Rabat – just writing to tell three quick stories about perceptions of the Middle East and how they are often misguided.
When I first arrived in Morocco my fellow students and I were treated to a guided bus tour through the city. We got to see all of the big landmarks in Rabat: the Mausoleum, the Royal Palace, the Cemetery, Mohammed V University, and many more all with commentary from a native of the city. Towards the end of the tour we drove across the river that separates Rabat from its neighbor to the North, Salè. As we looked at Rabat’s looming Kasbah and the booming housing developments that line Salè’s southern shore, our guide told us that Black Hawk Down had been filmed not 500 feet from our bus. Salè is much poorer than Rabat, and we have been advised to stay out of the Medina. Many of the buildings are dilapidated and the streets are crammed with garbage.
Black Hawk Down tells the story of an American operation to kill a fundamentalist faction leader named Mohamed Farrah Aidad in Mogadishu. The operation goes horribly wrong, hence the name. Obviously filming a movie in Somalia was infeasible in 2001. The decision to relocate the set to Salè is only fair. But it still seems odd.
Today as I was walking to Arabic class I noticed that the medina was unusually busy. I began to notice men wearing traditional Saudi Arabian clothing, not the Moroccan Jellabas that I have grown used to seeing. I also began to notice TV crews. I initially assumed that some foreign head of state or dignitary was visiting the country, and continued on my way.
Leaving class in the afternoon, the crowds had grown enormously. The number of men wearing Saudi Arabian clothes had quadrupled, and I noticed about of rough-around the edges white people walking determinedly through the crowd. I stopped a red haired man in his forties who carried a heavy camera around his neck and asked him what was going on.
“Were filming an episode of Homeland.”
I’m not familiar with the show. I know very broadly that it is about the CIA, and the Middle East, and terrorists.
“So, is there an episode based in Rabat?”
Morocco has recently made headlines for a series of allegedly foiled terrorist attempts. The country’s biggest attack was in 2003 in Casablanca when 44 people were killed. Though Moroccan’s were implicated in the Paris attacks of 2015, Islamic fundamentalism isn’t really a huge problem in the Kingdom of Morocco.
“Oh, no. It’s sort of like a Saudi-Palestinian-Israeli episode.”
There are a lot of things about what I saw that make my problematic-o-meter go off the charts. The generalized “other” is so unspecific that it doesn’t matter where the fictitious American heroes go to fight Islam. Morocco is Saudi Arabia in the mind of many American consumers. All of the Middle East is a bloodbath, yada yada yada. What I saw definitely made me uncomfortable, but upon further reflection I think it is more complex than that.
This isn’t a practice that is isolated to the Middle East. Shots of the Hollywood Hills are faked all of the time. Filming in California is difficult because of the smog, the crowds, and the cost. No one gets upset about falsifying Hollywood’s identity.
That is also far too simple.
I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. What I saw wasn’t quite right, but it also wasn’t quite wrong.
Another brief anecdote may help to illustrate what I mean.
I spent Monday night shoe shopping. I walked from stall to stall in Rabat’s Souq searching for a pair of fake Converse All-Stars, as mine were destroyed by an overflowing sewage system (long story).
I eventually found the shoes I wanted, and successfully bargained the merchant down from 200 Dhs to 100 Dhs (roughly $10). After we completed the transaction we got to talking. He was impressed by my Arabic initially. I have absolutely mastered the beginning of every conversation.
“Hello, how are you? My name is Chris. I am American, but I live in the medina. I study politics. Nice to meet you.”
But after that, I run out of words. We continued to talk in a mixture of Arabic and French.
We began to talk politics. I gave a thumbs up when the merchant said Hillary Clinton, and a big thumbs down when The Donald came up.
The man was talking quickly, clearly agitated about the topic. I only caught a few phrases.
“America, your dad, your mom.”
“It rains. Dead. So many.”
Upon hearing this I immediately assumed that the man was referring to the amorphous and often arbitrary campaign of foreign aggression that American has carried out through the greater MENA region for the past century. I began to apologize profusely, saying that I didn’t support any of that, saying that I hoped he and his family were ok.
The United States has never attacked Morocco. Morocco was actually the first country to recognize the U.S. as an independent nation. The two countries are on very good terms. And yet, this interpretation of the conversation made sense.
After another few minutes of awkward misunderstanding, the man pulled out his phone. He opened his New York Times app, and pointed to a story about the Hurricane in Florida that has been making headlines in American papers. He wanted to know if my family was ok.