by Arnd Wächter
Director, Morocco Exchange & Documentary Director, Crossing Borders
December, 2002. I was based in London at this time as a teacher. During Christmas break, I was on my way to Morocco to hike in the High Atlas Mountains. It was three months before the second intervention in Iraq and the media was full of images preparing the public for the war that was about to start. Post-9/11 media coverage had failed to address the need for intercultural understanding and often reflected stereotypes and reinforced fears.
Sailing on the ferry from Spain, I realized that I was very nervous. I thought to myself: “I have studied comparative religion as part of my MA and know something about Islam. I have traveled to Indonesia and Turkey. Why am I so nervous before entering this country?”
When traveling the world previously, I realized with amazement how much my images of history, countries and current affairs had been shaped by the context I lived in.
I was born in communist East Germany and grew up next to the Berlin Wall. Sometimes my brother and I climbed trees to see boats going by on the river on the other side of the wall. We watched people having barbecues in their gardens, but were never able to join them.
I was 19 years old when the wall came tumbling down. Intercultural experiences became some of the key teachers for my personal development and for learning about other cultures. Over the following years, I was passionate about intercultural immersion experiences and backpacked on tiny budgets across the world – often choosing solo trips in order to intensify the intercultural impact.
“… I had just discovered for myself a very simple and at the same time very powerful approach to confronting stereotypes: creating opportunities for direct personal interactions and deep dialogue.”
But that day in 2002, on the ferry to Morocco, with war on the horizon, I found myself wrestling with discomfort.“Isn’t that interesting,” I thought. “I have always considered myself as being critically aware of the impact of media, and here I am being strongly influenced by it.”
My experiences in Morocco contrasted sharply with the media image of the “Muslim world” and I started to wonder if there was something that I could do as an educator to bridge this gap at a time of global tensions. To experience the humor, hospitality and warmth of Moroccan people only deepened that urge within me; and one defining moment clarified my vision.
On my last day in Morocco I was sitting on the train to Tangier. I welcomed the opportunity when people offered me tea and pastries on the train, and asked about my family and personal background. I had grown accustomed to the notion that, in Morocco, very personal interactions happen easily.
And then someone in front of me asked: “How is it in Europe? Do people hate Muslims?”
That pair of questions hit me in the core of my being. I sat there with mouth and eyes opened wide. I had experienced 9/11 in London and saw racism manifesting throughout Britain. Mosques were set on fire in the Manchester area as a reaction to the tragic events in New York.
I gathered my thoughts and replied: “I do not believe that people in the West hate Muslims. I think that many people are afraid of them after 9/11. And the problem is that many people do not know Muslims.” I paused for a moment and then said: “What is needed is this: for people to have a cup of tea, have a conversation and get to know each other as human beings.”
I did not know it at that time, but I had just discovered for myself a very simple and at the same time very powerful approach to confronting stereotypes: creating opportunities for direct personal interactions and deep dialogue.
“My vision in creating Morocco Exchange is to realize the potential for cross-cultural education to support this generation of students and future leaders.”
These travel experiences in Morocco inspired me to create a non-profit organization for cross-cultural education and Morocco Exchange programs which have, as of this writing, served over 3,600 American students in programs designed to help them interact with Moroccan families, students, professors, Peace Corps volunteers, and Fulbright scholars.
Today’s undergraduate college students were eight to twelve years old when the events of 2001 took place. My vision in creating Morocco Exchange is to realize the potential for cross-cultural education to support this generation of students and future leaders. Through deeper understanding, they stand poised to address the major challenges of cross-cultural conflicts and to develop the capabilities and commitment to transform themselves and the world.
Witnessing the ways in which these programs impact individuals led me to the creation of cross-cultural films that inspire students to look for transformative cross-cultural experiences themselves.
From 2007-2009 I produced and directed the feature documentary, Crossing Borders, as a cross-cultural tool to initiate dialogue between students in the Western and Muslim worlds.
Over the past years, I saw that the experiences themselves are the best teacher to confront existing preconceptions. It is a defining and creative moment when students encounter, for themselves, something that stands in contrast to their accustomed perception. It empowers them to discover themselves first-hand, and to enhance critical thinking skills.
To experience hospitality in a Muslim country and then to reflect upon it, creates a powerful arena of ideas. Questions are raised; important questions of controversy and perception and global prejudices.
For example, after 9/11, why were we shown images of a small group of 10-20 Muslims celebrating, suggesting that the entire Muslim world was celebrating? Why did we see these images repeated over and over again? How come we did not see 60,000 Iranians holding a Peace Vigil for the victims of 9/11? How come we did not see the images of over one million Moroccans demonstrating against the use of violence in the name of their faith after the bombing in Casablanca?
These are individual and collective questions with no easy answers, but the search for truth and meaning begins in the heart of each person considering them. I observed different responses of American students when they stayed in private homes, and interacted personally with Moroccan students from our Morocco programs.
Students from a more liberal background were often surprised about the positive experiences they had. Some of them expressed that they were very critical of the media, and were then surprised finding out how much they had been affected by images of Muslims in the U.S. media.
Students who identified as chiefly conservative found themselves processing an ideological disconnect. They experienced openness, hospitality and warmth in Morocco. This stood in sharp contrast to the hostile view their families held of the region. One student shared: “My parents and grandparents are not talking to me at the moment. They are evangelical Christians and are deeply upset with me that I am visiting a Muslim country.” After a while she added, quietly: “They consider this religion evil.”
These are moments in which I have a lot of compassion for the students. After the Communist system imploded, I was forced to come to terms with facets of my education that consisted of an incomplete or distorted image. To change such perception does not happen in one conversation. It needs eye-opening, contextual experiences, and the time to reflect and process them.
One special quality American students seem to possess is the willingness to get emotionally involved and to care about issues and people. I noticed that most students who travelled with us knew very little about the region. I also noted that the majority really cared from the first moment they connected to a person or an issue. It is a cultural quality that is imbued with great possibility for effecting change and fostering understanding.
There are, as always, complexities in addressing complex issues. It is my experience in my personal life and in programs that “being nice” to each other can be, on the one hand, an effective approach toward defusing escalation of a conflict.
Conversely, it can often serve as a way to avoid addressing and processing deeper issues which concern us all. It seems no accident that, on the most intimate and familiar of levels, often the people we feel closest to are those with whom we are able to share the most difficult things in our lives. So by avoiding the challenge of confronting controversy, we are actually missing the opportunity to deepen relationships and garner the gifts of compassion and understanding.
My view is informed by my training in group facilitation and conflict resolution with the Process Work Institute. This is an organization of therapists who combine psychoanalysis with social activism and who worked over the past three decades with communities in places of conflict around this globe.
The Institute’s founder, Arnold Mindell, became a true inspiration to me in the unfolding of my educational programs and vision. Arny views conflict as “creative energy blocked.” In the moment, a safe space is created and both sides commit to speaking frankly and listening compassionately. Thus an authentic dynamic can grow between people that creates a deeper understanding of issues, of oneself and of the other.
Regarding stereotyping, I often think that we would be already a large step ahead if we could just admit that it is a phenomenon that is part of our humanity. We acquire limited information about people and issues due to lack of exposure. And because of that, we create images based upon a limited perspective.
The moment we admit that stereotyping is human and accept that we, too, need to develop awareness, something magical happens. The “Other” becomes our companion along the way of growing into more maturity. The “Other” becomes our mirror that helps us to discover and tackle our blind-spots of misconception.
These could be healing moments in which we recognize that “coexistence” is not just a static ethical value that can be treated as a luxury. It is a necessity: we need the “Other” to know more about ourselves and about the world we live in.
My experience is that, most of the time, educators do not need to tell students what to think or do. I experienced that students can discover their passion and task in this world where they are connected to their own power. So I would like to close with a quote that I love sharing with students when they ask “So what can I do?”, a quote which became key to my personal process of growing ideas and visions into
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – H.T. Whitman
Arnd received his school education in communist East Germany. As a conscientious objector to military service, he was not allowed to study at university and became a carpenter. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he started to travel the world beyond Eastern Europe and was able to study abroad in London. There he completed his MA in Religious Studies and Post Graduate Certificate in Education. Since 1996 he has worked and lived in the UK, Japan, Australia, the U.S., Spain and Morocco and traveled extensively on six continents. The impact these journeys had on Arnd made him personally aware of the transformative power of cross-cultural interactions.
On a visit to Morocco during the build-up to the U.S. intervention in Iraq, he was deeply moved by personal conversations with Moroccans. This inspired him to create the educational NGO Crossing Borders Education (www.cb-education.org) which has taken over 3,600 American students (including students participating on Arcadia University programs in Spain) on programs to interact with Moroccan families, students, professors, Peace Corps volunteers, and Fulbright scholars on a personal level. In 2007-2009 he produced and directed the feature documentary Crossing Borders (www.crossingbordersfilm.org), a cross-cultural tool to initiate dialogue between students in the Western and Muslim worlds. The film was selected at 12 international film festivals and won several awards.