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Encountering Morocco: Fieldwork and Cultural Understanding

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Encountering Morocco introduces readers to life in this North African country through vivid accounts of fieldwork as personal experience and intellectual journey. We meet the contributors at diverse stages of their careers–from the unmarried researcher arriving for her first stint in the field to the seasoned fieldworker returning with spouse and children. They offer frank descriptions of what it means to take up residence in a place where one is regarded as an outsider, learn the language and local customs, and struggle to develop rapport. Moving reflections on friendship, kinship, and belief within the cross-cultural encounter reveal why study of Moroccan society has played such a seminal role in the development of cultural anthropology.

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1 - Arabic or French? The Politics of Parole at a Psychiatric Hospital in Morocco

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The Politics of Parole at a Psychiatric Hospital in Morocco

CHARLOTTE E. VAN DEN HOUT

It is Thursday morning, and the patients and doctors of the open women's ward at a Moroccan psychiatric hospital 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—made in a 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,1 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 has rediscovered an appreciation for the company of others, no longer isolating herself in her room. She's gotten back into the habit of applying eye makeup in the morning, and the curl has returned to her short, auburn hair. Over the past few days, she has sought me out on the ward to tell me stories of her past and illness, as well as plans for her future.

 

2 - Time, Children, and Getting Ethnography Done in Southern Morocco

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KAREN RIGNALL

When ethnographies assume polished form, the process of selecting a field site usually appears to have been a serendipitous alignment of intellectual commitments and affective attachments. The “arrival narrative” begins to take shape in those first days at the field site. As the narrative becomes fixed in the published ethnography, the anthropologist's cultural connection—that commitment to people and place—becomes naturalized. In retrospect, the relationship can appear inevitable, even foreordained. My choice of field sites had more to do with day care than serendipity.

Perhaps I can admit my pragmatic concerns because my affective attachments had already been established. I had previously lived in the south of Morocco, managing a community-development organization and traveling as much as I could throughout the arid steppe and the green river valleys that wended their way down the jagged topography of the southern High Atlas Mountains. Years later, I designed my dissertation project with the knowledge that I wanted to return to the region. I had seen how migration remittances and livelihood diversification had transformed it in sometimes surprising ways. Rather than withdrawing from agriculture and settling their families in Lyon or Casablanca, many people were reasserting their commitment to the tamazirt, the homeland. I wanted to understand how they expressed this commitment, and I developed a research agenda around the reasons people were expanding agriculture into the steppe. This meant that my choice of field sites was to a certain extent decided for me. I needed to go where people were, in fact, converting rangeland for cultivation. But my pre-dissertation research visit, shortened to the bare minimum because I did not want to leave my two toddlers for any longer than necessary, focused less on surveying the extent of rangeland conversion than on finding a site that could satisfy the basic needs of a young family, at least a young, middle-class, American family. We needed day care, a reasonably accessible hospital, and an Internet connection so that my spouse could work—and so that our children could have video calls with their grandparents.

 

3 - Thinking about Class and Status in Morocco

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DAVID A. McMURRAY

A barber worked directly across the street from the front door of our apartment in the late 1980s in Nador, a gritty boomtown in the Berber north that was exploding with the repatriated wealth of emigrants away in Europe as well as the revenues from goods smuggled in from Spain and hash smuggled out of Morocco.1 The barber's shop was decorated with posters of stylish men, all of them models advertising various hair care products. He had hired another barber—a poorer man, judging by his attire—to help out during busy times, such as early evening hours and Fridays. He also made the second barber sweep out the shop at night when they closed, about 9:00.

The head barber would lounge in the doorway to his salon between customers. Nothing that we did across the street escaped his eye. He claimed, and I believed him, that he had spent a few months in Germany. His clothing, which could have been labeled at the time “urban Mediterranean,” suggested that he knew his way around the local big city of Oujda, perhaps even the national big cities of Fes and Casablanca, for he wore tight-fitting, open-collar shirts unbuttoned to mid-chest. His slacks had no back pockets so they could hug his hips and butt, though they did have immaculate creases down each leg. His sockless feet were planted in polished loafers. His hair, while short, had some gel-like substance in it to make it glisten. He never dressed in traditional Moroccan male attire on Fridays or holy days, which suggested that he wasn't especially religious or especially enamored of local customs. His trade let everyone know that he wasn't a wealthy man. However, the families in his building would often receive their letters addressed in care of the barber. This was a way the families used to maintain some anonymity, but it also revealed that they trusted him.

 

4 - Forgive Me, Friend: Mohammed and Ibrahim

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EMILIO SPADOLA

In Morocco I tend—like many American anthropologists—to seek rapport with a smile. Retailers in Fes refer to American tourists by the code word miska—chewing gum—meaning they are all teeth and lips. (British tourists, in contrast, are ad-dam al-barid, which means cold blood.) Yet a Moroccan acquaintance of mine characterized Americans as tragically sad friends. The United States is so enormous, he said, and everyone so mobile, that “you Americans are always ready to drop a friend.” He's right, in my experience. The friendly first steps of rapport are, if not the opposite of friendship, a firm defense against it. Defense against the long-term obligations and demands of friendship may be why so many American ethnographers have focused on these themes in Moroccan social life. Perhaps this shadow of contractual obligation is why my dearest friend, Mohammed, assures me in his inimitable English: “Ibrahim, I have no interest in you.”

 

5 - Suspicion, Secrecy, and Uncomfortable Negotiations over Knowledge Production in Southwestern Morocco

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KATHERINE E. HOFFMAN

Power relations inherent in the encounter between anthropologist and informant engaged the advocates of reflexive anthropology working in Morocco (Crapanzano 1980; K. Dwyer 1982; Rabinow 2007 [1977]). Their analyses have reconfigured the practice and writing of ethnography over the last three decades. Questions of truth, disclosure, and suspicion shape not only anthropologists’ relationships in the field, but also the data that can be collected and the forms in which it can be presented to outsiders. Irfan Ahmad remarks in regard to ethnographic informants’ frequent suspicion of the state that perhaps we should “also talk—after Geertz's ‘theatre state,’ Dirks's ‘ethnographic state,’ Messick's ‘calligraphic state’—about the ‘state of suspicion’ (in a double sense) that defines contemporary times and anthropologists[’] interactions therewith” (2008). Political and historical factors internal to Moroccan communities, especially rural ones, also shape the ways informants accommodate or reject particular researchers and their projects.

 

6 - The Activist and the Anthropologist

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PAUL A. SILVERSTEIN

In his afterword to Paul Rabinow's Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco (2007 [1977], 166–67), Pierre Bourdieu cites Jean Piaget's famous dictum, “it is not so much that children don't know how to talk: they try out many languages until they find one their parents can understand,” and concludes, “Ethnology will have taken a giant step forward when all ethnologists understand that something similar is taking place between informants and themselves.” This is a striking yet curious statement. Curious because it portrays anthropology as an improvable, developmental discipline, in spite of Bourdieu's critique several pages earlier of the “positivist conception of scientific work” and his applauding Rabinow for having broken with the “refurbished positivism” of his teacher, Clifford Geertz (ibid., 163). Curious also because Bourdieu would not reflect on his own field experience in North Africa or his dialogical relationship with his own informants until twenty years later, at the end of his life (Bourdieu 2003a, 2004, 2008; see also Goodman and Silverstein 2009). Yet ultimately what makes the statement so striking and prescient is that it runs against the grain of anthropology's relativist recognition of radical otherness and posits instead the ultimate commensurability of anthropologist and informant. While one certainly may be tempted to read Bourdieu as likening informants to children, the reverse may actually hold, as it is the anthropologist who, like a child, must learn his informant's idiom and who tries out various interpretive schemes until he finds one his informant can understand. In any case, Bourdieu, through Piaget, has placed self and other in the same psychic family—if not mutually self-constituting, then at least convergent in their quest for understanding and communication.

 

7 - A Distant Episode: Religion and Belief in Moroccan Ethnography

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Religion and Belief in Moroccan Ethnography

RACHEL NEWCOMB

It was a bright June day in Fes, with perfect blue skies, just before the heat of summer would lie on the Ville Nouvelle1 like an unquiet conscience. Today my Moroccan mother-in-law, Jamila, had been promising to take me to the tomb of Sidi Bou Ghalib in the medina. For weeks I had been interviewing medical doctors, herbalists, midwives, and women about reproduction, but this would be my first visit to the tomb of a saint known for his baraka (the spiritual power a dead person once possessed) and his abilities to heal those who could not have children. My romantic preconceptions about saints' tombs, known locally as marabouts or sayyids, had begun in my first days in Morocco as an undergraduate, when I can remember being enchanted with the white-domed tombs rushing past the window of my train compartment: round, alien, and mysterious against flat landscapes of winter wheat. Over the years I variously imagined them to be places of magic, of sources of religious power and influence for women, or of local resistance to the homogenizing influences of global Islam. Other people must not have been immune to their beauty either: the Editions Lif postcards that used to be ubiquitous in Moroccan tabac shops frequently sold pictures of the tombs, and I had my own collection of postcards, which I tacked up on various refrigerators during my graduate school days to remind myself of what lay “out there” still waiting to be researched. Yet although I had timidly tiptoed around a tomb near a village outside of Tata, where a Peace Corps friend was based, I had never focused directly on these tombs in my research. I had done related work: after college, I spent a year on a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship trailing various Sufi groups through Turkey, Egypt, Cyprus, Senegal, and Morocco, and I certainly saw plenty of saints' tombs during this time, but none of them ever lived up to what I speculated must be happening in the fictional tomb of my imagination.

 

8 - Shortcomings of a Reflexive Tool Kit; or, Memoir of an Undutiful Daughter

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JAMILA BARGACH

Bougainvilleas of multiple colors—burgundy, yellow, rose, and white—draped the walls of what seemed to be a timeless corner villa and separated it from the small streets paved with a puzzle, hard bricks that made a funny buzzing sound when cars drove on them. Past imposing metal doors, a tiny cemented walkway led up the stairs to the inside of this art-deco villa where there was practically no garden, except for the branches of the bougainvilleas shooting outside. This was the main headquarters of the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Solidarité Féminine, SolFem for short. The villa had been built around the 1940s in the colonial period, in the heart of what was then French-bourgeois Casablanca, a neighborhood called Palmiers in reference to its lush vegetation of flowers and all types of trees, chief among which were its sizable palms. But Palmiers has fallen on hard times. Today, this once-prestigious and sophisticated neighborhood has turned into a crumbling, gloomy environment of decrepit villas, practically all of which have been condemned to death—some a sacrificial gift to hungry bulldozers and truck loaders at the service of ever-greedy promoters, others the victims of time and neglect. Some villas continue to be occupied, but all life is under siege within their walls. The streets are only a place of transition now, a place of passing through, because of the fear of aggression and theft.

 

9 - Reflecting on Moroccan Encounters: Meditations on Home, Genre, and the Performance of Everyday Life

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Meditations on Home, Genre, and the Performance of Everyday Life

DEBORAH KAPCHAN

Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.

—James Baldwin, Giovanni's Room

There is a story, always ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feed it. You discover the carapace that will contain and test your character. You find in this way the path of your life.

—Michael Ondaatje, The Cat's Table

I encountered Morocco when I was twenty-four years old. It was, in a sense, an accidental or at least a serendipitous encounter—but then again, it may have been fate. Before leaving New York in 1981, I was in music school studying flute performance. I was working on my second BA, begun after my graduation from the English Department at New York University (with a minor in French literature), and although I was feeling too old to be a freshman for a second time, I didn't know what else to do. My only directive was a tired but workable cliché: follow your heart. So I began a second undergraduate degree. It was a symptom of my inability to choose: writing or music? Music or writing? Okay, both.

 

10 - The Power of Babies

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DAVID CRAWFORD

Children are of obvious importance to farmers in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, as the main source of farm labor and as a preeminent cultural value. Villagers expect to have children, pity those who do not, ask about having them, pray to have them, and consider any equivocation about the desirability of parenthood to be a weird misunderstanding or a form of mental illness. For most of my time in Morocco, I was a researcher without children, so I existed in kind of bizarre, liminal state. I had the material resources and apparent capabilities of a man, but I lacked—willfully, it seemed—an essential component of full masculinity. From a villager's perspective, what sort of man fails to produce children? What sort of man fails to even try?

I understood this vaguely during my initial fieldwork, but its significance became forcefully apparent much later after I managed to marry and begin the journey toward fatherhood. When my wife was at home in the United States, six months pregnant with our first child, I was in Morocco looking forward to providing the culturally correct answer to the questions my rural friends always asked: Yes, I was married. Yes, we were going to have a baby. But I didn't get that far. Before even leaving Marrakech I was sapped by the marriage question.

 

11 - Afterword: Anthropologists among Moroccans

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KEVIN DWYER

The essays in this volume address topics that, for a long time, were present only at the margins of academic anthropological discourse, if they appeared at all. Issues like the anthropologist's “identity”—the implications of the anthropologist's origins and how anthropologists construct themselves in the field; the attractions and perils of friendship; the impact of the anthropologist's family on fieldwork; suspicion of and hostility toward the anthropologist and competition between the anthropologist and others in the field; the tensions among the many aspects of an anthropologist's humanity, and between the roles of researcher and judge, between “scientific” observation and judgmental evaluation; the temptations of religious conversion; the fieldworker's deep, often extreme emotions in certain situations; the researcher's uncertain “control” over the fieldwork situation and the importance of unintended consequences, accidents, and mistakes—these are just some of the many topics these essays treat that were rarely explored in the anthropological literature up through the 1960s. These topics were seen as largely irrelevant to the knowledge-gathering aims of the discipline, and writing about them, reflecting on the anthropologist's own feelings and actions while in the field (what has come to be called anthropological “reflexivity”), exposed authors then, and sometimes still does, to accusations of self-centeredness; of emphasizing their own presence, personality, and role at the expense of conveying knowledge about the other; of using language betraying too much emotion at the expense of cool, objective discourse. Today it is widely accepted that such accusations are fundamentally misguided and based on the illusion that knowledge of the other exists in a timeless and context-free domain, independent of the particular anthropologist who—situated culturally, geographically, and historically and with his or her personal and behavioral dispositions—tries to construct it. As the essays in this volume demonstrate convincingly, when anthropologists show and question themselves in their encounter with the other, our knowledge of the interaction gains in depth and complexity, as does our understanding of both the other and ourselves.

 

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