August 26, 2011 Al Akhawayn University (the meaning of the name in Arabic is “Two Brothers”) came about as a result of a collaboration between two kings: King Hassan II of Morocco (The father of the current king, Mohammed VI.) and King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia (half-brother to a recent ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah.)
The story goes that an oil tanker caused an oil spill off the coast of Morocco, endangering fishing, tourism and natural resources. In 1989, there was such spill. King Fahd, in the spirit of brotherhood, created a generous endowment to take care of the clean-up and any residual losses to the environment and the economy. While the money awaited distribution in the royal coffers, nature intervened and sent the oil slick out to sea instead of onto the beaches. Whether King Hassan II offered to return the money is not known, but King Fahd apparently told him to keep it. In 1993, by Royal Decree, a plan was conceived to build a university an hour’s drive from the imperial city of Fes, or Fez to Westerners.
Ifrane offered an intoxicatingly beautiful environment for the creation of a university, sitting as it does at 1665 meters amid what passes in Morocco for verdant forests and fertile farm lands. High enough to benefit from cooler breezes, the small town boasts a temperate climate, one that brings blooms in the spring and skiers in the winter. The university, opened in 1995, is modeled off of American universities, with an accredited curriculum encompassing a broad range of departments and opportunities for research. Though not free, Al Akhawayn is a public school. The administration gives scholarships to 30% of its students. The criteria for entry are competitive and include a high level of English language proficiency because all classes are taught in English.
As a result, many of the international students are from the United States. Well, why not? It is a lovely campus with highly qualified instructors. Several of them are globally recognized as experts on Berbers, Arab History, Islam, and all things Moroccan. As a new faculty appointee in 2011, I looked out over the manicured campus and hoped to both gain knowledge from others and contribute from my own set of skills .
The town, university, the school, the staff, the faculty apartments, and amenities all foretold of myriad possibilities. One initial concern, after a social and pleasant month studying Moroccan Arabic in Rabat, was whether Al Akhawayn would offer collegiality and friendship. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. One afternoon as I was returning from the center of Ifrane, where I had gratefully discovered a coffee shop open for tourists during Ramadan of that year, a car stopped along the lane. Inside was another faculty member, a counselor at the university and one of the faculty orientation team. She explained the upcoming NFO, new faculty orientation, and gave me a schedule. She also invited me to accompany her and a friend to the souk, the weekend tent souk a couple of kilometers from the center of town. So, the next day, goufa in hand (large woven grocery bag), I met her at the main gate.
The souk, when we arrived, was the standard Moroccan model, tarps strung together to form a haphazard roof. Beneath, three dozen retailers, each with his own little space, had fruits, vegetables, eggs, or other wares spread out all around, a scale and weights at the ready. Whatever cuisine tickles the taste buds can be created from the vast, aromatic choices of the souk.
The ladies, both of whom buy and cook for athletes, went from vendor to vendor, picking the best of the fruits and vegetables. Two of us went off together, and our companion shopped on her own. I was able to be of service by translating the prices from Arabic into English. I remember from Settat how many people still use riyals rather than dirhams. A dirham is 20 riyal, so when one vendor told her 460 riyals, he really meant 23 MAD. While my haul was nothing to the other ladies, the blue plaid goufa was full to bursting with fruits, parsley, and veggies. Speaking derija with everyone was fun and gratifying. I felt completely comfortable in the souk, and among all those people who seem, on the surface, so different.
The architecture of Al Akhawayn and Ifrane is unexpected and unparalleled in any other location in Morocco. Peaked and red tiled roofs are ready to resist any snow which may fall in this higher elevation. Indeed, nearby are actual ski slopes, though they don’t always get annual use. Sandra lives in a building opposite mine. She’s on the third floor with a lovely view of trees and empty expanses. I don’t have the view, but my apartment, as you can see in pictures on Facebook, is quite comfortable. I’ve added only a few enhancements such as a beautiful bone inlay mirror and a Moroccan carpet in blue and crimson. Keeping it simple is one of my goals, so while I could appreciate Cheryl’s lovely home, I don’t want to accumulate too much more. At least, that is how it stands at the moment.
There are 19 other instructors in the Language Center, about half Moroccan and half international. All seem committed to quality instruction and to the advancement of the department. I’ve been assigned three preps, writing, reading, and listening and speaking for a total of 20 contact hours each week. In addition, I will post 9 office hours so that students can review assignments, discuss issues, and make up tests. My office is in Building 4, though most of my classes will be in the library. The desk I chose in my office is next to the one window. That way, I can open the window for the refreshing breeze even before I turn on the computer.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Muslims all over the world will be celebrating Eid, the end of Ramadan. I pray that their Ramadan has been full of peace, family connection and reflection on sacred texts.
Tonight, as I finish this, a lightning storm is causing winds to rush, trees to flail around, and large round droplets to fall on the thirsty earth. I can see rain glistening on the leaves and the lightning blanketing the sky with brilliant abstract patterns.