Balancing Acts

In this essay, Jillian compares living in Morocco as a foreigner to a careful balancing act.

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Blogger, writer, activist, co-founder of Talk Morocco 2 comments

Thursday, July 29th, 2010


The thing is, that if you’ve grown up ethnically white in an American or Dutch middle class neighborhood, Otherness is probably not a feeling you are accustomed to. I’m not talking about that sense of ‘being different’ that we all experience from time to time, or that feeling of just not being able to ‘connect’ to any other individual in our environment. What I am referring to is not an internal feeling, but rather an externally imposed sense of difference. A perception of Otherness in the eyes of our social environment that is based on unchangeable (and often inborn) aspects of our appearance, and that we ourselves are unable to control or change. That sense of Otherness that anyone who has grown up as part of an ethnic minority will be overly familiar with.

-Charlotte, a Dutch-American anthropologist/blogger in Morocco

Morocco has long been traversed by others. Passed over by Phoenicians and Romans, Jews, Carthaginians, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Spanish, Portuguese, and French, Morocco is full of outside influences, yet has still managed to remain fairly insular. Morocco has been described as “proud and unruly”, and in terms of resistance, it always has been. Despite centuries of colonization, there is still a strong Amazigh identity. Despite attempts to crush it during periods of pan-Arabism, it remains, as does a uniquely “Moroccan” sense of identity, despite how different the coast is from the interior, the Atlas from the Med.

That Moroccanness is often at the expense of inclusiveness is an understatement. Talking with other foreigners who have lived there, and with Moroccan friends born elsewhere, or who have lived abroad for a long time, there is one common thread: Everyone speaks of feeling like an outsider.

Of course, this manifests in different ways. For some, it’s a matter of personal feeling, of a sense that they can never quite grasp Morocco’s intricate culture, its complicated language. For others, it’s literally public mocking. Walking down the street with a Chinese-American friend who was teaching in Fez, I witnessed this firsthand: No fewer than three teenagers shouted “Jackie Chan!” at him. No harm meant? Perhaps, but harm most certainly felt. For Indians, it’s shouts of “Sharukh Khan”, and for white women, it’s constant sexual harassment.

For me, however, it wasn’t the sexual harassment–however prevalent–that bothered me as much as it was feeling like an outsider, both from Moroccans, and in a way, from other foreigners.

As to the latter, the issue is this: Morocco has a lot of wealthy European expatriates who essentially live in enclaves of whiteness. Few learn Arabic, bother to understand Islam, or otherwise assimilate. Happy to live amongst themselves, the problem with these expats, for me, is twofold: I don’t have the money to fit into their world, but more importantly, their legacy means that I am automatically assumed to be like them–wealthy, unconcerned with local problems, and unable to speak Arabic–by many Moroccans. That means I get spoken to in French, no matter how many times I insist on Arabic. That means I am skinned alive by salespeople who think I can afford to spend 100 dirhams on their useless trinket, and it means that, for some young men, I am easy prey.

Of course, this predicament is possible to get out of, at least mostly: You learn Arabic, then insist on it. You wear a caftan to the occasional wedding. You learn how to bargain, fiercely. You treat those young men the way Moroccan women do, with a turn of the head or a tfoo.

Then there is the other issue: As a foreign woman, no matter what you do, you are outside of the rules. You are not bound by the rules of your parents, who might insist you marry a certain man or be home by a certain time. You are not bound by the rules of society, which might pressure you not to drink or to dress more conservatively. You are not bound by gender roles, which means you can sit in whichever cafe you wish and smoke a cigarette if you want to. You are free, but at the same time, if you do those things too much or too overtly, you run the risk of remaining an outsider, impossible to gain respect from certain friends, or at least from their parents.

And so, being a foreigner in Morocco–or at least, a foreigner who wishes to fit in–is a balancing act between being yourself and assimilating. It is rejecting those things that don’t fit (for me, Islam, conservatism, and evening tea) and trying on those things that do (Arabic, djellabas, and cheap buses). It is essentially an experience of being the Other, something that makes a lot of Americans and Europeans infinitely uncomfortable, but which is the daily experience of so many who have moved from East to West.

Post-script: For some background information, I moved to Morocco at 23, alone and living on a Moroccan teacher’s salary. Young white women in Morocco are not entirely uncommon, but they are usually tourists, or Peace Corps volunteers in mostly rural areas, or students who come for a year to study Arabic or on Fulbright scholarships. Therefore, as one of perhaps three young white women in Meknes at the time, my experience will likely be different from others’.

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Posted on Thursday, July 29th, 2010

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