French House’s “A Night in Morocco” under scrutiny

Gary Wang

Last week, the French House discovered the difficulty of representing a culture unfamiliar to most of Whitman.   They put out fliers and advertisements for an educational event: A Night in Morocco.   It was held Saturday, Nov. 15th.  The night’s purpose was to educate Whitman students on Moroccan culture.   One of the fliers advertising for the event contained images of Middle Eastern women belly dancing and a camel in the desert.  On the surface, this may not seem objectionable but Professor of history Elyse Semerdjian noticed the imagery on the flyer and raised her concerns to the house and the IHC community about the Orientalist overtones of the flyer.

Cultural theorist Edward Said defines Orientalism in his landmark book “Orientalism” as a Western tradition of depicting the Eastern cultures in a way that cooperated with western colonialism and oppression.   For Said, discourse, what people talk about and how they talk about them, shapes the real world and how governments and people interact.  So, western discourses on the East that inevitably portrayed the East as something to be controlled, enlightened and ruled had a direct link to practices of Western colonialism.

Said’s argument has influenced generations of political theorists, philosophers, literary critics among other academic fields.  He argues that the West has historically depicted Middle Eastern cultures and peoples including those in North Africa, as silent, passive, unenlightened.   That depiction by Western scholars under the guise of objective scholarship allegedly justified and retrenched the discourses and practices of imperialism.

Of course, the students living in the French House had no such intentions in mind when they planned the Moroccan event.   In the past, the French House has put on events depicting primarily culture in France, such as last semester’s event Cafe Coffee Night depicting Parisian cafes.

“What the house wanted to do was branch out because there are so many francophone countries.   It’s not just France even though this is the French house.   We narrowed it down to Morocco which is in Northern Africa and we thought it’d be a cool way to bring out diversity, but it came out wrong obviously as far as our advertising,” said junior Amelia Singer, the RA of the French House.

Professor Semerdjian was primarily concerned with the Orientalist imagery, of belly dancers and camels on the fliers.

“The flyer contained some of the most common tropes (stereotypes) of Orientalism: Camel on desolate desert sands and a group of belly dancers invoking a harem fantasy with the observer viewing the women from their voluptuous backsides.   In the context of the Maison [French House], Orientalism was to be used to entertain and culturally enlighten the audience by putting Morocco on spectacle and that was exactly what the great imperial powers did, was put the colonized on display to be observed and watched, just like the come “watch the belly dancing” advertised on the fliers invited us all to watch,” wrote Semerdjian in an e-mail.

By using common images of the Middle East and North Africa that have historically been created through unequal relations of power between the West and the East, the house, according to Semerdjian was inadvertently reproducing racist and imperialist imagery.

“I had a Moroccan French teacher all through high school and there was a Moroccan restaurant who had belly dancing every night.   She would take her students [there] all the time, and she obviously didn’t find it very offensive at all.   Maybe she wasn’t the norm,” said sophomore Jordan Estes.

At the event last Saturday, there was no belly dancing, and the students in the French House did not even intend to have women belly dance at the event.

“We talked about belly dancing because we had seen it in some of our research but we didn’t actually want to perform the belly dancing because that’s not what belly dancing is about.   I mean belly dancing started out for pregnant mothers.   We thought it was something inherent to [Moroccan] culture.   A lot of the times, it’s done for tourism and not actually part of their culture,” said Singer.

There was some miscommunication within the students of the French House and that’s how the flyer advertising belly dancing came to be distributed.

“What was a mistake was we didn’t talk to any Moroccan people.   We did some research, but not so much, we could have done better,” said Florian Deredec, the French native speaker in the house. Clearly, this controversy raises questions about what diversity at Whitman means and how can one expose Whitman students to other cultures in a non-offensive way.