Monday, July 27, 2009

National Pride

The workshop at the Clinic that I went to a few weeks ago – that methodological workshop organized by three psychologists from the University of Amsterdam – started off with a bit of a misunderstanding. Justifying their reasons for seeking to construct a questionnaire that was multiculturally valid, the trio recounted the problems they often encounter with young patients of Moroccan origin. Not only do Moroccan families often have a different way of dealing with problematic children than Dutch families do, they explained, but most questionnaires aiming at diagnosis are very much based on Dutch cultural assumptions that are not relevant to their context.

A psychiatric resident, clearly bothered, immediately reacted: it was incorrect to claim that youth of Moroccan origin were more susceptible to psychological problems than their Dutch peers.

It took a few minutes of apologies and explanations by the Dutch psychologists to convince the residents that they had not meant to imply any such thing – that of course, psychological problems are just as common among Dutch adolescents, and that the clinical issue is simply the fact that Dutch practitioners are not trained to deal with anyone whose cultural context is something other than purely Dutch.

Then, an hour later, the residents struck a completely different tone.

The Dutch psychologists asked the Clinic’s residents to compile a list of typical aspects of Moroccan parent behavior. The residents took 15 minutes to brainstorm over coffee and sweets, and came back with a page full of items. I’ve already described the residents’ spontaneous division of these aspects into those of ‘traditional’ parents, and those of the ‘modern’ generation; but there was something else that I thought was interesting. Nearly all items on the list of ‘traditional’ characteristics were phrased as negatives. While the question had been neutral (in asking for “typical aspects”), the responses were given as “too much of X,” and “too little of Y.”

It is not only the negativity (this freely offered, unprompted negativity) of the residents’ list that struck me, but also its seeming contrast to the offense that the resident had taken earlier on, when she was under the impression that the Dutch presenters had insulted the psychological health of the Moroccan-Dutch. It is a contradiction that I notice often.

The Moroccans we foreigners meet seem highly concerned with giving us a positive portrayal of their country. They tell us of its wealth in resources, its seamless mix of a ‘thousand-and-one-nights’ exoticism with ‘modern’ development, its rich traditions and its great openness toward the western world. We are pressed upon to take note of the multiculturalism and ethnic diversity that characterizes Moroccan society, its tolerance and its hospitality. Islam solves all problems, everyone is nobly religious, and the King is a great innovator. Correspondingly, these people are quickly offended at any suggestion that we Westerners may harbor any negative stereotypes about their part of the world, and will confront such prejudice. There seems to be a particular sensitivity about any suggestions of Orientalist stereotyping and prejudice. Rightly so, perhaps – there are enough instances of ignorant bias that throw Morocco on a single heap with all ‘Arab’ and ‘Muslim’ countries – but sometimes the sensitivity feels a bit disproportionate, and I find myself walking on egg shells trying to make sure I don’t offend.*

But theirs is not a nonstop pride. There are moments of self-expressed negativity that intersperse these exaltations, their unexpected bleakness leaving a bitter aftertaste. These are moments of self-effacing, dejected criticism at Morocco’s inefficiency, inequality, poverty, corruption, and ‘backwardness’. And it always catches me off guard.

My co-worker Choumissa likened it to a Moroccan expression her mother was wont to use: nderrbek ou ma nkhalli had yderrbek – “I’ll hit you, but I won’t let anyone else hit you.” Just as a parent will discipline her children but will not tolerate anyone else who tries to touch her offspring, Moroccans like to be self-critical, but do not accept any negativism from outsiders. This is something we all have in common, I think. We all like to gripe about what doesn’t work well in our respective societies. We all wish for change, and we’re all quick to denounce things we have issues with. But we are also sensitive to our country’s image in the eyes of foreigners. We all want the positive to prevail, and we all want visitors to come away with a sense of “wow, what a great country. When can I come back?” I remember how upset I used to get when Dutch classmates characterized the United States as a “cruel country.” How desperate I felt when I shyly mentioned to the offender that America also had a few redeeming qualities, and he responded by saying “yeah, sure. But overall, it’s still a cruel country.”

What surprises me most about Moroccan negativity, though, is not necessarily the fact that they criticize their country – we all do,** on occasion – but the fact that they do so in my presence. Perhaps I’m so used to being given an image edited to leave out the negative, that these sudden critiques stand out in stark contrast. How do you respond, when you praise Morocco’s people and natural beauty to a stranger who has been kind enough to invite you to their home, and they shoot back that “this society sucks, it’s going to hell. We’ve lost our norms and values”? Obviously, agreeing with this criticism wouldn’t be the right thing to do, but would an insistence on Morocco’s positive assets make such a person feel invalidated in their suffering?

What is this criticism ultimately about, I wonder? In the workshop at the Clinic, the negativity was directed toward characteristics of ‘traditional’ parenting. Was this a ‘performance of modernity’? An effort to downplay (through denunciation) ‘backward’ traditions and thus turn our gaze toward Morocco’s development and modernization? We were in a psychiatric facility after all – a bastion of ‘modernity’ and illustration of globalization. If this is it, if this is simply another way to edit particular things out of the image presented of Morocco, we might almost think of this as the flipside of the coin of propaganda in a country that seems to struggle with the question of how to combine tradition and modernity.

But then again, so much of that unprompted criticism doesn’t seem to be about tradition at all. It is societal – people lament the lack of efficiency, or the inequality, corruption, and other vices that halt Morocco’s development. Is it an apology, perhaps? Is it a judgment of their own country through what they think is my frame of reference? Is it an effort at translation?

Is it all, then, part of that same effort that encourages people to indulge us westerners in the façade of desert exoticism and other fantasy images of Morocco? Is it simply about catering to what they think is our frame of reference?

… and do we thus find ourselves at an impasse of images and stereotypes, in which we alternately struggle to break through them, and ultimately resort back to their familiarity in an effort to facilitate communication?

* And it makes me sad sometimes that, despite my best intentions to exude an openness, to remain aware that Morocco and every Moroccan are unique entities unto themselves, and to refrain from passing judgment, there is the occasional person who expects the worst because I am, after all, a Westerner, and something I say about Qur’anic interpretation will still be branded as ‘Orientalist’. I am aware of the fact that I may not always succeed in being as open as I’d like to be. I know that there are moments when my level of tolerance lies slightly lower than I’d like it to, and I give in to frustration. Also, I guess expressed sensitivity to prejudice helps to remind me of the importance of that openness. But still, I feel a bit defeated sometimes when I try to express an openmindedness and I am received as a ‘Westerner’ who, perhaps despite herself, will ultimately resort to generalization.
** Criticize our own country, I mean – not Morocco…

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