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.

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.


The Moorish Wanderer has a trenchant analysis of the disempowerment of the Moroccan people and particularly of Moroccan women.

The first part of his post analyzes the powerlessness of the organized political powers and the consequent alienation of the country's youth from the political process.

The second part of the post addresses the self-immolation of Fadoua Laroui in protest of the treatment she received as a young, unwed mother. Wanderer's sarcastic expression of outrage is painful to read, but it bears remembering that he is talking about a young woman who burned herself to death. In my own time in Morocco, I saw the consequences for children born out of wedlock who were cast aside in a Moroccan orphanage with very little hope of escape. And prostitution was commonplace, even in the conservative countryside where I initially least expected it. Women who did not strictly conform to traditional sexual mores paid a steep price in social ostracism, and prostitution was often the sole means of support available for women who had been branded unchaste.

I don't wish to shortchange the strides that Morocco has taken toward women's rights, or the deficiencies in my own culture's treatment of women. However, I think that Wanderer is right to identify the extreme actions taken by the late Ms. Laroui as the result of extreme disempowerment. Ms. Laroui, it seems, had no one to turn to. As I have written before, there is still an opportunity for H.M. the King to embrace and empower his people. I pray he avails himself of it before it is too late.

A bas le francais?

I am a francophile. There, I admitted it. I spent ten years studying French in school, by choice. I could have taken Spanish in Junior High; I could have taken Spanish, German, or Latin in High School, and almost any language in college. But I chose French. To this day, I love the sound of French. I love French literature. In fact, I know I am hopeless because I even like a lot of French popular music (Charles Trenet, Jacques Brel (yes, I know he's Belgian), Annie Villeneuve, Isabelle Boulay (both Quebecoise)). France is one of the garden spots of the world, and French food . . . well, it is French food. And it was arguably my love of French that led me to a French-speaking country — Morocco — as a Peace Corps Volunteer, one of the more fortunate events in my life.

None of which is to say that I do not love Morocco on its own terms, or that I do not think English has a major role to play in Morocco's future. After all, the justification for my being in Morocco as a Peace Corps Volunteer was to assist with the country's already quite competent program of English language instruction. Still, I have a little hesitancy about the push to supplant French in Morocco, as described in a recent article by well-known writer and blogger Hisham G.. Quite apart from my sentimental francophilia, I think that revolutionizing a culture is not a task to be undertaken lightly. Morocco does have a rich francophone tradition, and I would argue for supplementing it with English rather than seeking to banish French.

I also suspect that English is not the panacea that some of its proponents imagine. As the article hints, English may well be relegated tomorrow to the place of French today if the Chinese ascendancy continues. (My five-year-old is learning Mandarin in school.) Quite apart from the fact that English is not really widely spoken in Morocco, it seems to me there are other glaring deficiencies in the Moroccan educational system — particularly in the scientific and technical sector — that need to be addressed if the country is going to be an effective global competitor. Allowing for differences in scale, Morocco might be the "next India," but it is not going to happen by itself.

In addition, I think the arguments quoted in the Morocco Board article from the Pittsburgh Gazette are slightly misleading. According to year 2000 census data quoted by Wikipedia, the top second languages spoken in the United States are Spanish, American Sign Language, Chinese, French, and German. (Arabic is number 13 on the list, and Hindi is number 18.) Most Americans, of course, speak only English; to my mind a competitive disadvantage vis-a-vis Moroccans, who often speak anywhere from two to five languages. According to one study, seventy percent of college students taking a foreign language in America were taking either Spanish or, to a lesser degree, French. So while the Pittsburgh Gazette may be correct that little studied languages in America are gaining adherents at a rapid rate, it is clear that the primary emphasis on language learning in the United States is still on Spanish and, yes, French, at least to the extent that Americans bother to learn any other language at all. To the extent that Americans are likely to be able to communicate directly with Moroccans who do not speak English, they are likely to be speaking French or possibly Spanish. (The number of Americans who learn Arabic is, sadly, minuscule.) Maybe French should not be counted out completely just yet. After all, it is still a first language to 70 million people and an official language for 220 million, according to the Cambridge Factfinder.

Because Americans are fortunate enough to have the currently dominant world language as their mother tongue, America may not be the best model for charting Morocco's linguistic course. It might actually make sense to take a closer look at what the European approach is. Of course, one may well find that they are all learning English too, but it might also be useful to examine what other factors play into their economic success or lack thereof.

Finally, it seems to me that the difficulty of trying to determine the value of French to Moroccan economic life is increased by the complex intertwining of colonial oppression and class snobbery with economic progress, technical assistance, and post-colonial economic progress. The French language, culture, and people just strike too many raw nerves too often in Morocco, a situation not ameliorated by current French attitudes toward immigrants or indeed the country's legendary arrogance. My thought however is that it is probably possible to cultivate English without uprooting French. Morocco is a country of rich cultural diversity, a diversity I would prefer to see augmented rather than diminished.

Big Brother Watches Still: Torture in the Modern Maghrib

Laila Lalami has a chilling piece on the persistence of torture in modern Morocco. Because the victims are not celebrities, they suffer and die unnoticed by the Western media — out of sight, out of mind. While the Kingdom has broken very publicly with the "Years of Lead," during which there was widespread torture of political dissidents under King Hassan II, incidents such as those reported by Lalami are a chilling counterpoint to the current regime's bright face of prosperity, particularly when coupled with ongoing suppression of any kind of free press.

Periodic reports on Morocco's Human Rights Record are available at Human Rights Watch.

View from Fez Turns Five

As I mentioned in a comment to Sandy McCutcheon, founder of one of the premier English-language blogs about Morocco, the View from Fez, it seems as though the View from Fez has been around forever. In fact, this rich and colorful blog is celebrating its fifth anniversary this October. The celebration is under way with a dazzling photo spread, which readers are invited to judge.

Last Jewel of a Lost World

I was looking for music by Marcel Khalife and came across this video, which I found charming even if the video quality is a little uneven.

My Pick for the 2010 Weblog Awards

In every endeavor, there are certain people who achieve a level of excellence that clearly separates them from the ordinary participant. Such people need not be a world champion -- a Lance Armstrong, Mohammed Ali, or Michael Phelps -- but nevertheless they demonstrate a grace and proficiency that sets them apart.

For me, a handful of blogs that I read integrate words, pictures and presentation in such a skilful manner that they are truly set apart -- and, of those, one is written by an acclaimed Moroccan-American novelist. Among the rest, My Marrakesh stands out for elegant design, exquisite taste, gorgeous photography, and crisp, whimsical prose.

Part of what makes My Marrakesh so attractive is its thematic unity. The author, an expatriate American building an elegant guesthouse in cosmopolitan Marrakesh, couples a deep love of Moroccan artistry with an engaging sense of humor over the incessant minor obstacles that repeatedly arise to frustrate her would-be avocation as a hotelier. Occasionally, as in her recent photo montage of Afghan men, she permits a glimpse of the grittier life she leads professionally as an international consultant.

Mostly, however, My Marrakesh is a celebration of simple pleasure and daily beauty -- snapshots of family life, interviews with both Marrakeshis and visitors, accounts of shopping trips in Marrakesh's rich and varied markets. It presents a picture of a life varied and fulfilled, in which one can escape, though not forget, the world's troubles through an appreciation of beauty as seen by the eye of a connoisseur.

For all these reasons, it is easy to see why My Marrakesh again has my vote for Best African Blog in the 2010 Weblog Awards, and I urge anyone who visits the 2010 "Bloggies" to cast a vote for My Marrakesh.

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One Way or Another

I started playing with websites from the moment my (now defunct) dial up provider offered me 5 megabytes of web space, and I dived into blogging at about the time that Dave Winer first decided Frontier 5 could be more than an alternative script for Apple Computers and positioned it as a blog publishing tool. (I moved to Movable Type in 2003 and have never looked back). I have consistently, if intermittently, written a blog (or two) ever since, but the thing that nearly killed off my blogging habit was Facebook.

Facebook has a number of inherent advantages over a blog. First of all, it is designed primarily as a means to keep in touch with people one already knows and likes, so it have an important function apart from the kind of exchange of information for which a blog exists. Secondly, people actually read and comment upon and sometimes care about what you write on Facebook, and because they are already your friends, they are generally supportive. The blogosphere, by contrast, unless one is on the so-called "A-list" or even on the "D-list", can be kind of a cold and lonely place, one in which one is essentially shouting in the vacuum with no one to hear. This is not all a bad thing, and can actually be quite therapeutic, but it is a different experience from Facebook.

Another thing that Facebook does well is it pulls people together, at least superficially, into groups of common interest. One of the most encouraging Facebook groups I have joined is entitled "On est Juifs et on est Musulmans et on s'aime. (OJMA)." In one sense, such a group may reflect no more than a naive one-worldism that overlooks the serious rifts that exist among adherents of the three Abrahamic religions. I prefer, however, to think of the group as an expression of hope that hatred can be overcome, particular in a region -- the so-called Holy Land -- that is rife with hatred even as it purports to be a center of peace and love. This group, to which I was referred by Tunisian blogger Massir Destin, appears to be comprised largely of francophone North Africans, who have a remarkable tradition of religious tolerance stretching back even before the establishment of the legendary kingdoms of El Andalus in what is now southern Spain. This not to say that the region is without bigotry, but it has a remarkable historical record of largely not eviscerating people over religious differences. So-called Christian Europe, with its shameful record of persecution, pogroms, and ultimately the Holocaust, should take note. Suffice it to say that with number of close Muslim friends and a Jewish family, this cause comes close to home.

Finally, however, I come full circle. Because for all the virtues that have led to its explosive growth, there are a number of areas where Facebook falls short of the blogosphere. First, Facebook may be liberal, but it is not free. In the benevolent dictatorship of Facebook, the company can always shut you down. Breastfeeding mothers found that out in a hurry. True, the various companies that host blogs are also able to impose some restrictions, but one can always move, and, even, in a pinch host one's blog onself, so long as one has a computer and a high speed connection. Facebook, in contrast, has far more control over both content and its distribution than anyone has over a blog. Second, Facebook is geared toward people one knows already, functioning more sometimes as an echo chamber than a true exchange of information. Third, Facebook takes only limited advantage of the possibilities for linking information offered by the full web and the blogosphere. Finally, Facebook has an audience limited to one's "friends"; the audience in the blogosphere is potentially limited only by the number of users on the web and the efficiency of Google.

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Moroccan Portal

Every once in a while Twitter vindicates itself, in this case leading me to the fascinating Moroccan portal: Atlantic Connection. So far I have only just signed up and skimmed the site, but it looks quite rich.


The D.C. Examiner warns that the monarchy may be planning sterner measures against Shiites (are there any in Morocco?) and gays. Repression makes strange bedfellows, as it were.

Abdelhati Belkhayat

One of the areas in which my acquaintance with Morocco is definitely underdeveloped is Moroccan music, so I recently asked some friends to suggest some of the music and musicians of which no lover of things Moroccan should be ignorant. Since I view my blog as primarily a means of guiding and shaping my own instruction, with the hope that it may be useful to others along the way, here is Abdelhati Belkhayat. Enjoy!


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.

BBC: Single Mothers Face Harsh Consequences

Abdelilha Boukili pointed me to an excellent piece by the BBC on the difficulties faced by single mothers in Morocco as a result of social ostracism. While this piece focused particularly on the suffering of the mothers, the suffering of their children is often even more compelling. A double standard for male and female sexuality is by no means unique to Morocco, but its consequences for Morocco are starkly demonstrated here.