Over several years of studying Arabic, I have had the opportunity to live in two countries at opposite ends of the Arab world: Morocco, a North African kingdom with close ties to Europe, and Oman, a Middle Eastern sultanate best known for keeping to itself. Both countries, joined by Jordan, top the list of destinations for American students who want to practice Arabic while spending a semester or more abroad. Even so, my time in Morocco and Oman gave me a glimpse of the cultural and natural diversity that the Arab world has to offer.
I traveled to Oman in June 2018 as part of the Summer Arabic Language and Media Program, advertised as “the SALAM Program,” an initiative funded by the country’s government through the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center in Washington, DC. Along with two dozen Americans and a dozen Britons, I took two months of Arabic classes at the Sultan Qaboos College for Teaching Arabic to Non-Native Speakers, a tiny but well-staffed language school in the town of Manah.
As an isolated locality in the remote Omani province of al-Dakhiliyah, Manah served as an excellent opportunity to focus on Arabic but presented a more challenging environment for engaging with Omanis. To mitigate this obstacle, the SALAM Program organized events, lectures, and trips. The outings ranged from a tour of the Royal Opera House in Muscat to a stay at Ras al-Jinz, a nature reserve where my classmates and I watched sea turtles hatch. We also drove over sand dunes, hiked wadis (valleys), met Omani officials, and visited canyons and caves.
My two months in Oman introduced me to the beauty and hospitality of a country that rarely features in discussions about politics or tourism in the Western world.
My two months in Oman introduced me to the beauty and hospitality of a country that rarely features in discussions about politics or tourism in the Western world. When I first told friends and acquaintances that I was going to Oman, many thought that I meant Amman, the Jordanian capital and an Arabic homograph for Oman. Oman’s northern neighbor Dubai, meanwhile, captures far more attention from Western tourists than any other spot on the Arabian Peninsula.
Popular culture tends to depict the region encompassing Oman as a desert, a more or less accurate portrayal in the sense that desert, gravel, and sand cover 82 percent of the country. At the same time, however, the sultanate hosts some of the Middle East’s most picturesque beaches and oases, the second-deepest canyon in the world, and—thanks in part to Oman’s progressive environmental policy—a stunning level of biodiversity. Salalah, the third-biggest city in Oman, becomes swept with greenery during the wet season between June and September.
My trip showed me that, in addition to a multifaceted landscape, Oman boasts a unique culture. Most Omanis practice Ibadism, a little-studied strand of Islam that the sultanate exported to Zanzibar and a handful of outposts in North Africa over the centuries.
I noticed that, like many citizens of energy superpowers in the Middle East, Omanis benefited from the riches generated by their country’s oil reserves. Fossil fuels underpin the government budget, which includes Oman’s generous welfare state. Nonetheless, a cultural emphasis on humility prevents the more ostentatious displays of wealth found elsewhere in the region.
In the months after I left Oman, I missed my time abroad and struggled to recreate the setting that had enabled me to excel at Arabic. I longed to return to the Arab world, but I also felt that I should take the opportunity to explore a different country in the region. After receiving my acceptance to the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, I departed for Morocco in September 2019 to research the treatment of environmental protection in Islamic law.
Whereas the SALAM Program had organized most aspects of my stay in Oman, the Fulbright Program afforded far greater autonomy. I found my own apartment in Rabat, scheduled Arabic classes with a well-regarded private tutor, booked day trips to different corners of Morocco, and even gave online dating a try. This combination of direct experiences helped me practice Arabic in ways that I never could have in a classroom. By befriending Moroccans in my everyday life, outside the confines of a language school, I also developed a better picture of Moroccan culture.
Unlike in Oman, where Arabic and English predominate, Moroccans speak a variety of languages and are always learning new ones. Darija, the Moroccan dialect of Arabic, suffices for casual conversations, but formal interactions such as emails and job interviews require French, the language of Morocco’s primary former colonial ruler, or—far less often—Modern Standard Arabic. In the northern regions once colonized by Spain, such as Tangier and Tétouan, many Moroccans also speak Spanish.
Popular culture further informs Morocco’s blend of languages. A younger generation of Moroccans who have watched “Friends”—and an ever-increasing quantity of Marvel movies—have introduced English terms to Darija, a dialect already stuffed with French and Spanish phrases. Given the popularity of Egyptian films and ongoing Moroccan immigration to the Middle East, many Moroccans have also learned a range of Arabic dialects, even if Darija remains difficult for other Arabs to understand. Several of my friends in Morocco, inspired by anime and K-pop, even began learning Japanese and Korean.
Morocco’s engagement with other cultures reflects the diversity of its own citizenry: a substantial portion of the population identifies as Amazigh.
Morocco’s engagement with other cultures reflects the diversity of its own citizenry: a substantial portion of the population identifies as Amazigh, North Africa’s indigenous people. According to the 2016 census, 28 percent of Moroccans speak some form of Tamazight, the Amazigh language family. In fact, my Fulbright tutor, an Amazigh doctoral student, specialized in translating Tamazight texts to Arabic.
As an American visitor with fluctuating levels of Arabic and English, I did my best to explore Morocco during my six months as a Fulbright Scholar. The kingdom’s landscape varied even more than Oman’s: my four months surrounded by Rabat’s luxurious greenery contrasted with the two months that I spent in the dusty but cozy city of Meknes, and my visits to the snowy hills of Ifrane differed in almost every way from my night at the edge of the Sahara in Merzouga.
Wherever I went in Morocco, one cultural oddity always followed me: the French taco, a Moroccan staple. I fell so in love with the dish – an artery-clogging, panini-pressed wrap first created by Moroccan immigrants to Europe – that I wrote an entire article on the French taco for the website Ozy.
In some ways, the French taco symbolizes one of the most obvious differences between Morocco and Oman: their economies. The cash flow from Oman’s oil reserves means that few of its citizens have to worry about money. In Morocco, on the other hand, recent graduates—including a number of my friends—often struggle to find jobs that pay well or suit their interests and skills. Many young Moroccans then choose to pursue careers in Europe, foremost among them the inventors of my favorite dish.
The Moroccan diaspora has grown massive. At four to five million, Moroccans living abroad outnumber Omanis living in Oman by as much as two to one. These numbers indicate not only Morocco and Oman’s significant differences in population, but also the economic and geopolitical realities that have shaped both monarchies.
The Omani Ministry of Education, Research, and Innovation offers a variety of scholarships to fund students’ education at home and abroad, part of the sultanate’s effort to train a new generation of technocrats for employment in the private sector. Meanwhile, a disturbing amount of Moroccans face challenges obtaining the visas that they need to attend foreign universities or work overseas.
As a beneficiary of an Omani scholarship myself, I had little trouble noticing these disparities during my time in Morocco. Though both countries provided excellent environments for the study of Arabic, I learned the most about the two monarchies from how little they had in common.
The vast distance that separates Morocco and Oman parallels the economic, linguistic, and geographic gap between them, itself a microcosm of the Arab world’s complexity. In fact, these cultural and natural contrasts define a region often portrayed as monolithic and straightforward. I look forward to discovering more of them.