Monday, October 6, 2008


A productive day. Taking care of business felt so good I felt like I was walking on air, felt like I was bigger than Rabat – until I had my first Moroccan Arabic (also called ‘darija’; pronounced DArizya) class today and realized how far I have yet to go.

I went to the ATM to get huge amounts of money to pay for my stay with the host family, and then stopped by the Dutch cultural center, the NIMAR, basically to show my face and let them know I’m back. Last summer they were incredibly helpful and inviting, and I spent a lot of time in their limited but relevant library reading up on Moroccan history and on the healthcare system. There is an American center in Rabat as well (the MACECE), but they’ve told me explicitly they cannot/will not offer me any assistance, because I do not have an American passport. Apparently it does not matter that I study at a US university, or that I’m a permanent resident. But I digress. At least there’s this Dutch center, and the administration there has indicated it is wiling and able to help me with contacts, research permission, and the like. Which is why I had to go and tell them I’m back, and that I might (hopefully) actually need their help with all that pretty soon. It turns out that the director is in the Netherlands at the moment, but I talked to someone else for a while, a woman who coordinates migration studies, and spent a wonderful hour in the library on their wireless connection – which meant internet access on my very own computer.

On the way back home for lunch I bought today’s edition of Le Monde and spent another wonderful hour on the couch finally catching up on world affairs. That might be the thing I miss most, being here – access to the news, being up to date on what’s going on, with the presidential campaigns, and with the markets. I hate it that I’m missing the debates, missing Palin’s gaffes, missing SNL renditions of those gaffes, missing the shifts in public opinion. There is a news broadcast here in French, but my host family is not necessarily interested, and they are so loud that I usually can’t make out what the newscaster is saying above the conversation going on around me.

This afternoon I had my first class. And despite what the first sentence of this post might suggest, it was great – but it was also a wakeup call as to how much work I have ahead of me. I seem to understand a fair amount, at least when the Arabic is spoken slowly, but producing it myself doesn’t quite go as I’d wish. My tongue is not used to the sounds anymore, it doesn’t roll out smoothly yet.

The class was basically unstructured; Ilyas, my teacher, mostly asked me questions and kept a conversation going, writing words I did not know on the board and explaining in Arabic what they meant. I’m curious to see if this will be the basic gist of all classes to come. It made me feel a little lost; I like structure. I want grammar explanations, verb conjugations, tenses, systems, regularity. I want to know what a word is, grammatically, so I can conjugate it, play around with it. This may be difficult to provide with a language like Moroccan Arabic, because it’s mostly a spoken language. But of course I’m sure I could ask for more systematized grammar explanations if I need them, and I have my own grammar book for reference.

The conversation was interesting though, and useful. Ilyas asked me what I was doing in Morocco, and I explained – as far as was possible, substituting a lot of French words for the Arabic I didn’t know – the basic gist of my research: a comparison between psychiatry and traditional healing in Morocco. He in turn wrote on the board all the key terms of my research in Arabic, so I now know how to refer to psychiatrists and various traditional healers by their appropriate local names. Then he asked me precisely the questions that basically constitute my main research problem: why do people choose one over the other? I gave him the socio-economic reasons (because those I knew how to explain in Arabic): because they don’t have money they go to a healer rather than a doctor, or they do so because there is no doctor in the area. But, Ilyas said, people with money avoid psychiatrists, too. Apparently, as he explained, this is because when you go to a psychiatrist, you are labeled as crazy (‘hmaq’). This does not happen when you go to a healer, because that’s labeled as ‘culture’. This is interesting. Because much of the literature I’ve read features prejudice too, but toward the other side: people (should) seek psychiatric help, because healers are part of a backward tradition, they’re unscientific – and those who visit traditional healers are thereby backward and ignorant, too. Of course this is all literature with a particular agenda. They are ‘performing modernity’, as Professor Zhiri said at my proposal defense. They are part of a Morocco that looks toward a European modernity as the ideal. What Ilyas’ comments suggest, at least, is that the amount of money you have does not determine your outlook on what is an acceptable part of culture and what is not. Having money does not automatically mean you ascribe to a modernity that favors psychiatrists over religious healing. I wonder if there is an automatic connection between that choice and any other factor. Education, maybe? And if so, how is education related to wealth? Or piety? Because as much as it may be culture, these traditions of ‘religious’ healing are strictly forbidden by Islam.

Another interesting thing he mentioned: apparently people do visit psychologists (tbib n-nafsia) with increasing frequency, basically because of the exigencies of modern life – stress, burnout, and so on. Apparently these psychologists prescribe antidepressants (‘antidepressor’ in Moroccan Arabic). There is no stigma attached to this kind of therapy. But a psychiatrist, that’s a different story. So there is a third category of practitioner here. I need to figure out exactly what a ‘psychologist’ is under the Moroccan definition, and how such a person is different from a psychiatrist. A ‘tbib’ is a doctor – is this really a medical doctor who just doesn’t work with the real ‘crazies’, or is a psychologist just called ‘doctor’ because he or she works as a clinician? And if something requiring antidepressants isn’t ‘crazy’, then what is?

During the second hour of class, we read an article from a magazine that was clearly ‘performing modernity’. A reporter had decided to go undercover and expose the hoax that is shouafat – seers. People visit these mediums for any number of problems, ranging from medical to social to psychological. The treatment can involve all sorts of things: sacrifices (chickens, goats – “it’s a whole animal farm,” Ilyas said), concoctions of spices and everyday pantry items, protective amulets, the works – and of course, payment in money or kind to the shouafa (pronounced ‘shuWAfah). This particular reporter went to about five different shouafat, citing the same troubles for all of them: she was in love with a married man who wouldn’t leave his wife, her new boss didn’t like anything she did, and she was generally unlucky. And basically, the proposed treatments included all of the possibilities mentioned above. We didn’t finish the piece, but I think the fact that treatment varied so much was (part of) the reporter’s proof that all this shouafa-business was BS.

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