Monday, June 29, 2009

A Festival of Gnaoua - Pictures of Essaouira

I made this past weekend a long one and drove down to Essaouira for this year’s edition of its famous Festival de Gnaoua. It was my first visit to this famous town on the Atlantic, and I was excited about photographing the same scenes I’ve been seeing in everyone else’s pictures. But as luck would have it, in a particularly cruel realization of the rule that one always forgets at least one crucial item when packing for a trip, I came to the discovery that I had left my camera in Rabat. I became aware of this sad fact right as we pulled in to a lookout point on a hill above Essaouira, and I stood there gazing out at the city and its bay in agony – because I knew exactly where I’d left it. I could see it in my mind: the camera sat right there on my coffee table, on the left side, next to the body lotion and that blue bowl where I keep my keys and other miscellaneous items.

As my mother always taught me, you have to work with what you’ve got (“roeien met de riemen die je hebt”), and so in lieu of visual pictures, I will attempt here to construct a few written images. It’s not unlike the ‘setting’ chapter that precedes any good ethnography, perhaps.

First, picture Essaouira itself: a breezy town where, like in any other seaside village, the heart of the city lies at its outer edge. Imagine a broad ‘corniche’, a boulevard made for promenading, lined on one side by restaurants and hotels, each decorated with its own take on the white-and-blue theme that dominates Essaouira. Across the street, picture a sprawling beach that gives way to sparkling blue water, two different stages already constructed in the sand, 100 or so meters from one another – harbingers of the imminent festival.
Picture a bend in the road as the corniche curls to the left, heading for the town’s port, and picture the ochre walls of Essaouira’s medina rising up on the right – showing a glimpse of the white-and-blue theme that continues inside these old Portuguese walls.* The corniche finally ends on a large square flanked by ramparts, another large stage set up at its far end, across from the bank. On the other end – the seaside end – imagine a few evergreen trees and small kiosks, where merchants grill fish and offer simple meals of sardines and shrimp to hungry tourists. There is no more beach; the water reaches right up to a concrete wall along the sidewalk. Picture a mix of tourists and local families seated on that wall, enjoying the last light of the day, and imagine groups of boys boisterously diving into the water, one after another, their dark, wet skin glistening in the sun. Feel the wind in your hair as you head into the narrow medina streets, and smell the saltiness in the air as it mixes with the smell of grilled fish and other seafood emerging from the restaurants and ‘snacks’ that line the street. Hear the seagulls clucking to one another as they fly overhead.

Picture three tourists – an Arab, a Berber, and a Gawriya** – taking a stroll through Essaouira’s port at sundown. Dark blue wooden rowboats have already been anchored for the night, tied to another they are like a flock of ducks on the water, floating safely in a little walled basin close to the medina. Further down, larger fishing boats (likewise blue) have been moored along the single dock that comprises this port. Weathered men with browned faces and worn shirts haul the last fish from their vessels; though large and visibly heavy, they grab the silver, slippery bodies by the gills and carelessly toss them into carts waiting on shore. Along the Portuguese ramparts that protect the dock from the sea, other men – and the occasional woman – sell the day’s catch to passers-by. Sardines, crab, eels, stingrays with leopard-print skin.
The three tourists walk down the dock as it tapers to a narrow tip, braving strong winds and the pungent smell of seagull droppings. When there is no further to go, they climb the steep ramparts, a few meters in height, and stroll back toward the medina. Here and there they stop and look out over the oddly-shaped concrete breakers that prevent the waves from eating up these walls. The two men smoke a cigarette as the woman leans into the wind and watches the sunset.

Think back a day and picture a lookout point on a hill above Essaouira – your first glimpse of this sparkly city as you approach from the east. A small parking lot and protective concrete wall invite the traveler to stop for a moment and take in the view. A saddled camel or two stand off to the side – the first representative of Essaouira’s massive tourist industry ready to sell you a brief taste of southern Moroccan life. On the edge of the lookout point, close to the road, a group of touts likewise wait for tourists in search of accommodations. You will find more of them all along the road from here to the city, dangling keys in their outstretched hands and motioning the universal gesture for ‘sleeping’ – two hands joined together as though in prayer, tucked underneath a slanted cheek. But these touts at the lookout point are calm, and leave you alone. They talk amongst each other, as though they are here for a business meeting. Until another man drives up, emerges from his car, and disturbs the peace by angrily storming toward the group. After confrontationally slapping the youngest of them in the face a few times without reaction, he turns to the left and hisses something into another man’s face. This one responds: he demonstratively yanks off his baseball cap, takes off his red T-shirt, and takes on a menacing karate pose. This is the invitation the angry man has been seeking: he storms at the bare-chested man and an aggressive fight ensues. You dart to the side to avoid misdirected punches and kicks as the two men chase each other through the dirt – but you don’t get to the car entirely unscathed. As you drive off, you wonder what this might have been about – an economic competition that has crossed the line from healthy to dangerous, perhaps?

Picture a scene at a random concert – a group of brightly colored gnaoua musicians*** up on stage, swaying their heads just so, the tassels on their skullcaps effortlessly circling their head like propellers, dancers bending forwards, backwards, on the rhythm of the music. People from all walks of life seem to have gathered here this evening. You see European women in bright, revealing sundresses, and old jellaba’d men in white skullcaps. You watch dreadlocked tourists making the acquaintance of Moroccan Rastafarians as you are shoved around by overly energetic local teens. There are homeless children who try to sell single packs of tissues for a dirham each, veiled Moroccan mothers who have brought their own plastic stools to the concert, and young Moroccan girls who feel a bit intimidated by these large crowds and the cover they give to boys that are up to no good. You stand there amongst them all and watch them dance, no trace of the distance that usually separates strangers. Temporary friendships are made as Moroccan girls dance hand in hand with Dutch women, and eager local boys copy the dreadlocked Europeans who dance with an air of complete liberation. Look up: the airborne traffic of seagulls is as busy at night as it is by day. Illuminated by the street- and stage lighting, their winged bodies create a beautiful contrast against the black of the night sky.

Picture another sunset – this one on the Scala, the ramparts that protect the medina’s northern flank from the sea. Picture the ochre of the walls, highlighted by the light of the receding sun, contrasting beautifully with the deep blue of the ocean ahead. Watch families promenading up and down the ramparts, taking photographs of their children astride old canons that still stand at the ready between the turrets, keeping a watchful eye over the ocean. You reach a walled circular lookout point and hear gnaoua music, so you climb up the walkway and enter this space. Groups of local boys have gathered here to watch the sunset. They sit high atop the walls, and stand in the openings between the turrets. You spot the source of the music: on the far end, along the wall, a group of young men sits on the ground. One of them has a sintir**** and plays to the rhythm of the qraqeb, the metal cymbals that really define the gnaoua sound, worked by a few others. On either side of these musicians sits a boy, singing gnaoua melodies. You sit down and let yourself be carried away by the hypnotic tunes, and you look at their clothing – their Nike sneakers and Ed Hardy T-shirts creating an interesting contrast with this ancient-sounding music. After a few moments, you get up to look out over the water. As you climb into one of the spaces between turrets, you regard the boys sitting on the wall to your right. It is a group of them, their legs stretched out over the thick walls, backpacks protectively placed between their knees. They pass around a glass, and a plastic bottle – originally containing water, now pouring an undefined liquor. Alongside the backpacks, you notice clear plastic bags containing a brownish-green herb, and small tubes of glue.

Picture a French-run coffee bar housed in an old stone building beside the medina walls, its large patio separated from the garden beyond by pillars spaced a few meters apart. It is about eleven o’clock at night, and as you walk by you are drawn by its inviting lantern light. You take a seat on one of the tan leather couches sprawled across this space and order hot chocolate. You lean back and listen to the tribal house, played by the DJ there in the corner. You wonder how this place can exude such calm, when the music’s beat reverberates through you at maximum volume. A few daring European tourists move toward the center of the patio and begin to dance – they twist, curl, grind, and shake in perfect harmony with the DJ’s rhythms, their limbs moving so freely, yet in such perfect coordination with one another. When you peel your eyes away from them, you notice that the music has attracted a crowd – a wall of onlookers now encloses the patio. Suddenly, the dance floor fills up, local boys taking over, once again enthusiastically mirroring the wild movements of dance around them. The crowd swells and swells – people on their way to see Cheb Khaled, drawn in by the tribal rhythms just like you were. The crowd swells and swells and swells – and right when it’s at its peak, the dance floor clears out, the DJ winds down his session, and out steps a simply clad man with a large drum. Behind him, four others jump out. They are dressed in simple pants and wife beaters – all in white – and you get excited, because you see “essaouira capoeira” emblazoned on their shirts. And indeed: two by two, the men crouch, do a brief shake of hands, and jump out in a dazzling show of capoeira moves. Limbs are everywhere as they twist and turn in feigned fighting, a back-and-forth in perfect harmony, never touching another, but always keeping that tension alive.

Picture Nass el Ghiwane in performance on the beach. It is close to one AM and all of Essaouira seems to have come out for this show. Nass El Ghiwane are the Moroccan Beatles, if you will. They sang politically sensitive songs in the 70s, to the great frustration of the late King Hassan II. Though the group is no longer complete (courtesy of a few deaths), their poignant lyrics and use of traditional North African instruments and rhythms has lent them everlasting fame. Their songs are played everywhere and known by everyone – tonight, all generations are present, and all sing along with equal enthusiasm. You dance with the friends you came with and the new ones you made, joining their singing with the few lines that you know. This is the largest crowd you have seen yet at this festival, but the atmosphere is communal, friendly. Once in a while, a wave of running boys stirs the crowd – a new fight has broken out, and excited onlookers chase the brawling pair to the waterside to fight in peace. You worry a bit as the violence seems to head your way, and you look away when you spot a boy with a bloodied cheek. You wish there were more police – there are so many of them out on the road directing traffic, couldn’t they mingle in the crowd and use their authoritative air to prevent this kind of chaos?

Still, in the end - the sparkling water, starry night, and perfect music fill you with a tranquil happiness you hope to hold on for a long time to come.

* Essaouira was founded by the Portuguese, who dominated Morocco’s atlantic coast in the 17th century. Back then, Essaouira was known as Mogador, a name it briefly took on again under French colonial rule.
**A gawri (female gawriya) refers to a western foreigner.
*** Gnaoua, by the way, is technically the music of a mystical sufi brotherhood that goes by the same name. It originates from Subsaharan Africa. These days it has become a genre on its own. It is popular not only among sufi orders, but musicians from all backgrounds, and has inspired quite a few attempts at 'fusion' with other styles. I recommend Gnaoua-inspired reggae, jazz, and electronica...
**** A sintir is a sort of lute with three strings. It has the rough shape of a western string instrument.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

On the Amazigh and the Dark Side of Emancipation

This year, the annual festival Mawazine took over Rabat from May 15 to 23. Mawazine is a big deal – it attracts big international names like Alicia Keys and Kylie Minogue – and my co-workers had been anticipating it for months, but I was to miss most of it due to a scheduled trip back home to the US. Nevertheless, a group of us gathered on the eve of my departure for a free concert at Place Moulay Hassan (better known to locals as Place Pietri, but recently renamed in honor of the now school-age crown prince). The main attraction and primary reason for our attendance was Imetlaâ, a Dutch band of Berber origin. Its members come from the Rif mountains in the north of Morocco, and belong to the growing community of Moroccan-Dutch (incidentally, their website explains that ‘Imetlaâ’ actually means ‘immigrant’ in Tariffit, the language of the Rif). Our group was excited to see them on stage; being Dutch, and some of us sharing this band’s Riffi heritage, we felt a certain connection.

We were not the only ones. About thirty minutes before the concert was scheduled to begin, the square really began to fill up. Groups of young men, mostly, boisterously excited and energetic. Some had come bearing material expressions of their Amazigh-identity: I saw a boy with a knit cap in the colors of the Amazigh flag, and other subtle displays of the Amazigh sign on t-shirts, hands, and keychains.

The band was received with enthusiastic applause and cheers. The crowd did not simply sing along with catchy choruses; they knew every single word of every single song, and bellowed them out with such force and energy that the sound seemed to take up actual physical space. It reverberated through me – not just the weight of the sound, but the sense of connection that was being created and expressed here, this positive energy of recognition.

Here and there groups of boys, their arms around each other, draped an Amazigh flag over their shoulders and swayed it along with the rhythm of the music. I remember noticing this, and realizing that the only place I had ever seen this flag before was on the internet. I remembered not even knowing there was an Amazigh flag until a few months ago.

My thoughts were rudely disturbed by small groups of policemen who aggressively pushed their way through the crowd and, equally aggressively, dragged away not only those flags, but the boys who were waving it. This scene happened not just once, but repeated itself with two more groups. The Riffi boys I was with yelled at the proceedings with outrage and disappeared to follow the police with their prey. This scared me. I am overly sensitive sometimes; this aggressive police action truly and physically shocked me. I didn’t want to know how the offending boys were going to be treated, and I was afraid that any indication of protest on the part of my friends would subject them to a similar fate. I became afraid of the police that stood all around the square, and I became afraid of the crowd closing in on me. Luckily, my friends returned soon enough, and we resumed listening and singing along to the music, almost as though nothing had happened.

It’s strange, the way this works. An Amazigh band, singing in Tariffit, is allowed on stage in the middle of Rabat, as part of a festival sponsored by his Majesty the King himself. In a sense, you could say that this music is thereby not only tolerated but even promoted – by raising it up here on a stage, literally putting it in the spotlight, amplifying it with huge subwoofers, gathering a crowd of listeners – and all this in the middle of the political capital, mere steps away from the parliament and royal palace. All this – yet a single show of that blue, green, and yellow flag elicits this kind of hostile suppression. It seemed so bizarre to me.

But in fact it makes perfectly clear where the government stands on the Amazigh. The King has decided to tolerate, even help, the Imazighen develop and express their cultural heritage. There is a special institute devoted entirely to the standardization of Berber languages and the promotion of their expression through literature, music, fashion, and theater. But any political expression of identity is still considered a threat to the absolute power of the king and his government. The Amazigh identity has been reduced, in other words, to a non-threatening folkloric culture. From Hassan II, where it was not ethnicity but cultural expression that counted, we’ve graduated to a new situation, where it’s neither ethnicity nor cultural expression, but political activism that crosses the line.

The King’s overt efforts at the promotion of Berber culture help obscure the persistent suppression of Berber political freedom. This is the issue that so many have with the IRCAM: they see it as the King’s cover. As Farid says, the institute’s name says it all: it’s the royal institute for Amazigh culture. Whenever anyone voices protest over discrimination or suppression, the King is able to point to the institute he built and basically say, “but what are you talking about? I’m helping them!” And thus, essentially, they argue the IRCAM does more harm than good.

Apart from the police aggression I witnessed and the prohibition on displays of the Amazigh flag that it enforced, there are other clear signs of continued oppression. To name one: the prohibition on Amazigh names. Simply put, Moroccan authorities refuse to register any Amazigh names on official documentation such as passports, birth certificates, and marriage licenses.* The rationale behind this, apparently, is that individuals’ names must be ‘Moroccan’ in origin. Although one may wonder what could be more Moroccan than an Amazigh name, the government has here clearly chosen to interpret ‘Moroccan’ in a very particular way – and thus uses this simple legislation as yet another way to reinforce a particular, Islamic-Arabic national identity.

Simply put, despite the IRCAM’s work (and I’m convinced the IRCAM people have nothing but the best intentions) the Imazighen are still disenfranchised politically – whether it be due to direct measures of discrimination or a simple lack of involvement and lack of access to the political machine (don’t forget that Berbers are overrepresented in those marginal regions of Morocco that are so far removed from the goings-on at the center).

We could, of course, wonder why the Moroccan government chooses this particular route to national unity. Because it’s worth questioning whether forceful suppression of alternative ideas is really the most effective way to do it. It’s clear that Morocco wishes to base this unity on a shared political investment in a single government – and a shared religion. The fact that Morocco takes such pride in its cultural diversity (The Berbers! The Jews! The Subsaharan Africans! And the Arabs!) indicates that they’re not necessarily banking on any kind of ethnic or even cultural unity. This seems so progressive – yet they choose such a non-progressive way of building that political unity. Is it too idealistic to think that political agreement and universal investment in the national political system (and in the King, of course) is much easier to obtain if you give everyone a freedom of political expression within that system?

*This legislation has been extended to all embassies abroad – and so even Berbers in the Netherlands now protest the limits on parents’ choices in naming their children.

Monday, June 22, 2009

On the Amazigh, and Alternative Takes on History

Yesterday afternoon, Farid and I got in the car and headed to the beach for a lazy afternoon in the sun. As we whizzed south on the coastal road to Casablanca, I decided now was as good a time as any to ask Farid for clarification on a matter that had begun to confuse me a little.

“When did the suppression of the Berbers really begin?” I broached. “Was it a result of colonialism, or did it happen before then, too?”

Farid looked gravely at the road. With frustration in his voice, he responded. “They’ve always been suppressed. From the moment those Arab invaders conquered Morocco, they’ve thought of themselves as superior to the Berbers.”

I expected this answer. We were getting to the source of my confusion, and I pressed on.

“But what about those dynasties, the ones people call the ‘Berber’ dynasties? The Almoravids, the Almohads, the Merinids? If they were Berber, how was there suppression?”

Farid shook his head. “You don’t think Berbers were actually the ones in power, do you?” He asked, rhetorically. “That was just so that the Arabs could legitimize their dominance with the local people. It was always Arabs who had the real power. It was just a façade.”

I pondered this statement. This perspective is not one you’ll find in any history book, and it was new to me. I sank back in my seat, looked out at the beach-going traffic around us, and smiled at this new twist, or plot-thickening, in the saga of Arab-Berber relations.


History is written by the victors of time. Although it’s tempting to think of history books as factual accounts of the-way-things-were, there are multiple sides to every story – and it’s always the people who come out on top that get to stamp their version as ‘truth’ and send it on into posterity as ‘historical’ account.

Behind every official story, then, lurks an oppositional account. There is an unofficial alternative to every official recollection – and Morocco is no different.

Officially, Moroccan history goes something like this (and I quote, from a few trusty history books). About 13 centuries ago (this would put us in between the 7th and 8th centuries AD), Arab Muslims invade and conquer the Maghreb. The land they find had always been ruled by dispersed Berber kingdoms. No one knows exactly where these indigenous peoples originated, but they’ve populated all of North Africa as long as there have been written records to document their presence.* They speak a variety of related languages (in Morocco, these are Tariffit in the north, Tamazight in the Atlas, and Tashelhit in the south) that belong to the Afro-Asiatic family of languages.** They’ve dealt with invasions before – Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines – but they’ve always maintained a lifestyle characterized by a tribal social organization and animist religious worship. Until they are introduced to Islam, that is: receiving the Arabs as liberators from Byzantine oppression, most willingly convert to this new religion.

With the conversion of Berbers to Islam comes the unification of Morocco under centralized rule (and just in case you’re interested, this unified territory included the Western Sahara). Idriss I and his son Idriss II, Arab refugees who claim descent from the Prophet Mohammed, establish the first of a series of dynasties, its capital in the new city of Fes.

Attesting to the monumental importance of this moment in history are the banners that line the broad boulevards of Fes’ Ville Nouvelle these days. Underneath a green star and the number twelve, they read “douze siècles de la vie d’un Royaume” – ‘twelve centuries of the life of a kingdom’. These banners (and the festivities they accompanied) purport to mark the 1200th anniversary of this city’s existence, but in fact, Fes only figures as a synecdoche, if you will: while focusing on Fes, what’s really being celebrated here is the 1200th anniversary of a (relatively) unified, Islamic Morocco. The banner suggests as much in referring to a “royaume” rather than a city, and a little math confirms the truth. Fes was founded in 789 AD; the 1200th anniversary of this event should have been celebrated in 1989. What happened 1200 years before 2008 (in 808 to be exact), was Idriss II’s proclamation of Fes as capital of his new dynasty.

A number of other great ‘Berber’ dynasties follow the example set by the Idrissids, each combining a renewed religious orthodoxy with novel political opportunism. All dynasties hail from Morocco’s south: there are the Almoravids, the Almohads, and then the Merinids. Morocco lives through the European renaissance under Saadian rule, until they surrender power to the Alaouites, a family of Arab descent (and of Prophetic descent, no less) that still rules Morocco today.

This, then, is the official version. But what history books describe as civilization and unification through the combined forces of Arabization and Islamization, Berbers see as yet another episode in a long history of occupation and suppression. According to their alternative version of events, yet another civilization was forcefully imposed upon the Imazighen (this is how the Berber peoples refer to themselves. It is the plural of Amazigh, which means something like ‘free person’). Sure, some converted ‘willingly’ – it was either that or suffer great deprivation and disenfranchisement.*** Sure, there were ‘Berber dynasties’ – but the use of the term ‘Berber’ here more likely suggests Arabs’ efforts to legitimize their own rule in the eyes of the native people they were up against, than any real power in the hands of Amazigh tribes. And that’s a version I hadn’t heard before.

What I had heard before was this – this has made it into recent (post-Hassan II) accounts of history: after French authorities played out Arabs against Berbers in a divide-and-rule approach to colonialism, the Imazighen suffered considerable repression in the first few decades of postcolonial government. In the interest of both maintaining a national sense of unity, and of aligning that unity with the pan-Arab ideologies popular at the time in the Middle East, king Hassan II made life difficult for Berbers. Expressions of Berber identity were suppressed (including their languages), any political protest was forcefully squashed, and the accuracy of Morocco’s ‘official’ history was re-emphasized.

The new king, Mohammed VI, ameliorated the situation. He confessed to having a Berber mother (yes – for all his suppression of Berber identity, Hassan II nevertheless married a Berber woman. I think this may suggest that the issue was not ethnic. That is – the problematic Berber identity was not ethnically defined for Hassan II, but culturally and politically. Meaning that any Berber who identifies with Arab language and culture is fine), and proclaimed the establishment of a royal institute for Amazigh culture.

This is the IRCAM, the “Institut Royale de la Culture Amazighe.” Headquartered here in Rabat, this institute pursues the development and standardization of Berber languages (what with suppression, its development had been stalled in the pre-industrial age. This means Berber languages have quite some catching up to do with the pace of modern life…), the development of a Berber script (with widespread illiteracy and the suppression of these languages, Berber became a strictly oral language. The IRCAM chose tifinagh, an ancient script, as Berber alphabet), as well as the promotion of Berber cultural expressions – music, literature, theatre, and so on.

The king, in other words, is pursuing the emancipation of Berber culture. This is good, right? You would think it sounds great, and noble, and regal. I did. Until I arrived in Morocco this past September and was exposed to the alternative perspective by Berber friends. For more on this, stay tuned for the next post…

* These documents go back to as early as the predynastic Egyptian kingdoms.
** This clan also includes the semitic languages (to which both Arabic and Hebrew belong), as well as Ethiopian. All this means Berber is about as related to Arabic as French is to Russian.
*** Yet I don’t think any Berber today would reject Islam as the religion of an occupying force. I think that to them, Islam is as much the one true faith as it is to the average Arab.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Men Are from Mars, Women are from Venus

Most mornings at the NIMAR start slowly. We officially open at eight, but we usually spend the first hour of the day circled around a table, chatting over tea and breakfast. We discuss our weekends, comment on what’s playing on the television in the background, and allow for the occasional preliminary discussion of work-related goings-on. It’s a pleasant way to ease into the day, and a good use of an hour at which there is little else to do. We open this early to stay on track with the Dutch institutional world, which lives an hour ahead of us. In Morocco, however, no self-respecting employee, or NIMAR student, is ready for business until at least 9 am.

This past Monday, as we did a post-game evaluation of my birthday party (which had taken place on the preceding Saturday), the conversation touched on the risks of making a late-night solo drive back home – and from there devolved quickly into thorny territory: the harassment of women on Moroccan streets.

Cynthia and Chaima opened, claiming a lonely street in the dark of night is no place for a woman alone – what with rapists, thieves, and other figures of the underworld.

“Well, what about men?” Farid retorted. “Men are the ones who get robbed, conned, and deceived. People are actually nice to women – you get your bags carried for you, a seat given away to you on the bus, and there’s always a hand ready to help you change your tire.”

Chaima dismissively shook her head. “Oh, Farid,” she chuckled, “you have no idea what it’s like for women.”

Cynthia bristled in agreement. “What?” She demanded of Farid. “How can you say that? Women are constantly treated with disrespect on the street!” Confronted by a skeptical expression on Farid’s face, she then launched into a description of the verbal and tactile varieties of unwanted attention that women suffer daily when out and about, trying to mind their own business. To add dramatic force to her illustrations, she got up from her chair and turned courtyard into stage, enlisting Chaima as co-star in her performance. The two put on their best macho faces, their eyes expressing an exaggerated form of the demeaning lust they attribute to the men they were imitating, and swaggered daringly past each other, Chaima grazing Cynthia’s posterior while the latter stage-whispered disrespectful gibberish into the former’s ear.

“Nine out of ten men,” Cynthia emphasized, shooting meaningful glances in Farid’s direction. “And by the time the tenth guy walks by, I’m about ready to punch him in the face.”

His skeptical expression unchanged, Farid shrugged and lit up a cigarette. “It’s all in your head,” he muttered.

This set off a trigger with the lot of us. Say what? Claiming that we’ve somehow conjured up this constant stream of verbal harassment in our collective mind is like saying that there is no glass ceiling for women, or that men are just naturally better at math.

We icily asked him to elaborate, our swords hanging in the sky, ready to fall with a vengeance when he gave us what could only be the wrong answer. Farid argued first that we’d be lost without the attention. He cited a survey that he personally conducted among his female students: “Nine out of ten said they’d feel depressed if they were ignored on the street,” he reported in subtle reference to Cynthia’s earlier statistic.

We protested that this is no surprise in a society where women hardly ever receive positive reinforcement on other aspects of their being. Moroccan women are raised to be demure and modest; if street comments about their appearance are the only source of compliments they have, no wonder they’d miss them in their absence! But, we assured Farid, no self-respecting, confident woman would prefer unsolicited attention to the freedom of public anonymity. Unfazed, Farid pressed on, introducing his second argument. He reminded us that women receive a lot of preferential treatment in return for the occasional offensive comment. We scoffed, but he proceeded to his concluding argument: we bring this attention upon ourselves by not talking back.

I’d been relatively quiet before, observing the back and forth with curiosity as I tried to theorize what made the various participants in this discussion say the things they said and feel the way they felt. But I felt personally addressed by this last argument, and I stepped in.

“Talking back doesn’t work!” I exclaimed, a bit of this morning’s annoyance with the appreciative soldiers I encountered on my walk to work leaking out. “All it does is make them laugh! Hearing me speak Arabic does nothing but egg them on.”

“Or it makes them mad and makes the harassment even worse,” Chaima added. Cynthia and I nodded eagerly. “Yeah,” we contributed, “and when you react by yelling, they accuse you of crossing the boundaries of propriety!”

Farid stuck to his argument, though, insisting that an angry response is the key to solving this issue. “It’s a vicious cycle,” I offered, trying to be the mediator. A theory began to develop in my head, but I wasn’t ready to put it into words yet, and so I kept it at that. “Women allow this kind of attention to happen by remaining mute, which allows men to keep it up. In turn, the sense of endlessness with men’s attention makes women feel as though there’s no use in protesting.”
We got up, cleared the table and put our dirty teacups by the sink without having reached an agreement.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged by any woman (both foreign and native) who has spent a day on Moroccan streets, that one cannot venture outside without eliciting at least a comment from at least seventy percent of the men one passes by. You learn to drown it out (though the occasional butt-graze is impossible, ever, to ignore, and some days are certainly worse than others), but the principle of the matter is offensive. This primal need that men seem to feel, to comment on any and all female figures within their sight, implies a perception of women as not-quite-real, and as not-quite-human.* It is, in all honesty, a very frustrating kind of objectification. But not only that; it is offensive, on a deeper level, that men seem so completely unashamed of their behavior – that society seems to accept this kind of uncivilized comportment.

If we are all so bothered by the fact that we cannot anonymously walk alone outside – by the fact that we will never be able to sit down on a park bench to read a book in peace, to stop outside a shop window and ogle the shoes on sale, or to wait on a street corner for a friend without eliciting a whole lot of unwanted attention – what can we do to make it stop?

In order to answer that question, I think we first need to answer another one: what makes it happen in the first place? How did this become such a commonplace public form of male-female interaction, and what motivates men to address women in this way? I’ve been walking around with these questions ever since I first visited Morocco in the spring of 2005. Despite warnings from more seasoned travelers, I spent the first two days of my stay in a state of complete agoraphobia, holed up in my hotel room in Fes without a clue as to how to deal.

After this initial shock, I became intrigued. I began to observe the attention, examining it and experimenting a little with its limits. I’d change my clothing, varying the amount of bare skin I exposed to the public to see if this correlated at all with the frequency or intensity of the comments, stares and grazing hands that came my way. I even donned a headscarf once. The effect? None whatsoever. And so I came up with a theory. I think that this attention has nothing to do with us as women. It doesn’t matter what we wear, how we behave, or how pretty we are. We could walk around covered head to toe in clothing that hasn’t been washed in weeks, flash a smile of black teeth and exude a smell of sweat across a two-meter radius, and some man would still feel the need to whisper “very niiiiiicce” as we limped by. It has nothing to do with us – and everything to do with them, with the men. My theory is that men in Morocco have so few ways in which to exercise and display their masculinity, that anonymous women on the street become the unwitting target of their frustrated need to show the world they’re male.

I’ve devoted earlier posts to the problem of Moroccan masculinity. The Moroccan masculine ideal – defined by dominance, power, and independence – is difficult, if not impossible, for a man to live up to. In a patriarchal society with a developing economy and a high rate of unemployment, very many men are stuck in a position of relative dependence – whether it be on their father, an employer, or some other figure who exercises power.** The result is that they act out their frustrated need for dominance and power in a space where they do not risk offending someone to whom they are subordinate – in the no man’s land where social norms don’t really count: the street.

Furthermore, Moroccan social norms and the gender segregation they sanctify mean that men have very little permitted access to women. There are very few acceptable ways and places for innocent flirtation (flirtation that is not meant as direct prelude to marriage, that is) – in other words, there is no sanctioned way for a Moroccan boy to parade his masculinity around and attract the most appealing female without the risk of consequences. Another frustration they act out in the space beyond social norms – by aggressively flirting with anonymous women who are not a part of their social community. Strict rules within the social fold elicit acting-out behaviors in the abject areas beyond its boundaries.

These norms also ensure that male-female interaction is beset by tension. The politic of segregation teaches children and teenagers that the opposite sex is inherently and dangerously different. It teaches them that the other gender is there for marriage and sex, not for friendship and normal human-to-human relating. It nips any potential for mutual understanding and communication in the bud.

Of course all of this is evolving. Moroccan social norms have been subject to rather rapid change – a development Moroccans themselves conceive of as ‘modernization’ and regard with a fair amount of ambivalence. Men and women can be friends – and one thing I’ve been so struck by in Rabat is the seeming informality and comfort of contact between the genders. But day-to-day attitudes and public behavior always lag a step or two behind institutional social change.

Maybe the crux of the problem hides in our inability to span the gap of understanding between genders. The thing is that Farid can’t understand what it’s like. No non-female can understand this feeling of complete and entire objectification; this denial of your freedom to be anonymous, of your private space, and of your very fellow human-ness; the insistence always to see you as a woman, and never as a person. No non-female can understand how it feels when you are expected to remain demure and modest, yet somehow must acquire a basic sense of self-respect.***

But the thing is also that no female can understand the social pressure on Moroccan men. High demands and huge limitations on one’s ability to live up to them are an impossible combination. The thing is that men are essentially as objectified as women are. In a society where social connections are everything, men are constantly sized up according to their position in the matrix of power relationships and their relative status in relation to the one doing the sizing-up. If men don’t talk down to someone in an assertion of their dominance, they risk having such subordination imposed upon themselves. Who can blame them for acting out?****

So. To make a long story short, the issue comes down to this. Can you be a respectable woman without demurely allowing yourself to be objectified, and without accepting a man’s refusal to see you as a person? Can you be a confident woman without needing positive reinforcement from random lustful machos on the street? And can you be a real man without needing to assert your male dominance by objectifying women?

One anonymous woman on a busy downtown street had her own answer to these questions. As we hunted for cabs on Monday evening after a satisfying meal at Dar Naji, we heard her screaming to some unfortunate male offender.

“Are you a real man? I don’t think you’re a real man, I think you’re a fag! Go get yourself checked out, fag!”

* I’ve had men lean in and clap in my face to see if I’d react. It leads me to conclude they might be wondering if I’m even real. I get the same sense from their laughter at my Arabic requests to be left alone. They don’t hear what I say; they seem to see a doll talking and are surprised by its lifelike appearance.
** And in a society where social connections are everything, that dependence, that subordinate position, is something you are constantly reminded of.
*** Not to mention the recent addition of new, ‘modern’ expectations: women must remain modest, quiet, and submissive, but must now also become ambitious, successful, and financially self-sufficient.
**** Let me make a disclaimer here that I know I am generalizing. The dynamics of Moroccan society are much more complex and intricate than the rough sketch I am laying out here, and the actual currents carrying along the type of male-female interaction that I am discussing here are much more subtle and multi-pronged than I suggest. I’m just trying to theorize a little.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Odds and Endlessness

I haven’t quite worked through my to-do list yet; quite a few things burn rather restlessly on my brain. Obtain permission from a local ethics board. Apply for a research permit. Get research permission from the city. Locate French and Arabic translations of the standardized interview protocol I included in my methodology (and whose use required considerable defending toward the IRB). Visit this library, get in touch with that professor, locate those articles. Did I mention permission from the ethics board?

In other words, I have multiple to-do lists. I also have a clear purpose to motivate the effort. So then why do I feel so listless and adrift?

I spent my weekend idly sitting around, feeling as though I had nothing to do, nowhere to go, and no one to keep me company. I also spent the weekend reminding myself that rationally speaking, these feelings have no basis in reality. I have more than enough to do, a matching number of places to go, and a valuable collection of people who care enough to take an interest in all of that. But emotions do not always listen to the voice of rationality, of course. A miscommunication that leaves me wondering where and how this lack of energy emerged. I hardly recognize myself. Aren’t I usually at my best when there are things to be done? Doesn’t stress bring out the productivity in me?

Yesterday evening, as I agonized over these questions from a chair at the Jazz festival at the Chellah and utterly failed to afford the European group on stage the undivided attention it deserved, I realized why.

The problem is precisely this: I have more than enough to do. In my head, it feels a little like this. Imagine a picture of a chocolate cake. It’s moist, dark, full of chocolate, and I can already taste it on my tongue. I can already imagine how it’d pair with a glass of white wine, and I want nothing more than to make this cake. I’ve put my bowls out on the countertop, my mixer is plugged in and ready to go, and I know what ingredients to use. I just don’t know how to put them all together. Do I add the sugar before or after I put in the butter? Should I separate the eggs, or just throw them in whole? And should I be using chocolate chips, or larger chunks?

I know what needs to be done. I spent the better part of my flights to Rabat and my first week here making long lists and mindmap charts to put it all into perspective. It’s been documented, made sense out of, and deconstructed in every which way. I know what I’m doing it for – like the picture of chocolate cake, my purpose is clear and appealing. I just don’t quite know how to go about getting done the things that need to be done. What needs to be tackled first, and what can wait? For which items do I need help, and who should I ask for assistance? What does this item comprise, and how do I break down that task into doable, bite-size pieces?

Despite my multiple attempts at committing the various to do’s to paper, I’m just not sure in what direction to go, and as I contemplate my first steps, I feel pulled in all directions at once. If I decide to devote an afternoon to translating my CV into French, I wonder if I shouldn’t really be making a call to that psychiatrist, or to that organization to see about that research permit.

Making matters worse is the imperfection of the chocolate cake analogy. I erroneously see my purpose, my research project, as a picture – that is, as an object or finished product. After spending more than a year carefully weighing each word of my proposal, crafting and re-polishing each sentence until it conveyed just the right mix of subtleties, it’s hard not to see it as a finished two-dimensional story that needs only to be translated to the three-dimensionality of a moving picture. That’s not how it works, of course. A research project is never a finished project, not even when it’s finished. No matter how many things I cross off a list, I will never ‘be’ there. As much as I am aware of this, and as much as I’ve been warned that a research project is an amoeba-like intangible mess of a thing (not ‘thing’! ‘process’! ‘process’!), it makes the picture that I still can’t expel from my head seem like the proverbial carrot on a stick.

And just as I keep running but never catching up with that picture, perhaps I’m constantly one step behind my motivation to keep going, as well.

All this having been said, or in this case written down, I’m not sure it’s changed much. I was hoping to create some breathing room in my head by cutting and pasting these thoughts from brain to paper, but just now, as I realized it’s five-thirty and time to get something done before I call it a day, that same listlessness returns.

I’m not sure what to do. Probably, it’s a matter of forgetting about that picture for a while and just trying to put one foot in front of the other. Taking it one item at a time. And probably, it’s also a matter of reminding myself that regardless of which item on the to-do list I choose to tackle right now, there’s always tomorrow for the other tasks. I’ll be ‘there’ before I know it.

I hope.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Thanks, Prins Bernhard!

Last Wednesday, my morning was brightened with a very unexpected piece of good news: I am the recipient of another grant.

This time it’s a Dutch cultural foundation, The Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds to be exact, and they’re giving me a lot of Euros to cover my living expenses in Morocco. Needless to say, I’m grateful, excited, and relieved. It means that I can afford to employ a research assistant, and that I can indulge in the occasional extra trip home.

But most of all, I love the idea that my research is now being funded by American as well as Dutch institutions. Working at the NIMAR has strengthened my self-identification as a hybrid. It hasn’t weaned me away from my Americanness as it drew the Dutchness that had floated to the deeper recesses of my sense of self closer to the surface. To the contrary: it’s helped me realize that to have one foot firmly planted in each culture is to have an identity based on the concept of ‘both’, rather than the notion of ‘split’. I am considered to be as Dutch as the colleagues that hail from Nijmegen or Zeeland – while simultaneously being accepted in all my Americanness. And suddenly, feeling fully Dutch is not a contradiction in terms with feeling fully American. I notice that it changes my comportment. I no longer mind mixing English idioms through my Dutch. I don’t mind not knowing a particular commercial that has my co-workers squirming on the floor with laughter, and I don’t mind messing up when I join the others in singing along with a Dutch classic. While there have been times when I concluded that two halves make less than a whole, I am of the conviction, lately, that in fact it’s two wholes that make an enriching mix.

I hadn’t expected to be eligible for a Dutch scholarship. Sure, I have a Dutch passport, but I’ve been educated abroad, and even my dissertation project has no relation to the Netherlands. This grant’s seeming lack of eligibility requirements seemed almost too good to be true, and I sent in my application with a fair portion of reservations. But here I am, two months later, the new recipient of a considerable sum of money. My American self has been accepted as Dutch enough all over again.
And in any case, if this research is an extension of myself (and considering that my relationship with this project first blossomed in the summer of 2007, it certainly feels as though it is), it seems only fitting that it be the hybrid I consider myself to be; that both American and Dutch funds come together to facilitate this project.

This grant – all of them (never thought I’d be able to speak of grants in the plural!) – means validation. It means that, despite the initial string of rejections, my project is worth funding, after all.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Moroccan Bureaucracy and you: Some Thoughts on a Successful Relationship

Europeans and Americans who arrive in Morocco are permitted to stay in the country visa-free for up to ninety days. You enter the country, and upon handing over a short, white immigration form and exchanging a few pleasantries with an officer seated in a small glass cage, you are given a stamp in your passport and good-naturedly sent onwards to begin your Moroccan adventure.

If you plan to reside in Morocco for a longer period, you have two choices. The easier option is to leave the country for a few days (most choose Melilla and Ceuta, the two Spanish enclaves whose painful presence is almost literally a thorn in Morocco’s Mediterranean side), return, and simply obtain a new entry stamp that legally extends your adventure for another ninety days. This is indeed the route preferred by many, although the occasional story emerges about passport control officials unhappy with the many entries recorded in a passport.

The more laborious option is to apply for a ninety-day extension of your non-visa-visa. Weighing the labor-intensive value of paperwork over what must be at least a three-day return trip across the border, you may wonder why I bill the latter as easier. Let me explain.

I can tell you from firsthand experience that applying for a visa to the United States is no walk in the park. Apart from the stacks of paperwork to be filled out, the process involves endless errands to obtain all manner of official documentation explaining (and legitimizing) the various facets of your existence. Then there is the endless waiting in lines, the quiet acceptance of disinterested treatment by INS officers, and the subtle embarrassment of being fingerprinted and blood-tested. Though I cannot tell you what an application for an actual Moroccan visa would entail, requesting an extension of your visa certainly does not involve as many steps and items of documentation. Easy as pie, I initially thought when a NIMAR co-worker explained the process to me and the various NIMAR-students in need of a visa-extension.

There were two application forms, she told us. In addition, we were to provide eight passport photo’s, a statement testifying to our residence in Rabat (to be provided by the NIMAR, who organized host families and other stays for most of us), and a statement testifying to our connection with the NIMAR (proof of the internship in my case, of a study program for the others). We were to complete our file, and to deliver it to the police chief at the headquarters two streets away.

When I arrived at the police quarters one sunny morning about ten days before my visa-free period was to expire, I was told first by the officer who stopped me at the front door, and then by the officer at the old rickety reception desk inside, that the chief in question (whose name I had carefully written out on a post-it so as to pronounce it correctly) no longer worked at these headquarters. I was sent upstairs to speak with his replacement, a skinny smiling man who delivered my file straight to a civil servant seated in the room next to his office.

Her office was a bare room furnished with four haphazardly placed wooden desks, each paired with a chair. A single bookcase stood along a wall; boxes of paperwork were scattered across the room. Behind each desk, empty but for a single, modest stack of files, a few stamps, and a flat box of red ink, sat a female civil servant. As they chatted away the hours, either with one another or with invisible conversation partners over their cell phone, they would occasionally and absent-mindedly take one of their stamps, and hammer it on the form in front of them.

One of these ladies was handed my file. She smiled at me, then glanced at the forms I had brought her. The first application form, in threefold. The second, two copies. The statement of internship, the statement of residence.

“You need a rental agreement,” she told me without looking up.

Trying my best to keep smiling politely, I nervously pointed to the statement of residence and explained, “Well, madame, my director spoke with your police chief, who said this statement would be all that’s necessary.”

She looked at the statement again. She had just begun to tell me once again that all applications needed a rental agreement, when her phone rang. A friend or family member, I gathered from the smile that appeared on her face and the informal tone of her conversation. Unsure of what to do, unwilling to interrupt her conversation, I waited. As though she suddenly remembered my presence, she looked up and, with a wave of her hand, told me, “You’re fine. Your application is complete.” With a sigh of relief, I motioned a thank you to her. I was about to exit when I remembered. Worried about interrupting her, I whispered, “madame, how long will this process take?” A little annoyed, she looked up. “Come back in 15 days,” she told me curtly, then immediately returned to the soft tone of her telephone conversation.

With uncertain relief, I left the station and returned to work. It was done – I had turned in the file, and all there was to do now was wait, return, and get a stamp in my passport. Incha’llah.

Upon my return after said processing period, I was dealt with by another one of the four civil servants. She asked for my name, sauntered over to the bookcase to pick up the box of files marked ‘accepted’, and proceeded to absent-mindedly leaf through the stack of red stamp-covered forms. Mine, as I had half expected, was not among them. “Come back later,” she pronounced, and dismissed me.

“Well, you see,” I carefully explained, “I have to leave the country for a few weeks fairly soon. Would it be possible to – …”

I was not able to finish my request for a piece of paper to show passport control that I had, in fact, applied for a visa extension (Now that I was officially illegal in Morocco, I was getting nervous about leaving the country without at least some kind of proof that I’d requested this grace period). Curtly, the civil servant asked me, “when is your flight?”

“Uhm, the 18th, and then I return on June 1st.”

“Alright, come back on the day before you fly, and bring us your airline ticket, to get a form for the passport control.”

I did as I was told, and returned to the headquarters on the day before my scheduled departure, armed with a printout of my reservation. This time, the civil servant (yet another one), took the time to deal with me. She fished another stack of files from the bookcase – those marked ‘not yet processed’, and leafed through the forms. One by one, I recognized the passport pictures submitted by NIMAR students and smiled with pity – I wasn’t the only one going through this process. My paperwork showed up at the bottom of the stack. The servant looked at my airline reservation, and jotted a few numbers down on my file. She then asked for my passport, and just as a brief spark of hope had me wondering if I might just get that visa extension after all, the servant turned to me. “What time is your flight tomorrow? Can you come back in the morning before you go to the airport and get a number for the passport control?”

I was confused and nervous. What number? Wasn’t I going to get a form of some sort? Something official-looking? Stuttering a bit, I answered, “well, my flight is in the afternoon, but it’s transatlantic and it’s from Casablanca, so I have to leave Rabat very early. Is there any way we could do this today? And don’t I need a form? I was told by my director, who was told by your police chief, that I’d need a form for the douane.”

The lady shook her head. “You can come back early tomorrow,” was her only concession.

“Are you open at eight? Because I will have to leave at 8.30,” was my last attempt to convince them to help me today. But alas – “yes. Come back at eight,” was her answer.

“Would it be possible to get an actual form tomorrow?” I asked, trying one more time. Again, I was met with a shake of the head. At this point another civil servant, seated across the room, got involved.

“Actually,” she said, “You don’t need anything at all. You’re not the first foreigner in this situation. The passport control will see everything on his computer screen. Don’t come back at all, you don’t need a number.”

My heart sank. No form, and now not even a number? I would be going to the airport without any kind of physical proof that I had applied for a visa extension? I was unwilling to take that risk, and pleaded with the civil servants, backtracking on my arrogant dismissal of the number they had offered me before. But they were done with me. I was met with more shaking heads. “You don’t need to come back, just go to the airport.” And that was their final answer.

Dejected, I returned to work and reported back to the co-worker who had made the original arrangements with the police chief. A little offended herself by this lack of respect for those arrangements on the part of these civil servants, she offered to go over to the headquarters and speak with the new police chief herself. She took my passport – just in case they’d be willing to stamp it, after all – and went on her way. She returned an hour later, stamp-less, but with a renewed invitation to return on the morning of my flight for that coveted number.

That morning, I returned to the police headquarters, my co-worker by my side. We waited for 30 minutes as a civil servant occasionally attempted a phone call to whomever gave out these numbers. She tried to reassure us, again, that I had no need of this number. We know, we responded, but we’d appreciate it all the same. Luckily, my co-worker’s words seemed to carry a bit more weight. Albeit with an annoyed look on her face, the civil servant tried the phone again – and two minutes later, she had written a number on a piece of paper, handed it to me, and sent us on our way.

An hour later, I took the train to the airport. Passport control had no knowledge of my application for a visa extension. Did I know I had overstayed my visa-free period? I nodded, summarized my month of back-and-forth with the police headquarters with a simple “yes, the police gave me this number to show you,” and handed him the scrap given to me by the civil servant. The officer stepped out of his glass cage, walked to another office, deliberated for what seemed like an hour, came back with an official form, stamped both it and my passport, and sent me on my way.

Immensely relieved, and thankful to my NIMAR co-worker, I celebrated in the departure lounge with a coffee and chocolate.

The frustration of these interactions, however, I had a hard time shaking off. I simply did not get it. Why was I so powerless? These civil servants seemed bored to death, filled their day with nothing but chit-chat, and yet could not take time out of their schedules to spend five minutes on my file, or two minutes to stamp a form on my behalf. Why? It seemed to go against every basic rule of human interaction. Why not help someone, if you have the means, and the time? There was an inequality of power in this interaction that I was completely powerless to shift. What was lacking in required paperwork for this request was made up for by complete uncertainty and an apparent lack of any system to the process. I had anticipated this – I had been warned about this by others, and I knew that the collection of papers we’d been asked to provide was agreed upon between my NIMAR co-worker and the former police chief; it was not a standard list. But still.

Even now, I keep thinking about this episode, and I keep bumping into my frustration. The only difference now is that I have a bit of distance from its acuteness, and I’m able to see that perhaps the frustration had less to do with the way I was treated, than with my inability to change that treatment. What I mean, basically, is that contrary to its appearance, I do think that there is a kind of system to all this madness. Moroccan bureaucracy is not run by anarchy; it’s just that the system differs quite fundamentally from the one we in Europe and the US are used to. It’s not that there’s a lack of rules; it’s just that the rules that count are not the ones you can see, hear, and read. If you can read between the lines, you may discover that there is a real system at work here – and I think that a comprehension of its intricacies may be the key to a successful (and perhaps even efficient) relationship with the Moroccan authorities.

Evert van der Zweerde, a Dutch philosopher who visited the NIMAR for two weeks in May, mentioned an idea once that might just provide a clue into the basic workings of this system. I asked him to remind me of this theory in an email. I cite (and translate) his response here:

‘Basically, there is a correlation between individualism and trust in a ‘system’. The Dutch, for instance, can afford to be individualists because, or to the extent to which, they have reason to trust the government and its civil servants. That is, a civil servant who does not give me the treatment he gives to other citizens has a problem. The problem is not mine, but his or hers. The contrary is true of Morocco: there, one is dependent on a civil servant’s graciousness (read: on one’s connections or ability to pay bribes), and so one cannot rely upon his or her help. This makes it hard to be individualist, because you must be able to fall back on your network of friends and family to get anything done. You might also say that both traditional (family) ties and bureaucratic structures figure as a kind of communicating frameworks that offer a measure of security, that you can count on. If it’s the second (the bureaucratic structures) that you can rely on, you can ‘safely’ be individualist.’

In other words, the wheels of Moroccan bureaucracy turn on the basis of a premise of citizenship that is defined by relationships and connections, rather than by a notion of individualism. The rights of citizenship (including bureaucratic assistance, the granting of paperwork requested) are conferred upon you if you prove yourself to deserve them, in Morocco as in Europe. The only difference is that here, this involves proving that you have the requisite connections, that you are a considerable enough point of gravity within the social matrix. My frustration stemmed from the fact that, as someone raised in Europe and thus trained to be an individual, my fundamental beliefs were utterly shaken by the realization I could not rely on the bureaucratic mill to turn for me as it would for anyone else. If I had come to the headquarters without the support of the NIMAR, there may have been a wealth of additional hurdles to jump in the pursuit of this extension. And according to the same logic, if I had been a personal friend of the police chief’s, the entire process may have played itself out (with successful results, of course) in no more than a few days.

Yet I’m stuck with one question. I think Evert is right, and many social scientific analyses of Moroccan organization testify to the importance of social connections. But how exactly does my network or lack thereof motivate a civil servant to do her job? If she is not a part of this social network, why does she care what kind of connections I have? How does it affect her, and her motivation? Shouldn’t she be motivated to do her job simply because she gets paid to do it – that is, because she receives a reward from her own social network?

Maybe the answer lies in my assumption that she is not part of my network. Maybe this is an erroneous assumption that stems from my having been raised in an individualist society and thus having a somewhat limited definition of ‘social network’ (that is, the fact that I see this as a purely ‘social’ network, not as a matrix of connections on which I depend for my survival). I am venturing into a little guesswork here, making a few other assumptions that may not be accurate (and if I am wrong, I invite whatever Morocco-experts who are gracious enough to take the time to read this blog to correct me and further my understanding of this system), but maybe the civil servant and I become part of the same network as soon as I enter her office with a particular request.

Perhaps the civil servant can rely on the system no more than I can. Perhaps her reward (a sufficient salary, promotion, and so on), and thus her motivation to help, comes not from the simple fact that she is a civil servant who stamps forms and gives people the help they need. Perhaps what counts is helping the right people – the people important to her superiors, or the people who can reward her directly. And so when I stand there in front of her with a request, I am no more a neutral cog in the system of individualistic citizenship than she is a neutral cog in a system of neutral bureaucracy. When I give her a request, we establish a relationship. My connections, my gravity within the social matrix, has the potential to directly affect her position. If I were a person of social or financial means, she might be rewarded for helping me with some kind of gain in her own status (and I would of course be motivated to reward her because I know her willingness to help stems from my willingness to provide a reward) – while if I were a person of no gravity whatsoever, she would gain nothing from helping me. Yes, as a civil servant she has a job security that those in the private sector can only dream of. It’s the mean reason so many turn down private sector jobs in the hopes of securing a government position. But other than job security and the potential of being rewarded for helping the right people, what other sources of motivation does a government job really provide? For all the government’s purported fighting against corruption, I do not think the average civil servant is rewarded with a salary sizeable enough to permit a comfortable standard of living without the supplementary income of an occasional bribe.

So that’s that, then. I doubt that I have here discovered the secret to the Moroccan ‘system’. But perhaps I’m a little closer to getting why it works the way it works – and perhaps I’ll be less likely to succumb to frustration next time I interact with it…