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.

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