Friday, October 31, 2008

Some Unpleasantness

Yesterday morning Ilyas asked me, now that I had been here for a little over a month, what I liked about Morocco, and what I didn’t. Sitting there in that classroom, I was hard-pressed to find anything negative. I finally settled for mentioning the lack of privacy, but even that isn’t a real problem, most of the time.

Then, that evening, I had my first real unpleasant experience on the street. I was heading home from a talk on philosophy at the school. It was about 6.30, and already dark. Noticing that the street lights aren’t as bright in the small alleys between house and school as they are on the larger medina roads, I felt a bit more wary than usual, walked a little faster than otherwise, but everything seemed fine. Then, halfway, on a relatively busy street with lots of little shops, a ragged man suddenly accosted me and began to yell at me agitatedly. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, am not even sure what language it was, but I think I heard him repeating, angrily, that he wanted to see my passport. He whipped out a large photograph of the king, carelessly strewing some others onto the ground, and pushed it into my face. I kept walking, trying to get away, but he kept circling around me. “ihtaram rasek,” I told him, “respect yourself” – the appropriate phrase to use for someone who bothers you on the street – but it came out too quietly. I didn’t want to make a scene, didn’t think of calling attention to myself (as it were, there were enough people around to witness this little encounter, though no one really did much); I just wanted him to get away from me.

And finally – I’m not sure why – he just gave up, and I raced on, leaving him far behind me. Just as I turned the corner, a guy leaning against the wall called after me, “he’s crazy!” Yes, I could see that. Granted, it was a very brief encounter all in all, but why didn’t anyone approach us, help me get away?

To be honest, the whole thing did not shake me very much, and I walked the rest of the way home wondering why I wasn’t more upset. It was annoying, but that might have been all. I felt strangely unaffected by it. Perhaps the man’s ‘craziness’ was apparent enough for me not to take it personally in any way.* But that night I did sleep just slightly less comfortably than I did before – imagining that every sound I heard was an intruder, coming to get me and my passport – and double-checked just a little more often that my passport was still safely hidden away in my bag.

* Still, though, I decided it was best not to tell my host family about this; I worried they might take this as a pre-text to express concern about my going out at night.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Public versus Private, Inside versus Out

Anyone who has ever read an ethnographic study of a Muslim society will have come across the distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres. This distinction is always described as fundamental to the structure of Arab communities. It denotes a fundamental separation between the sphere of the home and the sphere of public society, and maintains the separation of men from women that Arab conceptions of honor command.

This distinction certainly applies, albeit in a more subtle way than it might elsewhere, to Morocco. The architecture alone testifies to the seclusion of the home: high, unadorned walls and small, high-up windows prevent anyone on the street from catching a glimpse of what goes on inside. Even in the French-built parts of town this seclusion is honored – if ever apartment buildings offer a residence on the ground floor (and this hardly ever happens), any windows are hidden by a fence, or impenetrable bushes.

There is a noticeable difference in atmosphere between the intimacy of the home, and the public-ness of a coffee house, office, or restaurant. Each is governed by a very different set of rules; about what is appropriate behavior and what is not, or who can be in certain spaces and who cannot. The lack of privacy at home is, in some sense (and perhaps paradoxically) contrasted with a much greater abeyance to personal space in the public sphere. There is more distance between people, a greater awareness of inaccessible of forbidden spaces (there is a much greater distinction, in the public sphere, between men’s and women’s spaces), and also a stronger sense of distinctions in rank, power, and means.

Nevertheless, I think there is more to it than this simple separation between ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres. In order to account for all dimensions and spaces of a Moroccan city, I think we have to add a second axis of distinction, one that is in some sense more fundamental, and one that creates a third space beyond home and public facilities – but a space that does not fully count as such. This is a distinction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, and the third space it creates is the street.* This separation is not based on the notion of privacy, but rather on a distinction between ‘order’ and ‘chaos’, ‘space’ and ‘non-space’.

‘Inside’ is a world of order, routine, and rules. There are laws about who can be there, who cannot, what can be said, who can do what, who gives the orders, and who takes them. This is as true of a public coffee house as it is of a home, though I’ll take the latter as an example. Even if there is an informality and intimacy here, this is made possible by virtue of this foundation of routine and order, by virtue of the fact that everyone knows their place and knows what to expect. Most of all, a Moroccan household is spotless. There is no clutter, no mess, no dirt. Everything – items used daily as well as items used only occasionally – is kept stowed away in cupboards and closets, taken out only to be used and then immediately put away again. On the few occasions that no action is taking place in the kitchen, there is nothing on the countertops; even appliances are stowed away when not in use. A dirty dish never remains in the sink for longer than a few minutes. Cleaning is a daily task, and mostly involves lots and lots of water. With tile floors and drains everywhere, Moroccan women simply tip a bucket of water out onto the floor and then mop aggressively until all dirt has been carried off into the drain. One is hard-pressed to find a trash- or garbage can anywhere in a Moroccan home – usually the only location to leave one’s trash will be in a small bucket behind a cupboard in the kitchen. Every evening, the trash is taken out, leaving the house free of dirt and waste until the morning.

What makes ‘inside’ a space of order is that there is someone, or a group of people, who takes responsibility for its state. This is not the case with ‘outside’. The street is a different world. It is a place where human interaction necessarily takes place, but it is an area for which no one takes responsibility. It belongs to no one, and so it becomes a space where, in a sense, no laws apply. It is a space of anarchy, and thus does not fully count as a ‘space’ at all. It is non-space, made up of nothing but the interstitial gaps between what does count as ‘space’. It is the receptacle of refuse, of abandonment,** of things left behind; anything that has no place ‘inside’ – anything that transgresses the rules, that threatens its order – is left on the street. It is dominated by dirt, mess, and chaos. There is garbage everywhere – the trash that is taken out of the house every night is simply placed on the street, at a small distance from the front door. There is a garbage pickup service, but this usually does not come before the stray cats and dogs have already made sure to open up all bags and drag its contents all over the road. And it is a space where people take liberties – where they show emotions, weakness, bodily functions.*** This is possible because it does not count; it is non-space, no man’s land, a gap between what counts as ‘society’.

I think that Moroccan architecture, customs of dress – anything I mentioned above as examples of the separation between public and private – is as much a way of separating ‘inside’ from ‘outside’. The high walls, lack of windows, and focus on the interior are also a way of keeping out the chaos of the street.**** And the reason why people put on a jellaba or western-style clothing is, of course, in part about the fact that pajamas are not appropriate in public – and so in part about a sense of privacy – but it is also about donning a kind of shell, a kind of portable ‘inside’ to protect oneself from the chaos and danger of what is out there.

I don’t mean to imply that any of this should be interpreted in an extreme way. I don’t mean to suggest that the Moroccan cityscape is a black hole of dirt and chaos – it is not (always), and I do think that the government is making great efforts to work on improving the appearance and efficiency of its cities. But what is true is that among the population, any sense of focus on the community does not extend to the street. No one takes responsibility for it, it is not a space that must be kept clean, and in that simple way, there is a huge contrast with the orderliness and cleanliness of the home. Moroccans are very focused on their community, and on the virtue of solidarity. This makes them very attentive to spaces beyond the home. The ‘street’, however, is simply not considered a ‘space’. And even a very communally oriented people must have its ‘beyond’ – nothing defines a community like that which is not a part of it.

* I take the notion of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ very literally; what I mean is that there is a distinction between any inside space – anything that has a roof or at least four walls to demarcate it – and anything outside: the street, the road, the countryside, the open air.
** Stray cats, dogs, donkeys, indigent beggers…
*** I think this may also explain the catcalls to women. Technically, this is completely socially unacceptable – but away from the home, there is no one to enforce these social rules.
**** I wonder if the common belief that jnoun lurk in drains has anything to do with the fact that drains are, in some way, a portal between orderly ‘inside’ and chaotic ‘outside’.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Privacy and Frustration

I want to come back to that part of me that understood Manal’s anger about the bastila. Because I think her frequent indignation comes from somewhere – from a focus on and a yearning, perhaps, for something beyond the quiet and un-private life in this house. I think that both Manal and Alma – both single, in their forties, living at home – yearn for something more, and are frustrated by the limitations set on their lives. Each deals with this differently. I get the sense that Alma has in some ways given up on herself, or that she is on the verge of doing so. She jokes about her wish for a husband, for a room of her own, for some privacy; but she does nothing about it. Her options are limited, of course; without work she has no income, no means to provide herself with any of the above. This cannot be easy for her. She is always her pleasant and smiling self, but I get the sense that there is an existential sadness underneath that outer layer – and that her frequent bouts of headache and general malaise are her way of expressing it, when its force becomes too much to keep inside. I think Alma seeks freedom in other ways – I have realized that she almost never sleeps at home. She is always at Fatima’s apartment, or staying with friends. This may not provide her with any privacy, but perhaps it lends her a small sense of liberty, to be away from home.

Manal is different. I have never seen her go out to socialize;* when she is not at her store she is at home. She does not express any yearnings for a husband, privacy, freedom – but she has those wishes, I think; because she is clearly working hard to pursue their realization. With a job, she is of course much more able to do so than Alma.** She has the means to move beyond her mother’s house, and seems to be doing so. As I have mentioned, Manal has a car, which she loves. That love, the care she provides it, means something, I think: it provides her with the liberty that Alma seeks in her social contacts.

I recently learned that Manal also has a new apartment in Salé. It is still being painted, but furniture has already been moved over, and it is stocked with pantry items – all signs point to an impending move. As she showed the place to me, Khadija, and Zakaria on Monday evening, I asked her, is this all for you alone? Well, she answered, the whole family could come over any time, she would give them a key, but yes, it was hers. Taking into account that in Morocco, privacy will never mean what it means to a Westerner, this says a lot. This says that she is reaching for independence, for a life that is hers, and not her family’s. I am wondering what her getting an apartment suggests about her prospects of marriage (does it make her more desirable for marriage, or does it mean she’s given up on the possibility?), but it is a testament to the sense I had been getting from Manal, that she is yearning to move beyond life at the house in Rabat.

And so I think I understand some of her occasional frustration, her tendency to argue with her mother, her relative unwillingness to go out of her way for someone else.*** She clearly deals with her frustrations in a different – and more overt – way than Alma does, but I can sympathize with it. I come from a different background, of course, but I would imagine that even for a Moroccan, there comes a point when it is time to start your own life, to focus on yourself and your future, and create some distance from your parents. And this can be difficult, when life costs more than most people are able to make, when socio-economic conditions render most people dependent on someone else. And this conflict between dreams and reality, I think, is what the bastila incident was ultimately about.

* She also seems the least familiar and friendly with the family friends that come by.
** I wonder how much of Manal’s income is used to support her mother’s household. No one else works. Would Lahcen receive a pension of sorts? Does Amma’s father contribute? And then there is, of course, my financial contribution, which I was told amounts to an average day’s pay.
*** This is not at all to say that Manal is not hospitable or friendly. She is; she is simply the least likely of anyone in this family to go out of her way to please someone else. She is a little un-Moroccan in that sense; she is perfectly amiable, but expects people to take care of themselves, does not overly consider others’ wishes, and seems least interested in the formalities of pleasing guests.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Manal has been yelling at everyone for a day and a half now. This is not necessarily surprising – her general condition is one of slight, but perpetual, indignation. Nevertheless, her usual outbursts of irritability have seemed heightened recently. I suspected something was going on – and last night this feeling was confirmed, as she explained to me what was wrong: an anonymous someone had eaten her portion of the bastila that Khadija had made for Sunday’s lunch.

Manal was fasting on Sunday, and so she sat on the other end of the sitting room while we all gathered around the table. Very uncharacteristically for a Moroccan meal, we did not all dig into the big plate at the center. Instead, the bastila was very scrupulously divided into exactly 8 parts – one for everyone, including those who weren’t at the table. Those of us there for lunch were each given our slice, and Manal’s portion was taken back to the kitchen for later. She had decided to eat it on Monday, she explained to me last night, but by Sunday night had discovered the theft from the fridge, to her (and whether we wanted to or not, our) great consternation.

Bastila certainly is delicious, and something worth competing for. It is a pastry of filo dough, shaped in the form of a disk, topped with lots of sugar and cinnamon and filled with almond paste, lots of spices – and chicken. It is very, very good, but it takes a long time to make (even if you don’t make your own filo dough), and is therefore most definitely something for a special occasion. Khadija had been working on the bastila for the entire weekend: first the chicken was cooked in a broth of onions, an unidentifiable green, and spices, until the meat practically fell off the bones. Then the meat had to be cut into small pieces. Then the almonds had to be cooked, peeled, ground up, mixed with rose water and sugar to make the almond paste. And finally, of course, there was the assembly, the careful positioning of it all on the sheets of filo dough, the careful wrapping up of the fillings, so that it all formed a perfectly symmetrical disk.

Eating it is heaven (and it is, very understandably, almost everyone’s favorite food). It is dinner and dessert rolled into one. And for me, the cinnamon completely quenched the sudden craving for pumpkin spices and speculaaskruiden I developed when I realized, a few days ago, that it is late October.

And so a part of me understands Manal’s anger. I’d feel the same, if my bastila got eaten by an anonymous thief. But another part of me wonders: Is this really worth being so angry about, for two whole days? This is the cynical part of me, perhaps: she herself chose not to eat on this special bastila-day. It was her own decision to fast, despite all of the deliciousness being served. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too – literally. Perhaps to say no to bastila when it is being served means to risk not getting any at all. Saving something for later is always a little risky. And there is a little hypocritical part of me that thinks: doesn’t it go against the whole idea of fasting, to save what you’re abstaining from for later so that you can still enjoy it, and then be this mad when someone has taken your prize? Seems to me that just eating would cause a lot less trouble.

No one in the family really took her anger seriously. I am not sure what they are saying to her, but the tone is dismissive. Which clearly only fuels her anger…

Meanwhile, my stomach has transitioned from slightly uneasy to perpetually hungry. I love Moroccan food and there is too much of it, all the time. I eat three big meals a day, at least, not to mention the cookies served with coffee at 5 o’ clock. My particular vice is the white bread, which is heated up on a George Forman-style grill before every meal. I cannot resist. I am also not yet very good at using my bread as a spoon – which means that I eat a lot more bread than the rest to scoop up the same amount of food. I am afraid – very afraid – that I will come back to the US in December with 15 extra pounds…

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Devil Temptress

No figure is so quintessentially Moroccan as Aicha Qandisha. She is a jinn, arguably the most famous of jnoun, whose existence no Moroccan dares to fully deny. The various myths about her wily ways are told and retold to instill fear in little children, though according to Ilyas fear of ‘Lalla Aicha’ is not as acute as it once was. Whereas people had been afraid to even mention her name in the past,* she is nowadays the subject of many a Moroccan song and joke.

Jnoun exist all over the Muslim world, but Aicha exists only in Morocco. Everyone knows who she is, though the legends about her appearance and background vary greatly. Some say she is an ugly old hag, while others say that she is a beautiful woman – though with the feet of a camel or cow, which she cleverly hides underneath her skirts. A few legends claim that she is from the Sudan – and one of her epithets, correspondingly, is ‘Aicha Sudaniya’. But what is always central to her story is that she is ‘fatna’, a creator of ‘fitna’:** she seduces men, takes possession of them, and drives them mad with obsession. Underlying her story, then, is the very intriguing and very Freudian theme of the conflictual relationship between love, sex, beauty – and danger, madness, and chaos. Aicha Qandisha represents something so irresistible that men are driven to insanity trying to obtain it. She incites a love so all-consuming that it becomes – literally – possessive. Her story and figure express, in other words, the irresistible temptation of beauty, always accompanied by the paralyzing fear that its power may consume you whole.

Aside from this wealth of supernatural myths, there are a few more ‘concrete’ theories about her origins. I was introduced to two of these in Monday’s class, and wanted to share them here – because they are interesting enough not to detract from the mystery that is Aicha Qandisha – if anything (for me at least), they add to it.

One theory connects Aicha Qandisha to the goddesses of fertility and sexuality that were worshipped across the Mediterranean world and Fertile Crescent. In particular, one anthropologist (Westermarck) has linked her to the goddess Ishtar, claiming that her cult was introduced to the Maghreb by the Phoenicians and transformed to fit the cultural context. Indeed, as I discovered with a little internet research, a number of sites devoted to the topic of ancient religions mention Aicha on their lists of goddesses devoted to love and sex. This is not how she is seen in Morocco at all – in any case, this is not how I have ever heard her described; she is simply a jinn, powerful but decidedly dangerous. But it is a very interesting theory. And it may imply that the same kind of re-interpretation befell Aicha Qandisha as did divine female figures in Christianity. Did Islam do what Christianity did? Did the leaders of this compelling new religion consolidate power and patriarchy by transforming a female figure that represents sacred sexuality, and celebrates bodily pleasures, into a hallmark of danger and pollution? Did Aicha only become a jinn when monotheism took away her status as goddess?***

The other theory of origins claims her not as goddess, but as real woman – albeit a woman of great power. According to this story, Aicha was a woman of noble blood who lived in El Jdida (a town on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, south of Casablanca) around the 15th century AD. When the Portuguese, who were at war with El Jdida at the time, murdered Aicha’s family, she sought revenge by joining the Moroccan army. Apparently she was so ruthless in her slaughter of foreign soldiers that the Portuguese, who knew her as Contessa Aicha (and indeed, it is very likely that ‘Qandisha’ comes from the word ‘contessa’), decided she could not actually be a woman of flesh and blood.**** This is the story Amma confirmed when I asked her about Aicha Qandisha, and it is also the one Ilyas said he thought was most plausible. It is, of course, the more concrete of the two theories on her origins. But I wonder if the truth may include a little of both. It seems equally plausible to me that the lore on female jnoun derives, at least in part, from the pre-Islamic fertility cults that worshiped goddesses of love around the Mediterranean world; cultures in this region have been in such contact with one another throughout time that it would be surprising if these cults had never made it to Morocco. So perhaps the introduction of Islam did occasion the fall of some particularly prominent divine female figure – her demotion from ‘goddess’ to ‘jinniya’ – and perhaps this figure eventually became mixed up with the legend about a certain supernaturally strong and patriotic woman named ‘Contessa’…

* It is a custom, Ilyas told me, to subtly make a spitting gesture toward your own chest as protection any time you mention the name ‘Aicha’. Being named after the Prophet’s favorite wife must not be an unambiguous honor… How do people conceive of the two very different meanings this name seems to carry? How do women named ‘Aicha’ feel about the two very different figures their name recalls?
** This word, in its most general sense, means chaos, but has all kinds of subtexts denoting madness, darkness, voids, emptiness, lawlessness, and so on.
*** Such powerful new religious traditions never ignore the existence of such pre-existing gods altogether; its leaders are smart enough to realize, I guess, that the lore on such gods will never completely die out among the people. Better to incorporate it into the new tradition and transform it to reinforce your own message, than to deny its existence and risk subversive and unsanctioned worship – a threat to your power…
**** There is another story, incidentally, that may explain the camel feet. This one also claims her as a contessa; a very beautiful one that liked to go swimming in the river and would then walk home wearing nothing but a pair of sandals with very high heels… And not surprisingly, this nude beauty strolling through town turned a number of male heads, permanently so…

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Weekend of Zen

I declined an invitation to go back to Salé this weekend – and despite missing a real shower, I am glad I did. The weekend was quiet and relaxed, and gave me a chance to catch up on my sleep and work. The grant application is nearly complete; all it needs is a last glance and an edit here and there. After the bad news from last week I am not confident about this one, but it will have to do…

I am starting to connect with other non-Moroccans here, due in large part to the NIMAR. Last night I went out with a group of fellow Europeans – three other Dutch ex-pats, a French photographer, a British BBC correspondent, and a German radio reporter. We had come together through a chain-reaction of contacts, so to speak – each of us arrived knowing just about one other person in the group – but the evening was informal, pleasant, easy. And for me, after a month of non-stop immersion into Moroccan family life, this evening of English/Dutch conversation, European food,* wine,** and sharing stories about our experiences and impressions of life in Rabat, felt incredibly liberating. An evening like this is something I have never done before in Morocco – and I am very, very glad to discover that it has proven to be an option. It adds to the growing sense I have that I could in fact live here comfortably without missing too much of the ‘liberties’ (luxuries?) I am used to at home.

Nevertheless, today I could not quite shake the slight sense that I had done something sinful last night. My host family knew that I had gone out to dinner with a group of Dutch people, and eagerly asked me today if I had had a nice evening. Telling them about my night, I couldn’t help feeling a little bit like a teenager who had furtively snuck out of the house the night before to do something gravely forbidden. As I listened to myself reporting, conveniently leaving out the wine at the restaurant, let alone the Ivorian bar/lounge we went to at the end of the evening, a slight and unfamiliar sense of guilt emerged – an evening like this is something I have never had to lie about before.

But I think I’ll get over it – as long as I don’t have to be completely dishonest, I don’t think I mind leaving out a few small details if it means I won’t completely shock them, and buys me a bit of freedom to go out like this occasionally. And apart from Fatima saying in passing that 1 AM (my hour of arrival back home) was very late to still be out alone and that she was glad I had been escorted all the way home, no one seemed bothered by my evening away. I think I’ve been graced with a host family whose protectiveness knows its limits…

* Not to mention forks and knives…
** I can now report that Moroccan wine is not bad at all!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Newfound Happiness

It is because issues like this (see previous post) come up that I am loving my language classes. These discussions are not necessarily linguistically productive, because we often lapse into English – Ilyas will often even initiate this. But they are productive in a different way, because I am being given a view of society that is incredibly useful to my research. And in general, I very much enjoy listening to Ilyas talk about Morocco. I get the sense that he is a quiet analyst, like I am. He is an observer and a theorist,* but not a generalist. He has a subtle view of things that makes him attentive to the more unspoken, deeper dynamics that underlie Moroccan culture. He sees beauty in little aspects of his country without being a general apologist or ambassador, and criticizes things without denouncing them. I think that what it comes down to is that he does not try to sell a rose-colored view of Morocco to me as one would to a tourist, but takes off his gloves and gives me what he sees, in all its reality and beauty.

And that, I think, is the other main reason why this time around, my feelings about Morocco are so different – the first reason being this Moroccan family that has let me into its life. Both Ilyas and this family are allowing me a glimpse into the reality of Moroccan life. This is something I always felt eluded me; during previous visits to this country my endless intrigue with its culture and practices was never able to penetrate the façade that is shown to visitors. In addition to that I have always felt incredibly restricted here, unable to freely explore, in the way that I wanted to, or go everywhere I wished. That combination led to endless frustration, and the slight fear that I would never become comfortable in Morocco.

This time around everything is so different. I feel a certain unprecedented freedom – in part maybe because Rabat seems more spacious and open than Fes did and I feel much less observed – but also because, with women to take me places, I am able to do much more than before. In combination with the ‘real’ Morocco I am finally experiencing, I feel as though Morocco and I are finally getting to know each other on a personal level. It is letting me in, and so in turn I am letting it in. I feel comfortable, unfrustrated (though I don’t think I am capable of ever being completely free of frustration about something), and happy.

* In the way that all people become, perhaps, once they have lived in more than one country (Ilyas has spent four years in France). Once you see that there is more than one way to live your life, more than one way to believe, you are doomed in a sense to become a perpetual observer, wherever you go. Never fully, obliviously ‘inside’ or ‘part of’ a culture anymore, nor ever fully outside anywhere, either.

Moroccan Masculinity in Crisis

Alma and Manal are not the only unmarried women in Morocco. Apparently, the issue of “l-‘ounousa” is a major social problem. The causes behind it, however, seem to have less to do with women than they do with men.

A major issue, as Ilyas explained in class on thursday, is that marriage has become a lot less desirable for men since the major overhaul of the Family Code (Moudawana) in 2004. Men are threatened by the fact that women now have (almost) equal rights in marriage; unlike their fathers before them, married men now no longer enjoy the privilege of being head of the household, sole decision maker, and lord over a woman who is expected never to say no.

Another issue is that of unemployment (“l-bitalia,” or “l-shoumaj”). Both men and women’s unemployment is problematic (and not just in view of marriage, of course), but again, it is a problem for men more so than it is for women. When men don’t work, they simply cannot marry – because they cannot afford it. This is changing, however, especially in light of l-ounousa. In the past, a man had to be able to offer his prospective bride an income and a house. In return, he pretty much had the guarantee that if he was able to provide these two things, there was a very slim chance the girl was able to turn him down. But with so many women unmarried beyond the respectable marriable age, and thus quite desperate for a man, these requirements have become much less stringent.

When a woman doesn’t work, on the other hand, she is not desirable for marriage. As Ilyas explained, life in Morocco is expensive; especially if you want a good and comfortable life for you and your kids that builds in some promise for the future. In order to afford such a life, a man looks for a woman with her own income to supplement his – to enable them to pay for better schools and better housing, and thereby a better future.

Yet there is a paradox here. Because a woman with money is also threatening to a man’s masculinity. But hold on to that thought – I’ll get back to it in a minute.

Because first I need to mention another factor underlying l-‘ounousa: competition. In part because of the reasons above, there are simply not enough men interested in marriage for all women looking for a husband. It is especially difficult for a woman like Alma, who does not work – she cannot offer a man the supplementary income needed to increase his standard of living. But another factor adding to the dearth of interested men is the dream of a better life in Europe. For the same reason that men look for a woman with income, they look for women who do not actually live in Morocco. Online at the Cybers, they get in touch with women from Europe or from the United States, in the hope of establishing some kind of connection with them. Marriage to one of these women would provide not supplementary cash but papers, and the option of emigration.* Women are beginning to use this strategy as well, but it has long been difficult for them. The issue barring women from marrying foreigners is that there is a very strict rule about religion and children. Fathers dictate religion; this means that a man can marry a non-Muslim woman without consequences for the children, but a Muslim woman cannot in the same way marry a non-Muslim man; her children might very well grow up without Islam. As far as I understood this prohibition was never actually codified by law, but social convention was strong enough to make it virtually impossible. Only now is this beginning to change. Not because religion has become less important – but because the dream of a better life has surpassed it in primacy. **

What all these issues boil down to, ultimately, is the issue of masculinity and the apparent threats to it posed by the institution of marriage. Ilyas confirmed that masculinity is a huge issue in Morocco. Being a ‘man’ means being independent, having honor, and exercising power. It is exemplified by wealth and dominance. This is the reason why women with money are threatening to men; it confers a kind of independence that should belong to the male alone.*** Women’s emancipation in general is clearly a threat. It is difficult for men to live up to the ideal to begin with: between patriarchy and economic underdevelopment it is difficult for men to attain true independence. Now, however, they must compete for status not only with other men, but with women as well. But as I mentioned, there is a paradox here – because as much as a woman with money (or papers) can be threatening to a man’s dominance, it is also his ticket to advancement on the social ladder, which in turn would help him in attaining the ideal of masculinity.

And that is, I think, what the issue with marriage is ultimately about. I think that in some ways, the institution of marriage as it now stands in Morocco constricts men within certain contradictions and paradoxes that can be very dangerous to this already fragile sense of manliness. Marriage requires means, and is in that sense a confirmation of masculinity. But it is also itself a means (through a woman with cash or papers) to attain that ideal – and in that sense may also be a confirmation that masculinity has not quite yet been attained. Marriage confirms male-ness but at the same time underscores one’s imperfect manliness.

And of course marriage creates a small microcosm in which masculinity and feminism compete for legitimacy. Traditionally marriage bestowed supreme power onto the husband, but the family code reform has turned this monarchical system into a democracy in which both parties have equal say. The husband is no longer given his small dominion – in which he was lord, even if he wasn’t able to exercise power in the public sphere – and now has to compete for power even within the house.

It must be exhausting to be a man in this society. And what is there to do about this? Is this an issue that society will simply take a few generations to adjust to? Does the ideal of masculinity just lag a few decades behind the pace of socio-economic reform? Or does this problem run deeper, and therefore need a more hands-on solution?

* As happens everywhere with cases like this, many men abuse the rights of residence conferred by marriage, and lure women into matrimony under false pretenses of true love. Ilyas and I discussed cases in which, once the papers have been secured, the men divorce, return to Morocco, and marry the first girl they find.
** In 2006, apparently 7000 Moroccan women married men from Europe and the United States. This does not include those women who married Moroccans who reside there.
*** This is why it is completely unacceptable, when taking a woman out, to let her pay for herself or, god forbid, for both of you.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Islamic Feminism

In all this wet and cold non-dreariness, I got up at 7 AM yesterday morning to go to a conference at Mohammed V University with a few other women from the NIMAR. Entitled “La Feminisme Face aux Défis du Multiculturalisme”, it was organized primarily by AFARD (Association des Femmes Africaines pour la Recherche et le Développement),* to offer a full week of panel sessions on issues of feminism as it relates to the modern and globalized Muslim world: to religion, to migration, education, development, and so on.** We went only to Thursday morning’s program; a single plenary session on feminism and religion.

The conference was held entirely in French, and unfortunately proved to lie just above my level of comprehension. I could generally follow what topics were being discussed, but persistently missed the subtlety of the arguments that were being made. Despite my eagerness to learn what is being said about these issues in this part of the world, I am unable to report right now what points were made by the women I heard speak. I was relieved, I must confess, when one of the other women I was with told me she wasn’t able to follow everything, either.

Nevertheless, it was interesting. The panel topic was feminism and religion, and at issue was mainly the basic question: can you be Muslim and feminist at the same time? Is it possible to be an Islamic feminist? This is a question that often comes up in anthropological literature about women in the Muslim world (obviously), and in those cases authors usually discuss how these women are able to exercise agency (as in, make their own choices and lead a life that is meaningful to them) within an Islamic society. At this conference, the approach was different: under discussion was mostly the issue of Scriptural interpretation, and with that, the issue of how context and written text go together. In Islam, I think this issue is more difficult than it is for, let’s say, Christianity. This is because according to Islamic theology, the Qur’an is the literal word of God. It is not someone’s interpretation or account of history; it is the direct recording, by a number of people, of Mohammed’s recitation of God’s word. That makes the question of interpretation tricky – because if this text is precisely what God said, shouldn’t we take it literally? A lot of people, and most Islamic feminists among them, say no, not necessarily. God made these revelations to a particular people in a particular period of time, and this context needs to be taken into account. What we should extract from the Qur’an are the principles it conveys, not the concrete ways in which they are formulated. After all, the Qur’an is not a book of law, as one of the speakers today said; it is a book of visions.

As I mentioned, I am not exactly sure what these speakers were arguing, and so cannot say what new viewpoints they contributed to this discussion. But it is a larger, ongoing one that has been written about a lot, and I am curious to see how much further this debate can go, and how it will affect Islamic practice worldwide. Morocco’s family law was actually completely overhauled in 2004, after years of feminist activism and much controversy. It is now no longer based on the Shari’a – an Islamic book of law based on a quite literal interpretation of the Qur’an – and has equalized men and women to a large extent.*** The only remaining issue, as one of the women I was with informed me, is inheritance – women can still only inherit half of what men do. This is more difficult to change than most other issues, because it is one of the few things that is actually mentioned concretely and explicitly in the Qur’an. My companion was curious to see if it would be brought up, because it is quite the explosive issue, apparently. It was indeed mentioned, though I – once again – do not know what precisely was said about it.

As I sat, a little too easily distracted with my inability to completely follow what was being said, I looked around the room and noticed a lot of pictures being taken – both by members of the audience and by an official photography team. I began to get the impression that as much as this conference was about sharing ideas and coming up with new ones, it was also simply about ‘being’ there – about stepping up onto a stage and being seen and heard. Feminism is still at that stage in Morocco, perhaps, that such a conference is in itself already an act of claiming something, regardless of what, precisely, is being said.

But then I noticed something else – that there were hardly any men. If this is about being heard, it’s sad that the only audience is that of the proverbial choir. A self-selected audience of women who already share the ideas being promulgated. Of course, these women were granted a room at a prestigious national university. They were given a stage, and if just taking a stage is already an act of claiming something, then being given a stage is perhaps already in itself an act of being heard. But as long as no ‘outsiders’ actually listen to what is being said, how much will really change for women?

* AFARD is a pan-African NGO based in Senegal, according to its flyer. It was created in 1977 to tackle issues such as Africa’s socio-economic conditions, gender relations, human rights, and the encouragement of women’s contribution to Africa’s development and democratization. For more info, go to
** Apparently there is no word for ‘feminism’ in darija. And so I explained the topic of this conference to Ilyas and to my host family as being about ‘women, religion, culture and equality.’
*** I don’t know to what extent this new ‘equality’ can be termed a form of Islamic feminism; I’m not sure whether or not religion has factored into outlining the new rights and responsibilities for each gender. But the issue of defining ‘feminism’ is tricky in the first place, let alone ‘religious feminism’… and I’m sure religion was by no means completely absent.

Drowned World

Fall has officially begun; it has been raining non-stop for two days now.* In its underwater state, Rabat is everything but a muted world. The layer of water that covers the city like a blanket creates a prism that reflects its colors – the white, blue, black, yellow, and red of the mosaic tiles everywhere – even more brightly, it seems, than does the sun; an effect that is doubled by the colorful umbrellas that now crowd the narrow streets. The busy sounds from the street are now accompanied by the persistent background patter of drops on pavement, aluminum roofs and plastic sheets; and everywhere people are running, and huddling under awnings, as life goes on unabated. The rain does not keep Moroccans inside.

My house centers around a courtyard that has been covered, incompletely, by plastic panels. The rain has created small pools of water on the tile floor. Walking from living room to kitchen has become an obstacle course of jumping between puddles and making sure you don’t slip, made more challenging by the occasional distraction of a drop of rain, falling through the openings in the roof, and landing on the tip of your nose.

The openness of the roof also means that it has begun to cool down considerably at night. While I sleep comfortably under my warm blanket, it does not make my cold bathing sessions in the morning any easier…

*Ilyas told me that it has not rained like this in Morocco for 30 years. There have been small showers here and there, of course, but never a downpour such as the one we’ve been witnessing these past few days. Needless to say, the country is happy: this is a boon for agriculture.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

On Language Frustration

Until about a week ago, my host family had assumed I was learning Fusha (Fuss-ha) rather than Darija (dah-ri-zya). Fusha, or Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is the international standard form, the lingua franca of the Arab world, and mostly the same as Qur’anic Arabic. My host family made this assumption in part because most people study Fusha; it’s much more useful and a lot easier than Moroccan Arabic, which is a dialect further removed from Fusha than any other. Darija is completely incomprehensible to any other Arabic-speaker, with the exception maybe of Algerians. But my host family also assumed I was learning Fusha because, even though it is spoken every day at home and on the street, Moroccan Arabic is not considered a ‘real’ language. It is considered something of a bastard child; it is not literary, and it is not worthy of real study. It is not taught at a university level, and Arabic-language Moroccan publications generally write in MSA, not in Darija (though there are a few exceptions). So if you want to really learn Arabic, you need to study the ‘real’ Arabic: Fusha.*

In any case, because she assumed I was learning Fusha, Manal kept correcting the words she saw me writing on flash cards. I was spelling them wrong, she said, I was forgetting letters.** “Is that what they’re teaching you?” she would ask me with quiet outrage in her voice. Finally, it dawned on me that she didn’t realize I was learning the spoken language, not the official standard. So I explained. She was surprised. Why would I want to learn the dialect? It’s not useful at all, it’s no good! When I asked her why, precisely, she didn’t really have an answer. “Because it is, it’s just better, it’s the ‘true’ language’,” she said, making heavy movements with her arms to convey to me the solidity of MSA. “Darija is not good, the words aren’t pronounced right,” she said, with an expression of disdain. “It shouldn’t be ‘tlata’ [‘three’]; it should be ‘thalatha’.” Because she was hard-pressed to explain to me why Darija was so bad and MSA so good, this must be something that is implicitly understood or natural, to Moroccans. The language used in daily communication isn’t official, and it simply isn’t a real ‘language’. And consequently it seems difficult for them to understand why I would want to learn this language. Even my usual explanation, that it’s for my research, that it’s because I want to talk to people, didn’t satisfy Manal. “But you can speak to them in Fusha,” she said, “and then you can use it beyond Morocco.” Only when I told her that I wanted to be able to speak to people of all backgrounds, including those who haven’t had enough education to speak Fusha, did she seem to accept my reasons.

But now that my host family has realized I am learning Darija rather than Fusha, and kind of speak some already, they are making an effort to speak Arabic rather than French. This is good, because I need the practice, but my synapses seem to be getting completely overwhelmed. These days I am constantly moving back and forth between four languages: I speak Dutch at the NIMAR (where I’ve been going regularly to work on my grant application in peace), I write my notes and this blog in English, and try to converse with my family and other people in either French or Arabic. Especially with regard to the latter two, I get my words completely mixed up and often find myself starting a sentence in French and ending up in Arabic, or the other way around. The thing is that I need to learn both, but trying to work on them simultaneously is not going as well as I hoped; it seems as though my brain cannot keep up. French was going pretty well, but now that I’ve added Arabic, my ability to communicate has seriously deteriorated.

Usually when someone speaks slowly – and when my brain is quick enough in processing to actually let me say, ‘could you slow down a little please?’ – I can understand what they want and ask for the meaning of the words I don’t know. But sometimes it goes too fast. I need to process the sounds more slowly than they are pronounced, and while my head is doing that I just sit there being silent while everyone is looking at me. Realizing I don’t understand what has been said my host family will begin repeating the keyword from the sentence, which is usually the word I do happen to know – it’s the little in-between-words, the connectors, that I don’t get. Did they ask me to bring *them* some milk, or offer themselves to bring *me* some? And then for some reason, I freeze: I get overwhelmed because I am still trying to figure out which form of the verb ‘to bring’*** they used while they keep repeating: “‘milk!’ Do you understand? ‘Milk’?” And because I am getting nervous, because I need to respond and stop looking so stupid, my brain just stops and leaves me feeling completely inadequate. I really wish my brain was quicker.

In addition to that, my mouth just does not seem made for Arabic. I can pronounce the qaf, the ‘k’ that is pronounced deep in the mouth, and I am getting better at distinguishing between the light and heavy ‘t’, the light and heavy ‘s’, and the light and heavy ‘d’. I am even starting to get the hang of the ‘ayn, the letter that doesn’t have anything remotely similar in any European language and comes from really far down in the throat. But my big problem – my Achilles heel – is the ‘r’. I cannot, to save my life, produce a nice, rolling, Spanish ‘r’. I do not know why, but I have never been able to. This is something that I wasn’t aware of until a few years ago. In Dutch the r is not that prominent a letter, and you can get away with pronouncing it more like a French ‘r’ than a Spanish one – and the French ‘r’ is as far as I get. I hear the difference between the two ‘r’s when other people pronounce them, and I even hear the difference in my own head when I say them. But apparently, they come out sounding exactly the same to everyone else.

In any other language, this wouldn’t be a huge issue – I wouldn’t pronounce words exactly the way they’re supposed to be pronounced, but at least the meaning would be clear. In Arabic, however, it just so happens that both ‘r’s exist, as two separate letters. There is the ghayn, which approximates the French ‘r’ (and which I am an expert at pronouncing), and then there is the ra, the true rolling ‘r’. So in Arabic, my speech impediment can lead to a lot of confusion. ‘Morocco’, in Arabic, is ‘l-Maghrib’: the ghayn followed by the ra. Can you pronounce that? Because I can’t. In my head it sounds great, but apparently it comes out as ‘l-Maghghib’. In this case, people will still know what I’m trying to say. But what about the difference between ‘bgha’, to want, and ‘bra’, to heal?

But I need to stop letting my frustration at not doing everything right, or not knowing everything, get the better of me. I have the tendency to despair at my own inabilities. I am not someone who is good at practicing, someone who derives satisfaction from working long and hard at something to improve a skill. To me, that is only frustrating. I love learning, practicing at something and I can be quite the workaholic – but only if it goes well, only as long as I make no mistakes. I hate the feeling of not being good at something; it makes me feel inadequate and unworthy. And this is how I feel, much of the time, when it comes to speaking Arabic and French. I hate the fact that I don’t immediately understand things that are said, and I hate it even more that I cannot produce these two languages in the way that I want. I literally feel like a dumb blonde in my Arabic class. I feel ashamed toward Ilyas, because I read slowly and completely mispronounce the words I do not know, and I feel ashamed because I do not understand what is being said in the Moroccan songs he plays. And I feel ashamed because I do not know how to formulate all these burning questions I have. He brings up the most interesting subjects in class – the Moroccan work ethic, the role of the King in government, the relationship of Sufism to Moroccan Islam and to the tradition of saint worship – and there is so much I want to know about all of this. But because I cannot find the right words in Arabic, even in French, I have two options, both of which make me feel uncomfortable and ashamed. Either I keep my mouth shut and agonize over the fact that he thinks I am not interested in any of this, or I speak English, which makes me feel like I am committing a huge sin; I am not supposed to be speaking English. I am supposed to struggle with Arabic. But for some reason, even though I tell myself it’s ridiculous, I would rather be quiet and appear stupid than speak and reveal that I am imperfect.

I just need to snap out of this and use what I don’t know as motivation to keep going. I need to stop worrying about not being able to say things and just work at slowly learning what the right words are, through practice, and by making mistakes. I need to stop worrying about what my teacher thinks and remember that I am probably not that much worse than the average European/American trying to learn Arabic. And hope beyond all hope that at some point I will actually reach my goal, actually be able to converse in Arabic – and in French – without worrying about making mistakes, and without getting confused between the two. For now, that goal seems impossibly elusive.

* Perhaps this is why Moroccans had no issue integrating French into their language – because Moroccan Arabic is not ‘real’, there was no issue of ‘polluting’ their language with foreign influences – they way they would certainly feel if someone were to introduce foreign words into Modern Standard Arabic. The Arabic of the Qur’an is considered holy because it is the language God chose to reveal his last message in, and so cannot be altered. Technically, the Qur’an should not even be translated.
** In many ways, Darija is Fusha with all vowels eliminated. And with a lot of French added in.
*** The verb is ‘jab’ (‘zyab’); ‘bring me’ is ‘jibli’ (‘zyeeblee’), and ‘I’ll bring you is ‘njibik’ (n-zyeebik’). Especially when a sentence is pronounced at normal speed, the letters at the beginning and end of a word are hard to pick up. Milk, incidentally, is ‘hlib’ (‘hleeb’, with a very thick ‘h’).

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Personal Space? What's That?

The members of my host family can sleep through anything. They have had to learn this, because the members of this family do not respect one another’s personal down time in any way. We all sleep in the same room, and no one has any qualms about turning on the TV when they can’t sleep, about keeping their voice down when they’re talking, even about turning on the lights when they want to read. It has even happened on various occasions that someone will walk into the bedroom where Yunus and Mustafa – two young boys who have school ever morning at 8.30 – are sleeping to turn on the television in there, when they want to see something no one else wants to watch. Last night they urged me to do this, because the Moroccan public television was showing a documentary on Bouya Omar, the country’s largest and most notorious center for traditional healing. So suddenly I found myself, at 11 PM, walking into a dark bedroom to turn on the television. “Oh, ma kayn Moushkil,” Fatima said, “They’re already asleep.”

And indeed, they snored right through the entire program.

I guess it is not practical to be mindful of another’s rest if there is no room to do so. In addition to this lack of respect for downtime, there is also a complete lack of personal space. All rooms of the house I live in are furnished as sitting rooms, with couches lining the entire length of all four walls. We sleep on those couches, under communal blankets and pillows that are stored in a closet during the day. Fatima’s house has two bedrooms, but these are not quite private spaces, either. As I mentioned, there is a television in the boys’ bedroom that invites anyone to come in and watch, whether the beds are occupied or not. Also, there is a lot of switching around of beds. Sleep is not really an ‘event’ in this family – you don’t go somewhere to do it, and you don’t prepare for it in any way. It’s just the natural consequence of sitting down too long with nothing pressing to do – and it will happen a few times a day, wherever someone happens to find him or herself: in a bed, on the couch, wherever. The television will remain on, and those who don’t sleep will feel free to keep talking. In the four nights that Alma and I spent at Fatima’s house, she never once slept in her own bed with si Mahmoud.*

This domestic situation is common in Morocco, if I judge by the other houses I’ve visited. Most houses have one bedroom at most, and all others are meant for entertaining. Sometimes the entire floorplan – apart from kitchen, bathroom, and one other room – is open, with only low walls and pillars separating the various salons.** These are clearly a people whose life revolves around communality.

In any case, without private spaces for retreat, it is not really possible to be alone. Ever. I’ve been fine with this for a while, and am still fine with it as long as I get about an hour a day so to myself – upstairs, just me, my computer, and my iPod. But the past weekend in Salé almost drove me to the brink. Fatima’s house is smaller than her mother’s in Rabat, and there were more people there continuously than there ever are here. Also, Mustafa doesn’t quite leave anyone alone. When we weren’t singing songs, eating together, or watching cartoons, he’d be looking over my shoulder, wanting to know what Arabic words I was learning, how I wrote in Arabic, how it was that I can type so fast, and what I was writing about in English. He’d want to show me what he was learning in French class, ask me for some help with his homework, or do a puzzle together. He is incredibly cute, but along with the lack of sleep – because I, unlike these people, do not sleep through anything, and if someone watches television until 2 AM and then turns on the lights at 4 AM again to go eat because they are fasting, I get about two hours of sleep – I had to restrain myself from running away screaming.

The members of this family, however, do not crave privacy at all. Sometimes the bathroom seems like the only place I can be alone, but for them even this is not a time to be private. They leave the door open when they go to the bathroom, continuing whatever conversation they were having with someone in the sitting room. And they shower together. In fact, I have never seen a member of the family shower in Fatima’s bathroom by themselves.

I think it’s because of this lack of personal space that the lack of personal property appears. Kids have their own things, for practical reasons: their clothes don’t fit anyone else, and their school books aren’t useful to anyone else. But adults don’t have much. At this house, everyone gets a few shelves in a closet at the end of the sitting room, and everyone has a cell phone. But that is it. And even that is not ‘private’ in the sense that I would understand it – everyone is free to make use of anyone else’s things, without asking permission. I almost feel strange, having an entire cabinet to myself.

* Though I do wonder if there is a reason for this. They do not seem very affectionate, though I know this is not something Moroccan couples usually are. But is their marriage ok?
** There is always at least one formal salon, and one where the family ordinarily spends their days. You can always tell which is which. The latter is always the one with the least expensive-looking couches, and the one with the television. The formal salon looks much more luxurious, and there will usually be some calligraphic art on the wall.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Street Life

Now that almost three weeks have passed since my arrival, I am beginning to settle into a routine. It is a quiet routine of studying, classes, family life and solitary walks, and apart from the few things I miss (number one being showers), I am enjoying it.

Breakfast is not something Moroccans eat together – at least not in my family – and when I wake up around 8.30 or 9, I am seated in the kitchen and given a plate for myself while those who are up are already busy preparing lunch (because the meal is always a stew that needs to cook for a few hours, the earlier you start the better). My breakfast varies – often it is bread with butter and honey, sometimes I get a plate of Moroccan cookies. There is always coffee, though, and I have started looking forward to those quiet breakfasts of me alone with my coffee (and it’s real coffee, not Nescafé, the instant variety). It’s a tiny thing, but when I sit there in that strange kitchen eating Moroccan bread with Moroccan honey, that coffee can really make me feel at home.

Then I wash my face, brush my teeth for at least 5 minutes as a way to wake up, and get dressed. I spend the mornings either working on my grant application at home, sending emails at a ‘cyber’, or I go to the NIMAR to work and email there for a few hours. At 1.30 it is time for lunch. Amma will have come home from school, and she, I, and whoever else is home and not fasting* gather in the kitchen around the common plate.

Amma leaves at two to go back to school – classes start at three, but her school is in Agdal, a neighborhood south of downtown, and so she has to take the bus. My class starts at three as well, so at about 2.45 I walk through the medina to the Center, and sit in their courtyard until Ilyas comes to tell me it’s time for class. We then spend two hours reading a play, a short article, or listening to songs, until he says ‘thank you, I’ll see you tomorrow.’ Sometimes I go straight home after class, sometimes I like to walk through the medina, looking at shops and tourists. Though Ramadan is over, there is usually something to eat around 6 – even if it is just cookies and tea. Afterward, we sit around watching TV, Amma and I do our homework, or we go out to do some shopping and/or strolling around. Around 9.30 or later there is dinner – always something simple: a kind of oatmeal with lots of sugar, or an omelet with tomato sauce and bread – and an hour later, the house quiets down, the lights go out, and everyone retreats to their respective corners for a little more reading or TV watching before they go to sleep.

Although I love the time spent at home with the various members of the family, I think my favorite moments during the day are those when I walk around by myself, with my iPod, and observe the life going on in the street. Before lunch it is always busy. The shops on blvd. Mohammed V – mostly clothing stores** – are all open, and because all people who have things to do are at work or at home, the street is dominated by casual strollers and tourists. In the middle of the street, men sell bootlegged DVDs and bags, and here and there, there will be a man with a small selection of towels and other bathroom-ware. It is all displayed on plastic tarps, ready to be snatched up whenever a policeman comes by. Downtown, in the Ville Nouvelle, there are newsstands everywhere that display the large choice of Francophone and Arabic newspapers and magazines that constitute the Moroccan media. For a country whose freedom of press is relatively limited (compared to Western Europe and the US, at least), there is a very rich variety of publications to choose from, and many of these offer insightful critiques of Moroccan society.*** There are at least 5 or 6 daily newspapers with both national and international news, and weekly magazines feature articles on the most sensitive of topics – from ‘eating Ramadan’ to alcohol, to extramarital sex. Because Le Monde is kind of expensive, and because I want to know what’s going on in Morocco, I have decided to buy l’Opinion a few times a week. Sadly, though, its international section is at most a page long, and I am seriously deprived of news about the presidential race. I think that after more frequent showers, this is number two on the list of things I miss the most.

At one o’clock the street is equally crowded, but differently, more rushed – it’s when I and everyone else head home for lunch. Stores will be closing, and everywhere men, women, and groups of school children walk quickly, and with purpose. The tourists have all sat down at the small restaurants and bistros in the medina – the only places that remain open during these hours, and who set out plastic tables and chairs around this time to attract customers. The smells coming from the grills dominates the streets, and makes me walk home all the faster for lunch.

At 2.45, the medina is quiet. There are small groups of young men that hang out on their mopeds on street corners, and the occasional shop will be opening up again, but other than that it is an ocean of tranquility. At 5, however, an elementary school nearby the Center clearly closes for the day, and when I am walking back home, the ocean of tranquility has turned into a sea of little boys and girls running around, chasing each other, playing soccer, telling their mothers – who are dragging their children home – all about what they did at school. I pass a lot of bakeries on my way home, and all have rolled out counters with donuts and other sweets (‘gâteaux’) enticing the passer-by, as well as the stray cats that live in the street.

I think I like walking around so much in part because I get little attention on the street – compared to what it was like in Fes four years ago, at least. There, I could not walk a block without receiving at least five comments about my eyes, my figure, or my nationality. I’ve been followed in Fes, and even groped. Compared to that situation, Rabat is like a breath of innocent fresh air. I get attention here, too, but much less, and I don’t perceive it as invasive anymore. No one tries to touch me. I can ignore it, it slides off me, and mostly it just makes me laugh a little when I hear another young man simply saying – almost hissing – ‘yessss…’ as I walk by.

The days generally feel calm and pleasant. Sometimes it does seem, though, that there are not enough hours in a day. Between studying Arabic, trying to improve my French, getting my grant application done, getting my research started, and having the time to participate in Moroccan family life, sometimes I don’t know how to get it all done and I feel that all too familiar grip of stress emerging. There is so much exploring and observation I want to do, so many things I want to try, but I am stuck working on this grant, and I already feel like I am not spending enough time on the language training, which is officially my first priority. But when I realize I am working myself into a state like this, I try to tell myself that I have two more months here, that this grant will be finished soon, and that I will find a way to do it all. Eventually.

*The three daughters are still catching up on their missed days from Ramadan. They don’t fast every day, and so it is taking much longer than I had thought
** Some of these sell the ‘normal’ things worn by the younger generation, but many sell Caftans and Jellabas. The real epicenter for ‘western’ clothing is rue Souika, which crosses Moh. V.
*** I think the only serious limitation to the freedom of press concerns the King. Article one of the Moroccan constitution states that the King is holy. This is in part due to his status as a Charif, a descendant of the prophet Mohammed. In any case, it is not allowed to criticize the King in any way. Occasionally, a journalist will make a transgression, and a newspaper or magazine will be taken out of circulation for a week or so. I am not exactly sure what else is done, but the prohibition from criticism is certainly not always honored.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Today's Egg is Better than Tomorrow's Chicken

I heard today that my application for a Wenner-Gren grant was rejected. This means that I cannot come back to Morocco in January and will have to postpone my research until March at least, when I hear back from the second grant I applied for – and in which I have now lost a little faith.

Perhaps needless to say, I am disappointed and sad. Because I am beginning to feel, for the first time since I first formulated this project, that it might actually be possible to do this research. I am finding leads and making my first inroads into the worlds of psychiatry and traditional healing. I am afraid, now that I don’t know when I can come back, that there is no use investing in anything here now. Even if I make contact with psychiatrists; even if they are enthusiastic about my research; even if they want to actually help me; even if they give me permission to observe treatment – what will they say when they find out I don’t actually know when I can start doing all this? That I don’t actually have anything organized on my side of the practical matters – money, research permission, and such? Will they completely forget about me and my project, once I leave? Will I have to start over when – whenever – I can come back?

I am also disappointed and sad because I feel as though I failed. I explained the situation to Amma this afternoon and felt it boiling up in me. When she heard I couldn’t come back to Rabat because I didn’t get the money I had hoped for, her response was that in Morocco, no one gets grants. People pay for things themselves. Couldn’t I just do that? I tried to explain to her that research costs too much for me to pay on my own – that it would take a lot of time working and saving to be able to afford that. But what I couldn’t explain is that it’s not even just the money. Secretly – apart from the worries I mentioned in the previous paragraph – a part of me is a little relieved that I get to take a break for a few months. However, apart from money a grant is also (maybe even more so) about endorsement of your research. It’s a CV-booster. And being rejected – it feels like a committee of anthropologists decided my research wasn’t good enough, not interesting enough to invest in. And that makes me feel as though I failed. Failed at precisely the thing I have everything invested in.

I know it doesn’t work that way. I know it’s not the project per se – I know the issue is probably mostly that I haven’t found the right way to formulate the project, the right words to sell it with – though I need to keep reminding myself of this.

But it’s no use dwelling on disappointment, or on sadness. And when I take a step back and assess the situation, it’s really not that bad. As much as I always run, run, run, focusing on the next step on my to do list, I am not actually in a hurry – to do this research, or to get my PhD. Why rush it? What actual deadline do I need to meet? What lies ahead of me after the PhD that cannot wait?

And when I begin to picture the short-term alternatives, it doesn’t look that bad at all. At this point, my applications can only get better, right? I need to see this rejection as constructive criticism – they gave me detailed enough comments to actually be helpful. And other than that, the immediate future suddenly lies wide open. For a job, a project – anything interesting. And it could be anywhere. Chicago? San Diego? Maybe even Amsterdam…

I’m taking this as a reminder to stop rushing ahead and focus on what I have right now. And that’s what the title of this post refers to. ‘Today’s egg is better than tomorrow’s chicken’ – “beida diyal l-youm hsan min djaja diyal ghda” – is a Moroccan proverb, and it means something like “it’s better to rely on the little things you have today than trust in the large promises of tomorrow.”

And one thing I can rely on for now is a very sweet Moroccan family that tells me that there will be other grants, “in sha’llah.” They even had some Zem zem water for me to wish on.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Weekend in Sale

As it turned out, I have spent the entire weekend in Salé at Fatima’s house. I had a feeling this would be the case when I realized what a voyage Zakaria and I were making to even get there, but I had not prepared: as always, because of the language barrier, I was not privy to the planning of this stay, and was only told to come to Salé to do laundry. I feel a little stuck here, having left a lot of daily essentials (such as my phone charger, dictionary, sunscreen…) in Rabat. I also didn’t get to do as much work as I would have liked. I couldn’t go back to the NIMAR on Friday as I had planned; also, Mustafa is excited about my being here and so has kept me busy taking pictures with him (he has discovered the special effects-camera on Alma’s phone), singing songs,* and discussing favorite movies and cartoons (we have established that we both love superheroes. Though I am partial to Superman, and he is more of a ‘Phil of the Future’ lover). But I’m looking on the bright side; spending a weekend here has its advantages. For one, I get to take a shower everyday. Secondly, with little work to do I have been forced to relax a little, which has actually been nice. And another perk: Yunus and I have exchanged music. I copied some of my American rap onto his flash drive full of mp3’s, and he in turn gave me a substantial collection of Moroccan rap (Fnaire, H-Kayne, Casa Crew, and some others) – about which I am seriously excited.

Fatima and Alma took me to another party tonight – another celebration for someone’s return from Mecca – and again a dress-up party of sorts ensued. They gave me a dark red caftan this time – a modern style, sleeveless, that came with a shawl. Again, I was given shoes, a purse, jewelry – and because I really had nothing with me here in Salé, even the makeup I wore was theirs. They kept urging me to take pictures, “to show your family,” they said. When we got home, they even urged me to try on their caftans and take pictures with those as well. I held off a little, wondering if my praise for Moroccan dress – meant mostly as a compliment to them – had caused them to think I was a little infatuated with dressing up, and worrying that maybe they thought my interest a little bizarre. But they kept insisting, and did eventually get me dressed up in a jellaba and Moroccan slippers.

I am starting to think that this urging to take pictures, as much as they tell me it’s to show my family, is as much about them as it is about me. They take great care in dressing me up, positioning me just so for a picture – it’s a little too much initiative for something they’re only doing for me. And they ask me to take the same kinds of pictures of them – at the wedding last week, at least. I have whole photo series of Manal perched on a set of stairs, smiling and showing off her caftan. Also, I find myself being asked to show the pictures that have been taken with my camera to everyone who comes by the house – and tonight at the party, Fatima even had si Mahmoud bring over my computer to show all the other women in attendance (I had my camera with me and still had all pictures on there, but she decided we had to show them on a larger screen). As we all sat with our sticky tea and sweets, Fatima passed around my computer and camera so everyone could see the photographs I took of us all at the wedding – and showed them pictures of my family, as well. It made me a little nervous. I am protective of my electronics (especially when they are new, as is my camera) and silently freak out a little when I see sticky fingers brushing across the lens or screen. It is not really possible to be too protective of your things in Morocco – even when something clearly is the property of a particular person, everything is free to be used and played with by everyone else. In my host family, cell phones are the only real personal property, yet they are freely used by everyone else; as I have mentioned, Mustafa has been playing around with Alma’s phone all weekend. Ever since the others discovered that my phone has a Sudoku game on it, and ever since I have brought my computer down to the sitting room to show them pictures of my family, my electronics have become public property of sorts, as well.** I have been ok with this because this is the way it works here, but sometimes it kind of reaches a limit. I was glad when I was allowed to put my computer away again.

As had been the case for the wedding last week, si Mahmoud drove us to the party and left. And again, all guests were women. But there were men there all night: two hired servants, who brought us water from Mecca, dates, trays and trays of sweets, tea, coffee, and huge platters of beef and chicken. It was an interesting dynamic, and I began to wonder if there is a rule of some sorts that dictates when company is mixed, and when it is not. This was clearly a women’s gathering, but it was not ‘private’ – male presence was clearly not an issue, headscarves were not taken off; there simply were no male guests. So I asked Alma why there were no men. “This isn’t a wedding,” she told me, “it’s not really that kind of party. It’s just because that woman came back from Mecca.” This didn’t satisfy me – did she mean this was a smaller event? That it was less of a real, official ‘party’ and that smaller events were usually gender-specific?*** So I asked her, “If there were a comparable party at your house, would si Mahmoud and Zakaria not be there?” Because these two men are so much part of the family that I cannot imagine there being any kind of party or event without them, small or large. Alma laughed at the concreteness of my question, and told me that no, they would be there, they’re part of the family. It depends, she added – something that was later repeated by Fatima after Alma told her about my question.

My conclusion for now, then, is that there are no hard and fast rules. That “it depends” – on the family in question, on the type of party, and on any other circumstances specific to the event and the people involved. I also conclude that the gender-specificness of these events is not an issue of privacy or intimacy – or even of piety. Every party I’ve been to here – large or small – has been female-only, but never strictly. Men have never been completely absent. They are never barred, and walk in and out occasionally, but the events are always clearly a women’s affair. What is it, then? Just a custom, just the way people are used to doing things because they have always done it that way?

It’s still strange, though. Seriously: do men not do this kind of thing? Do they gather only in public, at café’s and coffee shops? And are there ever parties or events that are mixed in the way that they would be in the US and Europe?

* I have taught Mustafa a Dutch children’s song – ‘altijd is Kortjakje ziek.’ The melody follows that of the universal ABC-song, so that he picked up immediately. The Dutch, obviously, was more difficult to follow. So he has made up his own Dutch-sounding words, and now sings this all day (with a lot of gargling), while urging me constantly to sing the original for everyone else in the family.
** Though luckily, it will not go so far that they don’t ask me before grabbing my phone or camera, and luckily, they don’t know how to work an Apple computer.
*** Also, her answer confused me because last week at the wedding we went to, I didn’t see any men either. So what did she mean, this isn’t like at a wedding? I guess it means two things – one, of course the thing we went to last week was only a sort-of-wedding. Not the huge celebration weddings can be here. And second, it must mean that according to her standards, the subdued male presence toward the end of the wedding made the night count as a mixed-gender event.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Do You Want to Get Married?

At dinner Thursday night, Alma began to make some suggestive comments about me and Zakaria. At first, when I entered the kitchen, she pointed to the seat next to him and told me, “sit down next to your husband.” When I didn’t react – on purpose – she repeated, “did you hear me? I called him your husband,” and started laughing. So I smiled, slightly uncomfortable, unsure of how to react. Then she told me that Zakaria is looking to get married. That he’s a good catch. “Are you interested?”, she then asked me. My discomfort increasing, I smiled again and tried to think of the smartest way to respond.

This issue has been coming up more and more often. At first, there were the simple questions: Do you have a boyfriend? Why not? Would you be interested in a Moroccan? I tried, in the nicest way possible, to dismiss these questions without having to answer, but Alma wouldn’t hear of it and kept pressing the issue. Really? You don’t have a boyfriend? How is that possible? “We’re going to find you a Moroccan husband,” she told me, with resolve in her voice. In a tone of voice that suggested, ‘we’ll take care of you, don’t you worry’. I smiled, didn’t take it too seriously, and thought it was cute that she seemed to be projecting her own search for a husband onto me. Because she has also been more and more vocal about her own desperation, joking around that at her age, she would take anyone – even an extra terrestrial.

But this comment about marrying Zakaria is the second time she actually sort of concretely, even if not seriously, propositioned marriage. At the wedding last weekend she also approached me, and told me she’d found a man for me at this party, and did I want to meet him? Was I interested in getting married? After a bit of frantic thinking I then gave her what I thought was the most diplomatic answer, and least likely to lead to further questions or urgings: “no, I said, I can’t get married now, because I’m still in school.” And that was that, she accepted it.

Thursday night at dinner, I was about to provide the same answer – I would be off the hook, and it would be least offensive toward Zakaria – but by the time I was about to open my mouth, the rest of the family had come in and the moment, luckily, had passed. But I started thinking: if Zakaria is looking for a wife, why not Alma? Because she is clearly looking for a husband, and they are good friends. All weekend I have been waiting for an occasion to ask her about this, but I never once got a moment alone with her.

Friday, October 17, 2008

How Far Would You Travel for a Shower?

Since I’ve been here we’ve done laundry at Fatima’s house about once a week. We do it there not only because the washing machine at my house is broken (and from what I can tell, it’s much smaller and simpler, too) but also because Mahmoud, Fatima’s husband who is referred to by everyone as “si Mahmoud” (mister Mahmoud), works for the utilities company (Redal), and that means they don’t have to pay for electricity and hot water. As Alma explained it, Fatima’s house is the land of electric plenty: “charge your computer, charge your phone, dry your hair and leave all the lights on, ma kain moushkil (no problem)!”

We also come here to take showers. I have generally been able to do this about twice a week since I’ve been here – which is not quite as often as I would like, and this I think is the one thing I really wish were different. The bathroom at my house, as I’ve mentioned before, can hardly be called that – mostly, it’s a toilet with a small sink and an additional faucet in the wall, both of which provide cold water only. I wash myself there as best I can every morning, but it’s no shower. The members of my host family seem to be used to this; they say they usually go to the hammam about once a week (but while I’ve been here it’s been much more erratic – I think Ramadan and post-Ramadan fasting has thrown off the schedule), or they shower at Fatima’s house. And then they’re fine for a while. Their hair looks a little less shiny every day, but the day after their hammam day, after the curls from the hair salon have faded, they usually tie it back into a simple ponytail anyway and wear it like that for the rest of the week. I don’t even really see them brushing their teeth on a daily basis.* But I really miss a warm shower every morning; it’s my way of waking up and getting mentally ready for the rest of the day. In lieu of a shower to do this, I have taken what I could get: I have started brushing my teeth a lot. A lot.

Two days ago, on Wednesday, it had been nearly a week since I had last been able to really shower when Alma told me she had had Zakaria fix the hot water situation at our house. Apparently the mechanism had simply been broken. So now I could “take a bath” at home, she said. This turned out to be a hammam-style bath session: she brought in a little stool for me to sit on, a big bucket that she filled with hot water, and two smaller bowls to pour water with. And so I spent about an hour on Wednesday morning washing my hair and seriously scrubbing myself in that little bathroom. The next morning I checked to see if the hot water was still there – because if so, ma kain moushkil, I can wash my hair a few times a week – but it seems to be gone again. I think it has to be turned on whenever someone wants to bathe, so it still may not be as simple to wash my hair as I would like – though it’s worth asking them again in two days or so if I can have another little hammam session.

Also, Alma has promised to take me to the actual hammam one of these days, when she’s done fasting. But for now, I’m good – I met Alma at Fatima’s house last night to do laundry, and got to take another shower: the second in two days!

Usually when we go to Fatima’s house si Mahmoud drives us all across the river to Salé. But for some reason he can temporarily not use his car – if I understood correctly, it has been confiscated because he needs to pay a small fine, but I am not sure about this. So Alma arranged with Zakaria to pick me up at home yesterday, after my classes, and take me to Salé. It turned out to be quite the trip. Salé really does lie just across the river, and a drive over there usually takes about 15 minutes (unless you get stuck in the morning traffic, which is insane – but more about that later), but yesterday, it took us two separate cabs and way more than an hour.

The thing is that city cabs don’t go to Salé. If you want to go beyond city limits, you need a ‘grand taxi’. The city cabs are called ‘petit taxi’, or ‘taxi sghir’ (the French or Arabic terms are used interchangeably). They are always Fiat Unos or Fiat Puntos, so very small (my big black bag hardly fit into the backseat, let alone into the nonexistent trunk), and they are color coded by city. The ones in Fes and Casablanca are red, in Marrakech and Salé they are tan, and in Rabat they are blue. A ‘grand taxi’, or ‘taxi kbir’, is bigger; it’s always a Mercedes, about the size of a Lincoln town car, and they are meant for longer distances – to go from Rabat to Salé, for instance, or from Tangier to Tetouan. These taxis are used a lot because they go everywhere, and are in that sense very convenient if you want to go to a small town that doesn’t have a train station.** Each grand taxi has six available seats: four in the back, and two in the front passenger seat. The taxi will only go if all six seats are hired. This means that you have two choices: either you and/or the taxi driver find five other people going in your direction, or you pay for all six seats yourself.*** So last night, after we had taken a cab to Bab Chellah (an entrance to the medina), where there is a grand taxi stand, we got in line (very uncharacteristic for Morocco – people waiting in line for something!) and started negotiating with the people around us. The four people in front were all going to Marjane, the big shopping center just outside of town, and so we hitched a ride with them. The other four piled into the back seat; Zakaria and I went in front. With Zakaria in the middle, as he very subtly insisted on – the taxi driver was very pious-looking (a beard, no mustache, a long caftan) and so probably couldn’t sit next to a woman. Because you don’t get much personal space in these cars.

So there we were, stuck in traffic with seven people in this car and no seat belts. Because Moroccans never use seat belts – si Mahmoud lets his 10-year old son ride in the front seat, and there is never any mention of a seat belt. And people do not drive carefully. Traffic really is insane, here. People respect the streetlights, but that is about it. Right of way is always taken, and never given; whoever is fastest and most audacious gets to go first. The lines that indicate lanes on the road are really only there as guidelines; in real traffic, there will be roughly four rows of cars on a two-lane road. Everyone cuts in front of everyone else, and people have no issues making left-hand turns from the right lane. There is a lot of honking, and a lot of quick speeding up and then braking to cut in front of someone who is trying to pass you by. I like a driving challenge, but I am not sure I could handle this, and I am usually glad to sit in the back seat.

In any case, we made it into Salé, but because the driver was going to Marjane, he could only take us so far. He dropped us at a big roundabout**** and we walked the rest of the way, with all of my laundry in tow – after making a quick emergency stop at a téléboutique***** to ask si Mahmoud for directions.

When we finally got there, dinner was just about ready, and we both gratefully sat down with some warm milk and Nescafé.

*They also think it is funny when, sometimes late at night, I decline a glass of soda because I’ve already brushed my teeth.
**They are also very cheap; one way from Rabat to Salé is 4 Dirhams. It is also common to take intercity buses, and I am not sure what the price difference is between this and grand taxis. I would say that the advantage of a grand taxi is more flexibility, but unless you take a bus from the national company (CTM), buses don’t seem to stick too closely to any kind of schedule – they stop for anyone on the road, and I think can be stopped by passengers at any time if they need to get off for some reason. This is why these buses always take twice as long to get anywhere as those from CTM.
***In the same way, if you want the front passenger seat for yourself, you can pay for two seats by yourself.
****Roundabouts are very, very common in Morocco. They are called “rompouan,” ‘rondpoint’.
*****This is a little gallery of public phones; even though all Moroccans have cell phones, they use these boutiques a lot and you can find them literally on every street corner. I think a lot of people don’t have many minutes on their phone and use these public phones in stead; it’s probably cheaper.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Poetry and Prose

I am having a great time re-familiarizing myself with Moroccan Arabic. Its sounds are difficult, sometimes impossibly so, to pronounce, and hearing other people speak it often sounds like an endless string of very guttural consonants (and then they tell me Dutch sounds like someone’s gargling…). But its content can be full of allusions and metaphors. I am discovering the often multiple layers of meaning that words can have as I read short plays with Ilyas and listen to Moroccan songs. As I vividly visualize the suggestions made by the simplest sentences, I get the feeling that Moroccan Arabic, even in its colloquial everyday usage, can be pure poetry. Ilyas clearly appreciates his language, too, and takes the time to help me visualize it all. Here, by way of example, are some of the idioms I have recently come across:

“Nashif” means ‘dry’, but is also the word for ‘broke’.

“Zhar” means perfume, but also means luck.

Someone who is crazy may be called “hmaq,” but you can also say that ‘his bird flew’: “tar lih l-farh.”

If someone asks you how you are, you can say ‘fine’, but you can also say ‘the country is care-free, and the sky is clear’: “l-dounia hania ou l-sma safia.”

“Moul t-taj kaytaj,” literally, ‘the owner of a crown is in need’, is a way of saying that even those who have much are sometimes in need of something.

“Shi haja ma dairash,” literally ‘something not round’, means “something unique.” If you like a girl, Ilyas said, you say, ‘she’s not round’.

And then there is a particularly intriguing word: “Hrag.” It means to burn, but also, to illegally immigrate.* This one is full of subtext, I think. In my head, it conjures images of people burning their ships behind them – illegally immigrating often means not being able to go back home – or ‘burning’ their legal status, their citizenship; perhaps even ‘burning’ – forcefully creating, without permission – a place for themselves in the fabric of another country…

The other day in class, we read a brief play that featured two young men in Tangier who dreamed of a better life in Spain. A motif that kept returning was the metaphor of thirst, contrasted with the water of the sea separating Morocco from the land of plenty – Spain. Debating the risks of ‘burning’ versus the poverty and starvation sure to result from remaining in Morocco, the story kept contrasting the image of farm animals on dry ground, dying from thirst, to the image of risk-takers drowning in the water of the strait. Yearning for a land where there is enough water not to be thirsty, too much water becomes their death before they ever reach their goal. ‘To drink the sea’ was used as a way of saying ‘to make the crossing, to swim across’, but in Moroccan Arabic is also a way of saying ‘I don’t care’ – sort of like, ‘I could drink the entire sea’. It was so poignant, and so beautiful.

“Hrag,” according to my dictionary, can also mean “to hurt or cause pain.” I think this is the meaning of the word as it appeared in a song we listened to a few days ago. It’s a well-known song in Morocco called “Qitar l-hayat,” or ‘the train of life’. Basically it’s about a man who is in love with a woman who despises him. About halfway through the song he describes an encounter in which he came to declare his good intentions and sincerity with a bouquet of flowers. But “the shock was powerful”, he sings: “she ‘burned’ the bouquet in my hands, and its ashes fell on top of mine.” I thought this was beautiful: she scorned and rejected – in other words, ‘burned’ his flowers – and in doing so ‘burns’ the giver as well. Both man and bouquet are rendered a poor pile of ashes – they are completely rejected and discarded, left without hope.

This language is so poetic – but can also be so incredibly prosaic that it makes me smile. It is prosaic, to me, in the sense that it often needs very little words to express something, but mostly in the sense that it clearly had no scruples about integrating French – the language of the colonizer – into its own fabric. Some of the most common everyday words come straight from French: cheese is “fromage” (with a thick, Spanish ‘r’). ‘Train station’ is “lagare,” with the French definite article worked into the word. French also pops into a lot of daily conversation – people will throw in little phrases like ‘pas encore’, or ‘…’. Especially when it comes to any kind of technology, French loan-words dominate. The gears on a car are referred to with French ordinal numbers – la première, deuxième, troisième. A cell phone is a “portabl” (‘un portable’), and a phone plan is ‘l-abonmon’ (‘l’abonnement). Most Moroccans have a prepaid phone, for which you buy minutes on a “lakart diyal resharj” (‘la carte de recharge’). Reception – on both phones and computers – is “rizou” (‘réseau’). If you want to be able to use your European or American phone in Morocco, you can ask a guy on the street to do a “dicoder” (‘décoder’) on it. An internet café is called a “cyber” (pronounced ‘see-ber’). And although these internet cafés (in the medina at least) are sometimes little more than narrow caves hidden behind little shops selling lingerie or shoes, they have everything you need to lead a very social life online – all computers are equipped with Skype and MSN messenger software, a “kamera” (webcam), and a “micro” (microphone); some cafés offer the services of a “skanir” (a scanner).

So even if my Arabic doesn’t reach far enough to follow the simplest conversation, I can hold my own in the jottiya, the part of the medina where phones, software, and computer parts are sold (and a lot of it illegally, I think), and talk the technical talk with the boys who tinker around with phones and computers all day…

* The fact that there is a specific verb for this issue speaks to its dominance in the Moroccan consciousness. It is a pressing problem, as Ilyas also once again confirmed. Morocco is heavily involved in the business of illegal immigration into Europe – not only because so many Moroccans dream of crossing over, but also because Tangier is the portal for all other Africans hoping for a future in Europe. In Tangier, the presence, lure, and mystery of ‘the other side’ hangs in the air constantly – and not surprisingly: the Spanish coastline is so close by that on a clear day, you can see cars driving on the other side. It’s so close you think you can almost reach it if you just stretch out, yet it remains so elusive and impossibly far for so many here.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Women Dance Without Men

I got my answer to that question sooner than I thought: last night. I went to a sort-of-wedding with Khadija, Fatima, Alma and Manal, and was lent a caftan to wear. It was a sort-of-wedding because apparently the bride and groom had already gotten married last year, but had been living at home with her parents. Now that they had finally found a place of their own, this was a little do-over sendoff party.

Probably because I don’t understand everything that is being said around me, I usually don’t find out about plans to do anything until the moment people start getting ready to go out and ask me if I want to come. This makes everything feel very last-minute, when really it probably isn’t. Yesterday morning all three sisters went to the hair salon – a tiny little hole in the wall where a woman with a hair dryer, curlers, and some tweezers gives clients modest makeovers. I think you can come in to have your hair washed and colored as well, but I think the idea is that you then bring your own shampoo and dye – I didn’t see any hair products of any kind anywhere (and in the same way, I didn’t see any fabric at Manal’s shop anywhere. I think this is generally the way it goes in Morocco: you hire someone to do/make/fix something, but you supply the materials).

In any case, all three sisters had their hair blown out, and back home started putting on lots of makeup. I had just begun wondering if there was a special occasion for all this beautification when they asked me: do you want to come along to a little party? Of course, I said, what should I wear? This question then triggered a general gathering of items for me. First they brought out a caftan belt to see if it fit. It did, so they brought out the caftan and sent me upstairs to try it on. It was incredibly long – about a foot of it trailed behind me on the floor – but apparently that is the way it is supposed to be. Then they brought me some black pointy shoes (as I noticed at the ‘party’, Moroccans love heels with pointy toes. I am home), a black fake-Fendi, some jewelry, and told me to put on some makeup. A little embarrassed, I told them I had already put some on. Because I always find out about plans so last-minute, getting ready for me is always a scramble to gather all my stuff while everyone is already ready to go. So when they sent me upstairs, I immediately put my stuff in a bag, did my hair, and put on makeup. The thing is that I didn’t put on much more than I do on a daily basis. A little extra color maybe, and an extra layer of mascara, but that was it. And I guess this is nothing compared to the layers the three sisters piled on for this party...* In any case, here is the result:

I gathered a change of clothes in a bag like they had, and off we went. Fatima’s husband drove us, but clearly was not staying: he was in a tracksuit, quite the contrast from our colorful caftans. And indeed, once we got there, it was all women. I saw some boys/men around the perimeters of the party – in the backyard, out front, in the kitchen – but not in the living room. There, it was a sea of caftans, in all different colors and styles. About half of the women wore a headscarf, the other half had clearly had their hair curled and styled like the three sisters had. Soon after our arrival, the fact that some women began to sing a Moroccan song of celebration (I do not know what this is called but they sing it at occasions like this) announced the arrival of the bride, who indeed at that moment came down the stairs and made her entrance. She was wearing a green caftan covered with a layer of gold lace. Her makeup was elaborate, featuring lots of black around her eyes and some tiny diamonds on her temples, and every strand of her hair was glued into place, topped off with a tiara. Two women in white followed her around everywhere and kept re-adjusting her dress. She was clearly on display. She walked into the center of the living room and stood there, still, arms held out a little, while both a photo- and video camera captured her there. Finally, she sat down, with the help of the two ladies in waiting, who draped her dress around her. The camera, meanwhile, turned around and filmed all of us in the room, capturing each face for at least half a minute on end. I wasn’t sure where to look.

Then came the service. It began, again, with glasses of milk and some dates. Then, platter after platter of cookies and sweets were brought out and offered to us. And again, we were urged to pile as many as we could onto the plates we were given. Then came tea, and then came coffee. Meanwhile, the bride just sat there. Not eating, not drinking, not talking. She was a display. The guests, on the other hand, danced. Sometimes just one or two women, sometimes all of us. The DJ (a 20-ish looking young man sitting behind a huge sound installation in the backyard, shielded from the rain by a parasol) played cha’abi music – literally Moroccan ‘popular’ music. It’s hard to sit still when this plays; this music is all about rhythm and beats, and the very prominent drums make everyone at least bob their heads, though usually more.** The dancing is easy, but feels liberating – a lot of hip movement, arms in the air, shoulder shimmies. Everyone knows the songs and sings along. It is incredibly fun, relaxed but energizing – and I keep wondering, do the men get anything like this? Do they get to dress up, look beautiful, and let go like this?

It was strange to me, to be at a wedding, but have it feel like a girls’ night out. The whole thing had that comfortable atmosphere of women who are having fun, let go, and feel un-self-consciously beautiful because there are no men to watch them – no men whose opinion to worry about. Still, it also wasn’t that completely informal at-home atmosphere of the Moroccan women’s world. Those who veiled wore their headscarves, and men weren’t banned – they walked in and out occasionally, usually because something was needed. It was formal – but it didn’t feel formal.

At some point during all this I asked Fatima, where are all the men? Oh, she said, they come later on. At 8 ‘o clock, she told me, the groom would come to pick up his wife to take her to their new home. That’s when the men would arrive. Since this was only a sort-of-wedding, I wonder if actual weddings are as segregated as this. Or do men simply not have such huge parties? In that case, it seems to me like women have all the fun…

After about 30 minutes of display, the bride was escorted out again, and after yet another hour or so, came back to do it all over again in a new caftan, this time blue. Once again, she came in, stood still with arms out, was assisted in sitting down, and proceeded to sit there without food, drink, or conversation. She was all smiles though. What must this be like for a bride? To me it seems like the bride is very peripheral to an event that should be all about her. She is nominally the center of attention but in fact, the party goes on without her. She is a picture, not a presence. Are weddings in Morocco ultimately more about the family giving the daughter away, than about the daughter herself? This would match tradition, I think, in which the bride was mostly a commodity being transferred over to another owner. Western wedding ceremonies still include some rituals that are based on the same idea. But it is not like that anymore, no more so in Morocco than it is in the United States or Europe. Women make their own choices now, are equal partners in a marriage. But still, a wedding like this is not the bride’s party.

Neither is it the groom’s. Soon after the bride had gone and returned, in yet another caftan (this time white), he arrived, along with a procession of musicians dressed in red caftans and yellow shoes. They carried a variety of drums and simply sang, riling up the crowd with fast rhythms. They took their place in the living room and the crowd sang and danced along enthusiastically. Once in a while, an audience member would come out with a bank note of 20, 50, sometimes 100 dirhams, and stuff it in one of the musicians’ collars. The groom, meanwhile, had taken his place beside his wife, and now sat there, as much on display as she was. They did not look at each other or talk to each other – they did not even hold hands.

After the musicians left, out came the wedding cake. Here, apparently, Moroccans do things like Americans do them. The cake was placed in front of the newlyweds, they were given a knife, and each with one hand on that knife, they cut the first slice. Then, with cameras snapping, she fed him a bite, he fed her, and they fed each other. After which, of course, more slices were served to us. I was beyond full from all those cookies, but there was no way I could say no, so I worked my way through this cake as well. Like most Moroccan cookies, there were clearly a lot of almonds and walnuts worked into it. Delicious, but it was too much.

Around 9.30 PM, it was time for the bride and groom to head out. In their first real action of the night, they walked around the living room with a basket of plastic flowers, handing one to every guest. After that, they were out the door. A car, duly decorated with flowers and ribbons, drove them off, and that was that.

Or so I thought. Most of the guests left, and we all changed back into our every day clothes (as in: PJs). The living room was cleaned up completely, dishes were done in the kitchen, and just as I thought we would probably head out soon now that there was nothing left to do – it was about 11.30 PM, a huge platter of couscous (‘sksou’. This is pronounced something like ‘suck-soo’) was brought out. It was Rabat-style: with chicken, onions, and raisins. A variety I love, but it was TOO much. I ate what I could, and luckily there were others like me who clearly had full stomachs already, so I didn’t stand out too much.

And that was that. We drove home not long after, and I was in bed by 1.30. All in all, it was fabulous. Wearing a caftan, dancing, eating delicious cookies (even if there were too many), and all that while doing some serious participant-observation (with pictures to prove it): a pretty good night…

* Maybe this is a way to make up for the fact that they never have a chance to dress up on a daily basis. Manal will go out at least once a day in actual street clothes and her hair kind of done, but Alma and her mother never do. I think that if I spent all day in PJs, I would crave opportunities to dress up, do my hair and makeup. But maybe I’m just used to a different system.

** In fact, a lot of it is only drums with singers. I think this is its African origins shining through.