Tuesday, July 13, 2010

"No Hyphens Necessary"

It was a bittersweet day in Merzouga. I got a strong dose of "privileged guilt." We took four wheel drives to surrounding Amazigh villages. First we frolicked in the dunes. Our driver obliged slight encouragement from backstreet drivers. I must admit after the initial "do I have my medical insurance card?" fear subsided, I let go and had a ball.
Shortly after, we arrived in a small cooperative where the Gnaoua men performed. Here is where things began to trouble me. As I sat there and observed, a feeling of "loss" washed over me. I began reflecting about the harshness of life. I was reminded about my family's patriarch we call Papa Grimes and his slave narrative that candidly paints the brutal reality of his servitude that fueled a system that honors business more than life itself. I thought about the abundance of wealth that has been drained from this awe-inspiring continent. Even driving to this "performance," I took in the earth's stark contrasts. Literally, black rock, somehow eroding into beautiful, soft, orange dunes, almost completely blowing away remnants of evidence that huge bodies of water used to nourish this area. Only fossils are left...Very symbolic.
Anyway, as the hynoptic drone of devotional Islamic chants pulled me in (I think Sufi praises) tears began forming pools inside my lower lids; perhaps a tribute to the surrounding environment that had been robbed. Robbed of water by the sun, robbed of millions of its people, robbed of natural resources, culture....do I need to keep going? I sat in complete humility as my adoring comrades imitated and innocently indulged in their ancient practices. I felt my own isolation; a Black American tourist just passing through to laugh, dance, take pictures, and leave. This dissonance disturbed me.
I recalled an interesting story from another fulbrighter, Toni. As she entered Morocco, the official asked her why she put "African-American." It never occurred to her that outside the United States, "American-ness" had no distinctions as she had been accustomed. Moroccans, no matter what color they are, are no more or less Moroccan. The distinction, however, is language. Language, more than color, is the uniter of people. However, our obsession with race has determined the fate of so many generations in America. She [Toni] glanced over at Ben's passport information and she noticed that he filled out "American"; no hyphen necessary. The concept of "African-American" is an illusion outside of America. For Toni and me, it's always been a bridge to connect identities. When the Gnaoua men played those timeless rhythms, the drums beckoned her, and she happily danced across that hyphen.
For me, I cried thinking about attaching my identity to a place that doesn't seem to know us. Who was I at that moment? Had I crossed the line between an authentic experience, or simply being "entertained?" Did they see me as the customs official saw Toni; an American with a hyphen to an entire continent? Or was I a European or American coming to offer scraps for a taste of culture? Was I participating in exploitation? When the group left, I felt very emotional. Later that evening, I shared my thoughts with my roommate, Paulette. She listened and then asked a very basic question, "What makes you think that they want what we've been taught to want?" A very fair question indeed. Here I am projecting my worldview of freedom and justice on others. The word "amazigh" means "free man" if I'm not mistaken. Perhaps it's my western worldview in how to see land ownership as power. Perhaps I will reflect more about what it means to be "free."

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