There have been many instances in my college career where I was frustrated by the generality and lack of hard skills that characterize the liberal arts. Perhaps because of my results-driven and perfectionist personality, I occasionally allow myself to be frustrated by the lack of data, perspective, and history driven aspects of the degree. Since coming to Morocco, I have newfound respect for the liberal arts and the very tangible aspects of the skills they build.
The experience that really cemented this lesson for me was during a weekend trip to Merzouga, near the southeastern border with Algeria. The best way to get to this Sahara town is via over-night bus. On the return leg of our journey, I sat next to a man named Amed and attempted to make some light conversation with him. It turned out that he was the lead guitarist for a Moroccan band called Imodda. The group plays a particular type of music that is characteristic of the region, blending traditional Amazigh (Berber) music and language with American blues and rock n’ roll.
Imodda’s music mainly centers on the political realities of Amazigh peoples throughout the Saharan region, in addition to other issues affecting the diverse peoples of North Africa. Amed told me of how his band has received a widespread following from people all over Morocco and throughout Europe. In between touring Morocco and internationally, Imodda has started its own philanthropy that benefits the Amazigh populations of Merzouga, the hometown of the band. According to their website, their current projects include establishing a protected environmental park in southeastern Morocco, sponsoring education initiatives that target the children of nomadic peoples in the region, and establishing a well-known music festival that aims to preserve Amazigh culture and voice important issues.
As our conversation progressed, Amed told me more about his life. For the first 13 years of his life, he lived with only his grandmother and their sheep in the desert. When his grandmother passed away, he settled in Merzouga to live with his mother and father. He found the transition from the solitude and the liberty of being a nomad difficult. Interactions with other children were forced, uncomfortable, and avoided. Ultimately, Amed was able to find a close niche of friends in Merzouga, learn guitar, and obtain two degrees in English Literature and Psychology.
As an undergrad, Amed became increasingly frustrated with how marginalized his people and other minority groups had been treated by their respective governments in the Saharan region. One subject of particular concern for him is the conflict in Mali between the Tuareg (Tamashek) nomads and the government. Since the 1960’s, Mali has been dealing with multiple “Tuareg Rebellions” in the region. According to Amed, the Tamashek people are closely related to the Amazigh people through language, culture, and geography. He believes that these people are simply fighting for the freedom to live their lives as they please, as they have done for thousands of years. He fears that the international media has cast a shadow on the reputation of his people by misinterpreting or radicalizing the wishes of most Tamashek or Amazigh people involved in the Saharan conflicts as fundamentalist acts of terror. Unfortunately, a measurable amount of such radicalization has occurred, as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has capitalized on the instability of the region and increased its presence among the nomadic population.
I feel extremely lucky to have met someone like Amed. Prior to coming to Morocco, I had heard about “desert music” and about the shaky political situation in the Sahara. Talking to Amed on a cross-country bus at midnight made the political situation and that type of music personal for me. I could hear the passion in his voice about his music, feel his sadness about his friend who was recently killed in Mali, and appreciate his surprise in meeting an American who knew a thing or two about Azawad (traditional Tamashek name for their homeland). This was the instant I knew my liberal arts education was actually extremely tangible, and all those hours spent reading were very worthwhile.