In the few days that I spent in Rabat this week, several Moroccans told me something that struck me as strange: Americans are good at languages, and they make an effort to learn about other cultures.
We Americans typically start learning a foreign language only in high school, and we’re notoriously US-centric. Most Americans don’t have a passport and I’m pretty sure that almost none can place Morocco on a map. (I couldn’t until 2005, and maybe briefly in eighth grade when my French teacher had us memorize all the countries in the world.) This isn’t just due to our terrible lack of education in world geography. Morocco is obscure to most Americans.
Yet something I’ve found frustrating in a few MAMAS class discussions has been the presumption of the American perception of Morocco: Americans associate Morocco with terrorism. Americans think Moroccans are backward. Americans feel threatened by Moroccans. Etc.
The best example of this is our film class, which I thought might be really interesting until it actually started. We were given no theoretical basis, unless you count the professor’s personal, meandering opinions as theory. We were given only a loose framework for analyzing movies—something about considering the film as text, and not bringing in outside information.
Except that the entire class is built around the premise that “Hollywoodian” movies reproduce stereotyped images of the Maghreb. Not a bad starting point, of course, but hearing the same basic idea repeated over the course of a semester is like listening to a broken record that plays only the opening measures to a song. I keep waiting for the good stuff, but it never comes.
Babel, Hideous Kinky, The Wind and the Lion, The Man Who Knew Too Much are all collapsed into one big mass of ‘Representation of Morocco by Hollywood’ as primitive, violent, mysterious, debauched, religiously extremist, etc. That last one is by far the most far-fetched, and a 99 percent projection of something that is just not in the films we looked at.
A lot of what I hear argued says more about Moroccan angst and insecurities than it does about Americans’ perception. Therefore any portrayal of rural poverty, for instance, which is a reality in Morocco, becomes in some minds an American commentary on Morocco as underdeveloped. Unhappy with the implied criticism, some dismiss the “message” as reflecting a political agenda. Things get really interesting when some people in class suggest that maybe there could be some truth to outsiders’ portrayal of Morocco–something which I think we can acknowledge while still reading texts with a critical eye.
Only rarely in this class do we ever move past simplifications and actually stretch our minds. The professor doesn’t encourage us to stray too far from his own theories, though. If we disagree with him, it only proves that we don’t get it. Ironically, he claims he wants to encourage students to think critically.
Do we have a problem of lack of awareness among Americans of the Arab world, the Muslim world, the Maghreb, and the difference between all of those? Absolutely. Are there negative images of Arabs and Muslims in movies? Yup. I don’t mean to say that American films don’t ever reproduce clichés about Morocco and “the Orient.” The book and film Reel Bad Arabs, for instance, document the production of clichés about Arabs in movies.
However can we analyze a bunch of different movies about Morocco, guided only by the vague assumption that the American public has a negative image of Morocco? Without any academic depth, we’re just fighting tired stereotypes with more tired stereotypes.
***Read comments for more discussion on representation***