Monday, July 5, 2010

Freedom of Expression

It is Thursday morning, and the patients and doctors of the open women’s ward are gathering in the lounge for the weekly ijtima‘ – an hour or so of sharing stories, experiences, and impressions of life at the hospital. As the women take their seats on the couches – traditional design, but with a modern twist – the hum of excited whispers hangs in the air. There’s been conflict in the corridors this week, and the patients are expecting the issue to come to a head at today’s meeting.

This morning I sit next to Nadia, a woman in her fifties who has been hospitalized for treatment of depression. She’s been here for a few weeks now, and is clearly doing better. She no longer isolates herself in her room, and she’s become more talkative of late. She’s gotten back into the habit of applying eye make-up in the morning, and the curl has returned to her short, auburn hair.

She is slightly restless this morning as she listens to her fellow patients’ stories. The group’s anticipation has been satisfied; the two women engaged in conflict have indeed brought their issue to the meeting. It’s a dispute over religious freedom: whereas one party claims her right to religious expression (in her case, the vocal recitation of Qur’anic verses in the ward’s corridors), the other argues for her right of protection from religious indoctrination (especially at ten o’clock at night, when she would prefer to be sleeping). With building emotion, the two women explain their viewpoints to the group; the doctors are barely able to maintain a sense of order.

It is a heavy topic for any group of Moroccan women to stomach on a given Thursday morning. Yet it’s not the content, but the form of the argument that prompts Nadia to lean in and whisper a question in my ear.

“Can you follow all this Arabic?”

I smile, make a gesture with my head to imply that I’m getting the gist, and suggest we try to listen. But Nadia isn’t done yet. She leans over again, seeking understanding in my eyes.

“I have a really hard time understanding Arabic,” she confesses. “I’m not used to it at all.”

And indeed; when it’s Nadia’s turn to talk, she makes a point of announcing that she’d rather speak French. She cannot express herself as freely in Arabic, she explains to the doctor – whose nod of the head indulges Nadia in her request. And so Nadia begins, noticeably changing the tone of the meeting as she informs her audience, in that soft lyrical French of hers, that she had a good week. A few women shift in their seats, straightening their spines, and a subtle sense of formality seems to have impregnated the air around us. All disruptions have come to an end; even the bickering party is now silently listening. And then – just like that, in a blink of an eye that completely negates the gravity of her original request, Nadia downshifts back into Arabic, formulating her closing statements in the local dialect.


Nadia identifies herself as Moroccan, and as a Muslim; she says she is proud of her cultural heritage and of her family’s illustrious history. Nevertheless, her words and behavior always betray an apparent need to separate, to distance herself, from mainstream Moroccan consciousness. Contradiction and juxtaposition weave themselves continuously in and out of her autobiography; they are the backbone to her stories’ continuity. She was born to a conservative family and raised in Fes, that bastion of tradition – but she was educated at the French mission’s schools, and walked around her neighborhood’s streets in pigtails and short skirts. Her siblings all followed in her father’s footsteps by pursuing degrees in theology – but Nadia chose instead for a career in medicine. Arabic is the language of her country and her family – but Nadia prefers French, the language of international sophistication. And finally, her sisters have all been unhappily married for upwards of 25 years – while Nadia is a divorcée who’s had several long-term boyfriends.

The status of being divorced exerts a major gravitational pull on her narrative of juxtaposition. It is the dominant cause of her sense of difference; all other facets of her identity revolve around the epicenter of its force, twisted and bent in their own path of expression. Nadia tells me several times that divorced women are “très mal vues” in Morocco; on the scale of status, they rank lower yet than donkeys. She feels that other women – her doctor included – are both unable and unwilling to understand her lifestyle of sexual independence. Utterly incapable of imagining how that kind of freedom might taste, these women cower away in fear of transgressing such moral boundaries themselves. As we sit in the ward’s courtyard, Nadia points to a handful of other patients walking around: these individuals refuse to talk to her, she says; they treat her like a leper. “They must have been married as virgins,” she concludes with a sigh.

Men are not much more capable of comprehension, Nadia laments during our next conversation; sadly, she does not derive much fulfillment from the “amis” she’s had. Moroccan men do not understand her needs. However enlightened or “moderne” they may have claimed to be, her boyfriends nevertheless all expected to be wined and dined – “by me, a doctor, for goodness’ sake!” Nadia exclaims in lingering outrage – without providing much in the way of commitment in return.

To Nadia, Moroccan culture is the source of her illness. Her depression was born of suffocation; a case of asphyxiation by the insurmountable baric pressure of cultural mores and taboos. She spent a few years in France, and remembers it as a place of lightness and air, without a care in the world to weigh her down. The thick, winter blanket of sadness did not descend upon her until she returned to her native land, 15 years ago. I thus begin to wonder if her preference for speaking French might simply be driven by the need to breathe. Perhaps that speaking Arabic – a language indelibly linked to and thus bound by Moroccan standards of (expressive) propriety – feels to her like breathing air deprived of oxygen. Might French then be her escape hatch, a seam in the tightly spun fabric of moral codes? A helium balloon that lifts her high beyond the reach of Moroccan gender expectations?

Regardless of her feelings about Arabic, however, Nadia also speaks French, quite simply, because that is how she was trained. After an education at Morocco’s French schools, a medical degree, and a life lived in Morocco’s elite social circles, it is no surprise that Nadia is more easily able to express herself in French than Arabic.

To her, in any case, this linguistic preference in no way precludes her identification as a Moroccan woman. Though Nadia may take issue with what she sees as certain outdated standards of propriety, she eagerly joins in on conversations about local cuisine, asserts herself as an expert on traditional wedding attire, and confidently proclaims that, even if she does agree that Qur’anic recitation should be reserved for the privacy of one’s room, she believes in the Holy Book’s absolute truth. Nadia’s Moroccanness may be a little particular, a pick-and-choose sampling of the full available menu – but it is nevertheless genuine.

To other patients, however, Nadia’s frenchness signals a pollution – a threat, even, to the authenticity of the ward’s Moroccan identity. And like Marwa before her, she elicits the occasional hostile reaction.

In one such case, the hostility came from Halima, a fellow patient who happened to overhear Nadia in conversation with the parents of a newly admitted young woman. Nadia had eagerly asked the French mother of this young patient where she was from, and then began to share her own pleasant memories of time spent in that particular city. Halima had been standing nearby, and now approached to hiss at Nadia, in French:

“Stop bothering these people, they’re here for their daughter; they don’t want to talk to you!”

Nadia looked at her calmly. “I’m just trying to be friendly, Halima,” she explained. “I just want to make them feel welcome.”

The couple in question listened in slightly disconcerted silence as the two women continued their argument over their heads. Halima had retorted that this couple had no need for a welcoming committee; they’d been living in Morocco for years now. Upon which Nadia had responded that it is always nice to exchange memories of other places, and to hear about familiar cities in France.

Halima, at a loss for a witty retort, responded with an angry look and then grumbled, in the local dialect: “well, I’m Moroccan, and I’m Muslim. I’m proud of it, and I’m going to speak Arabic.”

“But that would be impolite,” Nadia responded in French, calm as ever.

“Not at all,” Halima corrected, still in the local tongue. “These people live in Morocco; they understand Arabic perfectly.” And with that, she walked away.

Nadia turned to the couple, and offered them an apologetic smile. Then she looked at me.

“Do you see these Moroccan women?” she asked. “They’re so short sighted, they don’t understand any lifestyle that doesn’t resemble their own.”


Samrad said...

Dear Charlotte,
My compliments for this interesing and thoughtful post. Reading your description of Nadia, I couldn't help but thinking about Bourdieu's theory of class distinction. What I 'see' in Nadia is not merely a sense of acculturation or attempts to be 'un-Moroccan'. Would it be possible that her choice for speaking french in a ward where Arabic is the norm is actually a representation of her social space and cultural capital? Does she feel a need to distinguish herself from lower class, Arabic speaking patients in the same ward by exposing her social class, and its prime attribute: the French language? Also, she has suffered an unfortunate transformation in the hierarchy. By being admitted in the ward, she has been transformed from a medical doctor to a patient. And the question is whether speaking French is a way for her to compensate for this loss of power. Does she feel more equal to other doctors, when she speaks French? I guess the real question is: who are her main audiences when she speaks French: other patients, the doctors, or both? Thanks for the post.

Charlotte said...

You hit the nail right on the head :-) I'm actually currently working on an essay that will use 'Nadia' as a case study to discuss precisely those questions. Thanks for the comment!

Rachel said...

Samrad makes a great point about class distinctions. Have you read Assia Djebar's "Fantasia"? It has some interesting observations on women using French because it represents a social and sexual freedom to which they aspire.

Charlotte said...

Thanks for that lit suggestion! Sounds like something I need to take a look at.

Class is a really interesting issue, and I think that it is a pivotal element in Nadia's entire story. Samrad is right that it underlies her preference for French over Arabic - both because people of her class are educated in that language, and because mastery of it thereby becomes a kind of marker of belonging to the elite.

But class - status, and power - lie at the very heart of her entire autobiography. It is due to her elevated status that she can afford herself the luxury of being separate and different in the first place. Had Nadia belonged to the lower classes, her life as a divorcée would have been radically different. Nadia sees other women's rejection of her choices as a kind of moral short-sightedness. But it's also born of fear, and perhaps a kind of resentment toward Nadia's relative freedom. Women of lower status than Nadia simply cannot afford the consequences of making non-normative choices for their own life. Money and connections can buy a certain measure of release from moral and social control.

Samrad Ghane said...

Charlotte, Ik would be glad to read your essay, when it's finished/published. Judging from your posts, I believe your fieldwork is very interesting and inspiring. Good luck and keep us informed.