Monday, August 31, 2009


The story of my Mobilia couch has ended not with a three-seater in my living room, but with my money back in my pocket.

Last Wednesday, I was at last expecting my couch to be delivered – and in the right color, this time. But, in an instance of total déjà vu, what I got instead was a repetition of that first episode, of waiting and vague promises. It started with a call from Mobilia themselves, informing me they’d be a day late with their delivery, and followed with three days of my having to call them to ask whether they were still going to come, and being reassured that the delivery would certainly take place – tomorrow if not today.

Me being incapable of getting verbally angry – let alone doing so in French or Arabic – Farid got involved and called the store. When, interspersed by a lot of hshouma alikoums, he told the salesman we’d come and get the couch ourselves, the truth came out: the couch was still in Casablanca and, once again, was the wrong color. Farid told him we’d come and collect my money the next day, and angrily hung up.

I did not get my money the next day. Farid and I arrived at the store and were met by a very apologetic salesman who, nevertheless, persisted in telling us he couldn’t give me my money, that I’d have to wait until Monday. Farid yelled at him in French and Arabic; and I, for the first time in my life, found some words of my own to yell. In a combination of French and English I asked him how the hell he had the nerve to ask me, yet again, to be patient. How he was going to compensate me for all the hours of work I’d missed, waiting for a delivery that never came. Why he thought it was somehow better or easier to have me go through that charade of supposed delivery for days at a time – twice – than to be honest and open with his customers about the status of their orders.

It is now Monday, I have just been to Mobilia to collect my money, and I am back at square one – with a modest sum of money, and no couch. On my way back to work I stopped by Kitea, the other budget furniture option, where the couches are slightly less attractive and slightly more expensive. I made a choice for their cheapest couch and got ready to place an order, only to hear that this model was no longer disponible, in any color.

There are other options – I can buy a pricy couch at the upscale furniture store in my neighborhood, or I can have something made to order (a process I will have to figure out, first). But I am sitting here, and for a moment I am letting it get to me. This little episode of frustration has added to a number of other work- and research-related developments that have left me feeling utterly suffocated, incapable, and powerless. And as a result, I’ve let it happen: I’ve given into unproductive wallowing in homesickness.

It’s not just the big things that I miss – the system, the structure, the familiarity, the natural ease of communication. It’s mostly the little things that keep popping up in my head. Like driving my car down University Avenue while listening to Weekend Players, or like walking across the Chicago River at Michigan Avenue with a Starbucks latte in my hand. Going running through the streets of North Park. Perusing books for hours at the Borders downtown. A glass of Chilean wine on my parents’ back porch. Warm brownies. The squirrels in Hyde Park. A smoked turkey sandwich. The New Yorker. A Chicago style pizza. Good sushi. DSW Shoe Warehouse. The number six bus. Real chocolate chip cookies. The beach in La Jolla. Lake Michigan and Chicago’s skyline. A huge glass of 2% milk. Barbeques on the point. Trader Joe’s. The Art Institute. A real Italian meal. Twiggs. The Living Room Café. H&M. Lake Shore Drive. Showtime. A hot dog. Banana Republic. HBO. Legitimate DVDs with movies in English. A good summer thunderstorm. The AMC at River East. MSNBC. Walgreen’s. NPR. The Sunday New York Times. And above all, my friends and family.

I’m going home for a week at the end of this month. Right now, it couldn’t come soon enough. And I just hope that that week of comfort will make a difference – that I’ll retrieve or recover a bit of the energy I long for.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ramadan and Solidarity

“wash kat‘ajebek lkousina lmaghribia?” Lalla Ghita asked me as we stood over a steaming pot of what would, in a few hours, become harira. ‘Do you like Moroccan cuisine?’

I nodded wholeheartedly, taking in the warm smell of cilantro emanating from the pot.

“I love it,” I responded.

“mmm,” she mumbled, and nodded in agreement.

“It’s great food,” she then added, “but it’s a lot of work.”

She was right. As we stood there waiting for the harira to come to a boil, we were no more than ninety minutes into what would become a five-hour marathon of preparations for that evening’s ftour.

I had joined lalla Ghita in her kitchen that afternoon in order to learn how to make harira. After an unsuccessful attempt of my own at making this soup, which resulted in a tasty stew that nevertheless tasted nothing like the intended goal, I decided it was time to get advice from a seasoned expert. Armed with pen and paper, I followed lalla Ghita around the kitchen as she explained her process from start to finish, and meticulously documented every step.

As I had expected (based on my experiences asking my former host family about their cooking), the recipes in lalla Ghita’s mind were not written in the language of measured quantities and numbered units of weight or volume. I attempted to use my own, admittedly limited, skills at eyeball-estimations as she showed and explained to me that harira calls for “chwiya dial l-hommous” (some chick peas), “chwiya dial l-qousbour” (a little cilantro), and “chwiya dial l-basla” (a little onion). But despite the vagueness of these instructions, I gradually began to discover a method to the seeming randomness. The secret lay in her inflections: as more ingredients were added to the big pot of soup, I realized that the number of i's in her “chwiya” were directly proportional to the quantity required.

Chwiya dial l-matesha,” she explained as she cut up six big tomatoes, puréed them in a blender and poured the mixture into the pot.

She followed with “chwiiiya dial l-‘ades,” as she added about a handful of lentils to the soup.

And finally, she told me, it was optional to include “chwiiiiiiiiiiya dial l-safran” – and she sprinkled in a small pinch of saffron, for a nice yellow glow.

With the harira comfortably settled to stew on low heat, I observed and helped as lalla Ghita turned to other preparations. We made the filling for briouat – fried triangles of filo dough filled with meat and/or vegetables – and gutted and cleaned a chicken (“for tomorrow,” lalla Ghita explained; “it needs to soften up for a night first”). We made the dough for rghaif (flaky, square pancakes), and did multiple rounds of dishes. We cut thin sheets of filo dough into long strips, and folded the briouat filling into their characteristic triangle-shaped packages. We baked the rghaif, and boiled some eggs. We did more dishes, made coffee and mint tea, heated up milk, and fried the briouat. All the while, we chatted – about the NIMAR (for whose students lalla Ghita’s family occasionally provides lodging), about my purpose in Morocco, about lalla Ghita’s family, and (inevitably, perhaps) about food. I told her about my various attempts at Moroccan cooking, and she in turn explained to me what’s customarily eaten at Ramadan meals. In a show and tell of sorts, she extracted each item – tmar (dates), chebakia, sfouf, zoumita*– from refrigerator and cupboards, provided me with a rich description of its ingredients, and gave me various serving suggestions. A modest but well-deserved sense of pride spoke from her eyes as she told me this was the first year she herself had made some of these items from scratch.

Lalla Ghita occasionally sent her husband and son out on errands: she’d ask them to bring her some fresh mint, some cheese, or a loaf of bread. But other than these brief trips, lalla Ghita’s family mostly spent the afternoon reclining on the sdader (Moroccan sofas) in front of the television – watching Prison Break on MBC Action, or a Mexican soap opera dubbed in Darija on 2M – waiting for the hours to slip away. With the curtains drawn and their half-open eyes fixed passively on the television, they whiled away their afternoon in a state of utter torpor. I couldn’t help but wonder whose fast was easier: that of this slumbering family, who expended as little energy as possible, or that of their hardworking mother, for whom time must have passed by much more quickly.

Solidarity is an important concept during Ramadan – and many people I’ve talked with include this notion in their explanation of what Ramadan means. Apart from a way to turn back to God, Ramadan is also a way to boost a sense of community togetherness, a sense of shared experience and compassion for those around you. One thing this experience of fasting has taught me, is that this sense of solidarity is real and acute (more on that below). Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but wonder how that sense of solidarity and shared experience correlates with this division of labor that had lalla Ghita single-handedly preparing several laborious dishes in a single afternoon, while her family slept on the couch. Is this division of labor seen as too much of a natural given to be the object of efforts at greater solidarity? Is the focus on solidarity more mental than anything else – is it less about action than it is about awareness? Did lalla Ghita’s husband perhaps consider his occasional errands to be an act of solidarity?

By seven PM, the table had been set, a platter of rghaif had been delivered as a gift to the neighbors, and we’d taken our seats around the knee-height table. A few minutes later, we turned down the sound of the television to listen for the cannon shot indicating sunset – our sign that we could gratefully grab that first glass of water. Lalla Ghita, the orchestrator of the meal, served everyone a bowl of harira and was herself last to sit down and break her fast.

And so the day ended with a rich and above all very satisfying ftour. A day of fasting seems to shrink my stomach, but exponentially increases my mental appetite. This leads to a bit of nightly frustration as my stomach protests at my eyes’ desire to keep feasting on the wealth of food. This evening was no different. One overly stuffed belly later, I said my goodbyes, promised to make lalla Ghita’s family a pot of harira in return for their hospitality, and headed home, utterly satisfied.

I think that what I enjoyed most about this experience wasn’t just the fact that the harira-mystery had finally been unveiled. Mostly, it felt deeply good to spend the afternoon inside a Moroccan household. I love having my own apartment, but sometimes I miss a sense of connectedness to ‘real’, daily Moroccan life – sometimes it feels as though I have permanently positioned myself on the outside of that actual lived reality, as though I’ve confined myself to expat life. I hope that this will change once my research gets under way and I interact with Moroccans again on a more regular basis, but that sense of disconnection saddens me sometimes.

And so I was grateful for this brief afternoon, in which I felt as though I had been let inside, and had been allowed to participate in the intimacy of Moroccan lived reality – allowed to share in the practice and concrete meaning of Ramadan customs. I have a feeling that my status as a participant in the fast may have helped to facilitate this inclusion. Because I, too, was sayma (fasting), the solidarity conferred by the shared experience of Ramadan seemed automatically to have been extended to me. For the first time in months, I did not feel like an inherent outsider. I felt as though I was recognized as being a part of something, even if just potentially – as though I had been let in. That afternoon, I felt as though those boundaries between me and Morocco – the ones that seem so insurmountable sometimes – might actually be crossable.

And for that alone, I’m happy I decided to participate in this experience. I had been told about the significance of solidarity during Ramadan – but I doubt I would have truly sensed its presence if I myself had not shared in the experience of fasting. Not only does my choice to fast entail that I have become a recipient of solidarity – that I have been allowed to experience what it is like to be part of an ‘inner circle’ in Morocco; it also entails that I’ve experienced first-hand what it is like to feel that sense of solidarity extend from myself to others. I’ve realized that it’s more than just an ideal that people express to me, the outsider, to teach me what Ramadan should be about. Fasting turns that sense of solidarity into a visceral and almost primal experience that cannot help but permeate your mind. The emptiness of my stomach is an inescapable and constant reminder of the fact that I am voluntarily sharing in a particular experience – and with every person I encounter during the day, I cannot help but think: does this person’s stomach feel the same way mine does?

Of course, not everyone feels the same amount of solidarity as others, and some more than others translate that visceral experience into action. But the sense of togetherness is there, much more acutely than I would have ever guessed, and being part of that has been an unforgettable experience.

* sfouf and zoumita are mixtures of ground nuts, spices, and various other ingredients; whereas sfouf is courser and stickier, zoumita is much more powdery. Both have a distinct taste of cinnamon, and remind me very much of pumpkin spices. Whereas sfouf is often pressed together into a mound and served as such, lalla Ghita mixed the zoumita with a combination of melted butter and honey. She rolled the resulting paste into small truffles, dipped them in sesame seeds, and arranged them on a plate.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Fasting and Feasting* - Two Days of Ramadan Briefly Sketched

This past Friday morning, I went to Marjane for some grocery shopping. As I discovered when I walked onto the parking lot, about half of Rabat had decided to do the same. I had never seen that many cars stationed around the lot – nor had I ever dealt with such a lack of shopping carts. After a bit of scavenging around, I literally snagged the very last one there, and entered the store.

Inside, I met with mayhem. The aisles of Marjane had become a miniature version of Moroccan urban traffic. Thousands of carts, it seemed, were busy making their way through and across aisles, past roundabouts of sale items, without care or regard for any traffic rules. There was no right of way, no yielding, no merging; no system to the direction of traffic and no regulation of speed. Abandoned carts stood parked at random, no rhyme or reason to their positioning. Pedestrians darted this way and that, weaving themselves in between moving carts. Idle cart-pushers strolled along at a leisurely pace, suddenly abandoning their cart mid-traffic to browse an item two feet up ahead – to the great frustration of all speed-devils behind them, trying to get to the tomatoes before they ran out. Maneuvering my own cart through this chaos and barely managing to avoid a few multi-cart pileups, I slightly began to re-think my desire to learn to drive a stick shift and navigate actual Moroccan traffic on my own…

All these people had come to Marjane to stock up on Ramadan-necessities: their carts were full to the brim and beyond with industrial size containers of oil, flour, dates, and sugar. Not only are excess quantities of these staples needed to fashion the copious amounts of Ramadan-delicacies that are expected by hungry fasters at each day’s sundown; but in the interest of avoiding unnecessary labor during long, hot days without food or water, people try to get their major shopping in before the start of this month. The exact start date of Ramadan had not yet been determined, but it was to be either Saturday or Sunday – and people apparently wished to be prepared for all contingencies.

I too was there to stock up on Ramadan necessities: mostly high-fiber items that I hoped would tie me over during those long days of fasting. I decided to participate in this month of fasting - because after all, I figured, as an anthropologist I am a participant-observer. I think that the only way to truly approach some kind of understanding of what this month means to Moroccans, is to engage as fully as possible in the practices and traditions.

And so I find myself, at my time of writing, counting down the last hour until I hear the cannon shot and the muezzin’s call for Maghreb (sunset) prayer – our indication that we are allowed to eat – on my second day of fasting. I am sitting by my open balcony doors, and I can already smell the harira (a Moroccan soup of chick peas, lentils, and tomatoes) being made in kitchens up and down my street. The street is quieting down; anyone still outside is there for some last minute grocery shopping and is rushing home, plastic bags in hand. In about forty-five minutes, the street will be entirely deserted, as everyone retreats to the dinner table at home, ready to pounce as soon as prayers are over.

In standard Arabic, the sunset meal is called iftar; in Morocco it’s referred to as ftour,** the same word used to denote ‘breakfast’ any other time of year. It traditionally consists of dates, chebakia (very sweet, very sticky pretzel-shaped things), harira, bread, hard-boiled eggs, milk, and a variety of other things that may vary from table to table. Ftour is a meal to eat in the company of loved ones, of course, but for those whose family ties extend beyond the city limits, restaurants put a prix-fixe ftour on their menu during Ramadan. And so it happened that yesterday, I joined Farid to break my first day of fasting at a local restaurant, where we were served a luxurious ftour for 30 dirhams. I do not think I have ever appreciated food and drink as much as I did at that moment – I remember being hyper conscious and appreciative of the taste and texture of every item on my plate: the stickiness of the dates, the sweetness of the chebakia, the softness of the bread. My stomach was filled to capacity way before my mind was done relishing the cornucopia in front of me.

Nevertheless, spending a day without food or water was less difficult than I had feared. I felt listless, my muscles seemed to have no strength, and I very consciously felt a tugging emptiness in my stomach, but I was able to hold out, and I was still able to concentrate on my work. Day two was easier than day one, and I hope day three will be easier than day two. But for now, I’m looking forward to that intense feeling of appreciation for the food I will be eating in an hour – that ultimate satisfaction of filling an entirely empty stomach. Tonight Farid joins me at my house, where we will be making instant harira from a box – I intend to make my own at some point, too, but have not yet found the time.

While we eat, we will be watching 2M, one of Morocco’s public television channels. Whereas everyone watches satellite channels from Dubai during the year, Ramadan is a time for a bit of national pride and identity. 2M will let us know when we’re allowed to eat, and will subsequently intersperse the broadcast of a new sitcom with lavish, special Ramadan-oriented commercials for food (I’m getting the sense that this month of fasting is in fact all about eating).

After dinner, we will head out for a stroll through town. Whereas the streets are deserted between sunrise and sundown – everyone avoiding the sun, and unnecessary expenditure of energy – the city comes to life again about an hour after ftour. At 8 pm, the streets are as empty as one will normally only experience long after midnight, but an hour later, stores and cafés re-open and everyone comes out in their finest clothing to see and be seen. We’ll have some coffee at a café, and then we’ll each head home. I’ll eat a small bite and then go to bed, only to wake up again at 4 am for a last light snack before the muezzin and another cannon shot lets everyone know the sun has risen.

And my third day of fasting will begin.

* I’ve stolen this title from the English version of Marjo Buitelaar’s book about Ramadan.
** ftour comes from iftar, I’m pretty sure

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Moudawana, Five Years Later

The New York Times published an article today about the status of women in Morocco, five years after the radical reforms of the Moudawana (the Family Code of Law) came into effect. This article is the latest in a small collection of others published about the same issue, and largely presents the same conclusion: while great headway has been made toward elevating the status of women in Morocco, much remains to be desired.

The articles’ authors note a discrepancy between imposed law and applied reality, and mention that the legal changes made are not far-reaching enough: women still inherit only half of what men do, for instance, and single mothers still have no legal rights. More reforms are needed, they therefore argue.

As much as it is true that the new body of Family laws leaves certain issues unchanged, I agree with those who think that the disparity between the law and its real-life application is a more pressing issue that needs to be dealt with, before we start talking about further reforms. Five years after the new laws came into effect, issues continue to plague their mise en pratique. Because the new code of law was not accompanied by sufficient efforts to re-train Morocco’s legislative body, judges and courts were mostly left to figure out how to apply the new procedures on their own. Divorce procedures, marriage contracts, applications for citizenship, and custody battles therefore continue to be plagued by legal inconsistency and uncertainty.*

Likewise, efforts to educate the public remained insufficient. Of course, the means to create awareness are limited, among a public with a high rate of illiteracy. But the result is that many – both men and women – have little sense of what the new laws really entail. And in that sense, the failure of the Moudawana to unambiguously live up to its promise of radical change points to deeper issues that plague Moroccan society.

First of all, the insufficient efforts at public education reveal (and probably reinforce) another dimension of the big divide between center and margin in Morocco. The new law was passed by the parliament in Rabat. Its written form, as well as those publications that discuss it, are accessible to and read by the educated citizens of Morocco’s larger cities. Francophone women’s magazines make an effort to answer readers’ questions about what has legally changed. But very little of it all penetrates the margins – by which I mean both those geographical areas far removed from the epicenter of government, as well as those communities far removed from any sense of power, through lack of money and lack of education. The result? Those women who stand to gain the most from these new laws – impoverished, uneducated, illiterate women in rural regions – are the least aware of their new rights, and continue their lives much as they used to. And how can you effect real, applied, change, when it impacts only a small proportion of the population? There is very little point in enforcing change from the top, if it is not accompanied by an effort to reach down toward the public, to help it understand the new legislation and facilitate its real-life implementation.

(This cartoon appeared in TelQuel, the francophone Moroccan version of Time or Newsweek. The dialogue translates into "Informing myself about the Moudawana reform? That's a bad idea, I might no longer be against it!")

In a more general sense, I think that the lack of education and awareness also makes that the general public (urban as well as rural) does not know what to make or think of the reformed Moudawana. With only a vague sense of what the new laws really stipulate, many see the new code mostly as a dangerous threat to traditional values and social order.** Originally pushed for by feminist movements and other liberal progressive groups, the new laws are seen as representing the victory of modernizing and secularizing tendencies in Morocco. The entire issue of Family Code reform thereby remains stuck in (and representative of) the deadlocked debate-turned-struggle between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, and inspires fear and hostility in those who perceive it as a threat to their conservatism.

The new Moudawana is both cause and result of a shift in the foundations of Moroccan society. Government efforts at socio-economic development, modernization, and globalization have occasioned an intensive and sometimes highly emotional debate about the relative value of tradition and modernity. Within that debate, these two concepts, or better said, ideologies, are often starkly opposed to one another. Each has its adherents, and each of these two camps is so worried about the dire impact of the other’s dominance, that neither is prepared to make any compromises on its ideals. The result is a deadlocked debate in which ‘tradition’ is portrayed as the polar opposite of ‘modernity’, and open communication seems to get a bit lost. As much as the King attempted to involve representatives of all ideologies and sympathies in the drafting of a new law, the reforms of the Moudawana are mostly seen as the triumph of modernity and secularism – and many conservatives and Islamists felt (and feel) disenfranchised, overruled, or ignored.

As much as, again, I agree that additional changes must be made, I also think that radical reform simply may not always be the most effective way to push for change. Not if it creates hostility and thus throws up barriers that hinder effective communication and collaboration. People don’t like change, even if it’s inevitable. Sometimes, it is much more efficient to be patient, take it slow, make an effort not to completely do away with the past, and ease into a new status quo. It makes those resistant to change feel validated in their concerns. Pushing too hard, too fast, only incites greater conflict and protest.

Yes, there is a ways yet to go toward equalizing women’s status. But right now, I think that what is holding it back has less to do with legal rights than it does with public opinion. Radical legal reform is not necessarily effective if it gets too far ahead of the public mind.*** There is no point in adding new laws to ensure women’s equal share of inheritance, if women in rural areas have not even become able to claim their right to divorce. This does not mean that we should give up on change. But it does mean a greater openness to conservatives’ sentiments, individuals’ fears, a greater effort to find a middle ground between different ideological desires, attempts to ease into change at a pace that is comfortable for everyone – and a willingness to make other social changes that make the implementation of new family laws a bit easier (combating illiteracy and corruption, perhaps?). An effort, simply, not to make a large proportion of society feel disenfranchised and brushed aside. Do this, and perhaps you’ll find much more goodwill and openness to real, meaningful dialogue about the future of society and the place of women in it.

In order for this dialogue to take place, greater openness is needed, as well as a greater and more systemic effort at public education about what these new laws really imply: how they relate to Islam (how they may coexist peacefully with religious values), what their impact will be on the structure of the family, and how it affects the status of men. Fears and concerns must be openly and respectfully addressed. Only then can the population begin to process the changes that have been made – and only once that has been done, is it going to be useful to begin discussing additional reforms.

* add to that the persistent and widespread problem of corruption…
** Yes, of course, the new Moudawana does make a lot of changes to the traditional status quo. But I think that there may be more room for a continuation of traditional values within the new legal situation than many people assume.
*** I do not think this is always true, in every situation. There are times and places when radical reform is necessary. But within the context of a deadlocked societal debate between two camps with equal power, it simply doesn’t serve anyone to make half the population feel disenfranchised. No matter how wrong you may think that other half is.

Monday, August 17, 2009


For all of July and August, Morocco is suspended in a state of slumber. All but its most essential physiological functions have been frozen for the summer months. Parliament is on summer recess, and universities have been deserted. Libraries, institutions, and foundations have closed their doors; magazines have stopped their presses (tying us over to September with a single summer-issue), and even some stores and restaurants have boarded up their premises for a few weeks. The streets of Rabat are empty: because no one is actually from here, the city’s population spends its vacation elsewhere.

In Holland, this is called ‘komkommertijd’ – cucumber time. It is a period when the going is so slow, and so little happens, that there is nothing more interesting to discuss than this summer vegetable, itself devoid of much substance. All big decisions are suspended until fall, newspapers publish stories of petty theft, rescued dogs, small acts of charity – items that would never make the news at any other time of year – and people spend their evenings at outdoor cafés, cooling down over refreshing drinks and easy banter. I’ve always liked the word and the imagery it conjures up – though it doesn’t quite seem to grasp the essence of a Moroccan summer. The lack of substance is certainly there, but whereas cucumbers connote something juicy and refreshing, the summer months here don’t quite answer to that image…

At the NIMAR, too, we’re working at half-capacity. There are only three of us who haven’t taken the month of August off, and we work with muted strength amidst painters and cleaners busy renovating the institute.* Apart from some interviewing activity, I myself have little more than cucumbers to write about. I spend my workdays browsing online academic journals in search of literature to assign the students that we’ll be hosting here this fall. Other than that I’ve been lazily reading books, watching the occasional movie, going for runs, cooling down with refreshing cold showers… and waiting for my couch to arrive.

It was July 21st that I went to Mobilia (a Moroccan version of Ikea, if you will) and placed an order for this couch. I had wanted something small and simple: no patterned fabrics, no frills – something the average selection of Moroccan furniture seems to have difficulty meeting, sometimes. I was so excited when I found a picture of a sofa that corresponded to my wishes on the Mobilia website, that a visit to their store in Agdal was one of the first actions I took after receiving my grant money. I was helped by a friendly staff member who took my order, money, and contact information, and presented me in return with a receipt of purchase, along with an estimate for the delivery date: August 5th.

On August fourth, I received a call. The couch had only just been delivered to the depot in Casablanca, it was reported. The delivery to my apartment would have to be delayed for a few days. Was Saturday alright? Of course, I answered, mashi mushkil (no problem). I could wait another few days.

When, by Saturday afternoon, the couch still had not arrived, I myself placed a call to the store to inquire about my couch. The staff member – the same who had sold me the couch – seemed surprised. It still hadn’t arrived? That’s too bad, he lamented. He couldn’t imagine what could have happened, I was on the schedule for the day. However, deliveries were actually done for the day, so the couch would now be delivered on Monday.

Monday came and went with no more than a repeat of the same conversation I had on Saturday. The staff member now told me that the delivery people had stopped by my house and called my phone, but no one had answered. I responded that my phone reported no missed calls, and the staff member apologized once again, with the promise that my couch would, for sure, be delivered on Tuesday. I was getting frustrated. I hadn’t worried, up until this moment – all other deliveries (my fridge, my dining room table, the small side tables that I had made) had gone so smoothly that I had had faith in this delivery, too. But I found it increasingly hard to believe that I’d ever have a couch.

I took pre-emptive action on Tuesday, and called ahead in the morning to ask for a time-estimate. Told to be home at one PM, I hung around in my living room, waiting for the doorbell to ring. When, by two, I still had no couch, I called again – and was now told the couch would be there at 3.30. A few phone calls and hours (but no couch) later, I called once more and asked for an explanation. The staff member had no idea what might have happened. The delivery men should have dropped off the sofa, he said. He apologized profusely for my lack of couch, and promised he’d come and deliver the item in person, tomorrow at one.

On Wednesday afternoon, he did actually come in person, as promised – but sans couch. Highly apologetically, he explained that by some gross oversight, the couch delivered to the depot in Casablanca was the wrong color. Instead of the white I had ordered, this sofa was bright red. He was so sorry, he kept repeating; he had no idea what may have gone wrong. It clearly said ‘white’ on the order form, he lamented while showing me his copy, a finger underlining the word in question. It was going to take another ten days to order a new couch, he then anxiously announced; there was no other way.

I sighed, and couldn’t help but laugh a little. The story had become too farcical to still be frustrating, and I felt sorry for this apologetic man. “Ten days?” I declared; “mashi mushkil…

* Despite the state of suspended animation in which the country’s public sphere finds itself, there is some buzzing activity of preparation for the coming year. Aside from the NIMAR, multiple other projects of renovation and construction seem to be going on around town.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Making Headway...

For all the frustration at the state of paralysis from which my research seemed to suffer in the past months, it has been unexpectedly easy to jump-start my project.

After deciding to pursue interviews with mental healthcare practitioners around town, I spent a day collecting names, phone numbers, and email addresses. I made myself an Excel spreadsheet, then bit the bullet and started making phone calls.

Of the five psychiatrists I called over the course of an hour, two actually picked up the phone, and both agreed to a meeting. These meetings, both very brief, each produced an hour-long follow-up appointment for an interview. One takes place tonight, and one next week.

These two scheduled entretiens are an addition to the interview I conducted last night, with the prominent psychoanalyst I met with two weeks ago. I have thus gone from nothing to three interviews within the course of a week, and in the process have proven to myself that all of this, this research, may actually be doable.

What I have noticed so far, over the course of my brief meetings with three different psychiatrists, is the diversity that characterizes psychiatric practice(s) here in Rabat – and this alone proves that pursuing these interviews was a good idea; that limiting myself to the psychiatric practice of the Clinic would have produced a skewed, one-sided picture of reality. Every time I mentioned to the psychiatrist I was meeting with that I was interested in interviewing them as a way of broadening my understanding of psychiatric practice in Morocco, I received an instant nod in agreement. Good idea, they’d say: there’s such a variety in approaches and philosophies here, that it’s important to expand your scope. Interestingly, they all characterized practice at the Clinic as ‘Americanized’: as very ‘biomedical’ in its approach. Despite the fact that they all seemed to strongly approve my choice to conduct research there, I got the sense that this characterization was not necessarily positive; the tone implied limitation. It makes me curious to know more about how these independently practicing psychiatrists characterize their own brand of mental healthcare (and whether they will associate this with a particular region of the world, as well).

In general, I’m curious to know how this emphasized variation in practices will be reflected in the interview data I gather over the course of my conversations with these psychiatrists. But a curious diversity that has struck me so far, in visiting these three practices, is a considerable variation in the material wealth expressed by the office décor. Whereas the prominent psychoanalyst with the downtown office is housed in bright, breezy, sleek and chic quarters, the doctor I spoke with yesterday, for instance, sees patients in an old, dilapidated apartment building in my own neighborhood. His walls are bare; his furniture is old, plastic, and mismatched. Despite French doors that open out to a balcony, the air was hot and stuffy. I wonder what this variation is suggestive of. I see it as a reflection, if anything, of psychiatry’s under-funding by the state. This kind of variation in wealth is possible, I think, only because these psychiatrists receive nothing from the government, and are dependent on their own wealth and income. Is the state of their office then a measure of their success as a psychiatrist? Or, if (as the prominent downtown psychoanalyst suggests) psychiatrists receive patients from all walks of life and charge them on a sliding scale according to means, is it indicative of the kinds of patients they receive?

What all three practitioners had in common, though, was a great friendliness and hospitality toward me. My initial meetings with them were brief, but all expressed an interest in reading my proposal, and agreed to schedule more time for an actual interview. If this is characteristic of all mental healthcare professionals in Rabat, doors may be flying open a lot more easily than I had anticipated…

Last night, then, I conducted my actual first real interview, with the prominent downtown psychoanalyst. We met in his psychoanalytic office, a room I hadn’t seen before. The two meetings I had had with him had been conducted in his ‘office’ – a white-and-gray room dominated by a huge desk. He had sat on one end and I had sat on the other, and it had made me wonder how he was able to conduct psychoanalysis there. This question only deepened as I visited the other practices, which – despite simpler décor – did feature actual Freudian divans. I had just begun to wonder if, perhaps, the prominent psychoanalyst’s practice was larger than I had initially thought when, indeed, I was ushered through a door I hadn’t noticed before and let into a large but intimate room, featuring the requisite psychoanalytic couch.

I didn’t come close to finishing the list of questions I had brought with me, but obtained a wealth of information (that I will process and perhaps write about here, once I have listened to the recording again). As I had noticed during our first meeting, prominent downtown psychoanalyst likes to talk. He is, and very much sees himself as, a pioneer and rare expert on the practice of psychoanalysis in Morocco. He has distinct theories about how cultural specificities relate to universal psychic processes, writes countless books about issues in ‘cross-cultural psychology’, and took a lot of my questions as diving boards into a presentation of his arguments on this topic. After the interview, I noted down in my field notes that he had been in an explanatory or demonstrative mood, rather than a reflective one. He had an agenda in speaking with me, he wanted to convey a message to me. I wonder if he will ever make the transition to more reflectiveness if I continue to speak with him – but whichever state he was in, I learned a lot. I asked more questions this time around, directed the conversation a bit more, but also left him to take my questions in whatever direction his free association took him; I wanted to know what my questions made him think of.

I’m still curious to see him psychoanalyze someone. As someone so eager to talk, I have a difficult time imagining him as a quiet listener. Seeing him in his actual psychoanalytic office last night made the image a bit more tangible, but even there, and despite his immediate framing of this meeting as my turn to direct the conversation (“je vous écoute”, he told me as soon as we sat down), he was the dominant conversation partner.

I left the psychoanalyst’s office on an absolute high, last night. I felt as though I had crossed a crucial hurdle. I had taken the first step, and it would all be easier from that point on. Nevertheless, I’m nervous for my second interview, tonight at 6. In theory I am excited about the process, about these new opportunities, about the fact that I am finally engaging in actual researcher-activities. But emotionally, I’m not quite caught up with that excitement yet. I still feel nerves. I still tend to look up at the precipice of the mountain that is my research and, realizing I am still at the bottom, feel a bit of vertigo.

I’m guessing it will take a bit of time to get over the initial nerves and gain a bit of confidence in my abilities as a researcher, and as a French-speaker. But I’ll get the hang of it. The important thing to focus on is that I’ve (finally) gotten started. And that, despite the daunting presence of the mountain ahead of me, I’m putting one foot in front of the other and making slow progress…

Monday, August 10, 2009

Ramadan Preamble

Depending on when exactly the next new moon will be spotted, Ramadan starts in about ten days.

In lieu of that moon sighting, there have been other signs that the holy month of fasting is approaching. Medina streets have been crowded with carts that sell soup tureens and ladles: the ones typically used for harira, the Moroccan tomato-and-chickpea soup that figures so importantly in the cultural experience of Ramadan. Shoppers at Marjane are stocking up on industrial size containers of sugar, flour, oil, and other necessities for the various traditional delicacies that people feast on after sundown. Those who drink alcohol have started their 40-day period of pre-Ramadan abstinence (the ‘theory’ being that alcohol takes 40 days to leave your system*). Meanwhile, the alcohol supply at Rbati grocery stores is (literally) drying up; no alcohol will be for sale anywhere during Ramadan, and shops are selling out the last of their supply. And finally, the August-issues of various women’s magazines discuss the ins and outs of a Ramadan that falls in the summer months: articles advise readers on how to schedule their summer holidays so as to avoid having to fast while on vacation, discuss the best strategies for fasting for long hours, and offer suggestions for daily activity that won’t wear you out.

When I arrived in Morocco at the tail end of Ramadan 2008, I discussed my observations of its practice with my Arabic teacher, Ilyas. I was intrigued by the cultural and societal importance this religious requirement seemed to bear, and was excited to be able to witness its final days. The experience (and my discussions of it with Ilyas) served only to heighten my interest in the significance of Ramadan, and so I am excited that I’ll have the opportunity to participate in the entire holy month this year, and take a deeper look at its meaning, its importance, and its practice.

The commandment to fast during the month of Ramadan can be found in the Qur’an, in a Surah (chapter) revealed in the time after the Prophet Mohammed had established a community of believers in the town of Medina.** On the basis of these verses, the point of this religious obligation seems primarily to be remembrance of the revelation of the Qur’an to the Prophet Mohammed – which occurred during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. If you see that moment of revelation as a kind of origin-point for the definition, or documentation, of Islamic theology,*** this suggests that the fast of Ramadan thereby serves as a kind of renewal of one’s religious allegiance and identity. This is indeed how the purpose of Ramadan is often described in literature on the subject. Ramadan is meant to be a time of reflection on the basic principles of the Islamic worldview; a renewal of one’s awareness of, commitment to, and effort to enact, its values and moral compass.

About fifteen years ago, Dutch anthropologist Marjo Buitelaar wrote an ethnography of Ramadan in Morocco (Ramadan: Sultan van Alle Maanden, 1993). Describing women’s rituals of preparation and practice, she analyzed the way in which her informants enacted and reflected on this religious obligation. Buitelaar argues that Ramadan’s importance in lived Islam derives from its connection to three other important Islamic concepts: the ummah, or religious community (which is united in the shared fulfillment of the fast); tahara, which refers to purity and cleanliness (the fast is often touted as a great way to cleanse one’s body and soul from the inside out); and ajr, which might be described as a religious version of earned ‘points’, credits, or air-miles (you earn ajr not only by fasting, but also by making an effort to carry out other good deeds during this holy month, such as charity). What I liked most about her ethnography, though, was a smaller point she makes in the course of her argument. Buitelaar suggests that Ramadan also has much to do with another, even more fundamental, Islamic concept: tawhid.

Tawhid, in its most direct translation, means something like ‘one-ness’. It refers in the first place to the absolute monotheism that lies at the foundation of the Islamic worldview, but it resonates with other elements of theology. An important difference between Islam and Christianity, for instance, is the fact that Islam does not ascribe to the same division between body and soul that characterizes Christianity. There is no notion of struggle between a sinful body and a redeemable soul in Islam, and there is thus also no notion of original sin.**** Islam sees the individual as a single whole, body and soul united. Further, tawhid can be taken as a reference to the importance of a religious community – to the unification of people by collective worship and community solidarity.

Ramadan, as a religious obligation, could perhaps be understood as a reinforcement of tawhid in all dimensions of its meaning. The act of fasting unites body and soul in dedication to God. The renewal of religious awareness that Ramadan is meant to occasion is elicited not simply by a mental dedication, but by the use of the body in forcing the mind to turn back to God. It is a very physical kind of devotion. In addition, Ramadan is as much about renewing one’s individual devotion to God, as it is about reinforcing communal solidarity. Ramadan realigns an individual’s goals with God’s commands, but also with the interests of his or her community: it is meant to reunite people under a single shared purpose and renewed spirit of consideration and mutual care-taking. Fasting is meant to enforce awareness not only of God, but also of those among one’s community who deal with hardship on a daily basis.

It was mostly this latter aspect of Ramadan that intrigued me last year. Ramadan is an individual religious obligation, but simultaneously an experience that highlights the importance of the community. What I notice in all this coverage of Ramadan in women’s magazines, though, is a lacking of this communal focus. In fact, the approach taken to Ramadan seems to be highly individualistic. For instance, discussions about the purpose or benefits of Ramadan focus almost solely on its physiological effects on the body – highlighting that same sense of purification and cleansing that Buitelaar wrote about in her ethnography. Its religious meaning and encouragement of community solidarity are left undiscussed. There are articles that decry the excesses in which many people indulge during Ramadan – but rather than argue that overindulging in sugary richness after sundown contradicts both the physiological and mental purpose of fasting, the author denounces the unfair burden that the expectation of a full-on feast at every sundown places on women, who (while men are allowed to spend their days playing around at the beach) have no choice but to slave away their days in the kitchen.

Probably the larger purpose and meaning of it all is considered to be obvious, no longer worthy of discussion, because everyone is aware. Still, the fact remains that there seems to be an interesting push-and-pull between individualism and communalism that is probably always present, but comes out with particular force during Ramadan. I wrote about this tension last year, and I’m hoping to explore it more this time around, perhaps to get to the bottom of how these two forces relate to one another, and what it means for the experience of this holy month. This means that the topic of Ramadan will probably make a few repeat appearances here on this blog. Please stay tuned…

* This is not a proscription you will find in any Islamic Scripture, considering the fact that alcohol is always haram, forbidden, as a matter of principle. The theory is more of a cultural practice than a religious law.
** This is Surah number two, verses 183-187. It is a Surah that dates from after the hijra – after the Prophet’s historic emigration from Mecca to Medina, where he had been invited to build a community of followers in peace. As a later set of revelations that date from a period when persecution had mostly passed, these Surahs focus more strongly than the preceding ones on defining community identity and circumscribing daily religious practice.
*** This is a tricky point, though: within the Islamic worldview, the moment at which the Qur’an was revealed to Mohammed is not the beginning, or founding of Islam, since this is the original religion practiced by Abraham. The Qur’an is, however, the latest and final putting-into-words-and-laws of this religion.
**** Adam and Eve are featured in the Qur’an, but punishment for their disobedience is meted out only to them; not to the rest of humanity.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

"Number One"

Last fall, a new Moroccan movie was released that, according to Femmes du Maroc at least, had everyone talking. The magazine itself devoted a lengthy article to this new film, “Number One” (this is not a translation; I’d transcribe its Arabic title as ‘Namber Ouane’), most of it a rave review.

As a movie about the consequences of the new Moudawana (the new Family Code of Law*) for the relationship between men and women, my interest was piqued. I waited and waited for the movie to come to theaters in Rabat – but I was out of luck. Time passed, and the day of my departure to the United States finally arrived before the movie did. Back at home, I crossed my fingers for six weeks in the hopes that Number One would still be showing at the Rbati theaters when I returned. Of course, as luck would have it, by the time I arrived back in Morocco, the movie had come and gone, and I had missed my opportunity…

Then, last weekend, a wonderful turn of luck handed me a DVD copy of the film, and I finally saw for myself what Femmes du Maroc had raved about. And it was everything I was expecting.

“Number One” is a propaganda film, first and foremost. Its message lies right on the surface, conveniently etched out in stark colors and so concrete that you’ll be sure to get the idea even if you sleep through most of the movie. It is a neon-advertisement-version of Moroccan reality, the before-and-after of an infomercial.

The movie tells the story of a middle-aged, middle-class man stuck in the middle of a power hierarchy. Feeling put down psychologically by his wealthy boss, he is a despot to the people he considers below him on the scale: his wife and his employees – seamstresses at the clothing factory where he is a manager. The story takes off when, literally overnight, he changes his ways. He becomes friendly, gentle, and respectful – and finds that not only the women around him, but also he himself is much happier this way.

“Number One” is funny, it made me laugh – but it is mostly the way in which this story is told that makes this movie endlessly fascinating to me. First of all, there is the fact that although the movie clearly tells the story of the changing relationship between men and women, it suggests that the societal confusion surrounding the moudawana has led to a bouleversement (I love that word), or complete upheaval, of hierarchies in general. The film is full of references to and illustrations of other power inequalities. The main character, Aziz, is a tyrant not only to his female employees, but also to the male parking guard who works for him, or the young man selling nuts on the street. Moreover, it seems that Aziz acts the way he does out of a frustration that stems from the fact that he himself is stuck at the low end of yet another hierarchical relationship – that with his boss, who spends his days barking orders over the phone at a suddenly very humble Aziz.

Aziz’ overnight change comes with a radical upheaval of the power relationships in which he is involved. We see that he becomes more friendly to his wife and more understanding to his employees, but at no point does this shift in hierarchies become more clear than at the moment that Aziz, in a first attempt to reverse this new situation, visits a fqih.

Technically, originally, or officially, a fqih is simply a man learned in the Qur’an who can guide others in matters of theology and religious practice. In practice, there are many fqihs who have become much more than that; they have added an expertise in magic to their repertoire, and may more aptly be considered a kind of ‘sorcerer’. Fqihs are always men, and it is important to know that these sorcerer-fqihs are usually quite marginal figures. Sorcery lies very much beyond all that is considered Islamically orthodox, and it is thus not something that is commonly accepted in Morocco. Those who choose to devote themselves to this practice thus often find themselves on the social, economic, and political outskirts of society.

The fqih in this movie is no different. He resides in a shack in the “bidonville des voleurs,” the slum of thieves. Aziz enters the neighborhood in his nice suit and briefcase; an appearance that inspires fear in his employees, but scorn and mocking among the slum’s residents. To make matters worse, he must admit to a shady figure on the street that he, the important factory manager, is seeking help from the fqih, a resident of this slum (and from the shady figure himself, because Aziz is quite unable to find the fqih on his own). “Ma kathshemsh,” the figure breezily tells Aziz as he leads him down a winding alley, ‘don’t be ashamed’: members of parliament, governors, even ministers come to consult the mighty fqih.

Ultimately, though, even this almighty fqih (who himself spares no words in expressing his unprecedented and unsurpassed power) admits to be completely powerless in the face of the force that has brought about this change in Aziz’ comportment. And that brings me to two other fascinating elements of this story: the allusion that there is a mighty female power that can ultimately overrule even the most tyrannical man, and the form this power takes – a chouafa.

A chouafa (pronounced shoe-waah-fah) is a kind of medium. She is always female, and in many ways the counterpart of the sorcerer-fqih. As someone who communicates with spirits and other supernatural forces, a chouafa can be consulted to divine what has caused the problems in your life, and will offer solutions that range from magic spells and curses to herbal concoctions and ritual sacrifices. Much like the supernatural figure of Aicha Qandisha, a chouafa represents the danger and mystery of female power. Chouafat are thus often considered a threat to the normal social order and, like the sorcerer-fqihs, find themselves on the margins of society.

Nevertheless, this marginality prevents neither Aziz’ wife from seeking a chouafa’s help in enchanting her husband, nor Aziz himself in seeking a fqih’s supernatural remedy. It illustrates the ambiguity of power that affects the Moroccan social order (and all other social orders alike, probably) – our dependence on great power, and our simultaneous fear of its destructive force.** This is an ambiguity that the movie tries to provide a new solution to, I think. Aziz’ story is meant to suggest that rather than fear such power we’d be better off to accept it – in the end, we’re all subject to female power, whether or not we respect women – but also that this power is much easier to exercise and maintain when it is accompanied by some respect for those at whom it is directed.

The last element that fascinated me about this movie is the fact that Aziz immediately interpreted his change of behavior as an illness or affliction. Of course, in the movie, it was – an affliction directly caused by a chouafa’s herbal concoction, mixed into Aziz’ evening meal. But the point is that Aziz, not knowing how he’d contracted the problem, immediately sought the help first of a fqih, and then of a psychiatrist. He immediately pathologized his anomalous behavior, his deviance from the social norm. More specifically, he pathologized what he seemed to consider a loss of masculinity: nervously, he faced the doctor and uttered his fear: “have I become a homosexual?” The doctor laughs and shakes his head, to Aziz’ great relief. They settle on another, less noxious diagnosis: “syndrome de la moudawana.”

What really struck me was the movie plot’s similarity to what Vincent Crapanzano argued, years ago, in his “ethnopsychiatric” ethnography of a mystical brotherhood in Meknes (The Hamadsha, 1973). When you are truly possessed by a jinn, Crapanzano explains, complete exorcism is no longer a possibility. The jinn is with you for life, and so the best you can do is to establish a symbiotic relationship with it, thus reaping the benefits of a connection with the supernatural. Though marginalized by mainstream society because of the erratic behavior the jinn causes you to exhibit, the therapeutic process of communicating with the jinn – facilitated by this brotherhood of men who have themselves been possessed – is simultaneously an induction into a new community, of those with a certain kind of supernatural power.

The exact same thing happens to Aziz. He is ‘possessed’ by respect for women (literally – the chouafa’s magic has taken possession of him by ingestion), and learns from the fqih and psychiatrist that there is no way he can be completely exorcised. He ultimately finds that he can reclaim a sense of power and status not by ridding himself of his new behavior, but by embracing his new reality. He may have lost the respect of a few friends, but he has gained that of a new social group.

Modernity, tradition; power, danger; male, female; healthy, pathological – if there’s anything this movie shows, it’s that these binary sets are inextricably related, and a shift in one balance tips that of the others…

* the family code is a body of law that governs all relationships and acts that pertain to the family – such as marriage, divorce, and heritage. Previously based on Islamic law, the moudawana was radically reformed in 2003, and is now based on civil law. Most of the changes to the family code come down to an unprecedented increase in women’s rights.
** It never stops to intrigue me that our preoccupation with power – something that is probably very primal in our nature – is so often projected onto our experiences of the relationship between genders. Though most likely, this is also perfectly natural, given the fact that that relationship is one of the most central and important in our collective lives as human beings.

Monday, August 3, 2009

On Otherness

A few weeks ago, as we discussed a recent blog post I had written, my mother mentioned that some of my pieces seem to suggest a great preoccupation with my conspicuous otherness here in Rabat. Why did I focus on my foreignness so much, she wondered?

I did not have an immediate answer to that question. She was right, but why was I so preoccupied with my own foreignness? What was this sense of Otherness, and what brought it about? Was that preoccupation just me, or was it an inevitable part of the expat experience? Did I feel as foreign now, as a NIMAR employee with her own apartment, as I did when I lived with my Moroccan host family? Over the next week, my mother’s question continued to float around in my head. It wasn’t until the following weekend, as I discussed this same subject over breakfast with a new friend, that I began to realize more clearly how to answer those questions.

The thing is, that if you’ve grown up ethnically white in an American or Dutch middle class neighborhood, Otherness is probably not a feeling you are accustomed to. I’m not talking about that sense of ‘being different’ that we all experience from time to time, or that feeling of just not being able to ‘connect’ to any other individual in our environment. What I am referring to is not an internal feeling, but rather an externally imposed sense of difference. A perception of Otherness in the eyes of our social environment that is based on unchangeable (and often inborn) aspects of our appearance, and that we ourselves are unable to control or change. That sense of Otherness that anyone who has grown up as part of an ethnic minority will be overly familiar with.

Being seen as Other is an almost paradoxical form of being labeled on the basis of your appearance; it means that you are being categorized as falling-outside-of-all-culturally-established-categories. And as happens with any application of a stereotype, being ‘otherized’ forces you to confront difficult questions about who you are. About how you relate to the label you have been given, how your self-perception matches the way you are perceived by others – and about how you as a designated ‘outsider’ relate to the categories that are part of the socio-cultural establishment.

I have been an immigrant for much of my life, but until I came to Morocco, I never looked (or sounded) different from the majority in my environment. It wasn’t unless I myself chose to verbalize my non-American cultural background, that those around me would ever see or treat me as ‘different’. In Rabat on the other hand, it is not I, but rather my environment that chooses to underscore my difference. My status as an outsider is continuously and inescapably made explicit, regardless (it seems) of what I do or say. This Otherness is new to me, and I must admit that it is one of the aspects of expat life in Morocco that I have found most difficult to grow accustomed to. It makes me feel a little powerless, and I miss the anonymity of blending in with my environment.

I know that I do not look like a tourist. Most likely we are all sensitive to the little markers that tell you where a person is from, and what he or she is doing in their current location. You can tell by the way they walk, and the way they look around at their surroundings. It’s their dress, their choice of bag, and the style of nonverbal communication. All of these things can clue you in about a person’s nationality, or the length of their stay here in Morocco. But as much as it seems clear to people on the street that I am not a holiday traveler, I will nevertheless always be instantly recognized as an outsider, a visitor. Again, it’s in little things that this perception hides.

It’s in the things men choose to say to me as I walk past the table where they sit with their coffee and newspaper. All women receive attention on Moroccan streets, but I doubt a Moroccan woman is told in syrupy slick English that she is “very niiiiiice,” or that he “likes your size.”

It’s the fact that, after walking up and down the same streets for nine months, men still wish me “bienvenue au Maroc” when I am on my way home from work in the afternoon.

It’s the fact that I will never be able to rent a house for the same price as a Moroccan tenant (and that a landlord will always be more eager to rent to me), or get as low a price on a set of handmade cedar side-tables as my Moroccan colleague.

It’s in the fact that taxi drivers in Marrakech will persistently address me in English, even when I speak to them in (broken) Arabic.

And it’s in the fact that my French teacher had trouble remembering a few students’ names until the end of the course, but knew mine from the moment I introduced myself. In a strange and stubborn effort to refuse special treatment, I remember once waiting around along with everyone else at the end of class while the teacher called roll, not wanting to leave until he’d noted me as ‘present’. When he finally did come to my name, he looked at me with a slightly patronizing smile. Why did I wait around, he asked? Wasn’t it obvious that he’d noticed my presence? Didn’t I know that there was no point in me waiting around ‘just like the others’?

Aside from inescapable conspicuousness, being Other also means being judged by different standards. On one hand it means being afforded a greater lenience when it comes to abiding by the norms of social interaction. Foreigners are not expected to understand the rules, perhaps, and they are therefore more easily forgiven for trespassing the boundaries of propriety. But with that lenience also comes a different set of expectations. It is often assumed, for instance, that I have (lots of) money, that my rules of sexual or romantic propriety are radically different from those upheld in Morocco, that I harbor certain Orientalist impressions of Morocco, that I do not know how to cook, that I am Christian.

In the sense that all foreigners receive this particular kind of attention, I do think that the experience of Otherness is an inevitable part of expat life. But I am sure that my preoccupation goes a bit further than ordinary levels of awareness. It may in part be the newness of the experience that makes it so acute for me, but it might also simply be the fact that I’ve been preoccupied with the question of otherness ever since I first left the Netherlands as a 7-year old. Ever since that moment, I’ve been intrigued by questions like what it means to be an ‘insider’, how it is possible to combine two or more identities within a single ‘self’, or why it is that once you’ve uprooted yourself, you will never again be the ‘insider’ you once were. I think it’s because these questions are so central to the practice and theory of anthropology that this discipline appeals to me so much.

And most of the time, I can smile at this sense of Otherness. Given my pre-existing intrigue with the issue, the experience of it is interesting; it is a part of being in Morocco, and of being an anthropologist in general. I even think that this externally applied Otherness played a large role in helping me come to terms with the internal experiences of Otherness I’ve had for most of my life. But there are moments, more than I’d like there to be, when I am tired and give into frustration, when I become a little overwhelmed by the sense of powerlessness this constant perception of foreignness elicits in me. At those moments, my attempts at fitting in – at learning the language, dressing appropriately, abiding by the local rules of conduct – seem so futile, and a real inside-understanding of Morocco seems impossibly unreachable. At those moments, I want to retreat to my apartment, to the comfort of familiarity, and complain about Morocco’s own foreignness to me.

But for every person who reminds you that you are an outsider, there is someone else who embraces you and all your efforts to integrate. Such as the woman on the street who once asked me for directions in Arabic. Or the friendly shopkeeper at the mini marché across from my apartment, who always chats with me in Darija. Or a Fassi friend who refers to me as a Rbatia. And it is these brief little moments that make all those others seem very, very unimportant…