Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
―Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (1869)
I am a French professor and my area of research is the relation between France and the Maghreb: Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Last month, with my colleague Doug Whittle, I had the opportunity to co-led a study tour through Morocco with a group of lifelong learners through the University of Wisconsin-Madison program in Educational Travel, which has led international and domestic trips for more than 60 years.
Designed to be an intensive study experience of Morocco, a “traveling classroom,” the trip had an interdisciplinary focus on culture, history, religion, economics, government, arts and crafts, language, and literature. In just two weeks we traveled more than 800 miles, visiting the four imperial cities of Morocco, Fes, Marrakech, Rabat, and Meknes. We also descended south to Ourzazate, Erfoud, and Zagora–the gateway to the Sahara desert. Our bus traversed coastlines, snowy mountains, stony plains, and desert sands. For a relatively short trip, we learned so much.
What we learned was–in a word–transformative. One of our travelers, a retired accountant from Green Bay, called the trip “an awakening,” referring to the reality of a country of over 33 million peaceful, compassionate, and hospitable people. As non-Muslims traveling in a predominantly Muslim country, we all had different preconceived notions about what an Arabo-Muslim country would be like. This is understandable: incendiary anti-Muslim rhetoric is on the rise in the United States. With each act of horrific extremist violence that crosses our screens, the ideologies of fear increase. From Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s recent article “Islam Is a Religion of Violence,” to Donald Trump’s threats to shut down mosques, to the TV show Homeland’s dangerously Islamophobic stereotypes, U.S. Americans are barraged with messages that anyone designated as Muslim by race or belief is a terrorist, or soon to be one.
Time and time again during our travels, these messages proved false. During a long conversation about Islamic faith practices and ritual, our Moroccan guide, the inestimable Hassan Idfath, a devout Muslim from Agadir, stood up to make a pronouncement. With intensity, he stated, “Terrorist extremists do not speak for Islam. And I denounce them.” I can still hear these words in my ears. Whether speaking in English, French, or using the few words of Arabic and Berber we learned, we bonded quickly with the Moroccan women, men, and children we met. During several home visits with different families, we were always welcomed with warmth and friendliness symbolized par excellence by the ubiquitous mint tea ceremony. We applauded the ambitions of 18-year-old Zina, a future chemical engineer who plans to study in France before she returns to work in her home country. We connected with a village family near Erfoud while talking about work, raising children, preparing meals, and watching sports (“go Barça!” “go Pack!”). We visited a women’s collective of Argan oil producers, exchanging smiles and handshakes on our way to the seaside city of Essaouira. In Marrakesh, the gracious Touriya not only served us a heaping couscous dish and homemade cookies for lunch, but also led a cooking class on how to bake bread and make a traditional chicken tajine.
Peace and tolerance surrounded us. Time and time again, Hassan compared faith practices and shared theological traditions with travelers active in their faith. One participant, visiting Al Karaouin, the oldest university in the world, learned from our Fez guide Hesham that a madrasa is simply a school for Koranic instruction, not a training ground for future terrorists. One traveler, a Reform Jew, marveled at the seventeenth-century Ibn Danan synagogue in Fez, an icon of Morocco’s historic religious tolerance.
The Arabic greeting “As-Salaam-Alaikum” means “Peace be unto you.” The response is “and peace upon you.” In a world of increasing intolerance, outrage, and ideologies of fear, exchanges rooted in peace are all the more essential. During our Moroccan journey, we saw firsthand that global terrorist actions have nothing in common with the Islam most Muslims live and believe worldwide. We now feel a deep connection to our new friends and their beautiful country. These kinds of awakenings of the humanity in us all are indeed transformative. They create and strengthen bonds of knowledge, compassion, and peace.