Thirty-three-year-old French-Moroccan photographer Leila Alaoui died on Jan. 18 from injuries sustained during a terrorist attack in Burkina Faso while working on a project exploring women’s rights in Africa for Amnesty International. She was the childhood friend and college roommate of Moroccan journalist Aida Alami, who helped lead my study abroad program in Rabat last winter and spring.
Her death makes me angry.
Angry that my teacher lost a friend, that Leila’s family lost a daughter, that the world of art and journalism lost an unsparing and gifted photographer. But I’m also angry because the world doesn’t seem to care very much — about Leila and the other 30 people who died that day. I’m angry because I might not have cared either, had I not gone abroad.
My uncle shared a short article three days after Leila’s death, urging me to write about this senseless tragedy.
“You now have some connection to Morocco,” he said. “And you now know and carry some of their hopes and dreams for the future.” Having lived, worked and breathed in Morocco for four months, he thought, perhaps I could bring some sense of immediacy and remove the distance of oceans and borders. So here we are.
It’s an embarrassing privilege that we (Americans) get by thinking so little of a world that cannot afford to ignore us. My program spent a night at a college dormitory in Ouarzazate with a large group of Moroccan women who knew the lyrics to Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” far better than we did — and most of them didn’t speak English.
I want us to pay better attention to the world. I want us to recognize what we lose when we don’t. What we lost when Leila died after being shot twice by Al Qaeda outside a cafe. We lost an artist who explored themes like migration and cultural identity through vibrant portraits that humanized rather than exoticized her subjects. We lost a photojournalist who could bring a remote settlement high in Morocco’s mountains to life for an international audience.
So I need to admit that I probably couldn’t place Burkina Faso on a map if you quizzed me right now. As Mark Twain quipped, “God created war so that Americans would learn geography.” Current research backs him up: In 2007, the U.S. accounted for 79 percent of total news coverage here, with the remaining 21 percent largely focused on the war in Iraq.
Part of how we correct our misunderstandings, complicate our understandings and genuinely “learn geography” is through the work of artists and journalists like Leila Alaoui. I like to think she knew that, when she set foot on location for the last time.