Welcome from Alex Safos, Director Middle East & North Africa Programs
Alex and friend in Rabat, Morocco
I was an anxious, rudderless college sophomore when he got the call. It was from Washington, DC—the State Department to be exact—and the beige rotary phone was ringing in a remote University of Texas at Austin professor’s office, some 1,500 miles plus away. This was 1986, and to me, 1,500 miles was a faraway place. Dr. James Bill politely and unpretentiously said, “Alex, have a seat. I need to take this call from State. They need some input—help, really—with their Iran policy.” Now this is pretty cool, I thought, eyes like saucers.
So this moment isn’t how I bit on the Morocco lure, but it represents my seminal brush with “The Middle East”. In reality, the geo-political conflicts drew me in. And how we, Americans, perceived—and misperceived—related—and unrelated—to this diverse and complex region rich in culture and history. For a 20 year old, the menu was overwhelming and fascinating at once: the US reaction to the Iranian Revolution; the intractable Arab and Palestinian conflict with Israel; the Iran-Iraq war; Qaddafi’s provocations in Libya; the civil war in Lebanon; the phenomenon of political Islam; how the Gulf States influenced the world economy—the challenges and kinetic energy seemed inexhaustible. I think you get the picture.
So with the guidance of Dr. Bill and other professors who opened this new portal before me, I began studying Arabic, Islam, political science, Arab history, sociology, etc. The standard smoothie—with a language booster. So while I had to endure the tiresome heckles of “Arabic? Why the [expletive] are you taking that?” from several on pre-Med, pre-Law, and pre-MBA trajectories, to this day, two decades later, my 4 years combined undergraduate and graduate Arabic instruction represent my most valuable output from the academy. Without question.
What’s better than learning about a culture and its native tongue? Learning about a culture and its native tongue on native soil. My Arab cultural baptism was in North Africa—in Egypt—where I spent two consecutive summers working in Cairo. The first as an assistant editor to an English language magazine for tourists. The second as an assistant manager for a local FedEx franchise. So this was how I was first introduced to an “office environment” (in the US, my work experience had been limited to waiting tables). In a city of millions whose daily evasion of implosion I found, and still find, astonishing. The foot-high stacks of paper on every desk and the affinity for the rubber-stamp. In triplicate, straight out of a Gogol short story on stultifying Soviet bureaucracy. The haze of “Cleopatra” brand cig smoke in the office all day, forming another atmosphere between us and ceiling. Like at an old jazz club, but without music. My mood would flip from rapture to frustration, from affinity to disengagement—all stoked by 100F temperatures and the notorious Egyptian khamseen, the hot and unrelenting summer sandstorm from the desert on Cairo’s doorstep. Applying, growing, questioning, critiquing, fighting, capitulating, amped up, and shut down. It was glorious. Every grain.
Ok, well, after getting my grad degree in Arab Studies from Georgetown—and after an underworld stint as a bartender trying to figure out how and where to apply this credential—Morocco rang. I had figured out that a career in the diplomatic corps was not for me and had blanketed English language schools from Marrakesh to Muscat looking for a constructive and fascinating way to get back to North Africa. The winning ticket was Fes, and I had no idea what to expect…I rifled through the Atlas, honed in on Fes, land-locked in a valley, and it looked so small, so provincial, compared to a cosmopolitan Cairo seeped with humanity in every crack.
The memory of my paralysis in the Tangier airport is cleaver-sharp where, in the dust, it all came rushing, that I would be here, in the Maghrib, for a year. No Exit. And that I couldn’t speak. Be understood. Or understand. There is a memorable discomfort in suddenly realizing that communication with your fellow human is not happening like it should. My prior Arabic language training was practically useless on this hour #1 in Morocco—both my Egyptian dialect and traditional Modern Standard Arabic fell on so very deaf ears. And I had no French fall-back
I got over my Tangier two-step and Morocco moment (of doubt) soon enough. My home for the next year would be Fes. Or Fez. It was here I would teach English at the American Language Center and help launch what is today “ALIF”, the Arabic Language Institute in Fez. And it was here—and elsewhere and everywhere across this country of heart—I would grow layer upon layer of perception, community, color, and humanity.
I can tell you about dreamy moonlit camels shuffling in the Sahara, all else quiet. I can tell you about how you might pauseand fixate during your first evening call to prayer, from deep in the Fes medina, and become very conscious of Islam’s tapestry and reach. And I can tell you how, with just a mote of darija, Moroccan Arabic, you will connect with rich and poor, merchant and butcher, baker and beggar—and how your words will animate the creases of these incredibly handsome and hospitable people. But these are your experiences, still unlit and unwrapped. Review our comprehensive semester program and listen to the posted Audio From Elsewhere clips of Fes and Marrakesh, and you’ll get a taste of the transport in store..
We all own various enlightening and sensational and very personal travel experiences. The night fragrances and whispers of my Roman honeymoon. An epiphany of dear wilderness and wildlife, courtesy of Alaska. And a primal sense of blood and heritage in escorting my grandmother back to her Greek island village, amidst a backdrop of sea, goats and grapes. In my experiential cellar, Morocco is as good and real and true as all of these.
After a personal detour into corporate America for more years than desirable—detours that ultimately clarify direction—the pungency of Moroccan cumin and orange blossoms and mint slaps as hard as ever. My return in April 2006 after a 14 year absence was a homecoming of sorts.
I congratulate your curiosity and passion to witness this country, this culture, and this media-riddled region of the world on your own terms. Without apology, without preconception. In all itshospitality and diversity, Morocco will leave you changed and more mindful on many levels. I look forward to speaking with you, meeting you, and answering any questions or concerns before you set out on this remarkable and rewarding path. Tafadalo wa rihla sa’ida. Welcome and happy wanderings!