Thursday, November 26, 2009

Reflections on Fieldwork at the Clinic

Tomorrow marks the end of my fourth week of research. And after twenty mornings of observation, 4 different wards, and more than 50 typed pages of field notes, I’m more excited than ever about this project.

I start each day at the réunion de staff, a meeting in which the residents and professors get together to discuss all new admissions of the day before. Afterwards I head to one of the wards, where I observe the daily goings-on. I sit in on medical consultations or meetings between nurses. I participate in recreational activities for patients, walk around the ward, look at the schedules and announcements posted in the nurses’ office, get a sense of the way in which records are kept, listen to doctors discussing treatment options with one another, or simply sit in a chair and watch. I have informal conversations with the staff, in which I’ll ask them about their method of diagnosis, their protocols for treatment, or about the backgrounds of their patients, and they’ll ask me about my research plans.

For the moment I am simply an observer; apart from these informal conversations I’m not engaging in any actual interviews yet. But even just these brief mornings of watching have produced more data than I had ever expected at this stage of research. Everything I see and hear at the Clinic is material. I’m picking up data and learning new things at multiple levels, all at the same time. I’m learning linguistically: I write down the French terms for disorders, symptoms, and other phenomena. I’m becoming so used to being in a francophone hospital environment that I’m beginning to have trouble thinking of the English equivalent for words like prise en charge (care), sevrage (withdrawal), or infirmier chef (head nurse?).

At the same time, I’m learning on a medical level: I’m becoming familiar with psychiatric symptomatology, its clinical presentations, and its biological consequences. I frantically write down every snippet of general medical information that I glean from my observations, and spend most of my afternoons googling the names of medications I’ve seen prescribed, the workings of different neurotransmitters, or the DSM-IV description of personality disorders.* I’m learning about the Clinic’s procedures for admission, treatment, and discharge, as well as national laws governing hospitalizations, and am getting a sense of how clinical observations are recorded and communicated between doctors and nurses.

And finally, I’m gathering ethnographic data. I observe how residents interact with their professors, how doctors talk to nurses, and how staff communicate with patients. I’m getting a sense of how patients express their symptoms, and how doctors listen to these explanations. I’m taking note of the gender balance and how this affects the relationship between patients and staff. I’m beginning to get a sense of how psychiatric theories interact with popular belief in spirits and magic, how medical knowledge is imparted to students, and of how medical expertise lends power.

All of this data makes for almost incessant note-taking, and a bit of internal conflict sometimes about what to write down, and what to let slide. In that sense I’m also learning about myself as an observer – about what I pick up on and what I miss, what I consider important, and how I position myself vis-à-vis the people among whom I am doing research. I spend a fair amount of time talking to two other foreign women spending some time at the hospital – a student of clinical psychology and a psychiatrist. As we exchange impressions and reflections, I find a lot of my observations reinforced, but also curiously take note of differences in interpretation, or of interesting bits of information I had completely missed. Their viewpoint is valuable to me – the extra eyes and minds add more data to my notes, but also allow me an additional dimension of reflection on what I’m seeing. Their experience of clinical practice in France provides me with a valuable comparison for the things that strike me about psychiatry here, and provide me with a sounding board on which I can test some of my own budding interpretations.**

This wealth of input only makes me hungry for more, and I’ve never felt more motivated or energetic about my project. At the same time, however, the wealth of sensory input gets a little overwhelming sometimes. There is so much to take in that I feel as though I’m left without enough time to process it all, to wrap my head around it and make sense out of what I’m seeing. As far as my ethnographic work is concerned, this might not be something to worry too much about. There’s something to say, perhaps, for just diving in at this stage of the project – of immersing myself completely and just letting it all flood over me. It might even be too early to try and distill some interpretations or theories out of what I’ve seen – if I draw conclusions now, perhaps I’ll blind myself to new evidence that might contradict what I think I’ve learned?

But personally, it’s difficult sometimes to relinquish that sense of control, that sense of knowing what’s going on. And for the purposes of this blog, I do wish that I were a little bit more able to distill a few coherent ideas out of my field notes, just enough for a post or two. There is so much I want to write about – the communication between doctors and patients, the concept of ‘psychiatric expertise’ and the way in which it shapes that communication, the notion of hysteria (so outdated a term in Europe and the US, but so commonly used here), the role of gender in shaping interactions, treatment plans, and diagnoses. All of these ideas are floating around in my mind, but I just can’t seem to find enough clarity to pin them down with adequate, descriptive words. Hopefully I’ll find a bit of coherence in due course. I’ll try to keep posting about once a week – and I’ll try to return to writing about things other than my research, as well.

* This level of learning has made me particularly conscious of how much I miss medicine. How intrigued I am not just by the human mind, but by the human body as well. I don’t want to use the word regret because I don’t for a moment regret choosing anthropology, but I do regret making a choice in general; I regret having decided at some point that I wouldn’t be able to do both medicine and anthropology. It’s never too late, I suppose, and in theory I could apply for medical school once I finish my PhD. When that time comes, I guess I’ll have to ask myself what I’d rather do: start another rigorous four years of education when I’m in my early thirties, or spend the rest of my life knowing that a part of me will always miss medicine?
** In addition, I’m finding it incredibly valuable to be able to talk about what I’ve seen with others who have shared the experience. I’m observing at the Clinic’s emergency room this week, and a few of the people who’ve come in for psychiatric help have really struck me in their sadness and hopelessness. More so than on the other wards, observation this week has affected me emotionally, and it’s been helpful to talk about these observations with others who were there.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Ethnography of a Psychiatric Ward: The Meaning of Psychosis

“What’s the point?” she asks. She looks fragile as she sits in that chair, her shoulders drooping and her face nearly hidden by the pink hoodie she’s pulled over her hair. She looks at the doctor with a bit of frustration in her eyes, her hands digging themselves deeper into her hoodie’s pockets.

“It’s gone, and I feel good. Isn’t that all that matters?”

Doctor Mourad leans back, and lets out a subtle sigh. Then he responds:

“But it’s important that we talk about this, you and me, so that I can help you.”

The consultation is suddenly interrupted when the door swings open and another resident walks in. She shares this consultation room with Dr. Mourad, and she’s here to pick up her bag. As the two physicians exchange a few pleasantries, I notice the patient’s head sinking lower and lower, until it is cradled by her hands. Rhythmic tremors running through her shoulders betray that she is crying.

But she has not given in. After the female resident leaves, Dr. Mourad tries again, to no avail. He is hoping to convince his patient to talk about her experience of possession by what she calls a diable, a devil (or, in Arabic, a shaitan*). I cannot help but think that he’s doing so in part for my benefit; ever since the doctors on this ward have learned about my research interests, they are constantly calling me in to observe their interaction with patients who claim to have been possessed or cursed – an experience the doctors categorically define as a particular kind of hallucination. None have been as unwilling to discuss the subject as this young woman, and I am struck by her defensiveness.

Her next argument calls on notions of expertise and authority, as she hopes to excuse herself from the responsibility of having to explain what happened to her:

“You shouldn’t ask me,” she says. “I don’t know anything about jnoun, diables or shaitans. All I know is what it says in the Qur’an. If you want any explanations, don’t ask me. You need to talk to an expert, some kind of scholar.”

The doctor tries to explain that he’s not interested in theory; he just wants to know what happened to her. But it’s no use, and a few minutes later we escort the patient back to her room. She’s staying in the closed women’s ward: a dreary concrete courtyard where about twenty five very sick women spend their days doing little more than wandering around. Paint flakes off the walls and ceilings, there is little more than a few rusty old hospital beds to sit on in the recreational room, and a stale smell of abandonment hangs in the air. It is a far cry from the state of the art facilities where I spent my first week at the Clinic. Having moved on to a third ward at the time of writing, I’ve learned that this closed ward is by no means representative of the rest of this hospital. Nevertheless, it struck me in its sadness, and I think the difference in environment between this and other wards is worth exploring.

The dreariness of this ward is matched by a complete lack of stimulation or activity for the patients. Doctors tell me that a hair dresser comes to the ward to do the patients’ hair once in a while, and nurses will sometimes hang out with the women, listening to music or dancing a little. But there is no exercise equipment like there was on the addiction ward, nor are there musical instruments, books, or a television. Nothing is allowed on the ward; in their psychosis or suicidality, a fair amount of these women cannot be trusted not to do something harmful. On the one hand, I wonder how these women make it through the day, with nothing to do. On the other, even I can see that the majority of these patients are too sick to be able to participate in any kind of activity.

Most of the patients on this ward suffer from a psychotic disorder. They are heavily medicated: each morning, the nurses enter the ward with a tray full of Haldol, Largactil,** and other anti-psychotics and tranquilizers. The medication is often administered by injection – pills can be refused, I guess. There is no privacy; each room accommodates five to six women. Without curtains or doors to hide behind anywhere, patients are injected right there on the courtyard, en plein public.

Despite this medication, the women seem truly sick. Many of them spend their days walking around the courtyard, talking animatedly to the voices in their head. They slur their speech when they talk, and jump from one subject to the next. They crowd around the locked glass door that separates the ward from the nurses’ area, and sing famous Sherine songs.*** When they notice me, sitting there with the staff, they blow me kisses, and call out that I’m trop belle. A few of them even begin to recite the Fatiha, the first verses of the Qur’an. I’m struck by this ‘strange’ lack of inhibition, and take it as a sign that these women are really sick. Nevertheless, when that glass door opens and they all come in to greet me, they are friendly, and normal, and simply curious. They just want to know my name, where I’m from, how I’m doing. The next day, I see genuine recognition in their eyes as they greet me again.

A lot of the patients, the doctors tell me, believe they have been possessed, or cursed. One of the residents tells me, almost self-consciously, that for a psychiatrist, this is a hallucination. An anthropologist might feel differently, she adds, but for her, it is part of a psychotic symptomatology. I don’t have time to respond – she’s in consultation with a patient at the moment, and simply turns to me once in a while to ‘translate’ what the patient is saying into psychiatric terms. But it makes me realize that I need to come up with a ready answer for questions such as these. I am so often asked these days if I believe in possession, or in the effectiveness of countercurses. Regardless of how I might feel about these issues, I think I’ll say “I don’t know.” True objectivity is an illusion, I know that, but I think it’s a better idea not to weigh in on these questions with the people who are participating in my research, and try to maintain some kind of neutrality.

A central question in my research, however, is what happens when two different theories about mental illness meet. What does it do to a person’s experience of being sick, when his or her belief about possession is explained (dismissed?) by a psychiatrist as a ‘hallucination’? I cannot help but wonder if this has anything to do with that young woman’s unwillingness to tell Dr. Mourad about her experience. As we talked about her reticence, Dr. Mourad explained that she might worry that her diable will come back if she talks about it. Alternatively, she might be afraid that talking about devils will lead doctors to conclude that she warrants longer hospitalization. Dr. Mourad, however, feels that she will not truly be well enough to leave until she is able to talk openly about her experience. I can see his point; I tend to believe in the idea that talking – externalizing – provides a necessary kind of catharsis. Nevertheless, I wonder what it’s like for a patient like this young woman; to be asked to open up about a very traumatic experience to someone who might not agree about what that experience meant, and who has no more than twenty minutes a day to speak with you.

All of it makes me wonder about the nature or definition of ‘pathology’. Who has the right to define what’s normal and what’s not, and who gets to decide what it all means, or what should be done about it? I’m thinking here not just about the meaning of possession. Aside from these beliefs, another problem most of the patients had in common was a history of prostitution. Nearly every patient I met on the ward had, according to the doctors, engaged in some kind of prostitution at some moment in time. This behavior was often seen as a symptom of illness: a sign of mania, or psychosis. Some patients talked openly about it all, while others denied ever having sold their bodies – a sign, for the psychiatrist, of that patient’s impaired judgment. I couldn’t help but wonder, though, whether it might not be at least a little understandable that a woman might deny having engaged in something considered to be so shameful?

In addition, I wonder how much cultural beliefs and social expectations have weighed in on the high occurrence of ‘prostitution’-as-pathology among these patients. Morocco is a modernizing country, but extramarital sex is still, and will probably long remain, highly unacceptable for a woman. Does that mean, I wonder, that the definition of ‘prostitution’ here in Morocco is broader than ours? Once, when discussing an alcoholic male patient’s extramarital affairs with girls, a resident insisted that he must have slept with prostitutes. Anything else was simply not possible, she said; any girl who has extramarital sex is by definition a prostitute. Perhaps some of these female patients had engaged in behavior that, by Western standards, would not necessarily be termed prostitution? And in the same way, I wonder if the particular unacceptability of extramarital sex might mean that doctors here are more likely than elsewhere to label promiscuous behavior as ‘pathological’? Excessive promiscuity is often included on lists of the kind of reckless behavior that the DSM-IV lists as a possible symptom of mania, or various personality disorders. Nevertheless, I wonder if cultural mores weigh in here to create this particular tendency to label people with deviant sexual behavior.

I spent a lot of my time on this ward in a chair in the nurses’ lounge, observing the women on the ward through that glass door. And as they crowded up against that door to wave or sing to me, I began to wonder: what really is the difference between me and them? Aren’t we both curiously and unabashedly observing the other? I am as interested in them as they are in me. As a foreigner I, too, don’t always behave according to the social rules. Aren’t I, then, as abnormal as they are? When the nurse pulls a screen in front of the door, I am not sure whose gaze she is trying to avert – theirs, or mine.

I had hoped to do my research on this ward, but the level of pathology might pose a problem. I can interview only those who are capable of understanding the goals of my research, and of providing informed consent for participation. I did not meet a single patient who would have met those criteria – an observation later corroborated by most of the residents. I haven’t yet visited the open women’s ward, but hope this may be a better fit. Part of me is relieved, not to have to spend a few months on that dreary, tragic ward. But the other part of me continues to think about the women I’ve met there, wondering how they’re doing now, half a week since I last saw them, wondering also where they might end up, once they leave the Clinic.

* though curiously, this woman argued that a diable is not the same thing as a shaitan. It was one of the few things she was willing to explain – though she couldn’t tell us what exactly the difference was. I continue to be intrigued by the way in which Moroccans mix French and Arabic - and her distinction between these two concepts interestingly contradicts the idea that the two languages are conceptually interchangeable...
** Largactil is known as thorazine in the US, I believe.
*** Sherine is a famous middle eastern singer. Egyptian, most likely.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ethnography of a Psychiatric Ward: Addiction in Rabat

Mr. Abbas is a thin, clean-shaven man in his fifties. He is well-spoken, but restless as he meets with his treating physician, a young petite woman in her second year of psychiatric residency. Sitting on the edge of his seat, he keeps getting up and walks around the room, as though he is acting out the story he is telling. He is beating around the bush, and the resident repeatedly calls him on it: you’re not answering my question, she tells him.

He isn’t providing the resident with the information she is looking for. Neither is he speaking her language: while she poses her questions in Moroccan Arabic, he insists on answering in French, and utters not a word in dialect throughout the meeting. At first I think he may be doing this for the benefit of the observers in the room: two master’s students in clinical psychology, a psychiatrist from France, and myself. Our presence probably did have something to do with his conduct. But there was more to Mr. Abbas’ very performative behavior.

Mr. Abbas is an alcoholic, and he has checked himself into the Clinic in order to conquer his addiction. When his doctor introduces us, the observers, during this particular consultation, Mr. Abbas responds with a polite and pleasant enchanté, and proceeds to introduce himself with a quite elaborate story. He is a successful lawyer, he tells us, well-educated and fluent in French. Over the course of the consultation he talks about his practice, his nice car, his wife – none of which the resident asked about. After he leaves, his doctor tells us that Mr. Abbas hasn’t worked in three years. His wife has left; in fact, the life he just described to us has been destroyed by his addiction. What emerges at that point is the sad picture of a man dethroned; a man who has lost everything he thought to validate his existence; a man who desperately tries to maintain an image he knows he has already lost.

And it made me wonder. What does alcoholism mean for a Moroccan man? Alcoholism is destructive to anyone, but in this country, where alcohol is forbidden by religious decree, what does it mean to be an alcoholic? What does it do to Mr. Abbas’ sense of who he is? To his identity as a man, as a Moroccan, as a Muslim?

Mr. Abbas is but one of the patients I met during my week of observation on the service de toxicomanie, the Clinic’s addiction ward. It was the inaugural week of my research project; though I will not actually be able to do anything I mention in my research proposal until I obtain authorization from a local ethics board, the Clinic’s director has given me permission to kick-start my research with a period of general observation. Dr. Rachidi and I designed a schedule that would put me on a different ward each week, and as of last Monday, I spend every weekday morning looking around, shadowing doctors and nurses, and sitting in on meetings and rounds.

The service de toxicomanie has been running for a number of years, but recently moved into new housing: a newly built two-storey construction just inside the hospital grounds. Clearly the recipient of considerable funding, the service stands out from the rest of the hospital by virtue of its size and its modern and clean appearance.

But despite its large quarters, the service is small. Aside from Dr. Rachidi, who is the attending on this ward (here she is called professeur), the place is staffed by two residents (résidents) and about three nurses per shift. The number of patients, too, is small; I can count them on my two hands. All are male, and most are there because of their dependence on alcohol. From a poster that charts the service’s functioning over the past five years, I learn that this is the norm for the ward. The men range from late adolescence to late adulthood, and come from equally varied backgrounds. I see wedding rings on a few hands, and I wonder about their families, their friends. Who comes to visit them? I’ve already learned that the patients themselves are not allowed to communicate with the outside world; one of the first things I am shown is the therapeutic contract that each patient is asked to sign upon admission (all patients on this ward are admitted to the hospital voluntarily). This list of rights and obligations indicates that each patient is to surrender all means of communication. A total of two visiting hours are scheduled for the weekends. I wonder what this restriction of contact is like for a Moroccan family – togetherness is so important here, and I get the sense that that is especially true in times of sickness. The crowds of loved ones around each hospital bed left a lasting impression on me when I visited a public hospital in Fes, a few years ago.

The average length of stay is a month, though some stay longer. When I arrive with the doctors around 9.30 every morning, the men are usually grouped together in a small courtyard off the main corridor. This is the only place where they are allowed to smoke, and all of them make eager use of this right. They lounge on benches or hang around in the doorway, chatting with one another, occasionally requesting something from a doctor or nurse. The patients don’t seem to get much of this kind of down time, however. Their days are highly structured; a weekly timetable posted on the bulletin board in the main corridor allocates every hour of every day to a particular activity. An hour of every morning is scheduled for consultations with the médecin, the doctor, and each day devotes an additional hour or two to a particular form of therapy (group discussions, during which patients discuss a theme of their own choosing, but always related to addiction and substance abuse; motivational therapy; psycho-éducation, during which awareness is created about the negative impact of substance abuse; or relaxation therapy, for instance). Afternoons and evenings promise activities of a more recreational variety, such as television, reading, ping-pong, or cards. There is time for exercise, and even for music – I have already seen the well-equipped gym and music room upstairs. It is a full schedule and indeed, it seems that the patients and staff are always either coming from one activity, or about to start another.

The doctors (and I) begin their mornings at the Clinic-wide staff meeting, where they discuss new admissions. The presentation of patients is formalized; it is formulaic and ritualistic. In contrast, on-ward communication between doctors, nurses, and patients is informal and easy. After the doctors’ arrival on the ward, the staff briefly gathers to exchange pertinent information from the past night or weekend. They meet in one of the recreational areas off the main corridor or in the nurses’ station, a round space enclosed by glass at the end of the corridor. This room is furnished with a desk and a few bookcases that hold all records, files, prescription pads, and other necessities. The station makes me think of a Foucaultian watchtower; as particular patients are discussed, I notice doctors and nurses glancing at the man in question through the glass, sometimes even pointing as they review his behavior last night.

While the Clinic-wide staff meetings are held exclusively in French, the conversation between doctors and nurses is an even mix of French and Arabic. When speaking the latter, everyone addresses one another with the familiar tu. There are jokes and laughter, and everyone speaks at once. No one wears a name tag, and only the two residents walk around in white coats. There are no pagers; just cell phones. Dr. Rachidi is warm and approachable toward everyone; while she does not hesitate to point out flaws in her residents’ approach to their prise en charge (care), her criticism is always constructive. “You’re supposed to make mistakes,” she even tells them during one particular meeting, “you’re residents, you’re here to learn, not to do everything perfectly at once.”

Both residents on this ward are female. This reflects a general Clinic-wide gender-balance: of the 22 residents being trained here, sixteen are women. Likewise, there are three women among the six professors of psychiatry that teach and practice at the Clinic. In contrast, most of the nursing staff is male. The French psychiatrist, who began a six month fellowship here during the same week that I began my observation, tells me this is common at psychiatric wards throughout the world; a big strong man is often better able to deal with aggressive patients than a woman, she explained. Nevertheless, this particular gender balance provides an interesting contrast with traditional notions of professional roles within the world of healthcare, where men are in charge as doctors, and women are nurturing nurses. It’s a contrast also with traditional Arab conceptions of masculinity and femininity – conceptions that are very much alive here in Morocco. I very much wonder what this inversion of traditional roles does to the balance of power on the Clinic’s wards – especially on a service such as this one, where the patients are so predominantly male. For patients such as Mr. Abbas, who feel so dethroned, I wonder what it’s like to be treated by a female doctor. I’m curious to see how this plays out on other wards, and it could be an interesting angle for my research.

This week, I've moved on to a different service (more ethnographic sketches to come…). Toxicomanie is not the ward where I will be doing my research. Nevertheless, I was reticent to leave – not only because I found everything about the place so interesting, or because I would like a chance to answer the questions this week has brought up. I’m also reluctant because I was finally beginning to feel a bit more comfortable with my presence there. I had become familiar with the doctors, the nurses, the patients, the languages. I was losing some of my reticence about bothering busy doctors with my questions, or disturbing a patient with an inappropriate question. I am more of a wait-and-see person than a go-get-‘em-girl, preferring the slow, subtle approach to the direct and bold one. This can work well in anthropology, but not necessarily during the set-up phase of research; I often have to push myself to be assertive and ask the questions I want an answer to.

But I’ll do as much pushing as I have to. This week has proven, I think, that it pays to be direct, to stop worrying about things like bothering people, or misunderstanding them, or worse – not being able to make myself understood. For the first two days on the service de toxicomanie, I was incredibly anxious about issues of communication. I worried that I wouldn’t understand everything; my exhaustion at the end of each day reminded me how much energy it takes me to follow a conversation in medical French or Arabic. I panicked every time I realized I’d been dozing off and had missed a crucial turn in the discussion – something that tended to happen particularly at those moments that I spent worrying. I was even more nervous not being able to make myself understood: of tripping over words or, worse, not being able to think of any. I spent those mornings’ rounds in fear that I’d be asked to explain my research, to explain why I chose Morocco. But on day three I began to realize that, despite exhaustion, I had actually been understanding enough to have a good sense of what’s going on. And later that day, I suddenly found myself in various conversations, perfectly able to describe what I was doing there, even receiving a compliment on my French. And so I moved on to the next ward, perhaps not fearlessly, but at least with a good dose of faith that maybe, just maybe, this project of mine will be doable, after all…

Monday, November 9, 2009

Things to Do in Rabat on a Saturday Night

Last Saturday night, I believe temporarily forgot that I was in Morocco.

Around seven PM, I met up with a group of NIMAR-affiliated ladies downtown. After a pleasant dinner at Le Petit Beur, a small restaurant close to the Parliament, we headed over to Théatre Mohammed V for “ABBA the Show,” a big spectacle, as the Théatre always calls it, of classic ABBA songs put on by a sizeable and very enthusiastic ABBA cover band. Complete with lighting effects, original ABBA members and 1970s costumes, the show was fabulously entertaining. The theater was packed with fans screaming and singing aloud so fervently that one would have thought the original singers were up there on stage. Had it not been for subtle references to Morocco through the lighting effects (a ‘DH’ sign lighting up on the stage backdrop amidst Euro and Dollar symbols during the song Money, Money, Money; a collection of red and green lights creating an image of the Moroccan flag at the end of the show – and sending the crowd into ecstasy), the entire ambience would have made me forget where I was.

The Théatre National Mohammed V is one of Rabat’s primary theater venues. It offers a wide variety of entertainment to the Rbati public, from plays in Moroccan dialect to Flamenco concerts and hip hop dance performances – to quote a few offers from the upcoming winter program. But those who seek to spend a soirée out on the town have more than just this theater to choose from. The various cultural institutes scattered around the city center (The German Goethe Institut, the Spanish Instituto Cervantes, and the Institut Français, for instance) each offer their own selection of music, films, and other performances around town. The result is a weekly offer of cultural activities that will certainly not leave you wanting for entertainment.

You might start your cultural evening out at one of Rabat’s many decent restaurants – in one’s choice of price range and cuisine – and end it at a swanky bar or nightclub. For contrary to what one might think about a country where alcohol is prohibited by law to 99% of the population, nightlife in Morocco’s larger cities is alive and thriving. The offer of venues runs the full gamut from dark and dingy dive bars, where the only women present are there in a professional capacity, to hip and trendy nightclubs. The latter are places to see and be seen. Dressed to the nines, groups of men and women lounge around the table they’ve reserved, making their own drinks from the bottle of alcohol they’ve purchased and the mixers – coke, sprite – they’ve been given for free. They laugh, chat, and occasionally dance – first to American hip hop, later to the techno and house that follow it. Girls wear revealing tops and skinny jeans; boys wear shiny fitted shirts and leather shoes. There is an ease of interaction between the sexes that seems to contrast with daytime social conventions.

Whenever I am out, whether it be at the theater or at a club, I cannot help but wonder about the identity of the people I see around me. Who frequents these places – from what socio-economic background do they originate? The nightclubs I have seen are a swanky affair. There seems to be an elitism to the whole experience, a suggestion of luxury; the advertisement of a certain level of wealth and a certain brand of modernity. It’s in the way people dress – the glitter, the brand names – but it’s also in the money one ostensibly spends for a night of dancing. The cover charge for Amnesia, one of Rabat’s most famous clubs, is 200 Dirhams – a small fortune, if you imagine that a large proportion of the Moroccan population lives on a salary of 1500 a month or less. Admission comes with a free drink, but any subsequent beverage runs at least 80 Dirhams.

However, my friend Hatim tells me that the real regulars never pay. The secret, he tells me, is to get to know the bouncer. To strike a deal, and get a discount. It’s not the upper classes that one will encounter at the club, he explained – those elites have their own, private, establishments. No, the trendy patrons at Amnesia are individuals just like you and me; they’ve just managed to bargain their way inside, to an evening of luxury at a discount price. Once again, the suggestion emerges that everything in Morocco is negotiable, and nothing is as simple as it seems (… but the true elite always remains out of reach).

Yet my question remains. Who, then, frequents places like Amnesia? Where do they come from, and where do they live? What kind of jobs do they hold, where do they go to school, and how does their behavior at the club fit into their daytime social roles?

When thinking about these questions I often catch myself imagining each of these nameless young individuals to be a kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde – possessors of a nighttime alter ego whose behavior is incommensurable with their daytime identity. I’m intrigued by the contrast that seems to exist between the social conventions of Moroccan society, and the vibe I encounter at these clubs. On this blog, I often write about the various ways in which ‘tradition’ is idealized and upheld by Moroccan society, and the ways in which particular interpretations of ‘modernity’ emerge and interact with old customs and conventions. I’m interested in the ways in which these two concepts seem, ostensibly, to contradict one another. And so I take note of the way in which I see girls dress and behave at Amnesia – and then contrast it with the grumpy man Fatima and I once encountered as we walked home at 3 AM, who asked my friend if her mother knew she was out so late, and then added that she must be a prostitute.

But if there is one thing I have learned about Morocco, it is that nothing is ever as simple as it seems. ‘Modernity’ and ‘tradition’ are not entities but ideas with very fluid boundaries. They are not polar opposites but rather converging and diverging ideologies about the meaning of our socio-cultural rules and conventions. We all live lives that combine elements of the modern with notions of tradition, and this need not make us Jekyll-and-Hydes, unless we ourselves allow it to. So, too, for the men and women I see at Amnesia. Because in the end, what is so strange about a girl who dances in an outfit she’d never wear to work, or a boy who purchases more alcohol than he’d ever admit to his parents? Don’t we all behave a little more freely under the cover of dimmed lighting, thumping beats, and a bit of alcohol?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

About pregnancy

Last Friday, Moroccan blogger calabamuse posted an article about the following magazine cover:

This is the November issue of Femmes du Maroc, and the cover prefaces a multi-page feature on pregnancy. Beside the article discussing this particular television personality’s impending accouchement (labor, childbirth), the magazine includes an exposé on the deplorable state of OB-GYN facilities at public hospitals and clinics, advice about how to deal with post-partum depression, a description of a cesarean section, and even a special on fashionable maternity clothes.

I picked up this issue myself last Thursday while shopping at Marjane, and was completely intrigued by the provocativeness of the cover. And indeed, this is the main theme of Calabamuse’s thought-provoking post. The writer suggests that pregnancy, like many other issues relating to sex or the reproductive system, is a phenomenon that makes Moroccan society highly uncomfortable:

The exclusionary and sometimes castigating treatment pregnant women are subjected to is a leading cause of abortion in Morocco where the number of out of wedlock pregnancies have dramatically risen. The pool of medical doctors performing abortions today has grown exponentially. They charge 3000 Dirhams ($391.00). Additionally, an increased number of women, especially in rural areas where medical oversight is minimal and sometimes non-existent, die from standard pregnancy complications.
The message of the magazine’s cover is a loud and clear confirmation of the self: I am pregnant; I am beautiful, and I exist. I agree. In our society, pregnant women need to feel less excluded and be viewed in a more gratifying fashion. For a country like Morocco, where television channels are flipped at the mere sight of a man an a woman kissing, where, in neighborhood foodstuff stores, menstrual pads are stuffed in a black plastic bag to conceal them from the embarassed looks of customers, the idea is outrageous.

Intrigued by this apparently ambiguous regard for pregnancy, I decided to ask around. I used a word that Calabamuse didn’t, and ultimately proved to be too strong a connotation: was pregnancy hshouma, shameful?

Yes, Farid told me, he did think that pregnancy is shrouded in a kind of hshouma, but I needed to be aware that there are two ways to translate this culturally powerful term. Pregnancy is not so much a source of shame, he explained, as it is a source of embarrassment. There are certain topics you simply don’t discuss with certain people, like your parents or your boss, and pregnancy is one of them. It’s a matter of respect, Farid added. As he said this, I suddenly remembered how reluctant Karima, the NIMAR’s housekeeper, had been to discuss her pregnancy in the presence of our director or any other male associate.* Exactly, Farid said. This reluctance wasn’t shame so much as it was just the maintenance of a certain kind of propriety.

A new part-time co-worker at the NIMAR, Aicha, likewise didn’t think pregnancy was seen as shameful. She did, however, remember being told to cover up her pregnant belly in looser clothing when going outside, and she recalled how surprised her parents had been to find out that she had been open about the development of her second pregnancy toward her young son. There did seem to be a kind of discomfort about open manifestations of pregnancy, she concluded. Her environment tended to explain this as a way of avoiding the evil eye.**

These stories do betray a clear sense of ambiguity with regard to the phenomenon of pregnancy. It doesn’t seem to be a source of outright, negative shame, but it certainly makes people uncomfortable. It’s the clear connection to sexual intercourse, Farid explained with slight embarrassment. Pregnancy may be the source of new life, but it is also an unconcealable confirmation of a woman’s nature as a sexual being.

And that, I think, is true for every civilization on earth. I think that pregnancy may harbor that double meaning for almost all of us, because it lies at the heart of the very conflicted way in which nearly every culture deals with human sexuality. Sex is powerful: not only because it is one of our most primal and strongest instinctual drives, but also because it is fundamental to the propagation of our species and civilization. It signifies the glory of future development, but in its sheer primal power can also lead to utter chaos and the destruction of any kind of social order. This is why nearly every civilization has sought to exercise control over its society through the strict regulation of sex.

And let’s not forget the Madonna/Whore complex that torments so many of us. We want to see women as mothers, as the innocent and morally upright nurturers who teach our future generations about right and wrong – but we also want to see women as sexual objects, as the embodiment of sexual desire. Perhaps because we are conscious of the potentially destructive power of sex, we see these two identities as polar opposites that cannot be reconciled with one another – yet they are merged, in the phenomenon of pregnancy.

And so, as curious as I think the abovementioned attitudes toward pregnancy are, I don’t think the ambiguity of it is typically Moroccan, per sé. The way in which it is expressed may be culturally specific, but I’m inclined to believe that this particular stance is one we all have in common as humans who are overwhelmed by the power of their own sexuality. I agree with Calabamuse that pregnancy must be celebrated as something beautiful – but I think a larger problem highlighted by this month’s Femmes Du Maroc is the deplorable state of OB-GYN facilities in the country’s public hospitals and clinics.*** These places suffer from a desperate lack of resources, which results in understaffing, a lack of necessary equipment, and thus a lack of adequate care. Patients are obligated to purchase and bring all necessary materials by themselves: from towels to sedatives to suturing thread, it is the patient’s responsibility to make sure these items are present, because the hospital simply does not provide. Femmes Du Maroc also describes widespread corruption: nurses and other staff provide their services only in exchange for ‘bonuses’ of a few hundred Dirhams. Public healthcare services are officially offered free of charge, but adequate care is thus ultimately received only if one has a considerable sum of Dirhams to spend.

Add to these issues the fact that in rural areas, even such public clinics are few and far between. Obstetric facilities have this in common with nearly every other kind of medical service – including that of psychiatry. Reforming the healthcare system is an important part of Morocco’s development goals, and this month’s Femmes Du Maroc also features an interview with Morocco’s minister of health, Yasmina Baddou, who speaks of everything that’s already been done and who is optimistic about further improvement. I’m hopeful, and curious to see what reforms and improvements will be implemented in Morocco’s healthcare system over the next few years.

* Two months ago, Karima gave birth to a baby boy. When I and a few other female NIMAR co-workers went to visit her and her family, she never talked about how the actual labor and birth had been. We didn’t ask, but amongst ourselves did speculate about how it had been. I remember finding this surprising. This is the kind of thing Dutch women talk about readily, but clearly not something Karima wanted to discuss.
** According to the literature, individuals in transitional phases are particularly susceptible to the gaze of the evil eye. Newborn babies, newlyweds, and pregnant women are often cited as examples. The evil eye can be seen as a kind of curse that can lead to all kinds of malaise. If caught, it can be fought off in a variety of ways, including herbal concoctions or counter-spells. A shouafa, or medium, can often help.
*** At the time of writing, Femmes Du Maroc’s website did not yet publish the article. But here is their website.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


After a vacation of what turned out to be about five weeks, I am back in Rabat. I won’t deny that I miss home and that this kind of extended vacation was exactly what I needed, but I’m also happy to be back and excited to get started on my research. As of this past Monday, I’ve started spending my mornings at the Clinic, where I have begun a period of general observation. Until my permission from the local Moroccan ethics commission comes in, I’ll spend a week on each of the Clinic’s wards, following doctors and nurses around as they go about their work. So far, it’s been utterly amazing. I feel as though the three mornings I’ve observed so far have already provided me with enough material for twice as many blog posts, so if I can work my random observations into a coherent post, I’ll be sharing some of my experiences with you soon. In the meantime, now that my vacation is over, I hope to be back to my regular schedule of posting twice a week… I hope I still have some readers left! If so, thanks for sticking around…

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Dreaming in Morocco

In lieu of a written post, I'm going to present you with a visual today. This was sent to me by Hatim, my good friend from Fes. I'm grateful to him for sharing it with me, and will now pass it along to you.

This is a short film entitled "Dreaming in Morocco." It was made in 2007 by Pamela Nice, an independent filmmaker from Minnesota. Hoping to dispel the stereotypes (and perhaps ignorance) that we in the West often hold about Arab youth, Nice interviews a set of young adults in Morocco about their dreams and aspirations. The individuals featured in this film come from all walks of life, and thus showcase some of the incredible diversity that renders Morocco such an intriguing country. The film does not delve into the societal and political issues that confront these youth as they pursue their dreams, and as such does little more than scratch the surface of the true complexity of life in Morocco - but it's an interesting, well-made, and thought provoking film nonetheless. Enjoy!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Running in the park

Last night, I was to have arrived back in Casablanca. I would have de-boarded the plane around nine thirty (had the Air Arabia flight from Brussels not experienced any delays, of course), and I would have tried to catch the ten PM train to Rabat – entering the country would have gone smoothly, because I wouldn’t have checked any luggage.

But in reality, I cancelled both this flight and the one that would have taken me from Chicago to Brussels, and now remain, for the time being, at my parents’ house in Hyde Park. The short version of the story is that, as a Legal Permanent Resident of the United States, one cannot just go and spend two years in a foreign country without keeping the authorities abreast of your intentions and activities. Which is what I am now doing, by means of an application for what is called a re-entry permit.

Hopefully this will be no more than a few weeks’ delay – I told the Clinic that I’d like to start my research around November first, and I hope I can hold myself to that promise. But for now, I’m enjoying the changes of fall (after three years in San Diego, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen leaves change color) and keeping myself busy with episodes of Dexter, movies from Netflix, and new recipes from the Top Chef cookbook. And this morning, I went running along the trail that spans the better part of Chicago’s lakefront. It didn’t go too well – I hadn’t expected otherwise, considering that my last run dates back to the weekend before the start of Ramadan. But whether I’m running, walking, or gasping for air, it’s always a pleasure to be out on that trail and see the Chicago skyline emerging on the waterfront, right as the road curves west around 52nd street.

Ramadan was neither the first, nor the longest break I’ve ever taken from running. In fact, running has only recently become a permanent part of my life in Morocco. Until this past May, being in Morocco always entailed a dire lack of opportunity to exercise – something I tried to make up for by walking everywhere I went (to the great frustration of many a host family, who would rather see me traveling in the safe confines of a taxi).

During my first three-month stay in Morocco – it was Fes, and it was the spring of 2005 – I was advised that exercising was not really something women did. The inescapable (and highly verbalized) male gaze on the street was enough to make any woman think twice about going for a jog – and thus attract even more attention to herself by traversing the public sphere in a run, wearing exercise clothing, and sporting an iPod). Gyms, like cafés, were a man’s domain – and anyway, I was told, I wouldn’t find much there, other than some scant, outdated exercise equipment, eighties-era photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jean-Claude van Damme, and Moroccan men high on testosterone.

It simply didn’t seem as though there was much more to do than some at-home yoga. I resigned myself to this situation and concluded that exercise must be yet another ‘thing’ that separated the world of Moroccan women so inherently from that of Moroccan men. And I wondered, did the lack of exercise opportunity mean that Moroccan society entertained standards of female health and beauty that didn’t involve thinness and fitness? Or did it entail that women’s bodies will simply always be one step behind men’s in attaining those ideals?*

In any case, I didn’t pack my running shoes the next time I went to Morocco, nor did I bring them the time after that. This was never a decision I regretted, until recently. Stories from people I’d met through the NIMAR led me to discover that, where exercising is concerned, Rabat is no Fes. In my neighborhood alone, there are at least four or five gyms that offer a busy schedule of aerobics and ‘danse orientale’ classes – and every week, that schedule includes a few classes reserved exclusively for those women who wish to exercise in single-sex company.** I’ve even heard reports of actual yoga studios in Agdal – something I will definitely check out personally, if I can afford the rather hefty tuition fees.

But most importantly, there is a certain well-known park in the city’s southern quarters whose name, to most Rbatis, is virtually synonymous with ‘jogging’.

The Hilton park in Rabat is no lakefront trail, but it’s a close second. Located in Souissi, the park spans about a square kilometer of green forest situated right next to the hotel from which it takes its name.*** The park features picnic tables and soccer fields on which families spend their weekend afternoons, but mostly, this park is used by joggers: it features a 3500 meter track that runs along the perimeter and supports consistently heavy traffic, even at my preferred running time of 8 am on Saturday morning.

I encounter people of all shapes and sizes on that trail. Some of them run, and some of them walk. Some are alone, while others exercise in groups. Some listen to music while they run, and others like to chat. I certainly see more men than women, but the women are there – and they are there in all varieties. There are women in full jellaba and headscarf (sometimes topped by a baseball hat to shield against the sun), and women in running outfits like mine. Some wear tracksuits bought from a stall in the medina, and some sport gear from Nike, Zara, or Guess. There are middle-aged mothers, and there are young university students. I run past coiffed and primped groups of friends who chat, laugh, and check their phones for text messages as they stroll around the track – and I am passed by sole women who time their heartbeat as they run and monitor the speed at which they sprint around the track.

I love every minute of my weekly runs at the Hilton park. I love watching this great variety of people out on that trail, and I love the fact that this kind of thing is possible here in Morocco – not just for me as a foreigner, but for all women. And I wonder, what explains the fact that this park is here, now, in Rabat, when there was nothing like it in Fes? Is this a difference between cities – is the culture or population of Fes truly that different from Rabat? Does it perhaps reflect a change in standards of acceptable or ideal behavior that took only four years to take effect? Or is it me – did I simply not see (or take advantage of) the opportunities that existed back then in Fes?

If I have any female Moroccan readers (anyone?), what is your experience or impression of opportunities for exercising in your city, and how is the situation now in comparison to the (recent) past?


I always have some trouble finding inspiration for this blog when I’m not in Morocco. I’ll try to keep writing in the next few weeks as I wait for my paperwork, but I’m afraid my posts will not be all that exciting… please bear with me; I hope I’ll be back to my regular blogging schedule soon enough…

* Islamic theology shares in the very common worldwide belief that women’s bodies are impure during menstruation. According to Scripture, Muslim women cannot pray, cannot touch or read the Qur’an, and cannot fast when they are on their period. I don’t think this necessarily means that Scripture considers women to be inherently inferior to men, but I can’t help but think that this kind of thinking contributes to such a viewpoint, and it’s always made me uncomfortable. And so I wonder, could the lack of opportunity for women to exercise contribute to a general sense that women’s bodies are further away from the healthy or pure ‘ideal’ than men’s?
** For those of you who read Dutch, a friend of mine wrote a fabulous blog post about her local Rbati gym last year.
*** The ‘Hilton park’ is an unofficial moniker. I don’t actually know what the park’s actual name is, but as with many other well-known locations in Rabat, it is the moniker rather than the official name that seems to have stuck to the place.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Sign of Life

I am temporarily home, as planned, and am reveling in the temporary comfort of family and familiarity.

However, not as planned, I’ve been busy dealing with some unexpected paperwork. My apologies for the delay in posting! Please bear with me; I should be back to my regular schedule by next week…

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Wukal Ramadan - Eating Ramadan

A curious story has been traveling the internet and Moroccan newspapers for the past three days. I am certainly not the first to report on this story and don’t want to bore you with what by now is pretty old news – but I do want to briefly highlight this incident, because it constitutes an interesting perspective on the meaning of Ramadan in Morocco.

This past Sunday, a group of young protesters that calls itself MALI (Mouvement Alternatif pour les Libertés Individuelles – the alternative movement for individual liberties) gathered at the train station in Mohammedia (between Rabat and Casablanca) for a public picnic in broad Ramadan daylight. Their intent was to protest against the Moroccan law that forbids Muslims from eating in public during this month of fasting – because, they say, not all Moroccans are Muslims. According to the latest news, it seems that this group will be persecuted for their violation of said law.

They are right, of course, and in making this point they highlight a sticky issue that complicates the enforcement of a number of Moroccan laws. The Moroccan legal code includes a number of ordinances that are inspired by and based on religious proscriptions. An example is this particular ordinance against eating in public during Ramadan; another is the prohibition against the purchase of alcohol. In recognition of the fact that not all Moroccans are Muslims, the law officially applies only to those who abide by the tenets of Islam. But the issue is this: how does one determine, exactly, who is Muslim, and who is not? The Moroccan Carte Nationale (National Identity Card, affectionately called “la carte”) does not document a citizen’s religious affiliation, and as far as I know there is no other moment or way in which such affiliation is recorded. In the end, it is simply assumed (and every much expected) that all Moroccans are, in fact, Muslim.* And that is where the problem lies: without official documentation, religious affiliation is ultimately judged by appearance. If you look and behave as a Moroccan, you are expected to abide by Islamic proscriptions – in the same way that a European attempting to enter a mosque will be subjected to extreme testing in order to prove his or her Muslim identity.**

This particular incident points out that this kind of legal arrangement doesn’t work. You cannot enforce a law that applies only to a select group of people, if you have nothing but appearance to go on in distinguishing this group from any other. Appearance is always an imperfect measure, and even more so in the case of religion. Headscarves and burkas aside, religion cannot be read on someone’s body; it is not a biological trait.

This group is not the first to call attention to the problems involved with such legal arrangements. I remember a brief article in TelQuel a few months ago, in which the author called attention to the flawed logic behind the enforcement of the prohibition against buying alcohol. Just like this group of protesters, this writer remonstrated that you cannot and should not judge religion by appearance.

Yet in practice, the laws on alcohol do not lead to that much daily conflict, and most Moroccans have little trouble purchasing their alcohol. The infraction of drinking ranks much lower on the scale of gravity than does the ingestion of food during Ramadan. I’ve written before about the incredible cultural weight of fasting during this month. More so than any other pillar of Islam, participation in Ramadan is essential to the reinforcement of Moroccan identity. I suggested in that piece, and still think, that Ramadan embodies the essence of what Moroccans consider to be the hallmark of their culture: hospitality, openness, community-orientation, solidarity – and religion, of course. The result is that eating during Ramadan, unlike the drinking of alcohol, is much more than a religious infraction. Fasting is not just about God, but about the community – about cultural belonging.

It is this cultural weight, I think, that explains the gravity of this particular incident. These protesters did much more than violate a religious law – they flouted one of the pillars of national identity. A few reactions to the various blog posts that reported on this incident seem to read these actions as just that. They denounce this incident as detrimental to the country, or as a betrayal of the laws and of society. According to one commenter, what MALI did was “défier la loi, défier la société” (defying the law, defying society); Jillian C. York quotes another who writes that these protesters “should put this energy and effort into CONSTRUCTIVE actions, making our country better instead of Stupid events like these. Go out and DO something good for your country instead of finding everything wrong with it.”

How to evaluate this incident? Yes, these protesters violated a law, but does this law make sense? We may disagree with the application of this law, but who are we to judge? Should religious proscriptions be enforced by national law, or could one argue that religion becomes much more than a personal choice when it’s been woven so tightly into the fabric of cultural practice and social organization? And then, was MALI’s action the most effective way to claim religious and cultural freedom, or was it mostly an unproductive form of provocation?

What do you think?

* According to official statistics, about 99% is, in fact, Muslim. Of course this includes all those whose affiliation with Islam is no more than cultural.
** simply donning a headscarf will not work, I’ve ascertained from people who have tried this. You will, at the very least, have to recite something from the Qur’an.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Blank State of Mind

I am late in posting this week, and I apologize. I’m temporarily (hopefully…) suffering from a lack of inspiration – and a corresponding lack of excitement in my daily life. After three weeks of fasting I’ve comfortably settled into the rhythm of Ramadan: the highlight of my day now falls between 8 pm and midnight, while days are spent in a stupor of semi-wakefulness. Being an absolute morning person, this means that my habitual circadian rhythm has been turned completely upside down.

I’m still glad that I decided to participate in Ramadan. I think that joining in has helped me discover aspects of this tradition that I don’t think I would have picked up on as easily, had I remained a spectator. I may still not fully understand what Ramadan is like for the average Moroccan individual (there are certain boundaries between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ status that can never be crossed, I think, no matter how hard you try), but fasting has allowed me to come a little closer to that comprehension than I would have, otherwise. I ‘get’ how acute that feeling of solidarity is, during the first week of fasting. I ‘get’ how strong and motivating the cultural imperative to fast really is, and I think I ‘get’ how intensely participation can reinforce one’s identity as a member of Moroccan society.

It has felt good to participate – despite the hunger. It feels good to join in a custom that seems to be so fundamental to the Moroccan sense of cultural identity. I enjoy the thought of being a part of something so full of meaning for Moroccans, of sharing both in its larger significance and in its smaller manifestations. Of standing in the kitchen making harira, as I smell the soup being made in kitchens across the street. Of eating that first date, knowing that everyone else in the neighborhood is likely doing the exact same thing. Of lying on the couch watching Mexican soap operas with the members of a Moroccan family, whiling away the last hour until ftour. It simply makes me feel part of something – and this is a feeling that I often miss, living alone here in Rabat.

But in all honesty, my body is – literally – exhausted and worn out by the rhythm of Ramadan. Lack of nutrition and lack of sleep have turned me into a daytime zombie whose body happily comes alive only at night, right when it should be winding down to sleep. It’s beginning to frustrate me – because while my circadian rhythm has been turned upside down, my work schedule has not. This has resulted in a complete lack of productivity that is beginning to really worry me.

To give you an idea, let me describe an average day for you – starting at 6.45 PM, the hour of ftour (the breaking of the fast):

A cannon shot and the call for sunset prayer are our sign that we are allowed to eat. Gratefully, I immediately down a full glass of water, while Farid tells me to slow down: “it’s not good to drink too fast!” he will warn, in vain, as I ignore him.

I follow the water with a date, and then turn my attention toward the hot bowl of harira (made from a package, most days, with some of my own ingredients added in) in front of me. Usually, my stomach is quite satisfied with one bowl of soup, but because our mental hunger has grown exponentially with each hour of fasting, we have filled the table with multiple plates of other delicacies that beg to be eaten. I’ll eat a croissant or a piece of quiche, some salad, and (of course) some chebakia. I’ll drink more water, then have a glass of juice.

At 8 PM, stomachs stuffed to capacity, we come alive – and thus become restless. We leave my house and take a walk downtown, reveling in the lights and activity of Ramadan evenings. We’ll stop at a café and drink our daily coffee, as we sit and do some work on our laptops.

Around 11, I come home, still full of energy. I won’t at all be hungry, but I’ll convince myself to eat some fruit – to build up some reserves for the next day of fasting. I’ll read the news online, do some writing, and then make myself go to bed. Still energetic, I’ll lie awake for an hour and a half before I fall asleep.

I’ll wake up every two hours to go to the bathroom – the liter and a half of water that I’ve had over the course of four hours will need a way to leave my body. During the first week of Ramadan, I’d also wake up at 4.30 for shour – the last meal before sunrise. I’d have some yoghurt and a date, but even with this modest amount in my stomach, I wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep for those last two hours until morning. In the interest of a few more hours of sleep, I gave up shour halfway through week two.

At seven thirty, I am woken up by my alarm. A shower does wonders to wake me up, and I usually enjoy about two to three hours of mental clarity after that. This is when I try to do the bulk of my work – because after 11 AM, I become a yawning mess of semi-wakefulness. I will continue to try to be productive despite the haze that then seems to have settled over my brain, and let frustration mount as my frequency of typing errors rapidly increases and my ability to focus on what I’m reading falls to the bare minimum.

At four or five PM, I head home and start preparations for that evening’s ftour. I’ll mince some vegetables, cut up a piece of meat, and add it to the harira from a package. I’ll put some dates on a plate, cut chunks of bread, and arrange croissants on a platter. I’ll mix work in the kitchen with brief stints of relaxation in front of the television until Farid comes over. We’ll set the table, sit down, and wait for the cannon shot – the sign that another long day of fasting is over.

It seems to me that if you persist in maintaining a regular work schedule, participation in Ramadan seems to require a trade-off between sleeping and eating. When I make sure I get enough sleep, there is no time to eat enough – and when I make sure I eat, I don’t get enough sleep. The result, so far, has been that I do not get enough of either. I am not sure how to remedy this situation, other than to stop fasting – which, with less than a week left to go, would feel like giving up.

I want to keep going. And I’m sure I’d be fine for one more week – if I didn’t have an impending important presentation to prepare for. This Tuesday, I will be presenting my research proposal to all psychiatrists at the Clinic. In French. It’s at 9 am, which luckily falls within my brief window of productivity, but I’m a little worried that in this state of mind (both the haze and the frustration over my lack of productivity), I won’t be able to prepare as well as I’d like.

Oh well. It’s only a few more days, right? And luckily, the rest of next week promises to provide a considerable share of new excitement: I’m getting my hands henna’ed on Wednesday evening, will go see some interesting art during Rabat’s annual Nuit des Galeries on Thursday night, and on Friday, finally, I fly home…

Monday, September 7, 2009

'Authentic' Moroccanness

Today’s post on The View from Fez pointed my attention toward a travel article published yesterday in The Guardian. In this piece, author Stephen Emms defends Casablanca against those who argue that the city, with its grand boulevards, 20th century architecture, fast pace, and skyscrapers, is not truly ‘Moroccan’.

In response to these critics, Emms points to the authentically ‘Moroccan’ aspects of Casablanca that lie hidden beyond this “westernized” exterior: 

“Yes, there are the tower blocks, and the five-star hotels, and the businessmen swarming around Place Des Nations-Unies, but the old medina, which dates only from the 19th century (although its ochre walls are older), spirals with timeless neighborhood life. Slip past stalls flogging teapots, watches and jewellery, all blinding in the glare of the sun, and you will discover pencil-thin alleys and tiny squares, where bleached towels cling to window sills and old men inch past in white djellabas, the shuffle of their slippers syncopating the sizzle of squid in oil. … The elegant “new medina,” called Quartier Habous, a layout of Provençal-style squares and arches built by the French as a place for Muslims to live and trade, is a clean and inviting souk selling anything from oil paintings to art deco statuettes. But even here, the “real Morocco” is nearer than you might imagine – just over the railway bridge is Rue Taroudant, from the dusty stalls of which dangle dried chameleons, hedgehogs, and live baby tortoises. “No photos!” the bearded sellers cried in unison as I whipped my camera out; these are ancient charms, after all, with their own magical powers.”

Emms here paints a stark contrast between ‘old’ and ‘new’ – between ‘western’ and ‘Moroccan’. It is precisely in the complexity of this juxtaposition that a former US Embassy worker, interviewed by Emms for this piece, finds Casablanca’s authenticity. “It’s the real deal,” she says, “like Marrakech was more than 10 years ago.” However, Emms himself seems to wonder what this mix of old and new, modern and traditional, really means for Casablanca’s status as an ‘authentic’ Moroccan city: 

“Does Casa's roving eye to the future negate its past? Its art deco and neo-Moorish heritage certainly isn't as valued as you might expect: the Hotel Lincoln, opposite the Marché Central, collapsed earlier this year, and there don't appear to be any plans to salvage it. Other buildings on and around Boulevard Mohammed V (which boasts some of the most dazzling period architecture) languish unloved, as does the Parc de la Ligue Arabe. But perhaps there's something honest about such disregard - should Casablancans have to bow to their colonial past? And anyway, isn't Morocco's "real" past more than represented, as I discovered, in the medinas and back streets?” 

I am impressed with the appreciative way in which both Emms and the people he’s interviewed speak of Casablanca. However, I don’t think I agree with the way in which Emms defends Casablanca’s status as a ‘real’ Moroccan city – and by extension, what he implies about what constitutes ‘authentic’ Moroccanness.

As much as Emms acknowledges, and even appreciates, the complexity and the dynamic juxtapositions that dominate modern Moroccan society, he ultimately concludes that what is truly ‘Moroccan’ lies in the country’s traditions – represented in this article by crowded medinas, jellaba’d men, and haggling for dried chameleon in dusty souqs. And that, I think, is dangerous. It superimposes one pair of polar opposites – old versus new – on top of another imagined polarity: Moroccanness versus Westernness. It creates a binary view of the world that may simplify matters, but ultimately blinds us from the complexities of reality, and minimizes a people’s agency in defining its own sense of authenticity.

First of all, associating ‘authentic’ Moroccanness with tradition, or with the past, brings up some logistical problems of definition. To start with, how do you really separate tradition and modernity, or distinguish foreign from native? Where do you draw the line between ‘authentic tradition’ and ‘foreign invasion’ – which historical influx of foreign peoples ended true and pure Moroccan culture and opened the door to foreign influence? Was it the French? Or was it the Andalusian Muslims who returned during the Reconquista? Was it the Arabs, perhaps, or even the Romans? If Morocco’s authenticity lies in the past, how far back do you have to go to find it, exactly?

Moreover, are ‘tradition’ and ‘modernization’ that easily separable? Is Morocco’s current development a manifestation of purely Western influence, and have Morocco’s ‘traditions’ remained completely untouched by outside influences? Can we really say that Casablanca’s skyscrapers are purely western, the likes of which you’d find in France, England, the United States, while the old medina of Fes has remained pristinely Moroccan? In other words, how ‘foreign’ is Morocco’s modernization, and how ‘authentic’ have its traditions remained? I think this simple juxtaposition of ‘modern’ versus ‘traditional’ blinds us to the complex reality of Morocco – the unique brand of development that has given a distinctively Moroccan flavor to Casablanca’s modernity, and the dynamic adaptation of old traditions to current circumstances. Imagine the distinctly Moroccan patterns of hierarchy and social organization that may structure a company housed in one of Casablanca’s high rises, or the traditional carpenter in the Fes medina whose work has reached a wider audience through the website he’s been able to create with a laptop and wireless internet.

But above all, the association of ‘authentic Moroccanness’ with traditions from the past is a dangerous one. By relegating Moroccanness to “timeless” traditions and picture-perfect scenes from the old medina, we deprive Morocco of a present – let alone of a future. It is the same process of thought that legitimated French colonial rule in the first half of the twentieth century. Our perception of authentic Moroccanness is a nostalgic image of medieval Arab life that we seek to preserve by freezing Moroccan culture in time and characterizing all development as ‘foreign’, and therefore invasive. It is an Orientalist process of thought that deprives ‘real’ Moroccan culture of any belonging in (or compatibility with) a modern, developing world.

This is not to say that Morocco’s medinas and traditions should not be preserved. They should – they are a part of ‘authentic’ Moroccanness that should not be forgotten. It is also not to say that foreign (Western) influence was not invasive. It was. What I mean to say is simply that we should not so starkly oppose tradition and modernity, or past and present, and attribute ‘authenticity’ to a single pole on that binary scale. Cultures, like human beings, are living, breathing, porous things, and change is a fundamental strategy of survival. Cultures, like human beings, adapt to their ever-changing environment. No culture has ever been static, and no society has ever developed in complete isolation from foreign influences. It may not always have been the pervasive, imperial, and certainly destructive, influence of the West – but foreign influence has always been a fact of life. 

The notion of authenticity is ultimately a difficult one that brings up more questions than it does answers. I think that a certain tension between past and present may be inherent to the state of postcoloniality, with national identity and notions of ‘authenticity’ stuck in the middle. How do you determine what is ‘real’ and what is ‘foreign’? What parts of history constitute the foundation for national identity, and which have been written by alien conquerors? To what extent should ‘foreign’ influence be resisted, and can (should?) traditions always stand the test of time? And who has the authority, anyway, to determine the answers to all these questions? Questions of what is ‘authentic’ are persistently and consciously present in the Moroccan public consciousness. There is a palpable preoccupation with the issue of how to define the relationship between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, and nearly every political or social issue becomes a pretext for debates about the value of each for Moroccan society and identity. These are not debates that will be resolved any time soon, and I’m sure notions of ‘authenticity’ will be discussed for decades to come. But I don’t think this means that authenticity is lost, or under threat of extinction.

I don’t think that change, dynamism, or foreign influence have to undermine any culture’s status as ‘authentic’ or ‘real’. What makes a culture ‘authentic’ is not its resistance against foreign influence, but simply its particular way of developing, its reality and meaningfulness for the people whose lives it frames. What is authentic is every society’s particular way of making sense of change, of foreign influence; its way of processing, internalizing, mixing new elements with what’s already there to create new meanings, new realities. In its very combination of incredible modernity and development with a high premium on the preservation of tradition, Morocco is, in every sense of the word, authentic. Morocco is a living, breathing culture in the flux of constant change and development. Casablanca, in all its economic enormity and modernity, is as much an example of true Moroccanness as Fes is in its preservation of traditions. And it’s time that we all not only recognize, but celebrate this unique kind of authenticity.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Power of Language

Over the course of my conversations with the psychiatrists I interviewed last month, each practitioner explained that individuals mostly come to see them in search of la parole. Rather than a pill, in other words, patients consult a psychiatrist in private practice in the hopes of procuring a ‘talking cure.’

I found it interesting to hear that Moroccans – many of whom, according to my observations so far, seem very eager to solve an instance of bodily malaise with a quick pill – would prefer lengthy psychotherapy to pharmaceuticals. I found it surprising that there seems to be less stigma attached to counseling than there is to medication, as these psychotherapists claimed.

But what also struck me, and what I want to write about today, is the psychiatrists’ choice of the word ‘parole’. This French word can be translated as ‘speech’, or ‘spoken word’. Of course, ‘talking’ has been widely proven to be an effective form of psychiatric treatment. But what interests me here is the fact that ‘parole’ suggests such a strong emphasis on the linguistic dimensions of that activity. I don’t think that these psychiatrists ignore the myriad other dimensions of communication, but in general, I am getting the sense that Moroccan psychiatry focuses heavily on the issue of language.

Any time these psychiatrists spoke about establishing a sense of mutual understanding – and the importance of having a shared discourse on which to base that understanding – they would mention the importance of defining certain words, of ‘speaking the patient’s language’. In his writings about the history and practice of psychoanalysis in Morocco, Dr. Jalil Bennani even conceives of cultural beliefs as a kind of ‘language’. He suggests that a particular way of understanding and experiencing illness should be understood as a particular language, used to express feelings that are ultimately universal:

Il convient d’accorder à la tradition magico-religieuse la place qui lui est due en interprétant celle-ci comme un effet de langage et non pas comme un effet ethnique. Il convient de reconnaître dans le discours magico-religieux du patient le signe d’un autre discours afin de réussir à dépasser la frontière stérile du magico-religieux et du rationnel et déplacer les conflits en vue de faire retrouver au sujet une capacité de liberté par rapport à sa propre parole."

Freely translated, he says the following: “we should see magico-religious tradition for what it is, conceiving of it as an effect of language, rather than an effect of ethnicity. We should recognize the patient’s magico-religious talk as marker of a different kind of speech,* so as to enable ourselves to transgress the sterile boundary between the magico-religious and the rational and to dissolve their conflict, so as to allow the subject to recover a capacity for liberty with regard to his own speech.”

I’ve noticed this psychiatric focus on language before – at the Clinic, for instance, when Dr. Rachidi lamented that with so few diagnostic tools available in Moroccan Arabic, doctors and patients forever risk getting stuck in a cycle of mistranslation. And this focus makes perfect sense, given the particulars of the Moroccan context.

Mutual understanding is always a crucial issue in psychotherapy. Doctor and patients may come from different (cultural, educational, economic) backgrounds, may ascribe to different ideologies, and may explain experience (and illness) in very different ways. Therapy is effective only if communication is; and in order to truly communicate, it is always important that these two participants understand the framework of assumptions and beliefs that the other is speaking from. In Morocco, where an incredible heterogeneity of beliefs characterizes not just society in general but most doctor-patient interactions as well, a difference in cultural background is often accompanied by a difference in language. Whereas the professional language of Moroccan psychiatry (and biomedicine) is French, the average patient who interprets his or her experiences as a form of spirit possession will not master this language, and will choose to explain said experiences in Moroccan Arabic – or in Tamazight, Tashelhit, or Tariffit.

Communication training manuals, or books about interviewing techniques, often emphasize the immense importance of understanding messages that are communicated nonverbally. The ‘indexical meaning’ of a message (Briggs, 1986) – facial expressions, gestures, tonal inflections, and so on – carry important clues about the ‘real’ meaning of whatever is expressed in words. But as much as it is true that we shouldn’t underestimate the necessity of heeding this more easily forgotten layer of communication, these Moroccan psychiatrists suggest that we should also not forget what’s right under our ears.

The same was suggested in a recent article that appeared on CNN. It reported on a study conducted by medical journal The Lancet, which found that online psychotherapy may be as effective as actual, in-person counseling. A group of patients was given a remote form of psychotherapy: they communicated with their therapist online, through instant messaging. In comparison with a control group that received no form of counseling, this indirect form of therapy seemed to have as high a success rate as ‘traditional’ therapy does. This would suggest either that nonverbal cues may not be so necessary in establishing a therapeutically effective level of communication between doctor and patient, or that online therapy has a particular advantage that might make up for that lack. A therapist interviewed for the interview suggests that the lack of nonverbal communication may in fact be liberating for the patient. Through this indirect form of interaction, stripped of any social context, an individual might be less worried about the social repercussions of things he or she wishes to say. In his words I read the suggestion that a solely linguistic form of interaction – in which social norms, contextual factors, and other cues that alter the meaning of spoken words, do not come into play – may provide the patient with a therapeutic sense of agency, of power. Agency and power so often hide in the ability to be heard, and for one’s words to be accepted. If nonverbal aspects of an interaction make a patient feel as though his words are not openly accepted, even if a psychiatrists words do their best to convey that feeling, perhaps a strictly verbal interaction does create more openness.

So what does all this imply about the nature of communication? What does it imply about the way in which we connect to one another, and by extension about the nature of our interpersonal relationships? How important is listening, exactly, and how do listening (to verbal communication) and observation (of nonverbal messages) relate to one another in the process of (effective) communication? And, perhaps above all, how does each form of communication affect the power relationship between the two speakers? These are questions I would really like to explore further in my research. I want to examine the role of language in Moroccan psychotherapy: I’m interested in the importance of words in creating a sense of understanding or shared meaning. I hope to explore psychiatrists’ and patients’ conception of the role of language in communicating, in understanding, and more fundamentally in structuring personal experience. Most of all, I’m interested in the power of language – the role that linguistic (mis)communication plays in structuring power relationships between psychiatrist and patient within this Moroccan context, in which ideologies and accompanying languages constantly vie for dominance. I will need to study Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst who used Ferdinand de Saussure’s structuralist theories of language to explain psychic structures and processes, and who has had a major impact on French – and thus Moroccan – psychoanalysis.

And I’ll need a methodology that creates room for the subtleties and conflicts of language. I’ll be using the format of person-centered interviews – a lengthy, open-ended and very unstructured genre of interviewing that, like Moroccan psychiatrists, assumes the power of words. It’s a psychodynamically oriented kind of interviewing, in which the point is not only to learn something from the interviewee about the cultural phenomenon you’re studying, but also to learn something about how the interviewee personally reflects on that phenomenon; what role it plays in his experience. The interviewee is thus not only informant, but also respondent, and person-centered interviews require heavy analysis of the meanings that do not lie immediately at the surface of the interaction. But aside from looking for nonverbal clues to those meanings, the trick is also to look for linguistic ones. Person-centered interviews encourage the respondent to structure the direction and content of the discussion, and to reflect on her experiences in her own words. The trick is to analyze the respondent’s choice of language, his “personally organized statements – clumping of themes, slips of the tongue, obvious defensive maneuvers, evidence of emotion, fantasy, and speculative thinking” (Levy 1973:xxii). Why did the respondent discuss that issue at this particular moment? Why did he choose that particular word, and the connotations it carries, to express that experience? What does all that suggest about the respondent’s feelings about the matter?

It is thus crucial for anyone hoping to carry out person-centered interviews to learn the language of her respondents. There is no way you will pick up on the subtleties of certain linguistic choices if your level of competence in that language is merely conversational. I have a lot of work ahead of me in that regard. I’m beginning to establish a kind of feeling for the subtleties in French (even if I myself haven’t actively mastered them yet), but I have a long way to go for Moroccan Arabic. I’m considering this post a re-dedication to that endeavor. I’ve created a bit of structure in my work life, and hope that this will create some time for renewed language study. And perhaps I’ll find some time for that psychoanalytic reading, as well…

* the French discours is not the same as the english discourse

Monday, August 31, 2009


The story of my Mobilia couch has ended not with a three-seater in my living room, but with my money back in my pocket.

Last Wednesday, I was at last expecting my couch to be delivered – and in the right color, this time. But, in an instance of total déjà vu, what I got instead was a repetition of that first episode, of waiting and vague promises. It started with a call from Mobilia themselves, informing me they’d be a day late with their delivery, and followed with three days of my having to call them to ask whether they were still going to come, and being reassured that the delivery would certainly take place – tomorrow if not today.

Me being incapable of getting verbally angry – let alone doing so in French or Arabic – Farid got involved and called the store. When, interspersed by a lot of hshouma alikoums, he told the salesman we’d come and get the couch ourselves, the truth came out: the couch was still in Casablanca and, once again, was the wrong color. Farid told him we’d come and collect my money the next day, and angrily hung up.

I did not get my money the next day. Farid and I arrived at the store and were met by a very apologetic salesman who, nevertheless, persisted in telling us he couldn’t give me my money, that I’d have to wait until Monday. Farid yelled at him in French and Arabic; and I, for the first time in my life, found some words of my own to yell. In a combination of French and English I asked him how the hell he had the nerve to ask me, yet again, to be patient. How he was going to compensate me for all the hours of work I’d missed, waiting for a delivery that never came. Why he thought it was somehow better or easier to have me go through that charade of supposed delivery for days at a time – twice – than to be honest and open with his customers about the status of their orders.

It is now Monday, I have just been to Mobilia to collect my money, and I am back at square one – with a modest sum of money, and no couch. On my way back to work I stopped by Kitea, the other budget furniture option, where the couches are slightly less attractive and slightly more expensive. I made a choice for their cheapest couch and got ready to place an order, only to hear that this model was no longer disponible, in any color.

There are other options – I can buy a pricy couch at the upscale furniture store in my neighborhood, or I can have something made to order (a process I will have to figure out, first). But I am sitting here, and for a moment I am letting it get to me. This little episode of frustration has added to a number of other work- and research-related developments that have left me feeling utterly suffocated, incapable, and powerless. And as a result, I’ve let it happen: I’ve given into unproductive wallowing in homesickness.

It’s not just the big things that I miss – the system, the structure, the familiarity, the natural ease of communication. It’s mostly the little things that keep popping up in my head. Like driving my car down University Avenue while listening to Weekend Players, or like walking across the Chicago River at Michigan Avenue with a Starbucks latte in my hand. Going running through the streets of North Park. Perusing books for hours at the Borders downtown. A glass of Chilean wine on my parents’ back porch. Warm brownies. The squirrels in Hyde Park. A smoked turkey sandwich. The New Yorker. A Chicago style pizza. Good sushi. DSW Shoe Warehouse. The number six bus. Real chocolate chip cookies. The beach in La Jolla. Lake Michigan and Chicago’s skyline. A huge glass of 2% milk. Barbeques on the point. Trader Joe’s. The Art Institute. A real Italian meal. Twiggs. The Living Room Café. H&M. Lake Shore Drive. Showtime. A hot dog. Banana Republic. HBO. Legitimate DVDs with movies in English. A good summer thunderstorm. The AMC at River East. MSNBC. Walgreen’s. NPR. The Sunday New York Times. And above all, my friends and family.

I’m going home for a week at the end of this month. Right now, it couldn’t come soon enough. And I just hope that that week of comfort will make a difference – that I’ll retrieve or recover a bit of the energy I long for.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ramadan and Solidarity

“wash kat‘ajebek lkousina lmaghribia?” Lalla Ghita asked me as we stood over a steaming pot of what would, in a few hours, become harira. ‘Do you like Moroccan cuisine?’

I nodded wholeheartedly, taking in the warm smell of cilantro emanating from the pot.

“I love it,” I responded.

“mmm,” she mumbled, and nodded in agreement.

“It’s great food,” she then added, “but it’s a lot of work.”

She was right. As we stood there waiting for the harira to come to a boil, we were no more than ninety minutes into what would become a five-hour marathon of preparations for that evening’s ftour.

I had joined lalla Ghita in her kitchen that afternoon in order to learn how to make harira. After an unsuccessful attempt of my own at making this soup, which resulted in a tasty stew that nevertheless tasted nothing like the intended goal, I decided it was time to get advice from a seasoned expert. Armed with pen and paper, I followed lalla Ghita around the kitchen as she explained her process from start to finish, and meticulously documented every step.

As I had expected (based on my experiences asking my former host family about their cooking), the recipes in lalla Ghita’s mind were not written in the language of measured quantities and numbered units of weight or volume. I attempted to use my own, admittedly limited, skills at eyeball-estimations as she showed and explained to me that harira calls for “chwiya dial l-hommous” (some chick peas), “chwiya dial l-qousbour” (a little cilantro), and “chwiya dial l-basla” (a little onion). But despite the vagueness of these instructions, I gradually began to discover a method to the seeming randomness. The secret lay in her inflections: as more ingredients were added to the big pot of soup, I realized that the number of i's in her “chwiya” were directly proportional to the quantity required.

Chwiya dial l-matesha,” she explained as she cut up six big tomatoes, puréed them in a blender and poured the mixture into the pot.

She followed with “chwiiiya dial l-‘ades,” as she added about a handful of lentils to the soup.

And finally, she told me, it was optional to include “chwiiiiiiiiiiya dial l-safran” – and she sprinkled in a small pinch of saffron, for a nice yellow glow.

With the harira comfortably settled to stew on low heat, I observed and helped as lalla Ghita turned to other preparations. We made the filling for briouat – fried triangles of filo dough filled with meat and/or vegetables – and gutted and cleaned a chicken (“for tomorrow,” lalla Ghita explained; “it needs to soften up for a night first”). We made the dough for rghaif (flaky, square pancakes), and did multiple rounds of dishes. We cut thin sheets of filo dough into long strips, and folded the briouat filling into their characteristic triangle-shaped packages. We baked the rghaif, and boiled some eggs. We did more dishes, made coffee and mint tea, heated up milk, and fried the briouat. All the while, we chatted – about the NIMAR (for whose students lalla Ghita’s family occasionally provides lodging), about my purpose in Morocco, about lalla Ghita’s family, and (inevitably, perhaps) about food. I told her about my various attempts at Moroccan cooking, and she in turn explained to me what’s customarily eaten at Ramadan meals. In a show and tell of sorts, she extracted each item – tmar (dates), chebakia, sfouf, zoumita*– from refrigerator and cupboards, provided me with a rich description of its ingredients, and gave me various serving suggestions. A modest but well-deserved sense of pride spoke from her eyes as she told me this was the first year she herself had made some of these items from scratch.

Lalla Ghita occasionally sent her husband and son out on errands: she’d ask them to bring her some fresh mint, some cheese, or a loaf of bread. But other than these brief trips, lalla Ghita’s family mostly spent the afternoon reclining on the sdader (Moroccan sofas) in front of the television – watching Prison Break on MBC Action, or a Mexican soap opera dubbed in Darija on 2M – waiting for the hours to slip away. With the curtains drawn and their half-open eyes fixed passively on the television, they whiled away their afternoon in a state of utter torpor. I couldn’t help but wonder whose fast was easier: that of this slumbering family, who expended as little energy as possible, or that of their hardworking mother, for whom time must have passed by much more quickly.

Solidarity is an important concept during Ramadan – and many people I’ve talked with include this notion in their explanation of what Ramadan means. Apart from a way to turn back to God, Ramadan is also a way to boost a sense of community togetherness, a sense of shared experience and compassion for those around you. One thing this experience of fasting has taught me, is that this sense of solidarity is real and acute (more on that below). Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but wonder how that sense of solidarity and shared experience correlates with this division of labor that had lalla Ghita single-handedly preparing several laborious dishes in a single afternoon, while her family slept on the couch. Is this division of labor seen as too much of a natural given to be the object of efforts at greater solidarity? Is the focus on solidarity more mental than anything else – is it less about action than it is about awareness? Did lalla Ghita’s husband perhaps consider his occasional errands to be an act of solidarity?

By seven PM, the table had been set, a platter of rghaif had been delivered as a gift to the neighbors, and we’d taken our seats around the knee-height table. A few minutes later, we turned down the sound of the television to listen for the cannon shot indicating sunset – our sign that we could gratefully grab that first glass of water. Lalla Ghita, the orchestrator of the meal, served everyone a bowl of harira and was herself last to sit down and break her fast.

And so the day ended with a rich and above all very satisfying ftour. A day of fasting seems to shrink my stomach, but exponentially increases my mental appetite. This leads to a bit of nightly frustration as my stomach protests at my eyes’ desire to keep feasting on the wealth of food. This evening was no different. One overly stuffed belly later, I said my goodbyes, promised to make lalla Ghita’s family a pot of harira in return for their hospitality, and headed home, utterly satisfied.

I think that what I enjoyed most about this experience wasn’t just the fact that the harira-mystery had finally been unveiled. Mostly, it felt deeply good to spend the afternoon inside a Moroccan household. I love having my own apartment, but sometimes I miss a sense of connectedness to ‘real’, daily Moroccan life – sometimes it feels as though I have permanently positioned myself on the outside of that actual lived reality, as though I’ve confined myself to expat life. I hope that this will change once my research gets under way and I interact with Moroccans again on a more regular basis, but that sense of disconnection saddens me sometimes.

And so I was grateful for this brief afternoon, in which I felt as though I had been let inside, and had been allowed to participate in the intimacy of Moroccan lived reality – allowed to share in the practice and concrete meaning of Ramadan customs. I have a feeling that my status as a participant in the fast may have helped to facilitate this inclusion. Because I, too, was sayma (fasting), the solidarity conferred by the shared experience of Ramadan seemed automatically to have been extended to me. For the first time in months, I did not feel like an inherent outsider. I felt as though I was recognized as being a part of something, even if just potentially – as though I had been let in. That afternoon, I felt as though those boundaries between me and Morocco – the ones that seem so insurmountable sometimes – might actually be crossable.

And for that alone, I’m happy I decided to participate in this experience. I had been told about the significance of solidarity during Ramadan – but I doubt I would have truly sensed its presence if I myself had not shared in the experience of fasting. Not only does my choice to fast entail that I have become a recipient of solidarity – that I have been allowed to experience what it is like to be part of an ‘inner circle’ in Morocco; it also entails that I’ve experienced first-hand what it is like to feel that sense of solidarity extend from myself to others. I’ve realized that it’s more than just an ideal that people express to me, the outsider, to teach me what Ramadan should be about. Fasting turns that sense of solidarity into a visceral and almost primal experience that cannot help but permeate your mind. The emptiness of my stomach is an inescapable and constant reminder of the fact that I am voluntarily sharing in a particular experience – and with every person I encounter during the day, I cannot help but think: does this person’s stomach feel the same way mine does?

Of course, not everyone feels the same amount of solidarity as others, and some more than others translate that visceral experience into action. But the sense of togetherness is there, much more acutely than I would have ever guessed, and being part of that has been an unforgettable experience.

* sfouf and zoumita are mixtures of ground nuts, spices, and various other ingredients; whereas sfouf is courser and stickier, zoumita is much more powdery. Both have a distinct taste of cinnamon, and remind me very much of pumpkin spices. Whereas sfouf is often pressed together into a mound and served as such, lalla Ghita mixed the zoumita with a combination of melted butter and honey. She rolled the resulting paste into small truffles, dipped them in sesame seeds, and arranged them on a plate.