Thursday, November 6, 2008

Cultural Relativism: Also Ma Kaynsh, It Seems

I have been surprised at the general lack of interest in the United States that the people around me have displayed so far – because four years ago in Fes, that was so different. It’s disappointing in one sense – in the same way that I think it’s disappointing that people in the US and Europe are not more interested in what goes on in countries like Morocco; more simple knowledge of these issues would do so much in furthering better communication between these parts of the world. But at the same time I’ve been a little relieved. In Fes, I often found myself having to defend the US, or the Western world in general, to prejudiced belief after prejudiced belief. I always tried to react diplomatically, by trying to convey to these people the same sense of cultural relativity that I was trying to bring to my impressions of Morocco. Not every American agrees with the president’s policies, I would explain; the Western world does not lack values and culture, it just interprets them differently; we have more in common than you think, and there is more variation between Western countries than you think. But it never worked; I don’t think I was ever able to convince them that the West was not what they thought it was.

And so this time around, I decided that if met with such negative opinions about my part of the world, I would no longer try. I would shrug it off, avoid discussion, and let it be. Luckily, I had not had to worry about this at all – until a week ago, perhaps. Noureddine, Amma’s father, seems to have embarked on a campaign of sorts to convince me of the superiority of Morocco and/or Islam. His first comment had some appropriate context. It was on one of the rare occasions that I was watching the international news, and the stock market dives of the day were just being reported when he arrived. “You know how this can be fixed?” he asked me. I looked at him expectantly. He seems to be a man who knows something about economics; I believe he has some kind of business in Rabat’s trendy neighborhood, and I was curious to hear his insight. But then it came: “Americans just need to read the Qur’an,” he said. And to add force to his argument: “Even someone in the US said that.” He went on to prove to me the divinity of the Qur’an by listing a variety of scientific or natural phenomena it accurately describes – his point being, I think, that the Qur’an’s view of the world is accurate and can therefore be taken as a guide for all aspects of private and public life.*

The next time he came over he asked me point blank, “so, are you going to become Muslim?” For this particular question, I always have an answer ready: “in sha’llah.” It’s the perfect hedge; I don’t offend anyone by saying no, I don’t make any false promises, and it usually leads to some laughter and a change of subject.

Then two days ago, Noureddine brought up the economy again, out of nowhere. He had just been looking at the book I was reading – Jalil Bennani’s new publication about the history of psychoanalysis in the Maghreb; nothing to do with the markets, in other words – and suddenly began. This time he had a theory about the cause of the economic crisis: American Jews had extracted about 300 million dollars from the markets in order to send it to Israel.** This subsequently led to what promised to be a general argument about how Morocco is superior to the Western world because it still focuses on the family and community, while we are fragmented individuals. Luckily Manal nipped it in the bud by disagreeing with him, and before he could answer dinner was served.

All these times I have shrugged like I had planned. I say things like “bisahh?” (‘really?’) and hope he will change the subject. But I have to admit that it is upsetting me a little. Why is he telling me these things? What kind of reaction is he looking for by telling me – a westerner – how inferior and wrong my part of the world is? Does he want me to feel bad, to agree with him, to express a wish to become a part of his culture? Which would never be a real possibility – becoming Muslim is a technical possibility for anyone, but I could never become a Moroccan. I could never even lead an integrated life here; I’d always be different, always be made to feel different by precisely the kinds of attitudes he was displaying right then. How does this kind of behavior fit into Morocco’s famous ethos of hospitality?

Or does he want me to disagree, to argue with him, to make him prove his point? There is no point in doing that – he won’t convince me that he’s right, and (judging by my experiences four years ago) I certainly won’t be able to convince him that the West is not all bad. And so I won’t. I’ll keep shrugging, avoiding the discussion. But it makes me silently mad sometimes. It makes me mad that I work so hard to be the anthropologist, to understand Morocco within its own moral framework, to appreciate its different view of things and to recognize a certain universality of moral values and human pursuits underneath it all – and that I am met with these kinds of blanket statements and prejudices about ‘the West’. It makes me mad that I am expected to embrace Morocco – because if I don’t I am a ‘racist’ and I prove everyone right about the ‘evil’ west – but that no one is required to reciprocate that openmindedness at all. And it makes me mad that I am asked to account for some lack or depravity in my cultural background that only exists because people apply their own very culturally specific moral understandings to a world they do not understand. I know this is not a Moroccan problem. There are people in the US and Europe who are just as prejudiced and ignorant about the Arab world. But it bothers me. It bothers me that people can’t be bothered to look into things a little, to have an open mind. To think about what goes on in other people’s worlds – not just in other countries, but in other classes within their own society, as well. It bothers me so much that sometimes I want to throw my own efforts at understanding and relativity by the wayside, and tell Noureddine about everything that I think is wrong with Morocco, or with his religion.

But no one will ever get anywhere with that kind of closed-minded attitude. Sadly, sometimes I worry that if we keep being faced with this kind of prejudice, people who do interest themselves in human & societal variation won’t, either. But, coming back to the topic of yesterday’s post – the elections – I have a little hope again, after what happened two nights ago, that ultimately those who couldn’t care less about the rest of the world may be in the minority. And I need to remind myself that Noureddine is only the first such person I have met here, in more than a month. Hopefully he will be the only one.


* This is a common approach to Islamic proselytism. There are books full of converted scientists’ testimonies to the Qur’an’s scientific accuracy. Yes, the Qur’an may mention that pregnancy lasts 40 weeks, or that one can find both salty and sweet water on earth. But personally, I am not sure this proves anything other than the fact that at the time the Qur’an was recorded, those nomads in the Arabian Peninsula must have been a curious and observant people.
** I am aware that there is a general mistrust of Jews in the Arab world, but I had thought that this prejudice would be a little mitigated in Morocco. Moroccans always talk so proudly about their country’s (formerly) large Jewish population and the amicability between Moroccan Jews and Arabs (even though no one actually knows any Jews, and most of this community has in fact migrated to Israel). Clearly not everyone feels that openminded – I was fairly shocked by Noureddine’s statement.

1 comment:

Rhanem said...

Hi Charllotte, your blog sounds interesting. When reading this article, I felt I had to react. You should not be surprised by Nouredine reaction, there are many who think like him in Morocco. I face the same issue, although I am Moroccan and Muslim, but I have different perceptions and ideas and when I discuss openly with some, they ask me the following: are you really muslim, are you really Moroccan, it seems that you are supporting the US and Israel! But I am no longer shocked at their reactions, I just ignore them. This is basically the reactions of people who have never left Morocco, people who haven't met several people from different cultures, who didn't get a sense of what other are doing and how they are living in other countries. As people outside Morocco have stereotypes about us, Moroccans also have lots of stereotypes about "westerners" from what they read in books newspapers, and what they saw on TV. You mentioned that lots of Americans are ignorant about what's going on in Morocco, may be many of them don't even know what is Morocco or where it is, many Moroccans know America as it is the world superpower, but they don't know its culture, its values, and few of them speak its language. They only get a sense of America from Hollywood movies. You certainly experienced a culture shock while you are in Morocco, but could you believe me if I tell you that every time I am experiencing a culture shock in my own country that I didn't feel in other European countries or even in the states.