Thursday, July 30, 2009

A First Interview

On Tuesday evening, I conducted my first interview.

Actually, it was more of a consultation than a real interview and we spoke mostly about my research project, leaving no time to discuss the list of questions I had brought with me. Still, it felt good. It felt like a milestone, or better said a breaking of ground.

My application for a research permit, as well as my submission for the ethics committee, are temporarily on hold. July and August are slow months in Morocco, and the people and institutions upon whom I depend for these applications are on vacation or recess until September. This means that my project itself, too, is necessarily on hold. I’m starting to feel quite useless – not to mention restless. I’ve been in Morocco for about nine months now, and still haven’t managed to get my project started. First there were grants to wait for, then the American IRB; now it’s the Moroccan authorities. I know that these months have been valuable time that I’ve definitely needed for preparation – the participant-observation and language training I’ve done will certainly help me hit the ground running once I do get started. But still, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m idly sitting here, twiddling my thumbs and wasting grant money, while there is so much that needs to be done.

And so, in my most recent state of restlessness, I came up with the idea of setting up meetings around Rabat with ‘consultants’: professionals in the field of mental healthcare who will not necessarily act as informants, but whose expertise will nevertheless help me to get a better sense of the infrastructure of care around here. I don’t need a permit to consult with a practitioner, and so this is something I could get started with now. For me, it serves a threefold purpose. First, I hope to consult these people about my own research project. I’d not only like to see what kinds of discussions are prompted by my research questions, but I’d also like some input and perhaps advice on the practical aspects of carrying out this project.

Second, I hope to ask each consultant some questions about the practice of their discipline in Morocco. This will broaden my perspective of what kinds of mental healthcare are available in Morocco and how they all relate to each other, and it will (perhaps, hopefully) elicit a greater spectrum of thoughts on why people believe the things they do about mental illness, and why they do the things they do to deal with it.

And finally, it’s a way both to prove to myself that my French is in good enough shape to conduct an interview, and to keep working on improving it. My cours de communication has proven that what my communicative competence mostly needs is practice, practice, and practice. But rather than hold off on interviewing until my French is ‘good enough’, I think that maybe there’s no better arena for that practice than these interviews themselves.

To make a long story short, this is how I found myself in a stylish and air-conditioned waiting room on a hot Tuesday afternoon at 6 PM, about to be seen by one of Morocco’s most prominent psychoanalysts. The Friday before, I had gathered my courage, picked up the phone, and made an original appointment for Monday at noon. That Monday at eleven, the psychoanalyst had called to reschedule – and so on Tuesday afternoon, I left my French class early and ran across town to the analyst’s office in Centre Ville. I arrived in a bit of a flustered and sweaty state, and was happy to sit down for a few minutes and peruse the available selection of magazines – all of them periodicals in which this psychoanalyst is occasionally featured. After fifteen minutes, the secretary led me in to see the analyst.

We spoke for about thirty minutes, mostly about my project. My four research questions prompted quite a bit of discussion on his part, and I mostly let him speak, trying frantically to write down whatever I could remember without losing my focus on what he was telling me. I wondered for a moment if I should take more control of the interaction, intervene, and make sure we get to all the questions I wanted to ask. This is something I’m uncomfortable with; I know from other interviews I’ve conducted that I wield that power of the interviewer very uneasily. In that sense I lend myself much too easily, perhaps, to the monologue format that so many discussions with Moroccan academics and professionals tend to take, and find it extra difficult to break out of that format.* But I decided it might actually be a good idea to let him talk and get some Moroccan-expert-input on my research questions – and that I could save my questionnaire for another meeting, after all.

And so he brainstormed about my research questions. He had some thoughts about re-phrasing a few of them, perhaps even splitting one into two separate questions. And ‘clients’ at the site of traditional healing? I should just call them ‘patients’, he said; ‘clients’ sounds a bit too commercial.

It is important, he also said, that we do not oppose ‘psychiatry’ and ‘traditional healing’. They are two completely different things, he explained, and in that sense they are not each other’s competitors. A patient seeks completely different things from a traditional healer; he doesn’t come to a psychiatrist with the same questions or the same expectations for treatment. I found this an interesting statement and wanted to ask him to elaborate – because so many psychiatrists do seem to feel the competition from traditional healing. What exactly was the difference between them then, I wanted to ask, and why is it that so many people do see these two forms of healing as competitors? But I didn’t ask those questions – by the time I had noted down the keywords of what he said, he’d moved on to a different subject and I felt it wouldn’t be useful to rewind the monologue.

Getting down to more methodological issues, he asked me if I’d been to my chosen site for traditional healing yet. No, I said, feeling a bit sheepish. But, I assured him, I was planning to very soon. Upon which he smiled, and a bit sarcastically asked me if I’d given any thought yet to how I’d get access to the place. According to him, the site has been “récupéré par la religion,” reclaimed by religion. This means not only that its new, more orthodox, framework has narrowed the site’s offer of traditional treatments and thus led its renown and reputation as a site for healing into decline, but also that I, as an (assumed) non-Muslim, will never be allowed to enter. I’d have to don a headscarf and prove myself by reciting the shahada** or fatiha,*** he said, suggesting its hopeless impossibility with the tone of his voice. A day later, a new friend said exactly the same things, though in a very different tone of voice. “Why not?” she encouraged, “We’ll try, and we’ll see what happens.” She’s right, and I guess I’m overdue for a visit to this site, but I do think I need to think about the possibility that I may need to find another site for my research. First of all, I don’t know that I want to fake being a Muslim to get in somewhere that I am not allowed to go, regardless of whether I agree with that rule (in Morocco, non-Muslims are not allowed inside mosques. The Hassan II mosque in Casablanca is the only exception). It brings up a lot of personal and research-related ethics-questions that might be better to avoid. And secondly, if this new recuperation by religion really has narrowed its offer of treatments, it may not be as good of a fit for my project, anyway.

As the psychoanalyst commented on my methodology and research questions and I frantically tried to write down what he said, I found myself a little resistant to the changes he suggested making. It’s not that he uttered any criticism – but I realize at these moments that I get a little resistant to any thoughts of changing my project. I’ve worked so hard on polishing and molding the proposal into its current shape, that the idea of deconstructing it again and putting it back together in a different way scares me a little. I know that projects are fluid and intangible things, even if proposals aren’t, and I know that most likely I’ll leave Morocco in two years with a very different project than the one I describe in my proposal. But still. Right now, the proposal is all I’ve got, and I don’t want to let it go just yet.

Nevertheless, I’m going to swallow that resistance. Input from Moroccan experts is exactly what I need – and none of the suggestions so far have been all that radical. And looking back on the interaction as a whole, I think I’m satisfied. Before I left I asked him if he’d be open to an actual interview about psychoanalysis at a later date, to which he assented – and assured me that he’d be more than happy to suspend his usual monologue format and just sit and answer questions (and thus assuaged all my frustration about not having asked follow-up questions; I’ll have my chance to revisit all those subjects, with the help of a tape recorder). Some explanations went better in French than others (explaining the point of person-centered interviews took some work. I hardly know how to explain that in English), but I think I made myself mostly understood.

But mostly? Mostly I was just proud that I had done this. That I had finally managed to do something research-related, and that I pulled it off.

* I was kind of surprised that even this man engaged in that kind of monologue. Aren’t psychoanalysts supposed to listen, rather than speak? But then again, this is a psychoanalyst who writes books and blogs about his viewpoints…
** the shahada is the profession of faith: “I attest that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammed is His Prophet.” Conversion to Islam consists of reciting this phrase three times in the presence of a witness. The shahada is also the concent of the five-times-daily call to prayer, and is recited at particular moments throughout life, though I do not know exactly when.
*** the fatiha is the first verse of the Qur’an.

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