Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Scene on a Train - A Curious Instance of East Meets West

After a rainy weekend in Marrakech, my mother, Fatima, and I find ourselves on the three o’clock train back to Rabat. We’ve had two wet and cold, but enjoyable days of strolling around the Marrakech medina. My mother has enjoyed this famous city, and I am happy that she will be leaving Morocco on a positive note.

When the train begins to move at a few minutes past three, our compartment is filled up to capacity. My mother sits by the window, facing the direction of travel, a book on her lap. I sit next to her with a sheet of wrapping paper, intending to write. Fatima sits by the window on the other side. Next to her, a young woman in a grey army officer’s uniform quietly stares out in front of her. She has thick black hair tied back in a ponytail, and wears large black sunglasses. She does this because her eye is “ill,” she will later tell us. Her face is covered with a visible layer of powder, which makes her look as though she is made of plaster. She reminds me of Michael Jackson in his later years.

Next to this young officer sits a modest man dressed in shades of brown. With deep-set dark eyes and a smile that reveals un-straightened teeth, he looks shy but sympathetic. Across from him – next to me – a pair of young men quietly converse with one another about the issue of TelQuel that they have brought with them. They wear the typical costume of Moroccan men in their thirties: dark jeans, a short jacket, a patterned sweater underneath. Apart from a five o’clock shadow on both men’s cheeks, they look cleaned up.

There are seven of us, which leaves one seat in our compartment unoccupied. But – there is a leak in the ceiling above this seat. Someone has taped a piece of tissue paper over the little hole, but (obviously) this has now been soaked through, and drops of rainwater slip through its pores. With rhythmic frequency they splash down on the orange leather of the seat below. We point this out to the last minute travelers who have a hard time finding a place to sit, and they quickly move on.

However, soon after the train pulls out of the station, a European tourist opens the compartment and moves toward the seat. In four different languages, we all immediately alert him to the falling raindrops. He seems a little dazed, and it takes a while before our warnings register with him. He looks toward the ceiling, shrugs, and announces, in loud English, that he doesn’t care. After the day he’s had, he says, he just wants to sit down. He crashes down next to the modest man in brown, spreads his legs and puts his backpack on the floor between them. I watch as raindrops splatter down on the inseam of his left upper leg.

This man is not the kind of person to turn quiet when exhausted. I suspect as much after his first reaction to our warnings, and indeed, he begins to elaborate on his difficult day soon after sitting down. He continues to speak English, and directs his words to no one in particular. The modest man in brown is polite enough (and conversant enough in English) to respond. He smiles, softly pronounces a sentence here and there as the European man continues what is, for all intents and purposes, a monologue. Before the first twenty minutes of our trip have passed, we have learned exactly what made his day so difficult: he has traveled to Morocco with a Moroccan lady friend with whom he was supposed to take the 1 o’clock train to Casablanca. Nervous about being late for the train, she left him with all their luggage (from the looks of it, no more than two bags) and ran to catch the train – which he then missed. We discover that he is Norwegian, that he has traveled all over the place, and that he has lived in the United States of America for a year. We also learn that he is full of stereotypes (a choice snippet from his monologue: “Americans eat French fries for lunch every day. Every day! I’m not surprised they’re all so fat.”), ignorant of Morocco, and arrogantly unable to look beyond his own limited perspective. After carelessly asking the modest man in brown if it’s true that the Moroccan government has “some kind of problem” with the Western Sahara, he compliments his interlocutor and the female officer – who has joined the conversation – by telling them their English “isn’t bad.” He meets their occasional questions about his own origins with disdain. He sees the army officer’s name on her identity card and completely tortures it in his pronunciation. Out of politeness, she then asks for his name. “Oh, I can tell you,” he responds, “but you wouldn’t be able to pronounce it anyway. I go by John in the US, but you probably can’t pronounce that, either.” She makes a courageous attempt and hits the mark much more closely than he did in his attempts at pronouncing her fairly simple name, but gets a patronizing smile in return. “Yeah, see? Forget it,” he tells her.

The conversation continues. As the Norwegian talks about sex with his Moroccan girlfriend, religion, and the Western Sahara without any awareness of the sensitivity of these topics, Fatima and I notice that the two men sitting next to me are as intrigued by this blunt foreigner as we are. They are observing the conversation going on across from them, giggling and quietly commenting to one another. They notice us observing the interaction as well, and give us a knowing smile.

Then the mood begins to change. I’ve been smelling a somewhat foul odor coming from the Norwegian’s general direction, and it seems to dawn on all of us at the same time that his slightly dazed appearance cannot simply be chalked up to fatigue: this man is drunk, we realize – and it’s getting worse. That clear liquid he drinks from a Fanta bottle is no water.

The modest man in brown has stood up to get some air, and the Norwegian takes advantage of this situation by moving closer to the army officer. As he gets more flirty and inappropriate, she gets increasingly uncomfortable – regretting her initial friendliness, most likely. From this moment on the rest of the compartment gets involved in the interaction. My neighbor – one of the two friends with the TelQuel – leans over to the Norwegian and tries to save the army officer by telling him that “cette femme, c’est ma femme” (“this woman, she’s my wife”). The Norwegian looks at him with confusion. “I don’t speak French,” he announces. My neighbor tries again, adding exaggerated gestures and signs to his sentence. The Norwegian shakes his head. “Clearly,” he states, “we have a problem with communication. If only you spoke English, I would understand you.”

This we all understand – and we all instantly feel compelled to respond. “English??” asks my neighbor’s friend. “Arabic!” He then exclaims, patting himself on the chest. The rest of us likewise cry out, in four languages, that when in Morocco, one should adapt and speak the language of the land – but the Norwegian is too drunk at this point even to comprehend simple English.

My neighbor’s friend, meanwhile, has taken the Norwegian’s behavior as cue to set forth his own passionate political agenda. He reveals himself to be at once critical of all status quo, yet conservative in his nostalgia and anti-westernism. He criticizes the inequality and corruption that colors Moroccan society and politics,* yet valorizes Hassan II** as the best head of state ever to have lived. He is critical of the west, and contrasts this drunk, inappropriate Norwegian to the religious-looking old man in jellaba who has entered our compartment and soon after fallen asleep.

I sit next to my mother, growing more and more uncomfortable. I am angry at the Norwegian. I have left Marrakech slightly frustrated at having been treated like a tourist for two days. Of course I was a tourist for those two days, but I notice that I have a difficult time being treated as a foreigner here, despite my fervent attempts to blend in. It gets to me when I walk around trying to speak Arabic, trying to do as Moroccans do, and then to be addressed in English by a Marrakchi shopkeeper, restaurant holder or taxi driver who sees me as the average tourist and accordingly tries to take advantage of me. And so I am sitting here observing this rude Norwegian, more aware than usual of my own outsider status – my own status as an obvious westerner. I am angry at him for being so inappropriate, for confirming the negative stereotypes about Westerners – because I know that his behavior reflects on all of us. I cringe at the thought that the Hassan II aficionado might associate me and my mother with this drunken buffoon. I feel a vicarious sense of shame for his behavior, and desperately try to think of a way to ameliorate his disastrous impact on the compartment’s impression of westerners.

But I can’t bring myself to condemn the Norwegian to his face. I am scared of confrontation, even toward someone as barely conscious as he is. A few times I try to explain in English what others in the compartment try to tell him, but I leave it at that – even that makes me nervous. I do attempt to display to the others that I speak a little Arabic. I make efforts to demonstrate that I understand some of what is being said, and try to answer questions about us – directed at Fatima – myself.

It seems to work: they notice me. They praise my few words of Arabic and comment on the fact that I am writing. Writing is great, the Hassan II aficionado proclaims. While speech evaporates and dies, writing is fixed and lives on. He asks me what I do, and I explain that I am a researcher. This he also approves of, and he takes it upon himself to help me in my studies by explaining to me what anthropology is all about. He tells me to read Bourdieu, Durkheim, Levi-Strauss. I try to engage, to respond – but he, in striking similarity to the Norwegian he so disdains, seems more interested in monologue.

Despite this seeming approval, I am completely unable to balance out the Norwegian’s damage. His behavior has spurred conversation throughout the compartment, and he now feels left out of the Arabic and French being spoken around him. Increasingly drunk, he slurs out his objections and tries to get the army officer’s attention – but she has now decided to ignore him. He grows increasingly confused, and gets increasingly worried about getting off at the right station. He keeps telling us that he needs to go to “Casa-centrum,” but seems unable to understand any of us when we explain how many stops he has left. He constantly repeats, “If you only spoke English. We have a problem of communication.”

“Un problème,” my neighbor sighs, to no one in particular. “Un problème, comme d’habitude” – “a problem, as always.”

It is as though this sentence says it all. We are now all engaged in conversation. The Norwegian’s obnoxious behavior has in a way brought us all together in communication. But in the end, I get the sense, we will always have this problem of understanding. We are interacting, yes, but in a sense we are all talking past one another. The Hassan II aficionado does this as much as the Norwegian does. We all fall into dialogues that devolve into simultaneous monologues. As the Norwegian laments the fact that no one else speaks English, the Hassan II aficionado lectures to us all about the laudable works of his favorite monarch. We all have our ideas, and seem more interested in sharing them with the world than we are in hearing other viewpoints.

I try to bridge this gap. Every day that I am here I try to prove that it is, in fact, possible to communicate between west and east. That it is, in fact, possible for a Westerner to be truly interested in adapting to local culture. I try to speak the language, I adopt the idioms and modes of speech. I try to engage with people in the way that Moroccans do, I try to respect the rules, and to show an interest in Morocco’s music, food, art, history. What I ask in return, is an acceptance of my efforts. To be heard and seen, rather than just lectured to. To not be treated like an outsider, to not be made to feel as though none of my efforts can make a dent in the stereotypes that people harbor about my part of the world. Most of the time, I receive the kind of treatment I wish for. It is one of the reasons why I love Rabat: when I assert myself as a local, I am treated as a local.

But sometimes, I am unable to bridge this gap. Sometimes, I run into people who cannot see past the blonde exterior, the broken Arabic, and the unfamiliarity with local custom. I run into people like the Marrakchi taxi driver who refused to turn on his meter and insisted, in a mix of French and English, that we pay twenty dirhams for a five minute ride to the station. I run into people like this Hassan II aficionado who, despite all his approval of what I do, still chooses to view ‘the West’ in a particular way. And I run into individuals like this Norwegian tourist, who make me understand why it is that people feel that way about the Western world at all. And I wonder if we’ll ever get anywhere.

* Is he allowed to express such criticism in the presence of an army officer, I wonder? And if he were, is it appropriate to express such criticism in the presence of someone professionally linked to (and, more importantly, representing) the authorities? Would this kind of talk affect her in any way, make her uncomfortable? Is she herself allowed to engage in such conversations?
** Hassan II is Morocco’s former king. Though some nostalgically praise his skills at ruling the country, he is generally known as a dictator who ruled with an iron fist and implemented many of the institutional inequalities Morocco is still plagued by.

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