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As I sit on my grandmother’s porch in Ontario, I’m struck by how dramatically the serene setting differs from the bustling, chaotic streets of Casablanca, my home for the past three months. I spent those three months working as a Business Development Intern at the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Morocco; a non-profit designed to promote trade and economic engagement between Morocco and the United States. The experience proved to be rewarding, challenging, and in many ways drastically different from what I expected.

When I first scanned the postings for summer internships, the position at the AmCham immediately jumped out.  I’d like to say that I wanted to learn more about business and trade, but really I was sold on the idea of spending three months in what appeared to be one of the most vibrant and culturally rich countries in the world. In this regard, Morocco certainly did not disappoint. From French bakeries to Moorish architecture to Berber music, the seamless blend of Arab, European, and African cultures was always present. Nowhere was the array of cultural influences more noticeable than in Morocco’s medinas, where shopkeepers call your attention in English, French, Arabic, Spanish, and occasionally Italian or German. Morocco is a country where even young children are polyglots, and adults frequently questioned why I only spoke one language. Just as endearing as the mesh of cultures was the coexistence of the old and new. Like the narrow streets of the medinas that give way to wide, palm tree studded boulevards, and motorcycles speeding past donkey-pulled carts, the traditional and modern are never far from one another.
I went to Morocco with great expectations about experiencing all the culture and history that the country had to offer. I did experience this rich culture, but mostly during weekend trips. Casablanca is not a religious hub like Fez, not strikingly colorful like Chefchaouen, nor does it boast lively night markets like Marrakesh. On the contrary, day-to-day life in Casablanca was fairly slow – I worked, went for runs, and wandered around the city listening to music. I had a lot of free time, largely because I wasn’t required to be in the office very much. In May there were renovations, in June the hours were shortened for Ramadan, and in July the hours remained short for the summer.

The relaxed work schedule was mirrored by the relaxed energy in the office. There were few tasks assigned, deadlines were vague, and there was an overall lack of structure, organization, and any sense of necessity to get things done. Initially, I found this frustrating. Without a clear set of tasks or understanding what was expected of me, I felt directionless and unchallenged. However, the open and unstructured nature of my internship created space for me to pursue one of the most enriching work experiences of my life. This was a startup initiative, in which I interviewed and brought together founders of prominent Moroccan startups to discuss regulatory, fiscal, and social barriers to entrepreneurship in the country. It was not only an incredible learning experience in terms of researching and discussing innovation policy, entrepreneurship, and the regulatory environment in Morocco, but also provided an opportunity for personal growth. The project allowed me to pitch ideas in a professional setting, represent the AmCham, build relationships with successful companies, and make decisions without the approval of a superior; all of which amounted to stronger confidence in my ability to lead, and greater trust in my own judgment.
Before leaving for Morocco I heard the same repeated concerns from friends and family, who worried about my safety as a woman alone in the country. Even the university staff warned me not to take the position unless I was prepared to abide by the standards of dress in order to avoid harassment or assault. Their concerns were valid, and I did experience persistent and aggressive sexual harassment throughout my three months there. Despite feeling particularly marginalized as a result of my gender, my stay in Morocco also gave me the opportunity to meet some of the most tenacious women I’ve ever met. Through the startup project, I interviewed female entrepreneurs who founded companies in male-dominated industries like tech and medicine, and absorbed their insights on business, failure, and perseverance. Niama El Bassunie, founder of shipping app WaystoCapp, described previous unsuccessful business endeavors without a hint of regret or embarrassment, stating, “they say you have four failures for every success, you just keep trying until something works.” Similarly, Zineb Drissi, founder of Dabadoc, attributed her ability to withstand setbacks to her strong belief in the service her company provides (an online booking platform for medical appointments). Perhaps this commitment to service is what drives women. Interestingly, I noticed during interviews that male startup founders reliably identified objective measures of success as being their company’s greatest achievement (e.g. an award, a magazine feature, or a high profile client), whereas women spoke about the ways that their company helped the community/country or improved a broken system. These women, driven to succeed as well as to affect positive change, will certainly serve as an inspiration to me as I pursue my own career.

From my home in Canada, my time in Morocco feels like a barrage of hot days, bus trips, and tagine dinners. As a result of my short stay, my inability to speak Arabic or French, and the somewhat closed nature of Moroccan culture, I don’t feel that I got to know the culture as intimately as I would have liked. I didn’t get the chance to speak openly with locals about their perspectives on politics, relationships, love, faith, family, culture – any of the fundamental aspects of life – aside from one coworker. While I did see Moroccans interacting with each other in various social settings, any dialogue that wasn’t directed at me was in Arabic. Despite this, I did see a country of people who were intensely warm and welcoming, who would walk two blocks to take me to my destination if I asked for directions. I saw people who were unafraid to express affection, who would stand close, kiss my cheek, or rest a hand on my arm in a way that a new acquaintance never would in Canada. Finally, I saw the extreme pride that Moroccans had in their country, animatedly describing all the cities and landmarks that I had to see before I left. This is a country in which national pride is very important, as evidenced by the number of people who made a point to give me kind words about my home. I hope that in the future I will be able to come back and gain a deeper understanding of this beautiful country, but for now it has given me more knowledge, patience, and self-love than I had when I arrived.

Author Ashley Harrison

Ashley is a second year Masters student at the Munk School of Global Affairs. She holds an Undergraduate Degree in Psychology and is the Project Manager for Toronto-based non-profit Eritrean Youth Collective. Prior to beginning at the Munk School, she taught in South Korea and acted as a writer and instructor for an organization that provides English tutoring to North Korean defectors.

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