Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Nostalgia for the Beyond

After 18 months in Morocco, I’ve finally set foot in a region I’ve always been curious about: the Rif mountains along Morocco’s Mediterranean coast.

I’ve left behind the now fairly routine rhythm of fieldwork in pursuit of a few days of relaxation. Unable to settle on another good yet economically modest holiday destination (and limited by the Icelandic cloud of ash that obstinately continues to paralyze airway traffic), I managed to convince Farid, my good friend and colleague, to take me north, to his native land.

And so here we are, ensconced in the heart of the legendary Rif. We’re taking day trips west to Al Hoceima, and longer ones east, to Temsamane, Anoual, Nador and Oujda. Other than that we spend most of our days in Beni Bouayach, a small village east of Al Hoceima. It was built only recently, but now serves as a business epicenter of sorts for a number of smaller villages in the surrounding hills. Their dirt roads now meet up on the new main street of this town: a busy, café-lined thoroughfare for tractors and trucks, donkey carts and regional taxis (here painted in a greenish turquoise, in reflection perhaps of the nearby Mediterranean).

The area is full of history, and family trees – centuries old, yet still blooming – are rooted deeply and firmly in its soil. It awakens in my own quite rootless existence a nostalgia for a feeling I’ve never quite had. Each hillside hides a story; each valley is the stage for a family saga. Most of these stories are colored by a theme of opposition against outside forces. The Rif Berbers have long been proud resisters of submission to centralized control, and make subtle claims to separate-ness on a daily basis. It is, first and foremost, a separateness borne by language. The people in this region understand Moroccan Arabic, but their language is Tariffit, and as a matter of principle, they prefer not to speak what they consider the language of the occupier. So as not to grate against local ears, I resort to Arabic only for the most essential communication, but otherwise rely on Farid’s expertise as interpreter.

My own communicative efforts have thereby been reduced to a minimum; as such, the mental complexity of my daily life has been dialed back to a primordial level of simplicity. With my fieldwork in Rabat being so heavily dependent on human interaction, this brief period of virtual deaf/muteness has actually been a welcome respite from my regular life, and amplifies my sense of really being ‘away’. Without that mental exertion directed outward, I’ve been able to focus on turning inward. I’ve had time to think, to process, to formulate new directions for my research. And for the first time in what feels like months, I’m finding time to write again – something other than field notes, that is.

I’ve never spent this much time in a Moroccan village this small, and I adore the snapshots that I am being given of daily life in this region. Traipsing through fields of wheat, groves of olive trees, and patches of coriander plants, making sure everything is growing as it should. Checking the level of water in the well – it’s been flowing generously ever since the earthquake of 2004. Looking in on the presses where, come December, olives will be converted into olive oil. Eating apricots straight from the tree. Bringing bread and fruit to community members in need. Taking lunch to the imam after Friday prayers. Shopping at the market, where you can pick out your own live chicken for slaughter. Whiling away evenings in plastic chairs on the sidewalk, chatting about future prospects over mint tea and sunflower seeds. And spending the occasional night hidden away on a rooftop, furtively drinking wine and whiskey.

The latter, I must qualify, are activities distinctly reserved for men. Women generally do not show themselves outside after dark. In fact, the foundational principle of Riffi social organization seems to be that the family’s women are to be protected from the gaze of strangers’ eyes. I am told that Riffi families place great value on privacy. Life in a city apartment is unacceptable: they could never share a hallway, even a front door, with strangers. All families here thus live in the Moroccan equivalent of townhouses. The entire village is made up of them: boxlike constructions, three floors high, with colorful plasterwork facades. The ground floor provides space for a garage, or even a store; the two floors above are each outfitted as fully functional apartments, including salon, kitchen, and bathroom. This is local logic: with what essentially constitutes two separate apartments for each family, men and women can entertain separately. Male and female worlds seem in fact to constitute parallel, but completely separate domains; beyond the private realm of the immediate family, there is very little informal mixing. Even weddings are single-sex affairs.

As a foreigner and outsider I am exempted from these standards of propriety, and so I get to be there for the nightly tea or wine. But being the only woman who shows herself outside after dark, I am nevertheless an anomaly. And being a blonde woman, I’m an anomaly about which people draw particular conclusions. Farid explained it to me as follows. As we drove onto the main street of Beni Bouayach, he informed me that to those who don’t know him well, the sight of us together will lead to the assumption that he has “found one” – that is, that he’s managed to find himself a European woman who will marry him for ‘papers’.

Departure is a common wish, a shared dream, a notion ever-present. There is common agreement among the people of this region that opportunity – fortune, career, a future – lies beyond. Regardless of how far the beyond on which one has set one’s sights, young adults all feel that there is little for them here among these hills. They’ve grown up with fathers, uncles, older cousins away in northern Europe, and these migrants’ stories have nourished the next generation’s dreams of leaving. Each summer, visiting emigrants’ display of European wealth and worldliness further widens the chasm between reality and desire. For the young men of this region, stunted in their masculinity and adulthood, a woman from the West can – literally – be one’s passport for departure.

For me, in turn, this region illustrates the sadness of stifled potential. The people’s stories of lack and limitation strikingly contradict the beauty of these hills, their obvious fertility. But this contradiction is born not so much of misperception; it emerges rather from the problematic relationship between the Rif and the central government. In a vicious cycle of cause and consequence, the Rif Berbers have always resisted submission to centralized power, and the government has, in subtle and not so subtle ways, consistently and systematically neglected this region. The tribes here are fiercely independent-minded, and always at the ready to fight for their autonomy. This volatile combination has helped Morocco battle for its sovereignty in the past (against the Ottomans, then the Europeans), but now poses what is perhaps the greatest threat to the power of the monarchy. A threat the government attempts to contain through isolation. This is a forgotten corner of Morocco: roads are in dangerous disrepair, there is a dire lack of schools for higher education, and no irrigation systems at all. After an earthquake devastated the region in 2004, the government failed tragically to help re-build. Internet connections are twice as slow as anywhere else, and radios receive more Spanish than domestic channels.

Apart from neglect, there is also silence. The region’s colorful and volatile past – battles, victories, independence and subjugation – has systematically been left out of the Moroccan history books. To the people themselves, stories of oppression are often too shameful to recount. This new generation of stunted young men has thus, sadly, grown up ignorant of its people’s illustrious past, of the sagas that link them to this ground. They are unaware of their rootedness – laboring under a sense of lightness, perhaps, that further nourishes their dreams of a beyond?

Without government investment, the community around Beni Bouayach has become surprisingly self-sufficient. Community funds (much of it from emigrants in Europe) have financed the installation of electricity, the construction of new housing, and the charity that cares for those who are less fortunate. Without government investment the community is, unfortunately, not (yet?) able to create long-term opportunity for its people. But their pride nevertheless refuses to be stunted. The people find subtle, daily ways of resisting subjugation. Their language is alive and vibrant; used often use to tell jokes at the expense of Arabs, or to grunt at the presence of “er makhzen,” the government.

Yet, lest we forget that even this remote and neglected corner of the country still bows under the rule of its King, the government has nevertheless managed to put its stamp on the region. Frequent displays of the Moroccan flag and portraits of Mohammed VI help to remind us that the notion of a Rif Republic remains but a mere nostalgic idea…


hamid said...

As an exiled Moroccan in the US, let me start by saying that I have enjoyed your musings and have missed your vignettes over the past few months.
What you say of the Rif, though peculiar it is because of the region's specific history, could also be said of other parts of the country. Were I to substitute Gheris for Rif, I would be reading about my hometown. The dichotomy of old: useful (nafi') vs. useless Morocco, rooted in land of allegiance vs. bled siba, is still very much at work in Moroccan governance.


Alan said...

I recently visited your blog. It is a very interesting one. Keep it up.

Charlotte said...

Thank you both for your comments!

Hamid - you make a really good point. Every region has its stories and experiences. I got the chance to immerse myself a little into the particulars of this region - but I'm hoping I'll get the chance to do something similar in other parts of Morocco! I've never been to Gheris but I've visited the surrounding area, and can't wait to return!