The Muslim world I found in Morocco: not what I expected

The week before I left for Morocco on a Fulbright Scholarship, I told concerned friends that I would call myself "a Canadian" rather than an American. The Muslim world I expected was one where modernism and America were shunned. Jews were seen universally as evil. I would have to watch my back in the streets.

But I did not experience the Muslim world I had anticipated.

On a typical morning in Morocco, I would hear parents worrying about their children's education, a man hoping for a brighter future with his new banana business, and a group of beggars waiting eagerly for the couscous provided by worshipers at the local mosque.

Then there was the old Jewish nurse that my friend Nabil called her "grandmother." She had returned from Israel to her home in the Mellah, the Jewish quarter in Morocco.

As an American, I was targeted - not to test me or harm me, but rather to invite me to dinner. At first, I was concerned that my hosts would have a different reaction once I said that I was an American.

In fact, the reaction was one of welcome. As I sat there, often in a seat of honor, surrounded by delicious sweets, couscous, and rich foods offered to me by people who spend half their budget on sustenance, I wondered how Americans would welcome an Arab stranger.

And at the same time, I wondered about the protests. One evening, I heard a faint sound as I left a Chinese restaurant on the street parallel to the central train station in Rabat.

As I approached the station, I heard chants. I walked around the corner and witnessed a violent protest. Tanks sprayed pressurized water into the crowd. Police moved forward with riot gear. Days before, I saw a peaceful, civil, antiwar, anti-American demonstration. Here, the tone was different.

While I stood on Muhammad V boulevard and listened to the crowd as the tanks and water rolled in, injuring some, I heard something that jolted me. They were not yelling "America, enemy of the people." Rather, these young men, all my age, were calling for "khadum" - for jobs, for work, and for a future.

After talking to friends and local organizations, the situation became clear. A scam had been perpetrated. A nonexistent company sent out letters to all the young men in Morocco offering a job on a merchant ship from the United Arab Emirates. All they had to do was pay an "application fee" of $90.

Hundreds of thousands signed up for the scheme, including two of my best friends in Morocco. The company disappeared - along with hundreds of thousands of "fees."

Even as America is called "enemy of the people," it is also the land of opportunity, and many Arabs long for it even as they protest against it. I began to realize the protest was not against "westoxification." It was for a future with jobs.

Although anti-Americanism is widespread in the Arab world, it is often a vent for the type of protest I witnessed that night. If I were a Moroccan, I might have been at the protest, too.

Allen Fromherz is studying for a PhD. in Arabic Studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

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