Monday, November 10, 2008

Love... versus? Marriage

Moroccans are as obsessed with love as the rest of us. It is the subject of many a Moroccan song and movie, and it is what draws women back to the drama of their soap operas every day.

Nevertheless, I would nearly characterize Moroccans as among the most un-romantic people I have ever met. On my first evening out with Amma she made mention of her friend’s boyfriend, but that is the only time I have heard anyone in my immediate network mention romantic relationships. Marriage on the other hand is quite dominantly present – either as wish (Alma’s, of course) or as actual state of existence.* But – despite Alma’s fervent desire for a husband – it seems as though Moroccan spouses can hardly stand one another. Spouses do not seem to make each other happy – the opposite, more like. Any hint of love, of mutual regard even, is conspicuous in its absence.

I am surrounded daily by two cases in point.

I have mentioned earlier that Si Mahmoud and Fatima do not sleep in the same room. In general, they pay one another very little attention. They hardly communicate, apart from some grumbling at each other here and there. They greet each other like they greet anyone else, but there is no evidence of any special connection, a special closeness; if anything, their greeting hints of an especially clear distance. There are no kisses: there is only a handshake. And while Fatima will actually turn to look at anyone else who greets her, she actually consistently looks away when she reaches for Si Mahmoud’s extended hand. These two seem to serve a mostly practical purpose to one another: Si Mahmoud is Fatima’s driver and delivery man; Fatima is Si Mahmoud’s cook and cleaning lady. If Si Mahmoud is in the mood for some social interaction or a good discussion, he goes to the coffee house;** Fatima, of course, has her mother and sisters to spend time with.

Fatima is a tough woman in general, and clearly dominates her household. She does not show any extraordinary affection for her children, either. She does not ignore them like she does Si Mahmoud, but neither is she particularly warm. She isn’t mean, but she’s strict, stoic, and not worried about meting out a little corporal punishment here and there if her sons don’t do as she bids. Perhaps this is simply her personality – but the thing is that she is so warm, pleasant, funny, and open toward her mother, sisters, and even me. It seems, then, that she prefers the family she was born into to the family she herself created.

At first I wondered why this was; I wondered if there was some kind of issue between her and Si Mahmoud. But I no longer think there is a particular reason. Conversations with other foreigners*** and with Ilyas, as well as further observation have led me to conclude that this is the general status quo of married life in Morocco.

Take the other married couple in my social network: my host parents. These are two people I hardly think of as (indeed, can hardly imagine to be) married. I often forget I have a host father, because Lahcen is hardly part of the family’s life, and because the other members of the family hardly interact with him. Khadija is such a solitary beating heart that I forget she is married. But also, it is simply a little unimaginable to me that she is actually the wife of this octogenarian who looks like he could have been her father.

I am not sure of either Khadija’s or Lahcen’s age. No one is: they come from a time (and a social background, perhaps) in which birth dates were not recorded. Everyone’s best estimate is that Lahcen is well into his 80s, and from the looks of him I would certainly agree. As for Khadija, I caught a glimpse once of her CIN (Carte Nationale that every Moroccan carries with him or her). Her birth date was listed as January 1, 1940. A date like that is clearly an estimate (officials commonly use either January 1 or July 1 for people who don’t have a documented date of birth), but the year is usually fairly accurate. This means that she is in her late 60s. Which makes her about 20 years younger than her husband. This age difference is not uncommon, I think, for people of their generation. But how can you have a real, personal, and loving relationship with someone that much older or younger than you? With someone who could actually have been your father, or your daughter? It’s no wonder then, perhaps, that they lead such separate lives (or better said, that Khadija leads her life without much regard for him).

Lahcen and I are like friendly neighbors; on the occasions that we run into one another in the courtyard, I’ll remind him of who I am and he’ll give me a toothless smile. We exchange greetings, he compares my name to Charlie Chaplin’s, and asks me how my father is. To everyone else, he is a grumpy old man. The house is dominated by the sounds from his room: the television that is always on at maximum volume, and his yelling. He yells when someone enters his room to turn down the television (and I have seen him kick Alma for touching his TV). He yells when he is not served his meals on time (he has them served in his room, where he eats by himself), and he usually yells after they are served because the food is too cold, too hot, too salty, or not salty enough.

Khadija, on the other hand, is the epicenter of the household. Leading a busy life and constantly out and about, she is pleasant, warm, friendly – to anyone except Lahcen. Like most other members of the household she practically ignores him. When she does communicate with him, it is usually a grumpy rebuttal of his latest complaint. I wonder sometimes if Lahcen became this way because he is so excluded from the life of the house, but I have to say that I also understand Khadija’s treatment of him. What must it be like, to be married to someone 20 years her senior, to someone she probably has nothing in common with, someone her parents probably picked out for her, and someone she was most likely expected to obey and serve? Now that he is no longer able to dominate the household, I can imagine this has become her time to live, her time for independence.

Whatever the personal reasons behind the dynamic between these two married couples, the basic point is that the love seems lacking. And for those of us fortunate enough to live in a society where love is the main reason for marriage, the Moroccan situation may seem unimaginable.
I’ve been puzzled by the dynamic of these relationships for a long time – and so, when Ilyas gave me a text about divorce in class yesterday, I took this as an opportunity to probe the issue a little.

This is my thought about this so far. I think the problem is that there are too many other issues involved with marriage in Morocco to leave any room for love. I’ve written before about the significance of marriage as ultimate tool for social validation. For men, marriage proves their masculinity and serves at the same time as a tool to enhance that masculinity: it leads to greater income, removes him from dependence on his parents, and in the public mind (if no longer by law) still gives him someone to dominate. For women marriage not only means moving out of their family’s house, but a significant increase in social standing: because after all, marriage means women have realized the ultimate social ideal.

Marriage being of such importance, it’s no surprise that love becomes an afterthought. It means that a woman (and her family) looks for a husband who is best able to facilitate the realization of her social validation: someone with money and status – not the one that makes her feel good about herself, or the one who shares her dreams and passions. And a man looks for a wife who is best able to facilitate his goal of masculinization: a woman who can provide him with money (which will increase his status), and with honor – by ‘virtue’ of her virginity. The woman he may be in love with – the woman he may have spent years with and probably slept with – cannot realize that ideal of masculinity for him: she jeopardizes his independence and dominance because he is emotionally bound to her, and threatens his honor because she is clearly no longer a virgin.**** And so when it is time for marriage, this woman is left behind and replaced by an unknown girl.

And – as if marriage wasn’t already difficult enough to achieve – all this leads to divorce. Because people get married for the wrong reasons, they eventually discover that all the social validation in the world may not mean their spouse is bearable to live with. In addition, the stresses that chased people into un-premeditated marriage continue to haunt them after the wedding day. What if the promises of a better future don’t come true? What if the husband loses his job and his income? What if a woman emasculates her husband through disobedience or too much independence? ***** Exactly: discord, arguments, infidelity, domestic violence, divorce. It would happen anywhere. For a man, being divorced is not a huge problem. Even a man who has kids from a previous marriage will have no issues finding another wife (if he can provide, of course). But a divorced woman? If she does not have enough money of her own, her only (honorable) choice is to move back in with her parents. Re-marriage is nearly impossible – she is no longer a virgin, of course.

In any case: marriage is too crucial a social tool, basically, to leave room for love. But this does not mean that love does not exist in Morocco. Not at all. There are success stories; there are certainly people who meet their soul mates and live happily ever after. But this does not happen often; it is a luxury reserved for those with the precious means and freedom – or courage to stand up to social pressures – that others continually and unsuccessfully grasp at. For these others, nothing remains but to strive for their very un-romantic social validation in real life, and leave love in the realm of fantasy. And so it becomes a little less of a paradox that women seek their daily refuge in a dose of sappy TV drama. A little indulgence of the fantasy to make reality more livable. We are all guilty of it, I guess.

* Its complete non-existence is in fact unimaginable, it seems. My host family (Alma, mostly) does not understand why, single as I am at 27, I am not interested in getting married as soon as possible.
** And when he is not at the coffee house, he sits in the kitchen, by himself, with some black coffee, a cigarette, and a sudoku puzzle.
*** A friend of mine here in Morocco also has a blog, and has written about this curious issue of marriage. She reports on very interesting issues, so for those of you who read Dutch I can definitely recommend a visit to
**** Ilyas introduced me to the concept of ‘l-roujoula’. Derived from the same root as ‘rajel’, the Arabic word for ‘man’, ‘l-roujoula’ denotes a sort of dominance by way of a complete emotional independence and detachment from others. The kinship of ‘rajel’ and ‘roujoula’ provides a suggestion of how masculinity is conceived of in Arab society.
***** Ilyas suggested that the new family code is involved here, as well – and a less rosy-colored side of these legal reforms appears here. According to Ilyas, a major issue is the way these new laws were presented. Apparently the rhetoric involved the casting of men as the big culprits, from whom power was now taken – and given to women. Discussion focused on the huge number of new rights given to women, without ever mentioning the obligations that come with them. Not only did this render men predisposed from the beginning to resent the changes that came with the new family law; it also mobilized women to believe they no longer needed their men and to make massive use of one of their most prominent new rights: the right to file for divorce. It is interesting to me that the new family code was presented in this extreme way – because it was so controversial, I had expected the new code would have been sold to the public in a more subtle way. In any case, this effect of the law as well as Ilyas’ characterization of it, indicate that society is still adjusting to the changes it brought about.

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