Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

On “Otherness”

[Since writing this post yesterday, I’ve had a number of interesting conversations, not to mention received more e-mails and comments than usual.  Although it’s perhaps too soon to revise my post in a meaningful way, there are a few things I feel that I should have included: my age and status as a single woman – I was 23 when I moved to Morocco; the fact that I actually did and do have close relationships with Moroccans – this post was meant to be more of a comment on the way strangers and the public in general viewed me there; my frustrations with the dichotomy between western “expats” and eastern “immigrants” – but alas, all that for another time.]

I’ve been reading a lot of narratives lately that deal with the concept of Otherness. It’s one that I’m intimately familiar with but haven’t managed to write about (yet). It’s one that I couldn’t shake in my two years in Morocco, and one that remains with me always because of my political views. It’s also one felt strongly by foreigners and immigrants (and their great-great-grandchildren, sometimes) in my own country. It’s something Muslims and Arabs in the United States are working to shake, and something Jews generations before them did (and sometimes still do).

But allow me to focus on myself, and on Morocco, for a moment. Charlotte, a Dutch anthropologist who has lived in the U.S. for years but is currently conducting research in Morocco, wrote an incredibly touching post on the subject last week on the sense of otherness felt by (mostly white) foreigners living in Morocco. Of the concept, she said:

The thing is, that if you’ve grown up ethnically white in an American or Dutch middle class neighborhood, Otherness is probably not a feeling you are accustomed to. I’m not talking about that sense of ‘being different’ that we all experience from time to time, or that feeling of just not being able to ‘connect’ to any other individual in our environment. What I am referring to is not an internal feeling, but rather an externally imposed sense of difference. A perception of Otherness in the eyes of our social environment that is based on unchangeable (and often inborn) aspects of our appearance, and that we ourselves are unable to control or change. That sense of Otherness that anyone who has grown up as part of an ethnic minority will be overly familiar with.

I haven’t yet lived in a foreign country other than Morocco, but having discussed the experience of living abroad with numerous friends who’ve done the same, I’ve come to the conclusion that, while everyone has difficulty assimilating to a new culture, Morocco (not unlike say, Japan) is a particularly difficult country to fit into. It’s not specifically Islam, of which most of its residents are practitioners, nor is it skin color; There’s something about the social intricacies of Morocco, as well as the insular history of the country, that often excludes foreigners (as well as foreign-born Moroccans) from it.

Take this into account: Although Morocco is a long-traversed land, passed over by Phoenicians and Romans, Jews, Carthaginians, Vandals, and Byzantines, then the Arabs, and finally the Spanish, Portuguese and French, it has also managed to remain an insular one. Marvine Howe, in Morocco: The Islamist Awakening and Other Challenges, refers to Morocco as “proud and unruly” and in terms of resistance, it was. Despite centuries of colonization, there is still a strong Amazigh identity. Despite attempts to crush it during periods of pan-Arabism, it remains, as does a uniquely “Moroccan” sense of identity, despite how different the coast is from the interior, the Atlas from the Med.

But I digress…Part of the frustration of living in Morocco as a foreigner is the sense that, no matter what you do, you’re lumped in with all of the white people who came before you (much like being a Muslim in America, eh?). Charlotte says:

I know that I do not look like a tourist. Most likely we are all sensitive to the little markers that tell you where a person is from, and what he or she is doing in their current location. You can tell by the way they walk, and the way they look around at their surroundings. It’s their dress, their choice of bag, and the style of nonverbal communication. All of these things can clue you in about a person’s nationality, or the length of their stay here in Morocco. But as much as it seems clear to people on the street that I am not a holiday traveler, I will nevertheless always be instantly recognized as an outsider, a visitor. Again, it’s in little things that this perception hides.

Morocco has many wealthy, mostly European expatriates, many of whom don’t make much of an effort to learn Arabic, understand Islam, or otherwise assimilate. The rest of the foreigners* fit relatively neatly into a few other categories, none of which are all that wealthy. Many of them live on Moroccan salaries, albeit upper-middle-class ones, but most are not homeowners. Most make some attempt to speak darija. Most of their friendships are with Moroccans, even if they’re limited to upper-middle-class English-speaking Moroccans. In other words, for all intents and purposes, they are in a position to assimilate.

[*Edit: After I wrote this, I got a really thoughtful email from a Moroccan Twitter friend, who disagreed with my assertions.  After thinking about it, I realized that I was looking at this from a totally American lens.  When I referred to foreigners, I was really thinking of Americans – mostly my age, and mostly with an educational background in the region – who come to Morocco to be a part of Morocco. I know a lot of them.  I have no real basis for speaking for other nationalities, though I do know a few people from Europe who fit this paradigm.]

Easier said than done. I spent two years living on the same neighborhood block, on Meknes’s Avenue des F.A.R. in Hamrya, a middle-class neighborhood with tree-lined streets, a bakery or two, a butcher shop, a couple of mostly male-dominated cafés, and a strange rotation of VW Beetles parked on the street and owned by a local eccentric who’d fix them up and re-sell them. Each day, I would walk through this neighborhood to get to the school where I worked. I would often by a Coca at the hanout and a pastry at the bakery. I chatted about street cats with the man who owned the myriad of VWs. The car guardian on the corner kept an eye on me as I walked home at night, lest some man tried to pin me up against his vehicle and attempt to kidnap me (it happened).

Yet, aside from those few friendly neighbors, my daily interactions on my street went something like this:

Salut, ca va? Hey, psssssssst. Poulette. Hey! – a man who sat at the café below my apartment every single day.

You are welcome in Morocco. – any number of young men passing by me on the street, many of whom had seen me numerous times over the course of two years.

Charlotte’s experience was no different:

It’s the fact that, after walking up and down the same streets for nine months, men still wish me “bienvenue au Maroc” when I am on my way home from work in the afternoon.

It’s the fact that I will never be able to rent a house for the same price as a Moroccan tenant (and that a landlord will always be more eager to rent to me), or get as low a price on a set of handmade cedar side-tables as my Moroccan colleague.

It’s in the fact that taxi drivers in Marrakech will persistently address me in English, even when I speak to them in (broken) Arabic.

I don’t mean to complain; it’s important, as a foreigner in a developing country, to be aware of your privilege, and some of these occurrences are simply par for the course. And, of course, there is always good. As Charlotte puts it:

But for every person who reminds you that you are an outsider, there is someone else who embraces you and all your efforts to integrate. Such as the woman on the street who once asked me for directions in Arabic. Or the friendly shopkeeper at the mini marché across from my apartment, who always chats with me in Darija. Or a Fassi friend who refers to me as a Rbatia. And it is these brief little moments that make all those others seem very, very unimportant…

It’s funny, but since I’ve left, I’ve realized in so many ways how a part of my community I was…When my former students talk to me in Arabic. When my friends in the #twittoma agree with my assertions about Morocco. When I hear someone call me Meknassia. When I find a Moroccan in Boston with whom to hold a brief conversation in darija. And I agree with Charlotte: that all of those brief moments make the others seem so unimportant.

23 Comments

  1. Interesting post; I read Charlotte’s too, and you both articulate your ideas in a thoughtful way. However, I would just say that experience of choosing to go to another country and not being given the chance to assimilate is quite different to that of immigrants (particularly second- and third-generation) who despite being born in a country are not accepted (and who have nowhere else to belong to). Particularly when there is a whole historical structure of racist thinking behind it.

    (Ah, I just looked at Charlotte’s post again, and the first commenter said something similar…)

    • Thanks Bint Battuta. You do have a point, particularly when it comes to second- and third- generation immigrants; however, I don’t really subscribe to the idea of viewing immigration only against a western backdrop. We differentiate between “immigrants” and “expats” as if the latter category means “western.” And yet, not all immigrants have nowhere else to belong (of course, I’m not refuting the fact that many don’t).

      I would also add that, in Morocco anyway, there are plenty of non-western immigrants who aren’t allowed to fit in either. I had Algerian students who looked Moroccan enough, but because of their accent or whatever, were teased mercilessly. I had students from Chad, Burkina Faso, and Cameroon who spoke flawless French, so the students talked behind their backs in Arabic instead.

      So, just because this was a post about me and my privileged point of view doesn’t make it any less real.

    • I wasn’t suggesting your experience wasn’t “real” or that articulating your experience this way isn’t valid…I was simply saying that it is a quite different sense of “otherness” to that experienced by second- and third-generation immigrants, as you made the comparison. And you’re right, immigration is not only to the “West”, but I was writing in response to references both you and Charlotte made to immigrants/minorities in the US and Netherlands.

    • Ahh, you worked away around the comment threading problem :)

      Thanks for clarifying – and I agree with you, that was an awkward comparison to make.

  2. Thank you for featuring my post in yours! I feel truly honored… And again, it’s so good to hear that someone else has had similar experiences.

    Your discussion of Morocco’s history adds a really interesting perspective to the whole issue. I have the sense that Moroccans’ particular treatment of foreigners has a lot to do with the fact that the country is very preoccupied with the notion of ‘identity’ in general – its own, and by extension perhaps, that of ‘others’. I think this has to do a lot with the country’s particular history, as well as with its incredible ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and even religious heterogeneity (which itself is a product of that history, of course).

    Bint Battuta – you bring up a totally valid point. Unlike the immigrants you speak of, we who choose to live in a foreign country have done exactly that: we made a choice. I’ve written a lot on second generation immigrants of Moroccan descent in the Netherlands, and the sense of otherness they experience (both in Holland and back in Morocco) is something of a different dimension altogether.

  3. You know it’s sad because I thought you may be thinking in an original way, which is what I look for. I even had friends read this last post of yours and we spoke of the familiar disappointment when confronted with the same old story. Your “otherness” you feel is because you walk around very conscious of your privilege. You don’t see individual, free beings at all. You just see groups. Your “otherness” is their alienation. People know you’re full of shit.

    • Despite your rudeness, you do have a point. I am, unfortunately, constantly aware of my privilege. It’s a legacy of my background in sociology and one that I wish I could sometimes rid myself of.

      That said, I’m pretty sure we’ve never met. I choose not to write about personal relationships on my blog because I find it exploitative. I afford my Moroccan friends the same respect I do my friends in the States. But, in the end, my closest friends in Morocco were those with whom I could have honest discussions about my experience (and them about theirs).

      There are lots of things I could say to explain more why I felt the way I did, but you’ve already made up your mind about me.

  4. It is sad that within the overwhelmingly welcoming Moroccan community there are still some xenophobic Moroccans who, rather than engage on an even basic intellectual level and try to see from an others point of view, would rather descend into ignorant rudeness. Hsuma.

    The Moroccans who have come to our country are not seen as “other” because my country is one of immigrants. However in Morocco, the first few years I was treated as “other” but now I am treated just as a member of our local community. It is not a wealthy one and certainly not one of privilege. Many Moroccans are far wealthier than our family, others are far poorer. but we are a community in which we are consulted about ever neighbourhood issue.

    • I’m glad that’s been your experience. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s impossible – a lot of my inability to fit in could very well be my fault (and my age and my status as a single young woman). I’m curious – where do you live?

  5. Jillian and Charlotte,

    Thanks for an interesting and thoughtful post. I would like to also feature Charlotte’ original post and some of Jillian’s as well. Our blog is now syndicated by Lonely Planet and by Global Post, so your ideas would reach a reasonably wide audience. Can you let me know if it is okay to repost? If it is, maybe just a tweet, or email.

    Cheers

    Sandy

  6. Difficult to critique a personal reflexion, but I can assure you that Morocco relative to the rest of MENA is actually rather easy to fit into. Far easier than say an Egypt or Jordan or Syria if one is an expat, for example. Nor do I think there is anything “particular” with respect to Morocco and identity relative to European or North Americans resident, rather it seems fairly typical of countries in a relatively recent post-colonial situation. Indeed, far less obsessed and prickly than say an Algeria.

    • I can’t argue with that (especially Egypt, which I’ve heard is frustrating), but I’m surprised nonetheless about Syria – Although I’ve only traveled there, I wasn’t bothered, once, like I am in Morocco. Perhaps it might be more difficult to form friendships, but I certainly felt like less of a sore thumb.

    • I find it odd the you lumped 3 very different countries together in one large generalization. care to explain more? what’s particularly making it difficult to fit in each country? was your generalization based on some facts that you didn’t mention in your comment? or was it because naming random MENA countries would give a sense of validity to your argument?

  7. (Forgive me for commenting Ms. York.)
    The Lounsbury’
    The point you make about “post-colonial situation” is key IMO, as people from the west, who’ve not disavowed there relationship to their respective countries, act as though assimilation is something based on everything but their sense of privilege, which they feel and which can be seen by eyes familiar with it and sensitive to it. Ms. York was surprised that she did not fit in after two years. Could it be that her difficulty was based upon her own disposition instead of the people residing there? My comments are in no way meant to offend anyone. My intention is to point out a neglect of empathy.

    • I never said I was surprised, nor did I say I didn’t fit in in the end. And what the hell do you know about my relationship to my country?

      My “disposition,” which you know absolutely nothing about, could certainly be part of the problem, but judging by the number of people who’ve expressed similar sentiment, I highly doubt it.

    • I don’t think anyone should disavow their home country in order to be accepted into the society of another country, be they privileged or not. And what kind of privilege are we talking about here; education? wealth? a US passport? a light skin tone?
      I’ve been in Boston for 3 months now and not once I felt like an outsider, I have not disavowed Syria nor I would do it later.
      Youl might argue by saying that the US is based on immigrants, that is true. But Boston is largely white, compared to say.. NYC or Washington DC. Here you rarely get on the bus with an Arab, an Indian, or for that matter an African American. I came into a homogeneous mainly white community expecting to find xenophobia but I felt nothing but being welcome as a member of that community, not as an outsider or an immigrant.

      In contrast, my Grandmother, now over 85, says that she has spent over 50 years in one place (my hometown Swaida) after moving out of Lebanon, and people here still mention where she came from when they refer to her. Mind you she speaks their language in the local dialect, she belongs to the same religious minority as them, yet they never made her feel the she completely belonged.

      It’s not related to post colonialism, the problem is that many of us in the MENA region still have a tribal mentality in our subconscious telling us to be kind to guests, but to always be alarmed by their presence.

  8. Anas Qtiesh
    If the “tribal mentality” is to always be alarmed by the presence of guests, from whence does this ‘alarm’ arise if not the trepidation assumed in a post colonial environment?
    You may have had a different experience than the above article “On otherness” because you expected xenophobia.

  9. Is this directed to me: “I find it odd the you lumped 3 very different countries together in one large generalization. care to explain more? what’s particularly making it difficult to fit in each country? was your generalization based on some facts that you didn’t mention in your comment? or was it because naming random MENA countries would give a sense of validity to your argument?”?

    If it is, rather simply, three countries in which I have extensive experience, as a resident and arabophone. Need any more “validity” mate?

    BTW, Boston is not largely white, perhaps where you are and what you are experiencing it is a wee bit more ‘white’ than New York. NYC is ~40 odd per cent white (per American census category), Boston ~50 odd per cent. Not massively different.

    Regarding tribal mentality etc., yes indeed, that has an impact – certainly in Jordan it is bloody tedious, but the particular experience of a Jillian York in a Morocco (where tribalism is a peripheral phenomena, in particular relative to Leb Land or the Hashemite confetti), there is no small degree of post-colonial hangover in relations with “Europeans.” This is perhaps a bit foreign to Machreq insofar as unlike the Maghreb, ex Israel-Palestine, there wasn’t real settler colonialism, contra the French method in the Maghreb.

    On the other hand, the tribalism still prevalent in the Sham rather does present other kinds of barriers.

    • Boston may not be largely white, but it’s no New York. Unless you go to Jamaica Plain, or Roxbury, or Dorchester, or Mattapan you are likely to be surrounded by white people, with a few others thrown in. I’ve lived in the area for oh, 21 years of my life, and I can tell you that despite stats, it’s still a largely segregated city. Knowing where Anas lives, and the routes he takes, and the areas he occupies, I’m not surprised that he hasn’t run into much non-whiteness.

      Lounsbury, another aspect that came to me last night – specifically in regard to Syria – is the familiarity with foreignness in general. Again, I have less experience there, but there is far more “surface diversity” if you will, than in Morocco, and obvious ethnic and religious diversity, hence the feeling of a cosmopolitan-ness (at least in Damascus), and hence me not feeling like a complete outsider, at least in the short term.

  10. Regarding Syria…. more surface diversity?

    Well, it depends on what kind you mean. Religious, certainly there are Xians of various flavours, as well as odd groups that are neither here nor there (druze, etc). Linguistic diversity…. strikes me as not that different than Morocco, but far less ‘racial’ diversity. On the other hand, being Pale & European looking stands out less. Which may be something that impacted you.

    I would submit there is a great difference between living somewhere for, let us say 5 plus months just to pull a number out of the hat, and a visit.

  11. I find “lounsbury” rather an irritating example of the arrogant pseudo-intellectual self-important “I have extensive experience, as a resident and arabophone.” fool. Knowledge is one thing, wisdom something else. His contribution to this interesting debate adds nothing but his desire to be centre stage. I have read his and his associated blogs and find little of value.

    His lack of appreciation of “tribalism” particularly in relationship to Morocco displays a staggering depth of ignorance. Fez, as an example, is dominated by “the Fassi families”. The parts of Syria we know well are also particularly tribal. This tribalism does make “the other” an outsider and understandably so.

    On the other hand, Jillian, you appear to have grasped the central points particularly well. My apologies for my poor English.

  12. Well, “Oscar et Lucinda” my “staggering depth of ignorance” comes from not using the word “tribal” in a generic catch all sense. The Fassi families are not tribal – indeed that you use that as an example simply means that you either don’t understand the concept or are knee jerking. The Fassi clans are most certainly oligarchies, but not tribal. The two concepts are rather different. AS for your personal dislike of me, eh, I am positively wounded…. Carry on then.

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