This past semester, fall 2017, I got the incredible opportunity to study abroad in London. And I was able to visit Berlin a week before the program started thanks to the generosity of the Cabot Family and their Endowment for International and Intercultural Education. The aim of my project was to try to analyze the street art scene in Berlin and how it affected people, and I thought Berlin was the perfect place to do so because it is a city overflowing with street art.
I am a Sociology and Francophone studies double-major who got to study in Bordeaux last semester. I was able to go to Barcelona and Marseille to study Arab influences in Mediterranean cultures thanks to the generosity of the Sol Feinstone International Study Prize. My original focus on Arab influences expanded to include the issues of misrepresentation of African immigrants throughout the semester, due to the influence of the France program’s trip to Sénégal and Dr. Éloïse Brezault’s course which focused on colonization and mythological images. I chose Barcelona and Marseille because as port cities along the Mediterranean Sea, they were and still are an important area of cultural exchange.
What I saw throughout my travel enrichment grant and my semester in France was something I had already heard about before: there is a lot of prejudice against Middle Easterns, Africans, and any non-white immigrants in European countries. This prejudice exists in countries such as France, which preaches “liberté, egalité, et fraternité” for everyone, and offers anything but liberty, equality, and fraternity for all of its citizens. Even people who are born and raised in countries like France and who are fully French, are still alienated and made to feel like unauthentic French citizens just because their parents came from another country. Xenophobia, prejudice, and any other types of discrimination can only be bred in an environment where “others” are created and shown in a dehumanizing light, which is what has happened in the case of Arabs and Africans. Throughout Dr. Brezault’s course, we studied mythical images as conceptualized by Roland Barthes in Mythologies. He defined the mythical image as an unquestioned dominant discourse which benefits elites and ‘first world’ countries. These negative mythical images about Arabs and Africans are what allow for prejudice and discrimination to exist, as well as perceived irreconcilable differences between European cultures and Arab and African cultures.
The goal of my grant was to highlight the similarities between European cultures and the Arab and African cultures they reject, in order to add something positive to the conversation. I found through visiting these two cities and being in France for the whole semester, not only that prejudice and xenophobia is pretty much alive in Europe, but also that European cultures are not as hermetic as they think, and that they share many things in common with Arab and African cultures. The similarities between the cultures are particularly visible in the cuisine of European countries, which use spices and ingredients which are native to Middle Eastern and African countries, and which were introduced and later adopted into the local cuisine. Paella, one of Spain’s more well-known dishes, would not exist without Arabs introducing rice and saffron into Spain. In France, dishes like cassoulet and couscous were derived from Arab cuisine. The use of spices like cinnamon, saffron and coriander were introduced by the Arabs, as well as chickpeas, which are particularly important in Spanish cuisine.
Another similarity that I found during my travels was language, because it tells you about a country’s history and the interactions it has and has had with other countries. There are clear remnants of the interactions between Arab culture and the Spanish language and French, as well as African remnants in the latter. The Iberian peninsula was once under Arab occupation for eight centuries, and that contact between both cultures resulted in 8% of the words in the Spanish language to come from Arabic. In the case of French, modern language is being shaped by African and Arab countries that are part of the Francophonie due to France’s colonial past. An example of how the language is being shaped today is the verlan, which is basically a type of slang that was bred in the banlieues or housing projects in France which are mainly populated by immigrants. Verlan consists of changing the order of syllables, for example, ‘femme’ turns into ‘meuf.’ Another notable examples are the use of “wesh” as a way to say ‘what’s up’ in French, which is derived from Algerian Arabic, or “ça avance ndank-ndank” which is a phrase commonly used in Sénégal to say ‘it is going forward little by little,’ with ndank-ndank being a Wolof word.
My travel enrichment grant definitely enhanced my experience abroad by letting me pursue interests I would have been more limited to pursue otherwise. Going to Barcelona and Marseille allowed me to put what I had learned in my director’s course into context, and the fact that I had an academic goal going into my travels allowed me to view everything around me in closer detail. I definitely know more about Arab and African cultures after going through this process, but I recognize I still have a lot more to learn, so this enrichment grant might lead me to an Independent Study next semester.