Charlottesville, Virginia - I have just returned to the United States after living, studying, and working in Morocco for two years. I will be moving to the United Kingdom to begin graduate school in Middle Eastern Studies this fall. I was born and raised in the United States--the southeast, to be precise. Yes, I spent time growing up in places not particularly known for their tolerance and enlightenment.
Charlottesville, Virginia – I have just returned to the United States after living, studying, and working in Morocco for two years. I will be moving to the United Kingdom to begin graduate school in Middle Eastern Studies this fall. I was born and raised in the United States–the southeast, to be precise. Yes, I spent time growing up in places not particularly known for their tolerance and enlightenment.
I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana and lived in places like Kentucky–tea party country– South Carolina, and parts of Virginia. I do not wish to promote essentializing my own cultural heritage in the United States, but I do wish to inform the readers that I grew up in a somewhat oppressive cultural context–none of which seemed to mirror my own personal ideals. Like any place, “the south” has its historical and present day demons–relating to its slave based economy and culture and the Jim Crow legacy. It was also the battleground for the Civil Rights movement, a struggle that continues to this day, albeit in somewhat different forms.
It is also the location of the well-known “bible belt,” where Christianity is deemed the enlightened path to any fulfillment in life. I wanted to briefly address this in order to emphasize my exposure to cultural processes relating to religion, race, as well as a feeling of alienation that I often experienced in my own “alleged” culture. However, the flipside of this and any sort of discussion on the culture and history of a particular region is that you can find the good right alongside the bad. In other words, the “south” is also known for its respect for tradition (I would argue to their detriment, but that’s another article), manners, and politeness. It is also known for the warmth of its people and its cooking, its array of mountains, open pastures, and beautiful coasts, as well as its soul shaking gospel music, the sensuality of its jazz heritage, and the poetry and pride found in country music.
I do not associate with any particular religion; while I was raised in a very christian household, I largely rejected this later in life. With that being said, I still “speak the language,” like with so many aspects of one’s own cultural heritage. We are the first to criticize and the first to defend. We reject but it’s roots stay with us–in one way or another. I do not associate with the political ideologies and priorities that tends to dominate conservative politics in the southern United States, and I often found myself outright hostile toward the intolerance, ignorance, and bigotry that seemed to infiltrate so many places and people that I loved in the South and in the greater United States. Nonetheless such a childhood made me a student of culture–though I didn’t realize this until much later–and I am eternally grateful for that. It was not until I began my undergraduate studies that I caught a glimpse of exactly how much politics, culture, and intellectual curiosity would shape my personal and professional decisions as a young adult and aspiring scholar.
While my relationship with Morocco is far from over (let’s call this chapter one shall we), I wanted to take this opportunity to discuss my tumultuous five year affair with the country. Tumultuous in what sense you may ask. I would only say this: I have experienced the best and worst moments of my life in Morocco. It has touched me, caressed me, slapped me, loved me, hated me, rejected me, embraced me with open arms, confused me, enlightened me, mocked me, patronized me, but it always welcomes me back and will always be there to take care of me when I need it. Just when I thought I was understanding Morocco, it was there to teach me a new lesson and to propose another point of view. The singularity of this relationship comes from the fact that these lessons were not only about academic subjects that I was studying or researching, but they were also life lessons that influenced my identity as a young woman–my relationship to culture, society, politics, sexuality, race, education you name it, I observed it, debated it, and suffered from both internal and external conflicts about what they all meant in Morocco, in my home country, and in me–as an individual striving to become a citizen of the world.
I have been traveling to Morocco for professional and personal reasons for the last five years. My first experience there was as a young undergraduate student of the University of Virginia. I took part in a six week study abroad program in the summer of 2008. I was twenty years old when this love affair began. I am now twenty-five and am starting to realize that my early twenties has been predominantly shaped and influenced by my time in Morocco. Like so many people have stated in one way or another before, Morocco will quickly become your second home country. Let’s take Gertrude Stein’s famous saying, “America is my country, and Paris is my hometown,” and turn it on its head. Paris is nice. But, for me, Rabat is the quintessential hometown. As someone who moved every few years as a child and teenager, I did not particularly understand the notion of “hometown” or “best friends.”
When I began to study Foreign Affairs and French at the University of Virginia, I decided it was time to go abroad, for the first time in my life. In the French study abroad programs there were two options: France or Morocco. I knew next to nothing about Morocco besides the fact that my grandfather used to talk about how he landed there during the second world war. He even brought home an ashtray from Tangier. I could feel Morocco calling–I was craving something completely new, and if I was going to go abroad–it was all or nothing. I wanted my world to be shaken up–which I thought would be more likely in Morocco than in a capital city in Western Europe. When would I have this chance again I wondered. I could always go to Europe, but Morocco, well that was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I decided to seize.
I justified it academically through the fact that I was specializing in Africa within my foreign affairs major. This moment spurred my fascination with the relationship between Northern Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, migration between the two regions, questions of race, and Morocco’s relationship to its ‘Africanness’. These topics became the backbone of my scholarly work for the next five years, and, sure enough, these six weeks in Morocco changed my life. This program allowed me to see so much of Morocco–to visit all the major tourist destinations: Tangier, Tetouan, Chefchaouen, Casablanca, Fes, Marrakesh, Ouarazazate, Merzouga, Toubkal, etc. We were based in Rabat during the week to attend classes about Moroccan civilization, North African politics, and French, and then we traveled on the weekends.
I saw the sun rise in the Sahara desert, I saw the incredible view from the highest point in Morocco, Toubkal. However my classmates and I also had countless conversations with Moroccans we met in Rabat–whether that be surfers at the beach near Oudaya, shop owners in the medina, university students in pubs in Agdal, or farmers selling their goods in the fresh market near the Kanissa in L’Ocean. The recurring theme for me was the cultural, linguistic, and geographical diversity of this relatively small country in Northern Africa. As an American, I have unfortunately witnessed the everyday exercise in essentializing and stereotyping Muslims and Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa. No one ever talked about the difference between the Moroccan dialect and other dialects in the Arab world, let alone the linguistic regional diversity within Morocco itself. No one discussed the Amazigh movement, nor the historical and cultural role it has played in North Africa.
Where was the understanding and appreciation for diversity? They say that since 9/11 the Middle East and North Africa has become much more “familiar” to the American public. I don’t think so. I see an ignorant and orientalist image that has become popular in the American media and among the public. The image of Arabs and Islam that Americans so often see is rooted in the historical heritage of orientalism and colonialism, but now it’s just wrapped up in a 21st century, technologically savvy and neocolonial discourse. Americans see the angry Arab “bad guys” on 24 or in Hollywood blockbusters and feel the urge to enlighten me about the “intolerance” or “sexism” inherent in Islam and the Muslim world–having never read a factual thing about either, let alone actually visiting the region. They take Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly or Karl Rove as the experts on both religious and political philosophy. Scary but true.
They can’t hear, or perhaps don’t want to hear, the voices of people who spoke to me after the Boston bombings this Spring. Everywhere I went around Rabat, in taxis, walking on the street, on the bus, in the medina, etc. people reached out to me and expressed their sympathies about the bombings. I was not so much surprised as I was touched. This was one of those days I wanted to capture on film and share with the world. Just a moment that summed it all up for me. In a world so fragmented by “us” and “them” human solidarity has been pushed aside for processes of selective hearing that only serve to reinforce fear, racism, global hierarchies, and the “order of things” as so determined by the hegemonic powers that be–my country being at the top of this list of course.
While my university education played a key role in developing an acute sense of critical analysis–my time abroad, and more specifically in Morocco, forced me to apply this intellectual tool on a daily basis. After all, it is only through practice that one learns to truly use such a powerful tool. The nature of my first meeting with Morocco in 2008 left me counting down the days that I could come back—I left with more unanswered questions that I could have ever imagined. This sentiment has only solidified throughout the years, and I find myself unable to stay away from the country for very long.
The most integral aspect of my first encounter with Morocco was the people of course. I made friends that I have kept up with over the years, and I met a Moroccan man that summer that is still a significant part of my life to this day. This man has been my love, my friend, my teacher, my balance, and occasionally, my antithesis, during my time in Morocco, France, and the United States for the past five years. Through him, his friends, and his family, I have had the privilege of seeing some of the best parts of Moroccan culture–its hospitality, generosity, hope, imagination, creativity, art, cuisine, and of course, the divergent opinions on any subject imaginable. Of course, there is an immense difference between visiting a country and living there.
From 2008 to 2010, my relationship with Morocco had been somewhat ephemeral–it came and went. I was there for six weeks, then two weeks over a winter holiday, then another two months for research, then a two week holiday to see my boyfriend. Not that its effect did not remain with me–rather my experiences were characterized by moments and first or second impressions rather than attempts at real cultural integration and communication. While my research and time in Morocco and other countries in the Maghreb from 2008 to 2010 provided the backbone to my undergraduate thesis, “Sub-Saharan Migration in the Maghreb: the reality of race in Morocco and Algeria,” it was not until I won a Fulbright scholarship in 2011 that I realized I would have a real opportunity to actually live in Morocco. In other words, I would be able to not only ask more questions, but perhaps I could do more than ask questions. Maybe I could offer some answers?
What actually ended up happening was that, rather than attempting to offer answers, I actually truly learned how to listen. This is the essence of cultural communication and an important step that any student of culture, international relations, or the MENA region must go through in order to filter out our own cultural biases and ideology–if such a process is actually possible. In part two of this narrative, I will discuss my transition from tourist to resident, from moments and impressions to debate and dialogue, from the vacation to the quotidian.
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