Monday, February 12, 2007

Morocco for the Professors

Thanks to grants from the Petters Internationalization Initiative, fourteen Rollins faculty and staff members were able to visit Morocco from January 2-14. During the fall semester, participants attended a weekly seminar and took turns researching and presenting on various aspects of Moroccan culture in preparation for departure. In Morocco, our academic partner was the Center for Cross Cultural Learning in Rabat, who organized lectures, site visits, and homestays. Rachel Newcomb and Bob Moore from the Department of Anthropology and Nour Bennani from Information Technology led the group.

Two "Moroccos"

One of the leading concepts for describing economic development in late-industrializing, post-colonial countries is "dualism." For example, the label "Belindia" has been used to describe the radical inequality between Brazil's relatively prosperous and cosmopolitan south/southeast (Brazil's "Belgium") and its backward northeast (Brazil's "India"). Would Morocco, a country slightly larger than California and just smaller than Spain, exhibit similar characteristics?

The answer was revealed when we left the cosmopolitan comforts of Marrakech and crossed to the other side of the Atlas Mountains. Marrakech, like other Moroccan cities we visited, was complex in and of itself. In fact, it was several cities in one: an ancient, walled, and sacred city (the medina) alongside an automobile-based, fashionable and vaguely secular city (the French new city). A construction boom in sprawling homogenous modern villas aggressively marketed to Europeans and Moroccan elites appeared to announce the arrival of yet another (post-modern?) phase in Marrakech's urban development. Altogether the city exhibited a vibrant mix of old and new.

Yet the journey across the mountains and deep into the desert revealed an entirely different Morocco, one far removed from the hustle and bustle of the city and seemingly disconnected from national life elsewhere. Above all, it revealed the staggering poverty of life in the desert. Here, on the edge of the Sahara, the government appeared to have little reach. The most visible signs of the state were military compounds strategically spread out across the land and the occasional elementary school. Yet there was a vibrancy here too grounded in the traditions of nomadic and desert life, and
seen in the bright blue clothing, red carpets, and green pottery.

In short, our trip from one side of Morocco to the other-from the ocean to Marrakech and across the mountains to the sandy frontier with Algeria-revealed several Moroccos, coexisting rather tenuously yet forming a complex whole.
- Dexter Boniface, Political Science

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Moulay Idriss

Moulay Idriss is a charming, prosperous-looking town near Volubilis that had two qualities we in the US might find strange: no alcohol permitted and no non-Muslims allowed after dark. The idea of a city being dry because of religious beliefs seems like an antiquated notion; no non-Muslims after dark sounds almost racist (religionist?). Moulay Idriss challenges our belief in the West that science and rationality will eventually triumph over religion and irrationality. I wonder if our belief is true. It certainly isn't hard to find people everywhere--including the US--who reject scientism as a worldview. We all appreciate the benefits of science, but who are happier--people in Moulay Idriss or Winter Park?

- Robert Smither, Psychology

Going Outside My Comfort Zone

Since I share Woody Allen's sentiment, "I am two with nature," I wasn't looking forward to camping out in the desert. I certainly didn't plan to do anything like hiking, so when I heard a suggestion that we climb some dunes, I tried to excuse myself to go and read. But at the insistence of our guide, Malika, I rushed to catch up to the group at the last minute--huffing and puffing and seriously wondering whether anyone there could perform CPR.

When we reached the top of the dune, I was amazed to see a line of camels below, waiting for us to ride them. What a scene! This looked like it might be fun.

That said, I wasn't going to get on just any camel. I didn't want the one who was growling and baring his teeth, or the one that was foaming at the mouth-- I looked for the most placid of the lot, finally choosing a gentle-looking one called Sharif. I talked very softly to Sharif during our ride, and was happy to see that he seemed to be listening, since his head turned and his ears moved towards me when I spoke. He seemed fine with the ride. I really started to enjoy myself then.

The sun was beginning to set, the air was cool, and the desert was beautiful and quiet. In the end, I felt like I could have ridden on for hours. How lucky for me that I had to leave my comfort zone! I wouldn't have missed it for anything.

- Darla Moore, Olin Library

Moroccan Cuisine

Food is an important aspect of culture: on the Morocco trip, eating provided the occasion for learning Arabic, partaking in new cultural practices (eating with our hands), as well as new aesthetic experiences.

Some highlights:
--Eating dinner in a Moroccan home, where Margaret and I ate our fabulous meal Moroccan style, using bread to eat from a common plate of cous-cous, vegetables and meat. We had already learned to say “chokran” (“thank you”) and “la chokran” (“No thank you”)—here we learned “couli!”) (“eat!”) and “sh’bet!” (“I’m full!”).
--The orange stands in Marrakech—huge stands with dozens of oranges piled up to entice passers-by to order a glass of orange juice squeezed on the spot. Not only was the orange juice the best ever, but in the saturated light of Marrakech, with its intensely blue sky and its trademark reddish buildings, the orange stands were especially beautiful to look at.

--The spice stores in the medinas (old cities), with their barrels of cumin, curries, and cinnamon sticks— stunning to look at and lovely to smell. Below is a photo of a stand that sells dried dates, figs, apricots and nuts

--The theater of dining—most Moroccan dishes are served “family style” in a tagine, an earthenware dish with a removable cone-shaped top (“tagine” also refers to the slow-cooked stews made in them). When servers brought the main dishes to our tables, much oohing and aahing ensued when they removed the tagine tops to show the carefully arranged main course of cous-cous, vegetables, and/or meat. I could write a whole section on the architecture of the Moroccan meal, as many of the cous-cous dishes were piled up in some gravity-defying arrangements. How did they get the cous-cous piled that high in such perfect cone shapes? We ate these meals with forks, by the way.

--The ubiquitous mint tea, a sugary mixture of green tea and fresh mint. Except in the desert, where it’s considered cheating to add mint—you might be trying to disguise the bad quality of your tea.

--Dinner with Nourredine’s family in Fes, where the entire Rollins group shared a wonderful meal with assorted Bennanis of all ages, including Nour’s lovely mother.

--Susan Libby, Department of Art and Art History

Nutrition in Morocco

Since I teach about nutrition I was particularly struck by the healthiness of the traditional Moroccan diet. People eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and fried and highly processed foods are rare. Since the Moroccans live in a temperate climate, cooks have fresh produce and milk available all year and no need to resort to cheeses, canned foods, jams and the preserved fruits of pastries. Our meals began with a wide selection of fresh salads. Our deserts were usually oranges, clementines and apples. American food preferences are having their effects, however. In the smallest towns on the edge of the Sahara we saw signs in store windows advertising coca cola. We even met a camel who had learned to chug bottles of coke. Sadly, along with cokes have come increased rates of diabetes and high blood pressure.
-Carol Lauer, Department of Anthropology

Impressions of Morocco

The dominant visual impression in Morocco, on foot or from a bus, is walls. Everywhere. Walls to keep enemies out. Walls to keep women in, away from the gaze of men. Thus the vernacular architecture of the kasbah, the mountain village, and the medina exhibits a common denominator, either to keep strangers out or to decide who comes in. Yet on every occasion we got to enter a door, we were met with warmth, food, and generous hospitality.

The most memorable aural impression, dawn and dusk call to prayers, admittedly answered by only the most devout, symbolized the calming effect that the Moroccan version of Islam (Sunni, Malaki order) seems to provide. What a mind-opening opportunity to experience this remarkable country, people, and religion.

But….. why are so many of the brightest young people planning to leave? Our conversation with students from Mohammed Vth University unsettled me a bit. The issue that had most interested me as we prepared for our trip was Moroccan emigration to Europe. But I had noticed only the illiterate and the poorest of the poor, including sub-Saharan Africans using Morocco as an embarkation point. That a substantial number of the most educated believe they must leave, despite a general hopefulness about their progressive, development-savvy King Mohammed VI, raises troubling questions about Morocco’s future.
- Gary Williams, Department of History

Monday, February 5, 2007

Baking Bread in the Sahara Desert

Confucius once said: a man cannot be serious enough about his eating, for food is the force that binds society together. Before going to Morocco, I had serious reservations about eating food in a Muslim country for twelve days. Would I get sick or starve? I often wondered. Even when we sat by the campfire and watched the old gentleman making sand bread, I kept telling myself that there was no way I was going to eat something that was buried in sand. To my pleasant surprise, it turned out to be one of the most fascinating foods we had on the trip. I learned that while exploring a different culture, we need to keep our eyes, our minds as well as our mouths open.

- Wenxian Zhang, Olin Library

The sand bread was a disk-shaped loaf of bread baked on coals buried in the desert sand, as has been the practice among nomads for centuries. It was especially wonderful after camel riding and dancing with the Berber musicians!

- Susan Libby, Art History

Morocco and Muslim-American Relations

Morocco is one of the most friendly and pro-American countries in the Arab world, a country where the watchwords are hospitality and gentleness, not violence and danger. Not only was I pleasantly surprised at the warmth with which we were received by our Moroccan hosts, I was amazed at the ease with which Moroccans talked of the Jewish communities that for centuries thrived in their midst. It seems that every city and town in Morocco has a historic Jewish quarter with synagogues that only went into decline in the 1950s when many Moroccan Jews chose to emigrate to Israel.

I spent one evening as a dinner guest at the home of a pleasant young woman who lives in the old walled quarter of Rabat. She proudly showed me an album with pictures she had collected over the years of dozens of American visitors to Rabat whom she had befriended. Then, to my surprise, she indicated two students who were not Americans, but Israelis. “This one,” she beamed, “is the granddaughter of Ariel Sharon’s brother!”

Since this is the first time I have ever heard the name “Ariel Sharon” spoken by an Arab citizen with pride instead of contempt, it is a moment I will not soon forget.

For centuries, hundreds of thousands of Jews had lived in harmony with their Muslim neighbors in cities all over Morocco. Many of them were descendants of the Jews and Muslims who were driven from Spain five hundred years ago. It is a point of pride among Moroccans that they never instituted an inquisition like that of fifteenth-century Spain that targeted Jews or other religious minorities. During World War II when Hitler asked Morocco to expel its Jewish population, Morocco’s King Mohammad V resisted, insisting that “We have no Jews here, only Moroccans.”

The positive attitude that Moroccans show toward Jews and Israelis is matched by their friendliness toward Americans. During our two weeks of travel from urban neighborhoods to desert campsites, our delegation enjoyed unfailing hospitality. Morocco demonstrates what a Muslim country with open attitudes toward the West and Israel looks like. It is a model that we Americans would do well to encourage.

- Robert Moore, Department of Anthropology

Houses, Households, and Harems: Reflecting on Morocco

Walking through the narrow alleyways in the old part of Moroccan cities, the medina, what dominates are the high walls around you, except in the marketplaces, with their tiny shops, shallow stalls shelved from floor to ceiling with goods. What is behind the walls? Author and scholar Fatima Mernissi describes her house in Fez, in the 1940’s:

“First, there was the square and rigid courtyard, where symmetry ruled everything. Even the white marble fountain, forever bubbling in the courtyard center, seemed controlled and tamed. (…) Then, facing one another in pairs, across the courtyard, were four huge salons. Each salon had a gigantic gate in the middle, flanked by enormous windows, opening onto the courtyard. In the early morning, and in the winter, the salon gates would be shut tight with cedarwood doors carved with flowers. In the summer, the doors would be opened and drapes of heavy brocade, velvet and lace let down, so breezes could flow in while light and noise were kept away.” (p. 4)

Our group’s entree into old Morocco was in a building like this, which houses the Centre for Cross-Cultural Living (CCCL) in the medina in Rabat. Their three-story building is roofed, unlike Mernissi’s home, so that the weather does not intrude, allowing the participants in its short- and long-term programs to use the “courtyard” space for large-group meetings and meals. The salons in CCCL had become offices and smaller meeting rooms. Narrow staircases in several corners took us to those upper-level rooms, many opening to the balconies on each floor, overlooking the first floor below. It is an architecture we saw repeated in more public buildings in several Moroccan cities and one familiar to visitors of (Al-) Andalusia in Spain, and even in monasteries in the Balkans I had seen.

In our second night in Morocco, when we ate with different families in the medina, Wendy Brandon and I entered our hosts’ house through the courtyard, this one opening up to the stars, and followed the corner stairs up, and up, to a cozy apartment and its long kitchen and eating area. I could see that its dimensions mirrored those of the salons-cum-offices in the CCCL. The next day as our whole group toured the same courtyard, we saw that there was also an adjacent riad, another square-walled structure of gardens. The former Sultan’s house in Rabat was similar, but much more sumptuous of course.

What I didn’t quite understand until revisiting this type of house in Mernissi’s book was that it allowed for an extended family to pool their resources, to live together (a patriarch, his sons and their families) instead of each son’s family going off to live on their own.

And of course, these walled houses could enforce the other aspect of traditional life in Morocco, and perhaps in most Islamic countries: that of keeping the women secluded. Often these women’s only view of the sky would have been from their courtyard, or occasionally from the roof of the building, when they went to hang up the laundry. With walls surrounding the house, and windows opening up only to the courtyard, what happened within the family stayed in the house. Still today, walls keep out those who should not enter, and back then, kept in those (women and girls) who should not leave. And those who stayed inside then had to make much of what they were allowed. Mernissi’s creativity as an adult was no doubt fueled by the stories she heard from her aunts and mother, and by the appreciation the older women showed when the little cousins would perform plays of their own making. As the title of Mernissi’s book implies (Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood), girls and women longed for the freedom to leave these walls, and since she wrote of life under French colonial rule, freedom from those uniformed foreign soldiers who kept watch at various corners of the medina and beyond.

On our study tour, we must have passed by people who still live in these houses, in extended families. Our hostess for that evening meal, on her third floor apartment in her family’s house, worked with the sub-Saharan refugees in Rabat. Her husband is a teacher. She wears a hijab, a scarf, but is not secluded by the standards of sixty years ago or more. Now I wonder what aspects of her life are similar to her mother’s or grandmother’s? How many meals do the various family units share? Is childcare a family enterprise? How much of every nuclear family’s income is pooled for the larger, extended family? And what of those who live in the Ville Nouvelle, in apartment buildings? What aspects of shared life with close relatives do they still enjoy?

I also realized on this trip just how much we learn in layers, that finding a truer meaning is like peeling an onion, that there’s always more to it. So my understanding of the word harem is now more elaborated. Mernissi speaks of her traditional upbringing as in a domestic harem: Extended families, sharing most activities (meals especially), but very often without polygamy. Quite bourgeois, she says. In contrast, what I had understood the word harem to mean was what obsessed the Western imagination for centuries: the imperial harems, of the Ottoman Turks among others, with hundreds of slave girls.

Now I’m contemplating this domestic harem, especially the extended family part. When did we in the U.S. stop living with our parents? Or near them? I grew up with two grandmothers living in my house, and that was already rare in the late 60’s. My children did not, my parents not wanting to impose on their children what had been forced on them. Both sets of grandparents lived 1,000 miles away, until they moved south near the end of their lives. Our long-distance relationship was also a product partly of social class, of educated children following their careers.

We learned that Moroccans have been crossing the Strait of Gibraltar (from the Arabic Jebel Tariq, meaning Mountain of Tariq) for a millennium and a half, first to conquer the Iberian Peninsula and then rule there for 700 years. And for the last fifty years perhaps, to find work in the harvests, since both Morocco and Spain have thriving citrus groves and truck farms. And not only migrant agricultural workers: many of Morocco’s educated elite understand as we do in the U.S., that in a globalized economy, their economic well-being demands that they travel once more across the Strait, to the European Union, or to follow the trail of so many others in these last 500 years, from Europe and the countries bordering the Mediterranean to the now somewhat different “New World” of North America.

- Susie Robertshaw, Thomas P. Johnson Student Resource Center, Rollins College