When it comes to the “Arab world” many so-called “Western culture” outlets portray a world of contradictions and racist stereotypes. Through TV, film, theatre and literature, we’ve seen the insults, lies and “mystery”. Think of :
- Ali Baba
- A Hundred and One Nights
These portray the “exotic mysterious East” within Orientalist racist discourse further evoking images of the “backward” “uncivilised” Arab world of lies, thieves and male sexual dominance.
I’ve just come to the UK after living in Andalucia in Southern Spain for quite some time. This region was once Al-Andalus – a region representing the Golden Era of Islam and The Moors (the Amazigh and Arab Muslim leaders of North Africa). It was an area of rich diversity, multiculturalism and an era of mathematical, scientific and artistic discovery which is part of Spain’s history, culture and heritage (whether Spaniards like it or not). I’ve talked in previous posts about Islamophobia and racism towards Arabs/North African/non-Europeans in Spain before (see here and here), but I’ve not mentioned the interest in Moroccan and Arab culture in a strange money making contradiction.
Whilst many Spaniards have no racist affinity whatsoever and love Moroccan decor, food etc., there is an undercurrent of racism and the government is definitely NOT working towards building social cohesion. What they are doing though is cashing in millions of Euros a year. The Al Hambra palace in Granada (just one example) is a UNESCO site and its architecture and gardens lends it to be called a new wonder of the world.
Added to that, there’s also the further hypocritical contradictory double standards which are often present/similar to those portrayed in Western media:
- Moroccans are sometimes referred to as “Moors” which is a racist practise as it refers back to the Moor invaders from hundreds of years ago – a sore point for certain Spaniards still living in the past (think an “us” vs. “them” mentality). On the other hand, people express a love for couscous and North African jewellery/symbols (e.g. the hand of Fatima)
- Likewise, nuns in Spain represent “good, chaste modest Christian women”. Yet veiling in the case of Muslim women is seen as a practice of controlling Muslim women, looked at with shock, suspicion and deemed “unnecessary”. It’s a long running double standard of the modest Christian sister vs. the oppressed Muslim woman shrouded in her veil of Arab patriarchy.
In line with this, there’s the trend for “exotic” “Arab” shops. There’s been a lot of talk about cultural appropriation recently. I (just like many others) like to buy Moroccan pieces of interior: mirrors, pottery etc.. My husband is from the Maghreb, I love Moroccan culture and decor and I most certainly do not aspire to orientalist and racist discourse and behaviour. In Málaga – despite the racism against North Africans (and other ethnicities, cultures etc.) and the reality of Islamophobia and stark lack of multicultural cohesion – Spain still boasts an array of Arab style shops and merchandise in the southern towns frequented by both tourists and non-tourists alike. There’s a raw memory of the Moors (“us” vs. “them” – the word “Moor” is a raw, sore term), yet when it comes to making money, people have a bit of a penchant for “Eastern” cultures.
Take a look at these two shop fronts – one shop is owned and run by Moroccans, the other is a chain run by Spaniards – which one is which (look carefully!)?
These two pictures highlight exactly what is wrong with people’s perception of culture and the level of cohesion in Spanish society. It’s Orientalism at its pèak. The first photo is of a shop chain which hosts an odd concoction of Hindu, Indian, Moroccan, Buddhist pieces under the name of “Arabesque” in Arab style Latin letters. I wasn’t aware that Buddha was Arab…? Statues are forbidden in Islam as they are seen as idolatry.
The second photo is of an actual Moroccan run shop with other branches elsewhere outside of Málaga. The shop boasts Moroccan/Arab merchandise and nothing else. With the name “Sherazade” you may think Orientalist but this is an original authentic shop. This is a stark contrast to local shops in which everything “non-Western” has been essentialised, bunged into one category: EASTERN. Never mind the fact that “the East” (if we can even call it that) is an area comprising of various regions, continents, countries, languages, cultures, nationalities, religions and traditions. It’s beyond patronising and quite startling. Yet to make things worse, at the end of my time in Málaga I found a shop which appeared to be run my Moroccans yet boasted a mix of both Moroccan and Indian stock in one large “bazar”. It seems “Easternising” is rather popular and a big money maker.
The problem is a lack of understanding, respect and social cohesion. Travelling and exposure to other cultures is a great way to develop understanding, break down barriers and build bridges but it must be done in a respectful, sincere way. If you respect Moroccan culture: go ahead and open your own shop. Yet in a society where Moroccans face so many difficulties and so much racism – a society which is far from being multicultural in terms of social cohesion, yet hosts a variety of different nationalities – this all strikes me as wreaking of Orientalism, hypocrisy, double standards and dishonesty.
In a smaller town, when I was browsing a market one day, I asked the seller where the (Moroccan/North African style) bowls were from. He said: “Africa”. Well yes Morocco is in Africa (and Africa is a fantastic place!) but firstly, Africa is a vast continent with a huge variety of different cultures and traditions and secondly – and this is the source of the problem – when he says Africa he means: not Europe, but a far off continent, a place that is far from us, our lifestyle, economy and culture, what we klnow and live: a distant foreign place. It’s Morocco. It’s a (Muslim, Arab/Amazigh) Mediterranean country with which you share hundreds of years of history and heritage – which your country markets to tourists. You share similar art, decor, names and many of your words come from Arabic – you probably share blood! All of these social problems stem from people’s perceptions; the “us” vs. “them” mentality and the way people perceive others. It’s all in the mind!
Build bridges, not walls
Remember and learn from the past – but don’t live in it.
Feature image: Media Bistro