Monday, November 3, 2008

Margin versus Center - Part 1

One of the main reasons for my endless intrigue with Morocco is a fundamental sense of duality that colors its society, history, and culture. As I familiarized myself with the country through visits and readings, this duality began to stand out as though it had been written in red ink, and it became the main theme in the background research paper I wrote about the place of mental healthcare in Morocco. A few days ago in class, Ilyas characterized this duality in a way I had not come across before, but which perfectly captures its gist: he called it a contradistinction between center (“l-markez”) and margin (“l-hamish”).

This juxtaposition between center and margin truly runs through all dimensions of this country’s existence, and in a sense it is the connecting thread that binds them all together into a single nation. The most straightforward distinction – and very likely the basis of all other juxtapositions – can be identified geographically. On the one hand there is the arable, temperate Morocco of the coastline and valley; on the other, there are Morocco’s vast mountainous and/or desert regions – border zones that offer natural protection to the valley, but themselves have little to offer but the cruelty of nature. This geographical opposition has engendered a duality in a variety of other dimensions – such as a fairly deep socio-economic divide. Much more inhabitable and fertile, all major cities and most of the country’s infrastructure were built in the valley. The valley has thus always functioned as the center of Morocco’s economic production and prosperity, while rough rural areas contributed relatively little – and had even less. Geography even led to a political divide: Dynastic power always emanated from and focused on the coastal valley, where good infrastructure facilitated the extension of centralized rule throughout the region. The geographical margins, on the other hand, were often simply too rough and unreachable for the sultan’s rule and were run mostly by tribal convention. And finally, geography led to an ethnic and linguistic divide – between the powerful Arabs who controlled the cities, and the proud tribal Berbers, who preferred to isolate themselves in the margins, safe from centralized power.

The French exploited this duality in their colonial policy, hoping thus to rip Morocco apart – to divide and conquer. Appealing to the Berbers’ lack of loyalty to Arab power, they emphasized the ethnic, linguistic, and cultural differences between them, aiming to turn Berber tribes into French allies. What finally thwarted these efforts was sultan Mohammed V’s appeal to religion. In many ways, religion can be considered the single unifying factor in Morocco.* Since the 17th century, the center and margin – the Arab valley and its tribal hinterlands – have stayed together despite the inability of the sultanate to extend its political power to the mountains and deserts, by grace of the ruling dynasty’s status as Charifs (descendants of the prophet Mohammed).** Where the sultan’s political power could not reach, his status as religious leader was always respected. And in those areas where political power was weak, it was often the Sufi brotherhoods who came to play a role of political leadership.

Religion is still a unifying factor. It remains a very important aspect of Moroccan identity – something one may not ordinarily expect from a country where about 99% of the population is of the same faith. Nevertheless, a sense of duality still exists. Geographically, economically, politically, and culturally, there is a center – the coastal valley, its major cities, people with education and means – and a margin – the mountains and deserts, the poor and disenfranchised; those who simply live at too great a distance (either geographically or socio-economically) to either benefit from government services or influence them in any way.

Another duality that has become prominent since the Protectorate period is one of language. The French have in a way greatly complicated and confused the linguistic situation in Morocco; and the way in which king Hassan II’s postcolonial regime dealt with what the French had left behind mostly deepened this confusion. There remains a distinction between Arabic (center) and Amazighi (a term used to denote Berber languages as a collective), as well as a distinction within Arabic between Darija (colloquial Moroccan Arabic) and Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic). Despite the fact that the former is by far much more widely used, it nevertheless counts as marginal – because it is unofficial, not real, ‘lawless’, ‘polluted’. Fusha on the other hand is the language of literacy, of education, of system, and thus of power – as such, it is very much the ‘center’.*** This is a problem, because it pushes all those who have not enjoyed enough education to have command of Fusha even further into the socio-economic margin.

A bigger problem, however, is the divide that has developed between French and Arabic. Upon independence, Morocco was left with a societal infrastructure that functioned mostly in French. This language was kept in place until 1973, when king Hassan II announced a project of ‘Arabization’ (“ta‘rib”), in the hopes of unifying the country and affirming its Arab heritage. Arabization entailed replacement of French with Arabic in all public- and government institutions. But this did not occasion the huge transformation that Hassan II may have envisioned when he came up with this plan. Those with means actually spoke very little Arabic, having lived in Francophone circles for most of their lives. They had enough money to send their children to Francophone schools abroad, and enough power to resist Arabization in their Moroccan realms of functioning – higher education, and government. French thus remains dominant in all day-to-day government affairs, and all university departments teach in French – except the departments of Arabic, Islamic studies, and some areas of law.

This means that a linguistic divide appears, further distancing the average person from these institutions of power. Anyone of average or little means attends Morocco’s public schools, where Arabization has taken effect.**** They thus enjoy their education in a combination of Fusha and Darija, learning French as a foreign language much like a student in the Netherlands would.***** Looking through the entrance requirements for Mohammed V University as listed on its website [find link], I did not see a French language-examination listed anywhere. I therefore don’t think public school graduates are categorically barred from a university education in any way, but the fact that this education takes place in French makes it that much more difficult for someone coming from a public school to succeed in higher education.

The divide between Arabic and French also entails a communicative barrier between government and population. Indeed, there seems to be very little communication of government affairs to the public (Ilyas also mentioned in passing that Moroccan politicians are appalling public speakers). The king, supreme political power, speaks fluent Arabic, French, and apparently even Spanish (I often wonder, does he speak Darija at home with his wife and children?). He is highly visible, but hardly ever speaks to his people. Each night, nearly half of the news broadcast is devoted to reports of Mohammed VI at yet another inauguration of some development project. We are treated to shots of the king looking, with a blank expression, at posters explaining the project at hand; of the king walking down a red carpet with enthusiastic crowds cheering in the background; or of the king making his way down a row of officials, each of which eagerly reaches down to kiss the king’s hand (it always strikes me how he seems to forcefully pull his hand back each time, as if he’s disgusted by the gesture).

Newspapers report on the king’s speeches – most recently at the opening of the new parliamentary session a few weeks ago. But apart from these rehearsed and ceremonial occasions, the king never speaks to his public. In fact, Telquel (the Francophone Moroccan equivalent of Time magazine) published an article two weeks ago on the fact that the king has, as of yet, never granted a single interview to a Moroccan journalist. He has been interviewed for Time, le Figaro, El Pais, Ash-Sharq al-Awsat – but never for a Moroccan publication. Even the Moroccan journalist who had been part of the Ash-Sharq al-Awsat team was subtly kept back as his Saudi colleague was invited to carry out the interview.

Arabization had been meant to unify the country (though I wonder if socio-economic unification was ever part of the motivation; political unification seems to have been more important), but ultimately only deepened the already existing divide between center and margin, adding a new dimension to its influence over Morocco. Why is it that not more effort is made to bring the two sides together, to integrate margin with center? Are the mountains and deserts truly too impenetrable to ever establish any kind of order and system there? Does the center lack means to undertake this – admittedly huge – endeavor? Or is it something else?

I venture to suggest – without making any definitive claims about why the margin remains marginal – that there is a certain dimension of Freudian psychology involved. Stay tuned for the next post.

* Even though here, too, a duality could be identified – between orthodox and heterodox practices, for instance. This, however, may be more aptly characterized as a distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘culture’.
** This is the Alaouite dynasty, which has been in power continuously since the 1600s (despite colonialism; the French technically left the sultan in power), and of which Mohammed VI is the latest ruler. The title of ‘sultan’ was replaced by that of ‘king’ after independence.
*** Because the ‘center’ not only denotes that which has the most power or dominance. It also represents the ideal, the country’s view of itself as it should, ideally, be. But I want to save that idea for the next post.
**** Public schools in Morocco are free – an admirable gesture from the government to offer education to anyone (anyone for whom a school is actually within reachable distance, and who can miss their children’s extra labor force at home). Nevertheless, public education does not get you very far – its quality is sub-par in comparison with the expensive, francophone private institutions attended by those with money.
***** Although it may be unfair to compare these two countries. Moroccans are exposed to French much more intensively than most Dutch high school students are. I asked Amma what languages are spoken in her high school classes, and she mentioned that French pops up outside of her French classes quite frequently, especially in her science classes. This is not surprising, perhaps – if all science at university and research level communicates in French, Darija equivalents for many of its technical terms may simply not exist.

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