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Diaspora: Identifying a New Identity Through Multiple Travels - A New View of Diaspora From a Moroccan Lens

Updated on June 26, 2017

Introduction

In critical theory, scholars have been trying throughout the past decades to approach literature in a diverse way through different lenses. They evaluated literary works based either on the literary theories that influenced them or on other possible considerations. When we dive into books that were written by writers who have migrated or were forced to leave their homeland, we approach this kind of work through a diasporic lens. The theorisation of diaspora has appeared only recently (during the past four decades) thanks to John A. Armstrong in his paper: “Mobilized and proletarian diasporas” that has been published in the American Political Sciences Review in 1976. Thus, diaspora writers have been identified ever since as people who emphasized their migration and how it affected them through their writings, whether they left willingly or not. Nevertheless, “Si Yusef”, a novel that has been written by Anouar Majid, is considered as one of the references of identity in Moroccan diaspora. Despite that the author has never left his hometown, he still felt alienated due to his relationship with his foreign wife. After an in-depth analysis of the novel, critics would determine the appearance of Yusef’s new identity that has been shaped year after year during his marriage with Lucia in Tangier. He was exposed to a new language, religion, and traditions and thus, he had no need to travel physically to disperse from his own culture and origins.

Diaspora in Literature: From migration to a new possible case

Diaspora writers, such as Hanif Kuraishi, wrote about their diasporic communities. In his bildungsroman, he depicts his journey towards self-discovery in an immigrant context by seeking several affiliations and social relations. The construction of his identity is highly influenced by several factors such as other people, exposure to new religions, cultures, and ethnicities. Karim, the main character, battles to find a sense of belongingness. Being unwelcome in England and with almost no sense of connection with his home country, he is stuck in between and struggles through an identity crisis.
This novel explains that immigrants, as a diaspora community, face a ‘re-construction’ of identity that is shaped with time. This new identity is affected by the nostalgic sense of one’s own culture, by the efforts to adjust in the new foreign community and by the alienation from both. On the other hand, Caryn Aviv and David Shneer wrote a book where they introduced a new diaspora community, where its people do not necessarily feel the urge to reconnect with their origins. Instead, they perfectly fit in their new environments regardless of where they come from. Jews have always been represented as a Diaspora since they were either forced to leave their land or left willingly to seek refuge. Throughout the centuries, this has affected their identities. They fought hard (and succeeded) to keep their culture, religion, and traditions alive. They kept their Jewish identity despite that several generations of them survived away from their origins. This means that there are possibilities of viewing a literary work through a diasporic lens even if it does not compatible with the general basic characteristics of Diaspora literature. This leaves us with one question: “Is it possible for a person to shape a completely new identity just by traveling for multiple times and interacting for short periods with multicultural groups?”

Perhaps in Anouar Majid’s book, there was no need for physical travel, and in Aviv & Shneer’s book, there was no nostalgia for one’s land, but what about a literary work written by an adventurer, a person that calls the world ‘home’ instead of his home country. The new hybrid identities that are shaped after migration represent an inevitable process that aims to help one adapt and adjust to the new environment that he should call home and build a life in. But when a person knows that being abroad is only a temporary state and will end up returning to his land of origin at a determined date, other changes start to occur, resulting in a new mixed identity shaped not by a certain country or culture, but by the world. Travel causes a person to perceive his own culture differently. Emotions, principles, beliefs and critical thoughts change when a person is exposed multiple times to foreign cultures. This represents the genesis of a new critical theory that focuses on a new type of diaspora.
It is true that experiencing migration is not mandatory in order to live in Diaspora, as it is also true that the feeling of alienation can be caused by other factors besides the scattering from the homeland.

Now let’s imagine all the psychological effects of continuous trips to different corners of the world that would contribute to shaping the traveler’s new personality and challenges his identity. Before exposure to the outside world[1], identity is somehow solid, it does not change but it only grows depending on where a person comes from. Nevertheless, once a person leaves to explore a certain land that is completely different, he automatically interacts with its people and starts developing what is called a ‘hybrid identity’.


[1] The outside world here refers to any place that does not represent the traveler’s home country.

Carrying my Moroccan identity with me in different corners of this world

The Moroccan identity: is it questionable?

It all starts by questioning one’s original identification. If you are Moroccan, are you Arab? Or are you Amazigh? Are you Muslim? Or Are you Jewish? Are you fluent in French? Are you religious? And last but not least, do you really have to respond with one of the previous options, or you have the right to identify differently?
Due to the lack of familiarity with the local culture, traveling might lead the traveler to have a momentary loss of identity. He starts questioning his own beliefs and values and starts wondering whether he actually takes pride in where he comes from.
Identity is molded by travels, thus passports no longer represent who people truly are.
Moroccans are usually perceived as inhabitants of a Muslim conservative country and usually end up explaining how Morocco is actually anything but that.
It is here where the ‘displacement’ occurs when some Moroccans enter a dilemma of self-identification. Instead of a physical displacement, a psychological one happens and starts leading the person to a new cultural assimilation. Here begins the loss of a close-knit community identity and the struggle to find one’s self. In her book, Sun Dog, Monique Roffey says: “Travelling, he'd always thought, was where he'd meet his other self. Somewhere in a foreign place, he would bump into the bit of himself which was lost.”
To some extent, I agree with Monique on the fact that people travel to meet themselves, and perhaps, to become who they have always been. Coming from a certain community sometimes imposes the feeling of pride. A person might feel obligated to defend his community’s beliefs and customs even if he subconsciously disagrees with them. It is this contradictory feeling that creates the sense of in-between-ness because it is hard to let go of what grew up with you and adopt what you have just been exposed to.

In the Namesake, written by Jhumpa Lahiri, the main character ‘Gogol’ changes his name to Nikhil (which can be shortened to Nick) in order to adjust to the American society, but still keep an Indian sense in it. This was a huge step for Gogol on his pursuit to seek identity. Nevertheless, this does not only happen to immigrants. When a foreigner, either on a short trip or a long one, interacts with other people who come from different nations, he firstly gets asked about his name and whether it has a meaning or not. I have been asked this question countless times until it made me realize how silly my name appears to others. For Indians, it literally means “sky”, for English speakers, it means a disease “Asthma” and when I explain its meaning (names), I get to hear the craziest jokes! Despite that there has never been a need to adjust to a certain community knowing that I will be going back home after a known amount of time, I sometimes felt the urge to take the ‘s’ away from my name in order to avoid the conversation that comes afterwards and just I introduce myself as ‘Emma’. But here again, another struggle begins. “Emma from Morocco? Is that an Arab name because as far as I know, Moroccans are Arabs right?” Now how do you explain to someone, who knows nothing about your country but two words ‘ Camels’ and ‘Marrakech’, that you are not Arab but Amazigh, and that yes, your name is originally Arab but you decided to omit the ‘s’ to avoid a certain drama?! This only leads to another, more complicated, conversation. After all, you do not need to be an immigrant to start having struggles with a ‘Namesake’. This does not necessarily mean that there is a lack of self-confidence or pride, but then again, it is all urged by the struggle of in-between-ness.
After the name struggle comes the religion one. Religion can be defined through several dimensions, including the existence of communal organizations, ties with one’s homeland and most importantly, the awareness of religious identity. The latter is usually subject to questioning when one interacts with people who have different beliefs. Thus, religion is not only a matter of belief, but it is more of a combination of culture and/or faith. While being abroad, I often receive questions related to my religion, starting from why I don’t wear the scarf, whether I practice or not, and most importantly: “How could a Muslim girl have tattoos?” I’ve spent the past four years answering these questions in 4 different continents to people of tens of nationalities, and it is through my answers to their numerous questions that I started to question my own Moroccan identity. Do I correctly represent Morocco to the world? Or am I a representation of the world in my own country?

Conclusion

Just like the trauma of discovering that you are adopted makes you question who you truly are, traveling can have the same impact on people. It is, nevertheless, a willingly done step towards self-discovery that only some dare to take. The influence of external religions and cultures contribute to shaping hybrid identities, and it does not necessarily require years of exposure for this to happen. After a short while and multiple interactions with multicultural groups, a person’s values become subjective. The words “right” and “wrong” gain completely different meanings because the mind no longer functions within its previous borders.
Belonging to a diasporic community thus remains questionable. In a world where travel and communication have become easier than ever, deciding whether we have dispersed from our origins or not depends on the strength of our ties with our communities, whether the ones we live in or the ones we create through travels.

“You can either follow your dreams or adjust with your society's expectations... Either way, consequences are uncertain... the path to glory or the boulevard of mediocrity, both lead to the grave... Choose what's worthwhile, for the end is the same.” K Hari Kumar

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