Monday, December 15, 2008

Change of Plans...

My departure is rapidly approaching: only two days remain of this three month period in Morocco – this period that had seemed so long when I was on the other side of it, back in September.

This fact compels me to look back and examine what I’ve done with my time here. Unequivocally, I can say that these past three months have been an absolute success. I may not have gotten two of the three grants I had applied for, but I have obtained research permission at the hospital, gone through a very intense and deep familiarization with Moroccan family life, vastly increased my command of both French and Moroccan Arabic, made new friends, learned a lot about myself – but most importantly, I have come to genuinely love this country and to fully appreciate being here. This, in all honesty, I had not expected. My love-hate relationship and frustration have, by grace of a newly discovered sense of comfort and freedom, made way for serious contentment. I know that Morocco can make life very difficult for very many people. I know that Morocco has its dark sides. I know that I will continue to meet with frustration as I continue my relationship with this country. But I also know that I’ve discovered that there is room for me here, that it is possible to be myself here. I’ve discovered that I can lead the life I want and find the things I need to be happy, right here. I know that I can live here comfortably and pleasantly for a number of years, while I do my research.

With all of these reflections in mind, I had been growing steadily more melancholy as the days raced on and the moment of my departure rapidly approached. Especially because it was completely uncertain when I would be able to return, I really, really did not want to leave – to abandon everything I had begun to establish here. And also because it meant no more blog... this blog, that has been my lifeline these three months, would have no more use.

From my use of language you may have already guessed that something about this situation has changed. And indeed, over the course of one weekend, a sudden and unexpected opportunity radically changed everything…

Because I have been offered a temporary job – an internship, really – at the Dutch cultural center in Rabat! From February to the middle of May, I am going to help organize a Dutch-Moroccan conference in honor of the 40th anniversary of the two countries’ labor migration agreement – the agreement that lies at the foundation of the Netherlands’ current relationship with Morocco. Not only is this right up my alley – I have been doing research on Moroccan migrants in the Netherlands for years – but it is the perfect way to spend more time in Morocco as I wait for more grants to come in. It will allow me to continue studying French and Arabic, to continue solidifying my relationship with the Clinic in Rabat, it’s going to look great on both CV and grant applications, and most importantly: I get to come back! And all that while being paid… honestly, it can’t get any better than this. I am so, so incredibly excited…

And I am no longer sad to leave! What I thought was going to be a separation of indefinite length, has become a six week vacation… They will be six busy weeks – much will have to be done before I come back here (grants, IRB…) – but a great vacation nonetheless, with the prospect of more Morocco-fun in February…

This also means I get to continue with this blog – so stay tuned for new posts in about a month and a half!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Acceptable... or Not?

One theme that has colored my experience of the past three months in Morocco, is my sense that the relationships between genders seem a lot more free, and a lot less rigidly controlled, than I had always thought. I see mixed groups of friends on the street every day, boys and girls holding hands, touching each other in the way that friends here do, kissing one another on the cheek with each greeting – and all this without any kind of sexual undertone. I still pretend to be completely deaf when addressed by random men on the street, but have noticed also that the occasional brief conversation when waiting in line somewhere, or browsing at a store, is completely acceptable.

Seeing all this flexibility around me, I have been opening myself up a little more. I don’t approach anyone myself, but if someone addresses me on the train when sitting across from me, or asks me a question at a café, I smile and politely respond.

This has happened a few times at a particular café I like to go to. Close to the central train station, this particular café with a Scandinavian name is a very pleasant and comfortable place to sit for women by themselves (which, despite much social change in Morocco, is still uncommon. Cafés remain men’s territory). And most importantly, it has a wireless internet connection. I like to sit at this café during late afternoons, as it gets dark and cold outside, and sip a cup of “café crème” (café au lait) as I write emails, compose new blog posts, read the news, and watch my favorite American television shows on Youtube.

One thing I like about this café is the sense of calm and privacy I have here. There are people and noises all around me, but I am left alone with my computer, I get to drink whatever I want, and there is no one to bother me, to tell me how to do something. Once in a while someone will approach me. This is not something I mind, and it is usually no more than a brief question – usually it is a girl with a flash drive but no computer, who asks me to help her check whether or not she has a certain document on her little portable storage item. Sure, I always say, as long as there’s no virus on that drive…

The other night, two young men sitting at the table next to mine asked me a question about my computer. What kind was it? “Ash pay?” (this refers to HP, Hewlett Packard, which I think is the most well-known brand of computers here). Apples are not well-known here, and I get a lot of compliments on my little sleek, white laptop. The name “apple” didn’t ring a bell with these two men, but “macintosh” did. Yes, they knew it, good computers for designers.

From this, we launched into a polite discussion about what we were all doing in Rabat, and how I liked Morocco. As always, there was the immediate invitation to come visit families in other cities – to this I always politely respond with “insha’llah” – ‘God willing’, which is a great way of neither impolitely refusing, nor making false promises. None of this exchange was unpleasant – they were respectful, left me my space, and politely said good-bye when it was time for me to go and meet up with a friend in Agdal.

I had just been thinking that I had now clearly proved to myself that social contact between genders was thus not as restricted as I had presumed, when I returned to the café the next day and the owner approached me. The waitress (who now knows me so well that I don’t even have to ask for my café crème anymore) had told him what had ‘happened’ last night, and he wanted me to know that he was sorry. He wanted this to be a safe space for people to do their work, he said, and men were not supposed to be ‘bothering’ women sitting by themselves. A little taken aback, I tried to tell him that really, it hadn’t been a big deal – but this was not what he wanted to hear. No, he said, it’s not ok. He assured me he had talked to the two boys in question, who had both apologized. I decided it would be best to thank him. This I did, and a smile of relief came over him. Don’t worry, he said, it won’t happen again.

Left with that reassurance, I sat down at a table, sipped the café crème I no longer have to ask for, and was re-enveloped by a bit of confusion. What exactly had made my exchange from the night before so unacceptable? Did I do anything I shouldn't have? If this wasn't, what, then, is acceptable?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Eid the Sequel

Eid-the-sequel – that is, day two – is apparently the day of real butchering.

Lured by a hot shower after all that sheep-handling, I spent the night on the couch in Salé next to the three carcasses – still on the floor where we had left them the day before. We were woken by the doorbell at nine: it was Khadija, with her bag full of knives, axes, and other tools, ready to get to work on the three sheep. While we were waiting for Fatima to serve breakfast, I was recruited to help Khadija. This involved pulling up a chair, holding the carcasses’ front legs while she cut away its sides, and helping to twist the carcass so that its lower body snapped off from its rib cage. Just as I was very self-consciously realizing what I was doing, I heard Alma laughing at me. This was a good learning experience for me, she said: when I married a Moroccan, I’d know how to handle a dead sheep.

I don’t think this is anything I had ever pictured myself doing. But once I forced the thought that these had been real sheep to the back of my head and retrieved a little of the anatomical interest that made me enjoy the dissection labs in medical school so much, it became interesting. I became intrigued again – as I did in medical school – by the layout of all those vessels, nerves, and other tubes that actually make the organs work. The way they are situated between all those membranes and layers of tissue, and how you can see traces of the animal’s embryotic development there.

What did bother me, though, is that no one else seemed very bothered by any issues of contamination. Maybe this is something not to get too worked up about with meat this fresh, but hadn’t those carcasses been lying there on the living room floor for about 24 hours already? Granted it’s cold in the house, but it’s no freezer. Yet I saw no one take too much pain to maintain a kind of hygiene, a kind of separation between raw meat and the rest of the world. All this meat-handling work was being done right there in the living room and sitting room, on the floor, sitting on turned-over prayer rugs. There was no hand washing between the cutting away of a flank and the taking a sip of tea, or the changing of the channel on TV. When it was time again to transport ourselves and our meat back to Rabat for lunch (it is beginning to seem as though Salé is our work room, Rabat our dining room), I was shoved into Manal’s backseat next to tens of un-sealed plastic bags full of cut-up meat, one of my two bags thrown right next to them all. Manal saw me looking a little worried and told me I had nothing to be concerned about, it was all good meat. Still though, it seems a little risky. Or am I too careful with this stuff?

It was mainly this that made me a little hesitant to try the meal of other organs that we were served for lunch today. The grilled entrails were served on the same plate as they had been placed on when raw, and there was no hand washing in between raw and cooked stages of preparation. But I did try it all – both the stew of what I think were lungs (including pieces of bronchial pipe), as well as the grilled kidneys and testicles. And again: not bad.

The streets were still deserted – though in Salé butchers had opened their doors and were clearly helping people with what we had done ourselves that morning: processing the sheep into manageable pieces. I did find an internet café in Rabat, though. A tiny one with a big lit-up sign on the busy street where I always walk. I had seen the sign for months, but had never found the actual place. Turns out, it’s 6 computers in the back of a téléboutique, all of which are occupied by little boys of Mustafa’s age, who are watching hard core porn in pairs. As I waited for a computer, the Ivorian proprietor complained to me about the clear lack of parental control here. He has these boys pay for their time in advance, he explained, and every five minutes he would get up and tell the boys it was time to go. In their most pleading voices, they would beg the proprietor for just another minute. Conflict continually ensued, usually ending with the proprietor turning off the computer to great consternation of the boys. Upon which I finally got my chance to read some emails – feeling slightly watched by the boys who were still around, still looking at things they should hardly know about at their age…

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Today, then, was the big day. Mostly, today was (finally) the kind of holiday that I had anticipated: a day of special customs and traditions – a day where ordinary life had clearly been suspended both at home and on the street. Yet there was no formality to it, no etiquette, no special dress, no decorations – but I guess this makes sense, given that most of this holiday’s special customs involve getting your hands (and feet, legs, clothes…) dirty with dead sheep.

The processing of dead sheep was, indeed, all this seemed (seems) to be about. After the actual moment of sacrifice, my family spent the entire day either dealing with parts of the dead animal, or eating it. Ilyas had mentioned to me that the most important element of ‘eid is family togetherness – as I had indeed expected – but I didn’t sense much of this in my surroundings. Of course, everything in Morocco is family oriented, and my daily life here in Rabat is dominated by a family much larger and extended than our general western conceptions, and much less private. The same kind of togetherness prevailed today. Still, I had expected a heightened sense of communalism today – I had wondered if other children of Khadija and Lahcen’s might come back to the family house – Amma’s father, for instance, or the sister who lives in Marrakech. I had even wondered if Si Mahmoud’s own family – who live in Salé – might join us. There was a whole sheep to be eaten, after all. But no such thing. We spent this holiday with even less individuals than make up the daily family circle – Amma wasn’t there. I am sensing a pattern: I think she spends most major holidays with her mother’s family in Kenitra. Ilyas had also mentioned that ‘eid is a time to solve family conflicts, but Manal and Alma carried on their usual politics of silence and made sure to be contributing to the overall sheep-handling process in separate rooms.

Before the big day I had asked my host family to point of exhaustion what was going to be happening and what we were going to be doing. In part because I was curious, and in part because I wanted to prepare. As I have mentioned earlier, most of the planning in this family takes place entirely without my inclusion, which makes everything feel very last minute and un-premeditated to me. It also feels frustrating, because when my host family finally informs me we’re doing something – by saying “yalla, noudi, ghanimshiu” (‘come on, we’re going’) – I am left with no time to get appropriately dressed and packed. Unfortunately, all my asking about ‘eid this time around did not help. I got little in the way of answers, and if they did tell me something, it was usually conveyed in a tone of voice that implies “you know, the way it always happens.” All I knew by the morning of ‘eid was that we had bought our sheep this weekend, that it was in Salé, and that around 10 AM it was to be slaughtered.

Not knowing much else, I got up early this morning and followed my family around so as not to miss anything. The day started as any other; apart from the fact that there was clearly more preparatory work going on in the kitchen than for an ordinary lunch, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. I gathered with my host sisters, Khadija and Yunus (who had slept over in Amma’s bed, next to mine) in the sitting room for tea and rghayef – my favorite breakfast: a kind of pita bread but softer, that you dip in a mixture of melted honey and butter.* We sat around watching the pan-Arab version of the Today Show – “Sbah l-kheir ya ‘arab” (‘good morning, Arab’, broadcast from Dubai by the London-based-but-Arab channel MBC). I had deliberately not yet changed, because I wanted to wait and see what the others were putting on. Caftans, or butcher’s aprons? What kind of day was this going to be? But I soon regretted this decision to wait: at 10 o’clock – which Alma had mentioned would be the sheep’s last hour – she told me to yalla, noudi, ghanimshiu; and five minutes after I had gotten upstairs I was called because the car was waiting. Where we were going, I had no idea. Were we picking up the sheep? Was the sheep going to be slaughtered somewhere else and then brought here? In either case, what should I bring? With my last ten seconds I threw my camera and wallet in my bag and with un-brushed hair and half-finished makeup, was pushed out the door to Manal’s car.

As it turned out, we were going to Salé. As it turned out, our sheep had been staying in Si Mahmoud and Fatima’s front yard since Saturday. As it turned out, my family had not just one, but three sheep. And as it turned out, we arrived just moments after the moment suprème. Manal, Yunus, Khadija and I entered the front yard to see a dead sheep bleeding its last drops on the ground, the two others already strung up and in the process of being skinned. I was so relieved to be spared the choice of watching-or-not, that any kind of anticipatory queasiness I had melted away entirely and I began, a little over-confidently and perhaps a bit morbidly, taking pictures of the dead animals hanging in the front yard, of their abandoned heads stacked up in a corner, of steaming hot sheep guts being cut away from the carcass. Unexpectedly, I did get a sight of an actual throat-slashing later on: none other than the king himself, who sacrificed two animals on live television. Seeing that on TV, I think I’m glad I did not witness that in reality… a little too much blood for my taste.

The butchers who had slaughtered the sheep cut out its main organs – guts, heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, peritoneum. These were transported inside to the kitchen, which had already been prepared: it was filled from wall to wall with a myriad of plastic bowls, containers, buckets, colanders, and so on. The women spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon washing, cutting, and otherwise handling these entrails, while the men brought the carcasses inside, laid them out on a table cloth spread out on the living room floor, and left (after a glass of tea, served by Fatima). I kept offering my assistance – I guessed that three sheep was going to be a lot of work… – but other than drying loads of dishes, I couldn’t be of much help; with Manal, Khadija and Fatima at work in the kitchen, all of them clearly experts at the routine of cleaning out internal organs, I would have only been in the way. So, not having thought to bring anything to do, I spent most of the day in the sitting room with Mustafa, watching cartoons and playing around with my camera (he has discovered the video setting, and now asks me to make recordings of him dancing and singing, which he insists I title “Mustafa le fou” – Mustafa the crazy).

Just as I had decided I was going to keep myself busy by going outside for a little walk, I was told there wasn’t time: we were going back to Rabat for lunch. We gathered all necessities: plastic buckets of organs, the bucket in which the three sheep’s heads had been collected, the barbeque equipment. Everything except for the three carcasses, which we left on their table cloth in the living room. All of this was loaded into the cars – the women’s purses placed right next to the sheep-matter without issue – and off we went, to unload it all in the Rabat medina. My assistance is always gladly requested whenever anything has to be transported, and so I soon found myself walking through the streets of our neighborhood with a tile full of sheep testicles in my hand…

Back in Rabat, Alma (who had stayed behind) had prepared a small grill in the courtyard, on which we barbequed our lunch: pieces of liver, wrapped in slivers of the sheep’s peritoneum, strung onto big skewers. Once done, we put the pieces into a small round pita bun and added some ketchup, mayonnaise, or “harr” (Moroccan hot sauce – very good). We ate these sandwiches along with the bowls of “shlada” that are always served with lunch – dips made from carrots, a kind of Moroccan spinach, finely cut tomatoes.

I am not a fan of liver, and having seen where that peritoneum came from, I was not eager to taste this. But I have to say that, once I made myself forget what I was eating, it wasn’t bad at all. Maybe because it was so fresh, or maybe because everything grilled kind of tastes the same, it did not taste like liver at all.

It became clear that not much was going to happen after lunch – as usual, the women seemed to retreat for a siesta, while Si Mahmoud retreated with his paper, cigarette, and coffee. A little restless these days, I decided to keep myself busy by looking for an internet café – but in vain. In fact, I have never seen the medina as desolate as it was this afternoon, except maybe at 1 AM. All storefronts were boarded up, and absolutely nothing was open – even on Ramadan mornings I do not remember it being this extremely deserted. Even the streetlights seemed to be taking a hiatus, and it was dark and rainy. There were people outside, though: about every 50 meters, groups of men stood around self-made street fires, built of coal and drift wood from the looks of it, on which they were grilling sheep’s heads. The streets were a mess of burnt material – old pieces of wood, coal, a sheep’s horn here and there, twigs. In combination with the pouring rain and the general desolation, it made for a very strange, almost apocalyptic, atmosphere.

Now it is 10 PM. At the end of day one, having eaten only the sheeps’ liver, I am left with this question: how on earth are we, this small family of eight, going to eat three entire sheep?

* rghayef are round slices of dough that you cook in a skillet. On the stove, they blow up like balloons, creating a perfect little pre-sliced bun. I am so intrigued by how this happens.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The 'Eid that Wasn't (Yet)

Today day came and went without sight of a sheep in the house, let alone a slaughtering. It turns out that – while most of the Middle East as well as the Moroccan diaspora in Europe celebrated their holiday today – Morocco is waiting until tomorrow. But something was clearly in the works today – the atmosphere reminded me a lot of the ‘eid after Ramadan: there was a lot of calling of friends and family, a lot of traffic on the street, everyone home from school and work. Today was clearly a day out of the ordinary, though. Today reminded me of the ‘eid after Ramadan – much calling of friends and family to wish them “’eid moubarak said,” everyone home from school and work, lots of traffic on the street – mostly pedestrians waiting around to have their knives, axes, and so on sharpened by the sharpeners that have taken place on every street corner…

Our kitchen is a beehive of preparatory work. I have never seen this much equipment and food out on the counter top at the same time. How are we ever going to have room for that sheep?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Back to the Clinic

This morning I had another meeting with Doctor Chikri at the psychiatric Clinic. I had planned this meeting primarily as a way to remind him of my existence, weeks after having given me research permission, but it was useful. Dr. Chikri introduced me to the hospital’s director of research, Dr. Rachidi, and together they discussed with me the hospital’s protocols for research conducted on its premises.

One thing I learned was that it is apparently illegal in Morocco for anyone without some kind of medical certification to be alone with patients. I believe I had heard that somewhere earlier, but clearly had forgotten it, because it is not something I had thought of as a possibility while designing my methodology. In any case, this means that all of my contact with patients, including the intensive interviews I want to conduct, will be supervised by a psychiatrist. Obviously this will affect the analysis in some way – having a third person in the room will affect what a patient chooses to tell me, what words he or she chooses to use; and most likely it will affect me and my engagement with the patient, as well. But I don’t necessarily think it will hurt the research in any way. Hopefully, the supervising clinician will be the patient’s actual treating physician. In that case I am hoping the patient will already have established such a rapport and relationship of openness with that clinician, that having him or her present during the interview will not necessarily make the patient keep certain things inside. If anything, the patient will probably be more likely to open up toward the psychiatrist than toward me – and in that case perhaps having the patient’s doctor there will create a kind of atmosphere of familiarity and comfort that will allow him or her to trust me more than they otherwise would…

It also answers any questions that the IRB board will have about issues such as crisis management, evaluation of patients’ capacity to understand my research and give consent for participation, and the potentially upsetting nature of certain questions. The only question I am left with now, is how to provide the same kinds of assurances for the clients of sha’ouada – popular, religious, or cultural healing practices. Obviously there is no such institutional framework there to make use of, so how do I satisfy the IRB? The best thing to do, probably, is to tell the IRB that this group is not actually mentally ill – to refer to them as ‘clients’ rather than ‘patients’. And in fact, this is a better way to frame my project, in general: because, after all, many of these clients have not been formally diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, and many choose to visit a mousha‘ouada (traditional/popular/cultural healer) precisely because they reject the label of ‘mentally ill’. Hopefully, by avoiding the label of mental illness, questions of competence and such will not emerge. The only question then, is how to explain my use of the MINI – a diagnostic interview protocol that I plan to conduct with both ‘patients’ and ‘clients’. I’m using it only to establish some kind of baseline for comparison – even if it is an admittedly biased one because it makes use of psychiatric paradigms – but I need to find a way to justify the fact that I am submitting a population that either doesn’t consider itself mentally ill, or rejects that label to this diagnostic tool…

The difference between ‘patient’ and ‘client’ also came up briefly in the talk I had with Dr. Rachidi after leaving Dr. Chikri’s office. Telling her more in detail about my research project, she, too, volunteered her own thoughts about what makes people choose sha‘ouada over psychiatry. Like Ilyas, she also affirmed that this decision does not necessarily have anything to do with income level or even education. These two factors are certainly involved for many people, but there are interesting exceptions – the rich and educated who avoid psychiatrists as vehemently as a member of the lower class. What she also mentioned, as Ilyas had as well, was the distinction that is made between ‘illness’ and ‘culture’. A psychiatrist belongs in the domain of disease, of afflictions and of stigma. Going to a psychiatrist means being ‘crazy’. Sha‘ouada, on the other hand, belongs in the realm of culture. Visiting a fqih, a shouafa, or a saint’s tomb does not carry the stigma that a psychiatric consult does – and so many people resort to the latter to alleviate their malaise.

This argument I also found in one of the three theses I found in the Clinic’s library. Apparently all psychiatric residents write a “mémoire,” a kind of thesis, at the end of their program. All these theses are collected in the Clinic library, and Dr. Rachidi recalled at least three that discuss precisely the questions I am interested in: what makes people choose for either a psychiatrist or a mousha‘ouid (formulated by these psychiatrist more in the sense of ‘why do people wait so long to get real help?’). Dr. Rachidi introduced me to a woman who I think is the Clinic librarian, office manager, or something like that – a woman, at least, with a little command of French and a key to the library. With the authors’ names on a sheet of paper, she accompanied me there and sat me down on a chair while she searched and delivered me the three works. I looked around, already noticing there was no Xerox machine. How would I be able to make copies? I was about to ask this when she herself brought this up. Follow me, she said, and off we went – out of the library, off the hospital premises, and into the little surrounding streets, in search of a téléboutique.

Xeroxing is one of those other things in Morocco that is really easy to do – once you figure out where and how. You will not find a kinko’s here. But what you do find, and on every street corner in fact, is a téléboutique (a little parlor with payphones) or a cyber (internet café) that has a Xerox machine. The way it works is that you hand your material to the proprietor, who will then make your copies. If it’s a page or two you can wait while he or she takes care of your job, but if you have a lot – like my 180 pages – you will get an estimate. Or a flatout refusal. All three téléboutiques we stopped by in the Clinic’s neighborhood took one look at the stack of theses and shook their heads. Not enough paper, they said. After shop number three, the librarian told me to just take the theses with me, copy them on my own, and bring them back as soon as I could – which, with the upcoming eid, would be next week.

Back in my own neighborhood, I went to my favorite, albeit very slowly connected, internet café in the middle of the bustle of rue souika – it’s hidden behind a hole in the wall shop that sells lacy table cloths and place mats – and it has a Xerox machine. No refusal here, but clearly it was going to take some time: was Sunday early enough? This estimate made me a little nervous: the Clinic had made clear these were valuable possessions, and I didn’t feel comfortable leaving them unattended behind that old desk at that old internet café for an entire weekend. So I asked him, if he did just one of the three, how long would it take? With a weighty expression, he leafed through the work – upside down – and asked me, how many pages? Fifty-five, I said. He nodded, looked at the thesis again as though it was a carburetor, and told me: today, 6 PM? I agreed. And just as I was about to leave with the other two, he told me to leave them, and gave me a wink. A little hesitant but hopeful, I left him with the Clinic’s material.

When I came back at seven thirty, he had indeed managed to make copies of all three theses. With a big smile, he handed me the entire packet. It came down to 94 Dirhams ($10) for about 200 pages of material. Not bad.

Impending 'Eid

This year, Eid l-Kbir falls on December 8 – this coming Monday. Eid l-kbir, as the name suggests (“kbir” means big), is arguably the biggest of Islamic holidays – or, at least, the holiday involving the maximum of preparation and special customs. It commemorates God’s request to Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his son as a sign of his faith and obedience. For Muslims, by the way, the son in question is Ismail (the son Abraham had by Hagar), not Isaac (his son with Sarah) – and it is from Ismail, Muslims believe, that Arabs descend (while Jews descend from Isaac). Eid l-kbir is in some sense also importantly linked to the hajj (pronounced ‘hah-zj’), the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage that is (ideally) expected of every Muslim. It is believed that Ibrahim built a temple on the spot where he nearly sacrificed his son; this, today, is known as the Ka’aba, the huge black box that stands at the center of the world’s largest mosque in Mecca and around which Muslims circumambulate 7 times when there for hajj – it is the highlight of pilgrimage.*

Because at the very last minute, god spared Ibrahim from the ultimate sacrifice and replaced Ismail with a lamb, Muslims today commemorate this almost-sacrifice by slaughtering a sheep. Every family who can afford it buys a sheep of their own, keeps it on their roof terrace or courtyard for a few days, and then kills it on the big day. This can be done by a member of the family, or a hired butcher – anyone skilled in the laws of halal butchering.** Like Judaism, Islam has specific rules about preparing and eating meat. Most people know that Muslims do not eat pork; on top of that, all animals must be slaughtered by means of a swift cut across the throat with a sharp knife. This way the jugular veins are slashed, which means the animal bleeds to death within a matter of seconds and with a minimum amount of suffering. This type of slaughtering must, moreover, be carried out by someone who is Muslim and who is pure; that is, someone who has carried out the ritual ablutions that must precede most important Islamic acts (most importantly prayer; but technically, even touching the Qur’an must be preceded by ritual washing).

These days the streets bear signs of heavy preparation for Eid. About a block away from Fatima and Si Mahmoud’s house in Salé, for instance, is a large sheep market that draws thousands of people every day. I think that buying a sheep is a little like buying a Christmas tree. That is, sheep come in all shapes and sizes and vary greatly in price – they range anywhere from 800 to 9000 Dirhams (about $90 to $800), depending on the quality one is looking for. And of course, prices go up the later you buy – those last minute customers who frantically try to procure an animal on the eve of eid will have to fork over a small fortune for the last bony sheep in the flock… It’s a trade-off, I guess, between paying an early-bird price for a good animal but having to keep it in the house for a few days (and feed it, too), or waiting until the last minute but limiting one’s options. My family has bought its sheep, but it has not yet arrived at the house - and I am very curious to see when it will. The time is approaching, clearly; a few times a day now I am almost run over by carts bearing heavily resistant sheep – often with men running alongside the vehicle, holding the animals down by their horns…

Our neighbors, clearly, are more on top of their game; I have been hearing their sacrificial animal bleating on the roof for three days and nights now. It is a haunting bleat and I keep thinking I hear despair in it – as though the animal knows what’s coming. But that’s probably just me.

Apparently the price of sheep is exorbitant this year. In part this is due to the rain from last month – most of the north flooded dramatically, and a lot of herds perished. Also, it is due to the global economic crisis. This I think is hilarious: slaughtering sheep at home seems to belong to a time period way before globalization and free markets – and here we are, with even this very traditional tradition being affected by the pinnacle of 21st century globalization.

These days, the medina shops offer every necessity for the DIY sheep slaughterer. Where normally one might find stands with counterfeit dvd’s (“le piratage”) or, more recently, warm woolen leggings (a bargain at 40Dh – about $5) and warm-water bottles, vendors now offer huge knives, cutting boards, grills, lighter fluid, axes, other barbeque utensils – and hay. A sort of last meal for the animals, I guess…

My host family keeps telling me I should stay away at the moment supreme. “You’re going to cry,” they warn. Last night in the car, Si Mahmoud elaborated: apparently my host family had two American host students staying with them during one ‘eid, and these girls were fairly vocal about their disapproval of this tradition. Si Mahmoud found this a bit hypocritical: these girls happily ate meat every day, but felt wronged by the actual act of killing. I have to say that I agree. I still think I might turn my head at the actual moment of slashing (though the anthropologist in me should really stick with it…), but none of this is any crueler than what the meat industry does on a daily basis. And at least, every last bit of this sheep will be eaten with relish.***

* And so, while the hajj is performed in imitation of the Prophet Muhammed, in whose time this tradition already existed (before the arrival of Islam, Mecca was a site of pilgrimage for pagan traditions; Mohammed reinterpreted this custom in a monotheistic light), it is a pilgrimage not to the monuments of his life, but instead to those of Ibrahim, Ismail, and Hagar. All rituals that make up the full hajj recall events in the lives of these three characters.
** ‘Halal’ means ‘permitted’ in a religious sense, and it is applied to anything that is allowed within Islam. It is opposed to ‘haram’, which refers to everything that is outlawed.
*** I am afraid this means I will be served things like organs and other non-conventional parts of an animal body. But I’m going to be adventurous: I’m going to try it all at least once. Who knows, maybe I’ll really like sheep brains…

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Hshouma Culture

My indignant host sister, Manal, uses the word “hshouma” at least thirty times a day. She often uses it to accuse others: “hshouma ‘alik!” or “hshouma ‘alikoum!” At other times she uses the word more generally – any number of issues that are talked about between the members of my host family will be deemed “hshouma.”

Manal is not the only one; “hshouma” is a frequently used word in Moroccan society. In its most general translation, “hshouma” means ‘shame’, and the word is attached, basically, to anything that does or would go against social and cultural convention. You can say this about things others have done: A guest was received at a house but not given anything to drink? Hshouma ‘alihoum – shame on the hosts! A girl and boy were kissing on the street? Hshouma ‘alihoum! Someone wore his outdoor shoes into the hammam? Hshouma ‘alih! And so on.

Alternatively, you can use it to explain how certain things must be done. Serve guests only water because you only have a little tea left? No, impossible, hshouma. Walk outside in your underwear? No, impossible – hshouma. Keep your last extra blanket for yourself rather than give it to someone else? No, impossible – hshouma. You get the picture.

Hshouma is a strong word, and (despite the fact that I hear it so often) I am told not to use it too frequently. If bothered on the street, for instance, it is best to stick to “ihtaram rasek” (respect yourself): only if harassment gets really bad is a pronouncement of “hshouma” warranted.

Hshouma is such an omnipresent word that my friend Hatim talks about a veritable “taqafat hshouma” – a culture of hshouma – in Morocco. If that is true, that would make Morocco a ‘shame culture’.

The notion of a ‘shame-culture’ is part of an old anthropological theory that divides societies into two groups: those that base themselves primarily on shame, and those that base themselves primarily on guilt. Shame and guilt, in this theory, feature as strong human emotions that can be used as tools for social control. Both are negative emotions brought about when a person acts in an unsanctioned way. However, the commonly understood distinction between the two holds that guilt is felt about acts, whereas shame is felt about the self. That is, having done something unsanctioned (by culture, law, family, whichever) we can feel guilty about what we’ve done, though this does not necessarily affect our image of ourselves. But when such an act elicits shame, the unsanctioned act seems to mean that we, as individuals, are somehow deficient, dysfunctional. But while shame thus seems much more person-centered than guilt, at the same time guilt can be felt very internally, whereas shame often involves public perception. That is, we can feel guilty about an act no one knows we’ve committed, whereas shame depends on the perception of being judged negatively by others. In fact, Ruth Benedict (an old-generation anthropologist heavily involved in creating this concept of shame- and guilt-cultures) claimed that shame is a violation of cultural values, whereas guilt is a violation of personal ones.

This theory also holds that guilt-based cultures are to be found in the Judeo-Christian world, whereas shame-based cultures are those of the Far- and Middle East. It claims that members of Judeo-Christian societies socialize their members by using guilt as a motivator for adherence to norms and values, whereas the Arab world and Asia use shame. This leads to a different relationship between individual and society. Generally, the theory claims that people socialized by means of guilt have internalized their society’s norms much more than members of a shame-culture. Because shame is so connected to the person, it is much more dependent on public perception – we can feel guilt even if no one knows what we did, but shame emerges when we are conscious of being seen as guilty. Real culpability doesn’t matter, it is suggested – it is only being seen as guilty that counts. Shame cultures thus work with observational judgment, while guilt cultures work with internal judgment. Shame-based cultures are those that do not talk; guilt-based cultures are those that do.

Indeed, ‘hshouma’ is a method of socializing children in Morocco. As Hatim explained, children are taught what isn’t appropriate by frequent use of the word ‘hshouma’. Eating without proper etiquette, for instance, is not impolite, but simply hshouma.

Clearly, also, Morocco is a society that works with observational judgment rather than discussion. But still, I have issues designating Morocco as a ‘shame culture’ without a second thought.

Because the theories that divide cultures into shame-based and guilt-based have a bias – a bias that becomes clear at the very outset by the reference to guilt-based societies as being “Judeo-Christian” in origin. Clearly, the guilt-based versus shame-based distinction maps directly onto the us-versus-them polarity. It is a matter of self versus other. And of course, as self-other distinctions always aim for, the former must come out looking better than the latter. And indeed, shame-based cultures are often described as negative and dysfunctional; ‘shame’ as a whole is described as a much less constructive emotion than guilt. Because it focuses on acts, such theories hold, the experience of guilt leads a person to act, to repair the damage done assertively. Shame, on the other hand, is more internal, and often causes us to turn inward. We withdraw, or we act out – we behave in other inappropriate or slightly unhealthy ways to cover up our sense of shame. This may mean pre-emptive aggression (lifting oneself up by putting others down), or seeking power and perfection (preventing the possibility of future shame). By designating guilt as an internalized form of social control and shame as an external motivator, these theories even seem to imply that shame-based cultures are stuck in a lower stage of Kohlberg’s theories of moral development. It suggests that members of a shame-culture are motivated only by the fear of external rejection, rather than the inherent good- or badness of an action.

Clearly the notion of ‘shame-based cultures’ and ‘guilt-based-cultures’ need to be taken with a huge grain of salt. First of all, no culture should be definitively characterized as either one – all cultures, most likely, include elements of both. Even if we are part of a Judeo-Christian ‘guilt-based-society’, don’t we also know the feeling of shame, and can’t that be as strong an instrument of social control as guilt? In the same way, I am sure that Moroccans feel guilt just like they feel shame. The fact that ‘hshouma’ is so often pronounced does not exclude that possibility in any way.

And secondly, can we really distinguish so clearly between shame and guilt, anyway? Is shame really so public yet linked to the person, and guilt really so internalized yet linked to actions? Does shame really affect the self in a way that guilt does not? And also, how debilitating is shame, really? Any emotion, if taken to the extreme, can result in inappropriate behavioral responses. But in a healthy dose, shame may not be that different from any other feeling.

In Morocco, the notion of hshouma certainly goes together with a heavy sense of observational control. But still, I don’t think that means social norms have not been internalized, that people obey the law only out of extrinsic motivations (punishment, reward). To the contrary. It’s important to keep in mind that what counts, in the case of shame, is not whether public disapproval actually exists. It is only the person’s own sense of receiving such evaluation that matters. Shame can lead to a great internalization of what is right and what is wrong – Manal’s (and everyone else's) constant pronouncement of ‘hshouma’ is prime evidence of that fact.

But in any case, it makes me wonder: how would Moroccans distinguish between shame and guilt? What do Moroccans feel guilty about? What is the word for ‘guilty’ in Moroccan Arabic?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Fab Fassi Weekend

I had initially planned to return to Rabat on Saturday, early in the afternoon. But I unexpectedly enjoyed myself so much in Fes that I have only just returned home.

Fes was my first introduction to Morocco; three and a half years ago I spent three months in its ancient medina to study Moroccan Arabic and get myself acquainted with Moroccan life. Although it never managed to kill my interest in Moroccan society, they were not an easy three months – and I still often equate Fes with a sense of limitation, a lack of freedom, and a sense of always being watched. I like living in Rabat so much in part because it is so different from Fes in these regards. Having walked around in Fes again and having noticed the amount of attention I receive (not to mention the biting cold of the inland climate), I am still happy I decided to make Rabat my home base in Morocco. The capital still felt like a breath of fresh air when I emerged from the train station at 6 PM and walked down the wide and tree-lined boulevard Mohammed V toward the medina.

But it was more pleasant to be back in Fes than I had expected, and I have decided to go back much more often, once I return to Morocco. I like the idea of getting reacquainted with the city, and I love the idea of going back to café clock for more of those meetings.

I spent most of my Saturday traipsing around the medina with Hatim and a friend of his, who is an official tour guide. Chatting in a combination of French, English, and Arabic, we stopped by the medina’s major landmarks: the Madrasa Bou Inania & water clock, the Qaraouine university, Moulay Idriss shrine, and the tanneries. We did not see too much more – the rest of the tour, Hatim explained to me, usually involves shopping, and he’d correctly guessed that I was not interested.

It was raining heavily (as it is in all of the country), and the winding and slanted lanes had turned into slides of mud that did a serious number on my new boots (though I have now discovered that they are comfortably water-tight). Despite the slipperiness, delivery men still urged their heavily laden donkeys on as fast as they always do – luckily, the rain had kept most of the human traffic indoors, and so I could dodge the donkeys without too much difficulty or risk. There were so few tourists, in fact, that we had the entire terrace overlooking the tanneries to ourselves. Unfortunately, though, the rain had also kept the tanners inside, so we did not get to see any work going on.

Hatim had also arranged for me to stay with some of his friends, who have a large apartment in the ville nouvelle: a group of four British girls studying abroad in Fes as part of their Arabic studies program. I spent my evenings with them and their friends – in fact, last night I recruited one of the girls to help me cook a meal for the group as a way of saying thanks for allowing me to stay over. Dinner turned into a random combination of dishes – on the recommendation of a new Fassi friend I made a sort-of-Moroccan stew with turkey ‘kefta’ (ground meat) and bell peppers, and had cooked some pasta to go with it. Rachel made us baked potatoes, as well as a meat sauce. But it was fun; once the meal was finally ready at midnight, nine of us sat down to eat, and over a mixture of French and English conversation, we enjoyed the random combination.

Hanging around this apartment, with these new friends, I realized that the only thing that makes me yearn for home right now is the lack of privacy and freedom I have with my host family. I think that at this point, I would be perfectly happy here in Rabat, easily able to live here for two years – if only I had my own apartment. My own kitchen, my own dominion over the electricity and hot water, my own judgment about what to eat and when, what to watch on TV, who to have over. It would be heaven.

And I am going to make that happen – as soon as I return. The only question is when… Maybe I can do an intensive course of French here? It’s a thought…

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Café Clock & Women

Café Clock is a great new addition to the Fes medina. It’s a coffee house that spans all three floors (and roof terrace) of an old house located right behind the water clocks on the Tala’a Kbira – right across from the Madrasa Bou Inania. The British owner, a young blond man named Mike, has decorated the place from top to bottom with tasteful Arabic calligraphy on the walls as well as Moroccan items and fabrics that beautifully bring out the traditional interior architecture of this house – the floor and wall mosaics, the patterned plaster, the wrought-iron bars in the windows. On the ground floor is a big kitchen that serves anything from regular coffee shop fare – (mint) tea, coffee in a number of varieties, café au lait, hot chocolate, juices, milk – to sandwiches (panini), harira (Moroccan soup), pastries, and the likes. It’s open late, for medina standards, and offers wifi internet – a serious luxury, in Morocco – as well as a library.

What makes Café clock even more interesting is that it functions also as a pseudo-cultural center. The café itself organizes activities that range from Moroccan hip hop concerts to belly dancing lessons, henna-painting, and art exhibits. In addition to that, café clock provides space for meetings and other activities organized by students from around the area – Moroccan as well as foreign. For instance, my friend Hatim and some of his colleagues from the English department at his university host weekly discussion groups here. Topics vary each week, but concern issues of religion, culture, and politics as they relate to Morocco, and Morocco’s relationship with the modern world. These meeting serve a threefold purpose. For Moroccan participants, it’s a chance to practice their English. For the foreign students who also attend, it’s a chance to learn something about Moroccan society and ways of thinking – and for all, it’s a chance to engage in interesting and relevant discussion.

Yesterday afternoon, the topic was “Moroccan women between tradition and modernity,” and Hatim had invited me to come because he thought I would have something to contribute. Which I did – but there was even more that I learned.

There were many of us: gathered around a long, rectangular table in a room on the second floor of the café, we totaled about five Moroccan women, eight or nine Moroccan men, three foreign women (me included), and two foreign men. Guided by questions concerning what constitutes a traditional woman, what constitutes a modern one, and what the difference is in between these two, we developed a very interesting discussion. For instance, after a few initial remarks about the issue, one of the Moroccan girls posed the following question to the group: has a woman really lost her value and dignity with all the social changes of the past decade, as many people argue? Clearly aimed at them, a number of boys immediately asserted that of course they’d be happy to let their wives work – but it was clearly a difficult question that they did not have a real answer for.

This led us into a discussion of a much more general topic: what is ‘valuable’ anyway, what is not, and how does that distinction map onto the juxtaposition between tradition and modernity?* This is a question Moroccans – like, I think, everyone else on earth – are struggling with. We all tend to equate ‘tradition’ with value, and ‘modernity’ with dangerous change. At heart, our wariness of the unknown always renders us a little conservative. And we are always a little skeptical in answering these types of questions: can change ever have value? Can change even happen without jeopardizing the values of tradition?

In Morocco (as in many other places), ‘tradition’ (taqlid) as well as ‘values’ are also very much linked to ‘religion’, and modernity is often seen as a threat to Islam – all of which adds to the ambiguity and suspicion with which modernity is eyed. And so linked to the question of how values relate to tradition and how both of those relate to modernity, is also always the question of where religion fits into all this. How is it related to culture, and how, therefore, is it affected by social change?

The Moroccan men present at our discussion actually invoked religion a fair amount in our discussion about a woman’s value – and it became clear that this is where their difficulty in defining women’s value came from. They all expressed a kind of distinction that went something like this: “for me, of course it would be good if my wife worked. But strictly speaking, Islam does actually say that a wife has to ask her husband’s permission to do anything.” It seemed like a sort of hedge on their part: they want to come across as modern, progressive, equality-oriented… but also cannot let go of the cultural legitimacy that an identification with Islam (and tradition) conveys.

Because the thing is that tradition, and religion ARE culture in Morocco. Tradition and religion completely define Moroccan identity – being Moroccan means valuing its traditions and therefore, claiming adherence to tradition is a way of claiming Moroccanness. It cannot be let go. Rejecting tradition means risking a loss of legitimacy as a respectable member of society. I think this essentially goes for any country on earth, although I do get the sense that Morocco, as a country, seems highly preoccupied with its sense of identity and uniqueness. Perhaps because it is a postcolonial society, perhaps because it is involved in so much internal change, perhaps both. With so many ongoing reforms, it seems natural, I guess, that society as a whole comes to wonder, how much and how can we change without changing who we are – what exactly is it that lies at the heart of our identity?

Tradition, in other words, is something you cannot separate yourself from. The Moroccan girls did not actually invoke religion (which I found interesting) – they spoke very ‘modernly’ about having ambition, pursuing their dreams, wishing for independence, equality & mutual understanding in marriage. But they, too, explicitly affirmed their traditionality. When asked, at the outset of our discussion, if they considered themselves modern or traditional, they claimed to feel both.

All this resonates with what was noted by Femmes du Maroc in its analysis of personal ads. Even these individuals, who clearly had broken with certain conventions in pursuing this new avenue for meeting people, continued to claim adherence to tradition by referring to themselves as “bint an-nass” or “ould-n-nass.” These two commonly used terms can be translated as ‘daughter/son of the people’, as in, the kind of person everyone would wish to have as a daughter or son – as in, someone who respects values, morals, and virtues – as in, someone who is a legitimate and truly ‘Moroccan’ member of society, someone who is respectable.** What the Moroccans were essentially doing, in this discussion, was asserting themselves as banat and oulad an-nass – in the exact same way as done in those personal ads – despite being open to modernity.

We did, ultimately, conclude that modernity does not have to be mutually exclusive with tradition. That tradition can live on despite a fair amount of social change, and that there is no single modernity – that every country has the possibility to define its own 21st century existence within the framework of what it considers essential about itself. We concluded, in other words, that ‘modernity’ in Morocco is not simply the same as women wearing mini-skirts (because that would mean ‘modernity’ was based only on a misunderstanding of Western culture, we decided). That wearing jeans does not mean you’re any less Moroccan than when you’re wearing a jellaba – that wearing jeans does not mean you do not value tradition, that you are not a ould-n-nass. Though this remains a difficult issue, and among many of us, some suggestions of a juxtaposition – and the negativity of modernity – continued to slip into the conversation.

What is difficult, I think, is that (this is the sense I get, at least) in Morocco, someone’s ‘traditionality’ (i.e. respectability) is most often judged by appearances and behavior. There is a very strong sense of social control within communities – but this is exercised only on the basis of observation. People in my host family network, for instance, do not ever talk about their feelings, problems, let alone desires. Sure, Alma talks about finding a husband, but she can do so only under the guise of making jokes. There is no real, open, talking. But in order to make up for that, everyone watches one another. This means that someone’s adherence to tradition will be judged not by his or her viewpoints and ideas, but by the way he or she dresses, the places he or she goes, the time he or she comes home at night, or the people he or she invites over to the house.

This poses a problem – because it is first and foremost in viewpoints and ideas that tradition and modernity can mix. Bringing the two together is a mental, not a behavioral thing – it involves new ways of thinking about activities and habits. And this requires open communication. If observation continues without open discussion, the juxtaposition remains – there is no way to re-interpret the meaning of things.

This issue – of being judged by appearances – is something that the many people who try to work out a balance between tradition and modernity actively struggle with, I think. The women present at Café clock expressed a fair amount frustration about being perceived in certain ways because of their lifestyle. This frustration may be difficult to alleviate; even the Moroccan men at our discussion – those who asserted themselves as open-minded (but still ould n-nass, of course) used observational judgment in their evaluation of what made a woman valuable, and what was disrespectable. “If I see a girl smoking in public, I will still think that it’s not right.” “If I see a girl in a café with boys, I still think she’s lost her dignity.” The rest of us immediately questioned these judgments and pointed to the danger of judging solely on the basis of observations: what if the boys she was with were her brothers? How do you really know what that girl is doing, or why she is sitting there with boys? Yes, the men conceded, that’s true. But still…

And so the struggle remains. Despite the fact that we all agreed modernity and tradition could go hand in hand, they still twist around each other a little uncomfortably in Moroccan reality. They have not yet been completely reconciled. The public mind still has to get used to the idea that a woman can be both ‘traditional’ (as in, valuable, adhering to Moroccan values) yet emancipated and independent. There is an ongoing discussion about how to apply Islamic laws to the 21st century – inheritance being a case in point. There is a general consensus that changing that law constitutes a complete flouting of Islamic principles but that, on the other hand, keeping the law as is single handedly prevents modernity from pushing through. Both view points, though completely opposed, agree on the idea that modernity and tradition cannot be combined.

* The discussion of women’s social role is inextricably intertwined with the debate about tradition versus modernity. Social change disproportionately affects women’s roles, and their sudden emergence into public society is the most visible effect of socio-economic reform and modernization. This means that both positive and negative evaluations of such change is often voiced in terms of one’s judgment about women’s changing behavior.
** In another article in the same issue, Femmes du Maroc actually attempted to advise its readers about how to recognize and pick out a ould-n-nass from among “les bad boys” that we so often meet.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Time Flies

I am realizing that I only have three weeks left to go here. Time has flown by, and it is difficult to believe that I will be heading back to Chicago so soon. I react to this idea with mixed feelings. On one hand, there are reasons why I cannot wait to leave: the comforts of home, seeing my family, snow, indoor heating, showers every day, being able to cook again, have a glass of wine when I want, being master of my own schedule, and privacy.

But there are so many reasons why I want to stay. There is so much left to do, and I need so much more time. To learn Arabic, to further get to know Morocco, to reach a deeper level of comfort with this city and its daily rhythm, to find my niche. To start my research. Apart from the language frustration (see previous post), I feel as though I am making inroads. I am beginning to establish myself here, and I want to keep going on this wave. I hate the idea of leaving just now that I have made contacts – what if they forget about me?

And I am sorry above all that I have to leave Morocco, just now that I am for the first time truly becoming comfortable here. Just now that, for the first time, I was actually enjoying myself with a sense of freedom.

At the same time, I am also beginning to realize how much more time I need for preparations before I can actually start the research. I may have gotten research approval at the hospital, which was hurdle number one to get over, but I clearly need further language study – both French and Arabic – before I can comfortably interview people. Sure, I could devise a list of questions right now, but it will take a while before I can actually understand how people answer my questions, and before I can improvise follow-up inquiries on the basis of what they say. Then there is IRB approval, money, the standardized diagnostic interview protocols that I need to obtain. I even need better recording equipment – mine apparently only records up to two hours of material – not convenient if you want to do a full day of interviews.

In other words: there are good reasons to go home. I’ll consider it not as a step back, but a necessary new stage of research preparation. How about that?

I will be sorry to leave this blog, though. It’s been my lifeline these past few months.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Hills of Language

I have returned to Rabat a restless woman. Here is why.

My Marrakshi weekend turned into an intense French-immersion. Trying to find my way in that Francophone bath, I went from nervously thrashing about to letting myself go and realizing that I could actually stay afloat. I made mistakes in my sentences, and many of them, but I realized I could communicate. I realized, too, how tangible conversational fluency in French is for me, how fast I had already learned so much, in the span of only a night and a day. Had I spent the last 2 months intensively studying French, imagine how far I would have come.

But back in Rabat, I have to push the French that is now so fresh in my mind back to the bench, and return to Arabic. I feel as though this weekend was a climb uphill, and just when I have reached the summit, just now that I am ready to race down to the valley of fluency, I have to turn around to continue my way up a completely different hill. This is frustrating me to no end. Firstly, because the hill of Arabic is much, much higher. And secondly, because having turned back to Arabic, I already feel my French capacities taking a step back, floating away into the darkness of my brain. It will be there, but I will lose the comfort I was building up this weekend.

Trying to learn two languages at once, and both intensively, does not work, I have concluded. I am very sure I have made progress with each, but not nearly as much as I would have if I had focused on one of the two. With neither have I reached the level of comfort where I no longer have to think so hard before uttering a sentence. Trying to focus on two languages at once means that it is impossible to get the kind of total mental immersion that you need in order to begin to understand a language from the inside out. On top of that, I feel constantly torn; when I study Arabic I feel as though I am neglecting French, and when I take time to work on French, I feel as though I should be working on Arabic. This feels especially acute right now: I want to continue riding this wave of French, but I am here, and paying, to study Arabic. Yet French may actually be the better time-investment. Not only because it’s easier to make progress, but also because it may be much more useful to me right now. The first part of my research will involve interviewing psychiatrists, and this will almost certainly happen in French. At the moment, I am not capable of carrying on a specialized conversation about psychiatry in French. But I am so sure that had I done – or if I do – a two-month intensive course of French, I would be.

And so the idea of going to France, or Quebec, has popped into my head. I want to immerse myself, for six or eight weeks, and attain that level of fluency that I need. On one hand it seems like a crazy idea – another intensive language course, another location, another big trip. It feels a little unrealistic and off-course. But on the other – it’s not off-course, not really. I am going to need a solid command of French for my research. It doesn’t have to be faultless, but I have to have a comfort, a confidence in my ability to express myself and to understand the subtleties in someone else’s speech. I am on my way, but I need more. And I think that what I need is not a twice-weekly course in grammar – I’ve learnt the grammar. What I need is to learn how to use that grammar in the construction of sentences, how to actually express myself in French. What I need is to get a feeling for the language, to learn how to think in French so that speaking becomes more natural. And I think that a month or two of intensive immersion – a month of two of no choice but to speak and listen to French 24/7 – would do the trick.

The only problem (and a big one, too): right now I have all the time in the world to go, to spend some time in Paris, or Montréal – but I have no money. And once I do have money – once (if) I receive a grant – I will have run out of time. I will be expected to begin my research… without having a solid fluency in either language.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Lakeside French

My Marrakshi Sunday became a Francophone one: my friend and I rendez-vous’ed with the group we had met the night before – that strange trio created by the suave French-Moroccan, his anachronously hip associate, and the latter’s young Moroccan girlfriend. After a coffee at a trendy café in the Ville Nouvelle, the five of us took the suave French Moroccan’s car to a lake about an hour outside of Marrakech. It was a beautiful scenic drive, and the lake itself was even more breathtaking. Small enough to see the entire span of its coastline, it lay there, smooth as a plate of glass, before a background of white-topped mountains and gray hills. Far enough away not to break the peaceful silence around us, a shepherd led his flock of sheep to the water, and elsewhere, groups of young boys played around with miniature boats, remotely controlled.

We had driven to a luxurious waterside restaurant/resort – a place seemingly trying to invoke a sort of Moroccanized Caribbean spirit, complete with tiki bar and Caribbean music. Contrary to what I expected when we arrived, this place did not detract from the serenity of the lake. As the middle-aged hipster drank a Heineken, the rest of us had a round of tea and lounged in our easy chairs. Like last night, as well as this morning, everything was paid for by this trio. It made me slightly uncomfortable and I kept offering my funds, but it was turned down every time. And so I finally sat back, relaxed in the sun, and laughed a little at the fact that on my first weekend of independence after two months of Moroccan family life, I had let myself be taken under the wing of this clearly wealthier group of Francophone visitors.

All communication with this trio took place in French. It was exhausting and a little scary, but it went well, and I realized how able I am to express myself in French. Mine is a French riddled with errors, but a French that gets my meaning across nonetheless (quand-même!). This progress is exciting, and makes me yearn for more…

Drinks finished, it was time to head north and home. The trio hailed from Casablanca, and graciously offered to drive us all the way back to Rabat – to which we eagerly said yes. The drive was pleasant and quiet. The toll-way connecting Marrakech to the north is clearly not much used, and we made swift progress. Leaning back in the back seat next to two sleeping girls, I lost myself in the scenery again and floated away in thought. We were in Casablanca in no time.

I was home at nine, exhausted. I said hello to my host family – all of them congregated under blankets in the sitting room – and sat down to answer their questions about my trip, my head so full of French that I was unable to say much in Arabic without getting confused. What they were interested in, it seemed, was not so much what I had done and where I had stayed, but how much it all had cost. How much was my hotel? How much had I paid for food? How much had the movie ticket been?

I actually find myself being asked about money a lot by this family. Every time I do something by myself – go to a restaurant, take a day-trip somewhere, visit a landmark – and every time we discuss in more depth what I am doing in Morocco, they want to know how much I pay for things. And this always makes me slightly uncomfortable.* Because I am worried about sounding like I spend a lot of money, about coming across as a rich spendthrift who is unaware of how unaffordable things can be for Moroccans. Because I am worried that I will come across as naïve if it seems to them that I have paid too much for something they can get for much less. And often, before I can even stop myself, I have already given them a sum that is less than what I actually paid for things. Because money, in my head, is a bit of sensitive topic when I am in Morocco: even if I don’t have much to spend, I come from a world that runs on a much higher financial level, and am therefore much richer than the average Moroccan. There is always a disparity between my means, and those of the people around me. And perhaps I project onto them a sense of discomfort at this difference.

But maybe my discomfort is also cultural. This kind of questioning is not something I am used to from either the United States or the Netherlands, and certainly not for people I have such a relatively superficial relationship with. Maybe this is an area of slight culture shock. But what are the rules about money-talk in Morocco? Is this generally something people often talk about, or not? Is my family an exception?

* Money is the unspoken link that connects me to this family, but in a very unspoken way. I never pay the family directly; it all goes through the center I take classes at. This arrangement makes me feel as though all financial matters should be left out of conversation. Yet they are not.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

On the Marrakech Express

Yesterday morning, I awoke at 6.30 to catch the 7.45 train to Marrakech for a little weekend escape from Rbati family life. A friend of mine from Rabat had spent a week in central Morocco with her aunt, and I was going to join her for a fun Marrakshi weekend before both heading back to Rabat on Sunday evening.

It was a four and a half-hour trip that reminded me of how much I love traveling by train. Perhaps I learned to love it as a high school student, when memberships of regional and nationwide symphony orchestras required a fair amount of train travel to and from rehearsals across the country. Unlike on a plane, I can easily sit on a train for hours on end, content just with watching the changing landscape and letting my mind wander freely. I love air travel, too, but it is sterile, it’s unimaginative. It consists simply of leaving a place, arriving somewhere else, and a white, anonymous zone of nothingness in between. On a train, however – much like in a car – the trip is all about the in-between. And as such it is ‘travel’ in the real sense of the word – it is movement, constant transition. You see the landscape changing, flashing by, as you move through it. It renders me reflective, makes me turn inward in a pleasant way, and sometimes there is nothing I love more than to be alone, listen to appropriate travel music, and stare out the window of a train.

Traveling from Morocco’s Atlantic coast to the dry mountain valley in which lies Marrakech, the landscape slowly changes color: the moist black earth of the fertile coastal regions becomes red, then yellow, as it dries out. Its surface begins to ripple and fold, first into hills, and then into mountains. The first sign of Marrakech is a vague outline of the Koutoubia’s minaret – built by the Almohad dynasty in the 12th century, it is twice as high as its sister minaret in Cordoba, and visible for miles. It is not until after the train passes through a vast forest of palm trees that the city itself emerges, in all its pink beauty. Elsewhere in Morocco, walls, buildings, and cities are white or grey. But in Marrakech, they have all been washed a dark, orange-tinted pink.

The walls of Marrakech are also noticeably cleaner than they are elsewhere in Morocco. This is so clearly a city that is run by people with a particular aesthetic: it is a city that caters to an audience of rich foreigners intrigued with the city’s exoticism. Marrakech represents all that makes Morocco so interesting and intriguing. It is colorful, traditional, exciting. Arab, Berber, and tangibly African: in other words, the capital of the Moroccan exotic. This has attracted not only the hippies portrayed in Hideous Kinky, but also a rich Western public with enough money to create a little exotic space for themselves in this old and famous city. And as Moroccans left the declining medina for apartments in the Ville Nouvelle, Westerners came in to take over and renovate the traditional riads.* In the medina they cleaned up the grit to create a more sterile, more picture-perfect rendition of what they expected Morocco to be, and in the Ville Nouvelle they built pools, nightclubs, and casino’s for some European-style entertainment.

All this makes Marrakech feel a bit like a Hollywood version of what it once must have been. And so it is beautiful, and creates an incredibly pleasant refuge for a little weekend getaway. But with its shiny coat of gloss, it lacks a bit of the reality, the grit, that a city like Fes has always maintained. The grit must still be there – in concentrated form, probably, beyond the playgrounds of the wealthy. Beyond the hotels, nightclubs, the medina souqs that cater to tourists. The disparities between rich and poor must be tremendous in Marrakech, and a part of me wonders how this other, less fortunate, half must live.

But the other half of me was overjoyed to be back here – this city I had fallen in love with four years ago. I, too, get a little swept up in its beauty, and simply in the idea of it – all that the name “Marrakech” represents. And I eagerly let myself drown in all it had to offer, feeling wonderfully free with the knowledge that I would not have to return to my wonderful but very noisy and dominant host family in Rabat, until Sunday evening. After a glass of juice at a café overlooking the jma l-fna, the huge open square that is the heart of Marrakech (and the groups of Sufi drummers its beat), my friend and I spent a few hours strolling around the touristy area of the medina. Following the general flow of traffic, we stayed within a certain perimeter lined with traditional shops selling earthenware, wooden objects, jewelry, carpets, paintings, babouches, traditional beauty products. We shopped successfully: apparently, knowing some Arabic gets you a lot of smiles, open doors, and lower prices in Marrakech. Sampling music at a small cd-shop, for instance, we got involved in a conversation with the proprietor of the traditional drug store next door, who was full of smiles and enthusiastically told us about his life in Italy – after which we simply had to take a look inside his shop as well. It was a small square place lined with shelves that were filled with jars of powders, soaps, and liquids. Large containers of powders (most of it different kinds of henna, I think) stood at the center, and a collection vats of sabon bildi (the traditional soap used at the hammam) was placed at the entrance, all with different fragrances and consistencies. Curious objects hung from the shelves – large beads, goat- and gazelle horns. As he continued his stories, he and his brother sampled their products for us. One after the other, they took down the large jars from their shelves, and lifted out cubes of musk, powdered lavender, kohl, and so on. They would rub it on our hands, have us smell, and look at us expectantly: “zouina, yak? (‘delicious, isn’t it?’).” An excellent opportunity to buy some sabon bildi, I decided, and the scrubber-gloves that go with. The proprietor showed me his collection – not only a choice of soaps, but a variety of gloves as well, each with different degrees of roughness. With a big smile, he looked at my pale skin, and gave me the mildest of them all. Normally, he said, he’d charge tourists a lot for this. But because it was me, and he liked me, he’d give me a good price! I gave him my best appreciative smile, and told him that because he was so nice, I’d take two each of gloves and soap.

And so we spent the afternoon. A few hours, some more souvenirs for family and friends, and a slightly lighter wallet later, we had a snack at a streetside café (Moroccan pancakes with Nutella…to die for) to tie ourselves over until Moroccan dinnertime (9 PM, approximately), and then returned to the hotel to get ready for the evening.

The Marrakech film festival, which had been going on all week, was on its final night. Films – new releases from all over the world – were playing at cinemas across the city, as well as on a big screen constructed on the jma l-fna. One of these cinemas was located just around the corner from our hotel, and we so we went to the 8 PM showing of a South African film starring John Malkovich. At 10 Dirhams a showing, seeing a movie most certainly was not a pleasure reserved only for the wealthy guests of the festival. In fact, the festival encourages locals to join in on the fun, and indeed, the entire theater was full to the brim with Moroccan teenagers, who could not stop giggling at every romantic or sexual scene on screen.

After the movie, and after a quick meal at the snack bar next to the cinema, we were ready for a real night out. But where to go, and how to find out about the city’s hotspots? We found a quick, and apparently efficient way of answering these questions. We headed for a trendy-looking bar, sat down, and ordered ourselves a drink, a dessert – and some nightlife advice. Our server listed at least four different clubs we could choose from. We decided on a location that wouldn’t leave us too isolated (and thus dependent on scheming cab drivers) at 3 in the morning, and made sure we’d get our 150 Dirham cover charge’s worth: was he sure it would be busy? Oh yes, he said, it was always packed. The place to be.

And so we went, to Teatro, located (as the name gives away) in an old theater adjacent to a huge casino in l’hivernage, a neighborhood in the Ville Nouvelle. At 00.15, we were uncomfortably early. Nearly the first, in fact; we arrived to a completely empty space, the music still at manageable volume, and the servers and bartenders standing at attention just past the door, waiting for their first customers. It was a huge space, decorated in a lush theatrical red and chrome. It was filled as far as we could see with tables and lounge chairs – all of them reserved for bottle service, all already supplied with bottles of soda and water, glasses, and containers with ice. We went to the bar (created, from the looks of it, in what used to be the orchestra pit), asked the bartender a little about how these reservations worked, and got ourselves a free round of drinks. Don’t worry, the bartender said, feel free to sit down at one of the reserved tables as long as it’s unoccupied.

In fact, we sat at this table long after that. The table we had chosen had been reserved, it turned out, by a suave and friendly Frenchman of Moroccan descent and his work associate – a middle-aged gray Frenchman who, it seemed, was seeking to reclaim a lost youth through trendy clothing, an age-inappropriate enthusiasm for the core-shaking bass of the music being played, and the young Moroccan girl he had brought with him. They invited us to stay, and we spent the rest of the evening around their table, dancing and trying in vain to communicate.

Because the music was loud. Louder than I have ever experienced in a club. I noticed how core-shaking it really was when I went to the bathroom; though removed from the speakers and subwoofers, the bass was inescapable even here. Even here, I felt it rippling right through my body; even here, it made most communication impossible.

But it was fun. Teatro put on quite a show – live music, beglittered staff dressed in devil-costumes, a veritable fire-show, even. And I let myself go with the music. It was house – the real stuff, the stuff I miss in American clubs – the stuff I love, to most Americans’ consternation. Unable to truly talk, unable above all to escape the bass, there simply was no other choice but to let ourselves go with the music. And so we danced, until 4 AM, after which the suave French-Moroccan drove us back to our hotel. And at 5, after a brief shower to wash away the stench of smoke, we finally rolled into bed.

* Riads, by the way, are the traditional Moroccan houses of the medina – a court yard, salons leading off it. Marrakech now even has new quarters, built recently just outside the medina, in traditional medina-style. They are suburban subdivisions of cookie-cutter riads, all next to each other, all exactly the same. It is such a sign of the kind of people Marrakech attracts.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Neighbors and Rivals

A post about a subject I know very little about... but I'm intrigued, so here goes.

Ilyas and I have been talking a fair amount about the Western Sahara, and by means of this topic, that of the relationship between Algeria and Morocco has come up. I know very little about Algeria, and therefore cannot say too much about its connection to Morocco with any authority, but I’m picking up on a very interesting and complicated dynamic.

Until the seventies or so, the relationship between Algeria and Morocco was actually very amicable. The countries share a heritage and many elements of culture, of course – together they constitute the territory of North Africa’s indigenous Berber tribes. Many tribes in fact span an area that crosses the current border between the two countries. The two countries also share a history of colonization by the French, and helped each other in their struggles for independence.

But after the seventies, the relationship between Algeria and Morocco soured completely – so much so that the border between the two has been hermetically closed since 1994. The main problem right now: Morocco and Algeria are on opposite sides of the Western Sahara-conflict. Morocco, of course, claims the area as part of its sovereign territory. Algeria, on the other hand, supports Polisario – the Saharan freedom movement – financially, politically, as well as militarily.

But this is not an explanation for the souring of the rapport between Morocco and Algeria. Why, if relations were good and Algeria had no claims of its own to the Sahara, did Algeria contest Morocco’s claims to the territory in the first place?

I don’t know if there is a clear answer to that question, and I am certainly not in a position to venture any guesses. But from what Ilyas has told me, and from the few comparative studies on Morocco and Algeria that I’ve read, I get the sense that the negativity now has a lot to do with psychological issues – to a sense of competition or resentment, almost, on the part of Algeria. The thing is that Morocco, as a country, has a strong sense of identity. For all its internal heterogeneity, despite its own struggles, Morocco knows who it is. It has a history to be proud of, and a cultural heritage that is uniquely its own. Algeria does not have this – it seems a little lost, a little void of a sense of self. And it seems as though it resents Morocco for its clarity of identity.

This difference has a lot to do with the countries’ histories of colonialism. Basically, Algeria was colonized much more intensively and destructively than Morocco ever was. France arrived in Algeria much earlier than in Morocco, and left much later. And before the French ever arrived, Algeria had already been occupied by the Ottomans. Not so with Morocco, whose Berber tribes had been able to keep the Turks at bay.

France colonized Algeria in the traditional sense of the word. The country was gutted and re-paved; turned forcibly into a French province, a French back yard. Due in part to the struggles this conventional colonial policy had encountered in Algeria, the French dealt with Morocco very differently. Intrigued by what they saw as a certain pristine Oriental tradition, untouched even by an Ottoman version of modernity, the French pursued their interest in modernization in a new way: rather than replace Moroccan infrastructure it was simply improved and aided by a new French system built by its side. This is why all Moroccan cities consist of a traditional medina – left alone by the colonizer – as well as a “ville nouvelle” – the garrison towns constructed to house the French and their administration. This is also why the currently ruling dynasty (the Alaouites) have reigned continually since the 1600s – even during this period of French rule, the Sultan remained head of state in name, if not in practice. Morocco became a ‘Protectorate’, rather than a colony.

The result of a much shorter and much milder colonial period is that Morocco has been able to maintain its sense of identity, as well as a generally positive relationship with its former colonizer. Not so much for Algeria, which to this day struggles to define itself and its connection to France – and seemingly also its connection to Morocco.

Most of Algeria’s political rulers are actually Moroccan in origin. President Boutflika’s family, for instance, comes from Oujda. Some were even born and raised in Morocco, before they were asked to join the Algerian government. Though I am not sure why Algeria imported Moroccans to rule the country, I wonder if this happened because upon independence, Algeria was left with nothing but an empty French infrastructure. Morocco had always kept its own system of administration during the Protectorate period, and so when the French left, there were Moroccans with know-how to take over. Perhaps this was not the case with Algeria. Perhaps there were no Algerians with knowledge of government, and rather than ask their former colonizers for help, they turned to their neighbors?

But if most Algerian rulers are Moroccan, the question of why the relationship between the two is so sour becomes even more complicated. Why do these Moroccans insist on closing the borders and on thwarting Morocco’s claims to the Western Sahara? Why do they thus seemingly turn their backs on a society in which they had always had a good position? Is it power? Did these Moroccans see an opportunity for dominance and wealth that they would never have reached in Morocco? And has Moroccan sovereign power suddenly become a threat to them? Is that why they avoid any possibility of amicability between the two? Or is there something else? I think I need to read up a little on Algerian history…

Thursday, November 20, 2008

18-Year Old Treadmill

Amma is eighteen, and in her last year of public high school. If she passes her final exams, she will have obtained her ‘Bac’, the high school diploma needed to go to university. In Morocco, high school students specialize in one of a few directions of study, much like the ‘profielen’ chosen by Dutch high school students. Amma’s is “Sciences de la Vie et de la Terre” (natural sciences), mostly abbreviated to “SVT.” She wants to be an engineer. When she finishes high school, she is going to spend a year studying Spanish, and then, “insha’ llah,” is going to reunite with her mother and brother in Spain, to study there.* She wants to study in Spain, she says, because it’s easier. A particular study,** Amma said, proved that Moroccan universities are the most difficult and demanding in the world. Because, she explained, you don’t learn only what you need to know, but also all the background. If you are studying Moroccan politics, for example, universities here will also require you to know all about American politics, European politics, African politics, Middle Eastern politics, and so on. Remembering my conversation with Ilyas about the language barrier for universities, I asked her if the difficulty had anything to do with language. That too, she said, that makes it hard for many people. But that was not why she was going to Spain, she added…

Her schedule is intense. Just like Yunus, Mustafa, and I think all other Moroccan students, she has class six days a week, from Monday to Saturday. Her days start as early as 8, and sometimes end as late as 6. In addition to a total of 13 hours devoted to science and math (including advanced calculus, from the looks of it), she also has four hours of French, an additional two hours of translation (between French and Arabic, but also English sometimes), 3 hours of English, 2 hours of Arabic, 2 hours each of philosophy and Islamic education, and two hours of sports. Her school is in Agdal, which means a 30-minute walk, four times a day. She wakes up at the last minute: 7.15 or so, usually. In those 15 minutes, she gets dressed, puts on the tan short-sleeved coat that all Moroccan public school students wear (the color varies – I also see a lot of white, and Mustafa’s is blue), looks in the mirror to make sure her hair looks decent, brushes her teeth, and leaves the house to go and pick up her friend Asma, who goes to the same school.

At about 12.30 she comes back and crashes down on her bed to listen to her music in peace for about fifteen minutes, until Khadija calls us both to the kitchen for lunch. We eat, sometimes silently, sometimes chatting about small nothings, and then we clear the table. At 1.30 most days, Amma has to be out the door again to make it back to school on time.

She comes home late in the afternoons; she either has class until six, or goes to visit her father, Noureddine, who lives in Agdal. Once home in the medina, there is family time again: coffee around six thirty, and then errands have to be run, or friends have to be seen. There is generally little, in terms of actual outings. As far as I know, Amma does not go to movies,*** coffee shops, or restaurants. I think that for many Moroccan high school students, there is neither money nor time to spend on such leisure activities, with such an intense schedule of schoolwork and not much family money to spare. Amma strolls around with her friend Asma on occasion, or goes out running errands with her grandmother, and often goes to Kenitra on the weekend (36 kilometers north east of Rabat), where her mother’s family lives.**** The consciousness of appearance that she seems to lack in the mornings comes back at these after-school moments, though never to an extreme. She tries on an outfit or two, puts her hair up and then down, and sprays on a large amount of perfumed deodorant, but that is it. There is no makeup, no scrutiny of her own figure, no crises about having nothing to wear.

It is not until after dinner, around 9.30, that Amma sits down to do the massive loads of homework she has. She does not do it all. She says she would go crazy if she actually tried to finish the several hours of science-homework she has, in addition to the work for every other class. Her grades are not the best; on a scale of one to twenty her average is a 13. She spoke with admiration of a friend who had a perfect 20 – and I wonder how this friend manages to get her work done. Because apart from simply ‘going crazy’ if you do it all, where would a Moroccan high school student find the time, the quiet, or the concentration? There is something going on at all hours of the day, and there is no place to retreat from all this social interaction. Amma at least has our room upstairs, which may not provide refuge from the sound but at least separates one from the other people at home. Yunus and Mustafa do not even have that. I have seen them try to take a stab at their homework, but have yet to see them work with concentration and determination for more than five minutes.

Amma does perhaps an hour and a half of homework each night. At 11 o’clock, she simply closes up her notebooks, lays down, pulls a blanket over her head, and falls asleep to the beats of the music in her phone – to get up and do it all over again at 7 the next morning.

I wonder, does Amma do more homework at her father’s house? And does he supervise her? Here, there is no one who seems to be interested in what she does at school or about her studies. Granted, I do not understand everything that is said between the members of my family, but I never hear anyone talk to Amma about her schoolwork – other than the one time, when we were all wishing on Zem zem water, that she mentioned she really hoped she’d pass her final exams.

In general I am often curious about Amma’s relationship with her father. Because I hardly ever see them together, because she lives with us rather than with him, and because no one else in the family really seems to play a parental role for Amma (in the sense of supervision, advice, some kind of rule-setting), I wonder what the dynamic is between them. How large is his authority over her, and how, if at all, does he exercise it? How does she fit into his new family in Agdal?***** How does he take care of Amma, apart from – I assume – financially? I am assuming that there is some kind of relationship of care, parentage, and authority. I just don’t see it, and it makes me curious. Who does she talk to when she has problems? Who does she go to when she needs something? The fact that these questions aren’t automatically answerable is interesting to me. There is no identifiable ‘parent’ in her life. She seems highly independent and is treated no different from the other adults in the house. She is one of the women, with the same rights and responsibilities, even if she calls the others ‘grandma’ and ‘aunt’. I had expected a lot more control of school-age girls by their families, and a lot more behavioral differentiation between generations. This is visible at Fatima’s house to some extent (because Yunus and Mustafa are still so young, perhaps), but even there, there is a lack of authority that I find interesting. There is no supervision, not even a general sense of attention that is paid to the children. Yunus is always out with his friends, and no one ever wonders where he goes. Mustafa, who is 10, will be told to go to bed around 11 PM, but no one will accompany him to make sure he brushes his teeth, to tuck him in, to say good night. Is this common?

* I learned recently that Amma has a full brother, two years her junior, who lives with her mother in Spain. She showed me pictures of their departure, which means that happened fairly recently – a few years ago, from the looks of it. Amma did not go with them, she explained, because she did not have her papers at that time. I wonder, how did her brother manage to get papers, if she did not?
** I would like to know more about this study. Who conducted it? What universities were compared? And according to what criteria?
*** And why go to movies when you can buy a pirated DVD on the street for 8 Dirhams? Everything and anything is available, from American to Egyptian to Bollywood: Quantum of Solace is already for sale, for instance. Numbers one and two on Amma’s list of movies to see are 27 Dresses, and Sex and the City.
**** A cousin of hers is getting married, I believe, and so there have been engagement parties and the like.
***** And how does this new family fit into the one here in the medina? Because as often as Noureddine comes to the house, he has never brought along his new wife or second daughter – and we have never gone over to his house.