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Loss of Identity

Yahia is a young Moroccan who has lived in Tangier all his life. In a post titled Loss of Identity he writes:

    Cultural colonization is surely the most dangerous kind there is in the world. It is the only kind where the weapons are in some sense innocuous and go largely unnoticed. I am speaking of books, magazines, teen journals, television and radio programs, all carriers of an outside culture: Western for the most part.
    This might seem racist, but it’s not the case. Morocco is a country open to all cultures, but not to the point that certain ones are instilled unconsciously. Yet unfortunately, that is exactly what has been going on progressively for a good length of time. I think we should reconsider and ask ourselves, “What is our identity?” or rather, “Where has it gone?” Let’s see where we have lost it.

He explains that there are no cartoons for children in Moroccan dialect, and even the ones in Arabic are translated from Western languages. Public education is in Arabic through high school, then switches abruptly to French at the university level. The professional world operates in French for the most part, which he calls “perfectly understandable” since the studies needed to get there are in French, though he adds it is “a pity.” To succeed, a Moroccan must negotiate three language spheres in her life: the Derija spoken by her family and neighbors, the Arabic used in school and official business, and the French of the university and professional world. Yahia calls this “chaos” and I don’t blame him.

His solution, if I understand him correctly, is to promote Moroccan culture in the media, and give Derija and Arabic a more central role in the university and the workplace. He says this will be up to the citizens themselves, because “the officials don’t seem to be interested.”

BO18 is a young Moroccan who has lived all his life in Europe. He is a second generation immigrant from a “Westernized” family. In a post titled The Moroccan Touch he writes:

    I was thinking that I can hardly call myself Moroccan anymore. I don’t know how to make briouat anymore, my Darija is lousier than that of a baby and gossip Maroqui irritates me…. Besides that I just don’t feel really Moroccan. I haven’t been to Morocco for 6 years, I shunned it for its ignorance and other reasons. My reckless idealism decided to play tricks on me and telling me that I should shun Morocco for its backward culture and politics. So I did.

He explains that by “backward” he means a society where “religion and modern conservatism are playing a major role.” Having grown up with the progressive values of the Netherlands, he no longer feels at home in Morocco.

    Now most of the time I dont have any problems with that. I always doubted the validity of a national identity. I mean we all need passports and so on, but it is the feeling that I always questioned. I regard it as dangerous and as a prelude to ignorance.
    …my “Moroccanness” is failing. And you know what? I’m actually proud of it. It takes a lot of practice and time to dispose yourself of the cultural shackles. Its just that you feel naked afterwards, but I don’t have problems with feeling naked.

Identity is a subject that fascinates me, and I made comments on both blogs. My feeling is that in the modern world, we are all mutants and our identity is fluid. Those who are able to reinvent themselves are better suited to living in a changing world. Standing in the way of change is dangerous both to the world and to us. Better to learn to move with it.

On Yahia’s blog I made the following points:

  • Even after fourteen centuries, there are Moroccans who see Arab culture as an “outside culture.” So who is the colonizer and who is the colonized? Is there a single Moroccan identity? Or are there many different identities such as Rifian, Fassi, Soussi?
  • Global commerce, communication and research are conducted mainly in English and French. Access to these languages brings knowledge and opportunity. The Dutch know this. The Japanese know this. “We can complain, or we can prepare ourselves. The rich prepare themselves.” Wealthy Moroccans make a point of Westernizing their children, because it gives them a competitive edge. So identity is a class issue as well as a cultural one.
  • “Loss of identity is a necessary step for all modernizing cultures.” Unstoppable forces are changing the world, bringing cultures into contact that used to be far apart. American hip-hop, Bollywood films, and Chinese consumer goods are all known in Morocco. Even large countries experience a feeling of being at the mercy of globalization, rudderless and adrift. The only alternative is to try to keep out the flood of change, like North Korea. In the end it is hopeless. If the world is an ocean, learn to swim!
  • The fear of losing one’s identity goes both ways. Not only do Moroccans worry about being overrun by Western culture, but the West worries about being overrun by Arabs. Complaints about “lack of assimilation” have been heard about the Arabs in nearly every European country. Tensions flare around issues such as the wearing of headscarves or the publishing of insulting cartoons. In the U.S., the same complaints can be heard about Latin Americans. There are too many, they want a free ride, they don’t learn to speak the language. Poor countries may be concerned about cultural domination, but rich countries are concerned about invasion! Concerns about loss of identity are universal in the modern world.

BO18 has a reponse to this. He tells us that by losing his Moroccanness he has gained something, a better understanding of himself. Indeed, the one may be a precondition for the other. Group identity is like a shell that both protects and conceals the self. Until it is stripped away, Karcherized, one cannot see the self that is hidden beneath. For Socrates, self-knowledge is the goal of the philosopher. In the modern world, it has a more practical value. It offers a far better guarantee of success than tribal loyalty, or loyalty to tradition. Self-knowledge stays with you when tradition does not.

Commenting on his post I told BO18, “You should be proud of losing your identity so you can better define yourself.” He agreed, and this set off a lively discussion. At one point BO18 told Rachid:

    I’m of the opinion that our identity is something we created ourselves. I see it as a process whereby an individual gains and loses interests, cultural habits and opinions. I see it as something dynamic. We are constantly targeted by outside influences and we decide if those influences will have an actual, permanent impact on our lives.

He added that some Moroccans are “too proud” of their Moroccanness, which causes problems for them when they live in a new culture. We went on to discuss the “American identity,” which I defined as “rootlessness and constant reinvention.” Like it or not, willingness to live in the future and not the past gave the U.S. an advantage for most of the 20th century. This success story has set the terms for the 21st century as well. Innovation, not tradition has the upper hand. Tradition is on the defensive, overwhelmed by events.

So what is the place of tradition in our rapidly changing world? Should we just throw it in the trash and move on? What should we do with Andalusian music, the Cathedral of Chartres, Shinto shrines, Moroccan weddings, the Balinese monkey dance, the Qur’an? Everything old gets left behind? I don’t think it has to be that way. Europe is modern and proud of its heritage. Japan is modern and proud of its heritage. There is more than one way to be modern. Any culture can be modern, while still being itself.

The question of “loss of identity” came up last summer as well, as I sat talking with friends in Essaouira. This is what I told them:

    Moroccans need to lose their identity just as Europeans have, in order to reconstruct it. They are already displaced from their past, but they have to accept the shock of that displacement. What they need to do is admit they are lost, then turn their attention to forging a new synthesis, new ways of doing things in the new context. Of course they will borrow from their traditions in doing that, but they need to do this consciously, not as victims but as agents, like the Europeans did.


Comment from Yahia
Time: January 29, 2007, 11:45

We in Morocco don’t have a base to start with, to go and face the changing world and bring only the good things to our own culture, since we really don’t have any anymore.

I think that to reconstruct identity, we should already have one. But we lost it years ago, by colonization that was added to the regional segregation.

So I think in Morocco, the case is way too difficult to be interpreted as a general one.

Comment from eatbees
Time: January 29, 2007, 13:54

@Yahia — I’m sorry to see you feel so pessimistic about it! What I’m trying to say is that one never really loses one’s identity, though expecting it to remain the same may make it look that way.

Colonialism obviously had a profound effect on Morocco, mostly negative (it’s hard to say because we don’t have a “control case”), and cultural colonialsm is still having a corrosive effect as you said in your original post. But I would give the Moroccans more credit that you do for “cultural backbone.” The moment he got off the boat in Tangier, my friend Gilles knew he was in a very different culture. And he never stopped showing his amazement about Moroccan freedom compared to Europe (some of it bad, like the “freedom” of shop owners to employ ten year old boys).

To me, the amazing thing about Morocco is the skill people have at adaptation. “Necessity is the mother of invention” someone said, and there is a lot of necessity in Morocco…! But despite the sarcasm, I mean what I say. Moroccans still have a rich heritage (although it would help to learn more about it—see my earlier post) and an amazing ability to adapt. Those are excellent qualities to have in a globalized world.

Comment from BO18
Time: January 29, 2007, 20:50

And again I agree with you.
Moroccans definitely need to reconstruct their own identity.

In Morocco there is a swamp of sub-identities, but there is a common base that they can use in order to reconstruct a national identity.
And thats something they have to figure out themselves, instead of saying that they lost the identity-battle before even starting it.
That base will always be there, no matter what.
All Moroccans will regard tajine as a heavenly, moroccan dish, for example (silly example, but it might work)

I always admired the way the Turkish state succeeded in forging a national identity from scratch.
Kemalist Turkey was multicultural, even after the Armenian genocide. The flood of Muslim refugees from the Balkan, Greece etc contributed to that.
But nevertheless, they succeeded in creating a Turkish identity ( a very strong one actually)

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