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Six degrees of separation on the last train to Tangier, Part 1

The following post and its opinions are that of the author and not of the Community Media Workshop. 

Mohamed and I were engulfed in conversation about social media, development and civic society in Morocco after meeting with the Minister of Communication in Rabat. We walked at a steady pace towards the train station under the burning sun and the soft humid air channelling our ideas back and forth about the opportunities constitutional reform would bring to the country. We were separated from our group and would be meeting up with Erin, Whitney and our young, tall and talented translator Noureddine to board the last train to Tangier–north of the country and just south of Spain.

“Not all people have access to the internet, but most of the young do–and this is very important now. We can use social media and we can be very sophisticated in our communication. I would like to help nonprofits with their use of social media here and in the States.” said Mohamed.

Mohamed Rahmo

Mohamed Rahmo was a fellow exchange participant with Heartland International who came to Chicago a few months ago and was embedded with Erin Stephens at the Lakeview Food Pantry. I first met Mohamed in a class room at Columbia College Chicago when he and others from the Moroccan and Egyptian delagation participated in a half day social media strategy and tactics workshop I led. Since then, he has helped develop a communications plan for the Lakeview Food Pantry in which they plan to implement.

Mohamed is (what most American’s would define as) an urban hipster… at least in physical appearance. Sneakers, jeans, knit shirt and sport blazer with black rim glasses and Kangol cap–all which doesn’t seem to match in pattern or style but somehow seems to come together in a rather sophisticated and cosmopolitan way. This makes sense… Most Moroccans are sophisticated and cosmopolitan. They speak Arabic, French and in Mohamed’s case English. They interchange languages fluently depending on the depth and level of conversation and who they are speaking with.

When we approached the facade of the train station, I noticed something caught Mohamed’s eye and my gaze naturally followed. It was Noureddine waving to us in the middle of a crowd of people. I smiled and waved back casually.

Mohamed’s brows lowered and said in a slow inquisitive voice, “I think you are going to miss your train…”

I turned back towards Noureddine, Erin and Whitney and saw them take off into the station as an announcement in French was made over the loud speakers.

My instinct put me in a panicking sprint and chased them into the gate looking back at Mohamed only once without saying a word.  It was like an episode of the Amazing Race… lugging our over-packed back packs, turning corners in the terminal maze hoping to get on board without an unfortunate tale of missing the train because of slipping or tripping over ourselves.

We hopped on the train pushing through other passengers to find an available seating quarter. We settled in a space with three other passengers already nestled in their chairs. We of course were the typical Americans–loud, obnoxious and with our 1 minute dash to the train, sweaty and out of breath.

I noticed an older gentleman, a reserved intellectual type with glasses eyeballing  us probably thinking, “how the heck am I going to survive this four hour ride with these people?” He got up out of his chair with clear disdain. A few of us noticed and silently locked eyes and chuckled. But just before we settled in, we realized that we were in 2nd class–we had purchased 1st class tickets! So once again we were loud and annoying– disrupting any chance for others in the seating quarter to settle themselves… at least until we left.


First Class to Tangier, Morocco

First Class

It was still hot. The air in the narrow pass of the train cars was stale and thick, moved only by our heaving breaths. We marched and squeezed pass a dozen people as the train began its way north. We even encountered the old gentleman again as he was also trying to find a new seat. He stopped and gave way for us and asked why we had moved from our seats back in second class. When Noureddine explained that we were supposed to be in first class, the man rolled his eyes and mumbled curses in dissapointment. We couldn’t help but giggle. After finding the 1st class car where we belonged, we found that it was already occupied and full.

“Give me your tickets.” Noureddine asked. He checked the numbers above the seats to ensure we were in the right place and sure enough, we were.

With grace, Noureddine approached the women seated in the quarter in French. I only assumed that he tried to explain to them that they were seated in our reserved seats. A women and her two young girls got up and left politely while the others refused to budge. It appearred they also had the same ticket numbers as we.

After a few minutes of bickering back and forth in Arabic and French, the train steward examined our tickets, cleared a path for the women by ushering his hand forth and said that he would find them a seat. Apparently, the women had purchased tickets from the previous train that had broken down. They were offered seats for our train but did not guarantee them their originally assigned seats. Eventually, they followed orders and moved down the car.

We finally settled in and sank into our chairs. My sweat drenched shirt began to stiffen as the air conditioning began to cool me down. It would be 4 hours until we reached Tangier. The time between would be filled with landscapes of construction sites, crumbling urban dwellings, rolling hills lined with olive trees, the sunset on the endless horizon of the Atlantic Ocean and unforgettable conversations with new friends and strangers.

Rolling hills and olive trees

Its quite an experience to absorb Morocco on board a 1st class seating quarter on a train to Tangier – It’s comfortable and safe. It reminds me of being American. I know I can enjoy the scenery from the window of the train car–I can spend pages writing about it in detail, but I can not really truly enjoy, experience, understand and explain what I see out the window without stepping out of 1st class… out of the train… out of my comfort zone. Many Americans look at Morocco this way. In the first world it is easy to have an opinion about a country and it’s people through the window of media and the internet but you can not truly appreciate and understand them without walking through their streets, breaking bread with them and listening to their stories of struggles and dreams.

Most of the Moroccans I have met here have admitted their annoyance of American stereotypes of their country and people. They would always say, “Oh you are from Morocco? There are lots of camels and the deserts there…” or “Whenever I think about Morocco, I think of some exotic place.”

Yes there are deserts in the south and east of the country but that is not where the majority of the people live. Yes, there are camels, but they are imported to major cities to amuse the tourists. Is Morocco exotic….? Perhaps it is exotic to those who might spend too much time in front of a window rather then stepping out into the world. The point is, most of our perceptions are shallow for a people whose history, culture and politics runs deep…


The women and two girls who left our quarter earlier were still standing just outside of our open door. It seems they have not yet found seats to settle in. They looked distinctly northern Moroccan with dark curly hair and light fair skin. The youngest of the two girls held a copy of the book the Hunger Games in her arms.

“How are you liking the book? It’s a great story” Erin said to her. There was no need for her to try and ask in Arabic or French. She smiled and nodded her head and said in response, “Yes, uh-huh.”

“You know there are two seats left here.” said Erin.

“Yes, please join us” we all followed.

The mother spoke to the two girls softly and agreed to allow them to sit there while she found a seat elsewhere. They made their way in and settled by the window.

They sat quietly and to themselves as we carried on with conversations about our earlier adventures and visits to various organizations in Rabat.

The oldest of the two girls seemed very curious about our conversations and asked me in English, “What are you doing here in Morocco?”

“We’re on a diplomatic mission from the U.S.” I said sarcastically. We then all began to explain our exchange program and what we’ve been doing the past week.

“I’m just coming from the States. Heading home to Tangier from school.” she said.

“Where are you going to school in the States?” Whitney asked.

“Harvard” she replied…..


The next 3 and a half hours would be an exploration in American and Moroccan film, the conflict in the West Saharan desert, Religion, Gay rights and more…


Check back to read part two of this blog post…


View Demetrio Maguigad’s photos of Morocco on Facebook 

The Professional Fellows Program for Egypt and Morocco is funded by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, and implemented by Heartland International, a nonprofit in Chicago, and its partner organizations, El Sadat Association in Cairo, Egypt and IDMAJ in Casablanca, Morocco.


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Category: Nonprofit Communications (aka Navelgazing)

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4 Responses

  1. Omar says:

    Good article, i love it :)

  2. Hamza Aid says:

    Wooow, very great experience
    the album pictures are so great.

  3. Demetrio says:

    Thanks guys! Morocco and it’s people are beautiful… I am truly grateful to be a part of this experience!

  4. Hasnae Fathi says:

    A very nice article. I’m glad you’re enjoying your stay in Morocco. Thanks for sharing with us your experience.

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