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(c) 2013 Kathryn Pharr

Back in high school, my world history teacher asked me if I’d like to have a penpal from Morocco to practice my French. While I was terrified that my French wasn’t good enough to write anything beyond an initial letter, I agreed. I struck up a friendship with a girl my age living in Fez named Houda, and since our sisters were the same age, they also began corresponding. While my sister managed to spend part of a summer in Morocco and was able to stay with this wonderful family, I was not so fortunate. Joan and I continued to plan a “sisters trip” there, which continued to get postponed due to life. This winter one of the grants I work on with the COACh program to advance careers of women in science in North Africa moved the regional workshop to Casablanca from Tunis. Not only was I suddenly going to the location of one of the best films of all time, I would be able to meet Houda, my penpal from high school.

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(c) 2013 Kathryn Pharr

Casablanca is a commercial center, Morocco’s largest city, and a strategic port. While the Old City is lovely, overall it is not a tourist destination except for those who insist on visiting “Rick’s,” which I did not. Mostly, I was working, but our group did manage to do a little bit of sight-seeing. On the last day, our group visited the Hassan II Mosque, built to honor King Hassan II and was paid for in part by essentially a nation-wide tax. Hassan II Mosque or the Grand Mosquee Hassan II is the 7th largest in the world and the largest in Morocco with the world’s tallest minaret. At the edge of the coastline overlooking the Atlantic, it is magnificent.  Geri and I had traveled to Rabat one day for meetings and made sure to pause long enough to see the Hassan Tower  and Mausoleum of Mohammad V.

Learning about the obstacles that North African female scientists have was very eye-opening. For example, lack of high-tech equipment makes research, collaboration, and publications difficult.  Researchers use intracountry connections to alleviate these issues but not regional or international connections as frequently. Industry does not monetarily value Ph.D’s; therefore, more women follow the graduate school path and then stay in academia. Overall, the university systems do not seem to reward research. There is little to no research budget within the university and few obvious outside opportunities to obtain DSCN2199necessary research funds. The local culture of only men gathering in coffeehouses after work prohibits women from accessing the same network; women are supposed to be with their families in the evenings.

As much as I enjoyed learning about the science and seeing the sights, I truly enjoyed the Moroccan culture. One very appetizing dish is the delicious Moroccan tajine, a mix of meat and vegetables cooked in a ceramic pot called a tajine. It’s a Berber dish that can involve a variety of ingredients. Another dish I fell in love with was the bastilla. The name comes from pastry, but there is no letter ‘p’ in Arabic, so ‘b’ was used instead. Often it is made with pigeon, but I was only able to find one with chicken.

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(c) 2013 Kathryn Pharr

One of the local participants was kind enough to invite a few of us to an evening of local Andalouse music, which is a North African style of folk music that originated out of Muslim Iberia in the 9th-15th Centuries. It was incredible. One of the instruments, the rebab, was the precursor to the violin. To get to the concert, we walked through silent, dark streets of Casablanca that truly could have been in the movie and that reminded me of other ancient Arab villages I’ve visited. It was a magical night.

Saying good-bye to my new science friends and colleagues, I boarded a train to visit Miriam and Houda in Tangiers. This coastal town is fascinating both in location and history. Situated where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic, Houda and I had a tea in an outdoor cafe where the Atlantic was on our left, the Mediterranean on our right, and Spain visibly across the way. Houda and Miriam took me around the souk, where I bought two beautiful original leather bags for work. The old buildings have character: some Arabic, some colonial but none cleaned up for tourists. The city, known for its long history of diverse tolerance, has a sense of “realness” that isn’t apparent everywhere.

DSCN2369As magical as seeing the city through locals’ eyes was and going to an amazingly fancy penthouse party one night was, best was finally getting time to spend with Houda and Miriam. It amazes me how very alike we are. I hope that Houda really can come to the U.S. this summer!

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