SOJC student Shirley Chan jumps for joy at the Essaouira Ramparts, where a few episodes of season three of “Game of Thrones” were filmed.
Story and photos by Shirley Chan
“What was it like being in a Muslim country?”
Most of the time when I’m asked this question, it’s followed by something along the lines of: “I hear it’s dangerous over there.” No, it wasn’t dangerous. In fact, in Morocco — where I spent fall term studying with the School for International Training’s Journalism and New Media program based in Rabat — I was surrounded by some of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met. And that would be the short answer. I could go on for days answering this question, and I have before.
Unfortunately, the America I came back to in December wasn’t the America I left behind in August.
In a time of increasing Islamophobia in the world, it is more pressing than ever to produce high-quality journalism. I am thankful that I now have insight into such a misunderstood religion and community of people. As a journalist, I have returned from abroad with a deeper commitment to finding the truth, giving a voice to the unheard and embracing human connection through storytelling.
Life in Morocco
I spent the first half of the program living with a host family in the medina, an endless maze of 12th-century walls in the pre-colonial district of Rabat, learning about Morocco’s media landscape and gaining cultural context.
Going into this program, I knew I wanted to better understand the religion of Islam. I recall watching my host parents, who lived next to the neighborhood mosque, praying in their living room every day. I would ask questions in broken Arabic that garnered responses in broken English, but I still learned a lot about a religion I knew little about before my trip. Sometimes I still miss hearing the call to prayer five times a day.
I even celebrated some Muslim holidays, like Eid Al-Adha, also known as the Festival of Sacrifice. It’s a major holiday that brings families together to sacrifice animals in the name of Allah. In fact, I watched my host family sacrifice a sheep, also known as howli, five feet away from me on our rooftop. It meant the world to them that I was there and wanted to take photos to document the process.
I also learned to make Moroccan sweet couscous and visited the Sahara Desert.
During my few months in Morocco, I learned standard Arabic, also known as Fus’ha, and Darija, the Moroccan dialect of Arabic. The official languages of Morocco are the two types of Arabic as well as French and Berber (traditionally known as Tamazight). Most people spoke at least three of these languages and rarely spoke English.
It wasn’t my first time abroad, as I also went on the SOJC’s Media in Ghana trip in 2015. But it was the first time I couldn’t communicate efficiently and had to rely on translators. This built up my patience, taught me that communication isn’t solely through words and helped me better my interview skills.
At the beginning of the program, my academic director joked, “If you can report in Morocco, you can report anywhere.” Looking back on my experience, I agree.
Apart from the language barriers, being a journalist in Morocco is risky. Moroccans are highly skeptical of journalists, often assuming we’re spies. In fact, I was asked several times if I was a spy. This skepticism is a result of intense surveillance under the former King Hassan II. To be safe, we were advised to identify ourselves as students studying journalism.
As a visual journalist, I faced difficulties I had never faced before. Street photography was nearly impossible, unless I was somewhere with heavy traffic from tourists. In particular, I had great difficulty photographing women.
I spent a week living with a host family in a village in northern Morocco. Prior to staying in the village, they warned us not to take photos of the women in the village without consent. If a man were to find photographs of his wife on the Internet without his knowledge, it is likely that he would divorce her for bringing shame to the family. Working around situations like this made me eternally grateful for the freedom — as a woman and as a journalist — that I have in the United States.
Finding the story
I spent the second half of my program living on my own and producing a feature story on Morocco’s electronic music scene. The story ideas I had when I first arrived in the country revolved around human rights and migration issues, but I had a change of heart about the direction of my story.
Wherever I go, I seek out places that feel like home. In Morocco, I looked into all things art and music. From the artists I met to the events I attended, everything led up to my final research project.
I attended the MOGA Festival in Essaouira, the music capital of Morocco. One of the stages was located at a luxury hotel and resort outside of Essaouira in a village called Diabat. On the road leading up to the resort, I saw run-down homes, a school with chipped paint and broken windows, and mules eating trash along the street.
But when I arrived at my destination, it was a whole different world. Looking over the Mogador Golf Course, it seemed more like a 5-star resort in Cancun. The crowd was a mix of Europeans and Moroccans dressed in bikinis and swim trunks or designer outfits you’d find in Vogue. Unexpectedly, I found myself mingling with the rich kids of Morocco.
I’ve always had a passion for music, art and culture, so I just had to learn more about this lifestyle. I wanted to explore topics that would break stereotypes and portray a positive side of Muslim culture that isn’t often covered in mainstream media, so I produced a video story on the underground electronic music scene of Morocco. The scene is influenced by European electronic music but takes on its own personality from Moroccans who want to escape the country’s conservatism.
I worked with a writer who told the story of how the electronic music scene got started in Morocco. My video focuses on Amine K, one of Morocco’s biggest DJ exports, and how his collective, Moroko Loko, turned the music trend into a community of like-minded individuals. Together, we interviewed Moroccan DJs, party promoters, founders of festivals and a musicologist to learn about the growth of the scene and the effort to put Morocco on the global map of electronic music.
As a journalist, I have a duty to tell the stories of the people I meet in all of their complexity. I wanted to show a different and unexpected side of Morocco, and I hope to continue to cover stories that break the norm and have the chance while sharing my knowledge of a religion and culture that is so misunderstood.
Shirley Chan is a multimedia storyteller who is set to graduate from the SOJC in winter 2017. Following her time in Morocco, she went to Sri Lanka with the SOJC to document stories of people living in post-war Sri Lanka. Last summer, she worked as a digital production assistant at Oregon Public Broadcasting as a 2016 Charles Snowden intern, and she will continue to do freelance work for OPB in the future. Previously, she has worked as the video editor for the student-produced iPad publication OR Magazine, an assistant editor at the Eugene-based production company AO Films, a multimedia producer for the web edition of Flux Magazine, and an advocacy content developer at an Accra-based NGO called Alliance for Reproductive Health Rights through the SOJC’s Media in Ghana program. She is also a map fanatic, concert fiend, overpriced coffee connoisseur and music enthusiast. You can view her work at www.shirleychan.net and follow her on Twitter @shrlychn and Instagram @shcha.