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Challenges and Rewards: Researching Abroad

I only have 22 days left in this gorgeous country and I find myself very much not wanting to leave! I attribute this feeling to the many incredible people I have met in the last two weeks.

Currently I am in a full-time research period, and a hallmark of the abroad curriculum of the School for International Training, known as the Independent Study Period (ISP). Because SIT places such a strong emphasis on fieldwork, each student is tasked with engaging in their community on a topic of interest independently for one month. The end result of this month of research is a 25 to 40 page research paper detailing findings and a 45 minute presentation on the process and findings of the independent study.

Since mid-November, I have been working with a brilliant advisor to guide my 27 days of research. I self-selected to study the Moroccan state’s approach to preventing extremism domestically—a very broad subject indeed! To learn more about the successes and failures of the state-defined “Religious Moderation” programs that have evolved out of religious reforms starting in 2003, I have been conducting interviews with academics, graduates of state-run religious training institutions and community organizers.

During my ISP period I have been interning with Arabita Mohamedia Ulema. This institution was created by the King as a space in which religious scholars could be supported in their state-sanctioned examination of contemporary views facing society through a religious lens. The institution is comprised of more than 15 issue-specific offices, of which I am interning for the Center for Studies and Research in Values.  My colleagues all work hard on programs of education about risky behaviors that threaten society. Conferences, prison education and in-school programs are hosted about gender-based violence, HIV/ AIDS, reproductive health and extremism. My administrative tasks and presence as an interned is surely overshadowed by the high number of questions I continually ask, but this experience working in a bureaucratic institution in Morocco has been so valuable already. I can’t help but compare it to my government internships back in Washington! I see this internship as part and parcel of my research, as the office works directly with the issue of extremism in society.

Some aspects of my research have indeed been challenging. This week I attempted to arrange an interview with a female spiritual guide known as a Morchidat who worked in another city. When she agreed to the interview, I tried to press for the time and place we would meet, as I had to arrange for train tickets to get to Casablanca. Each time I asked her when and where she would like to meet, I was met by the same phrase, إن شاء الله‎ . Inshallah translates to “God willing” and is uttered numerous times a day by Moroccans and Arabic speakers around the world. However, Inshallah isn’t very helpful when trying to arrange an out of town interview with two really important contacts! Moments like this where communication fails, or literature can’t be translated, or I feel overwhelmed by the vastness of a topic that I’ll barely be able to scratch the surface of in only 27 days are challenging. But the mind-expanding conversations and warmth of the people I am meeting along the way make up for the difficulties tenfold!

 The death toll of the Egyptian Sufi Mosque attack on Friday has now risen to 305. Though miles away, the horrific nature of the attack and its unquestionable link to violent extremism has again reminded the world of the carnage that extremists leave in their wake. One of the pillars of Moroccan Islam is largely influenced by a deep seeded appreciation for Sufism. I talked to my host family about the event and their upset was understandably unparalleled. The topic on which I have engaged in research is one of the most important discussions of our time. It is not a discussion confined to place or persons, but rather ideas, mutual understanding and respect—a conversation I feel privileged to be able to investigate in my remaining days in Morocco.

For this blog I was asked to consider what impact I am making on the local community. I find this question to be difficult, as right now I am overwhelmed at all the knowledge, experience and perspective that people are sharing that is making an impact on me. However, what I find I am being continually thanked for by my Moroccan friends is my interest in Moroccan society, political issues and the great task of combatting extremism. My insatiable desire to understand– to truly listen—is greatly appreciated by the communities that I am engaging with. My only hope is that a lasting impact will be made through the sharing of my research findings and the maintenance of friendships I’ve been blessed with here. I hope to help magnify the voices of those doing incredible work on the ground, and continue to share their incredible spirit whenever I can back at home.

15 days until my paper is due, and 22 days until I land in Detroit Metro.

I’ll see you (too) soon, America!