Category Archives: cultural understanding

Bluegrass, Moroccan-Style


Last week a few American friends and I attended a bluegrass concert at the Centre Culturel Sidi Belyout. A Moroccan bluegrass band had been touring Morocco with a couple of musicians from the states with thick but very charming southern American accents. This kind of event is put on for free by various American associations and the State Department in an effort to promote appreciation of American culture. (insert obvious and misinformed joke about the US’s lack of true culture, har har)

As much as I loved reminiscing about Fourth of July barbeques and basking in nostalgia with my American friends, here is what really blew my mind: a bluegrass take on a hugely popular Andalusian song. The lyrics–the refrain at least, which a friend taught me and which has been playing in loop in my head ever since–basically ask, “Why worry? God will take care of me.” This was a great choice for the finale. The audience, mostly Moroccans, sang along. The combination of American folk music and Moroccan (Andalusian) folk music was breathtakingly beautiful.

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Filed under American culture, cultural understanding, Moroccan music, Moroccan-American Studies, Uncategorized

Good Americans, Bad Americans and the politics of representation


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.

What??

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***

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Filed under American culture, cultural understanding, Moroccan-American Studies

There’s this park.


I spent a few hours yesterday testing to see if it’s possible to hang out, undisturbed, in a public park. To be fair, I picked what must be the quietest, cleanest, dare I say most posh park I’ve seen. The space is tightly controlled, with signs everywhere reminding people not to litter and, I’ve heard, guards to lay down the law if anyone gets in too-close contact with the lawn. There isn’t much grass around here in the first place, owing at least in part to the dry climate.

This particular park is in Palmier, and surrounded by high-end apartment buildings. It’s also across the street from the Institut Francais, where I took out a few books yesterday afternoon.

I find an unoccupied bench and get busy. First up: Histoire de Casablanca (des origines à 1914) by André Adam.

Early on, one guy sits at the other end of my bench and, since this is my first solo park-sitting expedition, I’m on my guard. I’m planning my exit strategy as I try to figure out whether he intends to hit on me or just mind his own business. Naturally I avoid all eye contact, for two main reasons.

One, men need almost no encouragement to approach women in public. Which is another way to say that I don’t want to attract more attention to myself than I have to because once “that guy” thinks you could be the least bit interested in him (and who wouldn’t be, amirite?) it’s hard to get rid of him.

Two, I come from a culture where personal space is fundamental. You just don’t talk to strangers. If you do have a positive interaction with someone out in public, it’s something to write home about.

Which brings me to strange man #2. So-called only because we’re strangers, but since I now know his name let’s call him Abderrahim. He looks to be about 70 years old, and says “bonjour” as he sits down on my bench. He wants to know when the book I’m reading was published. (1967, and it shows, which is why he asked.)

For a few minutes we go through the awkward stranger song-and-dance: Abderrahim tries to spark conversation by asking me questions, I nod politely and try to read. When he mentions that he collects old books, pictures, and documents related to Moroccan colonial history, though, I actually close my book.

Turns out that Abderrahim, a very nice guy, is an architecture enthusiast and big into historic preservation in Casablanca and elsewhere in Morocco. I’ve met some people through Casamémoire who lobby for historic preservation, something that the government has neglected almost completely despite the fact that Casablanca is architecturally very rich. The thing is, though, that according to a Moroccan architect I met at the US-Arab Cities Forum, those who do lobby for preserving the architectural heritage of Casablanca tend to be European, not Moroccan.

Not so for my new friend Abderrahim, who I’ll be calling so that I can take a look at some old books on city planning in Morocco. For once, I asked a strange man for his phone number and not the other way around.

After Abderrahim leaves and I reflect on how cool it is to talk about architecture and city planning in a posh public park with a stranger, all subsequent interactions are less tense. I chat with a woman on a walk with a pair of twins in a stroller. A mother, father, and baby sit for a few moments until the baby starts to cry. We exchange salaam wa aleikums, then mind our own business.

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Filed under Casablanca, cultural understanding, parks, pictures, Urban Morocco

Thanks


I’m still buzzing with excitement from a weekend with friends to celebrate Thanksgiving and my birthday. I turned 26 last Monday, which is the day of the week worst suited to celebrating a birthday properly. So on Saturday Annemarie and Jacob came from Rabat to help me put together my funnest day in Casablanca so far.

I didn’t subject my guests to the practice of “giving thanks” publicly, although I consider it a great accomplishment to have gotten so many people to decorate my wall with drawings of turkeys.

When only a few Americans were left, late into the night, we had a Thanksgiving check-in.

Every day, Arabic speakers say “hamdulilah!”, thanks be to God, but on Thanksgiving we talk about being thankful. Just, you know, generally. Leave the details to those who want to give specific shout-outs, but Thanksgiving is a secular holiday.

I will tell you (the internet) what I told my friends when I took out the colored pencils and glue-on googly-eyes a few nights ago: “I know this is corny but…”

I’m thankful for my family and support system back home. I’m thankful that I can travel freely, even though I acknowledge that it’s unfair. Sometimes I can’t believe that the Rotary invested so much in me, but I’m thankful that they did. I’m thankful to have landed among such cool and engaged students at Ben M’Sik, and that they’ve accepted me as one of their own. I’m also thankful that they appreciate my sense of humor… I’m thankful for good Moroccan friends who make this year interesting, and also for good American friends for providing a small piece of home.

I am thankful for the internet.

Seriously, though.

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Filed under American culture, cultural understanding, اصهاب

COWBAY! Morocco, Western style


Those who aren’t familiar with Morocco might not be entertained by this past the two minute mark, but I highly recommend watching the whole thing, even if you can’t understand the dialogue. This sketch by Hassan El Fad mixes Western motifs, out of place bits of Moroccan culture and nonsensical cultural references. For instance, the characters who are supposed to be Native American are not only parodies to begin with since this is a Western-style sketch, but borrow from other “native” cultures–Australian aboriginal, at some point? The soundtrack mixes Western folk music with blues and other anachronistic American music.

It’s both an homage to American Westerns and a wink at Moroccan culture. Elhyani.net, a blog I’ve just found and have been enjoying recently, compared the Hassan El Fad style of comedy to Monty Python. Personally, this reminds me of Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor’s Blazing Saddles, a Western-style and funny-as-hell allegory on racial issues in the U.S. There’s something about shifting cultural context that is both hilarious and illuminating.

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Filed under American culture, cultural understanding, Moroccan Humor, Moroccan traditions, Moroccan-American Studies

What’s this holiday about anyway?


For the past few days there have been Moroccan flags everywhere, because yesterday was a national holiday in Morocco, the 35th anniversary of the Green March.

Let me first say that southern Morocco, also known as the Western Sahara, is contested territory, and talking about the issue with Moroccans can be tricky business. Morocco claims the area as its own and has been in conflict with Algeria, Mauritania, and independent factions like the Polisario over its sovereignty. Meanwhile, the United Nations doesn’t recognize the Western Sahara as part of Morocco.

The Green March of November 6th, 1975, helps shed some light on the emotional significance of the Sahara problem. Here are the basic details, which I pieced together by just asking a few people, “So, what’s this holiday about anyway?”

Thirty-five years ago most of Morocco had been decolonized but Spain still controlled what makes up the now-contested area. On November 6th, 350 thousand people peacefully demonstrated in the south and marched into the Sahara, Moroccan flag in one hand, Koran in the other. Some people marched from Rabat all the way to Dakhla, 1700 km away. The Spanish then, peacefully, surrendered control of the Sahara to the Moroccans.

Most people I surveyed agreed on and stressed a few things: a) the march was peaceful; b) the march led to the reclaiming of the Sahara by Morocco; c) the marchers (and the King) were righteous.

In fact King Hassan II in all of this is both invisible in the narrative according to which 350,000 spontaneously marched 1700 km, and aaaall over it. One person clarified that the king had forced the issue of the Sahara with the Spanish because he could tell, based on a few failed coups d’état, that he needed to galvanize support. And though most Moroccans at the time were probably supportive of a plan to oust its colonizers, the reign of Hassan II is not known as a time of freedom for Moroccans.

I also read a novel a few months ago that described a practice by the Makhzen, or royal forces, of rounding up people for parades during the reign of Hassan II:

It’s worth noting that the Makhzen had earned themselves a terrible reputation in the area. The caïds, the super-caïds, the khelifas and their acolytes never visited the villages except to round up the population for “serbice.”

Serbice,” an arabized form of the french word “service,” always took place in Marrakesh, along the road between the airport and the Red City [Marrakesh]. Every time an emir, the leader of some little kingdom or the president of some banana republic visited the city, the Makhzen got busy moving the masses of the area, presumably to give the visitor an unforgettable welcome party.

Le Bonheur des Moineaux de Mohamed Nedali (2008)
(my translation, from French)

Yeah I know. Fiction. Grain of salt.

The thing is, I’m an outsider who’s not emotionally invested in Moroccan patriotism, so I’m naturally skeptical.

Learning about the glorious events of another country’s history, though, has forced me to think about some of the historical “facts” I learned in elementary school:

“Yeah, everyone thought the earth was flat, but Columbus was all, no guys, and I can prove it! So he sailed the open sea and found, ya know, America!” Et cetera.

Almost every day is a struggle to wriggle out of my own preconceived notions, to stretch my mind, and at the same time to approach things with a healthy amount of skepticism. Being open to the world and willing to challenge your worldview doesn’t mean uncritically swallowing another, but it does involve taking a look at the some of the bullshit we all absorb over the course of our education.

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Filed under cultural understanding, Moroccan fiction, Moroccan History, Moroccan traditions, Morocco

Halloween in Casablanca


This afternoon I walked over to Alfa 55, which I can best describe as a cross between a discount store, like Walmart and a 6-story department store, like Macy’s. I was looking for a date book, something which I had somehow forgotten that you need when you’re taking classes, and that you badly need when you’re taking ten classes at once.

Anyway, here’s what I came across on the second floor!

I’m not so sure I can offer any insight into this, because I’ve never really understood how you celebrate Halloween in a place where everyone doesn’t do Halloween. Doesn’t there need to be some kind of critical mass of Halloween-celebrators to properly honor the occasion?

I can tell you this much: there are no trick-or-treaters in the street. Which can only mean that people dress up and then hang out in private.

But then…isn’t that just a costume party?

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Filed under American culture, Casablanca, cultural understanding