by Mona El Hamdani
LOS ANGELES – Morocco’s geographic position enables it to be a major cross-road where different and rich cultures meet and thrive. Over the ages, it has been open to and influenced by African, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and European civilizations and cultures. However, the purpose of this post is not to talk about the diversity of Morocco nor about the different cultural waves that influenced this country. The purpose is more to reflect on my own personal experiences and how I got to know, interact with and learn to appreciate cultures that are foreign form my own, specifically the Indian culture.
Growing up as a young woman in Morocco, I was exposed directly and indirectly to a number of foreign cultures. Movies, television shows, music, pop culture items and languages have been among the major cultural elements that built my perception as a kid and later on as a grown up about countries and peoples beyond my country’s border. These elements have conveyed a tremendous amount of information about the other and helped shape, in a major fashion, the way I imagine and think about people I have never met and things I have never experienced. This continuous cognitive process has conveyed a number of facts about other individuals and groups, but it also unfortunately has built a block of stereotypes and prejudices.
In Morocco, I have come to experience India through two main elements: Bollywood movies and sari fabrics. Looking back a number of years ago, I still remember myself borrowing from one of my friends at college an Indian movie DVD called Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. At that time, and as is still the case today, watching Indian movies was a popular entertainment pastime among many Moroccans. The beautiful actors, the dynamic dances, the bright-colored dresses and the classic love stories made Indian movies a popular and amusing commodity for many Moroccans to buy, rent and exchange.
The other tradition that brought me closer to the Indian influence is the beautiful bright sari fabrics. Moroccan ladies love their traditional Caftan (traditional Moroccan dress worn during occasions and celebrations) and are willing to spend generously to acquire one or many. These Caftans are handmade and their fabrics are carefully chosen. The Indian silk saris are placed, among Moroccan women, as one of the best fabrics that a Caftan can be made from. Many fabric shops in Morocco praise themselves on importing and selling the best Indian silk saris in a modern reincarnation of the old Silk Road trade.
International trips have been incredibly effective in opening my eyes and my mind and adjusting my perceptions about the world. Under the Fulbright program I had the opportunity to come to the USA to pursue a Master in Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California. At the academic and professional level this journey allowed me to explore deeper the different aspects about the conduct of Public Diplomacy through culture, educational exchanges, sports, etc. At the personal level, I had the chance to meet and interact with many ethnic groups, including Indians, and forge friendships that are very close to my heart.
This journey continues, as I am embarking with seven students from my program in a Public Diplomacy trip to India called India: Inside Out. Our goal is to do research in respect to the conduct of Public Diplomacy by or towards India and each one of us is focusing on a specific aspect. Given my background and research interests I am exploring public Diplomacy initiatives between India and Arab countries.
The Indian Diaspora in Arab countries is heavily concentrated in the Gulf oil rich countries especially in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait. The majority of the Indians who immigrated to these countries came as a working force. They work in different domains ranging from engineering and medicine to construction and services. According to statistics from 2007, the Indians living and working in the Gulf were estimated to be around 6 million, 1.5 million of which are staying in the UAE. This important concentration of Indians in the Gulf countries raises many questions about the opportunities, the challenges and the initiatives that can be created between these nations within the Public Diplomacy realm.
Through the India: Inside Out trip, I am hoping to meet with practitioners of Indian public diplomacy and also representatives from the Arab diplomatic corp in India, specifically the Gulf countries, to be able to answer the following questions: What kind of diplomatic relations exist between India and the Arab World? Are there any public diplomacy initiatives and if not how can they be created? What is the role played or that can be played by the Indian Diaspora, living in Arab states, in this field? What are the challenges and the problems that are facing the process of public diplomacy between India and Arab states?