Encountering Morocco: Fieldwork and Cultural Understanding

Encountering Morocco: Fieldwork and Cultural Understanding

by Afterword by Kevin Dwyer. Edited by David Crawford and Rachel Newcomb (Afterword)


Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Thursday, August 22


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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253009111
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 05/15/2013
Series: Public Cultures of the Middle East and North Africa
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 785,353
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

David Crawford is Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Fairfield University, and author of Moroccan Households in the World Economy: Labor and Inequality in a Berber Village.

Rachel Newcomb is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Rollins College and author of Women of Fes: Ambiguities of Life in Urban Morocco.

Read an Excerpt

Encountering Morocco

Fieldwork and Cultural Understanding

By David Crawford, Rachel Newcomb

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2013 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00919-7


Arabic or French?

The Politics of Parole at a Psychiatric Hospital in Morocco


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, 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.

She is slightly restless this morning as she listens to her fellow patients' reports. The group's anticipation has been satisfied: the women engaged in conflict have indeed brought their issue to the meeting. It is a dispute over religious freedom, with one party claiming her right to religious expression (in her case, the recitation of Qur'anic verses in the ward's corridors) and the other arguing for her right to freedom from religious indoctrination (especially at ten o'clock at night, when she would prefer to be sleeping). With growing emotion, the two women explain their viewpoints to the group. The doctors are barely able to maintain order.

It is a heavy topic for any group of Moroccan women to address on a Thursday morning. Yet it is not the content but the form of the argument that prompts Nadia to lean in and whisper a question into my ear: "Can you follow all this Arabic?"

I smile, make a gesture to imply that I'm getting the gist, and suggest we try to listen. But Nadia isn't done yet. She leans in again, seeking understanding in my eyes.

"I have a really hard time understanding the Arabic," she confesses. "I'm not used to it at all."

And indeed, when it's Nadia's turn to talk, she makes a point of announcing that she would rather speak French. She cannot express herself as freely in Arabic, she explains to the doctor, whose nod indulges Nadia in her request. And so Nadia begins, noticeably changing the tone of the meeting as she informs her audience—in soft, polished French—that she had a good week. A few women shift in their seats, straightening their spines, and a subtle sense of formality seems to have seeped into the room. All disruptions have come to an end; even the bickering group is now silently listening to the cadence of Nadia's French syllables. But then—just like that, in a blink of an eye that completely negates the gravity of her original request—Nadia downshifts back into Arabic, formulating her closing statements in the local dialect.

This curious linguistic shift is something we've all come to expect of Nadia. She identifies herself as a Moroccan woman, and we've all heard her speak her country's brand of Arabic in chats with staff or fellow patients. Nevertheless, she exhibits a distinct and consistent preference for the language of Morocco's former colonizer, and there is a moment in every conversation when she calls explicit attention to that fact.

This behavior throws the anthropologist for a loop. Why would an individual prefer to speak a second language—a language stained with notions of colonial subjugation, no less—rather than her or his native tongue? The basic methodological principles of ethnographic fieldwork assume that a research participant will always prefer to speak the language in which he or she is most comfortable (see, for instance, Briggs 1986), and that this will inevitably be that person's native tongue. In keeping with this assumption, learning that language usually constitutes an essential step in any anthropologist's preparation for the field. Along with qualifying exams and the dissertation proposal defense, it is a rite of passage in the transition from graduate student to legitimate ethnographer. Scholars of Morocco thus devote considerable time and effort to the study of Moroccan Arabic or one of the many Amazigh (or Berber) varieties that are spoken in the country. As an aspiring ethnographer I, too, passed through several of Morocco's language schools before beginning my fieldwork, in the hope of attaining conversational fluency in Arabic.

Nadia's choice, however, suggests that linguistic landscapes and ideologies in Morocco are more complex than this basic methodological assumption would suggest. Indeed, the ethnographic literature characterizes Morocco as a highly heterogeneous and multilingual society. Though Modern Standard Arabic (or Fusha) is the country's official language, daily life is lived mostly in Darija, the local dialect of Arabic, or in one of the various Amazigh dialects. French, the language of Morocco's former colonial ruler, adds further complexity to the mix by maintaining a persistent presence in government circles and civic institutions, and in northern Morocco one might even come across a word or two of Spanish. Each of these languages plays a distinct role in shaping Moroccan cultural identity and social relationships; each of them harbors unique and complex meanings. A number of scholars have provided rich analyses of the way in which individuals navigate this linguistic multiplicity in the everyday reality of their lived experience, and how language is implicated in assertions of identity and belonging (see, for example, Hoffman 2008b; Ennaji 2005; Sadiqi 2002; Mansouri 1997).

In the following pages, I intend to explore what impact this Moroccan brand of linguistic diversity might have on the experience of conducting ethnographic fieldwork. I do so by sharing stories and anecdotes that I collected over the course of my research in a very specific arena of social interaction: the metropolitan psychiatric hospital where Nadia was being treated for depression. This clinical environment set the stage for my dissertation research, a project in which I examine how psychiatric practice interacts with public discourses on modernity and tradition, and analyze how mental illness affects Moroccan women's experience of life in a rapidly changing post-colonial society. I had conceived of this project as primarily medical and psychological in approach, and I had not planned to focus much on questions of language. However, in the course of conversations with different interlocutors, I came to realize that the key words with which women frame their self-reflections—cultural identity, social status, personal relationships, ambitions, education, freedom of expression—often come wrapped in the delicate tissue of a particular linguistic ideology. Understanding these ideologies, then, is a crucial step toward understanding how these women position themselves within their social world. Through the stories I share in this essay, I explore what these ideologies entail for daily interaction at this psychiatric hospital, and what all this might mean for an anthropologist and her efforts at conducting a clinical ethnography. I begin by turning back to Nadia.

Nadia describes herself as a proud Moroccan Muslim. Yet her words and behavior betray an apparent need to separate, or distance, herself from mainstream Moroccan consciousness. In fact, contradiction and juxtaposition weave themselves continuously in and out of her autobiography; they have become the thematic backbone to her story. She was born into a conservative family and raised in Fes, a bastion of tradition, but she was educated at the French mission's schools and walked around her neighborhood's streets in pigtails and short skirts. Her siblings all followed in her father's footsteps by pursuing degrees in theology, but Nadia chose a career in medicine instead. Her sisters have all been unhappily married for more than twenty-five years, while Nadia is a divorcée who has had several long-term boyfriends. And finally, Arabic is the language of her country and her family, but Nadia prefers French, the language of international sophistication and style.

What emerges from Nadia's autobiography of contrast is the carefully constructed image of an autonomous, self-sufficient, educated, and highly disciplined woman who needs neither man nor family to provide her with a sense of purpose. Her amorous relationships are fleeting, the bond with her family constant yet tenuous. She describes herself as modern, Westernized, and independent, three characteristics that she claims set her miles apart from the average Moroccan woman. Her profession—she is a medical doctor and holds a teaching position at one of Morocco's medical schools—seems to personify these fundamental characteristics. It is a role she is proud of and one she has great difficulty relinquishing, despite the fact that on this particular stage she, herself, has now been cast as a patient. Nadia employs extensive psychiatric and psychoanalytic jargon when she explains her own history of illness, offers unsolicited advice to the ward's doctors on how to treat other patients, and is clearly most in her element when she is advising fellow patients on how best to manage a lingering cough, painful joints, or dry skin.

The above description suggests a number of possible explanations for the fact that Nadia prefers to speak French. First, the use of a foreign language may provide an additional way for her to emphasize her separateness and distance—from family, culture, and social expectations. As Nadia explains it, Moroccan culture is the source of her illness. Her depression was born of suffocation, a case of asphyxiation by the insurmountable pressure of cultural mores and taboos. She spent a few years in France, which she remembers as a place of lightness and air, where she hadn't a care in the world to weigh her down. The thick blanket of sadness did not descend on her until she returned to her native land, fifteen years ago. It is possible, then, that her preference for speaking French might simply be driven by the need for "a breath of fresh air" (Fanon 2008, 5). Perhaps speaking Arabic—a language indelibly linked to and thus bound by Moroccan standards of (expressive) propriety—feels to her like breathing air deprived of oxygen. "To speak means being able to use a certain syntax and possessing the morphology of such and such a language, but it means above all assuming a culture and bearing the weight of a civilization" (ibid., 1–2). Might French, then, be her escape hatch from that weight, a seam in the tightly spun fabric of moral codes? A helium balloon that lifts her high beyond the reach of Moroccan gender expectations?

It is likely that French is also, quite simply, a language with which Nadia is by now more comfortable than Arabic. It is no surprise that Nadia is more easily able to express herself in French after an education at Morocco's French schools, earning a medical degree, and a life lived in Morocco's elite social circles. The language of the former colonizer maintains a strong presence in the Moroccan public and institutional sphere, despite persistent societal efforts to combat its influence. In the first decades after independence, the Moroccan government embarked on a process of Moroccanizing the institutional infrastructure of schools, public services, and power that had been left behind by the French. The goal was to unify the newly independent country under a single culture, language, and governmental structure: all posts and positions were to be filled by Moroccan citizens, and French was to be replaced by Modern Standard Arabic (Obdeijn, de Mas, and Hermans 2002). In practice, however, the influence of French proved difficult to eliminate (Howe 2005). The scarcity of well-educated Moroccan citizens made it difficult to do without assistance from France (Pennell 2003), and the country's incredible linguistic diversity made the systematic replacement of French with Arabic difficult. The multiple versions of Arabic in use by Moroccans posed a significant challenge to any substantive Arabization. Moreover, the Modern Standard Arabic that had been chosen as the country's official language was in many ways as foreign to the population as French had been—to speakers of Berber and Darija alike. Finally, the Moroccan elite was reluctant to switch from French to Arabic. This undoubtedly had to do with the fact that, like Nadia, they had been educated in French and were simply less accustomed to speaking Arabic. It also indicates, however, that despite strong currents of nationalism in post-independence Morocco, French remained the language of European—and thus sophisticated, elite—culture, status, and power. By the late 1980s, King Hassan II had conceded that bilingualism should be considered an enrichment to Morocco's culture, rather than a threat (Pennell 2000, 2003), and efforts at Arabization came to a halt. The modern result of this incomplete Moroccanization is a somewhat linguistically bifurcated public sphere in which some institutions are primarily francophone, others use Arabic, and a majority employs them both, albeit at different registers. Public elementary and high schools (as well as some university departments) now teach in Arabic, but private schools and most branches of higher education—including medicine—remain entirely francophone. Both languages maintain a strong presence in the Moroccan media, but French dominates the business sector. And finally, while Arabic might be an important language of informal daily interaction in hospitals, clinics, and government institutions, French is the language of choice for official reports and communications.

The cultural and political meanings associated with French, as briefly mentioned above, provide one last motivation for Nadia's linguistic preference. I suggest that it is in a significant way also her concern with status that drives her persistent choice to speak French. The use of its idioms is not only an escape, but also a way to underscore her identity as an educated authority figure and member of the upper class. Again, I invoke Frantz Fanon's analysis of language in Black Skin, White Masks: someone who "possesses a language possesses as an indirect consequence the world expressed and implied by this language" (Fanon 2008, 2). In Morocco, as in Fanon's Antilles, the "world" invoked by French is one of status, civilization, and power. French is not just the language mastered by those who have had the privilege of pursuing a (private) higher education; it is also the language of those with enough status or money to move about in the higher echelons of the Moroccan public sphere—and of those with connections to Europe. In order to explore in more detail how French may be employed in assertions of status and authority, let me turn away from Nadia for an instant and discuss the use of this language in communications among the medical staff at the psychiatric hospital where Nadia has been reduced to the role of patient.

Quite a bit of Darija is spoken in the hospital's corridors, and most patients and clinical staff employ a mixture of French and Arabic in their daily conversations. In classrooms, staff meetings, and medical files, however, French is the only acceptable idiom. French is, in other words, the language of official medical communication. This is somewhat of a logical continuation of the fact that, as mentioned above, physicians receive their training in French. However, attitudes toward the use of this language suggest that its dominance, both in the classroom and in the clinics, is by no means the result of random circumstance. In fact, I suggest that French harbors certain meanings that the hospital staff deem essential for the adequate performance of the role of physician. Before I elaborate further on this idea, let me provide a brief ethnographic vignette that illustrates, if somewhat negatively, this clinical importance of French. In this episode, a psychiatric resident's insufficient knowledge of French was not only vehemently criticized but was also linked to notions of professional incompetence.

Every morning the hospital's professors of psychiatry met their residents in a conference room for their daily staff meeting, at which the doctors read through and discussed the files for patients who had been admitted the day before. These dossiers were usually written up by residents in training, who take primary responsibility for hospital admissions. During these meetings, however, a professor would typically take it upon her- or himself to read these files out loud to the group. And more often than not, the reader would supplement this presentation by pointing out written errors in spelling, grammar, and syntax. On one particular morning, a professor came across a file in which a young resident had referred to a patient's mother as being vivante, or alive. The professor announced, with a deep sigh of disappointment, that the appropriate term to use in this case was en vie. She continued: "It's as though you never learned French. Your classes in medical school were all in French—how is it that it seems like you speak no French? How could you make a mistake like that? If your French is inadequate, you take extra classes. This file is the work of an amateur."


Excerpted from Encountering Morocco by David Crawford, Rachel Newcomb. Copyright © 2013 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction \ David Crawford and Rachel Newcomb
1. Arabic or French? The Politics of Parole at a Psychiatric Hospital in Morocco \ Charlotte E. van den Hout
2. Time, Children, and Getting Ethnography Done in Southern Morocco \ Karen Rignall
3. Thinking about Class and Status in Morocco \ David A. McMurray
4. Forgive Me, Friend: Mohammed and Ibrahim \ Emilio Spadola
5. Suspicion, Secrecy, and Uncomfortable Negotiations over Knowledge Production in Southwestern Morocco \ Katherine E. Hoffman
6. The Activist and the Anthropologist \ Paul A. Silverstein
7. A Distant Episode: Religion and Belief in Moroccan Ethnography \ Rachel Newcomb
8. Shortcomings of a Reflexive Tool Kit; or, Memoir of an Undutiful Daughter \ Jamila Bargach
9. Reflecting on Moroccan Encounters: Meditations on Home, Genre, and the Performance of Everyday Life \ Deborah Kapchan
10. The Power of Babies \ David Crawford
11. Anthropologists among Moroccans \ Kevin Dwyer

What People are Saying About This

author of Morocco Bound: Disorienting America's Maghreb, from Casablanca to the Marrakech Express - Brian T. Edwards

Mixes personal memoir with sensitive observations about Morocco; searching questions about the nature of the fieldwork experience; and sometimes surprising revelations about aspects of Morocco that have received little attention. From activism to autism, and from fraught conversation to religious conversion, the range of approaches to the American anthropologist’s encounter with Morocco and Moroccans is impressive. Indeed Morocco itself, and its anthropologist interlocutors, are seen in this collection as through a prism: refracted and brilliant.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews