Morocco at the Margins of American Popular Culture

Morocco Bound: Disorienting America's Maghreb, from Casablanca to the Marrakech ExpressMorocco Bound: Disorienting America's Maghreb, from Casablanca to the Marrakech Express by Brian T. Edwards
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One might compare Brian Edwards’ Morocco Bound to a Moroccan bisteeya (pigeon pie) – crisp, piquant, and sweet on the outside, rich and savory on the inside; burning to the touch and yet delicious to the taste; layered throughout, and deeply satisfying. It should be required reading for Americans interested in Morocco, and for Moroccans interested in how Americans think about Morocco. The prose is light and fluid and yet deeply informative; think of the basic text for a compelling university course on Moroccan culture through the lens of contemporary American literature and history; rewarding to the scholar and the layman alike.

Informed but not overwhelmed by Edward Said’s post-structuralist analysis of orientalism – fictions through which Western culture seeks to understand the Arab world – the book is intensely conscious of its own textual nature as it seeks to interpret literary texts that seek to “read” Moroccan culture. Its central theme is one of disruption and difference – the gap between the signifier and the signified if one will – which is perhaps most sensitively explored in an explication of Jane Bowles’ writer’s block as she struggled to occupy the space between things and one’s knowledge of them.

And yet to suggest that this is an esoteric, academic text would be to do it a grave injustice, since overlaying the technical literary analysis is a lively description of American popular culture – the dispatches of Ernie Pyle, Casablanca, Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, the abyss of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and the music of Crosby, Stills, and Nash and the Master Musicians of Jajouka, not to mention the novels of Paul Bowles (one of which became a “major motion picture”) that are de rigeur for American visitors.

Edwards has a distinct sense of how American popular culture stereotypes and marginalizes Morocco and Moroccans – whether it is Patton’s romanticization of the country as a scene from the “Arabian Nights,” Casablanca and Hitchcock’s account filtered through the French protectorate, Burroughs’ heroin-induced nightmare at the fringes of Moroccan society in Tangier’s International Zone, hippie self-absorption, or the more recent anthropological scholarship that generalizes from a nostalgic view of traditional, rural Moroccan society without coming to grips with the regime’s pervasive authoritarianism (particularly during the “Years of Lead” under King Hassan II), the romanticization of poverty in Morocco, and the reality of modern, urban politics among Moroccan youth, which are perhaps much closer to our own understanding than our mythologized view of Moroccan culture might suggest. The book implies that in order to have a more genuine understanding of Morocco, we must put Moroccans at the center of our understanding rather marginalizing them through fantasies of the frontier and the exotic orient.

If we are ever to see clearly, we must first confront our own blinders; Edwards’ important book is an excellent first step.

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Morocco World News

It might be said without fear of exaggeration that the appetite for Moroccan news among non-Moroccans in the United States is limited.  This may explain why the number of English-language publications conveying news of the Maghreb is few.  Certainly there are some top notch blogs, such as Maryam Montague's My Marrakesh and Sandy McCutcheon's View from FezLaila Lalami offers frequent and cogent stateside critiques. And there is the Morocco News Board as well.  However, recently I find that my regular news and opinion from Morocco comes from Morocco World News.

Partly this is because the stories are readily available in my Facebook feed.  Clearly, that is only part of the reason, however, because mere availability does not explain why I find myself stopping to read them more and more lately.  Typically the headlines are provocative and the stories, which tend heavily toward opinion pieces, are thoughtful and generally well-written.  I frequently find myself engaged even when I disagree, which is often.  Given the frequency with which I disagree even with my own countrymen, this is perhaps not surprising.

So for those to whom Casablanca means more than Rick's Cafe, who miss the savor of atay be naa naa and the succulence of mechoui, the pungency of zait el bldi and the beauty of the Atlas, the starkness of the desert and the warmth of the hammam, the labyrinth of Fes and the crowds at Jmaa el Fna, couscous and the call to prayer, and most of all the unforced warmth and generosity of the Moroccan people, Morocco World News is a little reminder of home away from home.

Down Under

I am not surprised to learn that Morocco would welcome an Australian embassy.  I am just astonished that it does not have one!

The Fire This Time

The New York Times and others report that five Moroccan men set themselves on fire this week in protest over unemployment.  Modern technology did not fail to capture the moment, at once amplifying its impact and intensifying its ghoulish character.  What depth of despair can drive a person to an act that can only be viewed with horror and its perpetrator with pity?  Despair is too tame a word; such acts indicate a mind that is beyond despair.  Can we not lift our brethren up before they conclude there is no alternative but to torch themselves?

Marrakesh by Design

Maryam Montague's much anticipated new book Marrakesh by Design is now available for advance orders at  Montague is the author of the award-winning design blog My Marrakesh, and the book promises to offer a fresh look at Morocco's combination of spare furnishings with rich patterns and vibrant colors.

Counting Our Blessings

As we in the United States take stock of the year just past, not omitting the injustices we have suffered at home and those we have perpetrated abroad, it may behove us to reflect on this National Public Radio quotation from a Libyan rebel fighter being treated in Massachusetts:

In our culture we say one thing about the American nation: You live your heaven on Earth in the States.

The other observation he made was that he found it remarkable that there were no checkpoints and no one had asked for his identification.

Our liberties in this country are real, but very fragile, and they are under assault.  In the coming year, let us rededicate ourselves to their defense at home and their expansion abroad.  And let us strive to ensure that our national wealth is shared generously, both at home and abroad.

Moroccan American Law Personality of the Year

Morocco World News has recognized Washington lawyer Leila Hanafi as Moroccan American Law Personality of the Year.  Hanafi, currently pursuing a Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree at George Washington University Law School, has been a leader in advocating for international human rights and particularly rights for Moroccan women.

Plus ca change

Whenever I run across a Peace Corps Morocco Volunteer blog, I am reminded just how long it has been since I was in country.  In 1988, we had no computers, no Internet access, and no cell phones.  Where i was, even the regular telephone service was only available by walking down to the Post Office and asking the clerk to crank the phone until he was able to reach Fez or Rabat.  The difficulty in communications was both frustrating and liberating, since it forced us to rely largely on our own resources and our relationship with the village.

Notwithstanding the advances in technology, it seems that interpersonal relationships have not changed much.  A recent post on a volunteer blog describes how a female volunteer, after a year alone in her site, decided to ask Peace Corps to send a second male volunteer to her site.  With some frustration, she describes being harassed on the street and propositioned on a regular basis in person as the reason for asking for a second, male volunteer. 

When you are a foreign woman in Morocco, accompaniment by a man, or better yet, another Moroccan, can help reduce incidents of harassment.  However, i well remember at least one instance in which my presence failed to deter harassment of the woman I walking with down the streets of Fez.  The behavior of indigent men on the city streets  toward foreigners and particularly foreign women has long constituted the ugly side of a beautiful country.  I am regularly assured that it has been ameliorated, but articles such as this one make me not so sure.

High Atlas Foundation

I had the unusual privilege and pleasure of joining a group of Moroccans and Americans for lunch with Dr. Yossef Ben Meir, president of the High Atlas Foundation, one of the best known organizations promoting sustainable development in Morocco through cooperative efforts between Moroccans and Americans. The organization is particularly known for its 1 million tree reforestation program, but this is just one among its many initiatives.  Discussion ranged over a wide range of topics, but one particular concern was encouraging greater participation in the foundation's work in United States, particularly among members of the growning Moroccan American community.

Long Ago and Far Away

I have been reading and greatly enjoying Dorothy Dunnett's Legendary Lymond Chronicles and have arrived at book four, Pawn in Frankincense.Dunnett, who demonstrates a remarkable facility with medieval languages and cultures, has just landed her eponymous hero, Francis Crawford of Lymond, in Algiers for his latest escapade en route to deliver a gift from the French king to the Ottoman Sultan.  While the characterization of the Turks does slip occasionally into cartoonish cruelty, exaggerated even in this cruel age, she does nevertheless paint a vivid picture of a world in which the Ottomans were the most powerful, wealthy, and sophisticated empire.  I haven't gotten far enough in the book to have a real appreciation for how Dunnett will develop her portrait of the leading power of the time, but whichever direction she takes promises to prove interesting, whether for depth of cultural understanding or depth of cultural misunderstanding has yet to be seen.

Stressed Out

Laila Lalami posts about the difficulties of adapting to various kinds of stress and intonation in English, whether spoken in Morocco, England, or America.  Challenging as English may be, and it is in some ways notoriously difficult, I like to think that it is at least as challenging to go the other way, from English to Arabic.  Personally, I have only a small store of Moroccan dialect, but I know that any English speaker trying to learn Arabic is immediately confronted with the fact that a number of Arabic sounds don't even exist in English.  And the differences in stress in Arabic can also be significant.  I once came in for a fair amount of teasing after I said I was going to see the chicks (hamam) when I meant to say I was going to the public bath (hammam).

A Radical Agenda

I have not found it particularly easy to follow the progress of the "Arab Spring" these many months, particularly as concerns Morocco, where coverage has been somewhat muted by the more dramatic changes to the East.

As an American onlooker, however, I think we might be well advised to look to our own first principles, not the Constitution, but our more radical founding document, the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

I am not unmindful that these words were first penned by a Virginia slaveholder, but they nevertheless represent the worthiest expression of the American experiment.  Among the oft-forgotten footnotes to these words is the fact that Jefferson abandoned the usual formulation of "Life, Liberty, and Property."

We in America could do worse than to remember that once we too tasted tyranny, that our Arab brothers and sisters are our equals, that they have unalienable Rights, and that they too are entitled to a government that is founded upon their consent.

Ramadan Kareem

Not only do I want to belatedly wish a Happy Ramadan to all my Muslim and Moroccan friends, but I also want to express particular sympathy and warm wishes to those who are observing the fast in the United States. Not only is there in my observation a bit of a chill toward Muslim religious expression in this country, but also the supportive environment of universal observance is lacking. In my experience in Morocco, Ramadan is the most festive time of the year, a time of celebration, sharing, and mutual hospitality as people break fast together. Even as a non-Muslim observing the fast, I never felt so welcome in Morocco as I did during Ramadan. Fasting was not an individual hardship but a shared commitment, because the community participated as a whole in a mutually supportive environment. In contrast, in the widely dispersed communities in the United States, Muslims are more likely to find themselves observing the fast singly or in small groups amidst a largely indifferent community.

So to those persevering in their beliefs and traditions even in countries that largely do not share them, I want to express an especially warm Ramadan Mubarak.

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Maine is like Morocco

According to a popular infographic highlighted a few years back by GOOD, the GDP of Morocco is roughly equivalent to that of Maine. (The comparison is probably not encouraging in either direction.) The rest of the map draws comparisons between other foreign countries and American states with equivalent GDP.

Sp*m Wars

I run two obscure blogs on Movable Type. Finally fed up with comment spam, I decided to try to fight back, and I posted about it. I've been punished for the past 48 hours. Now that things seem to be back to normal, I hesitate to rock the boat by describing my experience, but hopefully others may profit by my mistakes. Hence, the following observations. Forgive me if they are all too obvious:

1. Tweets and pings invite spammers. That doesn't mean one shouldn't use them, just beware the consequences.

2. Closing anonymous comments and requiring registration does not work. The spambots seem to have every form of authentication gamed from Google to Facebook to OpenID. Movable Type's native registration process is the worst, since no one else is monitoring it, but they all seem to be pretty useless as a means of curtailing spam. It's better to allow anonymous comments and fight the spam than it is to try to keep the spammers off the site.

3. A verbal captcha in the form of a question that requires a response seems to have some effect.

4. runs Akismet, a paid spam filtering database. Movable Type has a plugin that supports it. I am still assessing how effective it is, but it seemed to be worth the modest $36 investment.

5. The problem is overwhelming, so don't be surprised if it takes work to deal with it. Current spam count on my system is 19822.

6. The only reason for this relentless spamming that I can think of is Search Engine Optimization: spamming obscure sites to increase one's Google page rank. Hopefully, one can at least deny the spammers that. Unless, of course, they simply act out of motiveless malignancy.