Moments of Cultural Discovery Through Fulbright in Morocco

Kaylee Steck, Fulbright Student Researcher, 2015–2016

Six years ago, I completed my Fulbright project and the experience has continued to shape my life in meaningful ways. When I reflect on my time in Morocco as a Fulbright recipient, the program events that connected grantees stand out as highlights. However, the aspects that made an indelible impression on me extend beyond the scope of those activities.

My fellow grantees and I were committed to the Fulbright mission to foster mutual understanding by living and learning with people of different cultures. We spoke in Moroccan Arabic (Darija) whenever we could, learned proverbs, and attended cultural events. We traveled to different regions, prepared local recipes with varying degrees of success, and celebrated holidays with our host families. We encouraged each other at every step to build community and engage deeply with our new home. For that I am so grateful to them, and I will never forget the people who supported and mentored me along the way.

When I was studying Darija in Fez, I started volunteering at a development organization in Imouzzer Kandar, a small town about 40 kilometers away from Fez. For several months, I commuted to Imouzzer using grand taxis. These are often Mercedes 240 sedans that several people, up to 6, use to carpool to different cities. The ride itself was a microcosm of Morocco, as people from different regions speaking in varied dialects cozied up for a long ride while occasionally striking up conversations. My days in Imouzzer were packed with community outreach activities and visits to local beneficiaries. One day we visited a small farmer and I remember struggling to understand a conversation between him and my Moroccan colleague before realizing that they were speaking in an Amazigh language native to North Africa. I was impressed by the ease with which they switched between languages, as if Darija wasn’t complicated enough with its generous peppering of French and Spanish words.

A few months later, the organization was invited to participate in the launch of a program to support young entrepreneurs and I volunteered to attend. The event was held in the city of Kenitra, which is not far from the capital, Rabat. Associations from around Morocco gathered for a day of panel discussions followed by an entrepreneurship boot camp. I met young leaders and joined them in team building exercises, after which we enjoyed an abundance of cookies and tea. One of the participants I met during the reception invited me to her home for dinner. It was an invitation that I simply could not turn down given her enthusiasm, so I accepted thinking I would catch the train home later that evening.

When we arrived at her home, her family greeted us with more cookies and tea in a big salon, which is where guests are welcomed in Moroccan homes. Salons are beautifully decorated rooms with traditional sofas called sedari that can accommodate people for large gatherings. We chatted and sipped tea in the salon until her sisters reappeared carrying large plates with mountains of food. First came the salad, arranged in a palate of colors — orange carrots, red beets, and white potatoes flecked with green herbs. Then came the seffa madfouna, which is a sweet and savory pasta served with chicken. Finally, we enjoyed a variety of fruits, the standard conclusion to a large meal. It was close to midnight when we finished so the family insisted that I stay over. We all went to sleep, our appetites thoroughly satiated. This is just one example of the tremendous hospitality that I experienced throughout my Fulbright grant.

After completing my initial language training in Fez, I moved to Meknes to start my research. My project explored post-independence policies affecting retail development, with a focus on convenience stores. These shops often operate out of garages, selling a range of everyday items and household goods. The shop owners usually know their clients personally and occasionally extend informal lines of credit to neighborhood residents. Sometimes, they serve other functions, such as advertising apartments for rent and delivering orders to nearby customers. Despite the recent growth of big-box stores around Morocco, convenience stores remain hubs of local economic activity.

As part of my fieldwork, I conducted ethnographic interviews with shop owners. I immersed myself for months in the day-to-day activities of convenience stores around Meknes. I also read online forums about retail issues in Morocco and eventually connected with a member of the Professional Association of Grocers who invited me to visit their headquarters in Casablanca. During my visit, I attended several meetings and learned about supply chain challenges facing small convenience shops. Their readiness to share information with me represented a huge research success at the time and motivated me to continue discussing my research topic with anyone willing to help.

These experiences, and so many others, made my time in Morocco special and influenced my academic and professional path. After my grant ended, I continued studying Arabic language and Moroccan history, politics, and society as a graduate student at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. My research brought me back to Morocco in 2017, when I presented a paper at the 35th International Annual Association of Global South Studies Conference organized by Georgia College and Hassan II University of Casablanca. I also returned to Morocco during my summer breaks to lead short study abroad programs for American high school students. As a program leader, I loved sharing my Fulbright experiences and watching the students discover Moroccan culture for the first time. This work solidified my interest in pursuing a career in international education and furthering the values that shaped the Fulbright Program when it was established 75 years ago.

The Fulbright Commission in Morocco