SITG Dispatch: A Rabati of 8 Weeks

by Marcus Chandra, ’26 (Summer 2023)

I arise from my slumber around 8 a.m., throw on a T-shirt, and run to the tram stop to make my way toward central Rabat (Medina area) with the usual commuters. If I have the time, I stop by a cafe or a hole-in-the-wall vendor to get my usual breakfast in Morocco which I have come to love: Msemen, a flatbread that I lather generously with Morocco’s ubiquitous Kiri cream cheese, and then more moderately with a serving of honey. This is breakfast done right and it only sets me back 5 Moroccan Dirhams (50 cents USD).

I usually barely make it through the end of class before my UChicago caffeine withdrawal symptoms start kicking in and I start feeling terrible. The good thing is, in Morocco, there are two things you can find looking in any direction no more than 50 meters away: Mosques, and Cafes. I stroll down the clean Rabati streets to my favorite bakery/cafe: Le Pain Bul.

Here I order the same 3 items I always order: A big fish pastilla (Moroccan pastry stuffed with vermicelli and spiced fish!), a full Semoule baguette, and a hot latte to go with. I make sure to leave the waiter a tip because the food is so delicious and the whole meal only amounts to 45 dirhams (4.5 dollars or so). That’s my business done for the day in Medina!

Normally I head back for a quick session at the local gym, or I rest before my afternoon activities which can be anything from a pottery session to horse-riding on a beach. When I can during the afternoons, I read African francophone literature my teacher recommends for me to supplement my classes, and for the moment I’m tuned into “Inyenzi ou les Cafards”, an anecdotal autobiography by Rwandan author Scholastique Mukasonga recounting her experiences from the Rwandan genocide.

The best time I had during this whole journey though would have to be the 3-day, 2-night tour in the Merzouga desert, 11 hours out from Marrakech by bus. It was a shared tour with other tourists and I made good friends with Idris, a Moroccan born and raised in France. It was interesting sharing perspectives with him as he was also someone from a diverse multilingual background, having grown up speaking Arabic in his household, learning French in school, and then studying abroad in Seoul for a year, eager to satisfy his curiosity about the East. It was like meeting an inverse version of myself, and it was a great opportunity to engage in continuous casual spoken French!

One thing that I did not expect was the litany of racial comments I would receive everyday. Walking down streets and medina souks sometimes felt like being on a game show where people feel the need to blurt out assumptions about my origins: “Japan! Hey Japan!”, “China, come here China”, and “Annyeonghaseyo, Konichiwa, Kamsahamnida!” were pretty common.

It’s usually pretty easy to dismiss and think nothing of it, sometimes it gets a bit old and tiring when you’re there for 8 weeks. But there have also been special moments where Moroccans—Moroccans who weren’t trying to sell me things—were eager to talk to me and have a real conversation: Moroccans who had studied abroad at exchange universities in Sichuan, others who had worked abroad in Hangzhou. All of these people with good intentions were excited to see someone like me in their country and were eager to engage with me using the Mandarin they had so arduously learned.

For me, these interactions imparted a great amount of hope and joy about the future of our world. This world is becoming increasingly interconnected and I strive to play a role in this thriving cross-border, cross-cultural exchange that is bringing people together from all backgrounds and nations. I am beyond grateful for the wonderful opportunity UChicago has given me to begin this meaningful journey.