Thursday, November 13, 2008

On A Personal Note (Of Hybridity)

Last night the Nimar organized an evening of film and debate for a group of Dutch and American students in Rabat. On the basis of a Hollywood production about Morocco in the 1970s, we discussed Morocco’s image in the United States as well as the Netherlands – and from there drifted to a more general discussion about prejudice, generalization, the relationship between West and East, and immigration.

The Nimar announced we would be watching a film called “Marrakech Express” – which I had never heard of before. As it turned out, this is simply the French title for “Hideous Kinky,” a movie I love and actually own. The basic story, set in 1972, follows a woman who has traveled to Marrakech with her two young daughters, hoping to find “truth” – namely “the annihilation of the ego” that is supposedly taught by a certain Sufi order. What I love about Hideous Kinky is that it romanticizes Morocco without reveling in Orientalist exoticism. It celebrates Morocco’s beauty and complexity, but does so indirectly: the film has moved back an extra step of observation, and brings into focus the way in which Western visitors in the hippie era – personified by Julia, the protagonist – experienced Morocco and projected onto it their own created desires for escapism and exotic fantasy.

I live in a different Morocco – another time, another region, another political climate, another world. Nevertheless, the image of Morocco created by this movie rings true to me. It is an image that always remains implicit; no statements are made, no generalizations, no explanations or descriptions. There are simply images that cannot be captured by language or description. These images highlight the exoticism and strangeness (and sensory overload – bright colors, sounds, smells everywhere) that strike most western travelers, but also show the harmlessness of it all. I love how this duality is presented: the viewer gets to know Morocco primarily through the eyes of Julia’s two little girls, who explore Marrakech without judgment or prejudice, as an open space of possibility and adventure; but who are also a little haunted by its strangeness, by a certain discomfort they cannot identify. It comes back in their dreams, where the imagery gives us some indication of the nature of that discomfort. In this dream world they are constantly running through long, dark, claustrophobic corridors – medina alleys, hallways – in pursuit of a loved one, whom they are never able to reach. She is always on the other side of a wall, around the corner, or across a courtyard.* A constant pursuit, and a perpetual inability to grasp, to ground.

And I love the movie’s basic message: that there is no point in searching for “truth,” because that results in nothing but escapism and neglect of your reality – which is where your personal truth really lies. The film does not celebrate pragmatism. To the contrary, it illustrates the beauty of pursuits and passions, but it preaches a kind of down-to-earthness in doing so, a kind of grounding, a not forgetting about who you are. Julia escapes constantly, and persistently so (refusing even to see the Moroccan reality around her for what it is), despite continual forces pulling her back to reality – lack of money, a daughter with an illness, a Sufi sheikh who talks not about “annihilation of the ego” but in fact asks her all about the life she left behind in London. She doesn’t quite get it, even at the end, but we – the viewers – see it.

So – the movie over, we began a debate about common perceptions of Morocco in the United States and the Netherlands: Morocco as the accessible and safe representative of exoticism, Morocco as hippie paradise, Morocco as the “other,” Morocco as desert, Morocco as poor and desolate origin of the ‘troubled youth’ in Holland. Perhaps inevitably, with a crowd of Westerners forced by their sojourn in a Muslim country to figure out their relationship to the world, the discussion moved quickly on to the general topic of Western prejudice and discrimination. We all seemed to be of the same mind about generalization and stereotyping of the Muslim world: we took care to express our sensitivity to the variation of cultures, languages, and histories that constitute this region. Yet I was surprised at the extent to which generalizations and stereotypes did slip into the conversation here and there. The sensitivity to variation did not always seem to be applied to our own part of the world. Stereotypes surfaced – about the United States, about the Moroccan community in the Netherlands, even. Between the various participants we had enough different viewpoints in the room to arrive at a fairly subtle analysis, but it surprised me nevertheless.

I found myself constantly taking up a middle position: pointing to similarities between Holland and the US, comparing Moroccan attitudes to Western ones, contrasting the reality of Dutch-Moroccan youth’s unwillingness to identify with Holland to the reality of the fact that they are often not accepted as ‘Dutch’ by the general population. And as we talked, I began to step back and look at myself, sitting there in between the Americans and Netherlanders. I often take up middle positions in debates, seemingly unable to take up a position (or ever make a simple statement in general) because I always see multiple sides to everything. But that evening I had no choice, it seemed; I simply was in the middle. I am Dutch, but I am also an American student. I was part of both groups, able to represent each – and at the same time unable to fully do so in the same way that others were. I know each society, but I know each imperfectly: I left the Netherlands eight years ago, and I don’t have the experience of growing up American.

And as we began to talk about the young Moroccan community in Holland, the discussion really began to resonate with my own sense of being both-and-in-between. I have done fairly extensive research on Moroccans in the Netherlands, and among Muslim immigrants in the United States. But as I contributed to the discussion, I felt myself drawing mostly on my own experience of immigrant identity – of issues with belonging, acceptance, and assimilation. My experience does not begin to compare with the difficulty encountered by these youth, but the observations made about Moroccans suddenly had a familiar feeling.

Efforts to assimilate, I think, can carry with them the risk of losing yourself. Even if you find a way for yourself to combine identification with two different cultural worlds, many others cannot wrap their heads around such hybridity. Adopting one culture seemingly always entails the forgetting of another – in the same way, perhaps, that you can never speak two languages perfectly at the same time. The reaction to this is natural, I think: you begin to grasp on to strings of belonging, however small or big they are, even if that means a rejection of any other affiliations. You begin to develop an unreal nostalgia for the place you come from, begin to idealize and elaborate that part of your identity, even if that impedes the process of assimilation. You search for markers to vouch for the authenticity of your ‘original’ identity – you wear particular clothes, highlight your accent when you speak, talk about the host country as though you are a mere visitor, tout a taste for music from your country of origin, search for other ex-pats in your area, turn back to your country’s national religion. If an identification with the host country is not accepted by the general population there, this nostalgic tendency can be even stronger. In Holland, Dutch-Moroccans are persistently seen as nothing but ‘Moroccan’ or ‘Muslim’ (two identifications that are often conflated with one another by the general public). It is not surprising at all, I think, that they react to this by rejecting the identity they are not granted by society, and strengthening the ones they can claim legitimately. How can we expect them to identify with Holland when we persistently keep referring to them as “Moroccan youth” – and when that term has become synonymous with “troubled youth”?

In my own case, there was no rejection. To the contrary: I can fit in completely, in the US. I can pass for American: I have no accent when I speak English, I know the ins and outs of American culture by now, and my northern European appearance easily passes for WASP. This, however, did in fact make me lose myself, for a while. I no longer knew who I was: my Dutchness had not only become something of the past, but had become a past that had been erased by assimilation. It no longer seemed relevant. When I began to pull myself together again, I did so by reaching back and bringing that past back to life. I began to underscore my difference, my otherness – while simultaneously being frustrated that the choice to focus on my past seemed to erase a present. I could claim neither a Dutch present, because I now lived in America, nor an American present, because I was in a sense denying my identification with the United States.

It was not until I spent a significant amount of time outside of either country – here in Morocco, in fact, four years ago – that these two parts of myself fell into place. Before that time, a situation like last night’s would have given me an identity crisis. Now I have a kind of peace about it. There is no more difference between past and present; Holland and the US have come together on either side of that divide. I know who I am. I know what parts of me are Dutch and what parts are American. I have both, and it works for me. I have realized that it does not jeopardize my belonging anywhere, it does not make me any less legitimate, and it certainly does not make me any less of a coherent person. I still run into people who cannot grasp this idea of a joint identity. Surprisingly it is mostly Europeans – both in the United States and Europe – who do not understand that I can live an assimilated lifestyle in California without over-emphasizing my otherness, but still speak Dutch at home, eat the food I’ve always eaten, stay up to date on the Dutch media, and celebrate Dutch holidays.

I still grasp for strings of belonging – because I don’t want to lose my sense of hybridity. I still insist on a certain Dutchness, to always complement the Americanness that is more automatically there (because that’s where I live, after all). I will be raising my kids, if or when I ever have them, as perfect hybrids who speak Dutch and know the ins and outs of Dutch culture. But it all has a place now; this Dutchness no longer exists in contradiction with my Americanness.

Here in Morocco, I think this blog has become my grasping. It’s not a tool of belonging, but it is a way for me to remember who I am and why I am here, at the moments when my total immersion, loss of privacy, and inability to be self-sufficient reduce me to the status of a child. Writing has always been a way of grasping for me, I think, and it is something I have never been able to live without.

* This is a feeling I especially identify with in Morocco. I do finally feel like I am getting to know the country, but that sense of perpetual inability to get somewhere, to truly understand, to penetrate those walls and lose that simultaneous sense of claustrophobia and complete exposure – that’s something I really recognize.

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