First off, if you’re still reading my blog posts (bless you), I’m going to assume that you either have at least moderate tolerance for half-baked, pseudo-philosophical ruminations or you’re my mom – hi Mom! If any of you don’t happen to fall into those two camps, then I’ll just assume that you’re doing some kind of anthropological survey on the self-deprecating and delusional tendencies of anxious white male egos on the back edge of the 18-35 demographic. In any case, you won’t be disappointed!
And yes – Morocco Is really IS the entirety of this blog post title. I didn’t get trigger happy with the return key or fall asleep at the computer. If you stick with me for just a little bit longer, everything will become clear, or at least clear-ish.
It struck me recently how strange it is to speak a sentence like “Morocco is + adjective,” have someone hear it, and have neither the speaker nor the hearer protest the very foundation of such a questionable utterance. I know because recently a lot of people have asked me: “How’s Morocco?” or “What is Morocco like?” which are totally acceptable and understandable questions, particularly when the asker is not in Morocco and I am. The inanity begins with my answers: “Fine”; “Cool”; “Lots of fun!”
What? Who do I think I am describing a large, diverse sovereign nation full of tens of millions of people (with their own hopes, dreams and tragedies) so glibly? Maybe I misinterpreted the question. Did they mean how is Morocco today? Or in general? And if they meant in general, then what aspect were they referring to – geography, culture, cuisine? And anyway, what do they mean by “Morocco” in the first place? The people, the government, the landmass? Maybe it’s a failure on my part to adequately articulate the complexity of my present situation. Or maybe it’s a failure on the part of the entire English language! Let’s say perish the thought to the former proposition and quite possibly to the latter.
In considering the question of how to adequately qualify and/or identify “Morocco” (or anything at all for that matter), I was reminded of a philosophical paradox I read about in college that deals with identity. It’s titled “The Ship of Theseus,” and my friends Adam and Dave spent the better part of a week arguing about it (though knowing their diffuse and unrelenting style, it is likely the argument continues to this day). Anyway, in the paradox a wooden ship is dismantled piece by piece. Every time one board is removed, an identical board takes its place. At the end, once all of the original boards have been removed and replaced, the question is posed: is the ship that now exists still the Ship of Theseus? Or, restated in a different context for those of you unmoved by ancient nautical anecdotes, who are you if every 7-10 years every cell in your body is replaced by a new one? Are you still you?
This was a real mind-boggler for the ancients, and no walk in the park for present-day sophomores either. To muddle things up further, we enlightened children of the 20th century (and 21st – hello young readers!) get the added benefit of spacetime and string theory to toss into the equation, and don’t get me started on the more recent proposal that the universe and everything in it is just a holographic projection emanating from the center of a massive black hole…seriously.
So how do we determine the innate thingness of a thing? The whatness of a what? The me-ness of me? And what about Morocco, after all?
Let’s leave aside paradoxes and black holes for the moment. A few weeks ago Lizz and I visited a UNESCO World Heritage site outside of the city of Ouarzazate (the Hollywood of Morocco!) called the Ksar of Ait Benhadou. The site is a collection of 11th century kasbahs perched on a rocky hillside that once guarded an important valley and served as a waystation for camel caravans crossing the Sahara desert from Timbuktu. Many of you will recognize its steep, sepia walls and forbidding ramparts from film and television – scenes from Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator (among many, many other movies) were filmed at the ksar, and more recently it doubled as the mysterious city of Yunkai in season 3 of Game of Thrones.
While you might expect that a UN-recognized heritage site like Ait Benhadou, with all its historical significance and film-worthy, thousand-year-old buildings would be uninhabited, you would be wrong. In fact, some of the same families have continued to live within the ksar’s walls for hundreds of years, and it is for a very specific reason: the kasbahs that make up the site are constructed, not of stone and mortar, but of earth, which means that if left untended amid the eroding forces of wind and rain, they would crumble and disappear completely in a matter of decades. This isn’t just speculation either; we visited a similarly-constructed village in the Todra valley of Morocco abandoned in the 1980s that now looks like an ancient ruin. Walls have crumbled, houses have collapsed, and goats clamber around its foundations grazing in what were once bedrooms and kitchens.
All of which is to say that the only reason Ait Benhadou continues to stand is because of the constant maintenance to preserve what is effectively an illusion. No section stands that stood a thousand years ago because new adobe is applied whenever the old deteriorates or part of a roof or wall collapses. The structures are in constant flux, though the change is hidden by the concerted effort of people who are committed to tradition and a shared identity. In fact, our guide Fattah informed us that the word “ait” actually translates as “the people of,” which means that “Ait Benhadou,” the name that has become synonymous with the site itself, actually refers to the very people who maintain it. It is a monument to a collective identity that must be constantly reinforced if it wishes to be recognized by others.
Does this make them (the buildings or the people) somehow less authentic? Less, dare I say, real?
Hardly. Or, at least, no less real than any other identity, considering that every person, place and thing is subject to the same forces of ephemerality. An identity only works and keeps working if there’s someone else there to recognize it and to call it by name, after all. Remember that Zen koan – if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear, does it make a sound?
For example, right now Lizz and I are travelers – that is part of our present, accepted identity. Neither of us would argue if someone characterized us as such. We are also legally, by virtue of our passports and citizenship, recognized as Americans. And anytime anyone asks us what our nationality is, that is what we answer, continually reapplying the mud to the walls of our national identity. However, as travelers, the issue of identity also has more room to drift because we don’t have the usual means of reinforcement that we’re accustomed to at home. We don’t have the same friends, coworkers, and family members constantly reminding us who we are; with expectations of what our personalities are supposed to be like; what our likes and dislikes should be; where we come from; what we’re supposed to be good at; what they remember about us; and all of the other little bits that help remind us who we are.
It’s actually kind of like the early nineties TV show “Quantum Leap” (that’s right, a Quantum Leap metaphor), where every week Sam (Scott Bakula) is transported to a new place and time and has to inhabit a new identity. Like Sam (who has his holographic buddy Al – there’s those holograms again), Lizz and I each have one other person (each other) to stabilize certain aspects of our identities. My identity as “husband” remains solid because it gets reinforced every day when I wake up next to the person I call my wife, while my identity as “college advisor” has dissipated significantly because I no longer go to a workplace where people recognize me with that label. Unlike Sam, we get to choose (for the most part) whether to accept or reject identities that others try to lay on us. For example, in Central America everyone seemed to think I was German just from looking at me. Sometimes I corrected them, other times I didn’t (just for fun), so on those latter occasions I was German. It’s a strange kind of liberation.
But if no identity is ever completely stable, what then is Morocco? Is it mountains? Desert? Olive groves? Is it part of Africa? Part of the so-called Arab world? A former French colony? Is it a Muslim country or a country in which a majority of residents happen to be Muslim? Such questions are battled out in the halls of politics and culture every day, the same way the true essence of the “United States of America” is battled out in our own media and political bodies ad nauseum. The winners of such debates depend entirely on how many people recognize their “truths” over other competing “truths.” These winners then get to write the narrative for a while until someone else comes along who tells a better, more relevant story. New stories will keep getting invented and told, and old stories will keep getting forgotten. It’s the reason why new regimes are so quick to destroy all remnants of their predecessors’ culture (think book burnings and architectural destruction).
Our guide Fattah is a member of the Amazigh culture, or the Berbers as they are known to most – though they generally don’t like the term because it was originally a pejorative assigned to them by the Romans. This group spans a number of countries across North Africa and has long been oppressed by the dominant national power in Morocco: prevented from teaching their children in their native languages, prevented from practicing various aspects of their culture, and not given funds to improve their infrastructure. Fattah, however, is optimistic. He is a talented musician and a strong advocate of Amazigh identity and culture. From his perspective, preservation of traditional Amazigh music is a key factor in strengthening his peoples’ shared identity. That is his way of spreading mud on the walls; his way of ensuring that his culture isn’t bowled over and flattened out by the tidal wave of media streaming in from both the West and the Middle East. For him the Amazigh identity is as integral to “Morocco” as its mountains, beaches, and olive groves.
So what is the point of all this? I have no idea. Like I said, it’s just ruminating. But let me complete at least one thought: Morocco is…
…an experience of delicious tagines, strange and hypnotic music, olive and argon groves, compelling conversations, beautiful mountain landscapes, walks through sun-speckled palm forests, cool nights and warm days, uncomfortable saddles, crowded medinas, lying taxi drivers, Amazigh hospitality, starry nights, intestinal discomfort, unfriendly glances and frequent tourist-related harassment. The professional Moroccan culture diffusers would no doubt gladly accept some of these labels and outright reject others, as, I’m sure, would other travelers to Morocco. But those are my labels. That’s what “Morocco is” to me, here and now.
Now let me ask you one last question – is the rebuilt ship still the Ship of Theseus?
While you ponder that, here’s a performance to enjoy from our guide Fattah’s band “Aza.” A little more mud for the wall, so to speak.