Reverse Exoticism: Indian-ness in Morocco

Behold! Before you lies the Maghrib, the western land of sunsets, the home of the Dromedary camels (single humped for your riding comfort). Come, walk the streets and look at the towering piles of green-black-yellow-red olives, our exotic carpets, and iron lamps (if you rub it and a jinni comes out, you just bought that). Eat with us! Bite into succulent tagines of lamb, couscous, and if you are feeling particularly adventurous, try the camel (For obvious undisclosed reasons, the remainder of this tour will no longer be conducted on camel-back). Come and visit us, our cities draped in silk and paved in gold. Come and stay with us, in exotic, exotic Morocco!

-Your Average Travel Magazine

Reading up on Morocco before this trip, this was the typical orientalist fare catered to me by the interwebs, peppered with occasional travel log that could have been the sequel to Eat, Pray, Love (I’m looking at you, New York Times). Morocco, the alluring, the intriguing paradox between intimate Islam (privacy courtesy of abundant silk drapery) and, of course, their outlandish eastern practices (never mind that most American cookouts have an abundance of hand-to-mouth food action…eating with your hands is only exotic if you’re in Morocco, apparently). The tension is only heightened by Morocco’s geographic position of being on the continent of Africa, which brings its own connotations (one word: Conrad). I must admit, I am guilty of buying into this myself (Re: A Night in the Medina), but after two weeks here I am beginning to realize that something is…not quite right.

Wandering the streets of Rabat with a map glued to my hand and broken French, I was pretty certain that I’d outed myself as a foreigner at hello. Having visited other places before, I expected, to a certain extent, to draw attention, but, ultimately fade into the background of camera flashing tourists. What I didn’t consider is that I am an Indian tourist, which is another case entirely. Because I am Indian, people go out of their way to stop me in the streets. I get calls of Namaste, Shah Rukh Khan, and Hey, Bollywood girl! (in addition to the always-charming I love you’s). A couple of times, when I entered a shop or a patisserie, the waitress, upon deducing and confirming my Indian heritage, called over the entire wait staff so they could look at the foreign girl. Politer people have interjected later into a conversation (which I don’t mind so much) and seem eternally fascinated by silk saris, Indian food, and turbans. While watching soap operas with my host mother here over breakfast and dinner, I am treated to images of sari-clad strumpets, wearing a ridiculous amount of gold jewelry (especially since they are going to bed) and dressed in a manner that makes me want to avert my eyes. Here, the Indian is this exotic creature, from the land of silks, spices, loose morals (Curse you, Bollywood, and your obsession with hip thrusts and naked dancing pectorals!) and gold.

I have to say that this kind of attention is startling and not necessarily pleasant. I don’t mind talking about myself. I am essentially a chatty person, who, given a chance, will talk for hours. But the portrayal as eternally spice and silk obsessed, with my culture sexualized and romanticized, is not one I like, even though I am guilty of doing this to others. I just have never been under such close scrutiny, having typically taken on the role of the observer, rather than the observed. I am sure that, to a certain degree, I have been watched and exoticized as a foreigner, but people around me have never been so obvious about it.  Here, it is very obvious that I am from the orient, as oriented to Morocco. It’s dis-settling, and more than a little disquieting.

Well, if nothing else, I now have a very strong reminder to curb my own exoticizing tendencies.

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