest value to my social life — order food from Moroccan restaurants with minimal embarrassment, a skill that I have yet to master in English. I knew that, by the end of my CLEA classes in March 2020, I would have all the tools necessary to jumpstart my research on Islamic law and environmental policy in Morocco.
Then again, I had forgotten to factor a key aspect of the Moroccan Fulbright experience into my timeline: the Rabat Enrichment Seminar. The Moroccan-American Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange, or MACECE, the Fulbright office in Morocco, had scheduled an academic conference in the Moroccan capital for February 2020. All the Fulbright researchers in the Middle East and North Africa, including me, would give presentations on their projects.
As the date of the Rabat Enrichment Seminar approached, I debated how best to approach my presentation. Given that other CLEA participants in Jordan and Morocco were still taking Arabic classes at the time or had only just finished, I sought their advice. We agreed that, even if all of us had a long way to go on our projects, we could tell the audience about the overall trajectory of our research, how we intended to execute our plans, and what led us to choose our topics.
In preparation for my presentation, I wrote a few talking points on ecotheology, or the study of religion’s role in environmental protection. I then listed examples of how this concept applied to Morocco. My own project focused on the Green Mosques Program, a Moroccan initiative to find inspiration for the environmental movement in religious texts; I aimed to analyze how the writings of the medieval Maghrebi jurist Ibn Rushd — better known as “Averroes” in the Western world — might inform Morocco’s embrace of ecotheology. Still, millennium-old law books would make for a dry presentation. I searched for a way to keep my audience’s attention.
I found my answer in “The Trees of Morocco,” a slideshow that gave my audience neither more nor less than the title promised. Opening Google Images, I collected half a dozen pictures of Moroccan trees, arranged them in order from least to most shrublike based on my nonexistent knowledge of shrubs, and packaged this virtual garden into a PowerPoint presentation. I also threw in a picture of a Douglas fir, a North American pine tree that has no connection to Morocco whatsoever, but whose ridiculous name never fails to bring me unparalleled joy.
During my presentation for the Rabat Enrichment Seminar, I alternated between relaying Ibn Rushd’s insights into environmental protection and rolling through slides of Morocco’s diverse plant life. While my talk shed light on the relevance of ecotheology to the Maghreb and the world at large, “The Trees of Morocco” taught my audience lessons of its own. I had, for instance, featured a few slides depicting goats sitting atop trees, a common sight in the south of the kingdom. Goats there will scale argan trees to eat the fruit, a phenomenon that thrills Western tourists and that reminded me of my own perilous quest to find the best French taco in Morocco.
The levity of these moments helped me appreciate the Fulbright Program’s wider purpose. The audience that MACECE had gathered for the Rabat Enrichment Seminar — and its keynote address, “The Trees of Morocco” — included a wide range of American and Moroccan academics, officials, and students. I found that humor bridged the personal and professional gaps between us, enabling the type of cultural diplomacy at the heart of MACECE and the Fulbright Program. Even if we spoke different languages or worked in unrelated fields, we could all laugh at the same jokes, foremost among them the absurdity of the Douglas fir.
I formed lasting friendships at the Rabat Enrichment Seminar. After the gathering concluded, I joined several of the Fulbrighters visiting from Jordan on trips to Tangier and Fes; we continue to keep in touch on Instagram, the social networking service that I use and hate the most. The Rabat Enrichment Seminar also introduced me to Dr. Samira Idllalène, an alumnus of the Fulbright Visiting Scholar Program and Morocco’s leading expert on the intersection of environmental and religious law. Dr. Idllalène and I have since collaborated on my research into Ibn Rushd, a project that persists to this day despite all the universe’s attempts to stop it.
The outbreak of COVID-19 led to the cancelation of the Fulbright Program in March 2020, only a few weeks after the end of the Rabat Enrichment Seminar. Nonetheless, the connections that MACECE had facilitated held strong. Last summer, Dr. Idllalène and I spoke about our research side by side at two online events organized by MACECE, part of the Fulbright Morocco Virtual Symposium. After a stint in the United States from March to December 2020, I also returned to Morocco to pursue an Arabic scholarship, and to enjoy access to French tacos once again.
Whether you fall in love with a foreign language, food, or tree, the Fulbright Program builds lifelong connections between Fulbrighters, their host countries, and in some cases their plant life. Just as the attendees of the Rabat Enrichment Seminar will no doubt remember “The Trees of Morocco” for the rest of their lives, I will never forget my time as a Fulbrighter in Morocco.