As the well-worn saying goes: If I knew then, what I know now. This can be said, without question, of my first experience living and working abroad. At 22, I was fresh out of college, curious about Islamic culture, itching to use my French, and eager to travel to Africa. So, when I read that Morocco was one of the most American-friendly Islamic countries, the decision was really a no-brainer.
It is rare that a place is as beautiful and mysterious as its name. Morocco. The name of this North African country evokes feelings of mystery, images of desert sands, and the uncertain excitement of Mediterranean wonders. While the country is traditionally seen, to many Americans, as an exotic vacation or an adventurous getaway, it can also be seen as a viable place to live and work. Rarely do Americans decide to pick up and leave to work in Morocco, but there are many unique cultural experiences and opportunities that await if one takes the journey.
According to a report, “Counting the Uncountable: Overseas Americans,” published by the Migration Policy Institute, between 2.2 and 6.8 million Americans live in another country, either on a temporary basis or permanently. Working abroad has many advantages: learning a foreign language, expanding your network, gaining a different perspective of the world, and learning to be totally independent from your family and friends. I wouldn’t take back the experience back of living and working in Morocco for anything. However, there are things that I wish I had considered beforehand. For example, the fact that the average person–the average restaurant waiter or local grocery store clerk—speaks Arabic, yet I spoke none. Or the truth that women do not have the same liberties in Morocco as they do in America. So when I arrived at the beach with my two-piece bathing suit, ready for the Mediterranean Sea, I was confronted by a police officer and told to cover up.
But the most challenging aspect of my stint in the country was during Ramadan, when everything closes down as the country – which is 90 percent Muslim – fasts and prays in observation of this Islamic tradition and for which everyone – including American expats – are expected to join in the fun. I moved to Morocco in August and, after a month of exploration, the entire country suddenly shut down.
Reflecting on the months that I lived in Morocco in 2008 – 10 years ago now – I’ve compiled this list of six things – with updated information for changes that have occurred since – that I believe would have made my life so much better.
Find an Organization
If your company has an office in Morocco and will employ you in the country – perfect. If not, you will need to find an organization to facilitate the process of locating work opportunities for foreign nationals. One organization that has been successful in this regard is AIESEC. According to its website, AIESEC (aiesec.org) was established in 1948 after World War II by seven youth from seven different countries with a vision of building cross-cultural understanding across nations. According to the website, “They hoped to change the world, one person and one internship at a time.” AIESEC has members who are citizens of the country and who run the organization and find housing, employment, and provide a community for the foreign nationals who they support. The organization has various services and may charge fees according to what you are seeking to do, where and when.
There are other organizations that offer this service in Morocco such as:
- Council On International Educational Exchange (CIEE)
- Workaway.info (workaway.info)
- Financial Services Volunteer Corps (fsvc.org)
- Love Volunteers (lovevolunteers.org)
After doing some online searching, I selected AIESEC to help me to coordinate housing and an internship; however, once I arrived in Casablanca, I found an internship with another organization, Financial Services Volunteer Corps. Organizations conform to the culture of their country and, depending on whether or not they have experienced leaders, your experience will be determined by those things just as in any American organization.
While searching for an organization, remember that the most important thing is to select the organization that has experience finding work in your field. The best way to gauge this is to talk to people who have worked with the organization. In addition to work, you should request help with housing. Finally, you will want to ask the organization how it can support you once you arrive, especially with building a community in Morocco once you are there. Each organization offers different benefits and has its own requirements, so be sure to contact the organization directly about the information on its website.
Morocco has growing industries, and major companies from all over the world have offices in the country. According to Britannica, Morocco’s leading exports are agricultural produce (citrus fruits and market vegetables), semi-processed goods and consumer goods (including textiles), and phosphates and phosphate products. Roughly one-third of the population is employed in agriculture, another one-third make their living in mining, manufacturing, and construction, and the remainder are occupied in the trade, finance, and service sectors. Not included in these estimates is a large informal economy of street vendors, domestic workers, and other underemployed and poorly paid individuals.
In short, there is a lot to explore where work is concerned and an opportunity to see a company developing in Africa.
LEARN THE LANGUAGE
Prepare for your move to Morocco by learning a new language or by enhancing your existing language skills. The two official languages of Morocco are Arabic (Modern Standard Arabic) and Berber. French is widely used in corporate environments. French is a second language for many Moroccan citizens. Once you arrive in Morocco, you will find that language fluency is extremely high. Many Moroccans in the corporate environment speak Arabic, French, English and even Spanish. Linguistic fluency is a mark of class and education in Morocco.
According to a 2000–2002 survey done by Moha Ennaji, author of Multilingualism, Cultural Identity, and Education in Morocco, “There is a general agreement that Standard Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, and Berber are the national languages.” Most employers will ask about your language fluency because communication in this Mediterranean, North African country is a must.
According to Expat Focus, “Most business is conducted in French, especially in the private sector. However, most of the government agencies, including the court system conduct business in Modern Standard Arabic. Expats planning to work in the private sector should be able to speak French fluently. There are a few private sector companies where English is also spoken and no other foreign language skills are required, but such companies are few and far between.”
If you already know one of these languages and you want to teach English in Morocco, then the next step is to get certified. You can do this by pursuing a TFL or CELTA certificate. According to Emily Monaco at gooverseas.com: “Because any school offering the CELTA must adhere to strict standards and employ teachers that have been certified by Cambridge, it is often perceived as being the most prestigious of all TEFL program options.”
Passport, Visa & Other Documents
Living abroad means that you must have all required documents at all times. Your U.S. passport will function as your identification when you are abroad. I recommend that you carefully review the passport and visa requirements and be sure to allocate enough time to obtain the visa appropriate visa and the passport. Again, leave enough time to get them and account for any complications around getting your passport and visa that may arise. Finally, once in country, be sure to make connections with the U.S. embassy and register for in-country updates.
Embrace the Culture: When in Morocco
While you are living in Morocco, be sure to embrace the culture. Experiencing a Muslim country is a unique thing; however, it could be easy to socialize in the expat community. I encourage you to engage with the people and learn their way of life. To make your transition to Morocco easier, consider the time of year. In particular, one should consider the impact of traveling to Morocco – a Muslim country – during Ramadan. If you aren’t Muslim, to be in Morocco as a non-Muslim during Ramadan is challenging. In this time of fasting and praying, you will need to be mindful of eating and drinking in public which is not allowed. You are expected to respect the culture.
Be open to new things. Food is different. It’s delicious, but it’s very different. My favorites are tangine, bastilla and kefta meatballs. Yum!
Understand the Location
Morocco is in a perfect location if you want to explore Europe, Asia and Africa. Morocco is about the same size as the state of California. Although the country’s largest city – with nearly 4 million people – is Casablanca, its capital city is Rabat. The country is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea on the north which separates it from Spain. The Atlantic Ocean is located on the west, Algeria sits just to the east, with beautiful landscapes in Tunisia and Egypt just beyond it. Within its borders, Morocco hosts the highest mountain ranges in North Africa – the Atlas mountains – and the most extensive river system on the continent. Boat tours can take you to Spain from Morocco at a very low price.
Embrace the Culture: When in Morocco
In addition to the things above, I like to highlight the culture of the country and how experiencing it can expose American to a different type of friendliness. As an American abroad, especially in a Muslim country, it is important to understand that you represent an entire nation. The locals will associate you as an individual with everything that America represents including the American policies overseas. So, I found that it’s important to be sensitive to those issues and to be able to speak respectfully and diplomatically about the effect of American policy overseas realizing that you are on someone else’s territory and that you need to respect that they have the right to have an opinion.
Overall, it’s important to be open minded and non-judgmental. Allow yourself to be informed and influenced by the citizenry of Morocco. You are a visitor so be informed and educated from the first hand perspective of people who are living with the impact of American foreign policy.
With all of this planning, the most important thing about living and working in Morocco is to expect the unexpected. Remember Murphy’s law: what can go wrong, will go wrong. Have a backup plan because things can happen and, in a country navigating the throes of economic development, things will change.