Monday, December 15, 2008

Change of Plans...

My departure is rapidly approaching: only two days remain of this three month period in Morocco – this period that had seemed so long when I was on the other side of it, back in September.

This fact compels me to look back and examine what I’ve done with my time here. Unequivocally, I can say that these past three months have been an absolute success. I may not have gotten two of the three grants I had applied for, but I have obtained research permission at the hospital, gone through a very intense and deep familiarization with Moroccan family life, vastly increased my command of both French and Moroccan Arabic, made new friends, learned a lot about myself – but most importantly, I have come to genuinely love this country and to fully appreciate being here. This, in all honesty, I had not expected. My love-hate relationship and frustration have, by grace of a newly discovered sense of comfort and freedom, made way for serious contentment. I know that Morocco can make life very difficult for very many people. I know that Morocco has its dark sides. I know that I will continue to meet with frustration as I continue my relationship with this country. But I also know that I’ve discovered that there is room for me here, that it is possible to be myself here. I’ve discovered that I can lead the life I want and find the things I need to be happy, right here. I know that I can live here comfortably and pleasantly for a number of years, while I do my research.

With all of these reflections in mind, I had been growing steadily more melancholy as the days raced on and the moment of my departure rapidly approached. Especially because it was completely uncertain when I would be able to return, I really, really did not want to leave – to abandon everything I had begun to establish here. And also because it meant no more blog... this blog, that has been my lifeline these three months, would have no more use.

From my use of language you may have already guessed that something about this situation has changed. And indeed, over the course of one weekend, a sudden and unexpected opportunity radically changed everything…

Because I have been offered a temporary job – an internship, really – at the Dutch cultural center in Rabat! From February to the middle of May, I am going to help organize a Dutch-Moroccan conference in honor of the 40th anniversary of the two countries’ labor migration agreement – the agreement that lies at the foundation of the Netherlands’ current relationship with Morocco. Not only is this right up my alley – I have been doing research on Moroccan migrants in the Netherlands for years – but it is the perfect way to spend more time in Morocco as I wait for more grants to come in. It will allow me to continue studying French and Arabic, to continue solidifying my relationship with the Clinic in Rabat, it’s going to look great on both CV and grant applications, and most importantly: I get to come back! And all that while being paid… honestly, it can’t get any better than this. I am so, so incredibly excited…

And I am no longer sad to leave! What I thought was going to be a separation of indefinite length, has become a six week vacation… They will be six busy weeks – much will have to be done before I come back here (grants, IRB…) – but a great vacation nonetheless, with the prospect of more Morocco-fun in February…

This also means I get to continue with this blog – so stay tuned for new posts in about a month and a half!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Acceptable... or Not?

One theme that has colored my experience of the past three months in Morocco, is my sense that the relationships between genders seem a lot more free, and a lot less rigidly controlled, than I had always thought. I see mixed groups of friends on the street every day, boys and girls holding hands, touching each other in the way that friends here do, kissing one another on the cheek with each greeting – and all this without any kind of sexual undertone. I still pretend to be completely deaf when addressed by random men on the street, but have noticed also that the occasional brief conversation when waiting in line somewhere, or browsing at a store, is completely acceptable.

Seeing all this flexibility around me, I have been opening myself up a little more. I don’t approach anyone myself, but if someone addresses me on the train when sitting across from me, or asks me a question at a café, I smile and politely respond.

This has happened a few times at a particular café I like to go to. Close to the central train station, this particular café with a Scandinavian name is a very pleasant and comfortable place to sit for women by themselves (which, despite much social change in Morocco, is still uncommon. Cafés remain men’s territory). And most importantly, it has a wireless internet connection. I like to sit at this café during late afternoons, as it gets dark and cold outside, and sip a cup of “café crème” (café au lait) as I write emails, compose new blog posts, read the news, and watch my favorite American television shows on Youtube.

One thing I like about this café is the sense of calm and privacy I have here. There are people and noises all around me, but I am left alone with my computer, I get to drink whatever I want, and there is no one to bother me, to tell me how to do something. Once in a while someone will approach me. This is not something I mind, and it is usually no more than a brief question – usually it is a girl with a flash drive but no computer, who asks me to help her check whether or not she has a certain document on her little portable storage item. Sure, I always say, as long as there’s no virus on that drive…

The other night, two young men sitting at the table next to mine asked me a question about my computer. What kind was it? “Ash pay?” (this refers to HP, Hewlett Packard, which I think is the most well-known brand of computers here). Apples are not well-known here, and I get a lot of compliments on my little sleek, white laptop. The name “apple” didn’t ring a bell with these two men, but “macintosh” did. Yes, they knew it, good computers for designers.

From this, we launched into a polite discussion about what we were all doing in Rabat, and how I liked Morocco. As always, there was the immediate invitation to come visit families in other cities – to this I always politely respond with “insha’llah” – ‘God willing’, which is a great way of neither impolitely refusing, nor making false promises. None of this exchange was unpleasant – they were respectful, left me my space, and politely said good-bye when it was time for me to go and meet up with a friend in Agdal.

I had just been thinking that I had now clearly proved to myself that social contact between genders was thus not as restricted as I had presumed, when I returned to the café the next day and the owner approached me. The waitress (who now knows me so well that I don’t even have to ask for my café crème anymore) had told him what had ‘happened’ last night, and he wanted me to know that he was sorry. He wanted this to be a safe space for people to do their work, he said, and men were not supposed to be ‘bothering’ women sitting by themselves. A little taken aback, I tried to tell him that really, it hadn’t been a big deal – but this was not what he wanted to hear. No, he said, it’s not ok. He assured me he had talked to the two boys in question, who had both apologized. I decided it would be best to thank him. This I did, and a smile of relief came over him. Don’t worry, he said, it won’t happen again.

Left with that reassurance, I sat down at a table, sipped the café crème I no longer have to ask for, and was re-enveloped by a bit of confusion. What exactly had made my exchange from the night before so unacceptable? Did I do anything I shouldn't have? If this wasn't, what, then, is acceptable?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Eid the Sequel

Eid-the-sequel – that is, day two – is apparently the day of real butchering.

Lured by a hot shower after all that sheep-handling, I spent the night on the couch in Salé next to the three carcasses – still on the floor where we had left them the day before. We were woken by the doorbell at nine: it was Khadija, with her bag full of knives, axes, and other tools, ready to get to work on the three sheep. While we were waiting for Fatima to serve breakfast, I was recruited to help Khadija. This involved pulling up a chair, holding the carcasses’ front legs while she cut away its sides, and helping to twist the carcass so that its lower body snapped off from its rib cage. Just as I was very self-consciously realizing what I was doing, I heard Alma laughing at me. This was a good learning experience for me, she said: when I married a Moroccan, I’d know how to handle a dead sheep.

I don’t think this is anything I had ever pictured myself doing. But once I forced the thought that these had been real sheep to the back of my head and retrieved a little of the anatomical interest that made me enjoy the dissection labs in medical school so much, it became interesting. I became intrigued again – as I did in medical school – by the layout of all those vessels, nerves, and other tubes that actually make the organs work. The way they are situated between all those membranes and layers of tissue, and how you can see traces of the animal’s embryotic development there.

What did bother me, though, is that no one else seemed very bothered by any issues of contamination. Maybe this is something not to get too worked up about with meat this fresh, but hadn’t those carcasses been lying there on the living room floor for about 24 hours already? Granted it’s cold in the house, but it’s no freezer. Yet I saw no one take too much pain to maintain a kind of hygiene, a kind of separation between raw meat and the rest of the world. All this meat-handling work was being done right there in the living room and sitting room, on the floor, sitting on turned-over prayer rugs. There was no hand washing between the cutting away of a flank and the taking a sip of tea, or the changing of the channel on TV. When it was time again to transport ourselves and our meat back to Rabat for lunch (it is beginning to seem as though Salé is our work room, Rabat our dining room), I was shoved into Manal’s backseat next to tens of un-sealed plastic bags full of cut-up meat, one of my two bags thrown right next to them all. Manal saw me looking a little worried and told me I had nothing to be concerned about, it was all good meat. Still though, it seems a little risky. Or am I too careful with this stuff?

It was mainly this that made me a little hesitant to try the meal of other organs that we were served for lunch today. The grilled entrails were served on the same plate as they had been placed on when raw, and there was no hand washing in between raw and cooked stages of preparation. But I did try it all – both the stew of what I think were lungs (including pieces of bronchial pipe), as well as the grilled kidneys and testicles. And again: not bad.

The streets were still deserted – though in Salé butchers had opened their doors and were clearly helping people with what we had done ourselves that morning: processing the sheep into manageable pieces. I did find an internet café in Rabat, though. A tiny one with a big lit-up sign on the busy street where I always walk. I had seen the sign for months, but had never found the actual place. Turns out, it’s 6 computers in the back of a téléboutique, all of which are occupied by little boys of Mustafa’s age, who are watching hard core porn in pairs. As I waited for a computer, the Ivorian proprietor complained to me about the clear lack of parental control here. He has these boys pay for their time in advance, he explained, and every five minutes he would get up and tell the boys it was time to go. In their most pleading voices, they would beg the proprietor for just another minute. Conflict continually ensued, usually ending with the proprietor turning off the computer to great consternation of the boys. Upon which I finally got my chance to read some emails – feeling slightly watched by the boys who were still around, still looking at things they should hardly know about at their age…

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Today, then, was the big day. Mostly, today was (finally) the kind of holiday that I had anticipated: a day of special customs and traditions – a day where ordinary life had clearly been suspended both at home and on the street. Yet there was no formality to it, no etiquette, no special dress, no decorations – but I guess this makes sense, given that most of this holiday’s special customs involve getting your hands (and feet, legs, clothes…) dirty with dead sheep.

The processing of dead sheep was, indeed, all this seemed (seems) to be about. After the actual moment of sacrifice, my family spent the entire day either dealing with parts of the dead animal, or eating it. Ilyas had mentioned to me that the most important element of ‘eid is family togetherness – as I had indeed expected – but I didn’t sense much of this in my surroundings. Of course, everything in Morocco is family oriented, and my daily life here in Rabat is dominated by a family much larger and extended than our general western conceptions, and much less private. The same kind of togetherness prevailed today. Still, I had expected a heightened sense of communalism today – I had wondered if other children of Khadija and Lahcen’s might come back to the family house – Amma’s father, for instance, or the sister who lives in Marrakech. I had even wondered if Si Mahmoud’s own family – who live in Salé – might join us. There was a whole sheep to be eaten, after all. But no such thing. We spent this holiday with even less individuals than make up the daily family circle – Amma wasn’t there. I am sensing a pattern: I think she spends most major holidays with her mother’s family in Kenitra. Ilyas had also mentioned that ‘eid is a time to solve family conflicts, but Manal and Alma carried on their usual politics of silence and made sure to be contributing to the overall sheep-handling process in separate rooms.

Before the big day I had asked my host family to point of exhaustion what was going to be happening and what we were going to be doing. In part because I was curious, and in part because I wanted to prepare. As I have mentioned earlier, most of the planning in this family takes place entirely without my inclusion, which makes everything feel very last minute and un-premeditated to me. It also feels frustrating, because when my host family finally informs me we’re doing something – by saying “yalla, noudi, ghanimshiu” (‘come on, we’re going’) – I am left with no time to get appropriately dressed and packed. Unfortunately, all my asking about ‘eid this time around did not help. I got little in the way of answers, and if they did tell me something, it was usually conveyed in a tone of voice that implies “you know, the way it always happens.” All I knew by the morning of ‘eid was that we had bought our sheep this weekend, that it was in Salé, and that around 10 AM it was to be slaughtered.

Not knowing much else, I got up early this morning and followed my family around so as not to miss anything. The day started as any other; apart from the fact that there was clearly more preparatory work going on in the kitchen than for an ordinary lunch, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. I gathered with my host sisters, Khadija and Yunus (who had slept over in Amma’s bed, next to mine) in the sitting room for tea and rghayef – my favorite breakfast: a kind of pita bread but softer, that you dip in a mixture of melted honey and butter.* We sat around watching the pan-Arab version of the Today Show – “Sbah l-kheir ya ‘arab” (‘good morning, Arab’, broadcast from Dubai by the London-based-but-Arab channel MBC). I had deliberately not yet changed, because I wanted to wait and see what the others were putting on. Caftans, or butcher’s aprons? What kind of day was this going to be? But I soon regretted this decision to wait: at 10 o’clock – which Alma had mentioned would be the sheep’s last hour – she told me to yalla, noudi, ghanimshiu; and five minutes after I had gotten upstairs I was called because the car was waiting. Where we were going, I had no idea. Were we picking up the sheep? Was the sheep going to be slaughtered somewhere else and then brought here? In either case, what should I bring? With my last ten seconds I threw my camera and wallet in my bag and with un-brushed hair and half-finished makeup, was pushed out the door to Manal’s car.

As it turned out, we were going to Salé. As it turned out, our sheep had been staying in Si Mahmoud and Fatima’s front yard since Saturday. As it turned out, my family had not just one, but three sheep. And as it turned out, we arrived just moments after the moment suprème. Manal, Yunus, Khadija and I entered the front yard to see a dead sheep bleeding its last drops on the ground, the two others already strung up and in the process of being skinned. I was so relieved to be spared the choice of watching-or-not, that any kind of anticipatory queasiness I had melted away entirely and I began, a little over-confidently and perhaps a bit morbidly, taking pictures of the dead animals hanging in the front yard, of their abandoned heads stacked up in a corner, of steaming hot sheep guts being cut away from the carcass. Unexpectedly, I did get a sight of an actual throat-slashing later on: none other than the king himself, who sacrificed two animals on live television. Seeing that on TV, I think I’m glad I did not witness that in reality… a little too much blood for my taste.

The butchers who had slaughtered the sheep cut out its main organs – guts, heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, peritoneum. These were transported inside to the kitchen, which had already been prepared: it was filled from wall to wall with a myriad of plastic bowls, containers, buckets, colanders, and so on. The women spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon washing, cutting, and otherwise handling these entrails, while the men brought the carcasses inside, laid them out on a table cloth spread out on the living room floor, and left (after a glass of tea, served by Fatima). I kept offering my assistance – I guessed that three sheep was going to be a lot of work… – but other than drying loads of dishes, I couldn’t be of much help; with Manal, Khadija and Fatima at work in the kitchen, all of them clearly experts at the routine of cleaning out internal organs, I would have only been in the way. So, not having thought to bring anything to do, I spent most of the day in the sitting room with Mustafa, watching cartoons and playing around with my camera (he has discovered the video setting, and now asks me to make recordings of him dancing and singing, which he insists I title “Mustafa le fou” – Mustafa the crazy).

Just as I had decided I was going to keep myself busy by going outside for a little walk, I was told there wasn’t time: we were going back to Rabat for lunch. We gathered all necessities: plastic buckets of organs, the bucket in which the three sheep’s heads had been collected, the barbeque equipment. Everything except for the three carcasses, which we left on their table cloth in the living room. All of this was loaded into the cars – the women’s purses placed right next to the sheep-matter without issue – and off we went, to unload it all in the Rabat medina. My assistance is always gladly requested whenever anything has to be transported, and so I soon found myself walking through the streets of our neighborhood with a tile full of sheep testicles in my hand…

Back in Rabat, Alma (who had stayed behind) had prepared a small grill in the courtyard, on which we barbequed our lunch: pieces of liver, wrapped in slivers of the sheep’s peritoneum, strung onto big skewers. Once done, we put the pieces into a small round pita bun and added some ketchup, mayonnaise, or “harr” (Moroccan hot sauce – very good). We ate these sandwiches along with the bowls of “shlada” that are always served with lunch – dips made from carrots, a kind of Moroccan spinach, finely cut tomatoes.

I am not a fan of liver, and having seen where that peritoneum came from, I was not eager to taste this. But I have to say that, once I made myself forget what I was eating, it wasn’t bad at all. Maybe because it was so fresh, or maybe because everything grilled kind of tastes the same, it did not taste like liver at all.

It became clear that not much was going to happen after lunch – as usual, the women seemed to retreat for a siesta, while Si Mahmoud retreated with his paper, cigarette, and coffee. A little restless these days, I decided to keep myself busy by looking for an internet café – but in vain. In fact, I have never seen the medina as desolate as it was this afternoon, except maybe at 1 AM. All storefronts were boarded up, and absolutely nothing was open – even on Ramadan mornings I do not remember it being this extremely deserted. Even the streetlights seemed to be taking a hiatus, and it was dark and rainy. There were people outside, though: about every 50 meters, groups of men stood around self-made street fires, built of coal and drift wood from the looks of it, on which they were grilling sheep’s heads. The streets were a mess of burnt material – old pieces of wood, coal, a sheep’s horn here and there, twigs. In combination with the pouring rain and the general desolation, it made for a very strange, almost apocalyptic, atmosphere.

Now it is 10 PM. At the end of day one, having eaten only the sheeps’ liver, I am left with this question: how on earth are we, this small family of eight, going to eat three entire sheep?

* rghayef are round slices of dough that you cook in a skillet. On the stove, they blow up like balloons, creating a perfect little pre-sliced bun. I am so intrigued by how this happens.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The 'Eid that Wasn't (Yet)

Today day came and went without sight of a sheep in the house, let alone a slaughtering. It turns out that – while most of the Middle East as well as the Moroccan diaspora in Europe celebrated their holiday today – Morocco is waiting until tomorrow. But something was clearly in the works today – the atmosphere reminded me a lot of the ‘eid after Ramadan: there was a lot of calling of friends and family, a lot of traffic on the street, everyone home from school and work. Today was clearly a day out of the ordinary, though. Today reminded me of the ‘eid after Ramadan – much calling of friends and family to wish them “’eid moubarak said,” everyone home from school and work, lots of traffic on the street – mostly pedestrians waiting around to have their knives, axes, and so on sharpened by the sharpeners that have taken place on every street corner…

Our kitchen is a beehive of preparatory work. I have never seen this much equipment and food out on the counter top at the same time. How are we ever going to have room for that sheep?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Back to the Clinic

This morning I had another meeting with Doctor Chikri at the psychiatric Clinic. I had planned this meeting primarily as a way to remind him of my existence, weeks after having given me research permission, but it was useful. Dr. Chikri introduced me to the hospital’s director of research, Dr. Rachidi, and together they discussed with me the hospital’s protocols for research conducted on its premises.

One thing I learned was that it is apparently illegal in Morocco for anyone without some kind of medical certification to be alone with patients. I believe I had heard that somewhere earlier, but clearly had forgotten it, because it is not something I had thought of as a possibility while designing my methodology. In any case, this means that all of my contact with patients, including the intensive interviews I want to conduct, will be supervised by a psychiatrist. Obviously this will affect the analysis in some way – having a third person in the room will affect what a patient chooses to tell me, what words he or she chooses to use; and most likely it will affect me and my engagement with the patient, as well. But I don’t necessarily think it will hurt the research in any way. Hopefully, the supervising clinician will be the patient’s actual treating physician. In that case I am hoping the patient will already have established such a rapport and relationship of openness with that clinician, that having him or her present during the interview will not necessarily make the patient keep certain things inside. If anything, the patient will probably be more likely to open up toward the psychiatrist than toward me – and in that case perhaps having the patient’s doctor there will create a kind of atmosphere of familiarity and comfort that will allow him or her to trust me more than they otherwise would…

It also answers any questions that the IRB board will have about issues such as crisis management, evaluation of patients’ capacity to understand my research and give consent for participation, and the potentially upsetting nature of certain questions. The only question I am left with now, is how to provide the same kinds of assurances for the clients of sha’ouada – popular, religious, or cultural healing practices. Obviously there is no such institutional framework there to make use of, so how do I satisfy the IRB? The best thing to do, probably, is to tell the IRB that this group is not actually mentally ill – to refer to them as ‘clients’ rather than ‘patients’. And in fact, this is a better way to frame my project, in general: because, after all, many of these clients have not been formally diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, and many choose to visit a mousha‘ouada (traditional/popular/cultural healer) precisely because they reject the label of ‘mentally ill’. Hopefully, by avoiding the label of mental illness, questions of competence and such will not emerge. The only question then, is how to explain my use of the MINI – a diagnostic interview protocol that I plan to conduct with both ‘patients’ and ‘clients’. I’m using it only to establish some kind of baseline for comparison – even if it is an admittedly biased one because it makes use of psychiatric paradigms – but I need to find a way to justify the fact that I am submitting a population that either doesn’t consider itself mentally ill, or rejects that label to this diagnostic tool…

The difference between ‘patient’ and ‘client’ also came up briefly in the talk I had with Dr. Rachidi after leaving Dr. Chikri’s office. Telling her more in detail about my research project, she, too, volunteered her own thoughts about what makes people choose sha‘ouada over psychiatry. Like Ilyas, she also affirmed that this decision does not necessarily have anything to do with income level or even education. These two factors are certainly involved for many people, but there are interesting exceptions – the rich and educated who avoid psychiatrists as vehemently as a member of the lower class. What she also mentioned, as Ilyas had as well, was the distinction that is made between ‘illness’ and ‘culture’. A psychiatrist belongs in the domain of disease, of afflictions and of stigma. Going to a psychiatrist means being ‘crazy’. Sha‘ouada, on the other hand, belongs in the realm of culture. Visiting a fqih, a shouafa, or a saint’s tomb does not carry the stigma that a psychiatric consult does – and so many people resort to the latter to alleviate their malaise.

This argument I also found in one of the three theses I found in the Clinic’s library. Apparently all psychiatric residents write a “mémoire,” a kind of thesis, at the end of their program. All these theses are collected in the Clinic library, and Dr. Rachidi recalled at least three that discuss precisely the questions I am interested in: what makes people choose for either a psychiatrist or a mousha‘ouid (formulated by these psychiatrist more in the sense of ‘why do people wait so long to get real help?’). Dr. Rachidi introduced me to a woman who I think is the Clinic librarian, office manager, or something like that – a woman, at least, with a little command of French and a key to the library. With the authors’ names on a sheet of paper, she accompanied me there and sat me down on a chair while she searched and delivered me the three works. I looked around, already noticing there was no Xerox machine. How would I be able to make copies? I was about to ask this when she herself brought this up. Follow me, she said, and off we went – out of the library, off the hospital premises, and into the little surrounding streets, in search of a téléboutique.

Xeroxing is one of those other things in Morocco that is really easy to do – once you figure out where and how. You will not find a kinko’s here. But what you do find, and on every street corner in fact, is a téléboutique (a little parlor with payphones) or a cyber (internet café) that has a Xerox machine. The way it works is that you hand your material to the proprietor, who will then make your copies. If it’s a page or two you can wait while he or she takes care of your job, but if you have a lot – like my 180 pages – you will get an estimate. Or a flatout refusal. All three téléboutiques we stopped by in the Clinic’s neighborhood took one look at the stack of theses and shook their heads. Not enough paper, they said. After shop number three, the librarian told me to just take the theses with me, copy them on my own, and bring them back as soon as I could – which, with the upcoming eid, would be next week.

Back in my own neighborhood, I went to my favorite, albeit very slowly connected, internet café in the middle of the bustle of rue souika – it’s hidden behind a hole in the wall shop that sells lacy table cloths and place mats – and it has a Xerox machine. No refusal here, but clearly it was going to take some time: was Sunday early enough? This estimate made me a little nervous: the Clinic had made clear these were valuable possessions, and I didn’t feel comfortable leaving them unattended behind that old desk at that old internet café for an entire weekend. So I asked him, if he did just one of the three, how long would it take? With a weighty expression, he leafed through the work – upside down – and asked me, how many pages? Fifty-five, I said. He nodded, looked at the thesis again as though it was a carburetor, and told me: today, 6 PM? I agreed. And just as I was about to leave with the other two, he told me to leave them, and gave me a wink. A little hesitant but hopeful, I left him with the Clinic’s material.

When I came back at seven thirty, he had indeed managed to make copies of all three theses. With a big smile, he handed me the entire packet. It came down to 94 Dirhams ($10) for about 200 pages of material. Not bad.

Impending 'Eid

This year, Eid l-Kbir falls on December 8 – this coming Monday. Eid l-kbir, as the name suggests (“kbir” means big), is arguably the biggest of Islamic holidays – or, at least, the holiday involving the maximum of preparation and special customs. It commemorates God’s request to Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his son as a sign of his faith and obedience. For Muslims, by the way, the son in question is Ismail (the son Abraham had by Hagar), not Isaac (his son with Sarah) – and it is from Ismail, Muslims believe, that Arabs descend (while Jews descend from Isaac). Eid l-kbir is in some sense also importantly linked to the hajj (pronounced ‘hah-zj’), the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage that is (ideally) expected of every Muslim. It is believed that Ibrahim built a temple on the spot where he nearly sacrificed his son; this, today, is known as the Ka’aba, the huge black box that stands at the center of the world’s largest mosque in Mecca and around which Muslims circumambulate 7 times when there for hajj – it is the highlight of pilgrimage.*

Because at the very last minute, god spared Ibrahim from the ultimate sacrifice and replaced Ismail with a lamb, Muslims today commemorate this almost-sacrifice by slaughtering a sheep. Every family who can afford it buys a sheep of their own, keeps it on their roof terrace or courtyard for a few days, and then kills it on the big day. This can be done by a member of the family, or a hired butcher – anyone skilled in the laws of halal butchering.** Like Judaism, Islam has specific rules about preparing and eating meat. Most people know that Muslims do not eat pork; on top of that, all animals must be slaughtered by means of a swift cut across the throat with a sharp knife. This way the jugular veins are slashed, which means the animal bleeds to death within a matter of seconds and with a minimum amount of suffering. This type of slaughtering must, moreover, be carried out by someone who is Muslim and who is pure; that is, someone who has carried out the ritual ablutions that must precede most important Islamic acts (most importantly prayer; but technically, even touching the Qur’an must be preceded by ritual washing).

These days the streets bear signs of heavy preparation for Eid. About a block away from Fatima and Si Mahmoud’s house in Salé, for instance, is a large sheep market that draws thousands of people every day. I think that buying a sheep is a little like buying a Christmas tree. That is, sheep come in all shapes and sizes and vary greatly in price – they range anywhere from 800 to 9000 Dirhams (about $90 to $800), depending on the quality one is looking for. And of course, prices go up the later you buy – those last minute customers who frantically try to procure an animal on the eve of eid will have to fork over a small fortune for the last bony sheep in the flock… It’s a trade-off, I guess, between paying an early-bird price for a good animal but having to keep it in the house for a few days (and feed it, too), or waiting until the last minute but limiting one’s options. My family has bought its sheep, but it has not yet arrived at the house - and I am very curious to see when it will. The time is approaching, clearly; a few times a day now I am almost run over by carts bearing heavily resistant sheep – often with men running alongside the vehicle, holding the animals down by their horns…

Our neighbors, clearly, are more on top of their game; I have been hearing their sacrificial animal bleating on the roof for three days and nights now. It is a haunting bleat and I keep thinking I hear despair in it – as though the animal knows what’s coming. But that’s probably just me.

Apparently the price of sheep is exorbitant this year. In part this is due to the rain from last month – most of the north flooded dramatically, and a lot of herds perished. Also, it is due to the global economic crisis. This I think is hilarious: slaughtering sheep at home seems to belong to a time period way before globalization and free markets – and here we are, with even this very traditional tradition being affected by the pinnacle of 21st century globalization.

These days, the medina shops offer every necessity for the DIY sheep slaughterer. Where normally one might find stands with counterfeit dvd’s (“le piratage”) or, more recently, warm woolen leggings (a bargain at 40Dh – about $5) and warm-water bottles, vendors now offer huge knives, cutting boards, grills, lighter fluid, axes, other barbeque utensils – and hay. A sort of last meal for the animals, I guess…

My host family keeps telling me I should stay away at the moment supreme. “You’re going to cry,” they warn. Last night in the car, Si Mahmoud elaborated: apparently my host family had two American host students staying with them during one ‘eid, and these girls were fairly vocal about their disapproval of this tradition. Si Mahmoud found this a bit hypocritical: these girls happily ate meat every day, but felt wronged by the actual act of killing. I have to say that I agree. I still think I might turn my head at the actual moment of slashing (though the anthropologist in me should really stick with it…), but none of this is any crueler than what the meat industry does on a daily basis. And at least, every last bit of this sheep will be eaten with relish.***

* And so, while the hajj is performed in imitation of the Prophet Muhammed, in whose time this tradition already existed (before the arrival of Islam, Mecca was a site of pilgrimage for pagan traditions; Mohammed reinterpreted this custom in a monotheistic light), it is a pilgrimage not to the monuments of his life, but instead to those of Ibrahim, Ismail, and Hagar. All rituals that make up the full hajj recall events in the lives of these three characters.
** ‘Halal’ means ‘permitted’ in a religious sense, and it is applied to anything that is allowed within Islam. It is opposed to ‘haram’, which refers to everything that is outlawed.
*** I am afraid this means I will be served things like organs and other non-conventional parts of an animal body. But I’m going to be adventurous: I’m going to try it all at least once. Who knows, maybe I’ll really like sheep brains…

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Hshouma Culture

My indignant host sister, Manal, uses the word “hshouma” at least thirty times a day. She often uses it to accuse others: “hshouma ‘alik!” or “hshouma ‘alikoum!” At other times she uses the word more generally – any number of issues that are talked about between the members of my host family will be deemed “hshouma.”

Manal is not the only one; “hshouma” is a frequently used word in Moroccan society. In its most general translation, “hshouma” means ‘shame’, and the word is attached, basically, to anything that does or would go against social and cultural convention. You can say this about things others have done: A guest was received at a house but not given anything to drink? Hshouma ‘alihoum – shame on the hosts! A girl and boy were kissing on the street? Hshouma ‘alihoum! Someone wore his outdoor shoes into the hammam? Hshouma ‘alih! And so on.

Alternatively, you can use it to explain how certain things must be done. Serve guests only water because you only have a little tea left? No, impossible, hshouma. Walk outside in your underwear? No, impossible – hshouma. Keep your last extra blanket for yourself rather than give it to someone else? No, impossible – hshouma. You get the picture.

Hshouma is a strong word, and (despite the fact that I hear it so often) I am told not to use it too frequently. If bothered on the street, for instance, it is best to stick to “ihtaram rasek” (respect yourself): only if harassment gets really bad is a pronouncement of “hshouma” warranted.

Hshouma is such an omnipresent word that my friend Hatim talks about a veritable “taqafat hshouma” – a culture of hshouma – in Morocco. If that is true, that would make Morocco a ‘shame culture’.

The notion of a ‘shame-culture’ is part of an old anthropological theory that divides societies into two groups: those that base themselves primarily on shame, and those that base themselves primarily on guilt. Shame and guilt, in this theory, feature as strong human emotions that can be used as tools for social control. Both are negative emotions brought about when a person acts in an unsanctioned way. However, the commonly understood distinction between the two holds that guilt is felt about acts, whereas shame is felt about the self. That is, having done something unsanctioned (by culture, law, family, whichever) we can feel guilty about what we’ve done, though this does not necessarily affect our image of ourselves. But when such an act elicits shame, the unsanctioned act seems to mean that we, as individuals, are somehow deficient, dysfunctional. But while shame thus seems much more person-centered than guilt, at the same time guilt can be felt very internally, whereas shame often involves public perception. That is, we can feel guilty about an act no one knows we’ve committed, whereas shame depends on the perception of being judged negatively by others. In fact, Ruth Benedict (an old-generation anthropologist heavily involved in creating this concept of shame- and guilt-cultures) claimed that shame is a violation of cultural values, whereas guilt is a violation of personal ones.

This theory also holds that guilt-based cultures are to be found in the Judeo-Christian world, whereas shame-based cultures are those of the Far- and Middle East. It claims that members of Judeo-Christian societies socialize their members by using guilt as a motivator for adherence to norms and values, whereas the Arab world and Asia use shame. This leads to a different relationship between individual and society. Generally, the theory claims that people socialized by means of guilt have internalized their society’s norms much more than members of a shame-culture. Because shame is so connected to the person, it is much more dependent on public perception – we can feel guilt even if no one knows what we did, but shame emerges when we are conscious of being seen as guilty. Real culpability doesn’t matter, it is suggested – it is only being seen as guilty that counts. Shame cultures thus work with observational judgment, while guilt cultures work with internal judgment. Shame-based cultures are those that do not talk; guilt-based cultures are those that do.

Indeed, ‘hshouma’ is a method of socializing children in Morocco. As Hatim explained, children are taught what isn’t appropriate by frequent use of the word ‘hshouma’. Eating without proper etiquette, for instance, is not impolite, but simply hshouma.

Clearly, also, Morocco is a society that works with observational judgment rather than discussion. But still, I have issues designating Morocco as a ‘shame culture’ without a second thought.

Because the theories that divide cultures into shame-based and guilt-based have a bias – a bias that becomes clear at the very outset by the reference to guilt-based societies as being “Judeo-Christian” in origin. Clearly, the guilt-based versus shame-based distinction maps directly onto the us-versus-them polarity. It is a matter of self versus other. And of course, as self-other distinctions always aim for, the former must come out looking better than the latter. And indeed, shame-based cultures are often described as negative and dysfunctional; ‘shame’ as a whole is described as a much less constructive emotion than guilt. Because it focuses on acts, such theories hold, the experience of guilt leads a person to act, to repair the damage done assertively. Shame, on the other hand, is more internal, and often causes us to turn inward. We withdraw, or we act out – we behave in other inappropriate or slightly unhealthy ways to cover up our sense of shame. This may mean pre-emptive aggression (lifting oneself up by putting others down), or seeking power and perfection (preventing the possibility of future shame). By designating guilt as an internalized form of social control and shame as an external motivator, these theories even seem to imply that shame-based cultures are stuck in a lower stage of Kohlberg’s theories of moral development. It suggests that members of a shame-culture are motivated only by the fear of external rejection, rather than the inherent good- or badness of an action.

Clearly the notion of ‘shame-based cultures’ and ‘guilt-based-cultures’ need to be taken with a huge grain of salt. First of all, no culture should be definitively characterized as either one – all cultures, most likely, include elements of both. Even if we are part of a Judeo-Christian ‘guilt-based-society’, don’t we also know the feeling of shame, and can’t that be as strong an instrument of social control as guilt? In the same way, I am sure that Moroccans feel guilt just like they feel shame. The fact that ‘hshouma’ is so often pronounced does not exclude that possibility in any way.

And secondly, can we really distinguish so clearly between shame and guilt, anyway? Is shame really so public yet linked to the person, and guilt really so internalized yet linked to actions? Does shame really affect the self in a way that guilt does not? And also, how debilitating is shame, really? Any emotion, if taken to the extreme, can result in inappropriate behavioral responses. But in a healthy dose, shame may not be that different from any other feeling.

In Morocco, the notion of hshouma certainly goes together with a heavy sense of observational control. But still, I don’t think that means social norms have not been internalized, that people obey the law only out of extrinsic motivations (punishment, reward). To the contrary. It’s important to keep in mind that what counts, in the case of shame, is not whether public disapproval actually exists. It is only the person’s own sense of receiving such evaluation that matters. Shame can lead to a great internalization of what is right and what is wrong – Manal’s (and everyone else's) constant pronouncement of ‘hshouma’ is prime evidence of that fact.

But in any case, it makes me wonder: how would Moroccans distinguish between shame and guilt? What do Moroccans feel guilty about? What is the word for ‘guilty’ in Moroccan Arabic?