Growing up, my life has often felt like a compromise between “my radical” beliefs and a conservative society. Today I feel it’s becoming more of an integration. I’m learning to be myself without shutting doors to other people. If I don’t, I accumulate too many different cultures and experiences to segment them from one another. I’ve always believed in celebrating differences, and being curious and open-minded instead of fearing it. The sources of discrimination are fear and ignorance and the lack of deep listening. Everywhere I’ve travelled, one part of my identity confronts a fear in people in what they project. In Morocco, it’s because I’m queer. In France and basically everywhere else, it’s because I’m Muslim.
As a person who isn’t afraid to offer a smile, I’ve always escaped the negative stereotypes given to Parisians, like being cold or unfriendly to strangers. I get asked often, “You’re not really French, are you?” I am. I’m native to the language, acquired citizenship and built my adult self in Paris. But I do look different from the typical fashion French girl in magazines. There’s a popular expression in the alt-right movements in France for people like me: “FDP: Française de papier” which means “French on paper”. Interestingly, my African/Moroccan side benefits from this. Instead of confronting fear, it comes with an exotification. This hype has a lot to do with the narratives on blackness and Africa coming from America.
The latest visual album from Beyoncé, Black is King or the Wakanda movie, are incredible works of art but they’re also representative of very privileged American artists’ take on Africa. Both pieces remind me of how the French orientalist painters and writers in the 19th century were portraying their fantasised versions of hammams and indigenous North African populations of the Ottoman empire, which later became their colonies. These depictions are fantasy narrative — very glamorous but not enclosing from the reality. All in all, there is a positive side in building a hype around cultures that were stigmatised because it puts them in the spotlight in a nice way.
The dark side of it, however, is reductionism. The “sexy” projections don’t grasp the complexity of being African today. An artist friend of mine just fled Nigeria after trying to travel to Europe since May 2019. He doesn’t plan to go back. The corruption, among other things, got to him. This reminds me that there are many reasons to exile, chosen or not.
Because of the way difference has been stigmatised in most of our cultures, there is an underlying trauma for people who, like me, have been confronted with their difference as a source of hostility. In the West, Muslim became the identity that crystallises quite a lot of stigma. It doesn’t matter if I practise or not, nor if religion is a part of my life and how I engage in my spiritual practice. I am from a Muslim culture. One of my strongest mantras is the opening prayer in Islam. I repeat it to myself for reassurance when I’m feeling anxious as well as when I’m in alternate states of trance. It is my anchor. Tattooed on my arms, I have a prayer I learned in Brazil during an Umbandaime ritual. It’s another anchor. I have my own ways of practising syncretism.
During a ceremony in the Blue Mountains last year, participants were invited to share their own music and prayers with the circle and the hosts. Many people moved me with their voices and instruments. After we left, my boyfriend asked me why I didn’t sing or play my ukulele. I told him I was too shy. This was true for not playing the ukulele as I still feel like a beginner, but it was not quite true regarding singing. My real motivation for keeping quiet was fear. I was scared of singing the prayers that came to my heart because they were Muslim prayers. I projected my own fear of being judged, of disrupting the space with too much difference. Was it because some triggers made me feel uncomfortable? Or was it internalised projected discrimination? Looking back, I am confident that it would have been welcomed and beautiful. There is no place for fear in sacred spaces.
I am conscious that my way of embodying spirituality would provoke an outcry around bigots of Islam. If I was famous, they would undermine my voice and say that I’m not really Muslim. Or call for blasphemy like that against Salman Rushdie after he published The Satanic Verses. Or treat me like the Australian priest Greg Reynolds, who was excommunicated by the Vatican over his support for women priests and same sex marriage. I feel safe with a French passport that protects me and because I reside in countries like Australia where I cannot be put in jail because of what I say or believe. I know many people who do not have this freedom. Together with 400 Moroccan cultural workers and artists, we just co-signed a manifesto called “A Shadow Looms”. It’s an initiative aiming to fight authoritarianism, police repression and the “media of defamation” threatening people who speak up.
I guess my message is that there are always two sides to a story. Tyson Yunkaporta says that “in Aboriginal worldview, nothing exists outside of a relationship to something else. There are no isolated variables.” A similar logic is found in quantum theory: by the very act of watching, the observer affects the observed reality.
There can be no exclusion or stereotypes when people truly listen and are guided by love. Guided with their heart, eye-to-eye and with a loving soul.
Asmaa Guedira is a Moroccan-born and adopted-French digital nomad. She works at the intersection of social justice, systemic change and regenerative culture through writing, facilitation, performance art and public speaking. She’s currently writing a book about identity.