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Why I experienced culture shock in Morocco: a deep dive into collectivist culture

“The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.”

- Coretta Scott King

As part of my university degree course, I had to complete a year abroad in Fez, Morocco. After living there for almost a full 365 days, I returned to the UK pretty much an entirely different person. In fact, a part of my soul is still in Morocco and will remain there for a long time.

A year abroad makes you question so much about yourself, your views and your way of life, especially if you’re thrown into a culture that is completely different to the one in which you were raised. However, in my case, I was blessed to already be quite familiar with the general culture of North Africa, thanks to my Algerian background, which definitely eased the whole 'culture shock' process. Yet despite this familiarity, I was still taken aback as I was dragged into the depths of Moroccan culture.

Collectivist culture vs individualist culture

Before I get into why part of my soul is currently still residing in the Maghreb (the Northwest region of Africa), I will briefly explain the concepts of individualism and collectivism.

Individualism values personal independence. Within individualist cultures, people are more likely to see themselves as separate from others and define themselves based on their own personal traits and achievements. An individualist’s sense of self is defined more by who they are on the inside, meaning that there is minimal influence from factors and/or people outside the individual. European and Western cultures are typically more individualist.

Collectivism, however, values personal interdependence and focuses on group goals as well as what is best for the community. In collectivist cultures, people are more likely to perceive themselves as connected to others and define themselves in terms of their relationship in the group. A collectivist’s sense of self is defined more by who they are with other people, or by their status in a community. As an example, Asian and African cultures tend to be more collectivist, as maintaining social harmony and meeting social expectations are more important than an individual's needs.

A day trip to the waterfalls in Sefrou, Fès-Meknès

What does this have to do with Morocco?

Having already been to North Africa a few times, I was no stranger to the collectivist characteristics of my family, but I always assumed their intense generosity, affection and attentive nature were just because we shared the same blood. To my surprise, I found the same warm and considerate essence in strangers, some of whom I'd randomly meet strolling in the old medina and end up spending the entire day with, exploring other parts of Morocco (admittedly I had no idea how genuine these interactions were but the pleasant vibes were still undeniable).

The perks of collectivism

During the first lockdown in early 2020, while everyone in the UK was fighting over toilet paper, my flatmates and I were being cooked couscous by our friends’ mums and given essentials by our neighbours. A huge majority of the relationships I formed in Morocco, regardless if they were my teacher, landlord or local hanout (corner shop) shopkeeper, were so good-natured and loyal. Loyalty in a collectivist culture is paramount, and overrides most other societal rules and regulations. When needed, it is easy to get help because your problem becomes everybody’s problem. Since everyone is working together for the benefit of each person, they tend to hold themselves responsible for the welfare of everyone else. This manifests close intimacy and affinity with people, teaching individuals how to be selfless and people-minded; an aspect of Moroccan culture that was definitely appreciated at a time when socialising was difficult and everyone felt totally separated from each other.

The downside of collectivism

While an individualist culture may seem selfish, disruptive, or even alienating compared to a more collectivist one, prioritising the needs of the community over the needs of the individual comes with its downfalls. In most cases, it means one has to sacrifice pursuing their own personal desires or interests for the sake of the wider community. There is intense social pressure to do what is deemed right and respectful, disregarding your own feelings on the matter.

In many collectivist cultures this idea of doing what's right is highly driven by the perceived honour and decency of the community. In Morocco, the concept of “hashouma”, meaning shame in Arabic, is used scarily often in an attempt to control and remind people to do what is best for the greater good of society. Being shamed for doing what you want can be harmful and lead to detrimental psychological and even physical consequences.

Taking in a gorgeous sunset in the ‘blue city’, Chefchaoen

The individualist-collectivist dream

As I left an abundant sense of community behind to return to a seemingly more cold individualistic society, my soul yearned for the compassion and warmth I had become accustomed to. Although I had a newfound appreciation for the perks of individualism, like having the freedom to define and express myself freely, I held on tight to the aspects of collectivism I truly treasured, particularly the longing for interconnectivity and solidarity.

It is crucial to look out for ourselves, as it is only in doing so that we are able to look out for others. The idea of “self-love” is important, as long as you are then able to share that love with others. I believe that it is through that kind of consideration for ourselves, as well as empathy for others that we can all reap the boundless benefits of both independence and interdependence.

An evening I spent by Lake Sid Shahid, just outside Fez

Denia is our Lifestyle & Travel Editor and a third year student studying BA French & Arabic at the University of Leeds. She is pursuing a career in international relations and diplomacy and is interested in foreign languages and cultures and filmmaking. Her Instagram handle is @denia_beidaoui.

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