Essaouira – When we are ignorant about another culture, we search for stereotypes to fill the gaps, and, increasingly, turn to fear and hatred. The anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-difference rhetoric that currently presides over Western politics like a heavy cloud of populism and nationalism uses stereotypes to promote fear. It is a powerful force. But there is another way.
In any given situation, as humans, we make presumptions about each other; we draw our own conclusions; and we like to categorize people. This makes us feel comfortable. As a foreigner living in Morocco, I feel myself being categorized and reduced to stereotypes on a day to day basis.
When waiters presume that because I am English, I must, like 75% of British people be unable to speak a language other than English, I smile. When they stubbornly reply to my fluent French in broken English, I am so accustomed to it that I am no longer annoyed.
When my brother-in-law still, after three years, presumes that because I am English I am totally ignorant of Moroccan culture, I no longer react. Every year, he kindly explains to me what Eid is or that we eat couscous on Fridays, despite having spent countless Fridays and religious holidays with me. While this is still quite trying, I have understood that it is out of kindness. He wants to make me feel included and to communicate with me about something he understands.
When my husband’s friends, male and female, make it clear that, because I am educated and European, it is very unlikely that I know how to cook, it no longer bothers me. When they explain to me at great length how to boil an egg or thank my Moroccan husband for preparing the meal that I have lovingly prepared, I manage a smile.
Why? Because it is all kindly meant. What would I achieve by fighting against harmless stereotypes that actually make me seem more accessible in the eyes of people I very much want to like me?
My husband, too, has to put up with this type of stereotyping. He ignores the presumptions of some of my friends and neighbors that he eats only couscous and lives in a desert amongst camels and nomads.
Despite being Amazigh (Berber), he happily allows our son’s English doctor or acquaintances to ignore his ethnicity and chat to him about Arab culture. Because these stereotypes are kindly meant and used as a way to understand and embrace difference.
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This said, stereotypes can be extremely dangerous and can be responsible for further dehumanization of “the other.”
“Does your husband make you stay inside and tell you what to do? I heard that’s what Arab men do when they get married.” This question came from Mariela, a 33-year-old Italian woman who works teaching children.
“Aren’t you afraid of terrorism?” This question came from a 28-year-old accountant.
“Don’t you have to wear a burqa?” My 35-year-old hairdresser wondered about Moroccan dress.
“Mixed marriages never work; he’ll become controlling and more extreme,” a 65-year-old retired French army officer commented at my wedding.
I could very easily list more of these comments and questions, utterances which reflect the deep, insidious nature of stereotypes.
This kind of stereotype is what populist politicians and fear-mongers exploit to strike fear in the hearts of their voters. This kind of stereotype leads to hate, violence, and, in the world’s all too recent history, war.
It is a two way street; Moroccans are just as capable of this type of alarmist stereotyping.
“You have no culture in the West and no religion. It’s all sex and alcohol,” a 35-year-old lawyer from Casablanca told me told me.
“These European women just want sex, the way they dress is asking for it,” a 20-year-old mother of two commented on European culture.
“There are no morals where you come from,” This comment came from a 50-year-old doctor from Marrakech.
These comments from Moroccans are just as insidious, just as hateful and born, as are those of their European counterparts, from ignorance and fear.
These thoughts and fears are fed to us everyday in the media, in newspapers, in Hollywood films, on Instagram, and by our politicians.
So where does this leave us? If everything we see on television, on the internet, and in newspapers is urging us to draw these negative conclusions what choice do we have but to fall in line and repeat these tropes of hatred and division?
Perusing Instagram last week I found the answer. We must Strike for Kindness.
Ben Fogle, a British television producer and UN patron of the Wilderness, has launched a hashtag campaign to encourage people to ignore the narrative of extreme rhetoric and hate and to embrace our humanity and kindness.
“Kindness matters. The world has become so fractured and torn. Everything is so polarised,” Fogle said on his Instagram account. “We need to disrupt the status quo of anger.”
Every Monday, Fogle “Strikes for Kindness” in remote locations around the UK, and here in Morocco, it is time for us to join him.
I am not suggesting that we should all be standing in forests wielding #strikeforkindness placards, but rather that in our daily lives we should be choosing to reject insidious stereotypes and trying to see the humanity in one another.
Not all stereotypes are negative. Things and people we do not know can be frightening, and knowing something, even a cliche, about them helps us to relate to them and feel comfortable.
So, if you know nothing about Morocco, here are some “kind stereotypes” to cling on to: Moroccans are generous and friendly; the Atlas mountains and the Sahara desert are beautiful places to explore; Moroccans drink sugary mint tea with delicious almond cakes; they eat tagines; and they welcome strangers.
Similarly, British people carry umbrellas because it rains all the time, are endlessly polite, like to queue, and love the Queen!
By rejecting the stereotypes that divide us, actively choosing not to believe them but, rather, choosing to find the humanity and kindness in each other—strangers, foreigners, friends, and family alike—we can start to break the cycle of hatred and fear propagated by those in whose best interests it is for us to be divided.