[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.