Fear and loathing in North Africa

But not all of the region is burning - the Latitude News Op-Ed

Ben Taub By Ben Taub

The Latitude News Op-Ed column is a space where people from all walks of life can share their opinions on the links and parallels between the U.S. and the rest of the world. 

Moroccan demonstrators burn a U.S. flag during a protest in the impoverished Rahma neighborhood of Saleh, twin town of the Moroccan capital Rabat, on September 14, 2012. (Reuters)

It began as a temperate day in Rabat, climatically and metaphorically, as anti-American protests erupted like popcorn throughout Muslim communities worldwide.

Pop! Benghazi. Pop! Cairo. Pop! Khartoum. Pop! Tripoli. Mombasa. Tunis.

I’m taking a year of absence from Princeton University and renting a room in Rabat’s historic Oudaya district, a small cliff village of awkwardly warped blue and white cement homes that dominate a large share of Morocco’s postcard industry. To one side is the Atlantic Ocean; to the other, a dirty river that separates Rabat from its poorer, more religious twin, Saleh. A good athlete could hurl a stone onto the banks of Saleh from my roof.

Pop!  Saleh.

“Hundreds of Salafists burned US flags in Morocco after Friday prayers at a mosque in a poor neighborhood of Sale[h], twin town to the Moroccan capital Rabat,” reported Al Jazeera last week.

All this — attacks at American and other Western embassies, flag burnings from London to Jakarta and a KFC franchise burnt extra crispy in Lebanon — in response to an inflammatory preview for an upcoming film whose apparent objective is to insult the Prophet Mohammed. Questions regarding the circumstances of its creation aside, the overall consensus is that the only thing more offensive than the film’s content is how poorly it was produced.

But while the flag burnings in Saleh triggered the story and shot of adrenaline I’d been uneasily hoping for, the truth is that its proximity did not translate into real danger. I was in no greater danger from the Saleh protests than I was from what was going on in Benghazi, Tripoli, Khartoum.

Essentially, none.

On the streets of Rabat, nothing changed. Taxis continued to nearly run down pedestrians, who continued to barter in the Medina, where tourists continued to get ripped off even if they could bumble around with some French. The protests naturally took over international news, but just because all reports say North Africa is burning, doesn’t mean all of North Africa is burning.

Most everyone here carries on quietly with their daily lives, while a few angry men with flags and fire provide a flurry of interest for the journalists in the region.

But where real danger may have been lacking, uncertainty and paranoia welled up. You can’t tell how radical a person’s beliefs and actions are by appearance alone, as we’re reminded each time we submit ourselves to be groped by TSA officers at airport security. In a stew of uncertainty and emergency warnings from the U.S. Embassy two miles away, it suddenly didn’t seem like the best idea to be an American in North Africa.

For me, the greatest complication was reconciling my nationality and my aspirations to be a foreign correspondent.  Tahrir Square last summer was far more volatile than this, but it felt “safe” because my presence was hugely irrelevant to Egypt forging itself anew. Here, I was frustrated that my citizenship all but blocked the possibility that I might show up in Saleh with a microphone and a notebook and expect things to go reasonably well.

But if I had interviewed people on the streets of Saleh, here’s what I’d really have liked to ask:

“Where do you get all these American flags?  Do you keep a supply on hand at home or in the mosque just in case it looks like things might get exciting?  How much money do you spend on American flags each year?”

“In the protests like this one in Saleh — which don’t end violently and aren’t broken up by the police — how and when do you decide to call it a day?”

“Are these protests happening as an organic city-by-city response to the film, or are they spreading like wildfire because no hard-line Salafist wants theirs to be the one Muslim city that doesn’t tag along in an otherwise global response to an offensive to Islam?”

For the time being — and for reasons unrelated to the protests — I’m no longer in Morocco.  Embassies may be obvious targets for directing anger, but my strong impression is that for Americans visiting or working in Morocco, there’s really very little reason to fear or feel loathed.

Ben Taub is an aspiring musician and journalist studying philosophy at Princeton University and very much hoping to become a foreign correspondent. He’s also a contestant on NBC’s reality TV show “The Voice.” Read his blog at www.egyptorialist.wordpress.com.

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