October 11, 2013

Karissa Annichiarico ’14 Experiences Morocco’s Rich Culture During Semester Abroad

Traveling abroad can be stressful for anyone. For Karissa Annichiarico '14, who had never ventured further from the East Coast than Chicago and had never flown by herself, preparing to spend four months in Morocco was a mix of nerves and excitement. In the weeks leading up to her departure, the Taunton, Mass., native developed her own coping strategy.

"Really, I just tried not to think about it too much," she said.

The global studies + international affairs major was awarded a Gilman Scholarship for the spring 2013 semester. The Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program, funded by the U.S. Department of State, offers grants for undergraduate students to pursue academic studies abroad with the intention of better preparing them to assume significant roles in an increasingly global economy and interdependent world.

Annichiarico selected the International Studies Abroad (ISA) program, "Morocco: Language, Culture and Society," to further her proficiency in Arabic, which she began studying while at Emmanuel, and to research Moroccan teenagers' attitudes toward the Arab Spring.

She arrived in the North African country in January, in the middle of the wettest rainy season the country had seen in years, and settled into an apartment in Meknes, one of Morocco's four imperial cities. Meknes is home to a unique blend of Arab, Berber, French and Spanish-Moorish culture and architecture, with distinct districts such as ville nouvelle (new city) and the labyrinth-like Medina.

Annichiarico nerves quickly vanished as she bonded with her roommates, several young American women who were also involved in the study abroad program.

"There's something about finding yourself in a foreign country, where the surroundings are unfamiliar and you don't really know the language," Annichiarico said. "You forge friendships immediately. It's kind of like when you come to college for the first time."

Language barriers proved to be a significant challenge for Annichiarico. A student of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA)-the language taught at Emmanuel and in Morocco's primary and secondary schools-she found herself unable to clearly communicate with much of the population. Home to a large lower class, the majority of the population speaks a vernacular form of Arabic called Darija, which is less grammatically complex than MSA and integrates Berber, French and Spanish words. To further complicate things, Morocco's upper class, as well as industries such as economics, commerce, government and education, utilizes French as their primary language. However, in a nation known for its hospitality, taxi drivers, shop owners and other locals were more than happy to communicate with her group using hand signals and shared words.

While in Morocco, Annichiarico attended language classes at Moulay Ismail University, one of Morocco's newest higher education institutions (founded in 1982), which enrolls more than 23,000 students and offers four-year degrees in a variety of fields. Even with an estimated 120 hours of intensive Arabic, Annichiarico maintains she is far from proficient in the famously difficult language.

"It isn't even just the words and grammar that are difficult," she said. "You have to train your vocal chords to make sounds that they've never had to make before."

A student in Emmanuel's Honors Program, Annichiarico also conducted research to gauge teenagers' views of the Arab Spring, a wave of protests, riots and civil wars that began in December 2010. In many ways, Morocco is still recovering from King Hassan II's conservative reign, a period of which is referred to by his opponents as "the years of lead," due to the violence against dissidents and democracy activists. When his more liberal son, Mohammed VI, took control after Hassan II's death in 1999, he made efforts to enact new legislation, leading up to political concessions and a constitutional referendum in 2011. While the social reforms were a step in the right direction, rights among the population are still unbalanced.

"He told people that they had the right to housing, food and water, but didn't offer them any means to get these things," Annichiarico said.

While the country has avoided the violent uprisings that have taken place in countries such as Libya, Egypt and Syria, Annichiarico witnessed several protests, including a water demonstration in the village of Chefchaouen and a May Day protest in Rabat, where thousands marched to demand jobs and pay raises. Still, Annichiarico found that Moroccan teenagers don't foresee the protests escalating.

Annichiarico also explored the country by taxi, visiting Morocco's many historical sites, including those in the country's four imperial cities of Fes, Marrakech, Rabat and Meknes.

"I was never home," she said. "I wanted to see everything that I could."

Some highlights included visiting Chefchaouen, a village in the northwest that is often referred to as "The Blue City" for its blue-rinsed houses and buildings, a tradition that began with the town's Jewish population in the 1930s, riding a camel through the Sahara Desert (and subsequently sampling a camel burger) and haggling with shopkeepers in the medinas.

Since her return in May, she's longed for Moroccan customs and cuisine, including Couscous Fridays, a labor-intensive meal prepared and shared on Morocco's holy days, and the traditional green tea, prepared with mint and sweetened with sugar.

"I've tried everything to replicate this tea," she said. "I've gone out and bought loose tea. I practically killed my mom's mint plant. I just can't get it right."

After she graduates in May, Annichiarico plans to eventually attend law school to work one-on-one with immigrants, but returning to Morocco is high on her list of priorities.

slideshowSee more from Karissa's trip

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