Originally posted at Talk Morocco

Julia Roberts, McDonald’s, Mickey Mouse.

This was how a young Moroccan student of mine described the United States to me. Images from his youth: Pretty Woman, glimpsed illicitly on satellite TV as a boy, or downloaded by BitTorrent. McDonald’s, which arrived in his hometown when he was eight, a beacon of American consumerism. Mickey Mouse, drawn on medina walls, advertising a kindergarten down the street. If those are his images of America, then they are too my images of Morocco, mixed with salty black olives bought from the local hanout and Amazir wine, hidden in paper bags for the journey home.

I am not Moroccan, and so my musings on Moroccan identity exist only from the perspective as an outsider. Moroccan identity has been fetishized and orientalized by Westerners since the time of Edith Wharton, and continues to be. In popular travel writing, Moroccans are described as mystical beings, devoutly attached to Islam but yearning for modernity, in love with everything Francophone, and confused, caught somewhere between east and west, tradition and modernity. To them, Moroccans fit one singular, albeit complex, mold. In my classroom, Moroccan students themselves would often refer to the “Moroccan mentality,” an intangible thing that needn’t be defined, as everyone knew quite what it was. Everyone except me, that is.

When I first settled into my life in Morocco six years ago, I was indeed struck by certain paradoxes: How my newfound friends could pray the Maghrib prayer then go out clubbing that night, stumbling home intoxicated, just to start over again the next morning. How a female friend would tell me she longed to wear hijab but simply couldn’t, because her parents wouldn’t allow it. But with time, these things seem far less strange; they are small patches in the fabric of Moroccan society, things we just live with.

At the same time, I recall being frustrated with the stagnancy of discussion around certain topics. It took almost a year for a close friend to admit to me that she was an atheist, and even then, it’s still our little secret. And forget bringing up the Western Sahara–despite global opinion to the contrary, nearly every Moroccan I’ve ever met believes it to be wholly and unarguably part of their country.

But over time, the diversity that I at first thought was lacking made itself apparent to me, as I navigated Morocco’s tightly woven hip hop scene, met atheists and punks, lesbians, and young Sufi hopefuls. What was nearly impossible to crack on the surface slowly revealed itself to me in my friendships, and as time passed, I found that much of what keeps these “secrets” hidden is a desire to keep up appearances…not so different from life in my own country.

Ultimately, however, there is a unifying thread amongst Moroccans that is hard to put a finger on. It is made up of thousands of small parts: it is in the overwhelming sense of hospitality, the willingness to offer–and drink–a glass of mint tea with a stranger. It is in the language, the darija of the streets that puzzles other Arabs but which holds the key to so many doors in Morocco. And yes, it is in couscous, and djellabas, and tajines, things with roots across the region but that have become so quintessentially Moroccan, synonymous really, just as (for better or for worse) Julia Roberts, McDonald’s, and Mickey Mouse are to the United States.

What Morocco is not, however, is a simple place stuck in time, contrary to what many travel writers would have you believe. It is too easy, as many travel writers have found, to stick with the same simplistic tropes: “a place stuck in time,” “a disorienting and surreal mix of old and new.” In focusing on the contrasts, one misses out on what makes Morocco so fantastic: its people and their ability and willingness to reassess identity as time goes on. As Morocco grows and develops, so does Moroccan identity.