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Foreign Aristocrat

How much can I know? How fast can I know it? I wrote the following words in March 2004, after being in Morocco for nine months. They reflect a confusion I still feel today. Will I ever understand a place where I’m a latecomer, an intruder, where I didn’t grow up? On the other hand, maybe this gives me the freedom to ask questions that Moroccans themselves haven’t thought about, or don’t want to ask. On the “other” other hand, does this do anyone any good, or am I just feeding my vanity? What am I doing writing about Morocco anyway?

— • —

Sometimes I don’t know whether I’m better off playing the foreign aristocrat who sits back and demands what he wants because the people around him are poor, or whether I should try instead to be a “friend of the people” who shares in their joy and suffering and considers himself to be a part of the family. Most often I feel caught in the middle, aware that solidarity can only go so far. After all, my friends are established here. They have their homes, their families, their roots. If I were to disappear tomorrow, they would go on with their lives, whereas I, for all my desire to integrate, have the one great advantage they long for and can’t attain, freedom of movement. This is an imbalance, and it’s not really clear who has the advantage, my friends with their roots here, or me with my money, my passport and my Western education. Still, it makes anything we try to do together seem like a bit of a stretch.

For my Moroccan friends, there must always be the temptation to see me as a temporary resource they should exploit fully before it goes away. It’s reasonable for them to assume that whatever my good intentions, I don’t share their commitment to care for their sick mother, or help their sister find a job. Nor is it logical for them to assume that I would integrate myself to the point of giving up the liberties that come with being an American, just so I can share their struggle from the inside. Cooperation is only possible as a meeting of interests, and when the interests aren’t really the same, the potential for exploitation creeps in on one side or the other.

From my end of things, I’m hungry to attain the degree of intimacy with Moroccan culture that is automatic to someone growing up here. To an outsider, the lack of transparency in the culture can be frustrating. One learns about some things quickly, such as couscous or the djelleba, but the real secrets lie much deeper. It is impossible even to know where to begin, which questions to ask. What is the real significance of Gnawa music, or the philosophy of Moulay Abdeslam? Someone told me that to grasp the evolution of Moroccan culture in its complete context, it would be necessary to master the history of the entire Arab world, the evolution in Islamic thinking from the time of the Prophet to the present, and the history of Western colonialism. Such an effort is possible, perhaps, but it is too much for one person.

This situation is not helped by the fact that most Moroccans today are unable to speak intelligently about their culture. What is the origin of a particular legend, or style of dress, or religious tradition? No one seems to know. The official version of history remains silent on many subjects, and on others it distorts the facts. Yet this lack of self-awareness isn’t really the Moroccans’ fault. Their culture has evolved over centuries, and is integrated into the rhythm of their daily life. The only way to know it is to live it. Even for a native, it must seem as if the real meanings reveal themselves little by little. No doubt this is true of any culture as rich and layered, even contradictory, as this one, whether here or in China.

While a native Moroccan may at times know less about his own culture than I do, unlike him I can’t fall back on the habit of being Moroccan. His mother’s gestures and expressions, her clothes and the food she makes, are part of his childhood memories. He can always retreat into the comforting embrace of tradition, which is familiar even when it is only poorly understood. As an outsider, I don’t have that choice. What for him is everyday life, for me risks turning into an anthropological spectacle. Because of this imbalance of interests, there is always the possibility for exploitation. The natives are putting on a show for my amusement, and it is necessary to pay for this, but in what coin?

— • —

If you don’t know about it already, please check out Maghreb Blog where I made my first post today! It’s a pleasure to be part of this community of Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisans all working together, which is more than we can say for the political leadership of these countries…! My post over there is the same one you’ve just read, though in the future I may post different material on the two blogs. Meanwhile, check out the contributions by adib, Hchica, Iskander, Jilal, Kenza, Manal, Oumelkhir, Stupeur and zizou, a talented and diverse group. They all write in French, though. If you’ve never learned the language, this is a good reason to do it!


Comment from Cat In Rabat
Time: January 17, 2007, 04:56

“The natives are putting on a show for my amusement, and it is necessary to pay for this, but in what coin?” Brilliant. I couldn’t agree with you more. And what is the price? – it deters me from wanting to achieve a greater sense of friendship/intimacy with a native Moroccan (thus preventing them from gaining a greater appreciation & deepening their insights of Western culture) and it chips away at their own understanding of Moroccan culture.

Ask ten Moroccans why men wear yellow babouches and you’ll get 10 different answers. Ask ten Moroccans what the age to obtain a driver’s licence is and you’ll get 10 different answers.

Comment from Ibn Kafka
Time: January 17, 2007, 07:34

Well, I must be a bit odd because I don’t reflect on whether people are native this or native that if and when I befriend them, whether I live abroad (whatever that is) or not. What you say applies to any contact with people of a different mould than you, not just to people of a different nationality. And intimate knowledge of one culture is gained through different channels, with personal interaction being one indispensable but in itself insufficient part of the enterprise. I do not presume of my North American acquaintances that they will provide me with intimate knowledge of Thoreau’s political thinking, the cajun culture, the Dred Scott case or mormon culture in Utah – this is to be gathered in a lot of different ways. I suppose otherwise that a blend of particularism (respect for the idiosyncracies of any country) and universalism (belief in the unicity of mankind and thus rejection of essentialism) helps a lot along the way. Btw, eatbees, you seem to do just fine!

Comment from SimplyMoroccan
Time: January 17, 2007, 08:21

“This situation is not helped by the fact that most Moroccans today are unable to speak intelligently about their culture” – this looks to me like an inaccurate generalization. It’s not because you got to deal with some Moroccans who aren’t aware of some details concerning their culture -which can’t really be a so evil thing – that most of them can’t.

As a Moroccan, I dislike -too- the way foreigners are approached to buy a carpet, or pay extra cash on some item. They can’t sometimes enjoy their tour in souq and that would “deter them from wanting to achieve a greater sense of friendship/intimacy ” as Cat In Rabat said.

You can be “friend of the people” without having to be exploited. And you can learn much deeper about the culture if you talk with Moroccans with a higher intellectual level than those that you try to sympathize with. Academic researches are conducted about all aspects of the Moroccan culture, from the language used to bargain in the markets, to the origins of stories our grannies used to tell us. But it unfortunately stays limited to a certain category of readers.
You want to experiment the culture? Befriend with all social categories of Moroccans, but do not expect them all to know why there are red and yellow Babouches. :)

Comment from eatbees
Time: January 17, 2007, 12:14

Thanks, Ibn Kafka, for saying I do just fine! As you can see, these are personal reflections, and are closer to wry self-criticism than to criticism of my Moroccan friends and hosts. You’re right, too, that such reflections would apply anywhere. I’ve felt this sense of being a “stranger” just as much (if not more) while growing up in the U.S. as I did in Morocco, and this is supposed to be my own culture!

If I see you in real life, I’d be happy to discuss Thoreau, or the Dred Scott decision, or the Mormons—or Allen Ginsburg and the Beats, or feminist witches, or the hacker culture of Silicon Valley—but I’ll be the first to admit I’m not typical in my ability (or presumption?) to go on about such things!

This touches on SimplyMoroccan’s point, that it’s a question of the educational level of the person you’re speaking with, as well. (By the way, SM, I love your website. A word a day in derija is a great idea!) As I said in the article, you’d have to know the whole history of Arab, Islamic and colonial culture to put things in their proper context. I did eventually find educated generalists who were able to guide me on some of the paths I was interested in, and of course I did my own background studies. This piece is really about my own impatience, wishing I could have a native’s intimacy “in a flash.”

I think this is on my mind because of the Nichane case, and some questions I have about Al Adl Wal Ihsane, and my feeling that I’m not always on the same wavelength as Moroccans living in the country. I tend to be more optimistic, perhaps unrealistically so, and overlook the real obstacles to popular advancement in Morocco. A Moroccan friend and I were discussing the theme “You have to go slowly” which brought this article to mind.

To reassure everyone, I’m probably more sensitive to complexity than the average person, and was trying to integrate on a deeper level, and that did happen in time. Nearly everyone I turned to, at every level of society, was open and willing to help. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” This led to some amazing and permanent friendships! A final note to Cat in Rabat, don’t be deterred. As a friend of mine said while visiting Morocco, “It’s important to trust.” Greater intimacy and the insights this brings are why we travel….

Comment from Liosliath
Time: January 17, 2007, 12:23

I’m glad you wrote about this, EatBees, I was just wondering the same thing. There are one or two Western “scholars” I’ve met in Morocco who’ve lived/studied there at least part time for over twenty years, but what irks me about them is their sweeping generalities “Moroccans always do this,” or “Moroccans never do that.” I always tell people that even if I lived the rest of my life in Morocco, I’d never consider myself an expert – there are millions of cultural layers and nuances to discover, some wildly contradicting each other. it doesn’t mean I don’t want to keep learning about it, though! :) I enjoyed your thought process about this dilemma.

Also, I’ve been reading “Through a Local Prism : Gender, Globalization, and Identity in Moroccan Women’s Magazines.” It’s written by a female Moroccan, Loubna Skalli, and while I’m enjoying it, it also fills me with self doubt. I wonder if any research/studies I do in Morocco would be valid – would the interview subjects give me truthful answers, or would they moderate their comments based on my nationality or social class? Then I think, well, maybe they’d be MORE honest with me, fearing a fellow Moroccan might take their answers and use them for some ill purpose, whereas I would have no reason to do so. I realize that even though I’m married to a Moroccan, I’ll never BE Moroccan, even though I try to assimilate as much as I feel comfortable with. It’s something I think about every day while writing my blog- who really cares what I have to say about Morocco? Then I remember Tocqueville, and I feel slightly encouraged.

Regardless, thanks for this post – excellent food for thought.

Comment from SimplyMoroccan
Time: January 17, 2007, 13:49

Hi again,
I didn’t read much around (yet) in your website eatbees, to know about the circumstances that brought you to Morocco and somehow what you’re looking for..That would put some light on your ideas mentioned up there. (I’ll stick around though).
Do you think that you developed the degree of intimacy you were hoping to get?

“I’ve felt this sense of being a “stranger” just as much (if not more) while growing up in the U.S. as I did in Morocco, and this is supposed to be my own culture!”
— To feel as a stranger can’t be just because of how Moroccans would look at you when you are trying to manage eating tajine with your hands, or speaking other than Arabic to’s also be because of all the differences you can experience concerning the Moroccan life style compared to the American one.
(didn’t get the “supposed to me my own one” part! referring to which one?)

PS: Thanks for the compliment about my website. I am glad you (and liosliath :) ) liked it.

Comment from Bill Day
Time: January 17, 2007, 18:17

Perhaps it is not so surprising that Moroccans do not know why they wear yellow babouches when 19 percent of American college students think that Martin Luther King fought to abolish slavery, according to the Washington Post.

Comment from Jill
Time: January 17, 2007, 18:38


I came here (about three years ago, then moved here in 2005) with the most open mind and heart, ready to accept anything and assimilate as much as possible, then three months after moving here, found myself completely and utterly frustrated with the little things – the lack of queues everywhere, how much spit people manage to get on the ground, the black plastic bags, how my hanout never has exactly what I need, the police, I could go on –

And then I met and fell in love with and married a Moroccan, and things changed, but like Liosliath said, I realize that I’ll never BE Moroccan, or that I’ll never be an expert on Morocco.

The latter problem is twofold – supposed experts on Morocco frustrate me for their lack of flexibility, and total amateurs frustrate me for their lack of comprehension (or assumption that their one experience in Marrakech qualifies them for expert status).

I don’t know where I’m going with this, but just wanted to give you props for yet another excellent post.

Comment from Laurent Szyster
Time: January 17, 2007, 19:22

Hi Eatbees,

If that can help you, here’s my short answer: “be a foreign aristocrat and act accordingly”.

That’s what I found out living as a foreign aristocrat “in the heart of darkness” (RDC Congo) for two years.

Of course this is an a-posteriori rationalization: at the time there was no other option than to be that “rich white man” I had never been in my life before.

Working there as accountant for the “private sector”, I had to navigate in a war-torn country amidst corrupt officials, crooks, thieves and sometimes killers (and I readily confess that I enjoyed every minute of danger that gave – at last – some substance to my jewish paranoïa ;-).

Therefore, I never relinquished the social status of a white aristocrat which gave me the authority to command a few dozen of employee, my better defense “when shit happens” in what is still a highly segregatted colonial society.

In Congo my ultimate protection were not some unreliable bodyguards but nice leather shoes, an immaculate shirt, an expensive pair of pants, the aristocratic attitude that goes along, plus a gift for eloquence that makes a lot of difference in a culture where talking a lot and well is regarded as a sign of great powers.

If you can, as I tried to, get rid of your own racist prejudice, truly fall in love with the culture, learn enough of the local language to sing a few popular songs, think and act as if you would never leave, like any other congolese who has to literally “struggle for life”, and finally integrate yourself *as a foreign aristocrat* in the society.

People respect that.

They may not love you but at least they won’t hate you as an individual because, somehow, you also became “one of them” in parts.

On the contrary, if – like too many well-intended NGO people do – you disguise your prejudices behind some politically correct bullshit, if you live in denial of a privileged social status that is in total contradiction with the equality you preach, if you think “like a white” and act like a fool, then the experience usually ends up quite sourly.

Because nobody in loves rich hypocrits who pretend to be something else. They are simply regarded with a contempt that can quickly turn into hate.

Then people will “play the good negro” for you, you’ll become their laughing stock (Congolese have one of the finest sense of humour when it comes to mocking stupid white people) and quickly fall prey to every new “friend”, over and over again, until you become disgusted, puzzled and actually more racist than when you came in.

I saw it happen repeatedly, producing the kind alien expatriate with the categorical discourse full of bitter prejudices that you described so well.

Kind regards,

Comment from BO18
Time: January 17, 2007, 19:30

Excellent post.

And somehow, somewhere I can understand you.
Not completely ofcourse, since I’m a Moroccan.

But I agree with you that most Moroccans are unable to speak intelligently about their culture.
I dont think it has something to do with education like SimplyMoroccan said.
I think that every native is unable to speak intelligently about their own culture.
We take it for granted, we usually dont ask questions about it.
Its something thats just there, it exists. Like breathing.

Recently I’ve read a book about Moroccan migrant towns.
And to be honest, I felt quite embarassed that the american writer knew more about certain aspects of Moroccan life than me.
“It takes an outsider to wake up the insider”, thats what my professor said after I told him about my “experience” with the book.
And I completely agree with him.
You might not be a Moroccan but you do let the Moroccans realise that they should not take their culture for granted.

Every question you ask, is a kind of wakeup call for them.
So you’re not really exploiting them. You complement each other.

Comment from Yahia
Time: January 17, 2007, 22:22

Wow.. :)
So I guess now you were right about identity when stating: (comment #4)
“but the west also fears to lose its identity”
But I’d say we don’t see people with such interest as you (Eatbees and people who commented) everyday. So I presume it was just a generalization? (:

I don’t have much to say. I’m simply amazed by how you’re dealing with this!

And so by curiosity, I’m asking: when are you going to be in Morocco again, if you will?

Comment from eatbees
Time: January 17, 2007, 23:25

Let me say I’m impressed with how many comments there are on this post, and such long, healthy comments too! If words were meat and bread, we’d have enough to eat for a week!

@Liosliath—Sweeping generalizations are the speciality of “experts” including expatriate experts, I guess! And if there’s anything I can say about Moroccans (but not ALL Moroccans) is that they’re wildly contradictory, both psychologically and socially! I think the best reaction to Morocco is not to be an “expert” but maybe a majdoub (holy fool). I hope to end my life on a mountain in Morocco raising bees, inch’allah, after WWIII and all the rest.

@SimplyMoroccan—”I’ll stick around”… maharbabik!—”degree of intimacy”… yes!—”supposed to be my own culture”… I meant the U.S.—what I was (am) looking for in Morocco… I’ll know when I find it, I guess… spiritual awakening? Islamic democracy? true love?

@Bill Day—I found your comment with the link in the spam catcher and restored it—I slapped the guy who did that, he won’t do it again!

@Jill—You hit the “three month wall” I guess, when reality finally sets in and you stop living in your illusion of Morocco as a pretty backdrop whose ugly side can be easily painted over—but that’s part of seeing it as a complete society, with all the pettiness and wonder of any society—please don’t ever be an “expert” (see above)!—good luck to you and your Moroccan man….

@Laurent—I chose the “man of the people” route finally (I don’t have nice shoes) but hopefully, not as a hypocrite—really what you’re saying is to embrace the role you’re given—I have an advantage you didn’t have in central Africa, I physically resemble Moroccans enough that when people don’t know me, they often think I’m a native—I found myself naturally saying “we” meaning “we Moroccans do this, don’t like that” when explaining Morocco to my friends — I never disguise my feelings, Moroccans are geniuses for detecting bullshit, so if I feel like defending Jews or saying that Morocco can learn from the more politically evolved West, I’ll do it—or get right in there and debate the Qur’an—which is exactly what I love about Morocco, there is very little bullshit, at least not that kind of patronizing kind of bullshit.

I really like what you’re saying! You must have some good stories.

@BO18—”It takes an outsider to wake up the insider|||€ “Every question you ask, is a kind of wakeup call”—I agree, and thank you for saying that :)—in an Arab society, which in order to protect itself (I would say misguidedly) from outsiders, offers walls that look like doors, and doors that look like walls, to the point that the natives themselves are driven crazy with confusion, I would argue that to hear someone tell it like it is, is great medicine—a stimulant, a purgative—so what Morocco and the rest of the Arab world need, in my opinion, is to be forced to adapt (like the West) to a constant influx of new ideas—but don’t worry, Moroccans are great improvisers, you’ll handle it wonderfully!

@Yahia—Not sure I understand your first question, but let me say this—I don’t fear losing my identity, never have, because for me, identity is something we make up as we go along!—Morocco’s traditions are a BLEND of the music, clothing, food, language and religion of all the people who have ever moved to Morocco from some other place—and that process never stops, so those who embrace it instead of fearing it have the advantage—the others are “dinosaurs” and they end up as “fossil fuel” for the rest of us :)—I’d love to be in Morocco NOW but I suppose it won’t be for at another year—out of curiosity, what part of Morocco are you from, and are you there now?

Comment from Liosliath
Time: January 18, 2007, 00:09

Wait, you’re headed back to Morocco? We need more news about that, is SF just a temporary stop to save up more $?

Comment from eatbees
Time: January 18, 2007, 00:53

Yes, the job is temporary, and well paying (I’m negotiating the rate now). About the timing of my return, we’ll have to see if I get into grad school or not.

Are you actually in Morocco, or did you just visit for the holidays?

Comment from Liosliath
Time: January 18, 2007, 01:33

I should really just post about this or email you instead of hijacking the flow of great comments, sorry – but I’ve already committed the crime, so…

I’m still in Ohio, Hamou and I came back here last June. He went back to Morocco at the end of November for one of the high seasons.

Boy, I wish I could negotiate temporary well-paying stops in SF. Sheesh! :)

Comment from SimplyMoroccan
Time: January 18, 2007, 16:53

I need to comment on what you said, can’t but do that.
The lack of queues everywhere is something even us Moroccans are frustrated about it. That’s why IAM has adopted the ticket system to manage queues in its agencies, and it’s working just fine. Hope that it will be spread to other places as well. But when it comes to hospitals for example, even with tickets, it’s a plain mess. The number of patients per doctor is freaking high, and considering the low level of life, MANY people have to go to public hospitals so the queues are scary. People would –sadly- step on each other to reach the nurse first and get their ticket.
The spit: You just go like, “oops! Did I step on that one?|||€. :-p Seriosly, I do believe that Moroccans should act more responsibly towards their environment. Which point applies also to plastic bags.
For lHwânt (plural), let me guess: You’re living in some countryside? Otherwise, I see no reason why lHwânt won’t have anything you’d ever need, that can’t be a generalization.
– Didn’t get your point for the “latter problem”-

I still think that the depth within which you can see your culture, depends on how educated you are. As for what you said, I do agree that it’s because we take things for granted that we don’t ask questions about many things related to our culture.

Only an interesting entry would raise so many comments, nah? :–) (it also needs bright readers, and I see that you have many…)
> — A second “yes” to my question about the degree of intimacy your reached.

Comment from Jill
Time: January 20, 2007, 08:08

This has become such a multidirectional conversation, I don’t know where to begin, but:

@eatbees: I suppose I should be grateful that it happened at three months and not, for example, now. Good point.

@SimplyMoroccan: Well, I agree with your point about queueing, but it’s not only in necessary situations (getting on the train, getting a doctor) in which it occurs – I have to push and shove and elbow my way to my CLASSROOM on some days because students are so busy kissing, chatting, standing on the stairs and trying to walk in stilettos.

As for lHwant – I live in Hamrya, in Meknes. My hanout still never has ketchup, and the one down the street doesn’t have the right cigarettes when I want them. Necessities? Certainly not, but I just said it never has “exactly” what I need. It’s got all I need for survival, indeed :)

Comment from Outsider123
Time: January 24, 2007, 08:45

I, too, found this discussion interesting because my question has always been – why do Western foreigners in Morocco have such a desperate need to throw off their own cultural identity and values in order to adopt one of those from Morocco? Yes, there is more than one culture here and more than one set of values which may contribute to the confusion of answers one gets in response to questions about certain habits, etc. Even so, try as any of you might, you will never be Moroccan and once you accept that and realize people are people wherever they are, you will be at peace in your surroundings.

Maybe the babouches are yellow because at some point in time it was the most available dye, or the cheapest dye and the situation lasted significantly long enough to make it into a tradition. Some reasons are as simple as that and there are no deep secrets or meanings behind them. Most of life’s mysteries have their roots in simple economics – or politics.

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