I’ve never considered myself privileged in the classic, 21st century American sense. Please do not misunderstand me; I am one unbelievably blessed fellow. But given my own personal story and that of my family, I never thought of myself as advantaged. That is, until one sunny day on the sands of Playa Santa Lucia in a country that rhymes with scuba. We hired a guy to take us two hours out of the city for a day at the beach and away from the humidity. We hopped into his struggling Moskvich (with a hole in the floor and exhaust fumes seeping into the car), and landed on the warm beach, sun shining with a few perfectly placed clouds in the sky. As we walked along the damp sand looking for a prime spot to post up, we noticed a small area of palapas grouped together with a few lounging chairs under each thatched-palm covering. My buddies and I placed our bags on the sand and towels on the chairs and looked out into the turquoise-y, blue-ish water and observed that the locals swam to the left of a small jetty while the beach in front of us was fairly empty. It immediately made sense – we were in front of a resort. Apparently it was one of these all-inclusive joints because after a few minutes taking in the scenery, we got up and headed into the complex a good many meters away from the beach to grab a round of rum ‘n’ cokes. After we ordered we went to pay the bartender and he gave us the “are you crazy?”-look telling us that we didn’t have to. Not wanting to blow our cover we thanked him and tipped generously. Needless to say that we had a great day – grrreat day!
At some point towards the latter part of the day, my friends Eddie and Julio and I were in the water ebbing and floating when we began to discuss the events of the day – how we sat under the cover of the palapas, had an entire beach open for our enjoyment, and had been drinking copious amounts of rum-inspired beverages for free. Most of all however, we talked about how we’d been able to work the system. There was no diabolical plan, no attempt to exploit a weakness. We spent the day living it up simply because we were not from the country. Everyone must have assumed we were Spanish or wealthy Mexicans on holiday because we were never questioned, never asked to prove who we were. And that gave us access. That gave us privilege.
On our way to Boumalne du Dadès yesterday, a fellow colleague of mine, Quiana, was gracious and open enough to share some of her thoughts with me. I will not share the details of what she wrote, but in essence, it dealt with her feelings as a visitor in Morocco (as well as other thoughts). Beautifully written and earnest, it made me think and reflect about my own feelings and experiences – feelings and thoughts that have run through my own mind and that have been discussed with my compatriots, Eddie and Luis.
As I travel across Morocco and soak up every minute of pleasure and happiness, there is always present a small antithesis to the euphoria I feel – a nagging sense of guilt and of not deserving. As a visitor, or more aptly, tourist, my time in Morocco is finite. I come in, enjoy the country, talk to the locals (as best possible), snap some pics, and repeat. Our gracious hosts smile, interact, giggle at our attempt to speak/butchering of the language, offer us tea, and repeat with the next tour group. It’s reciprocal, I guess, but is what we are doing exploitative? Or are we contributing? Are we “fetishizing” the country, its culture, its people? According to my handy LP, “The UN estimates that for every eight to 10 tourists who visit an urban area, one job is created locally, and in rural areas those tourists represent six or seven essential new job opportunities.” I guess that’s positive, but I still can’t help but feel a bit weird walking through the medina or through an Amazigh village, camera in hand, and staring at what is right before me as if something in a museum or behind protective glass. I mean, we tasted Gnaouan culture for a brief minute, visited a Berber family’s home (kids excited to interact with us while the mother and older daughter gazed at us from behind the door circumspectly), stopped at the phosphate and cobalt mines in Merzouga (which mines for Maybelline cosmetics), took some great pictures and then took off to the next locale, the next photo opportunity.
My friend and fellow Frulbrighter, Luis, summed up these feelings best in his blog entry (see: "Uste" means Teacher in Darija/Moroccan Arabic). In it he basically describes his feelings seeing our language professor’s heartfelt reaction after visiting Bibliothèque Quarayouine’s vault of centuries-old manuscripts. Though Professor Abderrahim was a distinguished university professor, he’d never been able to see the priceless texts. As we were leaving the library, he paused, and in a moment of sweet sincerity, thanked us for being the vehicle that allowed him to see something so special to his heart and his culture. Had it not been for us, a ragtag group of teachers from California, he would never have had the opportunity to visit the library. Again, it was our privilege that gave us access.
I guess what I’m getting at in describing our experiences throughout Morocco and the episode with Professor Abderrahim is that, at times, I feel undeserving. For us, as guests in Morocco, this is a great vacation, but for others it’s life (and in some cases a rough one). Don’t get me wrong, I’m loving every experience here (as clearly illustrated in prior posts and by my pics on FaceSpace), but this is just something I tend to think about when I travel abroad. (And would I feel the same if I were in Spain or France? Probably not).
I see (at least I think I see) both sides of the coin. On one hand we “sample” little tidbits of culture. We see things foreign to our own reality, take them in, and (I feel I can speak on behalf of my fellow Fulbrighters on this one) cherish these invaluable interactions. And from the genuine hospitality and interest the Moroccan people have shown us, I think they have gained something from our interaction with them as well. I think I just want to make sure that I’m not, as sociologist Georg Lukács outlined, reifying – “thing-ifying” – this beautiful, complex culture and its people. What first-world gall for me to even think this way, right? I know, I know… I don’t know. Let me be the first to recognize what I am writing and why I’m even thinking this way (I can already hear: “these are bourgeoisie thoughts,” “you feel badly?” “who are you to think this way?”) as being completely ridiculous. I mean, who am I to make any kind of judgment as to what is okay and what is not, or feel weird when it totally might not be. I also hope I don’t sound like a complete idiot right now, but these are just some of the thoughts running through my head. Quien sabe… Argh! Anyway…
On another note, had an amazing day yesterday walking through the oasis at Tinerhir and especially our stroll through the massively towering, awe-inspiring Todra Gorge. What a sight! We arrived at our hotel (an insanely cool hotel overlooking Boumalne du Dadès and the High Atlas Mountains) just in time for the Spain v. Germany game leaving our luggage in the waiting area so not as to miss a minute of action. We drank Moroccan’s finest, Flag [beer], rejoiced in Spain’s victory, had dinner, and as a group, bonded over drinks and absurd conversation. Once again, good times.
Currently listening to: Simon & Garfunkel - The Concert In Central Park