Studying Abroad in Morocco

by Jonathan McGonagle (2016 IR Major)

My name is Jonathan McGonagle and I am an International Relations and Ethics & Public Policy double major with a minor in Arabic. I am graduating this December, and am currently spending my last semester abroad in Fes, Morocco at the Arabic Language Institute in Fes (ALIF) with the University of Minnesota’s Arabic Language & Culture program.


Taking Arabic was one of the greatest decisions I made while studying at Iowa. The Arabic minor is an ideal pair with International Relations, and the Arabic Department staff is diverse and impressive. Since it is such a difficult language, I wanted to be able to immerse myself in an Arabic speaking country in order to master what I learned in the classroom.  The language classes (Modern Standard Arabic or Moroccan Colloquial Arabic “Darija”) at ALIF are intense and each student has four hours Arabic each day. Students from a wide range of backgrounds and Arabic knowledge study at ALIF. Apart from language courses, the Minnesota program requires we take an English elective and a context course where we research topics and formulate a final research paper involving our personal experiences in Morocco. In these classes, we discuss Moroccan history, politics, religion, and the overall complexity of Moroccan society in the 21st century. Morocco is one of the most interesting places to study as an International Relations major because it is a leading country in the world for effective counterterrorism efforts and has significant influence across The Middle East. Learning about the Western Sahara issue (referred to as the Moroccan Sahara here) in a Moroccan classroom was fascinating and it is a topic that many foreign students are unaware of.


The culture shock coming to Morocco was intense mainly because the Minnesota program requires that all of the students live in host families for the first six weeks. The first week  here was Eid Al-Adha or “Festival of the Sacrifice”, a Muslim holiday in which each family buys a sheep and then slaughters it on their property to eat every part of it for the rest of the week. This was an incredible experience, but since we learn Modern Standard Arabic at Iowa, the language barrier was challenging to fully grasp what was happening at first since Moroccan Arabic differs greatly. The language situation in Morocco is complex due to French colonization and the presence of the Amazigh “Berber” community. Many Moroccans speak French and the Amazigh people speak Tamazight which has several dialects and was just recognized as an official language in Morocco in 2011.  Moroccans are honored that American and European students choose Morocco for their studies. When they hear students speaking Arabic, specifically the Moroccan dialect, it means the world to them. Many Moroccans say “You are welcome in your second country!” or “Thank you for learning my beautiful language!” often.


An intriguing aspect of studying in Fes is the juxtaposition between the Ville Nouvelle (New City), Fes Jadid (New Fes), and the Medina Qadima (Old City). Ville Nouvelle, where ALIF is located, makes you feel like you are in southern France with long stretches of fountains and palm trees. Ville Nouvelle has a modern mall complete with a McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Carrefour (modern grocery store), etc. Only a short walk from this mall takes you to the old city where it feels like you have been teleported into medieval times with donkeys passing by carrying goods, winding narrow alley ways, chaotic markets, and colorful Moroccan crafts for sale. Fes Jadid or “the Mellah” is the old Jewish quarters that used to be home to a large Moroccan Jewish population. This area is near the King’s Palace and has completely different architecture from both the Ville Nouvelle and the Old Medina with large open balconies overlooking the street markets below.


Bargaining skills are essential in Morocco because almost nothing has a fixed price. This is a skill that I was terrible at in the beginning, but I improved as my Moroccan Arabic improved. The greatest part about my experience has been creating relationships with store owners and restaurant staff who love to test my Arabic skills. My friends and I go to the same small street side restaurant almost every day where you can get a full meal for less than $1 USD. Food advice: It is impossible to be picky in Morocco, eat couscous every Friday, always eat where the most Moroccans are, and get as much street food as possible.

When visiting Morocco, it is imperative to be aware of the leniency when it comes to time. A Moroccan teacher can start class five or ten minutes late, children can be seen playing outside at late hours of the night, and meals are long and relaxed.  Moroccans greet each person they know with kisses or a handshake, followed by a small conversation about how they are doing, how their health is, how their parents and children are, etc. Moroccan men sit at coffee shops for hours on end almost every night discussing family and current events. The lifestyle is extremely casual which can be irritating for foreigners who thrive off of organization and structure.

Being American in Fes was overwhelming at first especially not knowing how the taxi system worked or how to navigate the city. The old city is still difficult to walk through without being coerced into buying something. Adjusting to life here was one of the most challenging tasks of my life, but was also one of the most rewarding. A pressing issue in Morocco is street harassment toward women (both native and foreign women). Despite this, Morocco is full of foreigners and regarded as a safe place for Americans.  

My advice for anybody traveling to Morocco is to explore other areas throughout the country. Transportation is cheap and the diverse landscape is breathtaking. I recommend exploringChefchaouen (the famous blue Moroccan city), walking around the famous Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakech, swimming in the ocean in Essaouira, and (of course) riding camels in the Sahara.

The Study Abroad Department at Iowa has a wide variety of programs to enhance your education in the field of International Relations. If you want to expand your comfort zone and learn Arabic intensively, I highly recommend studying abroad in Morocco. Good luck on finals and Go Hawks!