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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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.

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.

Secret Son

Secret Son Secret Son by Laila Lalami

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
In this superb short novel, Laila Lalami deftly limns the rise and fall of Youssef El Mekki, unacknowledged bastard son of prominent businessman, disillusioned activist, and bon vivant Nabil El Amrani. Seemingly sprung from the trap of the Casablanca slums when he learns that his father, far from being dead, is in fact a Moroccan tycoon, Youssef is soon caught in a complex web of familial and political intrigue. A mark of this novel's quality is its ability to portray what for many Americans is the mildly exotic culture of Morocco while also convincingly revealing the ways in which both Americans and Moroccans are enmeshed in their own cultural contexts (a point illustrated in another fashion by Malcolm Gladwell's recent Outliers). While each character acts as though autonomously, behind the apparently simple interactions between the characters lies a complex web of human relationships, cultural relationships, and sometimes sinister motivations, which Lalami gradually unveils. Lalami's lean style, unsparing eye, and tight construction mean not a word is wasted in this elegant depiction of the book's all too human characters and its damning indictment of the cruel forces that manipulate them.

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Although I have cleverly managed to miss most of a celebration of Arab and Moroccan culture that will likely not be repeated in the nation's capital for another century, I did make it down to the Kennedy Center for a panel at which Moroccan-American author Laila Lalami read and discussed a passage from her new novel, Secret Son, due to be released officially in April. (I was ecstatic to obtain a pre-release copy, which is now at the top of my reading list.) Lalami's reading was characteristically incisive, at once exposing hypocrisy without forgoing compassion for human frailty. (A man worried about the behaviour of his daughter in America is introduced for the first time to the illegitimate son he did know he had fathered.) The consensus of the panel generally (although there were some marked differences) seemed to be that the primary concern of art was art, but the infusion of an Arab sensibility into the mainstream of American consciousness could not fail to enrich the perspective of both Americans and Arabs to the benefit of both.

Mofongo in Paradise

One of the things I have always liked best about Robert B. Parker's mystery stories is that urban(e) tough guy Spenser is regularly cooking some delicious gourmet dish when he is not out roughing up the bad guys. Parker is quite detailed about the mouth-watering meals that Spenser cooks up and then usually washes down with good beer, so much so that one could almost imagine doing the cooking oneself.

So it is that I try new food as much as I can; life should be a culinary adventure. Finding myself in Puerto Rico a little more than a week ago for a conference, I escaped from the lavish Rio Mar resort long enough to sample "Mofongo," a mashed plantain dish, with octopus and conch at a local restaurant. Much to my surprise, I was the only person in the restaurant, a fact compensated for by a magnificent view of the island.

The beauty of the island was in stark contrast to the rather grim reading I brought along. After much searching, I had obtained a copy of Mohammed Choukri's For Bread Alone, and I read it in the evenings after seminars. Choukri recounts his brutal upbringing in a novel that is also very much about food, because there is never enough of it. In one vignette, Choukri jumps off the pier in the harbor to retrieve a crust of bread discarded by a fisherman, only to discover that he is swimming in a sea of shit. (Milan Kundera would no doubt find the novel vulgar but not kitschy.) Choukri's novel counterpoints between desire and disgust, the torments of appetite in a world where there is never enough of anything and a cruel and ignominious death hovers constantly in the background.

British Council Morocco

When I was in Morocco, the British Council Bookstore was one of the few sources for books in English, particularly books for students of English. The books were good, but not cheap, and I used to lend them out to my students for a few days at a time. I wonder how much has changed.


Cat in Rabat and Eatbees have extended essays on why more people in Morocco do not read for pleasure.  Though Cat in particular advances the tri-lingual nature of Moroccan society (Darija, Arabic, French) flavored with Berber and sometimes even English, my experience in Morocco suggested that a significant part of the problem is a lack of reading material at an appropriate level and an early age.  Cat writes:

Our parents read to my brother and I before bedtime; we were encouraged to read for ourselves when we became a certain age; our bookshelves were routinely replenished with fresh Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys volumes; weekend trips to the public library were considered a natural way to spend a Saturday; used book stores acquired an importance early in our lives
that has never diminished.

When I was teaching, my students were always pestering me for books in English.  I never had enough, and with the exception of a few special purchases, they were generally too difficult for my high school students.  Not having books to read, or having only books that are too difficult, will discourage any would-be reader.  As Cat notes, she had a plentiful supply of Nancy Drew, etc. as a child. The Hardy Boys may be tripe, but I had a whole shelf as a boy and devoured every one.

However, high school is too late to start.   My two toddlers between them own more books than than I suspect most Moroccan villages do.  And the books are appropriate for babies. They are just taking the first steps toward reading, but I cannot pry the books out of their hands.  (In addition, we read to them throughout the day.)

A Moroccan friend of mine pointed out today that the Qu'ran commands Muslims to read.  Children will not learn to love reading, however, unless they have the opportunity while they are young.

P.S. I think Massir's comment on Eatbee's post, in which she describes giving her children books before they can speak, nicely sums up what I am trying to say.

The Other Side of Muslims in America

American Islam - Paul M. Barrett - Book - Review - New York Times

The New York Times favorably reviews the new book of family friend Paul M. Barrett on Islam as practiced in America. Barrett profiles seven different moderate Muslims living in America for a variety of viewpoints that contrast with the frequent demonization of Islam in America, although the review notes that conservative and radical points of view are largely unrepresented. I am hoping to pick up a copy at Politics and Prose on January 29 at 7 p.m., where Barrett will be holding a book signing.

End of an Era

Naguib Mahfouz: An Appreciation

Laila Lalami laments the death of one of the Arab world's great writers in this appreciation in the Nation:

With the death of Mahfouz, Egypt has been deprived of its greatest living writer and of its last icon of the twentieth century, and the world has lost one of its most humane literary figures.

Particularly interesting is Lalami's discussion of Mahfouz's interest in both Pharaonic and Islamic Egypt in his works, and his complicated politics in his life.

The Caliph's House

Starting Over in a Caliph's Castle - New York Times

SETTING up house in a North African slum is not at the top of many wish lists. But as the writer Tahir Shah explained recently, his family's relocation from a cramped apartment in London to a 10-bedroom mansion in this sprawling coastal city was partly to help his two children escape the cultural insularity of his own youth.

The New York Times reviews Tahir Shah's The Caliph's House. Not the least interesting part of the review is the photographs.

Three Things

Three things I have learned so far reading Richard Fletcher's Moorish Spain:

1. The "Arab" conquest of Spain was mostly accomplished by Berbers.

2.  Transportation in the ancient world between Morocco and Southern Spain was easier than within Spain, thus facilitating the conquest.

3.  There was a significant population of Jews in Spain in the eighth century who were badly treated by the Visigothic regime that had succeeded the Roman Empire and who most likely welcomed the comparatively more tolerant Muslims.

Roots of Sufism

Vincent J. Cornell's is a rich study of Moroccan Sufism through the fifteenth century, tracing the role of Sufi "saints" in Moroccan society from the time of the Tit 'n Fitr ribat under the Al Moravids through the institutional role of the Jazulite brotherhood under the S'adian dynasty. It's not often that I admit to being unable to fully digest a book on a first reading, but this book could profitably be reread several times.

Cornell's central contrast is between inner holiness or spirituality (wilaya) and public authority and recognition (walaya), both of which he sees as essential to the identity of the Moroccan "saint." The development of spiritual perfection and supernatural power is concomitant with the obligation to succor the poor and to rebuke, or at least correct, the country's rulers. At the same time, the Sultans of Morocco variously regarded Sufi "saints" either as political allies lending spiritual authority to the regime or as political threats whose criticisms were given weight by large numbers of devoted followers.

Cornell sketches the lives and works of a number of Moroccan saints, including Abu Yizza, As Sabti, and Al Jazuli. In addition, he provides quite a bit of incidental insight into Moroccan history of the period, such as his analysis of the effect of the Portuguese takeover of Morocco's ports on the continued viability of Granada, which lost its supply base, and the focus of the Sufi brotherhoods on jihad in an effort to expel the Portuguese invader, which contributed to the rise of the S'adian dynasty.

Andalusian Fantasy

Guy Gavriel Kay's evokes the last days of Al Andalus in a historical novel disguised as a fantasy. Without making any claims to historical accuracy, Kay nevertheless vividly reimagines the refined Al Andalus (Al Rassan) crushed between the Spanish zealots to the North and the North African zealots to the South. Not a book to slake a thirst for knowledge about Al Andalus, but perhaps a book to awaken one.

Two Books

The topical interest of Laila Lalami's might present a danger of obscuring its literary merit if it were not so beautifully written. This compact book of less than 200 pages presents snapshots in the lives of four Moroccans who attempt the dangerous illegal crossing of the Straits of Gibraltar in search of a better life in Spain. The results are ambiguous and poignant.

Phillip Kurata's dissects the slimy underbelly of a thinly fictionalized Tunisian police state. His naive, self-centered protagonist, Habib Ben Hamed, is quickly in over his head as his brother lures him into becoming an agent of the national police, a job for which his basic decency renders him completely unsuitable. This hard-boiled novel provides an unblinking look at the brutality of the modern police state, also a topic of considerable contemporary interest as Morocco reflects on the Years of Lead and on its own current human rights record.