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.


Anonymous said...

It's not that Moroccans have a sixth sense when it comes to recognizing if somebody grew up in morocco or not, in this case Fatima. But they can tell by the way you look at them, the way you walk and how you dress your hair and how you dress and how you talk to strangers... I think you should know better...

Charlotte said...

Thanks for your comment. What you mention there - being able to tell whether someone grew up in Morocco by how that person looks at you, walks, dresses, and talks to strangers - that's exactly the kind of thing people usually mean by a 'sixth sense', I think...
I'm pretty sure that's what Fatima meant when she mentioned this sixth sense; at least that's how I understood her thoughts.