Thursday, February 26, 2009

El Clasico in Rabat

Last night, Farid and I watched a soccer game at a café on boulevard Mohammed V. Liverpool was playing Real Madrid – Farid’s team – in the first knockout round of the Champion’s League.*

In every Moroccan café, or “qahwa” (literally, ‘coffee’) one will spot one or two televisions hanging in a corner. Day and night, these televisions provide background images (though nearly never background sound) with the latest music video clips from an Arab music channel, or Al Jazeera’s latest news stories. Men will spend hours sitting quietly over their cups of qahwa, smoking a cigarette and absentmindedly glancing at these screens – or reading the newspaper that someone else left on the table. But on soccer nights, the televisions are tuned in to Aljazeera sport, the sound is turned up to maximum, and the cafés fill up to capacity with animated men, eager to cheer on their favorite team. These men come in early to get a good seat, all lining up their chairs in rows – a table interspersed here and there on which to place one’s coffee, soda, juice, and ashtrays – in order to have an optimal view of the TV screen. We arrived at a café twenty minutes before kick-off, and found no empty spaces left. It took two more fruitless attempts before we found a coffee with a few empty seats, upstairs in what is normally the ‘women’s’ – or more private – section of the place.

On these match nights, there is no such thing as a women’s section. Watching a game at a café is clearly a male activity: I was the only woman there. A bit nervously, Farid leaned over to me and asked, ‘are you comfortable?’ I smiled and nodded. Strangely enough, I was. I’m not sure if it was the comfort of being there with the protective shield of a male friend, or the comfort of being such an obvious outsider that it doesn’t always matter when I transgress certain unspoken gender barriers.

However, I’m not sure if there really is a gender barrier to speak of, here. Despite the fact that I didn’t feel uncomfortable, I was aware of my minority status in the café, but this might be no more than a kind of general feeling of otherness when one is aware of being the odd one out. When I asked him about it later, Farid surmised that there is no hard and fast rule that says women are not expected to join in on a public soccer viewing. Nevertheless, I doubt that it is entirely acceptable for a woman alone to surround herself with agitated men at a coffee. As much as any man may say it’s ok, I have a feeling that if asked, those Fassi boys with whom I discussed ‘women between tradition and modernity’, back in November, would classify that kind of behavior as evidence that women “have lost their value” – I doubt they’d want to see their sisters engage in such “untraditional” behavior. I have a feeling that a sole woman watching soccer with men falls into that vast gray zone that lies in between ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’: it’s most definitely a non-traditional kind of behavior that is not inherently wrong – but that nevertheless comes across as not-quite-appropriate among those who are still inclined to judge others on the basis of observation.

But whatever boundaries I may or may not have crossed, I had a good time. I enjoyed watching a good soccer match again (the last one had been this past summer, with the European Cup), even if I am nowhere near as big, or as passionate, a fan as the men at this café. The men around me all sat at the edge of their seat, yelling “sir, sir!” (this is pronounced ‘seer’ and means ‘Go! Go!’) at the screen whenever a Real player approached the Liverpool goal. It wasn’t until Liverpool scored the first (and only) goal in the 82nd minute, that I realized there were fans for the other side in the room, too: a few men here and there jumped up in excitement, punching the air above them with their fist while they shouted out in jubilation.

Farid later explained to me that these were no Liverpool fans. To the contrary: English soccer means nothing to them. No: they are FC Barcelona fans, which automatically means that they hate Real Madrid enough to cheer on any team that plays against them.

I come from a family with Barça sympathies, but my preference does not make me a sworn enemy of Real. This is not the case for most Moroccan men who – overwhelmingly – obsess over Spanish soccer. This passion for Spanish football among Moroccan men means, by association, that they are also caught up in the legendary rivalry between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid (This rivalry is so notorious it now even has a name: El Clasico. Look this up on Google and you’ll find a wealth of information about the history of this enmity). This rivalry seems to have existed ever since the two teams came into existence, back in the 1890s, and constitutes a poignant illustration of the political undertones that soccer can never quite shake off. Madrid and Barcelona are the capital cities of what are seen as two rival regions of Spain – Castilia and Catalunya, respectively. The enmity became even more pronounced under general Franco’s dictatorial rule. When Franco militantly suppressed all languages other than Castiliano, Barcelona – and thus its soccer team – became symbolic of progressivism and subversion, while Madrid – the team favored by Franco – became associated with the establishment. ‘El Clasico’ has never since abated.

Domestic soccer competitions are important to Moroccan men as well, but there is a certain passion that Spanish soccer evokes in them that I find very interesting. In the north, this passion is instilled almost as though by automatic osmosis – the north picks up Spanish radio and TV channels better than Moroccan ones, and so most casual coffee shop television watchers have no choice but to watch the Spanish Liga. I wonder if there’s also an element of ideal identity involved – a wish to belong to that part of the world that seems so close yet simultaneously so far – and to grasp for any link or connection that allows them to (virtually) cross the strait of Gibraltar. Further south, the Spanish football fever has clearly caught on as well – whether it be through diffusion by migrants from the north, or the fact that Al Jazeera has started broadcasting their matches, Real and Barça are followed no less passionately than in the Rif.

* for the American not-in-the-know, the Champion’s League is the yearly championship of European club soccer in which qualifying teams from cities all over Europe compete for the Champion’s League trophy. This year’s final is on May 27th. All Dutch clubs have, unfortunately, already been eliminated.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


I now live with Fatima, the other Nimar intern. We get along well, and it’s been incredibly interesting to learn more about her perspective on Morocco. For as it happens, she has a completely different relationship with this country than I do. She’s been here much more often, but for much shorter periods of time: every summer, with her family, who are of Moroccan descent.

As we talk, sharing our respective experiences of this culture and society, I get the sense that Fatima seems to position herself at once as an outsider, and as an insider. She displays an extensive knowledge of Moroccan language, tradition, and mentality. Hers is a knowledge that clearly comes from the inside out, so to speak; it is something that comes from a long gestation of lived experience rather than from a book or other third-person account. In her interaction with others, I can tell that life here (the rhythm of it, the logic of it) makes sense to her on a much more instinctive level than the way in which things are beginning to make sense to me. But at the same time, she often seems to position herself as an outsider. As she describes her interaction with Moroccans, tells stories about experiences she’s had, sometimes I can see her literally drawing up a wall and separating herself from Moroccanness – describing customs, habits, or traditions as the somewhat curious habits of an other people, in the same way that the average European or American would.

Matching this dual perspective is also a dual perception of her on the part of other Moroccans – and perhaps this lies at the source of her own ambiguity. She obviously blends in easily, as a Moroccan-looking girl who speaks fluent Darija (the Moroccan dialect of Arabic), but she often mentions being perceived as an outsider – and I pick up on this, too. I see it in the smiles she gets from shopkeepers who comment about her accent, and the attention she and I both get in the medina: she is often not seen as a Moroccan. Not as a ‘real’ Moroccan, anyway. As she herself says, it is as though Moroccans have a sixth sense for this; it’s like they can smell that she did not grow up here.

I wonder what this must be like – and I wonder if it’s anything like the feelings I have about the Netherlands, the way I am perceived there by my friends and family. Whether it is at all similar to the sense I have of being both insider and outsider, in the Netherlands as well as the United States. I mean that sense of being considered part-of-yet-not-quite, in either country. I probably take up that same kind of dual stance when I talk about the Netherlands and – these days much more common – when I talk about the US.* I catch myself doing it sometimes; I will hear myself talking about “Americans,” and realize that I sound as though I am no more than the observing anthropologist – as though ‘Americanness’, like ‘Dutchness’, is not a part of me.

I have the lucky situation, though, that I can blend in – in either country – until I myself choose to unveil my otherness. It is not until I reveal to a shopkeeper in the Netherlands that I am not familiar with Euro coins that I get a strange and almost disapproving stare, and it is not until I reveal to my American friends that I’ve never seen “the Goonies” that they send a barrage of questions my way. This is not the case for Moroccans in the Netherlands who, in Holland, are instantly identified by merit of their looks as non-indigenous. It does not matter what your passport says, how well (and accentless) you speak the language, or where you and your parents were born. Darker skin and an Arabic name means that you are inherently an allochtoon, a foreigner.

But if Fatima is right about this sixth sense that Moroccans have, the same instant recognition of something ‘other’ exists here in Morocco, as well.

We tend to forget (or simply fail to realize) that migrants are perceived as outsiders not only in their country of new residence, but often also in their country of origin. Dutch social science and popular press has picked up on this a bit as it pertains to Dutch youth of Moroccan descent. Dutch society perceives them as ‘Moroccan’ – but every summer, when they drive their hard-earned cars down to Morocco and spend their summer nights promenading along the Mediterranean coast, they are perceived as foreigners – as Europeans. I remember media stories from a few years past, in which a number of teenagers were interviewed during these holidays in their (parents’) country of origin. They expressed a sense of alienation and uprootedness that I was struck by – because it seemed so hopeless. That feeling of belonging nowhere creates an emptiness that I needed time to get used to – and I think my alienation is much less acute than that of these young adults.

But I have to say that in terms of that insider-outsider stance, I feel completely at home at the Nimar, where I think we might share some of this feeling. We are all transnational: those of us who are Dutch are – obviously – all expats here in Africa, and those of us who are Moroccan have spent time in Europe. Both Morocco and the Netherlands are treated simultaneously as home front and as foreign territory. It creates an interesting sense of mobile rootedness. The US remains far away, but other than that, I feel fairly grounded here…

* For these days my perceived identity has been switched around: it is now the American connection that people do not see until I alert them to it. After spending eight years of having to explain my Dutch side, this is an interesting change. Nevertheless, it is striking to me how little has changed about my personal experience – though the poles have reversed, the ambiguous insider-outsider feeling remains completely unchanged. I’m still the seeming member of the club – until it becomes clear that there is some element of common cultural knowledge that I am not privy to.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Amours Voilées

I saw my first Moroccan movie tonight, on my second visit to a Moroccan movie theater. This cinema is not the best one in town, Farid later told me, and – without having seen Rabat’s other cinema from the inside – I am eager to believe him. The Royale was full of people, hustle and bustle, but it had an air of abandonment about it. Everything – the walls, the carpets, the brass finishes on the staircases and ticket booth – looked as though for years it had borne heavy loads of traffic, but had since then been covered in a layer of unstirred dust. The once-bright colors on the wall had long faded, and the carpets bore the worn signs of a million footprints.

The film, “Hijab l-houb,” or “amours voilées”* told the story of a young female doctor who, as TelQuel describes, “est complètement perdue entre son amour pour Dieu et son amour pour [un homme].” Batoul, the protagonist, is portrayed as a woman who allows herself to enjoy life, but also actively upholds her religious obligations.** Then, she falls in love with a very wrong, much older man who clearly is not looking for marriage. She allows herself to be pulled along by the current of this affair, yet is clearly conflicted about what she does. Perhaps it is this sense of conflict – this discrepancy between moral expectations and actual behavior – that compels her to don a hijab, a veil.

It is ultimately this conflict – between religion and sordidness, between moral expectations and personal desires – that drives the story to its climax. Caught with her lover at a party one evening by her brother (who is there himself with a girlfriend, but the movie dwells on this fact for no more than a second), a high-speed chase ensues when she and her lover flee the scene, and a sudden stop, the inability to stop the car, kills Batoul’s brother. This death sends an acute and searing message both to Batoul and to the audience that her kind of behavior leads to nothing but dire consequences.

But surprisingly, the movie does not stop here. Though we see Batoul in a state of deep religious repentance (while her lover moves on to other women), it becomes clear that the conflict has not yet been resolved: she returns to him. The audience is then treated to a second shocking climax: after Batoul learns she is pregnant, a complete nervous breakdown on the road lands her in the hospital, where the story is then suddenly and a bit unsatisfyingly terminated.

This ending alone made this movie incredibly interesting to me. I was surprised not only that the obvious message inherent in the brother’s death was not intended to be the take home message; I was also surprised that the movie passed no explicit judgment on Batoul’s pregnancy. Yes, the movie made clear, this is a difficult situation that is not without stigma. But no judgment was made. She was not denounced, neither explicitly nor implicitly. Ilyas – my movie partner for the evening – suggested that Batoul was able to get away with her transgressions because of her status in life. As a doctor, he said, she enjoyed the respect of her family, and had enough money to buy herself a certain level of freedom.

But there’s a larger message here, I think. I don’t think the movie is in the business of denouncing immoral behavior. I think, rather, that this movie actually laments the unfair burden placed on women’s shoulders to uphold the moral fiber of society, and the constraining boundaries that this burden imposes on them. It is a story that highlights the unfairness of these boundaries, and the immense difficulty women thereby face in their efforts to pursue some kind of happiness within these constraints.

This is portrayed most poignantly not by Batoul, but by her friend Houyem – a mother of two who has been left, years ago, by a philandering husband. Bearing the responsibility for two young children, she especially is expected to play the role of demure housewife. Without the protection (control?) of a man, Houyem is consigned to a sober life inside the house. She plays this role, and does it with gusto. She also plays a different one, however. A very different role, marked by a different costume: disguised by a wig, Houyem likes to go out on the town at night to have some fun and meet the occasional man. Her disguise lends her a bit of anonymity, which in turn allows her to transgress certain boundaries without risk of repercussions. But when a friend in the know confronts her with the hypocrisy and immorality of her soirées, this is what Houyem says: how fair is it that she is made to pay for her husband’s flouting of his responsibilities? He was never held accountable for his transgressions, or for the fact that he left, while social norms now confine her to a life inside the house (in the same way that Batoul is punished for her affair with a dead brother and illegitimate baby, while her lover is free to move on to the next woman, without reprimand or accountability). Houyem simply does not want to wake up one day, she says, and discover that she is fifty and life has passed her by.

The movie, I think, very strikingly portrays the crisis of looking for happiness when you don’t truly have the right to define for yourself what that happiness is, nor how to seek it. This is the tragedy: these women seek approval in the eyes of society. They seek the ultimate measure of success (and even of freedom?) as defined by the moral norm: marriage, a husband, financial comfort. Some of Batoul’s friends pursue these imposed dreams so ardently that they simply do not allow themselves time to think about whether this would truly bring them happiness. Those who do give themselves that time and discover that happiness may lie elsewhere, open themselves up to scorn and moral rejection.

Batoul’s headscarf essentially serves the same purpose as Houyem’s wig. Religion, for the women in this movie, becomes more a kind of self-protection than it does an ideological conviction. Religion is not the boundary that confines them, it is not the force that keeps them in line. On the contrary: it is a safe ticket to transgress these boundaries. This is what Batoul’s flirtation with the veil is about. For both herself and her family, this veil provides a material and psychological ‘shield’ that makes them all feel more comfortable about the life she leads beyond the gates of her house.

Religion is also a shield for Batoul’s best friend, whose ultimate goal is to marry a “barbu” – a bearded, AKA religious, man (and it is in pursuit of this goal that she, too, begins to wear a headscarf). Her implicit thought process reasons that a religious man is more inclined to transgress the moral boundaries, thus taking some of the woman’s moral burden upon themselves and balancing that responsibility more evenly.

No wonder the Islamists in Morocco are upset with the movie. Without having seen the film, they have denounced its message and have called for it to be taken out of circulation. It paints a horrible picture of veiled women, they cry; religion may under no circumstances be associated with that kind of hypocrisy. Telquel has devoted a bit of attention to this in two separate issues, but I can almost hear the editors’ laughter at these protestations emerging from behind their printed words. It doesn’t seem like Islamist groups have any clout in this matter – and aside from Telquel few others seem to take these protestations seriously. And for now, Amours Voilées continues to enjoy a considerable (and perhaps a bit naughty) popularity here in Morocco.

*the translation for these two versions of the title are subtly different from one another: the Arabic means ‘veil of love’ while the French means ‘veiled love’.
** This role is played by a French-Algerian actress. Ilyas disapproved of the fact that she was not Moroccan. I had had the feeling that she wasn’t quite convincing in her role. Perhaps our impressions came down to the same idea: that this actress didn’t truly feel the weight of the conflict this character was involved in? In last week’s Telquel, the film maker was asked why he chose this particular actress, and he replied that it is actually quite difficult to find an actor or actress residing in Morocco who is willing to play daring and controversial roles such as this one. An actress residing à l’étranger, at a safe distance from Moroccan moral judgment, is more free to take on such roles.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Compartmentalization and Censorship

I’ve been writing much less lately than I thought – or hoped – I would. Until today I couldn’t quite put into words why this might be, but I’m going to try to explain.

I think the fundamental issue is that the purpose of this blog no longer really matches my daily experience. I had intended to write about my impressions of Moroccan society: I wanted to share something about my attempts at getting to know this complex and very interesting society, about the general process of a foreigner’s attempt to integrate herself into a different world, and also about the process of doing anthropological fieldwork. Last fall, that is exactly what my daily life was all about. I spent my time learning, studying, and observing the lives of others – and found in those experiences a multitude of things to reflect upon. Yes, I put my own personal impressions, thoughts, and frustrations on paper – but only insofar as they pertained to the three themes above. I intended to leave out my true personal life: the relationships I formed and the relationships that fizzled, the people I felt affinity for and the people I did not, the silent opinions I formed on aspects of culture, customs, ways of interaction. This was not difficult: I largely left this personal life out of my daily interactions at home and in class, in attempts to be a full-time ethnographer. It became conveniently compartmentalized in my head – separate from the world I observed (insofar as that is ever possible, of course; it must always be conceded that one’s personal life shapes one’s interpretation of the world), and therefore easily separable from what I wrote about.

This time around, I am no longer observing the lives of others; I am, rather, involved full-time in the attempt to build up a life of my own. It is a transition I am happy with – and a transition I need to make if I truly am to spend at least the next two years here – but it is a transition that suddenly makes my day-to-day experiences acutely personal in a way that they never were before. There is no longer a comfortable sense of compartmentalization. I have personal relationships with the people I spend my days with, and have become an actor rather than an audience.

This means that I must re-think what goes into this blog, and what stays out. I want to uphold the threefold goal I set out with in September, and leave undiscussed any aspect of my personal life and thoughts that are irrelevant to the blog's three themes. But in order to effect that same kind of compartmentalization that I employed before, I will need to tweak my standards of self-censorship a little. It means that in all likelihood, I will be writing a bit less frequently and a bit less elaborately than I did in the fall. I will, however, keep writing. This blog remains my sense of grounding. And I’m sure I’ll find enough inspiration around me – there’s still so much I have left to discover, and so much I think I will need to adjust my interpretations of…

And all in all, despite the slight sense of writer’s block, I wouldn’t change a thing about this new Moroccan personal life I’m leading. Already it’s turned out so much better than I had dreamed, and I truly cannot stop smiling…

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Apart from my main responsibility to the conference on migration, one of my new jobs at the Nimar is to help coordinate two cultural programs organized for our sizeable group of students. One of these is a mandatory lecture series on themes relevant to Moroccan culture and issues present in Moroccan society – about which I’ll write more in a later post. The other is a more recreationally-oriented series of field trips and interactive forms of entertainment, one every other week, meant to facilitate students’ exploration of their surroundings in a more hands-on way.

It was in connection with this latter activity that today, I found myself in charge of a tour through the old medina of Rabat. Seeing as we’d hired a guide to take care of the tour’s content and ended up with such a small group of students that we looked more like a group of friends than a group of tourists, my responsibility did not involve much more than carrying with me the envelope containing payment for the guide.

The guide was a friendly jellaba’d man in his sixties who had a clear love of languages. We had hired him because he spoke German (which is close enough to Dutch that most of our students would be able to understand him well enough, we reasoned), but he made clear early on in his conversations with us that he spoke a whole collection of tongues: aside from German he mastered French, Italian, Spanish, English – and showed himself amazingly adept at picking up our Dutch. Once he learned that our students were studying Arabic, he took it upon himself to turn his tour into a veritable cornucopia of linguistic variation. It became a pleasant exchange of languages and words; through his combined Franco-German explanations, he threw in a few Arabic terms here and there, playing around with the students’ budding knowledge of that language. Motivated by this man’s linguistic energy, some of us began to eagerly feed him new words in Dutch, to add to his collection. With such a small group – five students, and the two Nimar interns, me included – his tour became more of a conversation than a lecture, and as we walked down Rue Souika, turned left onto the Rue des Consuls and headed toward the lookout point at the far end of the Kasbah des Oudaias, the guide eagerly answered our multitude of questions with additional stories and anecdotes.*

I have to say that I didn’t participate as much in this conversation as I might have liked to, because I had taken it upon myself to trail behind a little bit. I already knew the medina, I figured, and so I thought to keep some distance from the guide – not only to leave the students more space to stay within listening range, but also to pick up on any stragglers that might lose sight of him and get lost. This last worry seemed a bit pointless even at the time – with only 5 students and a relatively straightforward medina, I didn’t have that much to be concerned about. Mais bon, I remembered how intimidated I used to feel by medinas, and my own worries about losing the group and getting lost, four years ago on a tour of Fes.

But I also think that I perhaps took this task upon myself more for my own benefit than anyone else’s. It was a way for my to extend my sense of responsibility for the expedition – and this is a feeling I reveled in a little. Because it underscored how different this new Morocco experience is from previous ones; it illustrated my change in ‘status’. I was no longer the wide-eyed student: I was now part of the organization, the guiding framework attempting to facilitate these other wide-eyed students’ introduction into this different world.

It feels so good to be on the other side. It feels as though I have finally gotten somewhere, after this investment of time and effort, and it adds to the feeling of independence I have finally found in Morocco - the feeling that I can make it on my own. But of course, I can’t avoid also feeling like an impostor sometimes. And in a sense perhaps that’s what my behavior on the tour was about as well: I needed to underscore that transition I’ve made in order to convince myself that I really do belong on the other side – that I really have blossomed from stranger into person-in-the-know. Because as far as I know I’ve come, I’m always one to focus on everything I haven't yet mastered. The ease I don’t yet have with either French or Arabic, the things that still surprise me every day.

But – I’m trying to channel that into motivating energy, using it to propel me ever-forward…

On a side-note: something I found myself wondering about is how a man like this comes to be a tour guide. He was clearly a well-respected guide himself; this he emphasized himself with numerous stories in which his expertise in both cityscape and language was called upon to oblige various groups of high-ranking VIP visitors to Rabat. Nevertheless, as far as I know the job of tour guide does not lend one any elevated sense of respect. It is not a job for the sons of the middle class, and is often described as the kind of profession one rolls into when one has few other prospects (see, for instance, Laila Lalami's 'Hope and Other Pursuits'). This man, though, clearly had a talent for languages and learning – a linguistic competence that went far beyond the conventional spiel that most guides must, for the sake of making money, learn to be able to rattle off for groups of tourists. This man’s speech was not performance, it was not learned – his interaction with us reflected a comprehension, and a true engagement with language. How does someone with such a clear talent end up in this line of work? What was his background, what does his life look like, now? To what economic class does this man belong, and how does that compare to the class in which he grew up? Can he lead a comfortable life? Do his children have prospects?

* Apparently the guide was not universally liked; we received less-than-positive reviews from at least one student. I guess everyone looks for different qualities in their guides...

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Letting Loose

Two years ago, the Nimar began its intensive Arabic language program with three Dutch students. The year after, this number doubled to six, and this year we are expecting no less than fifteen students. They all come from Dutch universities, and they will be here for either an 8-week or a 14-week program. They have been arriving in Rabat since the middle of last week and have created quite a bit of extra work for Farid, the Nimar’s office manager, as he fetches them from the airport, assists them with their frantic and nervous search for housing, and provides a bit of comfort in all this Moroccan unknown that I’m sure is the cause of all their nervousness. On top of that, his apartment is still in the midst of renovations that were initially slated to take no more than his ten days of winter break, this past December, and so he has been a bit of a nomad.*

And so last night, he decided it was time to let loose. We dressed up, he called his friend Samad to meet us at the train station, and off we went for a night on the town. After a fruitless attempt to have dinner at the Goethe Institut (too crowded, too much of a wait) we ended up at a restaurant adjacent to the train station. The place was deserted, but it looked inviting and offered the great variety of menu options that is characteristic of this type of Moroccan restaurant: sandwiches, salads, “grille” platters, crêpes, tajines (Moroccan stew – the type of meal I ate every day with my host family), and couscous on Fridays. An option for any appetite, in other words. As we looked over our menus, both Farid and Samad engaged in a friendly chat with the establishment’s owner. It was the kind of conversation that always emerges in Morocco, that makes you think that everyone here knows each other. There was that instant comfort and friendliness that I love, and that always makes me smile. It turns out that Farid and Samad actually did already know the owner in some way: Farid had been there before, I believe, and Samad, who is a producer of tile and other bathroom hardware, had actually supplied the restaurant’s floors.

As the owner walked away, Farid leaned over to me and said, “see, this is how you do it. You chat a little, make friends. That way you know you’ll get good service, and perhaps they’ll even throw in a free dessert.” And he was right. Just as we were beginning to decide on our menu choices, the owner returned and made us an offer we could not refuse: a three course meal for the three of us, consisting of a large salad, a “mix grille” platter, followed by dessert. It was delicious. A “mix grille” is basically a platter of skewers with various varieties of meat: pieces of beef, sausages, kefta (ground meat with spices), and so on. Along came a bowl of a kind of harr (Moroccan hot sauce) though not as spicy as usual, as well as rice, fries, and bread (there is never a shortage of carbs here). The meat hit the spot: without a working fridge I’d been living on Nutella, bread, and bananas, and was craving some protein. By the time dessert – a platter of fruit – was served, we had all eaten way too much to touch anything else. We paid the bill (definitely less than we would have spent if we’d all ordered separately), thanked the owner, pocket the business cards he gave us, and headed out.

This is how it works in Morocco. It’s the thing that makes me most nervous, but it’s also what I love the most: the fact that every daily transaction involves a conversation, a friendly chat. It opens doors, broadens your options, renders everything more pleasant, and can make life a bit easier. There is always room for negotiation.** This can be unsettling to the foreigner (and to me) because it also means that the way-things-work here is much less straightforward, but once you get the hang of it, I think, it can be pleasant. There is a human contact here that warms me up. This happens sometimes in Chicago and San Diego, too, and it’s one of the things I love about these two cities. But it doesn’t compare to the Moroccan level of friendly interaction. This may sound strange, but I think that even in those moments when a vendor or taxi driver attempts to take advantage of a western-looking tourist, there is an openness to dialogue – and if you play along, if you engage in the way a Moroccan would, there is always a good-naturedness about it all that I appreciate. In the end, this person attempting to ‘take advantage’ is simply exploring his options for a bit of gain – a very human and understandable pursuit.

The trick is, then, to play along. I don’t even think it requires expert fluency in Arabic. I think the point is simply to try, to be open, to not be scared of the interaction. I’m getting better, but I really hope that someday, I’ll actually get good at it…

After a brief interlude involving another newly arrived student in need of help, the three of us ventured over to a lounge that doubled as karaoke bar, where we ran into an acquaintance of Farid’s, a Dutch woman who works for the embassy and has contacts with the Nimar (and who had, apparently, heard all about me already…), with her Moroccan partner. The five of us spent the rest of the evening dancing to upbeat, energizing Moroccan songs, and listening to the karaoke-attempts that interchanged them – invariably a slow-ish French pop ballad. An interesting mix of music…

Unbeknownst to any of us, it turns out that all but the real night clubs close these days at 1 am. This apparently has to do with an incident that happed about 6 months ago in Skhirat (a southern suburb), where a bouncer died after being hit by a drunk driver. And so, at 1, we headed home and, after another hour of conversation in the only room with heating, said goodnight and went to sleep.

Today I am taking it easy and trying not to get nervous about my first day of work tomorrow. But I’m going to relax, convince myself that I know more French/Arabic than I think I do (it’s just latent…), and get excited. I’m sure it’s going to be fun.

* He has actually been staying in the other room at the Nimar apartment for the last three nights – and I have to say it’s been nice to have someone else around.
** Don’t take this to mean that anyone can get anything here if they know how to work this system; of course there are a multitude of limits and inequalities to all this openness and friendliness (subtle ones and not so subtle ones) that I as an outsider do not see. What I’m talking about here is simply the general level of interaction involved in simple transactions such as the one at this restaurant, where the two parties operate from a standpoint of relative equality.