I recently went on a day trip with our Model UN group from site. Walking around the local shops with two students, the shopkeeper asked us where we were from. Not feeling like engaging, I answered for all of us – “Chichaoua.” The shopkeeper replied that he knew my students were Moroccan, but I was clearly not.
After two years of living in Morocco and learning Moroccan Arabic, being called out on my foreignness and Western-ness feels like an insult. When someone switches from Darija to French/English, or calls me a “Gaouria” (the Moroccan word for Westerner/European) I can’t help but get offended.
Yet my offense is greedy.
See, I already have the ability to move through the world freely with my white and class privileges and strong passport. I am able to live in Morocco and not suffer real consequences when I break with local norms and often-unfair expectations. Checking in on me often, the police and gendarme value my own life and safety far more than the life and safety of the local citizens here. As a native English speaker, I could have a well-paying teaching job here without really investing in any relevant education. As an American, things that seem expensive to most people seem affordable or even cheap to me. And in general or when I make a big mistake, people go easier on me or are nicer to me since I’m a Gaouria.
Enjoying these privileges, I also want the same “insider” status that Moroccans have, when it’s convenient for me, in daily conversations and interactions with one another. I want to speak the language without anyone commenting on my accent or asking me where I’m from. I want to feel like the most beautiful aspects of this culture—the dancing, food, traditions, art, symbols, and stories—are my own. I want to live in a Moroccan city and get a fulfilling job in a region where youth unemployment is three times as high as it is in the U.S. I want to criticize and analyze the social issues—such as the rights of women and girls—with the same credibility and stakes as someone who is actually affected by them.
Me getting offended when someone knows I’m not Moroccan is the essence of cultural appropriation. Wikipedia defines this as “the adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. It is distinguished from an equal cultural exchange due to an imbalance of power, often as a byproduct of colonialism and oppression.”
Many Peace Corps Volunteers might tire from the ongoing conversation about cultural appropriation, since it comes up so often with such little clarity. In fact, at our Close of Service conference, I noticed a lot of PCVs rolling their eyes when the subject was raised. Indeed, sometimes getting into the nitty-gritty of what does and does not constitute cultural appropriation takes away from the bigger point of policing yourself in the first place.
The intention behind cultural appropriation is to call out unequal power dynamics and how Western cultures have been exploiting other cultures. As one article so aptly argues, “…the cultural appropriation issue markets itself as fighting social injustice that is racism—but it entirely detracts from the issue of racism.”
So, is it cultural appropriation as a non-Moroccan to wear a djellaba (traditional Moroccan robe) or get a tattoo of the Amazigh “free man” symbol? While these are important questions to pose, the reason for thinking about it is the bigger, overarching dynamic that as a white American, my own people have been Orientalizing, inferorizing, and exploiting people from this local culture throughout history up until today.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer with the explicit goal of “integrating,” it’s important to remember that even if I feel like I’m part of my community, the very mobility I had in choosing to come here prevents me from actually being “maghribia” (from Morocco), chichaouia” (from Chichaoua), or “bouzidia” (from Sidi Bouzid).
Gaouria Privilege & Peace Corps' Third Goal
My desire to spend more time in Morocco is complicated by the fact that it is more normal and expected for Peace Corps Volunteers to go back home once they’re done with their time in their host country. While Peace Corps doesn’t mind if I stay in Morocco longer, participants of U.S. State Department exchange programs are sometimes required by the U.S. government to return to their home countries for at least two years after their visa end date.
When I return home then, I will be returning to a society in which I’ll be expected, welcomed, and given “credit” for living in Morocco, without being marginalized for my race, religion, or origin. When I complain about aspects of Morocco to Americans, I am in danger of reinforcing harmful and simplistic perceptions Americans have about this country or region. Especially given that perceptions about Morocco don’t affect me personally, it’s not my place to criticize Moroccan society as a whole.
Talking about my two years here, in a way that avoids generalization or prescription, will be challenging. But there will be people in the U.S. who care enough to listen to my full stories with all their uncertainties, caveats, and complexities. I have such a loving, patient, and open-minded community in the U.S. that I feel confident my re-adjustment will be easy. In a similar way, people in Morocco, too, eased my adjustment here, taking me in not just as an American, but as an individual with unique quirks, hopes, and anxieties. It’s because of this warmth that I feel so welcome in this community.
Yet it is naïve to think that my foreignness in general, and my Americanness in particular, didn’t play a major role in my time here. The longer I stay in Morocco, and the more I learn about this country, the more I have come to understand that I am not and never will be Moroccan. And when engaging in international exchange as a white Westerner in a postcolonial country, acknowledging and accepting this fact is essential in recounting my experience accurately.
My name is Julie, in Turkish it's Jülide. Right now I'm serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco, and I'll write my thoughts here!