Author Archives: Savin in Morocco

About Savin in Morocco

My name is Savin. I study languages, journalism and international studies at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. I am going to be studying Arabic and journalism in Rabat, Morocco this Spring semester.

Back Home, But as a Different Person

It’s a very odd feeling to be back in the U.S. I don’t know if I am just more aware of it now, or if it happened more this time, but I have been told “welcome back home” by people that usually don’t say it…or I don’t remember them saying it. The first person who told me that was a customs agent, who said it in an oddly genuine way: “Welcome back home, Mr. Mattozzi.” The next person was the flight attendant on my flight back to Portland, Maine. Whenever I fly back from school, I don’t remember them saying welcome home. The reason I am bringing this up is that I’m not sure if I feel at home. It’s a foolish thing to say, I know, I’ve spent all of my 21 years of life in this country, my childhood was here, most of my friends are here. But for some reason everything seems distant. I wouldn’t say I’m frustrated, or particularly lonely. Maybe misplaced is a good word. I feel like I had such a profound experience finding a part of myself that I have been struggling to find for a while. And now that I found it, I have to leave Morocco. As I mentioned in a previous post, I do have plans to go back to the region, not to reminisce on the past, but to grow and learn even more. Even though these plans are still in the “hopeful dream” phase, it is a comforting thought that will motivate me to do all that I can to achieve that goal of returning to Morocco.


Medina of Rabat

Medina of Rabat.

End of the day in Marrakesh

End of the day in Marrakesh.

It is not just the fact that I found my ethnic identity while studying abroad, but also that I grew so much as a journalist. I did things that gave me a taste of what it will be like to be a professional journalist. I worked on what I felt was an important topic that gave me the opportunity to speak with government officials, heads of NGOs and other people involved in my interests. I had deadlines and editing sessions with my advisor who writes for the New York Times, and I learned how to navigate through murky situations with little guidance. A few students on my study abroad program researched some pretty emotionally difficult topics, and when we felt overwhelmed or needed a break, we’d go out together and vent and get our minds off things. I know how to write better, interview better, look for details, and describe things in a way that will make people feel like they can relate and better understand the topic I am writing about. I learned that there are stories everywhere, you just have to ask the right kinds of questions and look hard enough. All of these things came together to form an experience that I believe impacted me on a very deep level. I know I have said this before, but I cannot emphasize enough how grateful I am to the Gilman Scholarship for giving me this absolutely stunning, amazing, life changing opportunity that I would not have had without Gilman.


Myself with my fellow journalism students

Myself with my fellow journalism students.

Myself and two friends I met while working on my independent study

Myself and two friends I met while working on my independent study project.

Now, to the future. In the short term, I am going to continue working on my project from Morocco to see if it can be published in the near future. For the long term, I am going to start organizing the specifics of my plan to study in the Mediterranean or in Southern Italy via the Fulbright, the Fulbright-National Geographic Fellowship, or another scholarship or grant. I have to dive in and do as much research as I can so I can be ready to answer any questions that come my way and help people understand the region and its collective history and culture better.
Whether I like it or not, I am back home, but as a different person. I should not dwell too much on the past and the little things I should have done while in Morocco. My eyes have been opened, and my curiosity has been piqued. This past semester has been an amazing journey, and I hope it is just the beginning.


Myself being pensive on the roof of our School, CCCL, in the Medina of Rabat .jpg

Me being pensive on the roof of our school in the Medina of Rabat.

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Morocco and Mezzogiorno

My study abroad experience in Morocco has made me more confident than ever that I want to pursue a profession in journalism. Meeting professional journalists, being put in positions as real journalists and not students, and being able to go after stories that we had some freedom with gave me the chance to see what my life might be like as a journalist. I want to be the best journalist I can be, and there are some things I have learned I need to improve on. I really need to buckle down with my language skills, especially Arabic. Struggling to communicate with people to have more productive interviews has motivated me to do much more to master Arabic and other languages as well.

At this point, I am still unsure if I will go to graduate school. I am getting mixed advice from my teachers and mentors. On the one hand, if I were to get into a graduate program at a school like Columbia Journalism School, or Berkeley, then that would be clearly beneficial. However, the advice I have been given recently has been more along the lines of simply going into the workforce. This, my advisors say, gives me the most opportunity to learn true field reporting skills that are not always learned in grad school.


Air show in Marrakesh

An air show in Marrakesh.


What has changed is what I plan to pursue after I graduate. I am very interested now in applying for scholarships like Fulbright to study post-colonial effects on Southern Italy, or a comparative study between Mediterranean countries. The more time I spend here in Morocco, the more I realize how important it is to promote the history of my heritage’s specific area, or of the greater Mediterranean area as a whole.


View of the Hassan area in Rabat

The view of the Hassan area in Rabat.


There was a point where I was on a train from Rabat to Marrakesh where we passed some very rural and poor areas, and I could not help but think of Mezzogiorno, the Southern region of Italy. (I apologize that I keep harping on this, but the awareness that I have gained from studying abroad in Morocco has had a fairly profound impact on how I see myself, the area around me, and my family’s Italian roots.) Looking at the landscape and the ocean in the distance, it just looked so familiar. Morocco and the Mezzogiorno have been victims to similar kinds of destruction. As I am Neapolitan, I feel like it is not only my place, but my duty to ensure my country is given the proper respect and opportunity it deserves. My ancestors fought and gave their lives to defend our sovereignty and dignity, and were defeated. I feel like it is my responsibility to carry on their fight in a way that I can: through journalism. I would do that by exposing the effects colonization still has on the people of the Mezzogiorno through research and field work. If I can, in addition to that, bring the same awareness I now have of the region to other people in the region, I would feel I have completed something very important.


Sunset over the neighborhood we stayed in Marrakesh

The sunset over my neighborhood in Marrakesh.

My professional goals have not changed, but have felt more solid and confident. I think my academic goals have changed to reflect my greater awareness of a history and culture that I am a part of, something I am not sure would have happened to the extent that it has, had I not studied abroad in Morocco. And for that, I have one more thing to be grateful for.


Me standing on the roof of our apartment in Marrakesh

Me standing on the roof of our apartment in Marrakesh.

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Learning to Say Yes

I think I have changed quite a bit since the start of my study abroad experience in Morocco, but in a good way. The core of myself is the same, and I still have similar hopes and ambitions, but the way I look at and make decisions is a bit different. Looking back on my life before study abroad, I can remember that I was lacking some self sufficiency. I was open to having new experiences, but within a certain range. I didn’t have much confidence in doing things alone in a country where I did not speak the language. Taking taxis, trains, and renting apartments all seemed like hurdles I would struggle with. And they were when I first came to Morocco, but at this point in my semester, they are simple, painless, and sometimes exciting everyday tasks.


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A taxi driving past a protest in Marrakesh.


Although I have not improved my Arabic as much as I had hoped, I have learned enough to have simple conversations with taxi drivers who light up whenever I ask them how they are doing in Darija (Moroccan Arabic). My negotiating skills in Arabic have improved quite a bit. Sliding in a bit of Darija, and calling the taxi driver or merchant “brother” usually softens them up a bit, or at least puts a smile on their face.

I was very concerned about being able to cook for myself while completing the independent study portion of my study abroad. I had never really cooked much before, aside from breakfast and a sandwich here and there. The two other American students I was staying with are gluten intolerant and vegetarian. The food they made was not my cup of tea, to be honest. So I had to dive in, and try my hand at the easiest things I saw my dad make at home: pasta, pizza, and calzone. Yes, I know, stereotypical Italian, but it’s supposed to be easy, so I thought I should give it a shot. The pasta went by without a hitch, easy enough. Next was the calzone. We went to the grocery store to look for pre-made dough and they didn’t have it. I was going to have to make dough from scratch. I used the ever useful internet to find the ingredients and followed the recipe step by step. I made dough, with my own hands, and it was good. The filling of spinach, olives, and mushrooms was perfect, if I must say so myself. Now, when I go back home to the United States, the kitchen will no longer be just a place for my dad and his culinary expertise. There is a new cook in town, and he learned how to make pizza and calzone in Marrakesh.


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My first successful calzone.


Generally, I think I have become much more relaxed and willing to say yes to things I probably would not have before, and I am so glad I did. Do I want to stay at an Algerian film student’s house in Marrakesh for a week and a half? Why, certainly. Do I want to wake up at 6:00 am to watch the sun rise over the Sahara? Don’t mind if I do. Do I want to go with my friend to bear witness to Moroccan bureaucracy as he pays his traffic ticket and unwittingly get snuck into a Moroccan-only courthouse. Uh, yeah, sure, okay, why not. Probably don’t want to do the last one again, but it was an interesting experience. These experiences have, I believe, made me a more open person: someone who can see the benefit in experiences that might seem a bit uncomfortable, but that yield rewards that are worth it. If I had not done these things, I would not have seen things, or met people that have made my experience what it has been. Although it can be a bit uncomfortable to be pushed outside your comfort zone, you can come out a better, more experienced person.


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The view from Rami’s apartment in Marrakesh.



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Identity Confusion in the Mediterranean

I would like to preface this post by clarifying a few terms. When I use the terms Southern Italy, Mezzogiorno, or Neapolitan, I am referring to the area, culture, or ethnicity of Southern Italy that was the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies prior to Piedmontese colonization. I am making that distinction because for all intents and purposes Southern Italy is culturally, linguistically, historically, and ethnically (generally) different from that of the North. 

When I first started learning about the Middle East, I was not expecting there to be much overlap, if any, with my Italian culture. I saw Italy as a unified, monolithic country that was part of Europe. Europe was separate from the Middle East and the Middle East was separate from North Africa. The only thing that they had in common was that they happened to share the Mediterranean Sea. At the same time I was learning about the Middle East and North Africa, I was also learning about the history of the Mezzogiorno. I read Terroni by Pino Aprile, countless articles, and had endless conversations with my father and other members of my family about what the Mezzogiorno was like before we were colonized by the Piedmontese. We were a multi-ethnic society and culture, the result of centuries of invasions by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and Spanish. Our language, our food, and what we looked like was a result of that. How we treat our dead, a tradition that has been traced back to ancient Egypt, and is a kind of mummification, something I witnessed firsthand with the death of my grandfather. When the Piedmontese (who were financed by the French, and supported by the British) colonized us, our history, culture, and language was disrupted. We were told that our language wasn’t the language of the new country, and wasn’t “proper.” We were told that our culture was dirty and we needed to be “civilized.” We were forced out of our land and our future was taken from us. Those who were able to move, moved to North Italy and abroad and faced further discrimination unless they rejected their history and who they were. Those who stayed were forced to live in poverty and shame, while being told that they deserved to live like that.

Despite these conditions, the Mezzogiorno maintained their identity, even though they were pressured to be ashamed of it. So, what does it mean to be Neapolitan? That is the question I have been struggling with. I don’t want to say I’m Italian because that implies that Italy is one, unified country and culture and the South is not an internal colony. Although my roots are probably mostly Greek, I have no family there, nor any personal connection to the country. I can’t call myself Arab because I am not a native Arabic speaker nor do I really know how much Arab influence is in my family. The Spanish and Norman influence was more political than cultural. So what am I left with? Now, you’re probably asking, what does this have to do with my study abroad experience in Morocco? I’m getting there, bear with me. I would like to mention before I continue that Morocco, as many other countries, is ethnically, culturally, geographically, and religiously diverse, and I do not intend to disregard these diversities, but rather look at the similarities. The Mediterranean has many layers, and I am focusing on one of those many layers.


nonno e nonna

My grandmother Zoe and my grandfather Alberto.


When I got to Morocco, as I mentioned in previous posts, I was overwhelmed at first, but then I was comfortable because I was able to find a remarkable amount of similarities between Rabat and Naples, Italy. The way people spoke, their gestures, the merchants yelling, the poverty, the family structure, the disorganization, the food. But there was also something else. There was something that I could not quite put my finger on that made me feel like I was home, in a way. However, when I tried to explain this to my other American friends, they did not understand what I was saying. They looked at me, and looked at the people around me, and the environment and did not understand the connection. I tried to communicate this to some of our instructors, and I did get somewhat of a positive response from my program director, who is Moroccan. He said that there are similarities between Morocco and Italy, but politics get in the way of us forming a more cohesive Mediterranean. He told me when he went to southern Spain, he said it felt like he was back in Morocco. I agreed with him, and it was the most reassuring response I had gotten to that point, but something was still missing.

About a week ago I relocated within Morocco for my program’s independent study project. Myself and two other American students have been staying with an Algerian film student named Rami in an apartment in Marrakesh. On one of the first nights, a couple of his friends came over, another Algerian, and a Tunisian names Mehdi. I mentioned that I am Southern Italian and we started talking about the Mediterranean. Mehdi started talking about how he, along with a lot of Tunisians, have an identity crisis because they don’t know what to call themselves. He went on to say that his roots are technically Turkish because of the Ottoman Empire, but Tunisia was also invaded by the Arabs. But he doesn’t relate as much to Arab culture because he doesn’t feel a connection to the Gulf, a region he thinks is truly Arab. Additionally, Tunisia was also a big trading partner with a lot of other Mediterranean countries, therefore it is extremely diverse. So I asked him, what does he call himself? He responded by saying Mediterranean. I asked him if a lot of Tunisian people identify as Mediterranean, and he said not everyone, but a lot of people do.


Rami .jpg

Rami, from Algeria, who is hosting us in his apartment in Marrakesh.


Another one of Rami’s friends came over, and he is Moroccan. Rami starts to tell a joke: “There were two Algerians, a Moroccan, a Tunisian, and an American…” Mehdi interrupts him and points out that I am Southern Italian, and the Moroccan guy that just came in says “Oh, a neighbor!”
A couple of days later, we were eating dinner and we started talking about identity again, and Rami said that he can trace his roots back to an Arab tribe, but he has a hard time relating to that because he is so light-skinned. Responding to that, Mehdi said that sometimes people don’t know he is from Tunisia because he is quite light too, and people make fun of him, thinking he can’t understand what they say. He went on to say that it was interesting that we were having this conversation together, because it is what his family and friends have been talking about since he was a kid.



Mehdi from Tunisia.


This issue of identity in the Mediterranean is very, very complex. I am not writing this post as a researcher, or an expert in any way. I am simply writing this to explain how I feel, and how other people in the region might feel. I am aware that not everyone in the Mediterranean feels the same way me and my friends did while having this discussion. There are people who really closely associate with Arab, Greek, Spanish, Lebanese, Amazigh culture, etc. and that is perfectly fine. Most people, as Rami said, simply don’t know enough about our similarities to feel any kind of connection to one another. However I am grateful that I was able to find these four people from different countries, who under similar circumstances and historical contexts, felt the same identity confusion I did. I am proud to feel a deeper connection to my fellow Mediterraneans after exploring this issue with them.

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A Day of Cow-Herding with Mustafa

Mustafa pushes the cows out of the cramped barn one by one and motions for the two of us to follow him. I scramble to collect my things among the laughter of the women in the family, amused my lack of organization. Fatima, seeing that we are missing herding sticks, shuffles over to the nearest tree, and brakes off some branches for us both and motions for us to catch up to her brother. Mustafa has already pushed the cows to the next road and gives us a look as if to say “You wanted to come and work with me, now come and work.”


Farmland in northern Morocco

Farmland in northern Morocco.


The cows stumble a bit, weaving though the olive trees down the hill, to the highway. Amongst the nervous moo-ing of the cows, Mustafa signals for us to hold them back while we wait for a safe time to cross the highway. A bit frustrated with our lack of herding ability, and concerned that we are going to kill one of his cows, he scrunches up his face and jogs to the back of the herd and leads the cows across the highway without incident. Once on the other side, Mustafa looks at us and smiles exposing his large, unkept teeth and tells us “mashi mushkil” meaning “no problem” in Darija (Moroccan Arabic).

The endless blue sky is interrupted by strategically placed clouds. We walk on a dirt path, muddied by last night’s rain fall. On either side of the path there are thick grassy fields. The sound of cars and trucks rushing by on the highway are getting more and more faint, and the sound of birds, insects, and the methodic footsteps of the cows are getting more pronounced. Our path starts to intersect with a river, and we walk parallel to it. Mustafa motions for us look at the water. It’s ink black. He makes a drinking motion with his hands, and then shakes his head to say no. “Zaytun,” he says, meaning “olive” in Arabic. “Zaytun,” he says again, making sure we know what he is saying. Later we would learn that an olive factory upstream dumps their waste into the river, and farmers like Mustafa have to deal with the consequences. The cows start to cross the river where it is most narrow, perhaps 6 to 7 feet wide– a stride for a cow, several leaps for us. Mustafa, seeing our confusion, picks up a rock from the side of the river, plops it in the middle where we are supposed to cross, and gracefully hops across the water. We manage to cross, but with significantly less grace, making Mustafa chuckle a bit.


Polluted river in northern Morocco

A polluted river in northern Morocco.


We walk for several more minutes, until we come upon a valley. Mustafa throws his stick down, and rushes over to the cows. He kneels down, and ties a rope around the two front feet of every cow, ensuring that they won’t be able to wander too far. He takes a seat on the ground, and motions for us to do the same. Mustafa pulls out his smart phone and quickly looks for something. His eyes open up, and a smile appears. A song comes on that is both calming and anxiety-producing. A marriage between slow elevator music and quick passed synthesizer. We ask him where the song from, and he responds “Algeria.” “Algeria?” we ask again, not sure if that’s what he meant to say. “Algeria,” he says one last time while leaning back and pulling his baseball cap over his eyes.

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