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.

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