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(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

Hauntingly familiar is what Morocco is. Exotic is the first adjective that comes to mind, not because everything is new, but because there is just enough familiar in a different setting to create pause.

I walk down the streets with the salmon clay tiles that have stared back at me in Israel, in Indonesia.  I see the same pattern of red and white paint along the curve, indicating no parking in so many countries I’ve visited, that no one pays attention to.  There is the familiar mix of palm trees, evergreens, and orange trees carefully lining the parks.  As I open my hotel room’s balcony doors, the adnan, call to prayer, washes me with memories.

And yet, nowhere else I have been serves perfect mini creme brulees and macaroons.  The French influence has also resulted in an interesting dialectic mix of Arabic and French that most Arabs cannot understand.  Bright headscarves liven up the souks, which smell different from Jordan or Israel.  While there are still smells of raw meat and vegetables, some of the spices perfuming the air cannot be found elsewhere. The prevalence of leather goods also adds a wonderful and unique component for olfactory senses. I dread shopping in sterile malls, but every trip to the greater Middle East and North Africa region finds me losing track of time as I meander along narrow alleyways and past shops that offer better birthday and holiday presents than I ever find back home.

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(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

In Marrakech, the medina, or old city, is stupendous. The large square, Place Jemaa-el-Fna, is notorious for its evening market, where crowds come to see snake charmers, hear musicians of local music, drink fresh orange juice, and eat snails, a local delicacy served in small bowls of broth with Moroccan spices.  Also in the medina are some wonderful restaurants like Le Jardin, which renovated an old home and serves marvelous Moroccan fare.  After a good late dinner there though, Luke, Phil, and I accomplished another requirement of visiting the medina: getting lost literally.  All the shops look completely different once they are closed, and all you can see are ornate doors that were hidden by wares during the daylight.  As a group, we eventually came out, near the Mosque de la Koutonbia, an easy to see icon for the old city.  One of my favorite places in the medina is La Maison de la Photographie, a small museum of photographs from 1870s to 1920s. Our group stumbled upon in back in September, but I was unable to return on this trip.

While bartering in the souk is a fun pasttime, sometimes you just don’t want to buy four extra shawls to get a decent price. Spending time shopping at the Ensemble Artisanal Handicraft Center takes that stress away. The prices are fair (you can maybe get 10% off), and the quality is sometimes better than what is found in the souk.  However, it’s such a good deal that the concierge at my hotel tried to tell me they didn’t sell things.

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(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

Another breathtaking aspect of Marrakech is the architecture.  To be overwhelmed, be sure to wind your way through back alleys to the Dar Si Said, where for a mere 10 dirhams ($1.50), you can see stunning combinations of Moroccan lanterns, tile mosaic floors and walls with painted wooden ceilings. The vibrant colors and geometric patterns in Islamic art are one of my favorite things to see while traveling.  Another palace worth visiting is Palais La Bahia, just a few steps from Dar Si Said. Bahia is more elaborate and the same price as Said but also caters to larger tour groups, so you might not have the place to yourself.

While this work trip did not allow for time to visit the Atlas Mountains or pop over to Fez, I really enjoyed the time I had to explore Marrakech.  There were three opportunities I had thanks to work as well.  I attended an evening reception with Dr. Jill Biden and some of our female entrepreneurs at the Palais el Badi, an old fortress palace that houses the Musee de la Photographie et des Arts Visuels.  Local musicians serenaded us as we entered, and the salmon clay walls were light with various colors of light.  At the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, we all sang Vice President Joe Biden happy birthday. If you’ve got to work on your birthday, it’s pretty nice to have 4,000 people singing you good wishes at 72.  Lastly, beyond the amazing entrepreneurs who came through our program and who are so inspiring, we had a fabulous reception (with them of course) on the rooftop of the Pearl Hotel. It was like something out of a movie as we gazed out over the beautiful twinkling lights of the cityscape.

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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!