Can You Really Cross Cultural Boundaries?

Lauren Bredar is a 3rd Year student studying Global Studies and English. She attended UVA in Morocco this summer.
On Monday of my final week of my internships at Fondation Orient-Occident, an NGO that helps immigrants and refugees, I met a man name Abubakar. Abubakar is a refugee in his late twenties from Central African Republic. He’s tall, broad-shouldered, with deep brown skin, and a soft voice. He wore a white and black baseball cap with a Nike swoosh, and a form-fitting white t-shirt when I first met him. He speaks English with a thick accent, but enjoys talking to people in either French or English more than anything.
On Wednesday of this same week, I met a man named Oumar. Oumar is my same age, 21, and a refugee from Cameroon. He is average height, with high cheek bones and a wide, constant smile. He wore a bright blue t-shirt and spoke only a few words of English.
At first glance, Abubakar and Oumar seem to be similar people —at least more similar to each other than either one of them could be to me: they’re both refugees from sub-Saharan Africa; they both came to Morocco; they’re both in their twenties; and they both hope to one day immigrate to the US.
But my interactions with each man could not have been more different.
Once Abubakar started talking, he couldn’t stop. Each of the three conversations I had with him lasted more than an hour, and ended with me excusing myself to finish my work. I could tell he thinks deeply and often about life and what it means and his own personal philosophies. But when he spoke, I grasped little more than a very general, superficial understanding of the subject we were discussing (“discussing” is probably not the right word to use here, as our conversations resembled extemporaneous speeches far more than a two-sided discussion.) I attribute this utter lack of clarity partly to his broken English, partly to his soft voice, and perhaps mostly to the fact that we have very different ways of organizing our thoughts. Coherent for him is not coherent for me.
I would leave these periods of listening to him talk with confusion and an acceptance that I would simply not be able to see his ideas the way he saw them. I accepted that there are some cultural boundaries that can’t be crossed. I accepted that we’re different, and try as we might to connect despite the differences, maybe a genuine connection isn’t possible. We will never be able to see each other the way we see ourselves or wish to be seen. I don’t see this as a problem—just worthy of recognition.
But my single conversation with Oumar left me with a feeling that completely contradicted how I felt after speaking with Abubakar. Oumar and I had a two-sided conversation. Despite our speaking in French, I understood what he had to say and he understood me. He made jokes and I laughed, because his humor made sense. I could follow his train of thought, I could read his facial expressions. I like to think that we saw each other how we intended to be seen. Just after coming to the conclusion in my mind that some cultural differences make understanding impossible, I met someone with a background that couldn’t be more different from my own, and yet understanding was natural and easy.
These conversations taught me that sometimes cultural differences give way to connection. Other times, they interfere with understanding. Either is okay. As long as you try hard enough to know which.

Q&A with UVA Alumna and Travel Blogger

Check out this Q&A from UVA Today with alumna Heather Mason, who moved to South Africa and developed a career as a travel blogger and writer.


Mason’s photo of her adopted hometown, Johannesburg

Mason recently sampled the food and wine of South Africa’s famed Stellenbosch wine region

How I became a Moroccan (ok kinda)

Morgan King, a French and Foreign Affairs major, is currently studying abroad in Morocco. Check out her most recent blog!  



Before I came to Morocco, I was surprisingly ignorant about most of the culture and politics of Morocco, North Africa, the Maghreb region, and the Middle East more generally. After months of exposure I feel like I’ve only tapped the surface of this complex society but here are some of the coolest cultural experiences I’ve had:

  1. Dressing Up like a Moroccan:
    As I’ve mentioned before, there is a wide range of dress here in Morocco. Some women dress very western but many wear traditional jaballas and head scarves. Our professor, who is Moroccan, invited us to her house one day to try on her traditional formal attire. The dresses shown below would be worn to special events such as weddings or parties. We had such a fun time taking pictures and learning about Moroccan fashion!

  1. Making Bread like a Moroccan:
    Bread is a HUGE part of the Moroccan diet (which I was thrilled to learn upon arriving here). Khobz are served with every meal and used in place of a fork/spoon. For breakfast/tea time there are dozens of breads: harsha, msemmen, krachel, etc. etc. A friend from school invited us to her parents bakery to learn how to make msemmen and harsha. It didn’t turn out very well the first time but I plan to improve!

  1. Dressing Up like a Moroccan (part II):
    A few weeks after our first encounter with traditional Moroccan clothing, we were invited to the home of a tailor. She showed us her workshop and the immaculate dresses she sews with her hands to the customers desire. After letting us try on all of her creations she served us mint tea and sweets in typical Moroccan fashion. We chatted for hours in French about her independent entrepreneurship and breaking into the dress market in Rabat.

  1. Learning like a Moroccan:
    Morocco is an extremely multilingual society. Everyone speaks Darija (a dialect of Arabic) but school is taught in French and many people also speak English/Spanish. In this fashion, this semester I have taken one class in Darija, two classes in French, and three classes in English. Many of my classes have focus on Moroccan politics which I knew nothing about prior to arriving. I’d love to talk to you about the Moroccan monarchy and Arab Spring

  1. Living like a Moroccan:
    One of the best parts of my experience abroad has been living in a homestay. I live with another UVA student, a Moroccan woman, and her mother. The homestay provides the opportunity for complete language and cultural emersion. Every day I speak French with my host mom, she cooks us traditional Moroccan food, gives us insight into Moroccan thought, lends us supplies to go to cultural actives (ex. hammam), exhibits the famous Moroccan hospitality, and SO MUCH MORE. I’ve really gotten to live like a Moroccan the past few months and its something I’ll never forget.

It’s been 3 months since I landed in Morocco and I can definitively say I’ve become a better and more global person because of it. I have just over a month left in this beautiful country and I’m so excited to embrace every last moment I have here!



Study Abroad – Round Deux

 Morgan King is currently studying abroad in Morocco for the semester. Follow her travels below!



Greater known fact: I speak French.

Lesser known fact: I am minoring in African religions.

What do you get when you combine those things and walk into the study abroad office? MOROCCO! Starting January 25th I will be living in Africa… AFRICA!!! My wildest dream is coming true!

For the next four months I will be studying Arabic, taking politics courses in French at l’Université Internationale de Rabat and conducting research for my masters thesis. Excitingly, a week of the program takes place in Grenada, Spain!

I’ve spent years building my French, months building my Morocco-appropriate wardrobe, and days building my courage to finally get on this plane.  I am so excited and incredibly nervous for the intellectual, cultural, and social challenges that the next few months will provide; but I am also soo ready for the camels, couscous, and caftans.

I’ve been asked so many times “why take this risk?”,” why Africa?”, “why Morocco?”.  Honestly, I don’t have a good answer other than this: I’m following my heart. I’ll keep you updated on why as I figure it out myself! For now, here are my goals for my semester in Morocco:

  1. SPEAK FRENCH: This might be an obvious one but, really, I want to force myself to speak French and not cheat by speaking English because it’s easier. I’m here to be immersed and I’m going to do it!
  2. TRAVEL: I’ve been to Europe twice but I’m so excited to take advantage of my close proximity to lesser-known parts of the continent. Marseille, Amalfi, and Santorini are calling my name! Also, MOROCCO IS SO COOL. Rumor has it a $10 bus ticket will take you across the country. We’ll see where I end up!
  3. EXPERIENCE THE CULTURE: Morocco is pretty westernized but as a Muslim State it has so much to offer from a non-western perspective. I am thrilled to learn more about Moroccan culture and to experience some reverse culture shock when I arrive back in the US!

Thanks for reading along as I run around northern Africa in my ankle length dresses! Merci à lire!

A final reflection about my time in Morocco

Emily is a second-year studying French and linguistics. She studied abroad this summer in Morocco for six weeks. This is her final post from her experiences this summer.

I left Rabat on Saturday morning and though it’s been great being home and catching up with friends and family, it’s so weird to think that two weeks ago I was saying goodbye to my host family and leaving Rabat. As I left, I was thinking about how incredibly thankful I am for this experience. I had an amazing host family that made my home in a foreign country really feel like home. I got to experience Ramadan in a country that is an officially Muslim state with a majority Muslim population. I did things that I never even thought would happen in my lifetime, like walking barefoot in the Sahara, and saw some of both the good and bad of Moroccan society— genuine hospitality and openness of strangers alongside the commonness of catcalling.

I am so overwhelmed by the kindness of my host family and their extended family, the workers of the Oliveri on Mohammed VI that let my roommate and I use their wifi while the shop was closed during f’tour and brought us food from their meal, the conversations I had with shopkeepers in souqs everywhere (who always loved hearing us say “ana taliba, maândeesh floos– “I am a student, I don’t have money”), and so many other things. I love the lush Virginia trees I saw when I was driving back in Charlottesville last Monday, but I also miss all the landscapes of Morocco— the beaches on the coast, the jagged mountains spotted with scrubby bushes in the South, the flowering farmlands and tall cedars near Ifrane, and everything else.

I miss the tile work everywhere, the five times daily call to prayer, the look of Rabat bustling at night during Ramadan when the shops open back up, the smell of pastries and bread and spices and dates being sold in the markets. I miss all of these things, but I am so thankful to have experienced them in the first place.

There is so much that happened there and so much I was never able to cover in my blog, and so many little things that slipped through my notes and will slip through my memory, but here are some of my favorite memories to sum it up: Watching the women of my extended host family dance at the women’s party for the baby’s birth. Hair and beautifully embroidered djellabas twirling, lots of smiling and singing. I just remember feeling really, really happy the whole time we were there.

Seeing Morocco’s mountains for the first time while we were on the way to Fès. I couldn’t stop myself from taking photos and video of the landscape passing outside of the windows of that shaky van, thinking about how my parents would love these mountains, and knowing then these mountains would be one of the things I would dearly miss about Morocco.

In Imlil, hearing the 10pm call to prayer start in one village, then in another, and all of them echoing in the valley, and the prayer then starting in the village closest to me, while I was under a blanket on the rooftop porch. Echoing prayers, millions of stars, solitude.

Going to a hammam, a traditional bath (called a Turkish bath in English) with five other girls from my program. It was such a bizarre and wonderfully disorienting experience to be wearing only underwear and being vigorously scrubbed by equally naked strangers, and not knowing what was coming next (usually it was a lot of buckets of water being dumped on our heads, or instructions given in a combination of Darija and gestures to turn over, lay down, sit up). The hammam was so loud we couldn’t talk, but exchanged a lot of eye contact and tried to not laugh too much at our collective confusion in this situation that was so foreign to all of us. Of my six weeks in Morocco, this was the only moment that felt like culture shock, and in this case, it was wonderful. I’m so glad I was able to make it there before I left. Those ladies may have scrubbed off our dead skin cells off to the point of erasing our tans acquired from so much time in the sun, but MAN my skin felt great afterwards. 10/10 would recommend the hammam.

Second to last day in Morocco. My host family hosted extended family for dinner and I saw all the family again that I met in the first week, and it all feels very full circle. By the end of the night, we’re all delirious and full of seafood pastilla and what feels like a hundred other appetizer dishes in true Moroccan meal style, and we’re all in a good mood and my host sisters and I are giggling whatever we’re spouting in our delirium. It was bittersweet to know I would be gone in two days, and I was happy to have had this night with them.

I think part of the reason why I’ve been postponing this post is because then it will feel like it’s really over. I’ll have put a period on my time there, while not knowing when I’ll be  back. Part of it also is not knowing how to write that final sentence either. How do you capture what felt like a different life? After two weeks it has already felt like it almost wasn’t real, like it was a dream, until this morning when I found videos on my phone I had taken. Hearing the call to prayer and my host mother’s voice made it all feel real again.

I know this all probably sounds incredibly cheesy but it reminds me when my parents and I were staying at a friend’s house in a France a few years ago. I was acting as translator between my parent’s and my friend’s family, and my dad kept asking me to tell them, “thank you, this is really special.” I laughed one time and asked him why he wanted me to say that because it felt like an odd thing to say, and he said “because that’s how it feels.” That’s how my time in Morocco felt– really special.

Some final thank yous before I indefinitely close this out: thank you to my parents for taking a huge leap of faith to let me travel in a country we hadn’t visited before and didn’t know well, especially in the context of the current craziness in this world. And thank you to God for all these people and experiences.



Landscape of language traveling through Morocco

Emily is a second-year studying French and linguistics. She studied abroad in Morocco this summer for six weeks. This is her second blog post during her travels abroad.



For our last weekend of travel, we went to the North, visiting Tangier on Saturday and heading to Chefchaouen that night. On the way to Tangier, we stopped in the town Asilah, which was right on the coast and the buildings were covered in white and blue. It was beautiful, and it was also the first town where people spoke Spanish to us. It makes sense that people would speak more Spanish in the North, especially in Tangier, where you can literally see Spain across the water, but it still surprised me to say “merci” and “shukran” and then hear “gracias” back.


The language landscape in Morocco is crazy, with so many people being at least bilingual or bidialectal (speaking Darija, Moroccan Arabic, but also Modern Standard Arabic), and then the primary languages of communication shifting so much from region to region. In the South, our camel drivers and hiking guide didn’t speak much French and preferred English, which was the first time I had encountered that preference. In Rabat, if anyone is bilingual, they know French, or at least I thought. Caroline and I went surfing and our instructor, who lives in the Oudaïa Kasbah right by the beach, doesn’t really speak French but prefers English. It’s crazy to find these pockets all over the place.

morocco3  morocco4

We didn’t spend much time in Tangier, but the people we did talk to spoke French (whereas one girl who was trying to sell me postcards in Asilah switched from Spanish to English). We talked about Tangier in our history class and historically, Tangier has been very metropolitan with people from a lot of different backgrounds living there. I loved this feeling in Tangier in addition to the city itself, and of all the cities we visited in Morocco, I can most easily see myself living in Tangier in the future.

morocco5       morocco6


We visited the American Legation in Tangier, which is the only National Historic Landmark outside the US, and is the oldest American public property outside the US. It was cool seeing how far back the relationship between Morocco and the US goes, since the relationship between these two countries isn’t one that’s on the forefront of high school history classes.



After the Legation, we got back on the road to go to Chefchaouen, “the blue pearl.” The house Medina of Chefchaouen is painted with rich shades of blue, and I honestly don’t know why this is. When we were in the Oudaïa in Rabat and were taken on a spontaneous tour, our tour guide said that the blue walls are to keep mosquitos out. Our weekend in Chaouen was really low key, with the only thing scheduled being our dinner on Saturday night, so we didn’t learn much of the history of the town. Though I always like knowing some background, the unstructured time was wonderful and let us wander through the Medina at our own pace (and of course, take lots of photos).



These towns and this trip were a really nice rest and a good way to end our travels Morocco. I know I keep saying this, but I can’t wait to come back.

A letter from Morocco: week 1

Emily is a second-year studying French and linguistics, and she studied abroad in Rabat, Morocco this summer for six weeks. This is her first blog post from her travels.

Hey friends,

It’s Saturday night and week one of being in Morocco is coming to a close. We started classes on Monday and have been having 4 classes a day, and for the past two days, 3 hours of our class time each day has been Arab Philosophy. Our professor for that class teaches at a French university and he has to go back in a week to teach there, so we’re having that class a lot since we only have him for two weeks.

We’re looking at philosophy in a lot of different areas and it’s definitely abstract, but I like it. It helps having a bit of background from a class that I took this semester past called Muhammad and the Quran. It was more focused on reading the Quran itself, but we also spent a fair amount of time talking about the early exegetes and therefore some the Arab philosophers in the first few centuries after Muhammad. My research paper for that class compared the Biblical and Quranic conceptions of sin and fate and free will via the thoughts of Augustine and Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (via their autobiographies, Confessions and Deliverance from Error). It helps to have that background, and with that, it’s easier to access the texts that are more theology-focused.

We’re also taking a class called Francophone Moroccan Literature and Culture, and we’re reading four books for it while we’re here. We’re about halfway through the first book, and tomorrow I’ll get more of my reading done while we’re at the beach (our program director lives on the beach and invited us to spend the day there). The books are all by contemporary authors and it’s a cool way to be introduced to Moroccan culture. My eldest host sister was talking about alcohol in Morocco and what she was saying was what my professor was saying also, and that discussion came about through characters drinking in Le jardin de pleurs by Mohamed Nedali.

Our other class in French is Moroccan Civilization, which is a history class. We’ve only had it twice so far because we’re taking Philosophy in its place some days, but I like what we’ve had so far. We’re also taking Moroccan Arabic (Darija), which has been really cool between studying Standard Arabic and Linguistics at UVa, because I get to see how the words are adapted and changed between the two. It’s also in taught in English, which is a nice mental break from our other courses, which are filled with technical terms in French. I now can pick up Darija words that we’ve learned when I hear my family talk, in addition to the unchanged Standard Arabic words and French expressions that crop up. With all of our classes, it’s been really cool seeing them (and of course, everything here) intersecting and overlapping.

Since I was jet-lagged all this week, it felt like a long week, but I know the rest of this trip will go by so fast. I’m trying to make sure that I keep the mentality that I have when I’ve traveled before for two week trips, which is “I’ll sleep when I’m back in the U.S.” Fortunately since we do have more time it’s not quite that crazy, and today was really relaxed. Tomorrow will be as well, with going to the beach and then spending more time with the family in the evening. Though our classes demand a lot of cognitive attention because they’re from 9-3:45 each day (with a 45 minute break for lunch and 10-15 breaks between classes), the homework isn’t bad. We do have about 50 pages of reading for our literature class each night, but it’s manageable. It helps a lot that we don’t have to look up the words we don’t know. We start each class with vocabulary– we give her the words we didn’t know and she defines them for us.

So far I’ve really enjoyed everything. Next weekend we travel to Fès so I’ll try and post something about that then.

Msa ikhir tout le monde,