Cultural Crossroads

During his lifetime Idries Shah promoted contacts and connections between different traditions around the world, believing this to be an important element in the advancement of human culture.

In this spirit, The Idries Shah Foundation has created ‘Cultural Crossroads’, a website forum where people from many walks of life are invited to talk about their own experiences crossing cultural boundaries, and the lessons that they have learned as a result.

You can find the full series here:

About Saeida Rouass

Saeida Rouass is a British-born writer of Moroccan heritage.

She is the author of Eighteen Days of Spring in Winter and Assembly of the Dead. She is currently working on a new book, Library of Untruths.

Having spent ten years working internationally as a trainer and project manager for various charities and NGOs, she currently works within international development and security with a focus on the Middle East & North Africa, and Morocco in particular.

1. In this ‘Cultural Crossroads’ theme we have been exploring the lives of people who have first-hand experience of cultural meeting points. Can you describe your background, and how it has influenced your work?

I see myself as British of Moroccan heritage, as it is the closest I can get to describing my cultural background. My parents are Moroccan and moved to the UK as part of a wave of economic migrants from the north of Morocco in the 1960s. But, ‘British of Moroccan heritage’ doesn’t capture it all. I am also a Londoner – an Eastender to be more accurate – working class, a child of migrants, from the Jebala (mountain tribe of north Morocco) etc. And I suppose that for me is the beauty and challenge of not just standing but living at the meeting point of cultures – no one word or idea can encompass who you feel you are, or your mixed cultural experiences and backgrounds.

It can be a challenge because on both sides (British and Moroccan) your legitimacy to claim your place in that culture is often challenged. The moment you don’t conform you are seen as an outsider and not representative of the culture and people. The moment you succeed in something, you can find yourself being pulled in two directions as you are asked to credit one of your cultural backgrounds for the success.

People also often assume you live in a state of conflict and that somehow you have to choose between the two. The only conflict I have ever felt is externally projected, as though I can’t possibly be both and have serenity. I think there is a lot of focus on where cultures conflict theoretically. If cultures were mutually exclusive, I don’t think the human species would have survived.

For me, it is also a beautiful thing. It has made me a perpetual insider looking at it from the outside. It has also made me creative – I have always had to adapt, find solutions, create and culturally shape-shift to the environment I find myself in. It can also be empowering as it gives me selectivity over choices and values without feeling like one choice or value negates another.

2. Identity is often a central theme in the work of novelists. How has your identity been reflected in your work? Would you say that it enables you to culture-shift in a way that an author from one single cultural background might find challenging?

When writing my first full novel, Assembly of the Dead, I created the character Farook al-Alami, a detective from Tangier who is sent to Marrakech to investigate the disappearance of a number of women. At the time it was important to me that he was an outsider to Marrakech society, and also an outsider to the politics of Morocco in 1906 as it struggled against European colonialism. In order for him to be effective as a detective he had to remain indifferent to some degree, but not necessarily apolitical. After the novel was published and I began speaking about it with readers at events in Morocco and the UK, I realised that there was a very real possibility that I had, without realising it, written the male version of myself. The more I talked about Farook, the more I started to wonder if he is the man I would have been had I been born a Moroccan boy. Farook’s love of the ocean, particularly the Strait of Gibraltar, where the Mediterranean and Atlantic meet, with the two cultures of Europe and Africa staring each other down from opposite sides of the shore, speaks to that cultural crossroads. It is a place of natural danger, uncertainty and also opportunity. Three qualities that I think are essential to the creative process.

How we write people and places is informed by who we are and what we have experienced, but sometimes we have to force ourselves to be more conscious of our writing process and sources of inspiration. When writers are writing about cultures they are not part of I would hope they put themselves through a genuine process of self-reflection to identify why they are doing it, how they are portraying that culture and whether are they relying on and therefore perpetuating lazy stereotypes or cultural tropes and caricatures. Authenticity is key to a meaningful reading experience, whoever the writer is.

3. As someone who is from both East and West, are you surprised by the frequent inability of Occident to understand Orient, and vice versa, in a meaningful way? And, can you see ways to increase communication, such as through sharing stories perhaps?

I am amazed at how often people ask me if I am Moroccan or British, as though somehow it is not possible to like couscous and pie and mash at the same time – I like them both equally and the world doesn’t get to demand that I choose. I find it frustrating when people see my whole existence as a source of conflict.

I actually think cultures do understand each other in meaningful ways and there are lots of historical evidence of this happening across the world. It only becomes an issue when power enters the equation. It’s when individuals, communities or societies seek to assert power over those outside of those groups that communication breaks down. To me, acknowledging where power is, how it asserts itself, and what it seeks to achieve is key to mutual understanding and co-existence. Co-existence is jeopardised when the existence of one comes at the expense of others, not when two cultures meet. It is not possible to look at the relationship between Occident and Orient without understanding how power was historically acquired, negotiated, wrestled and asserted across those lines, which very often were not cultural but economic and geographic. If we want to understand each other better a good starting point is to stop trying to dominate or control each other. In the world of politics that is asking for a miracle. In the world of writing and storytelling, writing power into the interactions and circumstances of characters can go a long way towards building an understanding of who they are and why they behave in the way they do. That fictional storytelling of people can be very potent at illustrating the world we actually live in.