Sunday, November 30, 2008

Fab Fassi Weekend

I had initially planned to return to Rabat on Saturday, early in the afternoon. But I unexpectedly enjoyed myself so much in Fes that I have only just returned home.

Fes was my first introduction to Morocco; three and a half years ago I spent three months in its ancient medina to study Moroccan Arabic and get myself acquainted with Moroccan life. Although it never managed to kill my interest in Moroccan society, they were not an easy three months – and I still often equate Fes with a sense of limitation, a lack of freedom, and a sense of always being watched. I like living in Rabat so much in part because it is so different from Fes in these regards. Having walked around in Fes again and having noticed the amount of attention I receive (not to mention the biting cold of the inland climate), I am still happy I decided to make Rabat my home base in Morocco. The capital still felt like a breath of fresh air when I emerged from the train station at 6 PM and walked down the wide and tree-lined boulevard Mohammed V toward the medina.

But it was more pleasant to be back in Fes than I had expected, and I have decided to go back much more often, once I return to Morocco. I like the idea of getting reacquainted with the city, and I love the idea of going back to café clock for more of those meetings.

I spent most of my Saturday traipsing around the medina with Hatim and a friend of his, who is an official tour guide. Chatting in a combination of French, English, and Arabic, we stopped by the medina’s major landmarks: the Madrasa Bou Inania & water clock, the Qaraouine university, Moulay Idriss shrine, and the tanneries. We did not see too much more – the rest of the tour, Hatim explained to me, usually involves shopping, and he’d correctly guessed that I was not interested.

It was raining heavily (as it is in all of the country), and the winding and slanted lanes had turned into slides of mud that did a serious number on my new boots (though I have now discovered that they are comfortably water-tight). Despite the slipperiness, delivery men still urged their heavily laden donkeys on as fast as they always do – luckily, the rain had kept most of the human traffic indoors, and so I could dodge the donkeys without too much difficulty or risk. There were so few tourists, in fact, that we had the entire terrace overlooking the tanneries to ourselves. Unfortunately, though, the rain had also kept the tanners inside, so we did not get to see any work going on.

Hatim had also arranged for me to stay with some of his friends, who have a large apartment in the ville nouvelle: a group of four British girls studying abroad in Fes as part of their Arabic studies program. I spent my evenings with them and their friends – in fact, last night I recruited one of the girls to help me cook a meal for the group as a way of saying thanks for allowing me to stay over. Dinner turned into a random combination of dishes – on the recommendation of a new Fassi friend I made a sort-of-Moroccan stew with turkey ‘kefta’ (ground meat) and bell peppers, and had cooked some pasta to go with it. Rachel made us baked potatoes, as well as a meat sauce. But it was fun; once the meal was finally ready at midnight, nine of us sat down to eat, and over a mixture of French and English conversation, we enjoyed the random combination.

Hanging around this apartment, with these new friends, I realized that the only thing that makes me yearn for home right now is the lack of privacy and freedom I have with my host family. I think that at this point, I would be perfectly happy here in Rabat, easily able to live here for two years – if only I had my own apartment. My own kitchen, my own dominion over the electricity and hot water, my own judgment about what to eat and when, what to watch on TV, who to have over. It would be heaven.

And I am going to make that happen – as soon as I return. The only question is when… Maybe I can do an intensive course of French here? It’s a thought…

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Café Clock & Women

Café Clock is a great new addition to the Fes medina. It’s a coffee house that spans all three floors (and roof terrace) of an old house located right behind the water clocks on the Tala’a Kbira – right across from the Madrasa Bou Inania. The British owner, a young blond man named Mike, has decorated the place from top to bottom with tasteful Arabic calligraphy on the walls as well as Moroccan items and fabrics that beautifully bring out the traditional interior architecture of this house – the floor and wall mosaics, the patterned plaster, the wrought-iron bars in the windows. On the ground floor is a big kitchen that serves anything from regular coffee shop fare – (mint) tea, coffee in a number of varieties, café au lait, hot chocolate, juices, milk – to sandwiches (panini), harira (Moroccan soup), pastries, and the likes. It’s open late, for medina standards, and offers wifi internet – a serious luxury, in Morocco – as well as a library.

What makes Café clock even more interesting is that it functions also as a pseudo-cultural center. The café itself organizes activities that range from Moroccan hip hop concerts to belly dancing lessons, henna-painting, and art exhibits. In addition to that, café clock provides space for meetings and other activities organized by students from around the area – Moroccan as well as foreign. For instance, my friend Hatim and some of his colleagues from the English department at his university host weekly discussion groups here. Topics vary each week, but concern issues of religion, culture, and politics as they relate to Morocco, and Morocco’s relationship with the modern world. These meeting serve a threefold purpose. For Moroccan participants, it’s a chance to practice their English. For the foreign students who also attend, it’s a chance to learn something about Moroccan society and ways of thinking – and for all, it’s a chance to engage in interesting and relevant discussion.

Yesterday afternoon, the topic was “Moroccan women between tradition and modernity,” and Hatim had invited me to come because he thought I would have something to contribute. Which I did – but there was even more that I learned.

There were many of us: gathered around a long, rectangular table in a room on the second floor of the café, we totaled about five Moroccan women, eight or nine Moroccan men, three foreign women (me included), and two foreign men. Guided by questions concerning what constitutes a traditional woman, what constitutes a modern one, and what the difference is in between these two, we developed a very interesting discussion. For instance, after a few initial remarks about the issue, one of the Moroccan girls posed the following question to the group: has a woman really lost her value and dignity with all the social changes of the past decade, as many people argue? Clearly aimed at them, a number of boys immediately asserted that of course they’d be happy to let their wives work – but it was clearly a difficult question that they did not have a real answer for.

This led us into a discussion of a much more general topic: what is ‘valuable’ anyway, what is not, and how does that distinction map onto the juxtaposition between tradition and modernity?* This is a question Moroccans – like, I think, everyone else on earth – are struggling with. We all tend to equate ‘tradition’ with value, and ‘modernity’ with dangerous change. At heart, our wariness of the unknown always renders us a little conservative. And we are always a little skeptical in answering these types of questions: can change ever have value? Can change even happen without jeopardizing the values of tradition?

In Morocco (as in many other places), ‘tradition’ (taqlid) as well as ‘values’ are also very much linked to ‘religion’, and modernity is often seen as a threat to Islam – all of which adds to the ambiguity and suspicion with which modernity is eyed. And so linked to the question of how values relate to tradition and how both of those relate to modernity, is also always the question of where religion fits into all this. How is it related to culture, and how, therefore, is it affected by social change?

The Moroccan men present at our discussion actually invoked religion a fair amount in our discussion about a woman’s value – and it became clear that this is where their difficulty in defining women’s value came from. They all expressed a kind of distinction that went something like this: “for me, of course it would be good if my wife worked. But strictly speaking, Islam does actually say that a wife has to ask her husband’s permission to do anything.” It seemed like a sort of hedge on their part: they want to come across as modern, progressive, equality-oriented… but also cannot let go of the cultural legitimacy that an identification with Islam (and tradition) conveys.

Because the thing is that tradition, and religion ARE culture in Morocco. Tradition and religion completely define Moroccan identity – being Moroccan means valuing its traditions and therefore, claiming adherence to tradition is a way of claiming Moroccanness. It cannot be let go. Rejecting tradition means risking a loss of legitimacy as a respectable member of society. I think this essentially goes for any country on earth, although I do get the sense that Morocco, as a country, seems highly preoccupied with its sense of identity and uniqueness. Perhaps because it is a postcolonial society, perhaps because it is involved in so much internal change, perhaps both. With so many ongoing reforms, it seems natural, I guess, that society as a whole comes to wonder, how much and how can we change without changing who we are – what exactly is it that lies at the heart of our identity?

Tradition, in other words, is something you cannot separate yourself from. The Moroccan girls did not actually invoke religion (which I found interesting) – they spoke very ‘modernly’ about having ambition, pursuing their dreams, wishing for independence, equality & mutual understanding in marriage. But they, too, explicitly affirmed their traditionality. When asked, at the outset of our discussion, if they considered themselves modern or traditional, they claimed to feel both.

All this resonates with what was noted by Femmes du Maroc in its analysis of personal ads. Even these individuals, who clearly had broken with certain conventions in pursuing this new avenue for meeting people, continued to claim adherence to tradition by referring to themselves as “bint an-nass” or “ould-n-nass.” These two commonly used terms can be translated as ‘daughter/son of the people’, as in, the kind of person everyone would wish to have as a daughter or son – as in, someone who respects values, morals, and virtues – as in, someone who is a legitimate and truly ‘Moroccan’ member of society, someone who is respectable.** What the Moroccans were essentially doing, in this discussion, was asserting themselves as banat and oulad an-nass – in the exact same way as done in those personal ads – despite being open to modernity.

We did, ultimately, conclude that modernity does not have to be mutually exclusive with tradition. That tradition can live on despite a fair amount of social change, and that there is no single modernity – that every country has the possibility to define its own 21st century existence within the framework of what it considers essential about itself. We concluded, in other words, that ‘modernity’ in Morocco is not simply the same as women wearing mini-skirts (because that would mean ‘modernity’ was based only on a misunderstanding of Western culture, we decided). That wearing jeans does not mean you’re any less Moroccan than when you’re wearing a jellaba – that wearing jeans does not mean you do not value tradition, that you are not a ould-n-nass. Though this remains a difficult issue, and among many of us, some suggestions of a juxtaposition – and the negativity of modernity – continued to slip into the conversation.

What is difficult, I think, is that (this is the sense I get, at least) in Morocco, someone’s ‘traditionality’ (i.e. respectability) is most often judged by appearances and behavior. There is a very strong sense of social control within communities – but this is exercised only on the basis of observation. People in my host family network, for instance, do not ever talk about their feelings, problems, let alone desires. Sure, Alma talks about finding a husband, but she can do so only under the guise of making jokes. There is no real, open, talking. But in order to make up for that, everyone watches one another. This means that someone’s adherence to tradition will be judged not by his or her viewpoints and ideas, but by the way he or she dresses, the places he or she goes, the time he or she comes home at night, or the people he or she invites over to the house.

This poses a problem – because it is first and foremost in viewpoints and ideas that tradition and modernity can mix. Bringing the two together is a mental, not a behavioral thing – it involves new ways of thinking about activities and habits. And this requires open communication. If observation continues without open discussion, the juxtaposition remains – there is no way to re-interpret the meaning of things.

This issue – of being judged by appearances – is something that the many people who try to work out a balance between tradition and modernity actively struggle with, I think. The women present at Café clock expressed a fair amount frustration about being perceived in certain ways because of their lifestyle. This frustration may be difficult to alleviate; even the Moroccan men at our discussion – those who asserted themselves as open-minded (but still ould n-nass, of course) used observational judgment in their evaluation of what made a woman valuable, and what was disrespectable. “If I see a girl smoking in public, I will still think that it’s not right.” “If I see a girl in a café with boys, I still think she’s lost her dignity.” The rest of us immediately questioned these judgments and pointed to the danger of judging solely on the basis of observations: what if the boys she was with were her brothers? How do you really know what that girl is doing, or why she is sitting there with boys? Yes, the men conceded, that’s true. But still…

And so the struggle remains. Despite the fact that we all agreed modernity and tradition could go hand in hand, they still twist around each other a little uncomfortably in Moroccan reality. They have not yet been completely reconciled. The public mind still has to get used to the idea that a woman can be both ‘traditional’ (as in, valuable, adhering to Moroccan values) yet emancipated and independent. There is an ongoing discussion about how to apply Islamic laws to the 21st century – inheritance being a case in point. There is a general consensus that changing that law constitutes a complete flouting of Islamic principles but that, on the other hand, keeping the law as is single handedly prevents modernity from pushing through. Both view points, though completely opposed, agree on the idea that modernity and tradition cannot be combined.

* The discussion of women’s social role is inextricably intertwined with the debate about tradition versus modernity. Social change disproportionately affects women’s roles, and their sudden emergence into public society is the most visible effect of socio-economic reform and modernization. This means that both positive and negative evaluations of such change is often voiced in terms of one’s judgment about women’s changing behavior.
** In another article in the same issue, Femmes du Maroc actually attempted to advise its readers about how to recognize and pick out a ould-n-nass from among “les bad boys” that we so often meet.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Time Flies

I am realizing that I only have three weeks left to go here. Time has flown by, and it is difficult to believe that I will be heading back to Chicago so soon. I react to this idea with mixed feelings. On one hand, there are reasons why I cannot wait to leave: the comforts of home, seeing my family, snow, indoor heating, showers every day, being able to cook again, have a glass of wine when I want, being master of my own schedule, and privacy.

But there are so many reasons why I want to stay. There is so much left to do, and I need so much more time. To learn Arabic, to further get to know Morocco, to reach a deeper level of comfort with this city and its daily rhythm, to find my niche. To start my research. Apart from the language frustration (see previous post), I feel as though I am making inroads. I am beginning to establish myself here, and I want to keep going on this wave. I hate the idea of leaving just now that I have made contacts – what if they forget about me?

And I am sorry above all that I have to leave Morocco, just now that I am for the first time truly becoming comfortable here. Just now that, for the first time, I was actually enjoying myself with a sense of freedom.

At the same time, I am also beginning to realize how much more time I need for preparations before I can actually start the research. I may have gotten research approval at the hospital, which was hurdle number one to get over, but I clearly need further language study – both French and Arabic – before I can comfortably interview people. Sure, I could devise a list of questions right now, but it will take a while before I can actually understand how people answer my questions, and before I can improvise follow-up inquiries on the basis of what they say. Then there is IRB approval, money, the standardized diagnostic interview protocols that I need to obtain. I even need better recording equipment – mine apparently only records up to two hours of material – not convenient if you want to do a full day of interviews.

In other words: there are good reasons to go home. I’ll consider it not as a step back, but a necessary new stage of research preparation. How about that?

I will be sorry to leave this blog, though. It’s been my lifeline these past few months.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Hills of Language

I have returned to Rabat a restless woman. Here is why.

My Marrakshi weekend turned into an intense French-immersion. Trying to find my way in that Francophone bath, I went from nervously thrashing about to letting myself go and realizing that I could actually stay afloat. I made mistakes in my sentences, and many of them, but I realized I could communicate. I realized, too, how tangible conversational fluency in French is for me, how fast I had already learned so much, in the span of only a night and a day. Had I spent the last 2 months intensively studying French, imagine how far I would have come.

But back in Rabat, I have to push the French that is now so fresh in my mind back to the bench, and return to Arabic. I feel as though this weekend was a climb uphill, and just when I have reached the summit, just now that I am ready to race down to the valley of fluency, I have to turn around to continue my way up a completely different hill. This is frustrating me to no end. Firstly, because the hill of Arabic is much, much higher. And secondly, because having turned back to Arabic, I already feel my French capacities taking a step back, floating away into the darkness of my brain. It will be there, but I will lose the comfort I was building up this weekend.

Trying to learn two languages at once, and both intensively, does not work, I have concluded. I am very sure I have made progress with each, but not nearly as much as I would have if I had focused on one of the two. With neither have I reached the level of comfort where I no longer have to think so hard before uttering a sentence. Trying to focus on two languages at once means that it is impossible to get the kind of total mental immersion that you need in order to begin to understand a language from the inside out. On top of that, I feel constantly torn; when I study Arabic I feel as though I am neglecting French, and when I take time to work on French, I feel as though I should be working on Arabic. This feels especially acute right now: I want to continue riding this wave of French, but I am here, and paying, to study Arabic. Yet French may actually be the better time-investment. Not only because it’s easier to make progress, but also because it may be much more useful to me right now. The first part of my research will involve interviewing psychiatrists, and this will almost certainly happen in French. At the moment, I am not capable of carrying on a specialized conversation about psychiatry in French. But I am so sure that had I done – or if I do – a two-month intensive course of French, I would be.

And so the idea of going to France, or Quebec, has popped into my head. I want to immerse myself, for six or eight weeks, and attain that level of fluency that I need. On one hand it seems like a crazy idea – another intensive language course, another location, another big trip. It feels a little unrealistic and off-course. But on the other – it’s not off-course, not really. I am going to need a solid command of French for my research. It doesn’t have to be faultless, but I have to have a comfort, a confidence in my ability to express myself and to understand the subtleties in someone else’s speech. I am on my way, but I need more. And I think that what I need is not a twice-weekly course in grammar – I’ve learnt the grammar. What I need is to learn how to use that grammar in the construction of sentences, how to actually express myself in French. What I need is to get a feeling for the language, to learn how to think in French so that speaking becomes more natural. And I think that a month or two of intensive immersion – a month of two of no choice but to speak and listen to French 24/7 – would do the trick.

The only problem (and a big one, too): right now I have all the time in the world to go, to spend some time in Paris, or Montréal – but I have no money. And once I do have money – once (if) I receive a grant – I will have run out of time. I will be expected to begin my research… without having a solid fluency in either language.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Lakeside French

My Marrakshi Sunday became a Francophone one: my friend and I rendez-vous’ed with the group we had met the night before – that strange trio created by the suave French-Moroccan, his anachronously hip associate, and the latter’s young Moroccan girlfriend. After a coffee at a trendy café in the Ville Nouvelle, the five of us took the suave French Moroccan’s car to a lake about an hour outside of Marrakech. It was a beautiful scenic drive, and the lake itself was even more breathtaking. Small enough to see the entire span of its coastline, it lay there, smooth as a plate of glass, before a background of white-topped mountains and gray hills. Far enough away not to break the peaceful silence around us, a shepherd led his flock of sheep to the water, and elsewhere, groups of young boys played around with miniature boats, remotely controlled.

We had driven to a luxurious waterside restaurant/resort – a place seemingly trying to invoke a sort of Moroccanized Caribbean spirit, complete with tiki bar and Caribbean music. Contrary to what I expected when we arrived, this place did not detract from the serenity of the lake. As the middle-aged hipster drank a Heineken, the rest of us had a round of tea and lounged in our easy chairs. Like last night, as well as this morning, everything was paid for by this trio. It made me slightly uncomfortable and I kept offering my funds, but it was turned down every time. And so I finally sat back, relaxed in the sun, and laughed a little at the fact that on my first weekend of independence after two months of Moroccan family life, I had let myself be taken under the wing of this clearly wealthier group of Francophone visitors.

All communication with this trio took place in French. It was exhausting and a little scary, but it went well, and I realized how able I am to express myself in French. Mine is a French riddled with errors, but a French that gets my meaning across nonetheless (quand-même!). This progress is exciting, and makes me yearn for more…

Drinks finished, it was time to head north and home. The trio hailed from Casablanca, and graciously offered to drive us all the way back to Rabat – to which we eagerly said yes. The drive was pleasant and quiet. The toll-way connecting Marrakech to the north is clearly not much used, and we made swift progress. Leaning back in the back seat next to two sleeping girls, I lost myself in the scenery again and floated away in thought. We were in Casablanca in no time.

I was home at nine, exhausted. I said hello to my host family – all of them congregated under blankets in the sitting room – and sat down to answer their questions about my trip, my head so full of French that I was unable to say much in Arabic without getting confused. What they were interested in, it seemed, was not so much what I had done and where I had stayed, but how much it all had cost. How much was my hotel? How much had I paid for food? How much had the movie ticket been?

I actually find myself being asked about money a lot by this family. Every time I do something by myself – go to a restaurant, take a day-trip somewhere, visit a landmark – and every time we discuss in more depth what I am doing in Morocco, they want to know how much I pay for things. And this always makes me slightly uncomfortable.* Because I am worried about sounding like I spend a lot of money, about coming across as a rich spendthrift who is unaware of how unaffordable things can be for Moroccans. Because I am worried that I will come across as naïve if it seems to them that I have paid too much for something they can get for much less. And often, before I can even stop myself, I have already given them a sum that is less than what I actually paid for things. Because money, in my head, is a bit of sensitive topic when I am in Morocco: even if I don’t have much to spend, I come from a world that runs on a much higher financial level, and am therefore much richer than the average Moroccan. There is always a disparity between my means, and those of the people around me. And perhaps I project onto them a sense of discomfort at this difference.

But maybe my discomfort is also cultural. This kind of questioning is not something I am used to from either the United States or the Netherlands, and certainly not for people I have such a relatively superficial relationship with. Maybe this is an area of slight culture shock. But what are the rules about money-talk in Morocco? Is this generally something people often talk about, or not? Is my family an exception?

* Money is the unspoken link that connects me to this family, but in a very unspoken way. I never pay the family directly; it all goes through the center I take classes at. This arrangement makes me feel as though all financial matters should be left out of conversation. Yet they are not.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

On the Marrakech Express

Yesterday morning, I awoke at 6.30 to catch the 7.45 train to Marrakech for a little weekend escape from Rbati family life. A friend of mine from Rabat had spent a week in central Morocco with her aunt, and I was going to join her for a fun Marrakshi weekend before both heading back to Rabat on Sunday evening.

It was a four and a half-hour trip that reminded me of how much I love traveling by train. Perhaps I learned to love it as a high school student, when memberships of regional and nationwide symphony orchestras required a fair amount of train travel to and from rehearsals across the country. Unlike on a plane, I can easily sit on a train for hours on end, content just with watching the changing landscape and letting my mind wander freely. I love air travel, too, but it is sterile, it’s unimaginative. It consists simply of leaving a place, arriving somewhere else, and a white, anonymous zone of nothingness in between. On a train, however – much like in a car – the trip is all about the in-between. And as such it is ‘travel’ in the real sense of the word – it is movement, constant transition. You see the landscape changing, flashing by, as you move through it. It renders me reflective, makes me turn inward in a pleasant way, and sometimes there is nothing I love more than to be alone, listen to appropriate travel music, and stare out the window of a train.

Traveling from Morocco’s Atlantic coast to the dry mountain valley in which lies Marrakech, the landscape slowly changes color: the moist black earth of the fertile coastal regions becomes red, then yellow, as it dries out. Its surface begins to ripple and fold, first into hills, and then into mountains. The first sign of Marrakech is a vague outline of the Koutoubia’s minaret – built by the Almohad dynasty in the 12th century, it is twice as high as its sister minaret in Cordoba, and visible for miles. It is not until after the train passes through a vast forest of palm trees that the city itself emerges, in all its pink beauty. Elsewhere in Morocco, walls, buildings, and cities are white or grey. But in Marrakech, they have all been washed a dark, orange-tinted pink.

The walls of Marrakech are also noticeably cleaner than they are elsewhere in Morocco. This is so clearly a city that is run by people with a particular aesthetic: it is a city that caters to an audience of rich foreigners intrigued with the city’s exoticism. Marrakech represents all that makes Morocco so interesting and intriguing. It is colorful, traditional, exciting. Arab, Berber, and tangibly African: in other words, the capital of the Moroccan exotic. This has attracted not only the hippies portrayed in Hideous Kinky, but also a rich Western public with enough money to create a little exotic space for themselves in this old and famous city. And as Moroccans left the declining medina for apartments in the Ville Nouvelle, Westerners came in to take over and renovate the traditional riads.* In the medina they cleaned up the grit to create a more sterile, more picture-perfect rendition of what they expected Morocco to be, and in the Ville Nouvelle they built pools, nightclubs, and casino’s for some European-style entertainment.

All this makes Marrakech feel a bit like a Hollywood version of what it once must have been. And so it is beautiful, and creates an incredibly pleasant refuge for a little weekend getaway. But with its shiny coat of gloss, it lacks a bit of the reality, the grit, that a city like Fes has always maintained. The grit must still be there – in concentrated form, probably, beyond the playgrounds of the wealthy. Beyond the hotels, nightclubs, the medina souqs that cater to tourists. The disparities between rich and poor must be tremendous in Marrakech, and a part of me wonders how this other, less fortunate, half must live.

But the other half of me was overjoyed to be back here – this city I had fallen in love with four years ago. I, too, get a little swept up in its beauty, and simply in the idea of it – all that the name “Marrakech” represents. And I eagerly let myself drown in all it had to offer, feeling wonderfully free with the knowledge that I would not have to return to my wonderful but very noisy and dominant host family in Rabat, until Sunday evening. After a glass of juice at a café overlooking the jma l-fna, the huge open square that is the heart of Marrakech (and the groups of Sufi drummers its beat), my friend and I spent a few hours strolling around the touristy area of the medina. Following the general flow of traffic, we stayed within a certain perimeter lined with traditional shops selling earthenware, wooden objects, jewelry, carpets, paintings, babouches, traditional beauty products. We shopped successfully: apparently, knowing some Arabic gets you a lot of smiles, open doors, and lower prices in Marrakech. Sampling music at a small cd-shop, for instance, we got involved in a conversation with the proprietor of the traditional drug store next door, who was full of smiles and enthusiastically told us about his life in Italy – after which we simply had to take a look inside his shop as well. It was a small square place lined with shelves that were filled with jars of powders, soaps, and liquids. Large containers of powders (most of it different kinds of henna, I think) stood at the center, and a collection vats of sabon bildi (the traditional soap used at the hammam) was placed at the entrance, all with different fragrances and consistencies. Curious objects hung from the shelves – large beads, goat- and gazelle horns. As he continued his stories, he and his brother sampled their products for us. One after the other, they took down the large jars from their shelves, and lifted out cubes of musk, powdered lavender, kohl, and so on. They would rub it on our hands, have us smell, and look at us expectantly: “zouina, yak? (‘delicious, isn’t it?’).” An excellent opportunity to buy some sabon bildi, I decided, and the scrubber-gloves that go with. The proprietor showed me his collection – not only a choice of soaps, but a variety of gloves as well, each with different degrees of roughness. With a big smile, he looked at my pale skin, and gave me the mildest of them all. Normally, he said, he’d charge tourists a lot for this. But because it was me, and he liked me, he’d give me a good price! I gave him my best appreciative smile, and told him that because he was so nice, I’d take two each of gloves and soap.

And so we spent the afternoon. A few hours, some more souvenirs for family and friends, and a slightly lighter wallet later, we had a snack at a streetside café (Moroccan pancakes with Nutella…to die for) to tie ourselves over until Moroccan dinnertime (9 PM, approximately), and then returned to the hotel to get ready for the evening.

The Marrakech film festival, which had been going on all week, was on its final night. Films – new releases from all over the world – were playing at cinemas across the city, as well as on a big screen constructed on the jma l-fna. One of these cinemas was located just around the corner from our hotel, and we so we went to the 8 PM showing of a South African film starring John Malkovich. At 10 Dirhams a showing, seeing a movie most certainly was not a pleasure reserved only for the wealthy guests of the festival. In fact, the festival encourages locals to join in on the fun, and indeed, the entire theater was full to the brim with Moroccan teenagers, who could not stop giggling at every romantic or sexual scene on screen.

After the movie, and after a quick meal at the snack bar next to the cinema, we were ready for a real night out. But where to go, and how to find out about the city’s hotspots? We found a quick, and apparently efficient way of answering these questions. We headed for a trendy-looking bar, sat down, and ordered ourselves a drink, a dessert – and some nightlife advice. Our server listed at least four different clubs we could choose from. We decided on a location that wouldn’t leave us too isolated (and thus dependent on scheming cab drivers) at 3 in the morning, and made sure we’d get our 150 Dirham cover charge’s worth: was he sure it would be busy? Oh yes, he said, it was always packed. The place to be.

And so we went, to Teatro, located (as the name gives away) in an old theater adjacent to a huge casino in l’hivernage, a neighborhood in the Ville Nouvelle. At 00.15, we were uncomfortably early. Nearly the first, in fact; we arrived to a completely empty space, the music still at manageable volume, and the servers and bartenders standing at attention just past the door, waiting for their first customers. It was a huge space, decorated in a lush theatrical red and chrome. It was filled as far as we could see with tables and lounge chairs – all of them reserved for bottle service, all already supplied with bottles of soda and water, glasses, and containers with ice. We went to the bar (created, from the looks of it, in what used to be the orchestra pit), asked the bartender a little about how these reservations worked, and got ourselves a free round of drinks. Don’t worry, the bartender said, feel free to sit down at one of the reserved tables as long as it’s unoccupied.

In fact, we sat at this table long after that. The table we had chosen had been reserved, it turned out, by a suave and friendly Frenchman of Moroccan descent and his work associate – a middle-aged gray Frenchman who, it seemed, was seeking to reclaim a lost youth through trendy clothing, an age-inappropriate enthusiasm for the core-shaking bass of the music being played, and the young Moroccan girl he had brought with him. They invited us to stay, and we spent the rest of the evening around their table, dancing and trying in vain to communicate.

Because the music was loud. Louder than I have ever experienced in a club. I noticed how core-shaking it really was when I went to the bathroom; though removed from the speakers and subwoofers, the bass was inescapable even here. Even here, I felt it rippling right through my body; even here, it made most communication impossible.

But it was fun. Teatro put on quite a show – live music, beglittered staff dressed in devil-costumes, a veritable fire-show, even. And I let myself go with the music. It was house – the real stuff, the stuff I miss in American clubs – the stuff I love, to most Americans’ consternation. Unable to truly talk, unable above all to escape the bass, there simply was no other choice but to let ourselves go with the music. And so we danced, until 4 AM, after which the suave French-Moroccan drove us back to our hotel. And at 5, after a brief shower to wash away the stench of smoke, we finally rolled into bed.

* Riads, by the way, are the traditional Moroccan houses of the medina – a court yard, salons leading off it. Marrakech now even has new quarters, built recently just outside the medina, in traditional medina-style. They are suburban subdivisions of cookie-cutter riads, all next to each other, all exactly the same. It is such a sign of the kind of people Marrakech attracts.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Neighbors and Rivals

A post about a subject I know very little about... but I'm intrigued, so here goes.

Ilyas and I have been talking a fair amount about the Western Sahara, and by means of this topic, that of the relationship between Algeria and Morocco has come up. I know very little about Algeria, and therefore cannot say too much about its connection to Morocco with any authority, but I’m picking up on a very interesting and complicated dynamic.

Until the seventies or so, the relationship between Algeria and Morocco was actually very amicable. The countries share a heritage and many elements of culture, of course – together they constitute the territory of North Africa’s indigenous Berber tribes. Many tribes in fact span an area that crosses the current border between the two countries. The two countries also share a history of colonization by the French, and helped each other in their struggles for independence.

But after the seventies, the relationship between Algeria and Morocco soured completely – so much so that the border between the two has been hermetically closed since 1994. The main problem right now: Morocco and Algeria are on opposite sides of the Western Sahara-conflict. Morocco, of course, claims the area as part of its sovereign territory. Algeria, on the other hand, supports Polisario – the Saharan freedom movement – financially, politically, as well as militarily.

But this is not an explanation for the souring of the rapport between Morocco and Algeria. Why, if relations were good and Algeria had no claims of its own to the Sahara, did Algeria contest Morocco’s claims to the territory in the first place?

I don’t know if there is a clear answer to that question, and I am certainly not in a position to venture any guesses. But from what Ilyas has told me, and from the few comparative studies on Morocco and Algeria that I’ve read, I get the sense that the negativity now has a lot to do with psychological issues – to a sense of competition or resentment, almost, on the part of Algeria. The thing is that Morocco, as a country, has a strong sense of identity. For all its internal heterogeneity, despite its own struggles, Morocco knows who it is. It has a history to be proud of, and a cultural heritage that is uniquely its own. Algeria does not have this – it seems a little lost, a little void of a sense of self. And it seems as though it resents Morocco for its clarity of identity.

This difference has a lot to do with the countries’ histories of colonialism. Basically, Algeria was colonized much more intensively and destructively than Morocco ever was. France arrived in Algeria much earlier than in Morocco, and left much later. And before the French ever arrived, Algeria had already been occupied by the Ottomans. Not so with Morocco, whose Berber tribes had been able to keep the Turks at bay.

France colonized Algeria in the traditional sense of the word. The country was gutted and re-paved; turned forcibly into a French province, a French back yard. Due in part to the struggles this conventional colonial policy had encountered in Algeria, the French dealt with Morocco very differently. Intrigued by what they saw as a certain pristine Oriental tradition, untouched even by an Ottoman version of modernity, the French pursued their interest in modernization in a new way: rather than replace Moroccan infrastructure it was simply improved and aided by a new French system built by its side. This is why all Moroccan cities consist of a traditional medina – left alone by the colonizer – as well as a “ville nouvelle” – the garrison towns constructed to house the French and their administration. This is also why the currently ruling dynasty (the Alaouites) have reigned continually since the 1600s – even during this period of French rule, the Sultan remained head of state in name, if not in practice. Morocco became a ‘Protectorate’, rather than a colony.

The result of a much shorter and much milder colonial period is that Morocco has been able to maintain its sense of identity, as well as a generally positive relationship with its former colonizer. Not so much for Algeria, which to this day struggles to define itself and its connection to France – and seemingly also its connection to Morocco.

Most of Algeria’s political rulers are actually Moroccan in origin. President Boutflika’s family, for instance, comes from Oujda. Some were even born and raised in Morocco, before they were asked to join the Algerian government. Though I am not sure why Algeria imported Moroccans to rule the country, I wonder if this happened because upon independence, Algeria was left with nothing but an empty French infrastructure. Morocco had always kept its own system of administration during the Protectorate period, and so when the French left, there were Moroccans with know-how to take over. Perhaps this was not the case with Algeria. Perhaps there were no Algerians with knowledge of government, and rather than ask their former colonizers for help, they turned to their neighbors?

But if most Algerian rulers are Moroccan, the question of why the relationship between the two is so sour becomes even more complicated. Why do these Moroccans insist on closing the borders and on thwarting Morocco’s claims to the Western Sahara? Why do they thus seemingly turn their backs on a society in which they had always had a good position? Is it power? Did these Moroccans see an opportunity for dominance and wealth that they would never have reached in Morocco? And has Moroccan sovereign power suddenly become a threat to them? Is that why they avoid any possibility of amicability between the two? Or is there something else? I think I need to read up a little on Algerian history…

Thursday, November 20, 2008

18-Year Old Treadmill

Amma is eighteen, and in her last year of public high school. If she passes her final exams, she will have obtained her ‘Bac’, the high school diploma needed to go to university. In Morocco, high school students specialize in one of a few directions of study, much like the ‘profielen’ chosen by Dutch high school students. Amma’s is “Sciences de la Vie et de la Terre” (natural sciences), mostly abbreviated to “SVT.” She wants to be an engineer. When she finishes high school, she is going to spend a year studying Spanish, and then, “insha’ llah,” is going to reunite with her mother and brother in Spain, to study there.* She wants to study in Spain, she says, because it’s easier. A particular study,** Amma said, proved that Moroccan universities are the most difficult and demanding in the world. Because, she explained, you don’t learn only what you need to know, but also all the background. If you are studying Moroccan politics, for example, universities here will also require you to know all about American politics, European politics, African politics, Middle Eastern politics, and so on. Remembering my conversation with Ilyas about the language barrier for universities, I asked her if the difficulty had anything to do with language. That too, she said, that makes it hard for many people. But that was not why she was going to Spain, she added…

Her schedule is intense. Just like Yunus, Mustafa, and I think all other Moroccan students, she has class six days a week, from Monday to Saturday. Her days start as early as 8, and sometimes end as late as 6. In addition to a total of 13 hours devoted to science and math (including advanced calculus, from the looks of it), she also has four hours of French, an additional two hours of translation (between French and Arabic, but also English sometimes), 3 hours of English, 2 hours of Arabic, 2 hours each of philosophy and Islamic education, and two hours of sports. Her school is in Agdal, which means a 30-minute walk, four times a day. She wakes up at the last minute: 7.15 or so, usually. In those 15 minutes, she gets dressed, puts on the tan short-sleeved coat that all Moroccan public school students wear (the color varies – I also see a lot of white, and Mustafa’s is blue), looks in the mirror to make sure her hair looks decent, brushes her teeth, and leaves the house to go and pick up her friend Asma, who goes to the same school.

At about 12.30 she comes back and crashes down on her bed to listen to her music in peace for about fifteen minutes, until Khadija calls us both to the kitchen for lunch. We eat, sometimes silently, sometimes chatting about small nothings, and then we clear the table. At 1.30 most days, Amma has to be out the door again to make it back to school on time.

She comes home late in the afternoons; she either has class until six, or goes to visit her father, Noureddine, who lives in Agdal. Once home in the medina, there is family time again: coffee around six thirty, and then errands have to be run, or friends have to be seen. There is generally little, in terms of actual outings. As far as I know, Amma does not go to movies,*** coffee shops, or restaurants. I think that for many Moroccan high school students, there is neither money nor time to spend on such leisure activities, with such an intense schedule of schoolwork and not much family money to spare. Amma strolls around with her friend Asma on occasion, or goes out running errands with her grandmother, and often goes to Kenitra on the weekend (36 kilometers north east of Rabat), where her mother’s family lives.**** The consciousness of appearance that she seems to lack in the mornings comes back at these after-school moments, though never to an extreme. She tries on an outfit or two, puts her hair up and then down, and sprays on a large amount of perfumed deodorant, but that is it. There is no makeup, no scrutiny of her own figure, no crises about having nothing to wear.

It is not until after dinner, around 9.30, that Amma sits down to do the massive loads of homework she has. She does not do it all. She says she would go crazy if she actually tried to finish the several hours of science-homework she has, in addition to the work for every other class. Her grades are not the best; on a scale of one to twenty her average is a 13. She spoke with admiration of a friend who had a perfect 20 – and I wonder how this friend manages to get her work done. Because apart from simply ‘going crazy’ if you do it all, where would a Moroccan high school student find the time, the quiet, or the concentration? There is something going on at all hours of the day, and there is no place to retreat from all this social interaction. Amma at least has our room upstairs, which may not provide refuge from the sound but at least separates one from the other people at home. Yunus and Mustafa do not even have that. I have seen them try to take a stab at their homework, but have yet to see them work with concentration and determination for more than five minutes.

Amma does perhaps an hour and a half of homework each night. At 11 o’clock, she simply closes up her notebooks, lays down, pulls a blanket over her head, and falls asleep to the beats of the music in her phone – to get up and do it all over again at 7 the next morning.

I wonder, does Amma do more homework at her father’s house? And does he supervise her? Here, there is no one who seems to be interested in what she does at school or about her studies. Granted, I do not understand everything that is said between the members of my family, but I never hear anyone talk to Amma about her schoolwork – other than the one time, when we were all wishing on Zem zem water, that she mentioned she really hoped she’d pass her final exams.

In general I am often curious about Amma’s relationship with her father. Because I hardly ever see them together, because she lives with us rather than with him, and because no one else in the family really seems to play a parental role for Amma (in the sense of supervision, advice, some kind of rule-setting), I wonder what the dynamic is between them. How large is his authority over her, and how, if at all, does he exercise it? How does she fit into his new family in Agdal?***** How does he take care of Amma, apart from – I assume – financially? I am assuming that there is some kind of relationship of care, parentage, and authority. I just don’t see it, and it makes me curious. Who does she talk to when she has problems? Who does she go to when she needs something? The fact that these questions aren’t automatically answerable is interesting to me. There is no identifiable ‘parent’ in her life. She seems highly independent and is treated no different from the other adults in the house. She is one of the women, with the same rights and responsibilities, even if she calls the others ‘grandma’ and ‘aunt’. I had expected a lot more control of school-age girls by their families, and a lot more behavioral differentiation between generations. This is visible at Fatima’s house to some extent (because Yunus and Mustafa are still so young, perhaps), but even there, there is a lack of authority that I find interesting. There is no supervision, not even a general sense of attention that is paid to the children. Yunus is always out with his friends, and no one ever wonders where he goes. Mustafa, who is 10, will be told to go to bed around 11 PM, but no one will accompany him to make sure he brushes his teeth, to tuck him in, to say good night. Is this common?

* I learned recently that Amma has a full brother, two years her junior, who lives with her mother in Spain. She showed me pictures of their departure, which means that happened fairly recently – a few years ago, from the looks of it. Amma did not go with them, she explained, because she did not have her papers at that time. I wonder, how did her brother manage to get papers, if she did not?
** I would like to know more about this study. Who conducted it? What universities were compared? And according to what criteria?
*** And why go to movies when you can buy a pirated DVD on the street for 8 Dirhams? Everything and anything is available, from American to Egyptian to Bollywood: Quantum of Solace is already for sale, for instance. Numbers one and two on Amma’s list of movies to see are 27 Dresses, and Sex and the City.
**** A cousin of hers is getting married, I believe, and so there have been engagement parties and the like.
***** And how does this new family fit into the one here in the medina? Because as often as Noureddine comes to the house, he has never brought along his new wife or second daughter – and we have never gone over to his house.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

National Holiday

November seems to be the month of holidays. About a week and a half ago, Morocco commemorated the Green March with a bank holiday. This past week, all schools were closed for a week of mid-semester vacation. And yesterday marked the 52nd anniversary of Morocco’s independence (Istiqlal) from France.

These holidays mean that everyone is home from school or work, and apparently there is television programming devoted to the event being commemorated. My family watches none of this, however. On the day of the Green March, I myself was not home, and so missed the king’s televised speech – in which, for the first time ever, he directly linked Algeria as culprit to the issue of the Western Sahara. Yesterday I was home, and curious to see how the media would be commemorating independence. Ilyas had mentioned documentaries and historical features about the war for independence, about the king’s return from exile, and so on. But apparently no one in my family is very interested in any of this. The television was on, as always – but on the international channels that broadcast the Turkish soaps. And I am not quite comfortable enough to play remote control-commando in the way that others do.

But that evening I got my chance – with no one home, I eagerly sat down to watch the Moroccan news in peace (I think this might have actually been the first time that I was able to watch the entire program, without being interrupted!). As reporters recounted the events leading up to independence in 1956, we were shown actual footage of the then-king, Mohammed V, returning to Morocco, of him meeting with president Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, of him speaking to the people. It was impressive – all these things I’ve read about, to see them taking place, in moving images, from that time.

Otherwise, in the context of the day-to-day life that goes on in this house, there was little to mark the occasion of a holiday. The day passed as any other. No one mentioned the event, no one called anyone on the phone, there were no especial visits from or to friends. No parades, no festive atmosphere on the street. I don’t mean to imply that any holiday in the US or Holland is such a huge special occasion, but what I am missing here is even a certain sign of awareness that something is being remembered on a particular day. In comparison to this, the ‘eid that marked the end of Ramadan was a much bigger occasion – people actually wished each other a happy ‘eid, and there was the calling of family and there was the visiting of friends. But I remember, even then, being surprised at the sense of anti-climax that I had. I had expected much more. Some kind of tradition or custom. Any kind of un-ordinary activity to mark the occasion. But maybe I am biased. Maybe I am just expecting more because all of this is new to me and my senses and anticipation are heightened. Maybe the issue is that I was expecting a performance, not real life.

Still though, I anticipate the upcoming ‘Eid Kbir, or ‘Eid l-Adha, with unabated curiosity.* This has to be a big deal. Sheep will be slaughtered, inside the home – this cannot go by without comment or special custom, right? No one is entirely sure when this ‘Eid will be – it all depends on a moon sighting, of course – but it will be taking place about three weeks from now. Incidentally, the news tonight featured a brief report on the upcoming holiday: with three weeks to go, the sheep-markets have opened, and the race to buy a sacrificial animal at a good price has begun. When will ours arrive, I wonder? And where will it be kept?

* This is the most important of the Islamic holidays, and marks the occasion when Abraham almost-but-didn’t sacrifice his son to god. Incidentally, Muslims believe this son was Ismail, not Isaac – and that the Arabs are descendants of this Ismail.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Sunday Interlude

Yesterday afternoon, the host family and I went on an outing to a park of sorts. Manal had identified it as “la forêt” beforehand, and what it was, basically, was a green area by the side of a busy road heading east away from Salé. There were trees, indeed – trees that had lost all but a few dried up leaves – and some open spaces in between. It looked like it had once been lushly grassy, but was now more of an old carpet whose green had been worn away in places by heavy traffic. And indeed, everywhere, there were parked cars, and other people who had decided to spend their Sunday in the outdoors. They stood around, leaned on their cars, or sat on the tablecloths they had brought. They were eating lunch from plastic containers, drinking tea, taking their afternoon nap. Some had brought entire mattresses with them, others a whole stove, and made their tea from scratch. A few had even brought tents, and had constructed for themselves a little home-away-from home out there in the green.

Other than two cars, we had brought only a thermos full of hot, black, delicious coffee. We stood around, people watching and chatting, as we drank. Manal and Alma always on opposite sides of the group, both chatting along pleasantly, but conspicuously ignoring one another. Manal, as always, was chatting busily and loudly, either laughing excitedly at things she saw, or denouncing it as ‘hshouma’, shameful. She tends to touch people, pull or prod them, or otherwise make sure that they’ve heard what she’s said.* And as always, Alma was close to Fatima, with whom she seems to share an almost physical bond. Theirs is not necessarily an intense verbal relationship; they don’t talk to one another any more than to anyone else. But they share something that others are not privy to, it seems. Something wholly implicit. Something that means they are not constantly in conversation (because they don’t need to be), but means, for instance, that they sleep on the same sofa section, head to feet, under a single blanket. Their relationship is the exact opposite of that between Alma and Manal. It makes me wonder how the three of them relate to the fourth sister, who lives in Marrakech. What happens to the dynamic when the triangle becomes a square?

Amma and Khadija, the last two of the group, floated in between these three sisters, chatting with each. Khadija is always the automatic epicenter of everything, even if she is not the loudest; she is simply the force of gravity that keeps all others close. And Amma is always there in orbit, joining in the conversation occasionally, but mostly lost in her music, fed to her through the earphones that are always in her ears.

Yunus and Mustafa, meanwhile, had run off with a group of other young boys whose families were also here for the afternoon. They had each brought props: Yunus a soccer ball, Mustafa a deck of cards. Clearly these were great ice-breakers. Later, as I strolled around with the women, I saw them at a distance, both making good use of their items: Mustafa was involved in a game of cards with three others of his age, Yunus wholly immersed in a game of soccer. Si Mahmoud had also retreated: he spent the afternoon in the front seat of his car, the window rolled down, smoking a cigarette while doing the Sudoku puzzles in l’Opinion. Much like he does every weekend, in the kitchen or at the coffee house.

There was music: about 25 meters away from our cars we saw a small crowd surrounding a group of jellaba’d musicians. About 10 men with drums stood there, singing and swaying to their own beat, while a few of them broke into dance: a kind of rhythmic thumping of their feet on the ground, and a lot of shoulder shimmying. It made me laugh to see these old, grey men shake their chest like that; it reminded me of belly dancing. We joined the crowd, and just as I realized I had forgotten my camera, Fatima and Alma asked me simultaneously to take some pictures. I have become the official family photographer, it seems** – and taking pictures was clearly what everyone else was doing. Everywhere in the crowd I noticed hands holding up cell phones, recording the performance. A grey man in white jellaba, the star dancer of the group, made sure to give each photographer a good shot; he would pause in front of each held-up phone and give them an extra-long shoulder shimmy, staring straight into the lens. Manal, who had brought her own camera, actually broke straight through the crowd and took place right in front of the group to get the perfect shot. The grey man gave her an extra-special performance.

Having seen enough of the music, Amma, Alma and I took a turn on the child-size motorcycles and ‘quads’ (they look sort of like tractors, motorcycles with four wheels) that a group of young men had for rent: 4 dirhams for a small tour down the main road leading into the park. We climbed onto one of them, together. Amma insistently assured the proprietor that she knew how to drive this machine, but he clearly did not trust her and hung on to the side of the vehicle for our entire tour, not allowing her sole command over its gas pedal and brakes.

Other than that, it was a place for strolling around through the trees. We walked, splitting off into small groups, chatting quietly – Manal and Alma as far away from one another as they could get. Each person I walked next to would remark to me on the beauty of the place – but it was such a shame that it wasn’t kept cleaner. Indeed, there was trash everywhere. Old plastic bottles, yogurt containers, dirty diapers. Bits of plastic bags clinging to the bushes and plants. Even some worn and abandoned clothes here and there. Yes, I said. It’s a shame. I guess it’s difficult to convince people to take their trash with them. Then they asked me, is it the same in the United States?

This is a question I get often, any time my host family becomes aware that something is an ‘experience’ for me: when I make note of something, comment on something, or when they themselves decide something is interesting for me to see. Do Americans eat meals like I am served here? Do Americans go out like this on Sundays like this? Do Americans have anything like the soap we use for the hammam? Do Americans have grand taxis? Are Americans also worried about high electricity bills?

I am never sure how to answer. In part because I always have a hard time answering a question with a simple yes or no – and anything but that takes a while to think about in Arabic. Yes, I always want to say, Americans do something like this, but it’s a little different, because… I am also never sure how to answer because I wonder, what exactly are they interested in? They know I am a Dutch person who lives in the United States. So when they ask me this, are they truly interested in the United States (and if so, why don’t they also ask me about Holland?), or are they simply interested in ‘the West’ in general? And finally, I don’t know what to answer because I am not sure what answer they are looking for. Do they want me to affirm their difference, and perhaps some kind of superiority? Or are they interested in learning about differences and other lifestyles? On my part, I want to give them an honest answer, give a true impression of the United States. But I also want to affirm our similarities, to emphasize those habits, viewpoints, and customs that the United States may have in common with Morocco. To give some kind of sense that there is a certain kind of kinship, grounds for affinity, even. To give my host family the sense that they could understand something about the United States, maybe.

But most likely, I am just over analyzing these questions. A simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is probably fine, and most likely all that these people are looking for… over-analysis can be exhausting, sometimes.

* She is someone, I think, who is often in need of recognition. She often emphasizes the part she had in organizing something, and always makes sure I know when it was her who cooked something, and how much work it was. She is someone who, perhaps, may have been a little unrecognized, as middle child in a house full of other siblings? Alma is loud as well, but less consciously so. She does not directly ask for attention; she gets it much more automatically than Manal does.
** Whenever we go somewhere, I am usually asked to bring my camera, because they have decided mine is nicer than theirs.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Controversial Media: The Issue of Heritage

** This is a long one... Sorry!**

Morocco has a well-developed tradition of printed media. One can find a newsstand on nearly every street corner, and each of these sells dozens of newspapers, weekly journals, and monthly glossies – all in one’s choice of either French or Arabic. And this is not counting the international publications that are also available. Among this rich selection are at least five or six different Moroccan magazines aimed especially at women.

I particularly like a Francophone magazine called “Femmes Du Maroc.” I buy it primarily as a good and entertaining way to practice my French, but it actually publishes a lot of interesting articles. It features the same range of topics that other magazines discuss, but seems to ask intelligent and tough questions that others ignore. For example: this month, FDM published an article about the growing trend of looking for love by placing personal ads online or in the paper. The same topic was featured in the Ramadan-issue of Femina, a newer magazine. A Femina contributor tried out this new trend by placing an ad of her own, and then wrote an article reporting on her experiences – her transition from skepticism to (temporary) addiction, her conclusion that this ‘new trend may work for certain people, but it’s not for me’, and final disclosure that she had met her own soul mate through more conventional ways. In Morocco as in the Western world, the practice of meeting people through personal ads is growing in response to changing lifestyles and increasing individualism, but not quite accepted as fully legitimate as of yet. With that last sentence, the Femina reporter ultimately ascribed completely to the public’s skepticism and fear of new things, without ever questioning or even addressing any part of it. Femmes Du Maroc, on the other hand, published a 10-page feature on this new practice. It included a reporter’s experiences with an ad of her own, placed specifically for the purpose of this experiment (lacking any strategically mentioned feelings of skepticism), but also an in-depth analysis of the language used in these ads and a theorizing, through that analysis, of what these ads say about Moroccan society and the changes it is going through. Their conclusion: placing personal ads seems like a sign of modernization. Not only is it a sign of greater individualization, but it also suggests that people are taking fate into their own hands, no longer relying on parents or other traditional ways of finding a spouse. But a deeper investigation of the actual ads shows that those who place the ad present themselves as well what they’re looking for in such a way that it only perpetuates idealization of the traditional rules of male-female interaction. Modernity on the surface, but not in practice! Traditions simply jazzed up by a coat of modernity – and a confirmation, through this very untraditional medium, that Morocco is not yet ready to let go of its conservatism.

Of course, I am only comparing two magazines here, and am only looking at a single issue of each. But I get the sense that, where Femina leaves any social issue completely unquestioned, FDM boldly exposes Morocco’s cultural and social complexes.

Because this month, FDM also discusses another issue that I believe is quite controversial: that of “héritage” – inheritance. In fact, nearly a quarter of this month’s content is devoted to this topic; it includes background articles explaining the issue, testimonies from Islamic scholars, sociologists, first-hand accounts of readers who have dealt with the issue, and activist pieces calling for change.

Trying my best to be succinct, the issue of héritage is this. When the Family Code of law was drastically reformed in 2004, laws on inheritance were one of very few things left unchanged. Whereas most of the family code is now based on civil law, inheritance rules remain founded upon the shari‘a, or Islamic law. They were left untouched because inheritance is one of the few issues for which the Qur’an itself outlines explicit rules; and anything mentioned explicitly in the Qur’an cannot be interpreted loosely because it is believed to be God’s literal word.* Taken directly from the Qur’an, this, then, is the basic law on inheritance: a woman always inherits half of what a man does. Upon a father’s death, his male children will inherit a proportion of his wealth that equals twice that inherited by his daughters. Also, a woman cannot inherit on her own: if a man had no sons, his money does not automatically go to his daughters. In these cases, male kin must first be found. Once a male heir has been established, no matter how far removed on the family tree, his daughters (and wife) may inherit – but again, an amount always half of that inherited by the male heir(s).

Contesting these rules is very controversial – because contesting anything stated in the Qur’an is controversial. Nevertheless, some groups do call for inheritance laws to be changed, and FDM is apparently one of them. The entire span of its discussion about this issue unanimously argued in favor of reforming héritage. It was not only interesting that they did so in such a direct and forceful way (the issue being as controversial as it is), but it was also interesting how they did it.

Because not once did anyone question the holiness of the Qur’an, and not once was the concept of Islamic law rejected wholesale. What they did instead (and this is why they featured testimonies by experts on Islamic law) was appeal to established algorithms of Islamic legal logic, call attention to the existing traditions and methods of Qur’anic interpretation (“ijtihad”, pronounced ‘ij-ti-HAD’),** and remind the reader directly of other issues that prove the Qur’an need not always be taken on its literal word.***

The basic gist of the argument made by FDM is that the law on inheritance no longer serves the purpose it was designed for – and that it is not only accepted practice within the tradition of ijtihad to interpret Qur’anic verses according to the logic behind them rather than their literal content, but that it is also accepted practice in Islamic law to always question the rationale of certain rules, and to change them if that rationale is no longer relevant. FDM claims that Qur’anic rules of inheritance were originally meant to protect women financially, in a time when they did not contribute to society economically and depended fully on their male kin. Men were given more of the inheritance, but also expected to use that money to care for their female dependents. The fact that women were given anything in the first place was a major improvement – at the time, women commonly didn’t inherit anything (and apparently, women still don’t inherit according to Jewish inheritance laws?). It makes sense, FDM claims, to divide the inheritance according to individuals’ economic responsibilities. This was the basis for the distinction between men and women’s parts; it has nothing to do with gender per se. In other words: women received half not because they were women, but because they had no economic responsibilities.

Needless to say, this context has completely changed. Not only do women contribute as much to their household’s economy as men do, but Moroccan women often have even more financial responsibilities toward the family than their male relatives. By continuing to apply Qur’anic rules of inheritance in this very different economic context, their effect has become the complete opposite of its original intent: rather than financially protected, women are now discriminated against and put at disproportionate risk of impoverishment. Taking the Qur’an too literally, one expert suggests, can sometimes mean that its fundamental principles of equality and justice are ultimately completely negated.

To me, someone who was not raised with the sense of holiness that the Qur’an exudes for most Muslims, this argument seems to make perfect sense. And apart from the bold statements here and there about uneven power dynamics in Islam and men’s desire to subjugate women, it seems to me a very respectful, logical, and convincing way of making an argument. How could anyone disagree?

But I know there are people who do. And unfortunately, FDM’s long feature does not include a single oppositional voice. I am so curious to hear how FDM’s arguments would be countered by someone in favor of maintaining inheritance laws as they are. What are their arguments, what is their rationale? And where, for that matter, does public opinion lie? How do Moroccans feel about this, and how does this differ between educated and non-educated, women and men, rural and urban populations, young and old, rich and poor? How much is this talked about in family- and social circles? Can I ask my host family how they feel about this issue, or is it too controversial for that?

I tried to get a sense of this by leaving my copy of the magazine lingering around in the living room and noting the kinds of reactions it got. Alma noticed it first and asked me if she could take a look. Sure, I said, do you know this magazine? Alma shook her head. She’d never seen it before, she said. Interesting, I thought, because I see it everywhere. In any case, the large-lettered announcement of the topic on the cover (“héritage: ça peut changer?”) got no reaction. Instead, Alma pointed to the model on the cover and asked me who she was. “I don’t know,” I responded. “Just a model, I think.” Alma then opened the magazine, looked for the fashion section, identified the same model in those pictures, gave them another glance, and returned the magazine to me. A complete anti-climax: she simply did not react at all to the issue I was curious about.

Next was Amma. She, too, didn’t respond to the words on the cover. She did, however, ask me why I had bought this magazine in particular. And the way in which she asked me this made me think she already had her own opinion about it – a negative one.**** I decided to give her a neutral reason, to leave her the option of expressing either approval or disapproval. It’s to practice my French, I told her. She nodded, but didn’t say anything else. She leafed through the issue as Alma had, and then gave it back to me without another word. Another anti-climax. I asked her if she preferred any particular magazines, and she mentioned an Arabic-language one.

Finally I tried it out on Manal, who did have an actual evaluative reaction – though again, nothing to do with the magazine’s articles. I know she knows this magazine because she has stacks and stacks of its issues lying around in her Caftan shop. FDM has a yearly Caftan issue, after all, with hundreds of pictures showing the latest fashions. Oh yes, she exclaimed, I love this magazine. “It has lots of interesting things, look,” she said, and pointed to the sections on fashion and beauty. Nothing, once again, about the issues announced on the cover.

I was left, in other words, without an answer to my question. Not even an acknowledgement of the fact that these things were being discussed in this magazine. Was that a deliberate ignoring, and does their silence mean I should not bring it up – or does it mean there is simply no interest in the topic?

My family’s reaction to the magazine itself also bring me back to the question of how Femmes Du Maroc compares to other women’s magazines. Manal knows this publication, but for professional reasons. Amma knows it, but apparently prefers other magazines. Alma had no idea it existed. Who, then, actually reads Femmes Du Maroc? Who doesn’t, and why? How does that compare to other Francophone magazines? And how does it compare to Arabic glossies? Who reads those? What kinds of issues do those magazines discuss? Would they bring up an issue such as that of inheritance?*****

Do women read magazines at all? Because in fact, I never see anyone in my household reading anything other than the Qur’an. Contrary to what the many newsstands and bookstores in Rabat would suggest, I get the sense that most Moroccans are not habitual readers. I have actually never seen more in the way of books than a few copies of the Qur’an in any the Moroccan households I have visited. There is never a bookshelf, never even a stack of newspapers or magazines on the coffee table. Newspapers are read, but I think that is something that belongs in the coffee house (and thus belongs to men). Children have books, but those are for school. Children also do not seem to be raised with the concept of reading for pleasure. I talked to Mustafa about Harry Potter once, and he was very enthusiastic. Of course he knew Harry Potter, he said, he’d seen all the movies. He had never, however, heard that there were Harry Potter books, as well. And when I offered to give him my French copy of the first novel, he politely declined, telling me he preferred watching it on TV.

Maybe the lack of written media is an economic issue. Most households do not have much money to spare, and a book, as I have discovered, costs anywhere between 50 and 150 Dirhams – which approaches an average day’s pay. Being Francophone and costing 20 DH an issue, I expect that Femmes Du Maroc is not very widely read among any groups other than the upper layer of society. And in that sense its discussions are probably not the best indication of general public opinion. Still though: how contrary to public opinion is it, exactly? And how much weight does it carry among those upper layers, who, in all truth, not only have the money to buy these magazines but also have the power to actually affect Moroccan politics?

* Something thing I have a hard time understanding is how a less literal interpretation of the Qur’an negates its holiness. Why does interpreting its verses in a more abstract way necessarily mean one rejects the idea that the Qur’an is the direct word of God? Taking God’s words for its abstract rather than concrete meaning would not seem to me to make them any less true. Wouldn’t you in fact get at a much deeper ‘truth’ if you looked for the meaning behind the words, rather than stop at their literal meaning?
** There is a very rich tradition of Qur’anic interpretation. However, severe limits were placed on the Muslim community’s freedom to engage in ijtihad in the Middle Ages, as five (4 Sunni, 1 Shi‘a) major schools of Islamic legal thought (fiqh) established themselves as authorities on interpretation. Morocco continues to adhere quite explicitly to the Maliki school of fiqh.
*** A famous example here, for instance, is what the Qur’an says about alcohol. The Qur’an actually abrogates its own rules about drinking. The earliest verses merely forbid Muslims to be drunk during prayer. Later verses then change these rules, becoming increasingly stringent. If the Qur’an can correct itself in this way, this suggests that there is a certain element of rationalization that must be involved in translating any Qu’ranic prescription to reality – a process of deliberating about what the point is of certain rules and how best to realize their intended effect within a given context.
**** Perhaps I had this impression because she had already made somewhat suggestive comments a while ago about my predilection for Telquel, the francophone Moroccan equivalent of Time. “You always buy the magazines that talk about politics,” she observed. I wasn’t sure how to react – is it a good thing to be interested in Moroccan politics? Somehow, I don’t think so.
***** It is so unfortunate that those publications are so much less accessible to me. They are written in Fusha, which I do not read.

Friday, November 14, 2008


In the interest of literary style and a little ethnographic weight, I’ve been talking a fair amount about “Moroccans” as a general population in this blog. And in a sense, what I am trying to do here during these three months of pre-fieldwork is to establish a basic understanding of the general characteristics and dynamics of this society and its citizens. I am trying to create a base of general comprehension, before I begin to focus very specifically on a small part of this society (that being mental healthcare, of course).

I think it is important to get a sense of the larger dynamics and characteristics of a society, because without knowing those, it will be impossible to come to know its smaller sub-components. But I have also been worrying lately that I may be generalizing a bit more than I should, and I may be referring to “Moroccans” in general, a bit too easily. Generalization has been on my mind lately: Noureddine’s anti-West campaign, more intensive sharing of experiences with fellow foreigners, and the past week’s debate at the Nimar have made me a little more aware of what I myself am doing.

I don’t want to be a generalizer. I don’t believe in generalizing, and I think that if anthropology stands for anything, it is for the richness of human diversity, both between and within cultures. I remain focused on establishing a general understanding of Moroccan society, but I want to do so without losing sight of its internal heterogeneity.

Because if there is one thing one could generalize about when it comes to Morocco (and even here one should be careful), it’s that nothing is as simple as it seems. Morocco cannot be described in a few words, because there are too many histories, ethnicities, languages, traditions, and beliefs that come together here. As I have written in earlier posts, there is a duality that runs through nearly every facet of Moroccan society. This duality means that for every characteristic of society, every identifiable social dynamic that I write about, there is a large group of Moroccans to whom it does not apply, and for whom things work in an entirely different way. There are many others who write blogs about Morocco, and their observations are often completely different from mine. This does not mean that either of us has it wrong; it simply means that we are observing different sides of this complex society and drawing different conclusions.

And so when I write about Moroccan attitudes about marriage, I do not mean to claim or even imply that there are no Moroccans for whom this may be different. The same goes for what I’ve written about medicalization, the practice of Ramadan, masculinity, the psychological importance of the Western Sahara, and so on. I am recording my observations and indulging in my own analytical pleasure – and I will keep doing so. But I may, from now on, stress this perpetual presence of heterogeneity a little more, and try a little harder to avoid suggesting that any of the theories I devise applies to all residents of this country across the board.

I also may begin to revisit a few of the issues I’ve been writing about. I often write my posts early on in my thinking process, enthusiastic as I am about getting to know a new facet of Moroccan society. But – because nothing is ever simple in this country – as time passes, my analyses of these issues deepen, I discover deeper complexities, added factors, exceptions to the rule, and I begin to wish I could go back and edit all my posts; in my efforts to avoid generalization, I want to highlight these complexities. Suddenly my posts begin to seem a little superficial, as though they are only scratching the surface. A surface I desperately want to see right through… but that always takes time, I guess.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

On A Personal Note (Of Hybridity)

Last night the Nimar organized an evening of film and debate for a group of Dutch and American students in Rabat. On the basis of a Hollywood production about Morocco in the 1970s, we discussed Morocco’s image in the United States as well as the Netherlands – and from there drifted to a more general discussion about prejudice, generalization, the relationship between West and East, and immigration.

The Nimar announced we would be watching a film called “Marrakech Express” – which I had never heard of before. As it turned out, this is simply the French title for “Hideous Kinky,” a movie I love and actually own. The basic story, set in 1972, follows a woman who has traveled to Marrakech with her two young daughters, hoping to find “truth” – namely “the annihilation of the ego” that is supposedly taught by a certain Sufi order. What I love about Hideous Kinky is that it romanticizes Morocco without reveling in Orientalist exoticism. It celebrates Morocco’s beauty and complexity, but does so indirectly: the film has moved back an extra step of observation, and brings into focus the way in which Western visitors in the hippie era – personified by Julia, the protagonist – experienced Morocco and projected onto it their own created desires for escapism and exotic fantasy.

I live in a different Morocco – another time, another region, another political climate, another world. Nevertheless, the image of Morocco created by this movie rings true to me. It is an image that always remains implicit; no statements are made, no generalizations, no explanations or descriptions. There are simply images that cannot be captured by language or description. These images highlight the exoticism and strangeness (and sensory overload – bright colors, sounds, smells everywhere) that strike most western travelers, but also show the harmlessness of it all. I love how this duality is presented: the viewer gets to know Morocco primarily through the eyes of Julia’s two little girls, who explore Marrakech without judgment or prejudice, as an open space of possibility and adventure; but who are also a little haunted by its strangeness, by a certain discomfort they cannot identify. It comes back in their dreams, where the imagery gives us some indication of the nature of that discomfort. In this dream world they are constantly running through long, dark, claustrophobic corridors – medina alleys, hallways – in pursuit of a loved one, whom they are never able to reach. She is always on the other side of a wall, around the corner, or across a courtyard.* A constant pursuit, and a perpetual inability to grasp, to ground.

And I love the movie’s basic message: that there is no point in searching for “truth,” because that results in nothing but escapism and neglect of your reality – which is where your personal truth really lies. The film does not celebrate pragmatism. To the contrary, it illustrates the beauty of pursuits and passions, but it preaches a kind of down-to-earthness in doing so, a kind of grounding, a not forgetting about who you are. Julia escapes constantly, and persistently so (refusing even to see the Moroccan reality around her for what it is), despite continual forces pulling her back to reality – lack of money, a daughter with an illness, a Sufi sheikh who talks not about “annihilation of the ego” but in fact asks her all about the life she left behind in London. She doesn’t quite get it, even at the end, but we – the viewers – see it.

So – the movie over, we began a debate about common perceptions of Morocco in the United States and the Netherlands: Morocco as the accessible and safe representative of exoticism, Morocco as hippie paradise, Morocco as the “other,” Morocco as desert, Morocco as poor and desolate origin of the ‘troubled youth’ in Holland. Perhaps inevitably, with a crowd of Westerners forced by their sojourn in a Muslim country to figure out their relationship to the world, the discussion moved quickly on to the general topic of Western prejudice and discrimination. We all seemed to be of the same mind about generalization and stereotyping of the Muslim world: we took care to express our sensitivity to the variation of cultures, languages, and histories that constitute this region. Yet I was surprised at the extent to which generalizations and stereotypes did slip into the conversation here and there. The sensitivity to variation did not always seem to be applied to our own part of the world. Stereotypes surfaced – about the United States, about the Moroccan community in the Netherlands, even. Between the various participants we had enough different viewpoints in the room to arrive at a fairly subtle analysis, but it surprised me nevertheless.

I found myself constantly taking up a middle position: pointing to similarities between Holland and the US, comparing Moroccan attitudes to Western ones, contrasting the reality of Dutch-Moroccan youth’s unwillingness to identify with Holland to the reality of the fact that they are often not accepted as ‘Dutch’ by the general population. And as we talked, I began to step back and look at myself, sitting there in between the Americans and Netherlanders. I often take up middle positions in debates, seemingly unable to take up a position (or ever make a simple statement in general) because I always see multiple sides to everything. But that evening I had no choice, it seemed; I simply was in the middle. I am Dutch, but I am also an American student. I was part of both groups, able to represent each – and at the same time unable to fully do so in the same way that others were. I know each society, but I know each imperfectly: I left the Netherlands eight years ago, and I don’t have the experience of growing up American.

And as we began to talk about the young Moroccan community in Holland, the discussion really began to resonate with my own sense of being both-and-in-between. I have done fairly extensive research on Moroccans in the Netherlands, and among Muslim immigrants in the United States. But as I contributed to the discussion, I felt myself drawing mostly on my own experience of immigrant identity – of issues with belonging, acceptance, and assimilation. My experience does not begin to compare with the difficulty encountered by these youth, but the observations made about Moroccans suddenly had a familiar feeling.

Efforts to assimilate, I think, can carry with them the risk of losing yourself. Even if you find a way for yourself to combine identification with two different cultural worlds, many others cannot wrap their heads around such hybridity. Adopting one culture seemingly always entails the forgetting of another – in the same way, perhaps, that you can never speak two languages perfectly at the same time. The reaction to this is natural, I think: you begin to grasp on to strings of belonging, however small or big they are, even if that means a rejection of any other affiliations. You begin to develop an unreal nostalgia for the place you come from, begin to idealize and elaborate that part of your identity, even if that impedes the process of assimilation. You search for markers to vouch for the authenticity of your ‘original’ identity – you wear particular clothes, highlight your accent when you speak, talk about the host country as though you are a mere visitor, tout a taste for music from your country of origin, search for other ex-pats in your area, turn back to your country’s national religion. If an identification with the host country is not accepted by the general population there, this nostalgic tendency can be even stronger. In Holland, Dutch-Moroccans are persistently seen as nothing but ‘Moroccan’ or ‘Muslim’ (two identifications that are often conflated with one another by the general public). It is not surprising at all, I think, that they react to this by rejecting the identity they are not granted by society, and strengthening the ones they can claim legitimately. How can we expect them to identify with Holland when we persistently keep referring to them as “Moroccan youth” – and when that term has become synonymous with “troubled youth”?

In my own case, there was no rejection. To the contrary: I can fit in completely, in the US. I can pass for American: I have no accent when I speak English, I know the ins and outs of American culture by now, and my northern European appearance easily passes for WASP. This, however, did in fact make me lose myself, for a while. I no longer knew who I was: my Dutchness had not only become something of the past, but had become a past that had been erased by assimilation. It no longer seemed relevant. When I began to pull myself together again, I did so by reaching back and bringing that past back to life. I began to underscore my difference, my otherness – while simultaneously being frustrated that the choice to focus on my past seemed to erase a present. I could claim neither a Dutch present, because I now lived in America, nor an American present, because I was in a sense denying my identification with the United States.

It was not until I spent a significant amount of time outside of either country – here in Morocco, in fact, four years ago – that these two parts of myself fell into place. Before that time, a situation like last night’s would have given me an identity crisis. Now I have a kind of peace about it. There is no more difference between past and present; Holland and the US have come together on either side of that divide. I know who I am. I know what parts of me are Dutch and what parts are American. I have both, and it works for me. I have realized that it does not jeopardize my belonging anywhere, it does not make me any less legitimate, and it certainly does not make me any less of a coherent person. I still run into people who cannot grasp this idea of a joint identity. Surprisingly it is mostly Europeans – both in the United States and Europe – who do not understand that I can live an assimilated lifestyle in California without over-emphasizing my otherness, but still speak Dutch at home, eat the food I’ve always eaten, stay up to date on the Dutch media, and celebrate Dutch holidays.

I still grasp for strings of belonging – because I don’t want to lose my sense of hybridity. I still insist on a certain Dutchness, to always complement the Americanness that is more automatically there (because that’s where I live, after all). I will be raising my kids, if or when I ever have them, as perfect hybrids who speak Dutch and know the ins and outs of Dutch culture. But it all has a place now; this Dutchness no longer exists in contradiction with my Americanness.

Here in Morocco, I think this blog has become my grasping. It’s not a tool of belonging, but it is a way for me to remember who I am and why I am here, at the moments when my total immersion, loss of privacy, and inability to be self-sufficient reduce me to the status of a child. Writing has always been a way of grasping for me, I think, and it is something I have never been able to live without.

* This is a feeling I especially identify with in Morocco. I do finally feel like I am getting to know the country, but that sense of perpetual inability to get somewhere, to truly understand, to penetrate those walls and lose that simultaneous sense of claustrophobia and complete exposure – that’s something I really recognize.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Fatima’s bathroom in Salé is stocked with products. When taking a shower, one has a choice of at least five different kinds of shampoo, three kinds of soap in addition to the shower gels standing at attention in the windowsill. There are conditioners, bubble baths, and a variety of scrubbing utensils. Next to the shower hangs a shelf with creams, lotions, gels, concealers, bleaches, deodorants, perfumes, tonics, and anything else anyone might ever need. My house in Rabat has no bathroom, but there is no shortage of beautifying products here, either: each sister has a large collection of bottles and jars in their section of the big wardrobe standing on one end of the sitting room.

My host family, in other words, is highly concerned with its personal hygiene. In the same material way they are highly concerned about their health. There are pill bottles, ointments, creams, and inhalers to be found all over the house, to which the members of the family take recourse at the first sign of illness.

These people are constantly ill. When someone has a headache or a sniffle – which, with so many people in one house, occurs at least once a day – they immediately pronounce themselves “mrid” or “malade.” They will install themselves on the couch under a blanket, cover their eyes and/or forehead with a scarf, lean back on a pillow, and let everyone else take care of the household while they look on with pain in their eyes. It also means pills, always.

Not only are they quick to take some kind of medication; it also does not seem to matter too much what kind of medication it is. My host mother and sisters have all taken my Excedrin at least once, without so much as a glance at the bottle. Their own collection of pills is stored in unmarked jars, or in bottles whose label clearly does not match what is kept in them. Khadija once shook two kinds of pills out of an Advil bottle – actual red Advil tablets, and something blue and unidentifiable. For her headache, she said. Just in time, I was able to stop her from taking the blue ones by telling her I thought those were for something else. These women seem to take anyone’s word for it, including mine (a stranger’s, in a sense), that the pill being taken is in fact meant to cure whatever ailment they seek to alleviate. And I get the sense that this is a general Moroccan characteristic. At a party about a month ago, an interesting communal sharing of pills occurred. One woman asked her neighbor if she might have anything for a headache with her. Upon which this neighbor opened her bag and pulled out at least three different kinds of pills. “Take these,” she said, “they’re from the military hospital, really strong, really good.” Eagerly, the first woman indeed took these tablets, which were clearly on prescription. And not only did she do this; overhearing this conversation, at least three other women expressed an interest in these military pills. A cup of water was brought over, and all of them took a dose of medication.

This seems like very risky behavior to me. Not in the least because I get the sense that fairly often, the pills or other medications taken are indeed meant for a completely different ailment. Who knows what these military pills – or the blue pills in the Advil bottle – were for? My friend with the Dutch blog has a post about her own trip to a pharmacy in rural Morocco. Looking for vitamins and anti-diarrheal salt, she was given a range of choices – from sleeping pills to medication for intestinal infections - but none of it what she was looking for.
And from my own observations: Maria once burnt her hand while making soup. After holding her hand under the water, she rushed to the bathroom to put some “pommade” on the burn. Hours later, as she brought out the tube to reapply, I noticed that this ‘pommade’ was in fact hair removal cream. Which it clearly said on the package, in French. Which she can read.

Needless to say, when I was offered medication for my Salé-related headache last weekend, I politely declined. This was hard to sell to them – being so liberal with medication themselves, it took a while for them to accept the idea that I didn’t like taking anything.

With this general impression of fairly extensive medicalization, I am really curious to learn how people feel about psychiatric drugs – antidepressants (“antidepressor”), anti-psychotics, the like. Are they as liberal with these pharmaceuticals as they are with anything else? Would these be shared in the same way that the pain medication was at this party (assuming it really was pain medication)? If so, what does that mean for the practice of psychiatry, and how does the use and impact of psycho-pharmaceuticals affect the practice of traditional healing practices? If not, what makes psycho-pharmaceuticals so different from any other kind of medication? I wonder how I am going to figure this out. As far as I know, no one in my immediate network is on any kind of psychiatric medication. I’m trying to think of a pretext to pay a visit to a pharmacy myself and do some exploring. Vitamin pills, perhaps. But how will that get me on the trail of psycho pharmaceuticals?