Anti-Imperial Feminist Musings in Morocco
September 14, 2014
I traveled to Fez and Casablanca, Morocco earlier this month to dialogue with Islamic Feminists there and to see, to feel, to stretch myself to and in Northern Africa. What follows are a few thoughts about the complexity of traveling/being from the U.S. today while being committed to building coalitions for peace, especially among feminists. And today means now, the urgent moment after the Israeli bombardment of Gaza.
Nothing I say here is universally true. Some of it may be more momentary than lasting. It would be easy to disagree or pose a differing viewpoint. But, yet, I think it is worthwhile to risk myself to maybe find newly honest dialogue.
Some of my thoughts are cryptic and partial but I share them if they might help you think about the urgency of now; that although there is nothing new in saying that the U.S. is imperial, racist, misogynist and militarist we may be in a newer more vengeful phase of it, with unknown consequences for everyone.
Both Fez and Casablanca are in part replicas of walled in cities. The medina bespeaks a life built at the ready for defense against new conquest. Unsettled histories of tribal conquering and militarism, and colonialism defined the early architectures of these cities and much of it remains. The tribal and then colonial past by Portugal and then France still lines the contours of everyday life.
While walking in the streets of Fez I was conscious of being Caucasian and therefore of the West. Most often I was asked if I were Australian. There were no North Americans in easy view for me to see. As from the west, and then “American” I symbolize the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and…. in Morocco the wars seem closer and they are. The unsuccessful revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and the continuing blood bath in Syria are on people’s minds and bespeak the callousness of wars spoils: displacement, refugees, and death.
These countries suffer US imperial projects in ways that we do not at home. There is no daily presence of endless displacement here. Food and electricity is available for most, and bombs are not heard or seen. But northern Africa suffers our doings more closely and worries about more. Some people that I spoke with think their king is figuring out ways to avoid an Egypt, while others remain skeptical. Petit red taxi drivers are at the ready to peg us for a visit to the old synagogue and graveyard. As soon as it known that I am from the U.S. it is assumed I am Zionist. The actual “being a Jew” is not the identity here. I wonder whether U.S. Christians get this—which they too represent, the travesty of Zionist politics. This is the new political identification and conflation—that the US and Zionism are one. The Israeli destruction of Gaza exposed this more clearly than ever.
While chatting, walking, and eating in Fez it seems like such a homosocial society across the genders. There is open hugging and kissing of men with men; women with women. They seem totally affectionate with each other. There is lots of physicality across the identities of sex and gender in public venues. It is not clear how this covers over misogynist privileging of male life or how its sets different contours of it.
So, there are few young women out and about. Men dominate in numbers in public spaces. And the cafes are almost all filled with males. But women are hustling about doing the work that they do in every country.
Men dote on their young daughters in public. So many of them are incredibly loving and affectionate, and I wonder when and why and how this changes to set the patriarchal markers that limits women’s lives in both public and private spaces. I assume domestic violence exists behind closed doors just like at home and everywhere. I wonder about the similarities, the universalisms that are specifically written in Casablanca.
I see more families out and about than in the States. Inter-generational groups fill the streets of Fez on Friday evening near the medina. Even though may have cell phones, few people are speaking on them, but instead speaking with one another. Restaurant tables are set for groups of 6 or more; I hardly see a setting for two that is so much more ordinary back home.
The petit red cabs pick you up for short fares. It does not matter if others are already in the cab. They move over and we share the seat.
The mint tea became a ritual for Richard, my spouse, and me. We would slow ourselves down and sip it together leisurely and muse and wander. We go to buy some of the tea for friends back home and only see Chinese made tea. The salesperson laughs and finds us some made in Morocco. But China is all over the economy, as it is here.
I see every kind of dress and panoply of head coverings and scarfs for women and just a very few niqabs. As usual, most men are dressed in western garb. All the Muslim fashion and variety of dress seems more freeing than constraining. Most of the women I spoke with see themselves as believing and as feminist. And they see Morocco as in engaging in the long slow struggle of progressive change.
It was a bit of a surprise to see Richard’s white hair as so much of a marker as we walked the streets of Casablanca. Most older Moroccan men, at least in the cities we were in, dye their hair. Richard’s head of white hair marked us as different. Maybe my mix of blonde/white/grey also did.
We walked the cities to get to know them. The streets in Casablanca are rutted and broken even in the rich neighborhoods. Rich and I wondered why these fancy neighborhoods did not have fancier streets. The disrepair reminded me of the streets in the Bronx. And we wondered what actually defines/makes a country poor, especially when it has many rich people in it. I am still wondering now that I am back home.
We are told that you are supposed to bargain in the medina when you are buying something. The vender will give you a high price, similar to a US price and you push for less. Neither of us wanted to do this. After all, why should the price be less? After seeing the workers with their exposed bodies in the tannery vats filled with chemicals for softening the leather for the hats, shoes, and bags, we wanted to buy nothing. I just wanted to give my money away. And I wanted to not be seen as a rich westerner.
Computers are down at the Casablanca airport for our return creating a slow chaos of meandering lines going nowhere. Then, the entire system crashed. I realized that it is very possible that we will not leave today. But then the computers get back on line and we start to move and our passports are checked and stamped. We leave, late, but we are finally on our way home.
On the return home, our plane was filled with 75 percent Sub-Saharan Africans, 23 percent Moroccans or North Africans, and three whites, including us, from the US. But at customs so many of the Black Africans come into the U.S. citizen line. I stood on the line thinking that you can tell nothing or almost nothing by looking at any of us. U.S. citizens come in all colors, but the symbol is still white. And everything depends on what people think they see. I am unsettled and wondering in the best way. It is why we travel.
I carried our US wars around with me in North Africa so I am not sure how much anyone can extrapolate from my feelings about the world just now. But I cannot help but think that feeling the wars up closer is good even if heartbreaking. And it felt important to be a pro-Palestinian feminist from the US in Morocco to open dialogues that are too closed.
I was and am devastated to return home to the smugness of US superiority and exceptionalism as Obama promises the world that he will smash ISIS. The streets of Fez and Casablanca felt challenged but vital in the chaos and turmoil of the surrounding world. Coming home it feels as though we are stifled, and too removed from the mess of the world, and simply repeating vengefulness. I offer my snippets of thought as an anti-imperial feminist looking for alternatives to punishing “Others” and instead building coalitions towards a just peace.