Inside "The Muslim World"

by Peter Gray | 1/26/06 6:00am

When I first arrived in Morocco three weeks ago, I was like a very self-aware bull in a china shop. In light of this, both my travel buddy and I pored through the "cultural hints" sections of our guidebooks far more than we would have if we were traveling to Italy or England. We were rigidly cautious in our interactions with women and with men displaying more traditional dress to insure we did not commit any acts of blatant cultural insensitivity.

The realization came quickly, however, upon really getting to know Moroccans in the more rural areas, that our game of cultural tip-toe was, for the most part, unnecessary and short-sighted. Prior to this insight, we had been interacting not with Moroccans but with our intellectualized conception of "The Muslim World."

"The Muslim World." The past five years have seen the rise of our country's manic fascination with the definition of this term. The number of hours of collective labor spent in universities, CNN offices and personal contemplations is incalculable. And disconnected from reality.

This cultural disconnect was made clear upon our arrival on the deserted and moon-soaked drag of Zagora, a town of 15,000 on the edge of the Sahara, in preparation for a desert trek.

After arriving at a tented hotel, our guide, Abdou, ushered us into a room where a French woman, the proprietor and some other guides were smoking hashish, drinking wine and generally making merry. We assailed them with a barrage of questions about their life-styles and habits. Abdou said, at one point, "I do not smoke. I drink wine and I pray." I remember my boggle-eyed response fading into a sense of foolishness and embarrassment.

In this rigid conception of "The Muslim World," the thought that a Muslim could consider himself to be religious and also drink wine, as traditionally prohibited, had been unfathomable. It didn't fit into our mental worksheet of yes or no questions.

We had approached Moroccans as Muslims first and foremost, and looked for the stark cultural lines that five years of U.S. news coverage of the Muslim world have bestowed upon us. Everywhere we went thereafter, we sought the religious outlook and the secular, the Muslim and the humanist, the irreverent hash-smoker and the pious teetotaler.

How liberating -- and overwhelming -- it felt when we realized the retrospectively obvious conclusion: Just as an attempt to assess "The American World," with simple lines such as religious and secular would render a demented and inaccurate depiction of our culture, so too had our culture's emotional fascination with Islam skewed our powers of assessment. I would argue that this problem is no doubt an even more likely pitfall for the intelligent and intellectualizing students of Dartmouth.

On the ground, away from network coverage, there was the same lush variety of mentalities, beliefs, contradictions and practices in Morocco as we notice every day in our own culture.

There was our desert guide, Nur el-Din, who has never left the desert, and whose parents will choose a bride for him when he turns 25. There were the countless street toughs who would try and sell us cheap battery-powered parrot toys, and chicken bouillon cubes as hash.

There was Beleid, the hotel proprietor in Zagora who prayed to God through his Oud music but would not introduce me to his wife.

There was the surf-shop proprietor who invoked his Muslim faith to legitimize his right both to be angry with us and to forgive us for going to another shop for our board rentals.

And then there was Hamza, the 20-year-old Casablancan, who got rid of a traffic violation with five dollars and a call from his prominent banker father, but then decried the hypocrisy of the Saudi princes donating to terrorist organizations and then going on drug-fueled sex binges in southern Spain.

There is the same wonderful, frustrating and contradictory variety to life in the Moroccan population as there is in ours. It is too easy to forget.