By Grace Gray, HAF-UVa student intern
Rabia, Amit, Kaoutar, Grace. For the first few minutes of our conversation with law students from University Cadi Ayyad this June, these were the only words our group collectively understood: our names. I latched onto each one like an island amidst churning seas of less-understood Darija and English supplemented by a hearty amount of hand gestures, slow pronunciation, and exaggerated facial expressions. Our group had sat down across from each other to connect, to share our life stories and aspirations, yet we could hardly understand more complex sentences than our first names: was it enough?
After a few smiles and nervous laughter, I started to believe the answer would be yes. Rabia opened our conversation first as she relaxed more confidently into her English skills, with Kaoutar soon following. Amit pulled out his phone to translate the English dialogue instructions into Darija – who knew that “immigration status” could also be expressed as “halat hijra”? – and, markers in hand, we soon sprawled a web of lines and words across our page. Rabia taught me the pronunciation of her siblings’ names as Kaoutar showed me hers written in Darija, smiling proudly as she offered to write mine, too.
The activity’s instructions brought us down a meandering path of cultural exchange, spanning everything from age to religion, role models, and socioeconomic background. Rabia enveloped me in a hug as she realized that I, too, have cared for my mother at various points of my childhood and also grew up with many siblings. In that moment, I forgot we grew up across the world from each other. Instead, I remembered the countless nights I rolled out of my cot next to my mom’s bed when she needed me at night, helped her into the shower in the mornings, brought her on walks around our block in the afternoon, and suddenly I felt like Rabia was there with me. I simultaneously wanted to know more about her unique experiences caring for her mother and knew that I didn’t need any details; I saw her, and she saw me, with just a few words and one caring hug.
Although I continue to treasure this moment with Rabia, I cannot say that I walked out of our conversation with concrete feelings of cultural dialogue. I often felt like I missed the depth of Rabia’s and Kaoutar’s statements as I failed to ask them for more details – the words “I hear you. What do you mean by that?” fell awkwardly from my Darija-struggling mouth until our moments of reflection dissolved into polite laughter. Our conversation built us a foundation for cultural exchange, yet with only two months in Morocco and no more dialogues scheduled, I doubted we would see each other again. I felt equal parts gratitude for our opportunity to connect, and shame for the fleeting and somewhat surface-level nature of our interactions.
Yet, despite my limitations in communication, our shared laughter and validation felt real – I can still feel the smile creep across my face as I recall the way three men in the corner shrugged and said “Me, of course” when asked who was their role model. Our hour of sharing paved a rough trail corridor where previously stood wilderness; whether this paving introduces goodness to the ecosystem is unclear. Yet one thing feels sure: at the end of our conversation, we were still united by our four lifeboats: Rabia, Amit, Kaoutar, and Grace. And these words meant a little bit more.
This article was completed with the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Hollings Center for International Dialogue. The High Atlas Foundation is solely responsible for its content, which does not necessarily reflect the views of the USAID or the Government of the United States.
The USAID Dakira program, implemented by the High Atlas Foundation and its partners, aims to strengthen inter-religious and inter-ethnic solidarity through community efforts that preserve cultural heritage in Morocco.