I was lucky to attend the Marrakech International Film Festival last week. Though only in its 15th year, it has quickly risen to prominence, in part thanks to the large number of films shot in Morocco over the years—from Orson Welles’s Othello all the way back in 1949 to Lawrence of Arabia, The Last Temptation of Christ, Gladiator, Spectre, and many, many others—and in part thanks to the fact that Marrakech is a highly desirable tourist destination.
The festival thus attracts a strong array of films—I saw good ones by directors Cesc Gay, Julien Leclercq, and Sergio Castellitto—and some intriguing guests. Among those receiving tributes this year were Bill Murray, South Korean director Park Chan-wook (with whom I spoke briefly), and Willem Dafoe. (The last was unfortunately not in attendance: more on this in a moment.)
Yet looming over questions of cinema throughout the week were the issues of terrorism and anti-Muslim bias.
Morocco prides itself on being a force for pluralism in the Islamic world, and my limited time there—I claim no greater expertise—tended to corroborate that distinction. Marrakech was a welcoming locale (again, tourism is key) with Western-style bars, hotels, and casinos very much in evidence. Wandering the city, one saw many local women with their heads covered, and many without. (There appeared to be a strong generational correlation.) The female festival attendees with whom I spent time did not feel remotely harassed or unsafe—less so, probably, than in many European or even American cities. Security efforts (metal detectors, police, etc.) were in place at the festival’s major locations but, again, no more so than would likely have been the case in other cities across the globe.
It’s clear, however, that the terrorist attacks of the past several weeks—and some of the rhetorical responses to them—have shaken Morocco’s self-identity. There was a palpable concern that the nation would be lumped in with, at best, its more troubled neighbors in the Arab world; and, at worst, violent jihadist groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS. During a brief meeting with journalists, the president of the festival noted that these are difficult times in the world. When another of the journalists present cited terrorism, he replied, “No, Donald Trump.” It was principally—though I think not exclusively—intended as a joke.
While in Marrakech I was interviewed twice, once for the festival daily and once by Moroccan TV. On both occasions—as well as in countless conversations with locals—my interlocutors were less concerned with cinema than geopolitics. Though it was never put so bluntly, the underlying worry was essentially: Please tell us that you don’t lump us in with radical Islamic terrorists. Which, by extension, also meant: Please tell us that not all Americans are like Donald Trump.
I was repeatedly asked whether I’d been afraid to come to the festival. (Though there were rumors that Dafoe’s non-attendance was due to an emergency dental surgery, many people believed that his absence was due to a fear of terrorism.) In truth, I had had a moment of nervousness in the immediate wake of the Paris attacks. But it concerned voyaging abroad at all—thank you, State Department, for your remarkably vague and unhelpful Worldwide Travel Alert—and it passed almost immediately. Would I have felt any safer visiting Paris or Hamburg or Brussels? Hardly.
For that matter, my office at The Atlantic is directly across the street from the Saudi Embassy, which is generally considered to be among the top potential terrorist targets in Washington, DC. It’s a thought that occasionally crosses my mind as I sit at my desk, but then it’s set aside. Nowhere is ever entirely safe, as we learned to our horror with the atrocity at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino. But there is a difference between avoiding genuine risk and letting our lives be curtailed by irrational fear.
Morocco is hardly a liberal beacon by American standards. The Democracy Index of 2014 declared it an authoritarian regime, and its press was rated “not free,” by the Freedom of the Press report. In Marrakech, luxury hotels ring an old yet vibrant city riddled with poverty and subsistence living. At the same time, Moroccos’s most recent parliamentary elections were mostly deemed to be free and fair, and the country is consistently found at or near the top of quality-of-life rankings for Africa.
Moreover, what is clear is that Morocco, whatever its shortcomings, is committed to hewing firmly to a central course between the secular West on the one hand, and anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world on the other. What is also clear is that today that balance seems more precarious than it did just a few months or even weeks ago.