Monday, November 9, 2009

Things to Do in Rabat on a Saturday Night

Last Saturday night, I believe temporarily forgot that I was in Morocco.

Around seven PM, I met up with a group of NIMAR-affiliated ladies downtown. After a pleasant dinner at Le Petit Beur, a small restaurant close to the Parliament, we headed over to Théatre Mohammed V for “ABBA the Show,” a big spectacle, as the Théatre always calls it, of classic ABBA songs put on by a sizeable and very enthusiastic ABBA cover band. Complete with lighting effects, original ABBA members and 1970s costumes, the show was fabulously entertaining. The theater was packed with fans screaming and singing aloud so fervently that one would have thought the original singers were up there on stage. Had it not been for subtle references to Morocco through the lighting effects (a ‘DH’ sign lighting up on the stage backdrop amidst Euro and Dollar symbols during the song Money, Money, Money; a collection of red and green lights creating an image of the Moroccan flag at the end of the show – and sending the crowd into ecstasy), the entire ambience would have made me forget where I was.

The Théatre National Mohammed V is one of Rabat’s primary theater venues. It offers a wide variety of entertainment to the Rbati public, from plays in Moroccan dialect to Flamenco concerts and hip hop dance performances – to quote a few offers from the upcoming winter program. But those who seek to spend a soirée out on the town have more than just this theater to choose from. The various cultural institutes scattered around the city center (The German Goethe Institut, the Spanish Instituto Cervantes, and the Institut Français, for instance) each offer their own selection of music, films, and other performances around town. The result is a weekly offer of cultural activities that will certainly not leave you wanting for entertainment.

You might start your cultural evening out at one of Rabat’s many decent restaurants – in one’s choice of price range and cuisine – and end it at a swanky bar or nightclub. For contrary to what one might think about a country where alcohol is prohibited by law to 99% of the population, nightlife in Morocco’s larger cities is alive and thriving. The offer of venues runs the full gamut from dark and dingy dive bars, where the only women present are there in a professional capacity, to hip and trendy nightclubs. The latter are places to see and be seen. Dressed to the nines, groups of men and women lounge around the table they’ve reserved, making their own drinks from the bottle of alcohol they’ve purchased and the mixers – coke, sprite – they’ve been given for free. They laugh, chat, and occasionally dance – first to American hip hop, later to the techno and house that follow it. Girls wear revealing tops and skinny jeans; boys wear shiny fitted shirts and leather shoes. There is an ease of interaction between the sexes that seems to contrast with daytime social conventions.

Whenever I am out, whether it be at the theater or at a club, I cannot help but wonder about the identity of the people I see around me. Who frequents these places – from what socio-economic background do they originate? The nightclubs I have seen are a swanky affair. There seems to be an elitism to the whole experience, a suggestion of luxury; the advertisement of a certain level of wealth and a certain brand of modernity. It’s in the way people dress – the glitter, the brand names – but it’s also in the money one ostensibly spends for a night of dancing. The cover charge for Amnesia, one of Rabat’s most famous clubs, is 200 Dirhams – a small fortune, if you imagine that a large proportion of the Moroccan population lives on a salary of 1500 a month or less. Admission comes with a free drink, but any subsequent beverage runs at least 80 Dirhams.

However, my friend Hatim tells me that the real regulars never pay. The secret, he tells me, is to get to know the bouncer. To strike a deal, and get a discount. It’s not the upper classes that one will encounter at the club, he explained – those elites have their own, private, establishments. No, the trendy patrons at Amnesia are individuals just like you and me; they’ve just managed to bargain their way inside, to an evening of luxury at a discount price. Once again, the suggestion emerges that everything in Morocco is negotiable, and nothing is as simple as it seems (… but the true elite always remains out of reach).

Yet my question remains. Who, then, frequents places like Amnesia? Where do they come from, and where do they live? What kind of jobs do they hold, where do they go to school, and how does their behavior at the club fit into their daytime social roles?

When thinking about these questions I often catch myself imagining each of these nameless young individuals to be a kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde – possessors of a nighttime alter ego whose behavior is incommensurable with their daytime identity. I’m intrigued by the contrast that seems to exist between the social conventions of Moroccan society, and the vibe I encounter at these clubs. On this blog, I often write about the various ways in which ‘tradition’ is idealized and upheld by Moroccan society, and the ways in which particular interpretations of ‘modernity’ emerge and interact with old customs and conventions. I’m interested in the ways in which these two concepts seem, ostensibly, to contradict one another. And so I take note of the way in which I see girls dress and behave at Amnesia – and then contrast it with the grumpy man Fatima and I once encountered as we walked home at 3 AM, who asked my friend if her mother knew she was out so late, and then added that she must be a prostitute.

But if there is one thing I have learned about Morocco, it is that nothing is ever as simple as it seems. ‘Modernity’ and ‘tradition’ are not entities but ideas with very fluid boundaries. They are not polar opposites but rather converging and diverging ideologies about the meaning of our socio-cultural rules and conventions. We all live lives that combine elements of the modern with notions of tradition, and this need not make us Jekyll-and-Hydes, unless we ourselves allow it to. So, too, for the men and women I see at Amnesia. Because in the end, what is so strange about a girl who dances in an outfit she’d never wear to work, or a boy who purchases more alcohol than he’d ever admit to his parents? Don’t we all behave a little more freely under the cover of dimmed lighting, thumping beats, and a bit of alcohol?

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