On Moroccan Winter Nights, a Traveler (Second in a Series)
You'll never forget your first, or so they say.
Still in Marrakech
We were walking through the outdoor market midday when a woman in a burkha passed us by. I remembered our proctor in one of our formation classes — a portly bespectacled woman who seemed like the progressive version of Aunt Lydia from "The Handmaid's Tale" — telling us that religious symbols like the burkha have been the locus of social contention in France. One side says the clothing is a symbol of female oppression and subjugation. The other side argues that true liberation allows women to wear whatever they want and practice whatever religion they wish to follow.
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I keep thinking about how often the breadth and length of human history have been about control and freedom, the push and the pull. We set numerous boundaries, rules, and regulations around human behavior, distrustful of the unbridled human desire and fearful of how it might lead to hedonism and societal collapse. And yet, there's always that yearning to free ourselves from the same restrictions we gate ourselves in, our minds incapable of believing how limited we truly are.
In the Bahia Palace, a two-century-old edifice built in the heart of the Medina, we joined dozens of tourists admiring the intricately designed ceilings and the mosaic-tiled walls and floors: natural lines and forms patiently painted and plastered on the surfaces. Islam, the prevailing religion, is iconoclastic. This limitation had taken the artistry and craftsmanship of Moroccans (and the Arab world) to the end of the spectrum, far differently from Roman Catholic Europe, with its depictions of a triumvirate deity lording over sinless seraphims and suffering saints. In place of faces and bodies in various states of ecstasy and distress, fractals and patterns fill the imagination of another realm, unlike what you see on psychedelics (maybe it is inspired by psychedelics.)
Pure Bliss wasn't our first choice for our hammam experience. The first one we visited was Hammam Mouassine, located in a complex built in 1562 by the Saadian dynasty, which was already full yesterday. Frustrated, we ended up at Pure Bliss and booked an appointment for the next day, Christmas day.
It was my first time being in a hammam. The attendants led B & me to the changing room, where we stripped and wore the bathrobes and disposable underwear. Afterward, we headed downstairs, into one of the couple rooms. They asked us to remove the robes and lie down on the stone slab. They began splashing us with hot water, soaping our bodies, then vigorously scrubbing us, removing gunk and dead cells from our skin. I heard this was nothing like the traditional hammam experience, where you would usually have a threatening large man throwing your body on a slab, like a butcher manhandling a carcass. (If that’s what counts as authentic, then authenticity doesn’t sound very appealing.)
Being too purist about culture assumes that culture is this static thing you can’t take apart, remix, or reinterpret. I get that this is a tricky discourse. At a time when famous figures like Gwen Stefani try to excuse their cultural appropriation and fetishism as appreciation, trying to argue that encouraging people to engage with cultures at the level they are capable of (because doing so ensures that cultures remain alive) is social suicide.
In a world where everyone would have equal opportunities and social protections, cultural exchanges would be less tricky than it is now. But that’s not the world we live in. Maybe the fight isn’t that we need to fence cultures, but for a world where being White doesn’t confer privilege over others, or where you’re born determines the access you get in life. I guess that’s a harder world to fight for, so we settle for calling out what we think is appropriation.
I feel like many poor White people are frustrated with being called out on White privilege because they were made to believe that the world owes them something, but their reality is misaligned with their expectations. After I moved to Europe, I realized how much poverty there is here. It isn’t apples to oranges, poverty in Europe versus poverty in the Philippines, but poverty is poverty. It’s strange to witness it after believing all my life that they have it better.
My dangerous question here is: if a poor White person engages with another culture the same way rich White celebrity Gwen Stefani did, should they be held equally guilty? And by engaging, I mean, profiting off a non-Global North culture to earn a buck.
At face value, it seems the obvious answer is: yes, they’re equally guilty, because why shouldn’t the people of that culture be the ones to earn from their culture? But does socioeconomic status trump race in this instance?
Maybe an outsider can never truly engage with another culture the same way someone who has been born into it can. Maybe I will always carry my culture and see everything through its lens. Every time I experience something different, I will reach for my cultural box and rummage into it, looking for a similar shape or color, asking: is it this? Is it this too? Cultural engagement is then a series of approximations.