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’.

1 comment:

Philip said...

Woooow ontzettend interesant!! Ik ga opletten in Egypte ook, over wat je zei over "catcalls to women," omdat je altijd leest over sexual harrasment op straat in Egypte. En wat je zei over de jellaba, als een draagbare 'inside' zegmaar, daar dacht ik ook meteen aan!