America, also known as the “New World” and the melting-pot society, has famously been “the contact zone” –– to use Mary Louis Pratt’s designation –– where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other. Many Moroccan and Arab authors and travelers have recorded their travel experiences in the United States, drawing various –– and sometimes contradictory –– portraits of this cultural entity that was entirely different than their own.
America has famously been “the contact zone” where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other.
Arab writers as diverse as Ameen Rihani (1876-1940), Mikhail Naimy (1889-1988), Mahmud Tymur (1894-1973), Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), Phillip Hitti (1886-1978), Halim Barakat (b. 1936), Yusuf Idris (1927-1991), Sonallah Ibrahim (b. 1937), Radwa Ashur (1946-2014), and Leila Abou Saif (b. 1941), among many others, have travelled across the US and come back to tell us about their overwhelming experiences of an advanced civilization with multiple faiths, and a set of values different from their own.
Moroccan authors have also enriched the corpus of fiction and quasi-fiction that treats “America” as its subject-matter. Youssouf Amine Elalamy’s (A Moroccan in New York) (2001), Abdellatif Akbib’s “Tangier’s Eyes on America,” Zakia Khairhoum’s “The End of My Dangerous Secret” (2005), Sellam Chahdi’s “Migration to the Land of Dreams” (1999), and Leila Abou Zeid’s “America, the Other Face” (1992) are a few cases in point. Mohamed Hassan Abou El Fadel’s “Catching a Glimpse of America” also falls within the trend of what is known as Occidentalism, or Eastern representations of the Western world (the Occident), the inverse of Orientalism.
“Catching a Glimpse of America” is, thus, a collection of articles that relate Abou El Fadel’s immersive experience in the American educational system, culture, and way of life. It paints various pictures of the United States from a foreigner’s perspective and goes as far back as 1976. The book was added to, updated, and improved by the author’s experiences in the US in 2004 and 2005. “Catching a Glimpse of America” is a record of what is new, interesting, practical, rewarding, or inspiring –– as well as what is different, enchanting, exotic, intriguing, or intellectually challenging in the Occident.
It also depicts an image of twenty-first century America where building bridges of cross-cultural and interfaith understanding and cooperation has become a much-sought after alternative to conflict, intolerance, and confrontation. According to Abou El Fadel, “Catching a Glimpse of America” ultimately “explores avenues of the positive transfer of interesting ideas and successful practices to the Moroccan setting.”
The book “explores avenues of the positive transfer of interesting ideas and successful practices to the Moroccan setting.”
The book is the culmination of the author having participated in three different exchange programs in the United States. As a high school exchange student in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Abou El Fadell participated in “American Field Service.” Later as an exchange teacher in Morristown, Indiana, and an alumnus of the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware, he had his second and third programs with the Fulbright program. The book generally revolves around the following issues: the historical background of Moroccan-American relations, major museum visits, facets of American life, building bridges, food culture explored, education and life-long learning, and final reflections.
“Catching a Glimpse of America” addresses a myriad of cultural topics, issues, and actions which took place in a multitude of areas in the US. The setting of these events stretches from New York in the northeast all the way to the White Mountain Apache reservation in Arizona, and from Albuquerque in the southwest all the way to Indianapolis and Chicago in the midwest or the Great Lakes area. The number of states covered represents some 21 states, including the US’ capital city of Washington DC.
The shifting positions and perspectives the writer uses to portray the US readily catch the readers’ attention, even as he or she leafs through the book. Abou El Fadel oftentimes puts himself in the shoes of a tourist guide, introducing readers to American museums, landscapes, and landmarks. Sometimes, he wears the hat of an anthropologist who observes the customs and behaviors that distinguish American society from others and reflect the legendary diversity of the people and the landscape. At other times, the writer adopts the role of the educator who has benefited from his own learning experiences through his exploration of the American way of life, and as such, he presents a reliable learning experience for the readers.
What gives the book and the various accounts it generously presents added historical value and appeal are the 46-year-old photos taken either by the author himself or by his friends using a small Kodak Instamatic camera. The photos constitute an important element of the book. The more recent photos were taken using digital cameras and, thus, are quite distinct from the rest. The book is surely an important addition to national book writing in English in Morocco and potentially in the Maghreb region as well. Overall, at 171 pages, “Catching a Glimpse of America” is an impactful read that is rich, varied, informative, easy, and enjoyable.
The author contemplates and negotiates cultural difference in a balanced and unbiased way,
Looking at Abou El Fidel’s work through the lens of postcolonial criticism, the book does not promote any stereotypical or discriminatory images about Americans and their culture. The author’s sensibility and cultural awareness make him contemplate and negotiate cultural difference in a balanced and unbiased way, believing in the value of cross-cultural pollination through cooperation and exchange of useful practices. “It is up to individuals to sift through all [sorts of out-of-the-box ideas in the US] to see what best matches their convictions, expectations, or aspirations,” he says.
What the author recounts in the book captures only a tiny fragment of what US society really is. “Glimpse” in the title is a well-chosen word that implies that the US’ melting pot society, rich history, and diverse culture remain elusive to the eye of the foreign observer. The thousands of accounts about the US that have been compiled by authors from the West and the East offer readers relative glimpses into this fascinating country. That’s conceivably why Oscar Wilde once said: “Perhaps, after all, America never has been discovered. I myself would say that it had merely been detected.”
 Mary Louis Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturalism (London: Routledge, 2008), p. 7.