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Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 5
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

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

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.

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  • A

    Another French House ResidentNov 26, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    I just want to add something. We listened to Professor Semerdjian’s concerns. We had little time to change a lot of our simple event to conform to her concerns. The cafe night is designed for students to come over to the French House, have some food and something to drink, and enjoy conversation with other students. We provided information about Morocco on the tables, but not once did we claim to know absolutely everything and to be the absolute representation of the culture. Our hope was to open the student body’s eyes to something besides Paris and possibly teach the student body a thing or two. There’s no way you can learn or teach someone about a culture in its entirety in half an hour. We never wished or intended to attempt that. I’m sorry that it seemed like we did to one person.
    As a diverse student, I am constantly frustrated about the hypersensitivity frequently found on this campus. Diversity and other cultures should not be a taboo subject. We should openly embrace discussion, but we’re too afraid of objectifying others and thus alienate ourselves from the real world.

  • A

    Amelia Singer, RA of La Maison Francaise, Whitman CollegeNov 22, 2008 at 10:56 pm

    Hi, This is Amelia Singer, the current RA of the French House. I am a Junior who has lived in the French House for almost a year and a half, a year of which I have been the RA. I am a double major in Sociology and Gender Studies. I am an Intercultural Club President, and have been a diversity club president since my freshman year here. I did a presentation at the symposium last year with a history professor, and am consistently committed to bringing diversity awareness to this campus, in all possible ways.
    When people think of the French House, they think of France. While there is nothing wrong with this, there are so many other countries, cultures and dialects which I feel are an important part of francophone culture. Our Paris cafes are fun; we eat chocolate mousse and crepes, we learn about Paris, but what about Senegal, Belgium, Quebec, Mali, Morocco! Am I Moroccan? No. Is anyone in my house Moroccan? No. Does that give me less of a right to represent that culture? It’s something I can’t answer. But I can tell you what we did. We talked to our Moroccan friends, we had a research team, we watched Moroccan films, read Moroccan books, listened to Moroccan music,found Moroccan decorations, made Moroccan food. We created a tasteful, enjoyable evening in which all profits go to charity as they do every semester. Most of all, students and professors at Whitman left this event having learned about a culture they might not otherwise have been exposed to, and they learned about it through multiple senses.
    Last semester we did a Parisian cafe, when in fact our Native Speaker of French in the house was from Quebec. Can it then be argued that we were misrepresenting Parisian culture? If not, were we still misrepresenting it by showing the romanticized side of Paris, absent of homeless people, of burning cars in dangerous ghettos, of tensions with immigrants from Northern Africa, of religious persecution.
    One person commented on the fliers. One person, one day before the event, out of hundreds of students, hundreds of faculty who saw them. Is this a tragedy on the part of Whitman’s educational system, or a miscommunication on what is appropriate?
    What is missing from this article is the true physicality of the event, a great and educational evening. I also find it unfortunate that there is a description here of the fliers, as the actual fliers are quite different from the description (one of the images actually looks more like a UFO than sand). I think one must first see the flier to determine if it is “inadvertently reproducing racist and imperialist imagery”. The belly dancers are not necessarily Middle Eastern as this article assumes, and I frankly think it is presumptive and imagination to say that the belly dancers are “invoking a harem fantasy” with “the observer viewing the women from their voluptuous backsides” implying that there is a Westerner there to view something that is not a part of their culture and therefore less than it, making that “other” culture exotic.
    We never intended to have belly dancing (as commented in the article, a miscommunication between two different committees, and something not caught by anyone). We never intended to otherize or orientalize a culture. We simply intended to draw light to the many francophone cultures in Africa and around the world as part of the mission of Whitman to bring more diversity to this campus. As a diverse student at Whitman, I have been in a marginalized position before and have been frustrated when others could not see my view. I see the other side, understand it, and frankly have to disagree with it. I have a caring, intelligent house who worked hard to put this program on, despite the miscommunication with our advertising. If this event was a problem, then I have a problem with a lot of other events on Whitman’s campus. What the administration may not recognize is that it is petty arguments such as this which make students frustrated with diversity programming, and lash out against it. Why do you think the Symposium was so poorly attending last year, and it will not happen this year? Because students are sick of being blamed for not being diverse enough, not being culturally sensitive enough, not being as aware as they should be. Diversity is supposed to be fun, what happened? Students became discouraged by the constant politics surrounding any event they wish to put on. I have my experiences, I have my opinion, and I have made a positive impact on diversity on this campus, and I will continue to be an involved leader despite constant criticism.

  • C

    C.McDanielNov 21, 2008 at 7:34 pm

    I applaud the French club for wishing to highlight the culture of Morocco in North Africa and I disagree with the opinion of the history prof who claimed the flyer was offensive and represented an ‘orientalism’ reminiscent of the colonialists. Having lived in Morocco for 20 years, I can tell you, from my experience, that the style of dancing that ‘westerners’ call ‘belly dancing’ is enjoyed by women all over Morocco. Of course, there are variations (especially in regard to dress)but it is a wonderful and beautiful aspect of the culture. The Moroccans call it ‘oriental dance’ which to them just means dance that originated in the east – primarily Egypt. Like the dancing, camels also exist in Morocco and are part of life in the south.

  • B

    belkhirNov 21, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    the imagery in the flayer is half correct.
    The camels are in , the belly dancers are out.

    Moroccans generally are not particularly offended by this confusion.

    Moroccan restaurant and other tourist establishments have long had belly dancers because it is part of the West fantasy of the “east”.
    Some genres of native Moroccan dancing is even more sensuous and provocative than -Turkish originated-belly dancing.