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.

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