This week I wanted to write about my recent visit to Morocco with a Lawrence field experience trip. The visit was my first time in a Muslim majority nation. Even though I have been taking classes about Islam and Islamic art since I came to Lawrence, it was an eye-opening trip. One site we visited was the Hassan II mosque. The Hassan II mosque is the national mosque of the country and its massive square tower minaret can be seen from far away from the shore side building. Despite the grandeur, the mosque is incredibly sterile. The third largest mosque in the world—the largest outside of Saudi Arabia—seems to be more of a nationalist tourist destination and less about the religious significance. The only monumental inscription I could find on the inside listed the genealogy of the King as opposed to Quranic verses.
Our tour of the mosque and our walk around the edge of the old medina made me think of the Art of the Islamic World class I took last year. Nineteenth century Orientalist painting, exemplified by the French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme, depicted contemporaneous and historical Near-Eastern civilization and people as wild, uneducated and most importantly, exotic. Snake charmers and scantily-clad, sexually liberated women were staged in the decaying ruins of what seemed to have been a once powerful and mysterious empire. The implication seems to be that these “mystical brutes” have lost the ability to maintain and understand their civilization and culture. While this situation far more accurately describes Europeans in the ruins of classical antiquity, these dishonest and racist depictions were incredibly influential and popular at the time.
Obviously, Casablanca and its people are not the way Gérôme depicted middle-easterners, and places like the Hassan II Mosque demonstrate that the vision of orientalist near east is far from the reality. Despite this, the modern state of some classical Moroccan architecture, often in places hit badly with poverty, are almost equally dystopian. This is not because of Moroccan culture, but rather because of western culture. Casablanca has one of the first international airports on the continent. The engines of modernity have ravaged from the coast to the old medina and even to the shanty-towns and farmers’ compounds on the city limits. Arches and alleyways are crumbling and stained brown and black, especially in older areas with an apparent lack of government services. Cigarette butts and assorted plastic trash fill the older part of the city as motorbikes whiz by. The people of Casablanca are nothing like these paintings, but the grime of modernity seems to have actualized some of the Orientalist aesthetic in some areas, even as modern monuments prove it absurd.
I wanted to share this connection with you for two reasons. First, seeing my liberal arts education reflected in my experiences always makes me grateful for having this general education instead of something more vocational. Second, I think this connection illustrates the sometimes complicated way our present day reflects and follows from our history. I went to Morocco thinking I would not see the aesthetics from my class, so when I saw similar things, it surprised me. When trying to understand our present day, I repeatedly find that I must carefully unpack the past.