The Moorish Wanderer

Course 7 : the Promethean hero

Posted in American Minority Voices by Zouhair ABH on February 24, 2009

Last class… Or what the professor said : ‘voilà

Prometheus robbing fire from the gods

The Hero in minorities’ literature is like this Greek myth : The Titan that gave so many to  humankind, and eventually got chained to the Caucasus, and condemned to see his liver eaten by a vulture.

The Promethean figure suits both the minor author and their heroes, as cursed in their quest. Why so ? Many of the main characters we got acquainted to during the course where unique. Why Prometheus ? first off, the minor hero does not feel as if they belong to their native community :
→ Education : Kafka, through his very own history, could be identified as a minor hero, and, in our study cases, so did the Garcìa Girls with their American upbringing.
→ Personnal behaviour : Eddy refused to carry out a ‘vendetta’, an honour crime to revenge one of his relatives. Sedaris, in his way, adopted a crafty strategy in order to block any of the Federal agent’s attempts to correct his bad ‘s’ pronunciation.

Does education have a grip on the minor hero’s behaviour ? It seems not. One has to admit, however, that they are attracted to the dominant culture, an attraction that might find its roots in a deep desire for a better future for them and/or for their community : Gary Soto might have written a rather pessimistic, albeit ultra-realistic, novel, but the reference to onions, while it might remind of tears and pain, should not hide the fact that onions are an important part of Mediterranean-like food (and to an extent, Mexican food).

With abusive extrapolation, buried onions might be construed as a hidden hope, which the hero -Eddy- is eagerly looking for. As for the Garcìa girls, they had to experiment taboos within their own community, like sexual relationship outside/before marriage, drugs, cigarettes, feminine revolution and liberation… The minor hero takes their own life, their own body, to experiment what the ‘outside world’ is offering.

The minor hero feels as if they have to put themselves into questioning, as part of their community, but also as an alien part of the dominant culture. Do they get through this whole process for its own sake, do they want it for themselves ? I personally doubt that. It is true that all the heroes cases we took where remotely interested in their communities’ fates, however, their personal experiments might have serious repercussions on other members of the community : the older Garcìa girl (Sophìa) had to sacrifice herself to lead the way to her sisters. The hero breaks with centuries of rigid traditions (or bourgeois kind of norms), and whatever the result is, a precedent is created, and the autarkic way of living has to deal with sometimes a fatal breach. It is, quite simply (I might presume to much of this), the rebellion of an individual against a the community (a rebellion against mechanical solidarity, to paraphrase Durkheim)

This rebellion against a static and fatalist structure/environment has a lot in common with the Greek mythology : the minor hero is eventually kicked out of their native community, and their personal exile is hard to sustain. A personal exile indeed, since the dream they were pursing might turn out not to be quite what they want. The minor hero, rejected by both the native community and the dominant world confirms their statuts as uprooted or even stateless (in a sense).

Course 6 : Communitarism

Posted in American Minority Voices by Zouhair ABH on February 17, 2009

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano

Watching the Soprano episode confirmed an opinion I have on communities : communitarism leads always to political clashes, because there will always be a community that would claim for a better status than they had.

Here is a resumé of the Soprano episode : on Columbus Day, Native Americans activits want to protest against the genocide their people suffered from, in front of Christopher Columbus’ statue, the famous Italian navigator that proved the earth was spheric (and thus, discovered a new world he thought was the Indies.)

This demonstration fuelled the Italian Americans‘ rage, since Columbus Day is sort of Italian-American pride (Columbus being an Italian). That led to an absurd situation that quickly evolved into a violent confrontation between both communities, a row where a pathetic scene around Columbus statue would require the police intervention to disperse both sides.

This is what happens when communities try to ‘re-write‘ history by portraying themselves as the victims. There is this scene in the talk-show, where multicultural America is gathered : the African-American speaker, an Italian-American and a Native American guests, arguing who is to be considered as THE victim (and could subsequently ask for compensation from the other ‘bad’ communities). The funny thing is, both communities have deeper ties than they think. The show eventually ended with a long speech made of Tony soprano, a criticism of communitarism, as well as a praising of individualism : He became what he is not because of his Italian heritage, but because of his personal and individual capacities.

When there is a country with many communities, and when they base their relations on a conflictual view of history : Settlers vs Indians, White vs Blacks, North vs South, Italian/Mafia vs Federal enforcers… not that American history is built on inter-communities violence (although it is not the only country that experienced this), but minor authors tend to voice their own community’s anger and prejudice, through a process of  ‘dominant culture’ caricaturization, so eventually, all the communities see themselves as the rightful victims… freaky !

Course 5 : Flamewoman, Ana Castillo

Posted in American Minority Voices by Zouhair ABH on February 15, 2009

Ana Castillo

a short bio to begin with : Castillo was born and raised in an inner city barrio of Chicago, Illinois. After completing undergraduate studies, she immediately began teaching college courses.

She earned her Master’s degree in Latin American and Caribbean studies from the University of Chicago with a thesis entitled “The Idealization and Reality of the Mexican Indian Woman”. She received her doctorate from the University of Bremen, Germany, in American studies in 1991. In lieu of a traditional dissertation, she submitted the essays later collected in her highly acclaimed work Massacre of the Dreamers.

Castillo writes about Chicana feminism, which she dubs “Xicanisma“, and her work centres on issues of identity, racism, and classicism. Many of her protagonists are fiercely independent, sometimes lesbian, women. Her “imaginative fiction” shows the influence of magical realism. For example, the novel Sapogonia is about a fictional country that is the home to all mestizos. Much of her work has been translated into Spanish. She has also contributed articles and essays to such publications as the Los Angeles Times and Salon. (Wiki reference).

What one could say about “Xicanisma” ? Ana Castillo claims it is a different sort of feminism, a feminine third world solidarity that is. I like the radical criticism of the WASP society (eventhough Castillo turns to be as simplistic in her ‘whit people type’ generalization just as the ones she criticises). In a sense, the woman is right : Women were subdued and alienated for a long time, and often still are in third world countries. Because of here Latin-American roots, she focuses on the women’s situation in Mexico, where women are confined into the classical sexual segmentation : they are housewives, and their sole purpose is domestic : They give birth to babies (boys are preferred), take care of their husbands when they come home. One might argue that ‘white women’ (let us consider white American people as WASP, Italian-Americans and other European-like communities) also experienced the same situation.What is different with Chicanas, is the ambient racism they had to cope with. A racism expressed by others and by fellow Chicanos. Perhaps racism is too strong a word. In latinos communities, though women were considered human being, they had a restricted access to the public life, their life being mostly a domestic one. Some might see in it a middle-east/arabic influence

There was an asymmetric situation, were Women were worshipped for their purity (as virgins or as mothers) or despised as ‘whores‘. On the other hand, men’s virility is on display when a man has girlfriends or several mistresses. (a situation similar to the way Moroccans look at relationships : If every family wants their daughter to be pure and their son to experience their virility, how could things be carried out ?). Latina women were therefore more or less objectified. Immigration, industrial and economic changes destroyed the traditional gender norms, and latina women had to work outside their house.

The most educated of them -like Ana Castillo- got an early grip on feminist ideology, as well as an interest in Third- World struggle. Eventually, Chicanas joined in the 70’s emancipation movement. Ana Castillo said she had little in common with a white American women claiming civil rights, while she shared the suffering  and the issues of a Third World woman. Xicanisma, in this sense, is more a revolt against traditional sexual norms, rather than a quest for equality.

As a member of a minor community, Castillo’s work, as for other Xicanismas writer, is highly political. It remind of the Black Panther literature, (minus the political violence) of course. However, one might notice that her own analysis is purely ethnical, due to the lack of a detailed and a fair point of view of the American society. It seems to be the case for many minor authors : A superficial criticism of the dominant culture/community/political power, a paradox, in view of the rich work and analysis on their own people.


Course 4 : Communities in Morocco

Posted in American Minority Voices by Zouhair ABH on February 10, 2009

As a non-French, non-American citizen, I would rather discuss communities relations in Morocco, a situation that is, if I may say so, unique throughout the world, or shall we say, the north African region.

Moroccan communities (or Tribes that is their primitive shape) are a part of a complex and an ancient political system know as ‘Makhzen‘. The French word ‘Magasin‘ comes from Makhzen: مخزن (warehouse). Indeed, the main goal of the ruling institution was to gather taxes -that were paid in kind, usually crop and wheat. The Makhzen is actually a weak authority, in the sense that it got no real centralized or even federal power, but the one to attract different communities, based on religious ground : most if all the ruling dynasties used Islam as a way to claim power, whether these dynasties were Sharifian (i.e with blood ties to the prophet Muhammad) or presenting themselves as the rightful refomers (sort of Cromwells). Theses dynasties used the Makhzen machine bureaucracy to establish their authority over Morocco and other territories.

How could one link the Makhzen to the communities, and how could theses links interfere with the kind of ties the various communities established between themselves ?

There is a first division between rural and urban areas : Urban people -i.e, those with deep and ancient urban history that is- feel that since their are the guardians of a certain civilization (ways of behaviour, manners, a certain spoken language), they are superior to the people belonging to the  rural areas. In a sense, it is true urban people are more ‘western-like’ civilized, but then, they play a small part in the economic process : the wealthy of them do have farms and stuff outside the city (usually Rabat, Fès and Marrakesh and now Casablanca). Historically, during famine periods, they were the first to suffer -not all of them of course, but only those who did not prevent it by stockpiling or by owning a piece of land, but then again, only the wealthier ones could afford it-. the small part they played in the home economic process was though important : the urban elite had the monopoly of foreign trade, and controlled imports of rare goods. As Marxists and Structuralists would say, economic power was to determine social structures.
Same should apply to the rural elite : they were usually warriors, or/and civil servant. Civil service in Morocco -that was also a matter of constabulary and military- had three major purposes : to raise taxes, to ensure internal peace and levy soldier when wartime comes. The sultan would have to appoint warlords usually members of his family -one is less suspicious towards their own people-. These warlords though, are not 100% reliable; Whenever they feel that central authorities are weakening, they start a rebellion, mostly by refusing to pay the taxes. The sultan has then a variety of courses of actions, ranging from peaceful negotiation to the Harka (الحركة), a brutal punitive expedition that ends often into a bloodbath. pre-Protectorate Moroccan politics lies in a delicate balance of repressions and negotiations the sultan had to lead with a bunch of sporadic forces in order to keep the country more or less united.
Warlords might come from urban areas, but because of the omnipresent shadow of ‘Siba‘ or anarchy, though things are actually far from turning into anarchy : usually, dissidence in Morocco means that a certain region, a loose federation of warring tribes would still recognize the sultan as Allah’s representative, but would refuse to pay taxes.

Another way to look at communities in Morocco could be done through ethnographic studies : native Amazigh-speaking tribes, Arab-long established tribes, Jewish minorities, Turks, Europeans and Andalusians, and mixed relations between all of them.


Soussi dressed in local outfit and sporting a dagger

* Native Amazighs : considered as the native Moroccans, established a long ago. Some historians considered they came from Yemen and Arabic peninsula. It is true for some Amazighs, but not for all of them; indeed, there are three general linguistic and geographical gatherings : Ch’leuhs, Soussis and Riffis. Ch’leuhs and Riffis are believed to be a part of Indo-European lineage (strong genetic traces of Nordic characteristics)
* Arab tribes : the Muslim conquerors of the 7th century established in the area and started mixing with local population. Arab lineage could have

religious ties (“شريف” Sharif, that is a descent of the Prophet) or ‘normal’ Arab lineage.
* Jewish communities : an integrated part of the Moroccan society. protected by the Sultan (but not always, since little bloodless pogroms were organized once a while) Jewish Moroccans were mostly specialized in commerce, foreign or local trade, as well as in charge of the Sultan’s private finances.
* Andalusians : they came from Spain after the Reconquista kicked out the last moor kingdom in Granada. it is difficult to state whether they were Arabs, amazighs or spanish. It is though sure they have mixed roots and enriched considerably Moroccan culture. There was also an important Jewish community that escapes the Catholic inquisition.
* Other races : Turks, because of the shared borders with Algeria (that was a Ottoman stronghold till 1830). Europeans that were captured ans slaves during the 15th and 16th centuries (The famous Sale Pirates attacked European ships)


Gharnati-Andalusian orchestra

There is no denying that all those tribes or communities that claim to be ‘pure breed’ are actually more mixed than they think or expected, but strong core identity separate them in many issues, especially for the power struggling. This way of making politics is however in contradiction with the pursing of democracy, which implies a radical change in people’s minds, in order to promote meritocratic criterion in choosing national political leaders, rather than tribal schemes.


Fes, one of the 4 Imperial cities

Course 3 : Obama, the new father ?

Posted in American Minority Voices by Zouhair ABH on January 25, 2009

Here we are, the new president of the United States of North America, the 44th after George Washington, is M. Barack Obama ! the 44th, but the first African-American citizen to reach the highest office.

To his credit, the Democrats victory is won in a fair -or unfair, to his disadvantage- fight. Many Americans (that are not necessarily racists) had doubts about electing a man who has a Kenyan father and a mother from Arkansas. His candidacy rose racial issues that were buried well after the civil rights movement, or shall we say, under a widely accepted consensus : nobody talks about it.

44th United States President, Barack Hussein Obama

The first African-American president, ironically, does not represent the black community : he is mixed race, he is born in Hawaii, and graduated from the most prestigious universities in the US -and in the world-(i.e. Columbia and Harvard). I just visited his wikipedia page, and the man is truly a cosmopolitan: ”Barack Obama a des origines parmi de nombreux peuples. Par sa grand-mère maternelle, il aurait des ancêtres cherokees. Selon les affirmations de Lynne Cheney à la télévision le 17 octobre 2007, Barack Obama aurait une ancêtre commune avec le vice-président des États-Unis Dick Cheney : une Française, à la 8e génération. Il est aussi un lointain cousin de l’acteur Brad Pitt, du président George W. Bush, des anciens présidents Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman et de l’ancien Premier ministre britannique Winston Churchill. Plus étonnant encore, il compte des ancêtres germano-alsaciens, Christian Gutknecht né en 1722 et Maria Magdalena Grünholtz, tous deux nés à Bischwiller. Il aurait également un ancêtre belge à la 14e génération, Nicolas Martiau, né dans les environs de Wavre vers 1592. Mais ses origines européennes sont surtout anglaises, écossaises, et irlandaises. Un de ses arrière-grands-pères a émigré du comté d’Offaly en Irlande, au XIXe siècle.

He is a real American, in the sense that he gathered so many creeds that one could say President Obama achieved the ‘post-racial’ society.

It is hard for a Frenchman to understand the Obamania : French people -or at least, the better educated of them- cannot help but consider him as ‘black’ and at the same time, are more or less ashamed of their racial-based judgement. There is this founding myth in France that takes all French citizens to be equal, a myth that been brutally shaken out of its foundations since the 1980’s-1990’s (with north-African and sub-Saharan immigration). As a Moroccan, I could find some sense to the idea of a nation with autonomous communities that gather upon “commonwealth”; but then, our political system is so inadequate, as a French administration heritage (and for many other reasons)
Things are different in the US : it is a melting pot country, there is no racial criterion to define a ‘Real American’ (some KKK freaks might argue that the WASPs are the only true representatives, and others might even consider Native Americans to be the only true ones, quite beside the point though). The truth is, What gathers American is more a question of principles, principles that are inscribed in the Constitution.

Obama, the new father ? there is actually a great deal of paradox : Obama family is like any other family, with a Father -the modern Pater Familias-, a caring wife, and two -or more- children. Barack Obama, on the other hand, did not have a happy family history : his parents divorced when he was 3, his mother got married again, and divorced a second time. Furthermore, the young Obama had to move in many countries, a situation that could be unbearable for a young child and a youngster. But somehow he managed to sort it out, and eventually, it reflected positively on his nature, and added to his relatively new faith -he is Protestant since 1987-, Obama earned his position as the ‘new father’.

It seems to me that this election is full of paradoxes : Americans voted for a change, but the human being that embody that very sale change -although with a very original background- represents nothing but the values All Americans cherish : Family, Religion and a dollop of Patriotism… ‘le changement dans la continuité ?
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