Friday, January 30, 2009

Windy Weekend

It is breezy and rainy this weekend. A strong wind howls past my new window, causing my new shutters to clatter nervously. It plays with my hair and makes umbrella’s difficult to wield, as I venture out a few times a day on expedition to explore my new neighborhood and acquire some basic necessities for survival.

In reference to these pursuits, I have to declare this weekend to have been a big success. I found myself a stovetop coffeemaker, and located the supermarket I vaguely remembered being around here. This store sells nearly all the staples of my diet: Nutella, bread, spaghetti, olive oil, spices, garlic, onions, fruits & vegetables. The only necessity I have not yet found here: parmesan cheese. But there’s a little import-looking shop at the marché centrale by the medina that looks like it might have just the thing, so I’m not worried.

I still do not have a working fridge, so I’m holding off on the meat and dairy for now. I can buy my fruits and vegetables on a daily basis for now and love black espresso as much as lattes, but I do kind of wonder when someone will come by to start it up…

The other thing I have found: a liquor store. As I was checking out at this neighborhood supermarket, I noticed a sign on the far wall with an arrow pointing down a flight of stairs, marked with “cave d’alcool.” Very curious to witness the selling and purchasing of alcohol in Morocco, I decided to go explore, and descended.

What emerged as I stepped down the stairs was an atmosphere of utter seediness and apparent mayhem. A policemen standing by the stairs, overseeing the goings on in this “cave d’alcool” made me wonder if something alarming was perhaps going on here. The empty bottles and plastic bags strewn across the floor added to my growing suspicion that some kind of looting was taking place, as did the throngs of men, nervously and energetically moving up and down the aisles, hoarding baskets full of bottles. But no, I decided, judging by the calm expression on the cashier’s face and the ‘bienvenue’ someone wished me as I walked past, nothing out of the ordinary was taking place here. And so I walked in. I felt particularly self-aware in this bizarre atmosphere, highly aware that I was the only woman there (save for the cashier), and taking great notice of the space my body was occupying amidst these men hurrying about with their arms full of bottles. I was uncomfortable with my aimlessness, not being able to discern any rhyme or reason to the ordering of products. A few shelves of wine here, next to the whisky, and a few aisles down, more wine, this time next to the rum. Varieties of beer all over the place, no wine-selection by country or region.

But despite this sense of heightened self-awareness, I felt somehow immune, more comfortable and anonymous than I usually do in unknown Moroccan situations. My obvious otherness didn’t seem to bother me at all this time, I think because I experienced it suddenly as a kind of shield. In a weird way, my European appearance actually makes that I do not look out of place here. Technically, I have more right to be here, by Moroccan law, than these men nervously scurrying about. Moroccan law forbids the selling and buying of alcohol to or by any Muslim. And as wrong as this is, usually this identity is judged on the basis of appearance (incidentally, Moroccan ID cards do not indicate one’s religion, as is done elsewhere). I am fairly sure that I was the only one in the place who did not ‘look’ Muslim.

It made me wonder what the role was of that cop standing by the wall. Clearly he was not doing anything, verifying any religious identifications (in whatever way one might choose to do this) or stopping anyone from purchasing alcohol. Why, then, was he there? What was the purpose of him standing there, and how does that work, legally? It was a bizarre sight, all these very Moroccan-looking men, not only openly buying alcohol, but doing so under the eye of a policeman. Did the cop perhaps stand there to enforce a sort of implicit honor-code? Did his presence intend to play on the internal mores of the Muslim and remind him wordlessly of the sin he would be committing, should be enter?

Whatever it may be, I decided I had seen enough, and tried to leave unseen. But no luck: just as I was approaching the exit, an employee approached, a basket in his outstretched hand. “No thanks,” I said, I don’t need one. He looked at me a little strangely. “Nothing?” He asked. I smiled and shook my head, “Not today.” He shrugged, smiled, and walked away. Judging by the way others were filling up their baskets, I have a feeling that it doesn’t happen often that someone should descend into this cave of sin and liquor, and not come out with at least a few bottles of the forbidden substance.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Return to Rabat

After a day and a half of traveling, here I am, in Rabat, at an apartment that promises to fulfill all my expectations. I have arrived earlier than either the Nimar or I expected – I discovered late last week that I was leaving Chicago on Wednesday instead of Thursday – and so the apartment is still in its last stages of build-up: living room furniture was just being cut out of its plastic wrap when I arrived, the fridge has not yet been unpacked and plugged in, and here and there a door or lighting fixture has yet to be installed.

But I have a bright and spacious room with a door that locks, ample closet space just for me, a bed ready for a long night’s sleep and… a private bathroom. I’m not sure yet if this will be a private bathroom for the entire month I will be staying here, but at least for the weekend, it is all mine. And it has a shower with hot water. I cannot convey to you how blown away I am by the fact that I am being given all this, here in Morocco. I mean: I knew that this level of comfort and luxury exists here, but the fact that it is all mine, that I can enjoy it all without feeling like I am imposing on someone, is quite unbelievably nice.

If only I could stay here for all four months…

But I’m going to enjoy myself utterly in the next four weeks. The apartment is large: surrounding a large living room are a double room, two single rooms (one of which is mine), a kitchen, dining area, and two and a half bathrooms. We even have a spacious terrace.

The rest of the trip went smoothly. Despite a bit of delay in Madrid, I still arrived in Casablanca in time to catch the 13.00 train I needed to get to the Nimar before it closed. And as I had hoped, I received help with my bags at all stages; never once did I have to carry them on or off a train and up or down a single flight of stairs myself. Sometimes they were helpful fellow travelers, at other times more official porter-types who spend their days helping with bags at train stations. I’ve learned that the idea is to give these men a few Dirhams when they help you. Usually this indeed goes over well – until today. A man in uniform at the airport approached me as soon as the train rode into the station, asked me with a business-tone of voice whether I had a first or second class ticket, and headed for the train with my bags. I followed him up the steps into the front-most second-class compartment, where he put my bags down next to a seat and pointed to where I could sit. I thanked him, found three Dirhams in my pocket to my great relief, and handed them to him. He looked at the coins in his hand, and then looked back at me with a slightly offended air in his eyes. I felt bad: should I have given him more? I was about to explain that I didn’t have any more when it became clear that wasn’t the issue. With the tone of a mother that tells her child it should really have known better, he said to me: “Euros!” A little incredulous I looked back into his offended eyes. “Ma‘andish,” I responded truthfully, ‘I don’t have any!’ He gave me an indignant look, glanced down with disgust at the coins in his hand one more time, and stomped off.

I had to laugh. Why the presumption that I would have Euros? And why did this man prefer Euros over Dirhams anyway? Did he think I’d give him more if I paid in European tender? Is he expecting the Euro to gain on the Dirham any time soon? Would he perhaps have wanted the fifty American cents that I still had in my back pocket? Or would he have wanted to hear me explain that even I wished I had had Euros when I walked around Barajas airport for three hours with nothing to do?

After a cup of tea at the Nimar, I am now sitting at my desk in my new room. I have unpacked, have taken a scalding hot shower, and am now contemplating a trip outside for some sustenance. I’m a little nervous and I have a headache. I no longer have the energy I did when I boarded the flight to Madrid. I’m enjoying the sense of familiarity Morocco is giving me for the first time upon an arrival here (as I looked out the train window at the passing towns, I could still tell what used to strike me as so foreign and exotic, and reveled in the fact that it no longer felt that way. The faces and buildings that passed me by now seemed tangible, real, understood), but now that I am here I cannot help but feel a little overwhelmed that I am back here, in this place where most daily activities take a lot more thought and effort for me than they do at home, because it all works so differently, and requires the use of these languages I am still trying to learn. And no matter how good the French and Arabic sounded in my head, neither came out as well as I had wanted when addressed by customs officials, train ticket vendors, and taxi drivers. I feel a bit more nervousness about the upcoming four-month adventure, and a bit of loneliness – but I will call that jet lag or fatigue and get myself to bed early.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Going, going, back, back...

For six weeks, I struggled to think of anything I might write a blog post about. Geographically removed from my purported subject of analysis, my inspiration was lost. Nothing I thought about seemed relevant, and nothing that was relevant, seemed interesting enough.

But today, as soon as I set foot in the airplane that was to take me on the first leap over water toward Morocco – my flight from Chicago to Madrid – the words instantly came flooding back. I spent most of my waking hours on the flight writing notes to myself in the blank margins of the pages in Iberia’s in-flight magazine. Notes on how different this journey felt from the one I undertook in September. Notes that looked ahead and made plans, and notes that reflected on the past and tried to learn from it. Notes that fantasized, and notes that pulled me back into reality.

It is a new world, this time around, both inside and out. Instead of alone, I feel strong and confident. Instead of afraid and unsure, I am full of excitement. I remember the dread I felt in September – the sheer inability to even imagine having the energy to get off the plane in Casablanca, get myself admitted into the country, pick up my bags, and haul myself onto a train. I also remember how I felt three months later, in December – I remember that I wasn’t ready to leave, and that I had started to love being in Morocco. And it is that flow of energy that I am still riding on today. I dread hauling that same huge black bag onto two trains and up several flights of stairs, but other than that I am bouncing with energy, excited to speak Arabic to the customs officials, and make them smile once again when I tell them I’m studying Moroccan Arabic. I’m excited to arrive at the Nimar, at the apartment where I will be living for the next month, to start work, to see my friends again, to walk around Rabat, to travel around the country, to speak French and Arabic.

Looking back at Chicago as it got smaller and smaller underneath us, tranquilized by a muting white and hazy blanket of snow, I did feel acutely how much I was going to miss being ‘home’. I did feel a bit of apprehension. I already miss the comforts of home, the ability to take certain things for granted, the not-having-to-wonder-how-things-work. I already feel the nervousness of an approaching unknown – because many new issues will arise this time around, with my living circumstances being so different, and my rise upwards on the ladder of independence. And (as always) I am nervous about my French and Arabic, because despite my best intentions I’ve been unable to prevent my comfort level with both from lapsing significantly. But with this energy and motivation I feel, all that ‘unknown’ seems much less threatening already.

I can’t help but think that apart from my increased familiarity with Moroccan life and the headway that I made this past fall, this new positive outlook has been engendered also by the new sense of hope in which Obama has swept up (most of) the United States. I’ve definitely been pulled along with it all and I have high hopes that, even if nothing major changes any time soon, at least we all have once again found the energy to work on improvement of our world. After a little bit of disillusionment on this issue last November [link], I’ve convinced myself once again that real cross-cultural communication perhaps is possible, after all – and that I want to contribute at least to seeing if that’s true.

In that respect, I think these next four months will strike a slightly different tone from the preceding three. I hope to resume my efforts to establish a kind of inside-understanding of Morocco, to come to know its own internal logic. But rather than pursuing research and total immersion, I will be working within a European frame of reference. Rather than trying to blend in (as impossible as that may be in Morocco, sometimes), I will be explicitly representing an outsider’s point of view. Rather than looking in on the lives of others, I will be attempting to build up my own version of life in Morocco.

I wonder how I will experience that shift of perspective – if it will even change anything about my experience, at all. To anyone else here in Morocco, native and foreign, I’m fairly sure there is no real difference between the status of an anthropologist, and that of someone working for a European cultural organization. Either way, there is an a priori assumption of difference, no matter how fervently anthropologists may wish to transcend it. As much as I tried to blend in, I cannot pretend for a minute as though that assumption was ever absent during those three months I spent with Khadija, Lahcen, and their children.

But I wonder what it will do to my own perspective. Like any other anthropologist I did try, at least in part, to transcend that sense of difference. Disillusioned with the realistic possibility of ever succeeding, I chose not to give up and underscore my otherness, but instead to be silent on those aspects of my identity and outlook that did not seem to fit into any Moroccan framework of reference. It frustrated me not to be able to ‘be myself’ (even if I did, truly, enjoy myself in the process of this immersion), but I was there on a mission to learn about Moroccan ways of thinking, not to contrast them with my own. I think ‘anthropologist’ has become a state of mind for me rather than a concrete job description, and I don’t believe I’ll be able to turn it off this spring. Nevertheless, I am going back to Morocco not to immerse myself, but to be a Dutch employee, representing a Dutch cultural organization. To underscore and highlight my difference, so to speak. Will that encourage me to ‘be myself’ more toward the people I am trying to learn about Morocco from? And if so, will I experience that as a good thing, or will it hinder my learning process? And come to think of it, how will it affect my already existing sense of hybridity? Will I begin to emphasize my Americanness more, now that the Dutch part of me is put in the foreground?

But as much as it feels like a highlighting of my difference to come back to Morocco in this new position, it may also be a position from which I have an underscored responsibility to engage in cross-cultural dialogue and try to facilitate a measure of cross-cultural understanding. That idea appeals to me. And that, perhaps, will be my way to bridge the gap I sometimes perceive between an anthropologist’s state of mind and this outsider’s position.

Thursday, January 8, 2009


I’ve missed this blog. For the past three weeks, I’ve been restlessly agonizing over what I could possibly write about, so geographically separated from my official topic of discussion. Then, last night, as I found myself in the air once again, on my way from Chicago to California this time, I decided I could write about how I’ve been experiencing this separation. This won’t be a post recounting my observations and imperfect theories about anything pertaining to Moroccan society – but bear with me…

It’s been wonderful to be home. It’s been great to see my parents, my sister – even my brother (plus wife and unborn child) unexpectedly drove the 8 hours to Chicago to come see me – and my friends. I’ve been reunited with the things I missed, and it’s been heaven: a shower every day, a private room, sole command of the remote control, my father’s cooking, my own cooking, quiet & solitude, indoor heating, being easily understood when I speak.

But at the same time, I have been unable to shake a sense of restlessness and general-state-of-unsettled-ness. Given the fact that I only have six weeks to enjoy being ‘home’, I am trying to make the most out of my time here. Ever making things more difficult than they need to be, I’m making too much of an effort out of relaxing and having fun. I’ve submitted a list of my favorite dishes to my father, hoping to be served each one at least once before I leave. I’ve (finally) called most of my friends in hopes of seeing them all a few times before my departure, am trying to visit all of my favorite spots in both Chicago and San Diego, want to catch up on whatever good new books and movies have come out since September, catch up on Obama-mania, and revel in the general sense of familiarity here.

On top of that there is so much in terms of practical matters that needs to be done. There are loose ends to be tied up, important other ties to be tightened – in other words, there is business to be done. The business of grants and IRB approval, most importantly. Then there are the dentist, the doctor, the salon, Target, and all those other routine items on my to do list, to prepare myself for another sojourn on the other side of the world.

But while I am thus severely preoccupied with my presence and responsibilities here in the United States, there is simultaneously nothing I dream of more than my return to Morocco. Not because I’m not happy to be home, don’t get me wrong. It has more to do with my sense that I left Morocco at such a strange moment. Do you know the expression “to strike the iron while it’s hot”? I feel as though I left Morocco right at the moment that the irons I had put in the fire were finally beginning to heat up. I was just beginning to find my way, to enjoy myself, to establish interesting new relationships, both professional and personal – and right at that moment, right when I first began to notice the tips of my irons turning that shade of red that indicates it’s ready to be molded, it was time for me to leave.

And so I think constantly and impatiently about going back, and striking my irons. As much as I have been trying to focus on being here and enjoying that being-here, I am at the same time laboring to keep at least a part of my soul in a state of Moroccan-ness, linguistically and culturally. I’ve cooked Moroccan food for my parents. I make sure to study some Moroccan Arabic every day. I get my news from Le Monde and Menara rather than CNN, read Tahar Benjelloun before I go to bed, and listen to Jalal el Hamdaoui and Gnawa diffusion on my iPod.

I think my subconscience hopes that by keeping myself connected to Morocco in this superficial way, perhaps Morocco will remain connected to me, as well. I think that deep down, I am impatient to return primarily because I am afraid that these six weeks of absence will have cooled my irons down again; I worry that in these six weeks the place I had begun to carve out for myself in Rabat will have filled up again with something else, and that I will have to start all over again. I am afraid, most of all, that the high hopes I have for my return will blossom into nothing but a set of anti-climaxes. The prospects just seem too good to be true, sometimes – a fabulous internship, my own apartment, my new friends, free Arabic classes, research at the hospital… How could some of that not blow up in my face?

The problem is that I am simultaneously an optimist and pessimist. I am a hopeless dreamer, and I spend hours of excitement in fantasies about how perfect and fun these next four months are going to be. But at the same time I am always wary, always a little incredulous that anything so seemingly perfect will ever work out the way I want it to. I am convinced that things never turn out the way you imagine they will and can never quite get myself to shake the cynical feeling that any good developments will always be balanced out by something bad.

Though of course I also know that usually, the fact that reality never meets up to the expectations of your dreams doesn’t mean in any way that things don’t turn out fabulously anyway. If a certain dream doesn’t come true, you will usually find another beautiful reality in its place – surprising and exciting in its unexpected pleasantness. And so what I think I’ll try to do for these remaining three weeks (three weeks!), is to be the realist and keep an open mind. The next four months will be what they will be, and I’m sure they will be fabulous. In any case, I’m going to do what I can to make that happen, trying all the while to remain flexible enough to let it come as it is… Bring it on.