[This article is part of a special dossier on Morocco in the 2022 Fifa World Cup. Read the introduction to this dossier here.]
As a diasporic Moroccan woman living in the US and a scholar of the transnational politics of affect, gender, and sexuality, watching the broadcast and media coverage of the Moroccan football team in the 2022 World Cup was to experience an exhilarating, liberatory, and soul-nurturing sense of recognition, belonging, and hope that I am unlikely to ever forget.
The historic significance of the Moroccan team making it to the semi-finals despite relatively fewer resources compared to better endowed teams from the Global North was certainly a big part of this exhilaration. Winning against the teams of three former colonial powers (Belgium, Spain, and Portugal) where members of the Moroccan diaspora are frequently ostracized and demonized was also a big part of it. However, it was the affective and transnational dimensions of watching the game and the counternarrative that it offered about diasporic Moroccan subjectivity that I found most fascinating. Indeed, I would like to suggest that the Moroccan players (and here I will be mostly focusing on the diasporic players on the team) challenged dominant assumptions about Moroccan/North African/Muslim/immigrant masculinity while at the same time speaking back to notions of Western superiority and benevolence through their expressions of affection and indebtedness towards their immigrant mothers. In doing so, they reminded us of the liberatory and political significance of the felt and the intimate in resisting the dehumanization of minoritized, racialized, and marginalized subjects on the global stage.
When I think back on my experience watching Morocco’s participation in the World Cup, it was the moments of tenderness (lutf), affection (hanan), intimacy and utter delight between the players and their parents after the games that most moved me and that I found most significant. This includes when Achraf Hakimi, who was born in Madrid to working-class immigrant parents, ran to his mother in a memorable embrace after winning the game against Belgium and then again did the same thing after scoring the winning penalty against Spain; these embraces have now been memorialized in the form of a mural in a Moroccan neighborhood in Barcelona [see image]. It also includes the scene of Soufiane Boufal joyfully dancing with his mother on the field, a mother to whom he has declared his love and gratitude in numerous declarations. Wearing a modest golden jellaba and scarf on her head, dancing, hugging her son, affectionately kissing his hands, she embodied a proud and loving, working-class, immigrant, Moroccan and Muslim subjectivity; together they projected an image of diasporic Moroccan love, pride, joy, intimacy, and complicity that we rarely get to see on mainstream and Western television.
To me as a Moroccan diasporic subject who spent the first half of my life in Morocco, these tender moments of love, affection, complicity, and unmediated joy are very familiar. They remind me of home and of the abundance of love, support, and affection that characterized my everyday life and interactions with my immediate and extended family, friends, loved ones, and community while growing up in Morocco. They remind me of my late father’s complete and total embrace of his vulnerability, which he was never afraid to show, and which was one of his most endearing qualities. They also remind me of the larger moral universe in which I grew up in Morocco, where displays of love and affection between family members (and especially between parents and their children) are often mediated by and intertwined with Islamic moral norms; for example, the notion that motherhood is a virtue and a form of worship, that loving one’s parents is a moral obligation, that the blessing of parents (rdat al-walidin) is of the highest form, and that showing tenderness and care towards fellow Muslims and creatures of God (including animals and nature) is essential to being a good Muslim. Thus, to kiss the forehead or hand of a mother or father is to express love and affection from within an Islamic moral habitus, and is thus saturated with specific histories, moral, affective, and embodied economies that parochialize universalizing assumptions about love, affection, parenting, and childhood.
What was new and exhilarating to me as a diasporic Moroccan subject was to see such familiar displays of affection, intimacy, complicity, vulnerability, and Moroccan/Muslim subjectivity on TV while sitting in my living room in the US, watching a mainstream channel and a transnational sports event, and knowing that they were available for the whole world (the world cup watching world, that is) to see. What was also new to me is that these moments of spontaneous and genuine connection on the part of the Moroccan players and their families were not accompanied or at least not overtaken by vitriolic Islamophobic racist discourses warning us about the putative dangers and barbarism of Moroccan culture and Muslim patriarchy. Instead, they were celebrated all over the media and the subject of much positive commentary. Indeed, the media landscape that I have grown most accustomed to as a diasporic Moroccan and Muslim subject living in the US in a post 9/11 world is one that homogenizes, essentializes, and dehumanizes Moroccan and Muslim subjects, a media landscape that is saturated with vilifying and orientalist narratives about places like Morocco that are associated in dominant Western imagination with violence, oppression, patriarchy, and fanaticism above all else (with occasional patronizing and equally colonial platitudes about how beautiful the country is nevertheless, and how hospitable the people are).
So, what was new for me was to experience an almost shocking sense of affective, moral, and spiritual recognition, of familiarity, and vicarious warmth and tenderness from my home in the US (rather than in person during visits to Morocco or among Moroccan diasporic family/friends in the US) and while watching a transnational sporting event. This is a feeling, the fullness and uniqueness of which I am likely to never forget, and it is one that I know I am not alone in having been greatly impacted by. This is what it is like to experience a non-stigmatized and non-demonized subjectivity, to dwell in recognition, to feel seen and heard and felt and connected and proud on one’s own terms rather than through the distorting lenses of Orientalism, colonialism, and anti-Muslim racism.
Indeed, at the risk of sounding naïve (although I can think of worse sins in these times of chronic cynicism and disillusionment), I would suggest that affectively charged moments like these during Morocco’s participation in the World Cup enabled Moroccans, at home and in the diaspora, as well their many supporters worldwide, and especially from the Global Majority, to collectively and unapologetically revel in the joys and pleasures of an affective geography of intimacy that cuts across national boundaries, what I would call a decolonial affective habitus, that is rarely allowed in dominant Western discourses and representations. While this decolonial affective takeover (or interlude) lasted for only a fleeting moment and will certainly not undo the violence of centuries of colonial and imperial domination, the willful misrepresentation and dehumanization of North Africans, Middle Easterners, and Muslims that characterize our present, or the hardships that the majority of Moroccans at home and in the diaspora have to endure on a daily basis, the liberatory potentialities of the sense of affective fullness that it enabled should not in my view be underestimated. If nothing else, these moments and the intense feelings of recognition, hope, and belonging, as well as pride and joy, that they engendered can help us better articulate and critique the depth of invisibility and dehumanization that otherwise saturates mainstream media landscapes. It can also help us imagine a world where the complexity and fullness of marginalized, racialized, minoritized, and formerly colonized subjects is respected, honored, and celebrated on a regular basis rather than only under exceptional circumstances. The fact that the players and their mothers come from working-class families and regions/communities of Morocco that do not often get to represent Moroccanness on the global stage is also equally important in thinking about the political significance of these moments both nationally and transnationally.
These moments of collective tenderness, vulnerability, joy, love, and affection between the players and their families are also significant in the ways that they speak back to dominant Western discourses and assumptions about gender and masculinity in Morocco/North Africa. Indeed, as many scholars of gender, sexuality, immigration, and anti-Muslim racism have shown, the legacies of colonialism and Orientalism continue to mediate the racialization, stigmatization, and criminalization of immigrant and diasporic communities from North Africa and the Middle East in Euro-America. In particular, they have shown the prevalence of a dominant racializing discourse that exceptionalizes the patriarchal nature of North African/Muslim/Arab/immigrant masculinity and saturates it above all else with negative affects and attributes such as violence, domination, sexual repression, rigidity, fanaticism, intolerance, aggressivity, and hyper-virility. This essentializing discourse is then used to justify the policing, surveillance, discrimination against, and stigmatization of immigrant men from North Africa and their descendants in the name of defending women’s rights and gender equality.
Given all this and the important role of affect in producing moral panic about Moroccan/North African/Muslim masculinity in Euro-America, the loving and affectionate hugs and kisses, joyful dances on the field, and other gestures of complicity and intimacy that the Moroccan players shared with their families, and especially with their mothers, have, I would argue, put on display for all who are willing to see just how dehumanizing these dominant discourses have, in contrast, tended to be. Put differently, one could say that if Morocco’s participation in the World Cup gave Moroccans and their supporters an opportunity to experience an exhilarating sense of intimacy and affective recognition on the world stage, Western viewers who have grown accustomed to associating North African/Muslim/immigrant men with danger, violence and domination will have experienced, in contrast, a sense of surprise, dissonance, and disorientation while watching the World Cup; the latter is especially the case given that the diasporic players on the team represent both Euro-America and Morocco by virtue of their dual citizenships. This suggests that the affective and the intimate can operate as important sites of decolonial liberation as well as destabilization of hegemonic taxonomies.
In addition, I think that it is especially important that the diasporic Moroccan players’ affection towards their mothers was accompanied with expressions of recognition and indebtedness towards their working-class families who immigrated to various parts of Euro-America in search of better economic opportunities and had to overcome many hardships to enable their sons to build their soccer careers. This gratitude and the affection through which it is expressed is significant in many ways. It is an inter-generational recognition of the sacrifices made by immigrant parents who faced racism, discrimination, and xenophobia while trying to make a living and to adapt to the expectations and norms of Western host countries and being subject to constant scrutiny, racial profiling, and moral panic about the so-called Muslim or immigrant takeover of Europe/North America. Indeed, I have been struck by the fact that many of the diasporic Moroccan players who expressed gratitude towards their immigrant parents offered nuanced and intersectional narratives that avoid the glorification of the West as a putative refuge or haven for immigrants from Morocco. In doing so, they have pushed back against dominant Western discourses and expectations that demand gratitude from immigrants and their descendants whom they imagine themselves to have rescued from a life of wretchedness, poverty, and oppression. Instead, the diasporic Moroccan players’ narratives foreground the hardships that their families experienced in Europe itself and the many sacrifices that they had to endure as racialized minorities and stigmatized immigrants/workers to survive. Achraf Hakimi for example has spoken out against the racism that he faced in both Spain and France, and the hardships that his parents endured while working in precarious and low-paid jobs in Spain. Soufiane Boufal has similarly described the difficulties that his mother faced as a single parent and immigrant in France and the ways in which she sacrificed everything to support his career.
While some might argue that a focus on motherly sacrifice merely reinscribes gendered norms and upholds the notion that women’s primary role is to support their families as mothers, I think it is significant to bring an intersectional reading to these narratives and to pay attention to the fact that the motherly sacrifices being honored here are subaltern ones that have to do with a working-class, minoritized, and immigrant positionality. They are in other words as much about class, race, and citizenship status as they are about gender. In addition, I think it is important to think about how the focus on parental, and especially motherly, hardship and sacrifices in the diasporic players’ narratives challenges the White savior discourse of the West and the assumption that Moroccan/North African/Muslim/immigrant women are always better off living in the West than in their home countries. Indeed, it this were the case, the Moroccan players give us an opportunity to ask, then why would so many sacrifices on the part of their immigrant mothers be needed in the first place?
In sum, the Moroccan team has taught us that fighting for dignity and freedom can take many forms, including small and spontaneous gestures of love, tenderness, affection, gratitude, and joy that speak (back to empire, racism, and other forms of exclusion) in ways that are deeply felt, viscerally memorable, and louder than words.
 For a fascinating discussion of the biopolitics of beauty and its entanglements with empire, see Mimi Nguyen, 2011. “The Biopower of Beauty: Humanitarian Imperialisms and Global Feminisms in an Age of Terror,” Signs 26(2): 359-83; and “The Right to be Beautiful,” The Account.
 See for example, the wonderfully enthusiastic, inspiring and insightful articles by the Moroccan scholars Aomar Boum and Brahim el Guabli, “Everyone has a Stake in Morocco’s Football Team,” The Markaz Review (December 15, 2022); and Hisham Aïdi, “The (African) Arab Cup,” Africa Is a Country (December 12, 2022).
 See for example Mehammed Amadeus Mack, 2017. Sexagon: Muslims, France, and the Sexualization of National Culture (Fordham University Press); Sara Farris, 2017. In the Name of Women’s Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism (Duke University Press); Lila Abu-Lughod, 2015. Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (Harvard University Press); Mayanthi Fernando, 2014. The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism (Duke University Press); Miriam Ticktin, 2011. Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France (University of California Press); Katherine Ewing, 2008. Stolen Honor: Stigmatizing Muslim Men in Berlin (Stanford University Press); Nacira Guénif-Souilamas and Eric Macé, 2004. Les féministes et le garçon arabe (Editions de l’Aube) ; and Nacira Guénif-Souilamas, 2021 « Fabrique, usage et circulation d’images stéréotypées. »