March 20, 2017

Seeking Authenticity in Morocco

A street in Rabat’s medina (c) Sally Rifkin
Sally Rifkin

I came to the Netherlands expecting to experience a certain degree of assimilation into Dutch culture. I expected to “study” abroad in more than one way—there was studying in the traditional sense of classroom learning, and then studying culture through experience, striving to become more and more integrated into authentic Dutch culture.

I had to modify this expectation over the past two weeks, which I spent in four Moroccan cities—Rabat, Fez, Marrakech, and Casablanca. I learned that seeking an “authentic Moroccan experience” for myself was basically a fruitless endeavor—because of my positionality as a white woman and because the idea of “authenticity” is nebulous and problematic.

As white people dressed in jeans and t-shirts, my peers and I stood out whether or not we wanted to. Non-Arab looking and dressing women, in particular, get a lot of attention. I could barely walk a block in each city without a stranger trying to make conversation with me, whistling at me, or catcalling me. Our guide, Hajar, told us that the best way to deal with the harassment was not to respond at all. Responding in Arabic especially was a no-no because it would give the harasser common ground to establish a conversation (for example, “Oh, you speak Arabic? Let me teach you more!”). On the other hand, when bargaining with merchants, we were told to use basic Arabic phrases, like “how much?” and “too expensive.” So it wasn’t necessarily that Arabic itself that was off-limits; it was more context-dependent than that. Navigating Morocco as a female-identified tourist means either trying to go with the flow or swim against the current depending on the context. Being unable to pass as Moroccan (unlike how I am often able to pass as Dutch) kept me from experiencing the authentic Morocco.

But authenticity is a loaded term. Is Fez’s medina (old city), crowded with donkeys, artisans, and butchers, more “authentic” than the shopping mall a few blocks away? No, but it does fit better into orientalist attitudes that bring many tourists to Morocco in the first place. As a tourist, I began to realize my own culpability in conflating “authenticity” and exoticism. Even the simple act of taking pictures reinforces the exotic imaginary of Morocco, and oh boy, did I take pictures. On my social media, I eagerly shared pictures of gilded doors, Roman ruins, and spice markets, which said to my world, “Look where I am! Look how different it is here!” I took very few pictures of Casablanca, which looks more like a Western city. My pictures tend to reinforce the vision of Morocco as the exotic other while simultaneously claiming to depict the real, authentic Morocco.

My position as a white westerner with “spending power” further complicated the search for authenticity. Tourism is a huge industry in Morocco, and as a result, many cultural objects have been appropriated as symbols of orientalism, which Moroccan salespeople then use to make a living. Everywhere I turned in the cities, someone would be trying to sell me something. I was particularly struck by the women in the main squares who were selling henna body tattoos. I wouldn’t feel comfortable purchasing henna tattoo because it’s not part of my culture; it would be inappropriative to wear one. But where does that leave the women who are selling them? Their livelihood depends, to some extent, on my willingness to engage in the cultural appropriation that they’re selling. If everyone chose not to engage, the women would be out of work.

My visit to a hammam, a Moroccan bathhouse, was perhaps simultaneously the most and least authentic experience I had. Bathing is an important ritual in Islam; there is a careful regimen of bathing that one must follow before each of Islam’s daily prayers. Even devout Muslims who live in the desert engage in the bathing, just using sand instead of water. The hammam is a social space segregated by gender where the lines of public and private become blurry. Women of all backgrounds come together in these spaces to bathe and socialize. Universal nudity ostensibly fosters egalitarianism in the hammam. I looked forward to gaining access to this Moroccan tradition, which dates back to the 8th century.  But after booking my appointment and arriving, I soon realized that the hammam we had chosen catered to tourists; it bore a resemblance to a spa, and the few other guests I saw there were tourists. It was still an incredible experience, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t, for lack of a better word, authentic.

As this trip comes to a close, I’m not sure if it would have been possible for me to have an immersive experience, traveling as I was with a large group. Or rather, it would have been, but it would have taken some real dedication on my part—I would have had to research each city beforehand, learn basic Arabic, and commit to befriending locals. But although it wasn’t necessarily an “authentic” experience, it was still valuable; I learned what I could in the classroom and in the world, ate delicious food, and got a lot closer to my peers. And I’m reentering the Netherlands with a more nuanced understanding of what it means to study and live abroad. I’ll always be somewhat of an outsider there even if I seem to fit in. Over the next few weeks, I’ll begin work on my Independent Study Project (ISP), which culminates in a 40-page research paper at the end of the semester. I plan to engage in qualitative interviews with Surinamese-Dutch migrants about gender and food culture. As I conduct and analyze my interviews, it will be critical to admit and examine my own positionality as not only a white person but a foreigner, rather than to deny it.