One morning, Dana Whitaker woke up and, before getting out of bed, decided she would journey alone to Morocco. Here's a story about the people she met that changed her perspective on cultural differences and shared humanity.
“I don’t know how I am going to handle this for a month.”
That was Dana Whitaker’s first thought when she arrived at the airport in Morocco.
In the customs line in front of her was a large group of people who had just returned from their Hajj in Mecca—each person was covered head to toe in white Ihram clothing. With her tall, slender, athletic build and her short, bleached blonde hair, Dana couldn’t have felt more uncomfortable—which was strange, given that this was far from her first experience as a foreigner. Prior to Morocco, she had spent three and a half years traveling to thirteen countries around the planet to interview and photograph women for her first book about microfinance.
Now that this chapter in her life was over, she was crossing a new threshold.
Sixty and single, Dana decided the day after her son flew to New York for high school that she would take a journey for herself. Lying in bed that morning, she felt intuitively compelled to Google “volunteer vacations” on her phone. That was how she found Cross-Cultural Solutions. Within an hour, she had committed to volunteer as a teacher of English language and American culture at L’Association Le Féminin Pluriel, a women’s center in Rabat. Given her experience exploring women’s empowerment all over the world, she knew this was where she was meant to go.
“I don’t think my Program Specialist had finished saying the name of the volunteer assignment before I said yes,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is a harmonic convergence right here.’”
Despite all of her prior travels, this time felt different. When Dana told her friends she signed up to volunteer in Morocco, they were concerned. One friend told her to dye her hair dark before going to avoid drawing attention to herself.
“People were saying, ‘You need to be careful,’” Dana recalls. “They kept telling me, ‘Do not look men in the eye.’”
This was the most challenging suggestion for Dana. Whereas some people find eye contact uncomfortable or perhaps “suggestive,” Dana always tries to connect with others by looking them in their eyes. (In fact, the name of her company is Opening Eyes.) So this wasn’t just a matter of changing a habit—for Dana, this was a matter of principle. Approaching the customs desk, she had a few seconds to decide whether to look the officer in the eye.
“I said ‘Hi’ and ‘Thank you,’ but it wasn’t natural—I hesitated.”
How was she going to spend a month averting her gaze?
Dana’s outlook immediately began to shift when she arrived at the CCS Home-Base and met Mohamed, the Country Director.
“As soon as we sat down in the living room, my worry dissipated—he was so respectful and welcoming. I didn’t even think that I couldn’t look him in the eyes. I thought to myself: I can look at women and men in the eyes. It is not that we look at someone in the eyes, it is how we look at someone in the eyes.”
This was just the beginning of her journey: with her volunteer assignment starting on Monday morning, her perspective was about to change in other ways.
Dana taught in the inner city for 17 years; she could tell you stories about students who lived through Vietnam or grew up in the projects. Entering the classroom at Féminin Pluriel, she knew this was a whole new teaching venture. The group was small—only seven adult students: Chaimaa, Zora, Souad, Safia, Farida, Muhamed, and Mustapha.
As an introductory exercise, Dana asked everyone to share what their motivations were for coming. Farida, a woman in her 60s, admitted that she had to work up the courage to sign up; she hadn't believed that she was smart enough to learn a new language. Young Mustapha, an avid note-taker whose smile wraps around his head, shared that he is studying law and wants to use his degree to work with English-speaking companies.
When they turned to Chaimaa, she hesitated—then tears began to roll down her cheeks. She finally said that today was her first day studying English, her favorite subject, after a seven year break. She had dropped out of school when her mother became ill in order to care for her. Her mother passed away one month before this course started. Chaimaa's dimpled smile returned as she thanked Allah that she was back in the classroom.
It was clear this wasn’t going to be a traditional language course with vocabulary to memorize, grammar drills to cover, or formal assessments; rather, these lessons were woven into the group’s earnest conversations and cultural exchange. They were captivated (and often dumbfounded, as Dana felt too) by idioms like an arm and a leg, and why New York is nicknamed "The Big Apple." After learning that a McDonald's had opened in Rabat, Dana spent half an hour dissecting a hamburger (“What is lettuce?” they asked) and talking about the questionable nutritional value of “milk”shakes (sans-milk).
Together they joked about the nuances of English pronunciation, such as the th sound, or words with silent letters, such thought and enough (they made a unanimous decision that it would best serve everyone if these words were spelled thot and enuf). They all broke out in belly laughs as Dana attempted to explain the difference between the words ship, sheep, cheap, and cheep (you can imagine her making bird sounds).
Not only did the group playfully discover things about language, they also discussed more serious cultural topics.
One day they talked about different views about Muslim women wearing headscarves. Souad said that wearing the hijab was an expression of her faith, something between her and Allah. She told the class: "‘When I hear the minaret, I am happy—it is a reminder for me to be thankful. I look forward to my prayers every day.” Another Muslim woman, Zora, talked about how she doesn’t wear a hijab because, for her, it’s not necessary at this point for her faith. The day when Chaimaa offered to show Dana a picture of her waist-long hair, without her hijab, Dana felt moved that she trusted and connected with her enough to do so.
During her last week, the class was not supposed to meet that Friday, but some of the students wanted to see Dana anyway. They walked together through old town Rabat and insisted on treating her to an old fashioned boat taxi ride between Rabat and Sale.
“They didn’t have to be there. They wanted to be there, and so did I.”
Dana maintains contact with several of the students. After Ramadan, Mustapha wrote wishing her a life full of happiness and success. Souad keeps her abreast with her travels around Morocco. And Chaimaa asked her a most honored question: could she refer to Dana as “mother”?
Without question, Dana accepted.
After her CCS program ended, Dana felt ready to set out and explore Morocco on her own. While walking through the medinas, rather than averting her eyes from shop owners who called out to her, she would say: “They’re beautiful, but I’m not shopping today. Thank you.” From the beaches of Essaouira to the magical blue city of Chefchaouen, Dana met friendly Moroccan men who made her feel welcome, inviting her to have tea and simply chat: one man offered to show her a few ways to wear a turban; another man owned an art gallery and talked with her about how he could organize an event to clean up the local beach, like some Americans do on Earth Day.
“He said to me, ‘It’s Americans like you that I really like speaking with.’ What if I had been afraid? What if I had kept my eyes downcast? We can be ourselves and be respectful,” Dana reflected.
She had changed quite a bit since that first day in the airport. Dana said when she was a teacher, she would tell herself every day: “And I learned something today, too.”
What had she learned from her experience volunteering in Morocco?
“I learned to not generalize. There is no ‘All Muslims are this’ or ‘All Americans are that.’ There’s no all, except we are all from the same Source. We are all individuals, and we are all the same. We all love to laugh. We all have tears. We all love to learn. We are all curious. We are all connected, all One.”
Check out Opening Eyes (Part II) to find out about a special project Dana started when she returned from her CCS Morocco program.