June 9th, 2022
By: Matthew Hannah
Nestled along the northwestern coast of Africa where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean Sea, Morocco is a land of ancient beauty with a complex history. Colorful bazaars, known as souks, line the ancient city walls of the medina in imperial cities like Fés and Marrakech, selling Moroccan spices, bright flowing scarves, and silver jewelry. Cafés serve steaming mint tea along the sidewalks of bustling cities such as Casablanca and Meknès. Gorgeous riads—sumptuous hotels located in traditional mansions with interior courtyards—can be found down narrow alleyways characterized by decorative doors, arches, and lamps. And in the south, the dunes of the Sahara stretch over a thousand miles into the distance. Morocco is a land that has long captivated artists and writers…and now digital humanists.
The seeds for this trip were planted in 2019 when a colleague from the History Department, Stacey Holden, contacted me about applying for a Fulbright Specialist trip to Morocco. She had maintained a long and fruitful relationship with universities in the region and believed they would be interested in digital humanities. But the story of my trip grew complicated as COVID-19 ravaged the world and shut down international travel. I literally had the plane tickets in my hand when the trip was cancelled by the U.S. Department of State due to pandemic concerns. Over the next two years, we kept planning and re-planning my visit to Morocco, finally arranging my trip in March 2022. I planned to visit two universities and conduct weeklong bootcamps in digital humanities at each, but I would also be given some opportunity for personal travel. Thus, I began a 21-day trip around the country.
I arrived in Casablanca on March 3rd and spent three days along the Atlantic Ocean. I walked daily along the sea wall to the Hassan II mosque, the second largest mosque in Africa built in 1993 by the former king of Morocco. I could see the beautiful green minaret perched on the edge of the ocean in the distance, and I was even fortunate enough to be able to enter the mosque and observe the faithful praying during the afternoon prayers. The interior was hushed and cool as worshipers prayed, and I was greatly moved by the beauty of faith.
From Casablanca, I caught a high-speed train to Marrakech for the day. An ancient imperial city, built in 1070 CE, Marrakech features vast and vibrant souks filled with intriguing treasures. I walked from the train station along a shady street lined with fragrant orange trees and wandered through noisy squares, dodging mopeds, observing snake charmers playing flutes for wriggling cobras, bartering with vendors selling fresh fruit and other delectable, and watching henna artists tattooing tourists. Marrakech is a vibrant and loud city, a must-see for any traveler.
From Marrakech, I traveled north to Tangier and arrived on a rainy afternoon. In the words of novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun, Tangiers is a city “built on a succession of hills and wrapped in a legend—a pleasant, ineffable enigma of a city.” This enigma rests on a series of hills at the northwestern point of Africa, with square white buildings perched along the coast. Tangiers has long been a destination for expatriate artists and writers such as William S. Burroughs, Paul Bowles, and Tennessee Williams but has also fired the imaginations of Moro
ccan writers such as Mohamed Choukri and Tahar Ben Jelloun. I spent a few days in Tangier at the Hotel Continental, nestled on the remains of the historic citadel, known as the Kasbah, alongside the port of Tangiers, and explored the various souks and local parks full of stray cats. I enjoyed shark tagine at Chez Hassan located near the Kasbah on the Rue de la Kasbah, where the owner cuts fresh fish and vegetables for exquisite tagines. I secretly fed some to a stray cat who followed me most of the way back to my hotel.
I took the train from Tangiers to the southeast and stayed a night in Meknès, one of four imperial cities built in the 11th century CE. I stayed in one of the riads, located down a maze of narrow passageways only accessible by foot. These riads are incredible, cheap places to stay, housed within sumptuous former mansions with intricate internal architecture. This riad was owned by a Spaniard who directed me to some of the best food in Meknès at Aisha where I ate delicious Berber chicken. I wandered around the city along the ancient walls and stopped to watch a carnival, with whirling rides beneath an ancient wall.
After a brief visit to Meknès, I boarded the train again for Fès. Fès is the oldest city in Morocco, built in the 8th-9th centuries CE, and is famous for its vibrant souks and ancient Moorish architecture. I strolled through a vast labyrinth of markets filled with vendors selling souvenirs and delectable open-air food stalls selling sweets and fruit. The markets are located within the walls of the ancient city, and you enter and exit through ornate arches such as the Blue Gate. During my stay in Fès, I hiked north up the Avenue des Merinides to the Borj Nord, a fortress overlooking the city. Each morning, breakfast was served on a terrace on the rooftop of my hotel, with astounding views of the countryside.
From Fès, I headed northeast into the Atlas Mountains to Ifrane, where I began the first week of workshops hosted by Dr. Paul Love at Al Akhawayn University. Ifrane is a small, delightful town in the mountains, with a French architectural flair. Moroccans travel to Ifrane because it is one of the few places in Morocco to receive snow, and it snowed while I was there. My first week of workshops were conducted in the Mohammad VI library, and were attended by librarians and faculty interested in digital humanities. Participants learned about some of the unique challenges in applying computational tools to the humanities and social sciences, but we also applied specific methods to humanistic datasets. But we also discussed the ways in which librarians could begin developing a suite of digital scholarship workshops for students and faculty at Al Akhawayn. During the week, I gave a lecture entitled “Digital Futures for the Humanities.”
My second week of workshops took place in Tétouan, at Abdelmalek Essaâdi University. Tétouan is located at the base of the Rif Mountains in the Martil Valley, just a few miles from the Mediterranean. Hosted by Dr. Karim Bejjit and Dr. Briham Barhoun, I conducted a second week of workshops for graduate students in the English Department who were enthusiastic about the possibilities for DH in studying the humanities. Abdelmalek Essaâdi University is the only university in Morocco to offer a dedicated English literature program. After an opening lecture and discussion about the possibilities for DH approaches, we got our hands dirty with computational methods. Each workshop was full, and the students learned important computational methods such as network analysis, text mining, data visualization, social media analytics, and geospatial analysis.
During my visit to Tétouan, I was given a wonderful guided tour of the old markets by some of the students, who told me much of the history of the city. Tétouan was destroyed by the Spanish and rebuilt by the “pirate queen” Sayyida al Hurra. From her base in Tétouan, Sayyida waged piracy against the Spanish and amassed a vast fortune. Unlike many cities in Morocco, which were colonized by the French, Tétouan has pronounced Spanish cultural influence from the days of the Spanish protectorate in the area. Much of the architecture in Tétouan is influenced by Spain, and many speak Spanish here whereas French is spoken elsewhere in Morocco. The students also fed me couscous, a Friday tradition in Morocco, accompanied by a sour milk that somehow complemented the couscous (after getting used to it). On a rainy afternoon following one of the workshops, my hosts took me up into the mountains to a wonderful local restaurant located beside a rippling waterfall, and we enjoyed fava bean soup and mint tea. Located near a mosque, local spring water ripples out of the ground, and we drank the cold water from the spring for health.
During my week in Tétouan, I also had the unique honor to meet with the President of the University, Bouchta El Moumni, in Tangiers. We discussed the possibilities for computational technology to advance the study of the humanities in Morocco, and I was impressed by his interest in such an initiative at Abdelmalek Essaâdi University. We also discussed the possibilities for further relations between Purdue and Abdelmalek Essaâdi. I also had the privilege to speak with Dr. Bejjit about DH during an interview for the event during which I shared some thoughts about my particular vision for digital humanities.
Although my trip is over, the lasting impact of our collaboration is still visible. I have agreed to serve as an affiliate of a new educational module in digital humanities at Abdelmalek Essaâdi University, which will provide students further opportunities to explore and develop experience with computational methods. I am also committed to working with faculty and librarians at Al Akhawayn University as they develop a suite of workshops for faculty and students. I look forward to watching the seeds we’ve planted with this Fulbright experience blossom into a new digital humanities effort in Northern Africa.
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