Never Any Ending to Paris

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“There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it, and you received return for whatever you brought to it.”

And that’s it – four weeks, three countries, from Marrakech to Amsterdam to finally here in Paris, and I’m done: done with Northeastern, done with Boston, done with these last four years completely. Which means that this post will bit more of reflective this time around. I could write about the specific French issues with migration, how lacité differs from Dutch progressivism, or how Islam is viewed less as a religion by the French government but as a problem to be contained and managed. You can read some of that here, from when I was last in Nice about two years ago, if you’re curious.  But I want to write, instead, about Paris.

There’s a memory that still stands out to me from November of 2015, back during my second year at university, during the night of the Paris attacks on the Bataclan, as 130 people were shot and killed in the worst attack on French soil since the Second World War. I remember, that night, walking through the Ruggles train station in Boston, hoping break away from the live updates from the BBC and CNN flashing across my phone screen, and hearing, quietly, a whistle float through the air of a tune I knew well:

Sous le ciel de Paris / s’envole une chanson … 

“Beneath the Parisian Sky, a song flutters away…”

The words of Edith Piaf, whistled quietly, sadly, by a French man or woman somewhere on the metro, even as 130 people were killed far away across the Atlantic. Even today, listening to that song reminds me of that memory, one of the strongest I have.

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Place de Victories, Paris

This country, these places – France, Nice, La Côte d’Azur, Paris – mean so much to me, even now, two years since I spent anything more than a handful of days here. France is where the world opened up to me: the cafes, the language, the experience of walking through Paris in the evening as the blue light falls on the streets and the cafes bustle with life and light on every corner. It’s in listening to Debussy’s Clare de Lune and thinking of the crystal-clear waters near Cannes where it was written; it’s in the paintings of Monet of Antibes, or the writing of Albert Camus, Emile Zola, Ernest Hemingway. Besides the States, I have never loved anywhere quite as much as this country — not Bosnia, nor Jordan, nor even Morocco or Amsterdam.

I don’t have the opportunities to visit France as often as I once did, but returning each time reminds me of being nineteen, in Paris, and realizing for the first time that the world was so much bigger than I had ever imagined growing up in the mountains of North Carolina. That Paris exists – that the cafes were real, that the lights at night were just as I had imagined them, and that despite the violence and suffering in world that there is still a place like Paris out there – meant everything to a teenager still putting his first foot into the world. When, the following fall, I listened as over a hundred people were killed in the streets I had fallen in love with only months before, was like watching a kind of innocence die.

A year later, the attack in Nice didn’t serve as such a blow as Paris, even if it this time it impacted to the France I knew best. I guess this was because we all, in some way, were expecting it, just as we were expecting the Brussels attacks, or the Manchester attacks, or the London attacks, or the school shootings in the States. It seems sometimes like the innocence of France and of Europe that came about from the period of relative peace during my lifetime has become, if not broken, then wounded. We expect the terrorist attacks today. We expect the far-right, the anti-immigrant hate speech, the political polarization and division as we lurch from crisis to crisis. The world has grown darker in four years, darker with Syria and the Refugee Crisis, darker with Trump and Le Pen and Putin, darker as the West slowly gives up of this idea that human rights and democracy might still prevail, and that we can still work towards some kind of shared, positive future.

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The Grand Mosque of Paris

Paris is still beautiful, but wary and less open, with the soldiers and their automatic weapons, the constant bag checks and metal barricades. It’s a more guarded city now, and that’s not just in the increased security, but in the people – the French have never been the most openly friendly of cultures, but there’s a new level of tension here that I’ve seen grow slowly in the past few years, a tension reflected in the rise of Le Pen’s National Front, in growing anti-Muslim attitudes, in the ever stronger clinging to the notion of lacité – the intense separation of religion from public life that can be used as a weapon to attack Muslims – as a way to preserve what is specifically French about France. Even France’s  recent World Cup victory hasn’t changed much — a few days of celebration of the multicultural Arab and African-background team, and then right back to the same debates, the same scandals, the same questioning of France’s role in Europe and the moral vacuum left behind by America’s retreat from the world.

Openness, tolerance, inclusion – these notions, which I write about over and over again, are hard, especially when you feel under attack, and especially when people seem to be coming in droves across from Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan. But it is sad for me to see Paris like this: to see the city of lights, and romance, and literature turn inwards. I expect my own country to be isolationist, xenophobic and scared, even as I reject it. But Paris is more than that. As America closes its doors, and Britain closes its doors, Paris can become the capital of the world in the way of London or New York are today — but only if it decides to be global, multicultural, and open. Paris does belong, truly, to the world, and so many people in the world, like myself, carry a bit of Paris in them wherever they go. That’s important, and something I don’t want to see this city lose, but embrace.

Paris has gone through more than this. It has gone through the days of terror during the French Revolution and the two World Wars; it has gone through the riots of the ‘60s and the conflict of the ’62 Algerian War. That this city and country will make it through this political era, I have no doubt. But I worry if it will no longer be the same city after this era as it was when I first walked its streets. I wonder, sometimes, if the France I fell in love three years ago with will be the same France in ten years time.

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Museum D’Orsy

I won’t be coming back to France for a while yet – maybe for a few days here and there, but not quite like how I spent entire summers in France in the past. That door is closed, and I’m sad for that. But I’ll be keeping this country, and the memories I’ve had here, and most of all how it has opened the world to me, close to my heart. France will always mean a lot to me, and I wish this country, this city, and these people the best, as it moves forward to whatever future it chooses.

But France’s story is not my story, although I might have believed that for a time, and although I am grateful for sharing this country for a time with the people I knew and loved here. Returning to Paris, even for a few days, was important for me – I needed the closure that came with being in this country again. And now that that closure is done, I’m ready, I think, to give Paris an end.

Then again, there never really is any ending to Paris.

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With the Dialogue group in Paris

One more blog post, and then I’m done. This blog will be shutting down after the next step – the Tour du Mount Blanc in France, Italy, and Switzerland, a nice bookmark to a period that began with a hike in Colorado and will now end with a trek through the Swiss Alps. This was always meant to be a college blog, and now that university is done, it doesn’t feel right to keep it active.

I’ll be writing that last post soon though, so keep your eyes open for it. Until then, thank you for reading.

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast…”  

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The Dutch Example: Islam and Migration in the Progressive Heart of Europe

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Somewhere on a train now in Belgium, en route to Paris. Ten days in Amsterdam and Rotterdam was too little — even over just about a week, I found myself genuinely enjoying the Netherlands in a way that surprised me. The Dutch had always seemed to me to be overly stuffy, direct, and austere, stereotypes that are miles away from the genuinely kind, polite, and positive people that I came to meet. Visiting the twin cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, the first old yet cosmopolitan, the other up-and-coming and rooted in a working-class reputation, proved just how diverse this country is for its small size, and just how many nuances there are even in places that seem on the surface homogenous — something I’ve found myself having to re-learn over and over again while traveling over these past four years.

The Netherlands is known as the world capital of peace and justice and as the progressive heart of Europe. With examples such as being the first nation to legalize same-sex marriage, the Netherlands is often cited as a banner for gender equality, progressive social policies, and freedom of speech and expression, In a nation that has its own dark history during the Second World War, including the genocide of its large and historical Jewish community and a own Dutch version of Vichy-esque collaboration governments, the Dutch have in the post-War world since committed to ideals of religious freedom, political refuge, and freedom of thought and speech, more so than most other countries in the world. That’s something that the Dutch are and should be proud of, and celebrate.

But this is also the nation of Geert Wilders and the Freedom Party, a remarkably far-right political party that advocates for the “de-Islamization” of the Netherlands, Euroskepticism, and the near-complete end to migration from predominantly Muslim nations. In the progressive capital of the EU, the fact that one of the most right-wing and radically anti-immigrant movements in Europe has not been created, but found support enough to grow to the largest opposition movement in the Dutch parliament, says much about how Europe has changed in the 21st century, and how the growing opposition to Islam and Muslim Immigration is quickly, and drastically, changing the progressive nature of the European Union.

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New York Hotel, Rotterdam

9/11 changed everything. Of course it changed everything — a world that seemed to slowly, if unevenly, be growing safer, more peaceful, and more democratic suddenly saw a brazen attack on civilians by followers an extremist, hate-filled, and fundamentalist view of one of the world’s largest religions. In the U.S, this shock led to protracted, unnecessary conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq that defined a generation; in the Netherlands and much of Western Europe, 9/11 caused many Europeans to look at the decades-long Muslim migrant communities from Moroccan, Algerian, and Turkish backgrounds and begin to see them not only as immigrants, but as Muslims — Muslims who followed the same religion that al-Qaeda, and later ISIS, al-Shabab, and Boko Haram, claimed to be killing in the name of.

In the early 2000s, a man named Pim Fortyn — an ostentatious and incredibly visible advocate for the complete freedom of speech and, most notably, a severe reduction of Muslim immigration, stole the Dutch political scene in the months before his assassination in 2002 by a radical animal rights advocate, who pulled the trigger partly out of fears that Fortyn was fracturing the polite and progressive Dutch society. In 2004, another strong freedom of speech advocate and Muslim-skeptic voice was assassinated in Theo Van Gogh, this time killed not by a left-wing radical but by a Muslim of Moroccan descent, who had come to reject the secular Dutch state and its permissibility for those like Van Gogh to openly express religiously offensive or anti-Muslim speech and imagery.

The freedom of speech stands at the heart of much of the discussion regarding Muslims in the Netherlands today. The two deaths that rocked a nation were so notable because both figures had been such strong voices against Muslims and Islam, using their right to speech to peddle anti-immigrant rhetoric and what some would label hate speech that, while permissible under Dutch law, stoked intense fear, feelings of discrimination, and extremism amongst Dutch Muslim communities. Today, Geert Wilders (a much more extreme figure than either Fortyn or Van Gogh) has argued the freedom of speech and other progressive freedoms are under threat by Muslims, claiming that Islam cannot coexist in a western, democratic nation and thus that society should be “de-Islamized,” with Muslims severely restricted or outright preventing from moving into the country.

For over a decade this has been the conversation: between the advocates for the freedom of religion and multiculturalism as hallmarks of the Dutch state on one side, and the self-styled guardians of Dutch values who believe Muslim to be incapable of sharing Western ideals. At this point, in the Netherlands but also across all of Europe, I’m not sure which narrative will come out on top.

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Amsterdam

There’s an important distinction between the immigration debate in America versus Europe. In America, despite being made largely of people from immigrant backgrounds, our society still holds to very nationalist narrative surrounding immigration: of “our culture” against a foreign culture, of the fears of immigrants diluting what is uniquely “American,” whether they be Latino/a, Muslim, Asian or African. That’s the narrative of Trump, Steve Bannon and increasingly the Republican Party writ large, and shared by the likes of Eastern European “illiberal democracies” like Viktor Orban’s Hungary or the Law and Justice party in Poland.

In Western Europe, the immigration debate is focused instead on the concept of universal values. The narrative is that Europe has fought tooth-and-nail for progressive policies and legislation, from a strong social safety net to the freedom of speech and improved gender equality, which Muslim communities supposedly don’t (or can’t) share. These are the stances of the Dutch Freedom Party, the French National Front, and to a slightly lesser extend AfD in Germany and the Five Star Movement in Italy. Out of political necessity, these opposition groups tend to ally with the Trumps or Orbans of the world, but their only real common ground lies in a shared anti-Muslim, anti-immigration narrative that lies at the heart of their political message.

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Jordaan, Amsterdam

That’s why freedom of speech is so important in the Netherlands. To the Van Goghs or Fortyns of the country, their ability not only to speak their mind, but to openly mock, offend, or insult the Muslim community (and other minorities) is enshrined in the Dutch constitution, and as such cannot be violated. But to Muslim citizens, their words are seen not as free speech, but as visible, painful attacks on their equal place as Dutch citizens, and serve only to make them feel more marginalized, more unwanted, and less likely to reach out and “integrate” to the white Dutch population of the Netherlands.

As an outside observer, it feels like a double standard that is out of place with what the Dutch are at their best: open, tolerant, and innovative in finding progressive solutions to societal issues. But for the Dutch, what is at stake isn’t just the demographic makeup of the country (although that’s a part of it), but of the very universal, progressive values they identify so strongly with — making the debate not just a moral one, but almost existential.

I can understand this; however, there is also danger in the rhetoric in Europe and America today, a danger of making Muslim citizens less than full members of the state, less than full members of society, less than full humans with full human rights. That’s a path we should be very wary of going down, one that is likely to breed only more extremism, more violence, and more polarization in our countries.

Not all Dutch citizens, nor even those of the right of the political spectrum, are are extreme as Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party. Most believe that the values of multiculturalism — that political freedoms and human rights apply to those of all backgrounds, no matter their religion or ethnicity — are as just as important as other universal values. And many in both migrant and non-migrant communities are also reaching out to each other in important ways, whether it’s advocating for LGBTQ issues amongst gay or trans Muslims or creating Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue groups. There’s a lot of progress in these little efforts, progress which eventually might lead to a new understanding of what the rights and responsibility of being a citizen really are, and how we can learn to live together even if with different ethnic and religious backgrounds.

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A canal in Jordaan, Amsterdam

This isn’t a guarantee. There is a very real threat that the Le Pens, or Wilders, or Trumps of our world are in fact rising in power with each passing year. The advocates of an open, liberal, multicultural world — like myself — are too often divided and unsure, constantly in doubt of our relevance in this new post-9/11 and now post-Trump world.  Over the last week or so, I’ve watched as the progressive heart of Europe has itself grappled with this choice. And even though the people of the Netherlands are incredibly kind and welcoming and forward-thinking, and do in fact seem to be moving slowly forward towards a more inclusive future, the Dutch might still decide to choose the exclusionary path, the path of walling themselves off from the world and following leaders — like our Trump, like their Wilders — that promise the moon but offer only more division.

The world isn’t destined to move forward always — we can fall backwards, and retreat into ourselves, and undo just how far we’ve come from the recent days of the police state, or fascism, or Jim Crow. I hope that the Netherlands, and Europe, choses not to — just as I hope that America choses to step off the ledge it teeters on now with Trump. The debate surrounding Muslims, and what place Muslim migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees have in Western societies, isn’t just about immigration policies or what is or isn’t constitutional, nor is it merely a temporary political phenomenon — it’s at the heat of a much bigger question, a question of who we are as Americans and as Europeans, and who we want to be.

I’ll leave it on that note. For now, I’m returning back to France for the first time in over a year. Lots of strong memories here, most good, some a lot less so. But I do desperately love this country and its people, and I’m excited to fall in love with it all all over again over this last week.

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From Morocco to Europe

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A bit less than two weeks in Morocco, and already I’m here in the Netherlands. Even compared to other dialogues, this program is a whirlwind: three different nations, three different languages, three different cultures, politics, and ways of life. Sitting here in a cafe in Amsterdam, the shift from North Africa to Europe is proving to be almost as intense as the move from America to Morocco. Here, the streets seem a bit too calm, the people a little too orderly, the level of English almost too easily accessible. Marrakech is crowds and color, street vendors and the call to prayer, the smell of spices and the chatter of rapid Arabic; Amsterdam is quaint cafes and picturesque canals, soft conversations in restaurants and lush green parks. It’s a stark change.

Still, it’s nice to be here in the heart of Western Europe, and to be back in a part of the world where life moves at a little bit slower, a little bit more at the pace I’m familiar with. And Amsterdam is gorgeous — it deserves its place as one of the gems of Europe.

This program isn’t just about Morocco and North Africa, but also about Europe: about how the growing mix of peoples from Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan and elsewhere is changing the region — its politics, its society, and above all the sense of what Europe and the European Union really is. Take the recent battle between Angela Merkel of Germany and her Interior Minister that almost brought down the German coalition government, or the rise of far-right parties in Hungary, Poland, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy and more. The political battles playing out across Europe today aren’t solely about migration, but the mass movement of people into Europe is very much the catalyst for several of the headlines we see today.

The back-and-forth struggle between the populist (far) right and the moderate center may be the current story of our time, but it is the movement of people across borders — something that began long before the current age of Trump and Brexit and will continue long after — that will be the defining characteristic of the 21st century. It’s an important thing to understand, especially as economic disparities, war, and climate change make migration more and more of a permanent feature of our changing world, instead of simply a temporary crisis to respond to as politicians are apt to treat it on both sides of the political spectrum.

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Safi, Morocco

Europe’s migration issue is by no means restricted only to Moroccan immigrants. Turkish, sub-Saharan African, Caribbean, Maghreb and South Asian migrants, as well as refugees and asylum seekers from the former Yugoslavia, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, all also make up large immigrant communities within Europe. Nor is it a purely external phenomenon — inside the European Union, migrants from Eastern European including a Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania often themselves move to Western Europe in numbers comparable to those from Africa or the Middle East. But while there are ongoing debates about Polish or Surinamese immigrants, the chief concern in Europe seems to surround Muslim migrants, whether they be economic migrants from North Africa or refugees from Syria.

Terrorist attacks by extremists in Paris, Nice and Brussels is a part of this; so too are the unique dynamics of immigrant communities, which often suffer both from poverty and from decades of difficulties integrating with original populations. But one way or another, the question of how Muslim immigrants can live in Europe — or even if they should — is central to the migration debate in today’s European Union. And in the Netherlands, it is often Moroccans who find themselves in the crosshairs of this debate.

I’ll talk more about the Netherland’s own unique situation with migration, one that has resulted in recent rise of at least one far-right opposition party, the Freedom Party, in a later post. But it’s also important to know why people are migrating, and why many still are even with an increasingly hostile environment facing them in Europe.

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Riadh in Safi
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A Safi pottery craftsman
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The Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech

There are two main ethnic groups in Morocco: Arabs, who live predominantly in the cities and along the coast, and the indigenous Berbers (or Amazigh), who live largely in  the Atlas Mountains. For centuries, Berbers have been second-class in Moroccan society, suffering from intense economic hardship, political repression, and even civil conflict ever since Morocco’s independence in 1956. While conditions have improved for these groups in the past decade or so, Berbers still disproportionally suffer from poverty, especially in the Rift region of the north. This makes Berbers particularly incentivized to migrate.

To escape poverty, many Moroccans — mostly Berbers, but Arabs as well — immigrated to Europe, seeking jobs in factories and other industries in the Netherlands, Germany, and France to provide for their families back in Morocco. This process of migration began somewhere in the 1970s and 80s, accelerating through the 90s and into the 21st century, as what were initially temporary workers (and who were encouraged to immigrate by European governments seeking low-wage laborers) became long-term residents. Instead of returning to Morocco, these immigrants instead began to bring their families to Europe in what is known as “family reunification” or, slightly more controversially, “chain migration.”

Person-by-person, this is an entirely understandable choice: to move from a place of no opportunity to one where hard work and following a country’s laws can promise a generous welfare safety net, good wages, and above all the promise of a better future and education for your children. But over thousands of people, and multiple generations, what starts as a series of single decisions becomes a larger movement, as predominantly Arab and Berber communities begin to spring up in Paris, Amsterdam, and Brussels, often separate from the “European” city centers by geography and by non-immigrant citizens by disparities in income and education. It is this very separation where many of the issues we see today — from poverty to terrorism — usually begin.

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To be sure, for as hard as life can be in Moroccan villages, Moroccan immigrants haven’t fled war or societal breakdown like refugees and asylum seekers from Eritrea, Syria, or Somalia. But the reasons for their leaving are still understandable and relatable, and similar to why people leave Central America for the States, or East Asia for Australia. There are real issues that come from migration, but it is also important to realize that the reasons people migrate is not out of the desire to take advantage of a host country, but rather to create a life that is somehow better than the life they came from.

Some of these migrants from Morocco are low-wage earners, but many also are also highly educated doctors, students, academics and teachers. The pull isn’t just economic, it’s so often also the pull of an idea: of a liberal, open part of the world, where people can be who they want to be, pursue the careers that might be closed to them otherwise, and live without fear of persecution. There is immense value in that idea, one that I’m afraid Europe is giving up on as it closes its doors more and more. If Europe, like America, decides that it is no longer a destination for opportunity and freedom, but instead simply a collection of countries that only take care of their own and not those from outside of their borders, I believe that we will have lost something important of ourselves, and who we believe ourselves to be as the “West”.

People migrate not only for jobs or to escape war, but because they — despite Trump and Brexit and closing borders — still believe in the West as something more than just a collection of powerful countries, but as symbols of a more free, progressive, and tolerant world. Of course immigration needs to come with checks and regulations, and of course not everyone who wants to move to the EU or US can. But to give up on the potential for others from outside of our borders to take part in this idea is, to me, to give up on the idea itself. When I hear “America First” or “Britain First” or watch populists force refugees to be stranded at sea for days as they risk crossing the Mediterranean, I don’t just see nationalism or nativism, but in the West giving up on this greater, universal idea that’s special, and fragile — an idea that can very easily fall apart by our fear of those who aren’t exactly like us.

Then again, I might just be a naive, globalist, bleeding heart liberal. But I think I can live with that.

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Making Tajiine in Morocco

In the Netherlands and France, I’ll be looking more into the struggles that migrant communities face in Europe, as well the tensions that we see today between native and non-native groups, tensions which have resulted in both terrorism and religious extremism on one side and discrimination and radical populism on the other. But I think it’s important to get my (admittedly liberal) stance out of the way first before diving into the issues of these two countries. As an aspiring writer and journalist, I’ll try to be as fair as possible; as a person, I know I can also never be fully objective or unbiased in my writing.

I’ll be traveling through Amsterdam and Rotterdam over these next few days, so expect a new blog post in the next week or so. Until then, keep an eye out for pictures from the Netherlands on my Instagram — and thank you, as always, for reading.

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A Moroccan Mosaic: One Week in Marrakesh

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Good to be back to writing on this blog. It’s been over a year since I left for co-op in Northern Ireland last summer, and an awful lot has changing over the following months. To name a few (small) life events:

  • I finished my second and final co-op at a peace and conflict reconciliation center in Northern Ireland
  • Decided on post-grad plans: a Master’s Degree in Conflict, Rights, and Justice at SOAS University of London
  • Completed my final semester of undergrad studies, wrote my capstone (Changing norms of humanitarian intervention, from Bosnia to Syria), and walked during commencement
  • And finally: began my last international experience at Northeastern University, in which I will be traveling over the next through Morocco, the Netherlands, and France

It’s been a long year, for sure. But I’m happy to be here for now, traveling in a foreign country with other students from Northeastern for this first time since Jordan. It’s strange to be on a Dialogue again: I feel more like I tourist than when I traveled solo during my co-ops in the Balkans and Northern Ireland, but it’s also nice change of pace to be with a group of students again, especially those who are themselves just coming out of Freshman year on their first Dialogue. It doesn’t seem that long ago when I was in the same place in Bosnia, when I had not idea what I wanted out of my future, my education, my career.

Not that much of that has changed, but these past four years have gone by faster than I ever could have thought — and it’s a bit bittersweet that it’s all coming to a close.

Morocco won’t be the only destination of this program: in a week’s time, I’ll also be traveling to the Netherlands and France to study North African immigrant communities in the European Union. At a time when the question of migration is central to the survival of the world’s greatest peacetime experiment, and when nationalist, far-right forces that market themselves as wardens against the Muslim world are gaining ground in nearly every nation, it’s an incredibly important time to be engaging with these issues. I’ll try my best to give them their due here on this blog throughout the next few weeks.

A quick note: as the wifi being a little difficult to manage in Marrakesh, I’ll be posting only once a week (rather than the two to three times as in Jordan or Bosnia), but I’ll make sure to make these posts longer and more fleshed-out for it. But enough housekeeping. I’m here to write about Morocco, after all:

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High Atlas Mountains

It’s been two years since I last traveled to Jordan, the tiny Arab monarchy wedged between Iraq, Syria, and Israel. I can still remember strongly the vast deserts and Bedouins and camels; the big, busy cities with building stacked haphazard atop one another like building blocks; the call to prayer that rings out five times a day; and of course, the all-to-real immediacy of nearby wars in Syria, Iraq, and Israel-Palestine.

There are similarities here, in Morocco, to all of that: similarities of religion, of language, of even politics that resemble that of Jordan and the Middle East. But Marrakech, my host city in Morocco, is also a world away from the hills of Amman or the desert of Wadi Rum. There is a shared religion, yes, as well as a shared language, a common history, and a similar culture. But in all of those similarities there is also a “but”: religion here follows a more spiritual Sufi branch of Islam than the more conservative Jordanian practices; Darija, the local dialect, is so different from Modern Standard Arabic or Jordanian aamia that it might as well be its own language (and is a constant frustration to my attempts to communicate, four semesters of Arabic be damned). Even in the largely shared history, culture, and society of North Africa, Morocco is its own different being.

For as often as it is lumped together by the media, the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region is not a monolithic place – far from it. And though I’ve always known that in the back of my mind, it’s taken this last program, at the final summer of my time at Northeastern, for this to really sink in.

Morocco is its own mosaic of a country, similar to but in so many ways different from those of the Middle East. And it’s incredible.

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Tin Mal Mosque, in the High Atlas Mountains
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Moroccan Souks in the Medina
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In the Old Jewish Quarter

I’ll put this out here right now: Morocco is not the Middle East. In Jordan, so much of the history and culture is shared by its neighbors in Iraq, Palestine, in Syria, born from being at the heart of several Islamic Empires (based in different eras in Damascus, Baghdad and Istanbul), and, later, the colonization of British and French imperial powers. But the Maghreb, as Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and (in some definitions) Mauritania is known, is a different region entirely. Being closer geographically to Europe, the Maghreb (or “West”, a name that is also the official Arabic name for Morocco) has always historically been closer connected to Europe than Jordan or Iraq, exchanging goods, people, and culture across the Mediterranean for centuries even before colonization by the French and Spanish.

Europe and the Middle East / North Africa have never existed in a vacuum — in fact, their histories have been mutually tied together for centuries. In an age in which political forces on both sides of the Mediterranean are advocating for separation, whether by keeping Muslims in the Middle East or purging European influence and democratic structures in North Africa, it’s important to remember that there has never been a time in Europe and the MENA region’s shared history where these two cultures have not been closely tied together. And there never likely will be, not matter what politics reactionary leaders might put in place.

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Downtown Marrakech

Morocco is known as the “Moroccan Exception,” in that its history and culture is exceptional even compared to its fellow North African neighbors. Importantly, Morocco has remained independent since the time of the first Islamic Empire (aside from an approximately 50-year status as a “protectorate” under the French and Spanish). While Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya lay under the domain of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, most of Moroccan’s modern history flourished outside of foreign influences, creating a unique, distinctly Moroccan identity and society.

Morrocan kings and dynasties have long ruled Morocco, even through the French/Spanish colonization; Moroccan culture — a mix between indigenous Berber (or Amazigh), Arab, Sephardic Jewish (a society that, unfortunately, has largely disappeared since the Arab-Israeli wars), and European influences — has likewise had room to develop independently from its neighbors, protected from the East by the Atlas Mountains. This is the “Mosaic” of Morocco: a society that is on the surface homogenous, but in detail incredibly diverse, with a strong sense of Moroccan identity pervades throughout, born from centuries as a independent nation. Signs are posted in Berber, Arabic, and French; small but strong religious minorities, such as Sephardic Jews and Christians, still exist in major cities such as Casablanca and Marrakech; and many foods and cultural practices have likewise been adopted as much from the Spanish and French as the Arabs.

This “Moroccan Exception” isn’t just a cultural phenomenon, but a political one as well. During the Arab Spring, Morocco was one of only two countries to experience large-scale protests not to experience a revolution or civil war, but to enact gradual but meaningful political reforms (the other, in fact, being Jordan). Here, a cautiously progressive monarchy serves as the balance point between the religious establishment, parliament, and the people on the streets, slowly moving the country towards a more constitutional monarchy while still maintaining important powers for himself. While no where near a full democracy, with the government having own habits of political repression and media censorship, this “exceptionalism” has made Morocco a remarkably stable nation, and one that isn’t nearly as autocratic as the likes of Syria, Saudi Arabia, or Algeria.

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Alleyway in the Marrakech Medina

As for myself, what I’ve seen in Morocco over the past week is a country that feels very much different than Jordan. It’s not just the red-washed city, with buildings made of orange and pink clay and bricks, or the prevalence of the indigenous Berber culture and language. It’s in the way people are — lively, expressionate, passionate, and fiercely loyal to their family. There’s more color here, in short: souks that bustle well into the night, market stands overflowing with vegetables and fresh fruit, and personable Moroccans who are liable to come talk to you at a cafe or on the street. I love it.

For the past week, I’ve been staying with a host family here in Marrakech: my host father and mother, as well as my host brother Ayoum and his brother, Mehdi. Traveling with them and living with them throughout their daily routine — going to the hamam on evenings, eating couscous on Friday, watching the World Cup or going on a family outing to my host mother’s home Berber village in the Atlas Mountains — has been by far the highlight of my time in Morocco. It’s incredibly how quickly Moroccans are to welcome you into their home, to treat you not just as a guest but as a family member. While the language barrier and the lack of introversion time is challenging, it’s also worth it to have experienced this window on what life is like day-to-day in Morocco.

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My Moroccan host family and Northeastern roommate, Rayyan (left)

There are issues here, of course. While remarkable modern (in the Western sense) and tolerant in many ways, Morocco is also a very poor country, one still struggling with educating and caring for its people even as it develops into one of the most important economies in Africa. Here, there are multinational cooperations making new opportunities in Africa and industries humming with French and German textiles contracts; but there is also a huge unemployed population, a lack of a social safety net caused by IMF free market reforms, a large black market informal economy and widespread government and private sector corruption. Our Dialogue, entitled “Economic and Cultural Dynamics” of Morocco, is looking at these structural problems just as much as Morocco’s unique culture — problems that disproportionately impact minorities, women, and young people, the very demographics that rose up in protest during the Arab Spring and in several smaller movements after, most recently in the Berber Rif region in the North.

Traveling to my host mother’s home village last Sunday brought a lot of this home. The village of around 200, some 30km from Marrakech, is closer connected to Morocco’s large cities than some other villages, but the differences between it and Marrakesh is still stark. Here, people speak Berber instead of French or Moroccan Darija; employment opportunities, outside of a few local shops, are fewer; and families tend to stay large and marry together much more than in the city. While a welcome retreat from the heat of the lower-lying Marrakech, it also went to show just how much of a discrepancy there is between life in the cities and the countryside.

In Marrakech, by host brother — Ayoum — can attend a good university, learn four languages, and pursue his dream of one day being a Moroccan history professor. But those opportunities are much more limited in the mountains, and especially amongst the Berber/Amazigh people, where his mother comes from. If Morocco is to become a middle-income, rather than a developing nation, these issues will have to be solved. But there’s still no telling when that will really be.

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Amazigh children playing soccer in the Atlas Mountains

There’s about a week left to go until I leave Morocco for Amsterdam; far too short to have any real knowledge of this country and the people who call it home, but hopefully enough to have a glimpse into what makes Morocco what it is. I’ll be sure to post another blog post before the Netherlands, as my brief time in Marrakech comes to a close.

So far, this Dialogue and Morocco have been amazing, albeit a bit more challenging that previous programs I’ve been on. We’ll see what my second week in Marrakech, and on to the the Netherlands and France, compare as I wrap up this final summer semester with Northeastern.

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