Category Archives: Moroccan-American Studies

Casa, first impressions


A few professors at the Ben Msik campus where I’ve been taking classes this year organized a program for a group of visiting American students and their professors. I had the honor of teaching their first seminar: a two hour crash course on Casablanca.

Having to cram for the Casablanca seminar right as I came home from a trip to France, and less than a month before I take off for Chicago, gave me a powerful jolt of excitement for this city, not to mention the rare feeling of having accomplished one of the goals I’d set for this year: to learn about Casablanca. There’s nothing like teaching to confirm what you’ve learned or to expose what you don’t know.

To start, I asked students to give their first impressions of the city along four basic themes—the people, the buildings, the streets, and transportation. They’d been in the city for two days, long enough to have been to a range of places, namely the medina, Maarif, Habbous, and Ben Msik.

The students’ comments focused overwhelmingly on what is possibly the most defining characteristic of Casablanca: contradiction. Students observed that modern buildings sit side by side with old buildings, that some formerly beautiful buildings lay in ruins, that wealth and poverty coexist. Many saw “ordered chaos,” some reported “a lot of traffic, but no accidents.” (If only that were true…)

Another striking sight: “pets” in the streets :-(. This one points to a minor cultural difference that comes up every time my foreign friends or I walk past a stray cat and squeal, “awwww!” Which is to say, every day.

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Filed under Casablanca, cultural shock, Moroccan-American Studies, urban life

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

Moroccan culture on display, for Moroccans


A regional cultural fair, held at the Ben M’Sik campus yesterday. Tables were set up to display food, traditional clothes, jewelery, and fact sheets about regions all over Morocco. A school friend of mine remarked that she recognized almost nothing, except some clothes from the North of Morocco, where she’s from.

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Filed under day in the life, Moroccan-American Studies

دنيا هانية ، سما صافية


Dania henia, smeh safia.

…is what I’ll be chanting under my breath from now on as I sit in some of my classes. It means “it’s all good, the sky is clear.”

Some classmates taught me the expression this morning because I tend to get a little worked up in class. In both good and bad ways.

Dania henia for short.

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Filed under day in the life, derija, Moroccan-American Studies, Proverbs

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

the view from Ben Msik


Taken from the street just outside of the Ben Msik campus of Hassan II–Mohammedia University, where I have classes four days a week.

I only noticed yesterday that you can see the Atlantic Ocean in the distance.

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Filed under Casablanca, day in the life, Moroccan-American Studies, pictures