Transcript of a typical conversation between two Moroccans who run into each other, or call one another to say hi:
[imagine both people speaking at the same time]
A: how are you?
B: how’s it going?
A: all is well?
B: how’s your family?
A: Alhamdulillah [praise god]!
B: how are the children?
A: how’s it going, how is your mother?
B: Alhamdulillah [praise god]!
A: how are the children?
B: bless you!
A: everything is well?
B: bless you! Are you in good health?
A: bless you!
B: how’s it going?
A: how are you?
B: how’s your father?
A: and your brother, how is he?
B: well, good bye!
A: well, good bye!
There is a certain formulaic quality to this; each person rattles this off, seemingly without breathing, and with a big smile. The intonation is always exactly the same, which makes me think it’s said less for meaning than simply because that’s what you say when you run into someone. I’ve heard this about 100 times today because it’s ‘Eid, and calling each other seems to be what ‘Eid is all about. To be honest, I had expected more. In Holland, this ‘Eid is translated as ‘the sugar-holiday’, so needless to say, I was expecting a bit of a feast of sorts, and the cookies I saw being baked in the past two days kind of confirmed my thoughts about this. I woke up expectantly, and waited around most of the day for signs of an impending party – signs of house cleaning, extra cooking, getting dressed up – but nothing. Other than the high number of phone calls, it seemed no different than an ‘ordinary’ Ramadan day, except that we did eat – but no cookies. All in all, an anti-climax.
In lieu of in-house festivities, I went out for coffee with Alma and her friend Zakaria this evening. We picked Zakaria up at the pool hall where he works and walked to the downtown area between the train station and the medina to have coffee at a café. I am loving the time spent outside in the evening. This was something I was never able to do when I lived in Fes; my host family there consisted only of an old man, who for practical reasons couldn’t take me anywhere. First of all because he was too old ever to go out at night, and secondly because the police are vigilant in the Fes medina: when they see a Moroccan man out with a European woman, they immediately jump to conclusions and arrest the man for misleading an innocent girl. Perhaps as a result, I had come to think of evening as off-limits, a time not to be outside – and that severely limited my sense of freedom. Now, it seems, night is when everyone comes alive. During Ramadan at least… but in any case, it’s crowded, everyone is outside, all the shops are open, young and old run around doing their business, seeing and being seen. It makes me feel like I’m on vacation – perhaps because this being outside at night is something I associate with the Mediterranean, site of family vacations when I was in high school.
I am intrigued by this friendship between Alma and Zakaria. In fact, I am intrigued by the dynamic of the male-female relationships I am seeing in general. Here is what I learned from the literature on Arab social relations: in the Muslim world, girls and boys are taught that after a certain age, there is no more casual mingling with anyone one is technically allowed to marry – and this includes first cousins. In some countries this is interpreted more strictly than in others, but even in the most liberal of places, this does mean no more unaccompanied time together, however innocent, no physical contact, and if you are a woman who wears a headscarf, you veil when in the presence of such a man.
Here, in contrast, is what I am seeing.
When I first met Zakaria, Alma introduced him as her best friend. He clearly knows all other family members, so he must be over at the house a lot – and she is on good terms with his brother as well.* But they clearly also go out together, alone. The thing is, they do seem like close friends, which I didn’t think was allowed in Morocco – because she is a woman, and he is a man. The way they interact with one another is exactly what I see between boys on the street, and between girls – a physical closeness without it being sexual in any way. They kiss each other at greeting and parting, they push each other around, touch each other’s arms, and so on. I thought this was impossible in a Muslim country – and am still pretty sure it would be in a more conservative place. But here, no one seems to be at all bothered by it. I wonder if this is unique to Rabat, or to Morocco’s Atlantic coast (assuming that Casablanca, the economic hotbed, would not lag behind Rabat in anything) – I can’t imagine this in Fes.
And then there are Amma, Yunus, and Mustafa. Mustafa is too young, maybe, to be fully counted as a male, but Amma and Yunus certainly are. The three of them are incredibly close, kissing each other, wrestling, sitting close together on the couch, playing with each other’s feet. Again, that kind of physical contact you see on the street between boys and girls,* respectively*, the kind that is in no way sexual. The other day, I even saw Amma enter the bathroom to check on Yunus, who was in there showering and taking forever (as all boys his age do? He came out reeking of perfume). That’s something even Dutch brothers and sisters wouldn’t do at Amma and Yunus’s age. Let alone American siblings.
A guidebook rule I’d read, that only people of the same sex greet one anther with a kiss on the cheek, and that only when they know each other well, is far from reality as well. By women I am kissed at the first meeting. And other than that, everyone greets everyone else with kisses, men with men, women with women, and men with women. And not only if they’re close: at my second meeting I was kissed by Zakaria as well as by his brother (who insisted on doing things the Dutch way – three kisses on alternating cheeks.**)
I wonder if there is a different dividing line then, that dictates the appropriate level of closeness. Instead of gender, it must be something else. Not family, either, I think – Zakaria and Alma are not related. And I of course am not related to anyone – but because I don’t fall into any existing social category as a foreigner, I should not be using myself as an example. Or is it family after all, and is this concept simply applied more liberally to include people who are like family? I’m really intrigued by this – this goes against everything I ever learned, and goes against what most travel guides say.
*This brother works at an expensive Moroccan restaurant close by (the kind that caters to foreigners and makes a performance of its traditional Moroccan meal). Alma, Zakaria, and I went to see him this afternoon. When he heard I was from Holland, he started speaking Dutch to me – the second time this has happened since I’ve been in Rabat. He had studied Dutch in the Netherlands, it turns out, and was at that very moment in charge of a large group of Dutch and Flemish tourists on a tour of Morocco’s imperial cities. As they were eating, he was free to chat with us, and show me around the restaurant, done up in traditional Moroccan style.
**In Morocco, it’s either two on alternating cheeks, or – and in this case the rule of familiarity does hold – those two followed by one or two more on the same cheek.