In a few short weeks, you will look out the window of a crowded airplane for the first time and for the first time, you'll see your second home.

Dear NSLI-Y Student,

Congratulations on your acceptance into the NSLI-Y program! It's almost here -- in just a few weeks you'll be packing your bags, checking papers, taking placement tests, maybe doing it all with shaking hands from both excitement and, if you're at all like me, anxiety. You will wonder how it is to leave behind not just a country, but the entire Western world and trade it for a place that some of your relatives can't even point to on a map. You may hear people speaking about Arabic or Morocco or even the entirety of the Middle East with fear or apprehension. It isn't a question of if you'll be nervous -- you will be. The only uncertainty is how long it will take for those nerves to disappear.

image of the city of essaouira

In a few short weeks, you will look out the window of a crowded airplane for the first time and for the first time, you'll see your second home. You'll look down and see the snowcapped peaks of the High Atlas Mountains, marked by the rivers like ribbons rushing through them towards the plains. Look west, and the whitewashed walls of Casablanca come into view, hugging the vast Atlantic sunset. The customs official at the gate will see your passport and smile the widest, most welcoming grin you've ever seen -- "Anti imrikiyya?" -- and when you answer, "Na'am," he will clap his hands and speak in rapid-fire Arabic you can barely catch to everyone in the near vicinity, Moroccans and foreigners alike, "Marhaban bik! Marhaban bik filmaghreb." Welcome to Morocco.

And you have no idea, not until you experience it, how easy it is to feel welcomed here. It might take you a couple of days to be comfortable bouncing around the back of a thirty-year-old taxi with no bumper, coming two feet shy of smacking into a pedestrian, or a road sign at every intersection as the driver yells in a hodgepodge mixture of French, Arabic, and Tamazight at every person nearby to clear the way. But it is hard to feel nervous when even that cab driver, a total stranger, spends your fifteen-minute ride to school assuring you repeatedly, "Jayyidan, mzyanan, annikum tadrusun alarabiyya hina. Bilmaghreb. Hadha ahsan makan. Ahsan.ah, wasalna filmedresa. Bislaama!" Morocco is the best place. No really, the best place. Nowhere is better than Morocco to study Arabic. Oh look at that, we've arrived. Go in peace.

The Morocco you will come to know is not that of global wonders-- though the beauty of the country is unparalleled, and you will certainly see many of the fascinating places which draw tourists from every corner of the world. The Morocco you will fall in love with is the Morocco of the hanout man across the street from school, who asks you every day when you visit to purchase a pack of gum and a bottle of soda what new Arabic words you learned. It's the Morocco of the old carpenter with sanded, hands and a thousand stories to tell, deep in the winding heart of the old medina, who hands you a chess piece on a thread and folds your fingers around it, "for good luck." It's the Morocco of the Spanish expats who own the local ice cream parlor, who came for the food and stayed for the culture. The Morocco you will live in is a far call from the glittering luxury hotels and supermalls on the outskirts of the city. Your Morocco is far better.

In a few short weeks, you will stand on a tarmac in the middle of the desert, at the gates of a brand-new world. I cannot tell you everything about Morocco, not if I had ten years to do it, because it's yours to learn, to discover, to know and to love. And in a few short weeks, you'll be there.

image of the coast of taghazout
image of the red buildings of marrakech

In a few short months, you'll be back home, and you'll wonder how it is so difficult to leave behind a place you only lived for two months. In a few more you'll still be looking at the pictures, counting the minutes or the miles or the dollars until you can go back.

In another year, maybe, you'll be sitting back at home, scribbling out your Arabic homework, writing letters to the next of us to leave ourselves behind and take a seat on the same crowded airplane over the same opening country, the ocean on one side, the desert on the other, an adventure still beckoning even as a year rushes on.

That's the thing about Morocco. You visit it, and it captures you. It's impossible not to leave your heart there.

I can't wait to see all that it brings for you.