Art & Culture

  • Elliott Brooks, History of Art major, Class of 2014

ARTH major Elliott Brooks reports on summer Arabic studies and travel in Morocco

  • Elliott Brooks, History of Art major, Class of 2014
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ARTH major Elliott Brooks reports on summer Arabic studies and travel in Morocco

My classmates and I had stumbled on the art gallery by chance; it was tucked away in a corner of the twisting alleyways of Asilah’s old city. Our trip to Asilah was a bit by chance too-- a few of us had heard that Asilah had a nice beach, and that was enough to prompt us to take a weekend trip to the seaside city. 

We were all from different universities, and yet were together in Morocco because we had received the same governmental scholarship to study Arabic over the summer. Nevertheless, we all had different aspirations for our Arabic studies-- some of us hoped to enter into diplomacy or the military, while others were more interested in academia, the arts and education. As an art history major, I had first begun taking Arabic due to my interest in Islamic art. My reason for continuing, however, was equally due to my enchantment with the language’s beauty and logic.  

And now, on a calm weekend night in July, I found myself outside this small art gallery along with four of my fellow students. Asilah, we had quickly learned upon arriving, was filled with art galleries. The city is home to an annual arts and culture festival which has transformed its streets into a haven for the arts. Along with numerous galleries, the city boasts large colorful murals painted by international artists during the annual festival. For an art-lover like myself, Asilah was a treasure trove of sights. 

We had peeked into this particular gallery because the artist specialized in Arabic calligraphy-- only a week earlier we had attended a class at our school on calligraphy, and had all practiced writing our names out in careful Arabic script. “Español?” the artist asked us, as we stepped into his gallery. We shook our heads, “Arabiyya?” meaning, “Arabic?” 

He, like many of the Moroccans we met, was amused by our Arabic-- we could speak FusHa, the Arabic used by news broadcasters and government officials, but had trouble pronouncing the many consonants found in Darija, the Moroccan dialect used in normal conversation. Fortunately, he spoke FusHa well and was able to give us a thirty-minute lecture on the different Arabic scripts-- their origins, characteristics and how to recognize them. “You know a lot about art history,” I remarked, impressed by his wealth of information. He smiled and handed over his business card, “Along with being an artist, I teach Islamic art history at a university in Barcelona.”

As we turned to leave, bidding him “ma-salaama” (Arabic for “good-bye”) he stopped us. He pulled out his qalam, a hand-cut reed pen, and a bottle of ink. He turned to the closest of us. “What is your name?” he asked. He then proceeded to write out all of our names on small pieces of stationary in beautifully composed Arabic letters. 

We hadn’t realized it yet, but our summer would be full of these small surprises. I’ll remember Morocco as much through the beautiful sights I saw as through the numerous gestures of hospitality that were shown to me. I’ll remember the countless times Moroccans helped me to understand a word or concept, educated me on their history and culture, or welcomed me into their homes for countless cups of mint tea.   

    • Asilah mural
    • Arabic calligraphy

Elliott Brooks is an Art History senior and a Benjamin Franklin Scholar. During her time at Penn she has been involved in a research project of a 12th-century Qur’an manuscript held by the Penn Museum and is currently preparing her thesis on the history of the Parc de l’Ermitage in Casablanca. Last summer she was a recipient of the CURF Humanities Internship grant to work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This summer she received a U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship to take third-year Arabic classes in Meknes, Morocco.