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.

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