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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