Last night, I finished reading Fatema Mernissi’s Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood about a girl growing up in a conservative 1940’s Fessi family at the time of the Moroccan nationalist movement and social change.
In one of the latter chapters, entitled “American Cigarrettes”, the girl describes the arrival of American troops with fascination. For the young Moroccan girl, it was hard to fully comprehend why Christians of different nations were at each others’ throats. Why did the Allemanes hate people with dark hair, and who were their Christian cousins that arrived by sea from the west? “The French and the Spanish were rather small and had black mustaches, while Americans were very tall with devilish blue eyes.”
The Americans arrived with Operation Torch handing out chewing gum, cigarrettes, and chasing all of the women. And so it was that the American occupation was much friendlier than that of the French and Spanish. As a matter of fact, there was a local folk singer, Hussein Slaoui, who sang “Al-‘Ain az-zarga jana b-kul khir”, meaning “the blue-eyed guys brought all kinds of blessing”.
Mernissi writes of the time,
“… everyone was very happy that the Americans had come to make war on us. Some even said that the Americans were very friendly and spent most of their time playing sports, swimming, chewing gum, and shouting “OK” at everyone. “OK” was their salute; it was the equivalent of our Salam alikum (Peace upon you). In fact, the two letters o and k stood for longer word, but the Americans had a habit of shortening their sentences so they could get back to chewing gum. It was as if we greeted one another by saying a brief SA instead of spelling out Salam alikum.”
How ironic and how much our world image has changed!
The young girl was also confused by the fact that Americans also had black people, but the black people were completed segregated from the whites. Ironically, I had just re-watched the Ken Burns’ Jazz episodes that dealt with the 1930s and 1940s where the topic of racial discrimination in World War II was discussed. About 500,000 Black Americans served in combat, but served in sergration. Upon returning from combat overseas, these troops who had fought for the supposed American ideals of peace, democracy, and equality faced discrimination again at home.
This was something that was never discussed when I studied American history. Nor did we discuss the various race riots that occured in the U.S. during the 1940s or the harrassment that Black troops suffered on American streets and army bases.
In any event, Mernissi explains how Moroccan cities divided the Muslims and Jews (Jews lived in the Mellah) but that there was no issue about racial mixing. I am not sure that racial blindness is completely accurate. That is something I would like to learn more about. Morocco did, in fact, have an active slave trade (slaves arriving from Sudan and other places to the south) throughout the beginning of the 20th Century.
Also, regardless of what we hear in the news about Muslims and Jews hating each other, I was at a birthday party in Paris two weekends ago, where everyone was Moroccan (except me) and it was about a 50/50 split between Jewish and Muslim Moroccans who all grew up together in Morocco, were all intimate friends, and now all hang out together in Paris. So maybe we shouldn’t pay so much attention to what we are told.