Yesterday I met about half of my graduate program on a fun-filled day trip to Rabat. The purpose was to meet with a group of American exchange students on a week trip to Morocco from Spain to discuss a documentary called Crossing Borders. In the movie, four American twenty-somethings and four Moroccan twenty-somethings live and travel together for a week, in Morocco.
The lessons of the documentary “Crossing Borders”— and the film is not subtle about them — are so self-evident, you might think there’s no need to convey them. But that would be a mistake.
Crossing Borders is a full-length film, meant to be used as a teaching tool in cross-cultural education. American students were chosen from among the large number of study-abroaders in Spain, and Moroccan students were recommended to the production team by their professors in Morocco. In the film the students discuss their apprehensions about living with complete strangers and about connecting with people from a different culture. Of course, through intense discussions and emotional moments the group gels and national boundaries are transcended…
But not quite. The film ends as the Americans leave their Moroccan friends to cross the border into Ceuta, a Spanish-controlled area in the north of Morocco. Spanish as in European, European as in, easily accessible to those who hold that magic blue passport and off-limits to Moroccans without a visa.
The purpose of the film, and of cross-cultural education, is not to solve complex political issues, not even through debate among the people in the movie. The film does a nice job of acknowledging political realities while focusing on the importance of personal connection in spite of those realities.
Significantly, all conversations among the students are in English.
After watching the movie, our group launched, tentatively at first, into a discussion that ended up focusing on perceptions of Moroccans and Americans. Each side, at least among those who spoke, worried that the other might come away from the movie, and the discussion, with misconceptions about their country. For awhile Americans and Moroccans spoke, not exactly in response to each other, but to put in their two cents on parallel themes: are Americans ignorant and arrogant? Yes, but no; Is there extreme poverty in Morocco? No, but yes.
A conversation like that can run in circles for hours, but our discussion was guided by a master facilitator, the managing director of Crossing Borders, the organization that produced the movie of the same name. Having run exchange programs for several years, he knew when to pause the conversation to shed light on some subtle cultural disconnect that might cause a failure to communicate.
The best example for this is how he handled one particular behavior among Americans—especially women, I cringe to add though I think I must: crying in front of a group. I won’t give the whole back story on that, except to say, you just had to be there. The point is that crying during the course of an intense discussion is not a sign of distress or discomfort, and isn’t meant to cause either of those things. Instead, as the facilitator explained without a trace of condescension, crying in front of the group shows trust, and showing such vulnerability is a way to ask for the trust of the group.
I should specify here that the facilitator is neither American nor Moroccan. He’s actually from formally Communist East Berlin.
Back to the graduate program I’m joining this year.
Our trip to Rabat was a terrific icebreaker for me personally, especially since I’m joining a small class that has already had a year to gel. By the end of the day, I felt honored and accepted as a new addition to this smart, thoughtful, and fun group. I fell asleep last night, exhausted from our long day but bathing in warm fuzzies.
On a different level, yesterday was a perfect illustration of the purpose of the graduate program. Typically, in Morocco, it can be a challenge to justify investing your time and energy in a degree that doesn’t have a clear practical application. You might say that the practical purpose of the program is continued improvement of language skills and cultural competence.
More broadly, however, I find in the program an important element of my own liberal arts education: You can memorize important information and develop a specialized skill, but true learning involves challenging your understanding of reality. Cross-cultural learning is not just exploring different cultural contexts, it’s dissecting your own worldview in the process. Which is why the program is not called American Studies, but “Moroccan and Moroccan-American studies.”
MAMAS for short, hehe.