Camels, Cous Cous, and Culture

Fulfilling the Humanities and Arts Requirement in Ifrane, Morocco



When arriving at WPI as a first-year student, Melissa Castle ’11 never would have imagined that her WPI experience would eventually land her in the rugged Sahara, trekking through the sand dunes on a camel and witnessing a beautiful, blazing sunrise illuminate the desert sky.  This was one of many memorable experiences she recalled as part of her overseas journey to Morocco, where she completed her Humanities and Arts Requirement.

Since A Term 2007, WPI students have had the opportunity to travel to Ifrane, Morocco and study at Al Akhawayn University (AUI), a semi-private, American-style university situated in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains.  Ifrane, a peaceful village of about 15,000 inhabitants, is relatively close to Morocco’s capital city, Rabat, and other imperial cities such as Fes and Meknes.  For seven weeks, WPI students enjoy the Arabic culture, food, and language, making for an unforgettable, eye-opening experience.

At AUI, WPI students enroll in two courses for a combined one-third unit of credit: one in the Arabic language and the other in the history of the Arab World and Islamic Civilization or contemporary issues in North Africa.  Another one-third unit is achieved outside of the classroom setting.  Each weekend, the students embark on educational excursions to a variety of legendary locales, including Fes, Meknes, Casablanca, Volubilis, Erfoud, and Marrakech – all historic/cultural hubs of Morocco.  From these guided travel tours, students write an informed memoir about the people and places they encounter. The final one-third unit is met through a research project on a relevant topic, in areas as diverse as religion, socio-political issues, gender roles, environmentalism, French imperialism, and architecture.  Ultimately, the goal of this project is to further the students’ understanding of the Arab world and its people.

For her culminating research project, Linnea Palmer-Paton ’11 produced a documentary about Moroccan college students entitled “Just Like Us: An Experiment in Listening at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco.”  This documentary provides viewers with an in-depth perspective of the attitudes, aspirations, and lives of the students she interviewed.  The questions Linnea asked ranged from what they thought of the United States, to what they enjoy about their culture and about being Muslim, to what they thought caused terrorism.

Linnea describes the rationale behind her documentary in this way:  “I wanted to make a movie because I think it is more accessible to people.  Movies are more tangible; there’s more of a chance that people will make that heart-to-heart connection with the speaker – that the viewer will see the humanity of those interviewed.  It is my hope that in enabling people to see each other’s humanity, nonviolent resolutions to conflict will not only be supported but become the regular means of solving conflicts.”

Linnea’s project is just one example of the wonderful work WPI students produce as a result of their experiences in Morocco.  Such work is made possible through the noteworthy dedication of the Morocco Project Center faculty champions – Tahar El-Korchi, Head of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department and Bland Addison, Professor of History.  Prior to the creation of the site, both shared a similar vision of sending WPI students to an Arab country.  “I think it’s particularly important,” says Professor Addison, “due to the fundamental and fatal misunderstanding between Arabic and Islamic peoples and the United States.”  Similarly, Professor El-Korchi cites a critical need for “lines of communication and understanding throughout the world, but especially with the Islamic and Arab world, due to the tensions that currently exist.” The Morocco Project Center is currently WPI’s only project center in an Arabic-speaking nation.

For Melissa, a self-proclaimed small-town New Englander with no international travel experience, her initial thoughts of completing her Humanities and Arts Requirement in a developing country like Morocco left her thinking: “this is way out of my league.”  However, by the end of the seven weeks, Melissa realized how much she loved “the landscape, the people, the culture, the food – everything!” Put simply, she “just didn’t want to leave.”

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