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…


Anonymous said...

You must understand that Moroccans in general are very closed. Even to other Moroccans. They are divided by whatever line there is i,e religion, language, colour, education... family name. Infact I think if you are western you have it easier. Try being a European but of Moroccan descent, they dont go easy on you at all. At least you have that feeling of belonging when you go back to the West. We second generation Moroccans have to live with that foreigness you speak of where ever we go.

Charlotte said...

Anonymous -
Thank you for your comment. I know from friends of mine who are European of Moroccan descent that they deal constantly with the same thing you describe. I cannot put myself in your shoes and experience what you experience, but I acknowledge how difficult and frustrating it might be to be considered 'Other' wherever you go. One of the reasons I wrote this post, actually, is because I think it is important that those of us who are lucky enough not to have to deal with such treatment take some time to think about what it may be like to always be considered 'Other' - and thereby perhaps attempt to better understand the experiences of those who deal with this every day...

Jillian said...

Thank you for this - this is the story I've wanted to write for two years but didn't have the words (nor the anthropological background) to do so.

At the end of my two years in Morocco, I had just begun to make some genuine female friends my age. Although plenty had invited me to their homes or out for coffee, there was always something that bothered me: the constant "so how do you like Morocco?" and "have you tried tanjia?" I understood - particularly given that I did NOT live in Casa or Rabat - that many of these young women had never had the chance to talk to an American, but I still felt frustrated, knowing that were I to meet, say, someone from Djibouti, I would've stopped with the questioning on Day 1.

Anyway, it took two years, and by that point, I'd been offered a job back home and had to leave anyway. It's also worth noting that those authentic friends I finally did make were on the fringe of society - and perhaps already Others, despite being Moroccan.

Thank you for this post - you've inspired me to finally write my own.

Marie said...

I am living in Tangiers and experience the same feeling of otherness expressed in your article. As an Asian American woman I often feel like an exotic object subject to racist and sexual harassment. It's a very weird dynamic that I will never get used to.

I linked your article to my blog, where I also comment on this issue.

matthew said...

Thank you for this. I lived in Morocco for seven years and eventually fit in better than average for an expat, but never completely. You summed up the experience quite well, especially the early years.

Charlotte said...

Jillian, Marie, and Matthew - thank you so much for your comments. It is truly comforting to hear that others have had similar experiences, and frustrations. Marie - I'm so sorry to hear you have to deal with so much harassment! And Jillian - I know exactly what you mean. Those moments make me so sad sometimes - when even someone you've known for a while, someone you've invested time in, perhaps even opened up to, still evaluates you according to your exterior and designates you as inherently 'different'.

Anonymous said...

I think the real issue is not the Moroccans, but that most white middle class Westerners have not previously experienced feelings of being strikingly different. Can not any of us spot foreigners in our home countries who stand out due to dress, ethnicity or language? Do we not notice the Amish, the Menonites, the Hasidic Jews, the veiled and bearded Muslims? Foreigners in Morocco do need to develop a thick skin as to feel newly conspicuous is to feel that all eyes are on you. Some personalities deal better with this than others. But the fact is that not everyone is truly paying much attention to you, and even when they are, it's not usually hostile or for the wrong reasons. Most Moroccans are curious and friendly. They like to practice their English as we like to practice our darija. I personally stand out considerably due to my skin color and choice of Islamic attire, but it doesn't bother me a bit. I'll never "fit in" in the truest sense, but I certainly don't feel unwelcome here and accept that I'll continue to have frustrating encounters.For what it's worth, it may help noting that prejudices of course exist among Moroccans regarding skin color, ethnicity, level of education or degree of religious observance. Sometimes I encounter Moroccans with a French-speaking superiority. Sometimes I encounter Moroccans who think that every veiled or bearded person is dirty and uneducated. Others treat household help and poor people very poorly. All this serves as a healthy reminder that even Moroccans are singled out, and that they are more likely than us foreigners to be treated unfairly.

Anonymous said...

I expected to look foreign here so this doesn't bother me much. The barrage of questions also never bothers me. I consider it normal social etiquette upon meeting someone new, particularly from another culture. Nine years on in Morocco, I still have these routine conservations upon meeting people. However, when a friendship or neighborly relationship develops, there are so many more things to talk about! It's honestly the same with people from our own backgrounds whom we just meet! It's important to note as well that our culture and life experiences will automatically put us on the fringe in Morocco. Most Moroccan women would completely not relate (and perhaps be put off) that I have jumped out of an airplane, lived on my own and was completely financially independent for nine years before marrying, used to jog five miles a day, dine out regularly, wait tables, and so on. Obviously the cultural gaps then may make it harder for some foreigners to develop the kinds of social relationships that they're used to having, but other kinds of friendships can be just as meaningful.

Anonymous said...

After living in the US for three years I got a "welcome to America" when I went to see a prospective employer. I know how that feels Charlotte

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