Saturday, May 9, 2009

Reflection on the South

During this road trip, and even now afterwards, I keep wondering what it is that makes the south so mesmerizing to me. Part of this has to do with the region’s obvious beauty, of course. It is the combination of colors – those shades of brown, interspersed by patches of intense green, traversed by sparkling rivers that send reflections of sunlight in all directions like winding prisms.

There is also the beauty of its difference: the difference of its pace of life, the daily concerns of its people, its architecture, its climate. This region is exposed to such different elements of nature than what I am accustomed to. I am used to dealing with rain and snow (I will not claim to be accustomed to the fear of earthquakes and wildfires after three years in southern California); this region is ruled by draught, wind, and heat. Instead of umbrellas, the people here don scarves to shield themselves from sand blown all around by strong desert winds. And instead of floods, these people worry that a lack of rain will ruin the year’s harvest and make for a difficult summer.

It is also simply the majesty of this natural environment. Being a city dweller I take it for granted that civilization trumps nature – but these regions prove the contrary. I am struck by these places where civilization has learned to work around the forces of nature, where people bow their heads to its power and know that any ground they’ve gained could be reclaimed at any moment. I am awed by these regions where natural cycles of rain and draught, light and dark dictate the pace of life and lifestyles prove that humans can be happy with much, much less than the things we we in cities depend on and take for granted.

These dimensions of difference give this region such an air of remoteness. It has such a quality of otherworldliness that this cannot but be a very faraway place. And in a sense, it is. Not in the number of kilometers between here and there, perhaps, but most definitely in its lack of accessibility. These small towns are truly hard to reach. Some villages are connected to the rest of the world by no more than a single, one-lane winding mountain road that leads but to a slightly larger town from which one might catch a bus to a regional hub, from where transport to one of Morocco’s large cities may then be arranged. Often one can pick up no more than a single radio station in these regions; in Tata, the only radio emissions we could find were Polisario’s.* There are internet cafés in these towns, these days, but the connection is slow and the computers are old.

How is it then, I wonder, that the people of these regions relate to the rest of Morocco? What are their daily concerns, and are they aware, in any way, of their situatedness within (and membership of) a larger union whose identity is, at least in the cities, a great public preoccupation? How connected do they really feel to the politics of Rabat, and the economics of Casablanca?

That said, how connected are they to the goings on in the northwest? The remoteness of these regions is maintained to no small extent by a lack of interest in its involvement on the part of the powers that be in Rabat and Casa. Citizens in the large cities complain of a lack of connection between politics and the people – let alone the voicelessness of individuals in these marginal areas.

This seeming lack of centralization (for how centralized is a country whose different regions communicate so poorly with one another) rests on a long historical legacy. Morocco has always known a distinction between bled el-makhzen (the center) and bled as-siba (the margins): between the regions that various dynasties were able to submit under centralized rule, and those where Berber tribes agreed to respect a sultan’s religious power, but refused to succumb to his political rule. The only difference between then and now seems to be that in those times, such regions were permitted to remain largely self-sufficient. Now, however, centralization has been pushed through to such an extent that self-sufficiency is no longer an option – yet not far enough that the margins have equal access to the facilities and services they are no longer able to provide on their own.

It makes me wonder why. Why has centralization been pushed through in such a partial and insufficient way? Is it a sense of disregard on the part of the power in Rabat, an underestimation of the value and power of these margins? Or is it rather a fear of that power – a fear of their threat to national unity, and a sense that if involved too much, if given too much access, people in the margins could perhaps pose a threat to established power, or to unity?

Whichever is the motivation, one has to wonder what kind of national unity could ever exist with such a lack of connection between parts of the country, and such a lack of involvement among such a sizeable proportion of the population. True change and development are impossible, I think, if two-thirds of the country is systematically left behind. One sees it in things as simple as the statistics of healthcare: the lack of access to care suffered by these remote populations is enough to drive up mortality rates to third world levels – no matter how many private clinics in Rabat and Casa may boast the latest in medical technology.

Strangely enough it might just be tourism that will connect these regions more permanently to the central regions of Morocco, that will force a more permanent channel of access to and from these remote places. I say strange, because tourists are outsiders to all these issues of national unity and development; it is precisely the type of tourist that remains blind to these inequalities and disenfranchisements whose money may ultimately force a change.

It is only tourist interest in the exoticism and natural beauty of this region (and the consequent influx of foreign money) that may give rise to any national interest in the development of an infrastructure of more accessible roads, and more reliable channels of communication.**

This gives tourists a strange kind of power. Tourists not only have a hand in the direction of development (by way of their money, as well as by way of their wishes, catered to by others with money); their continued interest in the region also sustains much of the local population, who make a living from the tourist industry. Keeping travelers happy (giving them what they come here to seek) helps keep the region alive. And so tourists become holders of power whose decisions affect the region in deeper ways than these travelers themselves may be aware of.

I think it’s this kind of power that Yelins alerted me to after we went to inquire after prices for a trek into the desert at an agency in Amezrou. Did I notice, he asked me, that although the blue man-agent directed his detailed explanation of options and routes mostly to Yelins, he clearly regarded me as the ultimate decision maker, exemplified by the fact that as soon as he mentioned concrete prices and options, he switched from Arabic into English and looked at me?

Tourists, then, become powerful decision-makers whose will ripples through the society and livelihood of the regions they visit. This power seems to be respected – and local industries cater to the images of exotic fantasy sought by these foreigners, but is this a real kind of power? How much control do tourists really exercise? Respecting the power of foreign money, I get the sense that local populations help create a particular, fantastical Moroccan ‘reality’ to cater to Western visitors’ wishes. Yet I also get the sense that foreigners will always be regarded as outsiders whose fantasies are humored, but never taken seriously. That the hegemony of their outlook is very partial – that a local man may cater to it in the sense that he puts on a blue gandoura and leads a camel to a ‘Berber’ camp in the desert, but that all this will not come to consume his view of reality – that it will, for him, always be a performance.

Then again, regardless of how ‘real’ the western view of Morocco is considered to be by locals, it seems to be powerful enough at times to push out any alternative realities. As I’ve noted about Ouarzazate and Marrakech, façades created by Western hands sometimes have the power to squash Moroccan realities, or force them to the margins. In that sense, can local peoples afford not to take these western fantasies seriously, not to see them as ‘real’ in their own, powerful way? Real in their power over whatever reality Moroccans live in, in any case?

Whatever the nature of this power, it’s something I’m uncomfortable with, as I always am uncomfortable in positions of power. I am always taken aback by the realization that I am expected to (somehow) determine or dictate the behavior of others. Especially in Morocco, this attribution of power creates discomfort – because I feel so incredibly powerless myself, most of the time. Though I feel that I am making headway, I still feel ignorant, unaccustomed, and childlike when it comes to the customs and norms that reign daily life. It is strange to then be treated as the decision-maker. As much as I hate to be the passive bystander, I am also constantly afraid of making the wrong decision.

Perhaps it is for this reason that I hate the thought of being labeled as a tourist – because I do not know what to do with the power that is then attributed to me. But I hate it also for the assumptions on which this attribution of power rests. The assumption that I am an outsider, that I am not interested in the ‘real’ Morocco, that I have money, that I do not speak the language. It’s because of all these thoughts – this unwillingness to be associated with the groups of travelers that shape the future of these regions – that I get frustrated when addressed in English, and that I felt so self-conscious atop that camel, literally taking the place of the tourists I had seen the day before. In a strange and childish sense of vanity, I want to be recognized for the not-quite-outsider I hope that I am. I want to be appreciated for my efforts, lauded perhaps even for my budding skills in darija – not pegged as the eternal foreigner.

* Polisario is the separatist movement in the Western Sahara, engaged in ongoing conflict with the Moroccan government.
** But then again, as Farid and I noted in Ouarzazate, until now most efforts at developing this southern region seem to come directly from Europe itself and cater to its own audience of travelers, rather than to any sustainable development for the local population.

No comments: