Monday, September 7, 2009

'Authentic' Moroccanness

Today’s post on The View from Fez pointed my attention toward a travel article published yesterday in The Guardian. In this piece, author Stephen Emms defends Casablanca against those who argue that the city, with its grand boulevards, 20th century architecture, fast pace, and skyscrapers, is not truly ‘Moroccan’.

In response to these critics, Emms points to the authentically ‘Moroccan’ aspects of Casablanca that lie hidden beyond this “westernized” exterior: 

“Yes, there are the tower blocks, and the five-star hotels, and the businessmen swarming around Place Des Nations-Unies, but the old medina, which dates only from the 19th century (although its ochre walls are older), spirals with timeless neighborhood life. Slip past stalls flogging teapots, watches and jewellery, all blinding in the glare of the sun, and you will discover pencil-thin alleys and tiny squares, where bleached towels cling to window sills and old men inch past in white djellabas, the shuffle of their slippers syncopating the sizzle of squid in oil. … The elegant “new medina,” called Quartier Habous, a layout of Provençal-style squares and arches built by the French as a place for Muslims to live and trade, is a clean and inviting souk selling anything from oil paintings to art deco statuettes. But even here, the “real Morocco” is nearer than you might imagine – just over the railway bridge is Rue Taroudant, from the dusty stalls of which dangle dried chameleons, hedgehogs, and live baby tortoises. “No photos!” the bearded sellers cried in unison as I whipped my camera out; these are ancient charms, after all, with their own magical powers.”

Emms here paints a stark contrast between ‘old’ and ‘new’ – between ‘western’ and ‘Moroccan’. It is precisely in the complexity of this juxtaposition that a former US Embassy worker, interviewed by Emms for this piece, finds Casablanca’s authenticity. “It’s the real deal,” she says, “like Marrakech was more than 10 years ago.” However, Emms himself seems to wonder what this mix of old and new, modern and traditional, really means for Casablanca’s status as an ‘authentic’ Moroccan city: 

“Does Casa's roving eye to the future negate its past? Its art deco and neo-Moorish heritage certainly isn't as valued as you might expect: the Hotel Lincoln, opposite the Marché Central, collapsed earlier this year, and there don't appear to be any plans to salvage it. Other buildings on and around Boulevard Mohammed V (which boasts some of the most dazzling period architecture) languish unloved, as does the Parc de la Ligue Arabe. But perhaps there's something honest about such disregard - should Casablancans have to bow to their colonial past? And anyway, isn't Morocco's "real" past more than represented, as I discovered, in the medinas and back streets?” 

I am impressed with the appreciative way in which both Emms and the people he’s interviewed speak of Casablanca. However, I don’t think I agree with the way in which Emms defends Casablanca’s status as a ‘real’ Moroccan city – and by extension, what he implies about what constitutes ‘authentic’ Moroccanness.

As much as Emms acknowledges, and even appreciates, the complexity and the dynamic juxtapositions that dominate modern Moroccan society, he ultimately concludes that what is truly ‘Moroccan’ lies in the country’s traditions – represented in this article by crowded medinas, jellaba’d men, and haggling for dried chameleon in dusty souqs. And that, I think, is dangerous. It superimposes one pair of polar opposites – old versus new – on top of another imagined polarity: Moroccanness versus Westernness. It creates a binary view of the world that may simplify matters, but ultimately blinds us from the complexities of reality, and minimizes a people’s agency in defining its own sense of authenticity.

First of all, associating ‘authentic’ Moroccanness with tradition, or with the past, brings up some logistical problems of definition. To start with, how do you really separate tradition and modernity, or distinguish foreign from native? Where do you draw the line between ‘authentic tradition’ and ‘foreign invasion’ – which historical influx of foreign peoples ended true and pure Moroccan culture and opened the door to foreign influence? Was it the French? Or was it the Andalusian Muslims who returned during the Reconquista? Was it the Arabs, perhaps, or even the Romans? If Morocco’s authenticity lies in the past, how far back do you have to go to find it, exactly?

Moreover, are ‘tradition’ and ‘modernization’ that easily separable? Is Morocco’s current development a manifestation of purely Western influence, and have Morocco’s ‘traditions’ remained completely untouched by outside influences? Can we really say that Casablanca’s skyscrapers are purely western, the likes of which you’d find in France, England, the United States, while the old medina of Fes has remained pristinely Moroccan? In other words, how ‘foreign’ is Morocco’s modernization, and how ‘authentic’ have its traditions remained? I think this simple juxtaposition of ‘modern’ versus ‘traditional’ blinds us to the complex reality of Morocco – the unique brand of development that has given a distinctively Moroccan flavor to Casablanca’s modernity, and the dynamic adaptation of old traditions to current circumstances. Imagine the distinctly Moroccan patterns of hierarchy and social organization that may structure a company housed in one of Casablanca’s high rises, or the traditional carpenter in the Fes medina whose work has reached a wider audience through the website he’s been able to create with a laptop and wireless internet.

But above all, the association of ‘authentic Moroccanness’ with traditions from the past is a dangerous one. By relegating Moroccanness to “timeless” traditions and picture-perfect scenes from the old medina, we deprive Morocco of a present – let alone of a future. It is the same process of thought that legitimated French colonial rule in the first half of the twentieth century. Our perception of authentic Moroccanness is a nostalgic image of medieval Arab life that we seek to preserve by freezing Moroccan culture in time and characterizing all development as ‘foreign’, and therefore invasive. It is an Orientalist process of thought that deprives ‘real’ Moroccan culture of any belonging in (or compatibility with) a modern, developing world.

This is not to say that Morocco’s medinas and traditions should not be preserved. They should – they are a part of ‘authentic’ Moroccanness that should not be forgotten. It is also not to say that foreign (Western) influence was not invasive. It was. What I mean to say is simply that we should not so starkly oppose tradition and modernity, or past and present, and attribute ‘authenticity’ to a single pole on that binary scale. Cultures, like human beings, are living, breathing, porous things, and change is a fundamental strategy of survival. Cultures, like human beings, adapt to their ever-changing environment. No culture has ever been static, and no society has ever developed in complete isolation from foreign influences. It may not always have been the pervasive, imperial, and certainly destructive, influence of the West – but foreign influence has always been a fact of life. 

The notion of authenticity is ultimately a difficult one that brings up more questions than it does answers. I think that a certain tension between past and present may be inherent to the state of postcoloniality, with national identity and notions of ‘authenticity’ stuck in the middle. How do you determine what is ‘real’ and what is ‘foreign’? What parts of history constitute the foundation for national identity, and which have been written by alien conquerors? To what extent should ‘foreign’ influence be resisted, and can (should?) traditions always stand the test of time? And who has the authority, anyway, to determine the answers to all these questions? Questions of what is ‘authentic’ are persistently and consciously present in the Moroccan public consciousness. There is a palpable preoccupation with the issue of how to define the relationship between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, and nearly every political or social issue becomes a pretext for debates about the value of each for Moroccan society and identity. These are not debates that will be resolved any time soon, and I’m sure notions of ‘authenticity’ will be discussed for decades to come. But I don’t think this means that authenticity is lost, or under threat of extinction.

I don’t think that change, dynamism, or foreign influence have to undermine any culture’s status as ‘authentic’ or ‘real’. What makes a culture ‘authentic’ is not its resistance against foreign influence, but simply its particular way of developing, its reality and meaningfulness for the people whose lives it frames. What is authentic is every society’s particular way of making sense of change, of foreign influence; its way of processing, internalizing, mixing new elements with what’s already there to create new meanings, new realities. In its very combination of incredible modernity and development with a high premium on the preservation of tradition, Morocco is, in every sense of the word, authentic. Morocco is a living, breathing culture in the flux of constant change and development. Casablanca, in all its economic enormity and modernity, is as much an example of true Moroccanness as Fes is in its preservation of traditions. And it’s time that we all not only recognize, but celebrate this unique kind of authenticity.


Jillian said...

It's such a typical Western paradigm; only the "ancient" (regardless of origin) of Morocco is authentic, while the rest is merely a manifestation of colonialism.

Moroccans fall for it too; every time I traveled to Marrakesh or Rabat from Meknes, my students would ask upon my return what I saw. If it wasn't tombs and madrassas, they weren't interested.

Some of my favorite places in Morocco are in the midst of urban landscapes where the super-modern is juxtaposed against the colonial-era architecture. Near the twin towers in Casa, on Rue des Paris in Meknes, the Rabat medina. Although I've done my fair share of touristing around, it's the inner cities that fascinate me most (and that goes for just about anywhere in the world). What is "authentic" to me, personally, is the places where people actually live and work.

Anonymous said...

I am Happy to visit this blog. I just written something about Morocco.

Charlotte said...

Jillian -

I completely agree with you. What keeps on fascinating me in Morocco is the way in which modernity and tradition twist around one another; the way they endlessly mix and mingle - in architecture, language, beliefs, customs, fashion, public debate and so on. All of it is 'authentic' - because it is a lived reality, because it frames individual lives.

And I've noticed, too, that that nostalgia for the past is entertained by Moroccans, too... 'tradition' always seems to be a source of legitimacy and value.

Sonnet - I'm glad you found this blog; thanks for stopping by!

Barbara said...

Hi, I just discovered your blog thanks my friend Jillian. I have read a few of your posts so far and really like them!

Regarding "authentic" Morocco, I am always annoyed by articles and documentaries focussing soley on the old medinas and so called traditional Morocco. The Moroccan reality, especially in larger towns, is a lot more diverse. In my opinion, a portray of Morocco cannot be authentic if it does not do justice to this diversity.

Looking forward to reading more of your blog in the future!