I was pissed off that my nationality prohibited me from interviewing the men burning American flags a few blocks away. What was I doing in North Africa, besides avoiding the chance to do some real journalism?
A day before my brother set off for his freshman OA trip, I took off for the capitol of Morocco, where began my year of absence from this University instead of senior fall. I rented a room in Rabat’s historic Oudaya district, a small cliff village of awkwardly warped blue and white cement homes that dominate a large fraction of Morocco’s postcard industry. To one side is the Atlantic Ocean, and to the other, a dirty river which separates Rabat from it’s poorer, more religious twin, Saleh. A good athlete could hurl a stone onto the banks of Saleh from my roof.
Within three days of the US Ambassador to Libya being killed by extremists in Benghazi, anti-American protests had spread from London to Jakarta, a global response to the now-infamous film insulting the prophet Mohammed. Several embassies were attacked in North Africa and the Middle East, and a KFC was burnt extra-crispy in Lebanon, an incident that killed only a Lebanese employee and a Lebanese-owned business. Most protests were like the one in Saleh—no casualties, save for numerous American flags lost to fuel, flames, and fury.
“Where do you get all these American flags?” I wanted to ask. “How much money do you spend on American flags each year for this purpose? Where do you keep them during all the other days of the year?” But I couldn’t ask, because I am American.
I was not angered by these protests, nor did I feel they were directed at me. I was simply curious. How did they spread so quickly? Were they spreading organically, or was it that hard-line Salafists didn’t want their city to be the only one in the Muslim world not to make the news that evening?
That day, I wished to have been nationless. The ideal of press credentials—I hope—is that they succeed in creating an environment of amnesty for those holding them, so that a journalist may be simply a body collecting and reporting information through observation and questioning. Citizenship irrelevant. That is not to say that proper journalism isn’t dangerous. Many international correspondents are jailed or killed in the service of reporting. Their impartiality in the conflicts they cover does not render them immune to a bullet or a bomb.
But there were no bullets or bombs in Saleh that day, just flames and fervor. The spread of protests took over international news, but just because all reports say North Africa is burning, doesn’t mean all of North Africa is burning. Most everyone carries on quietly with their daily lives, while a few angry men with flags and fire provide a flurry of interest for the instantl relevant journalists in the region. But I have no press credentials. And since I didn’t show up in Saleh with a microphone and a notebook, my proximity to that anti-American riot likely put me at no greater risk than did the events in Benghazi, Khartoum, Cairo, or Tripoli.
Where actual danger may have been lacking, though, unpredictability and paranoia seeped into expatriate conversations. Each time we submit ourselves to be groped by the TSA before flying, we’re reminded that it’s not easy to guess which people want to destroy you. And that uncertainty, coupled with emergency warnings coming out of the Embassy two miles away, made some needlessly fear that their French or Arabic wasn’t good enough to blend.