Two Arabs, a Berber, and a Jew: Entangled Lives in Morocco

Two Arabs, a Berber, and a Jew: Entangled Lives in Morocco

by Lawrence Rosen


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226317489
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/30/2015
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 869,372
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Lawrence Rosen is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University and adjunct professor of law at Columbia Law School. He is the author of many books, including Bargaining for Reality, The Culture of Islam, and Varieties of Muslim Experience, all also published by the University of Chicago Press. 

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Two Arabs, a Berber, and a Jew

Entangled Lives in Morocco

By Lawrence Rosen

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-31751-9


Committed to Memory:

Haj Hamed Britel 235 Qla'a

In memory each of us is an artist: each of us creates. — Patricia Hampl

I can never remember things I did not understand in the first place. — Amy Tan

From the hillside above the city of Sefrou, alongside the saintly shrine of Sidi IAli Bouseghine, it is just possible, in the quiet of the early morning, to imagine Morocco as it was a little over a century ago — before there was a single paved road, before most people had ever seen a European, before electricity or artificial light or the sound of the internal combustion engine. There, with the wind that slopes down the escarpment of the Middle Atlas Mountains carrying away the smell of diesel and the noise of motorized traffic, much of contemporary life seems to dissipate, and the contours of the land seem to bear witness to an earlier form of human imprint. At such a moment, in the slanting morning light, you can often see the glimmer of the river as it cuts through the town, discern the outline of the walls of the old city, and describe the limits of the irrigated gardens before they were overrun by urban expansion. And if, as the sun climbs steadily in the distance, you follow the rim of the hills, past the pilgrims' hotel and the site of the old French fort, past the gravel diggings and restive goats, to peer down the edge of the hillside, you will also see, nestled along the river, the backs of its multistoried houses forming an ancient wall, its narrow streets intermittently visible, the small enclave known as the Qlala. Urban in its own right, yet with one eye cast toward its rural hinterland, the Qlala, when I first saw it in the mid-1960s, had, notwithstanding the many years he worked in the coastal city of Safi, been the home — or at least the home base — for more than seventy years of Haj Hamed ben Muhammad Britel.

We met over lunch at the home of Clifford and Hildred Geertz, with whom I overlapped a couple of months at the beginning of my fieldwork. They had heard from one of the Haj's distant relatives that he was particularly knowledgeable about the history of Sefrou and, by virtue of his many years living in one of the coastal cities, of Morocco as a whole. I can picture him perfectly that first day, for though I had only been in Morocco a short time and was still groping for my way in Arabic, I was instantly smitten with the Haj's boyish enthusiasm, the extraordinary warmth of his slightly sardonic smile, and the way he casually scattered cigarette ash as he gestured his way through a lively story. When, some time later, I began to work with him and to know him, it was as if I had received the gift of a grandfather I had never known as a man.

We began to meet every few days at his home in the Qlala. I would make my way up the narrow streets to the ancient house at number 235, where he and his wife, the Haja, and their daughter-in-law and her children lived. Like all such houses, its interior was totally hidden from the street, its windows set so that neighbors could not see inside, its doorway giving no real clue of what lay within. The arrangement was typical and wonderfully spacious: on the ground floor a sitting room with kitchen, several small side rooms, and what may truly be called a "water closet," since the toilet consisted of a slippery platform for one's feet, a hole in the center, and a running stream beneath. Upstairs, behind the balustrade, another series of rooms surrounded the central clerestory, while above all was the flat roof where the women could gather unobserved.

To the side of the main room, however, was the Haj's favorite place, a long narrow room with wool-stuffed settees along each side and a grated window at the end looking out toward a small garden and the edge of the enclave wall. There, in the midafternoon, the Haj and I would meet to sip sweet mint tea, listen to the doves nestled in their cage cooing the hours of the prayers, and talk of the Haj's life and of his times.

* * *

There was upon a time, until there was, a world that exists not — and really does. — Opening to Moroccan stories

I was born, the Haj said, in the last years of the reign of the sultan Moulay al-Hassan — in fact I saw him with my own eyes when he came to Sefrou. With my prompting questions we had begun, as most novice anthropologists are wont, with the Haj's life history, but already my thoughts were racing ahead of his words. He couldn't really remember seeing the sultan, I thought: Hassan died in the early summer of 1894, and the Haj, who, like many Moroccans, is not certain of his exact birth date, but from whose account appeared to have been born around 1892–93 and would still have been an infant at the time. Was he mixed up about the dates? The timing, however, fit: worried that disorder in the desert oases might justify further incursion from French-controlled Algeria, the sultan did pass by Sefrou with an army and entourage of thirty thousand at the end of June 1893, when Dr. Louis Linares, a European accompanying him, described the city as having "large well-cultivated gardens watered by numerous irrigation canals that produce fruits and vegetables in abundance that are then taken to be sold in Fez." Had the Haj perhaps been held up to see the last of the truly traditional precolonial sultans as the monarch made one of his unending tours of the country trying to hold together those powers of command and taxation that were soon to devolve into the hands of the Europeans? Other than saying that the sultan looked very drawn, the Haj could not describe the monarch, but Pierre Loti, who saw him while visiting Morocco in 1889, gave a classically Orientalist account of the sultan:

Assuredly he is not cruel; with those kind, melancholy eyes of his he could not be so; in the just exercise of his divine power he sometimes punishes severely, but, it is said, he likes much better to pardon. He is a priest and warrior, and he is both to excess; penetrate, as might be a prophet, with his celestial mission, chaste in the midst of his seraglio, faithful in the most rigorous religious observances and fanatical by heredity, he seeks to model himself as far as possible on Mohammed. One may read all this, indeed, in his eyes, in his handsome countenance, in his majestically upright carriage. Such as he is, we cannot hope, in our epoch. Either to understand or to judge him; but, such as he is, he is beyond all question grand and imposing. ... He betrays an indefinable shyness, almost timidity, which gives his personality a singular and altogether unexpected charm.

In a book published in 1897, another traveler, the Italian Edmondo de Amicis, was equally taken with the sultan, whom he described as

the handsomest, most attractive young man who ever won an odalisque's heart. He was tall, active, with large, soft eyes, a fine aquiline nose, dark, oval face, and a short, black beard. His expression was at once noble and melancholy. ... His graceful bearing, his expression, half-melancholy, half-smiling; his subdued, even voice, sounding like the murmur of a brook; in short his entire appearance and manner had a something ingenuous and feminine, and yet, at the same time, a solemnity that aroused instinctive admiration as well as profound respect.

Perhaps this was the man the Haj saw, even if he might not have described him in this fashion. There was, of course, an alternative. If he had not actually seen the sultan, had the Haj only been told about him and, as many of us do, was he recalling a striking moment related so often by family members that it seemed to be part of his own recollection? Indeed, could I trust the Haj's memory, especially if, as I assumed must happen, it was going to conflict at some point with one or another Moroccan or Western source? And yet, to my continuing amazement and delight, this was to be both the first and the last moment I was to doubt the Haj's accounts. In subsequent years I spent innumerable hours interviewing dozens of others, reading scores of documents and histories, and pouring over hundreds of pages of field notes for inconsistencies in any of the Haj's descriptions, but as in that first example, in every instance, the Haj's commitment to our task, his highly circumstantial accounts, his readiness to admit when he did not know something (or when he had the story from others), and his own distinction between facts and interpretations made him as remarkable a resource on local history as he was master of its telling. Although I have had many occasions in my work as an anthropologist, whether in Morocco or elsewhere, to wonder if I was getting something right or if I was simply encountering different people's interpretations of events, I never failed to confirm, if there were other ways available, a single thing the Haj ever told me.

That last year of Hassan's reign, when the Haj may have seen him pass, was a truly noteworthy moment in Moroccan history — the end of an era that stretched back, in its overall design, to the seventeenth century and the very beginnings of what is now the oldest continuous dynasty in the Arab world. It was a country without a single paved road or bridge, a time of impending European domination, chaotic tribal fissures, and growing strains in a world on the edge of change. But even though the tumultuous events of that era were soon to embroil the Haj, growing up in the 1890s was clearly a time of boyhood adventures and memories.

When I was a small boy, with just a long curl of hair growing on my shaved head (so Allah could have yanked me up to heaven had I died) and still wearing a ring in my right ear (as boys then did before "entering the mosque" at the age of about seven), I was tutored by a very learned and powerful teacher, a fqi. It was in the early afternoon, when we had retired to the side room, and the Haj, leaning toward me on one of the banquette pillows, was warming to the task, the ever-present cigarette and sweet mint tea the indispensable accompaniment to his tale. This teacher, said the Haj, was so powerful he even had power over the jnun, the invisible creatures of the netherworld. He wrote out magical phrases for people and was a Sufi mystic and magician of great force. The fqi had no children of his own and he took a special interest in me, treating me as if I were his own son. One day — it was a Wednesday — this fqi told me that we were going to have a very special lesson. He told me to follow him, and we climbed to the roof of his house, locking the door behind us so we were sure to be alone.

The fqi then told me that two events had recently occurred. He said that not long ago he had given his daughter in marriage to a particular man, but one of the suitors who had failed to win her hand was now using black magic against her in an attempt to break up her marriage. Indeed, the failed suitor had himself gone to another fqi, who had prepared a magic formula that led the bride to try to run back to her parents' house. The two mothers of the couple, the fqi told me, had come to him and given him a nice present in the hope that he could undo the magic that was being worked on the girl. The fqi was, however, not certain which of the suitors was working the magic or, if magic was being worked, of what type it was. And then there was the second event: the fqi had left his shoes outside a doorway, and when he returned they were gone. The fqi was not sure who had taken them. He then told me that we were now going to find out the truth about both of these situations.

The fqi first made a fire and prepared tea. He lit some incense and chanted a number of phrases from the Quran. He then told me several things I was to say at the right moment and that after each I was to ask about the problem of the married couple and the whereabouts of the fqi's slippers. Now give me your right hand, said the fqi. I held out my hand and the fqi took some ink. First he wrote the name of Allah many times on my hand, after which he drew a line in such a way as to form a square. Then he took another dab of ink and let it drop into the center of this square.

Now look into your palm, said the fqi. As I gazed into my palm, the square slowly changed into a mirror. At first it was a blurred image, but then as it cleared I was able to see my own face staring back at me from my palm. The vision clouded, and as it cleared once again, the mirror became a window, a window into the realm of the genies. In fact, what I saw was the court of the sultan of the jnun. The whole atmosphere was frantic, with fire and smoke and lots of boiling pots. An enormous bull was being sacrificed, and the women were all preparing a meal of couscous. But the women were very strange: they had one breast in front and another attached to their backs. And then, the sultan of the genies arrived, with loud music and banners flying. The sultan himself was red in color, but he was dressed all in white and riding a beautiful horse. A golden chair was placed in front of his tent, and as the fqi urged me I repeated the phrases of greeting and respect and told the sultan of the jnun how we were trying to prevent the breakup of the young couple's marriage and how the fqi's slippers had come to be missing.

Again the vision grew blurred, but as the clouds withdrew, I saw a man holding a slip of paper on which were written magical words. I recognized the man as one of the girl's frustrated suitors, and I cried out to the fqi the man's name and all that I saw. One more time the vision clouded, and I saw, when the picture was once again clear, the nephew of the fqi, Lahsen, slipping up to a doorway and taking a pair of shoes left by the threshold. I cried out: Oh, there's your nephew Lahsen, and he's taking your shoes, he's taking your shoes! As I continued to watch, the scene changed and I saw a great meal being served to the sultan of the jnun and his entourage, and then I watched as they packed their tents and slowly departed. After that the picture changed back into a mirror and finally faded away altogether.

From this powerful magic my teacher was able to determine who had bewitched his daughter and who had taken his shoes, and to write out for each an appropriate magical formula. The couple was never again bothered, and they had many children, and the man who coveted the young bride gave up his attempt to have her for himself. And that very evening, the Haj concluded with a knowing smile, the missing slippers were returned to the fqi.


Such was Haj Hamed's wondrous Arabian Nights tale, rendered with all of the characteristic flourishes I was to come to recognize in his way of telling: the leaning forward and the intense gaze punctuating the story for effect, the trail of cigarette ash a memento of the passing tale, and — perhaps most notably — the dramatic pause followed by the breathy release of his favorite coda, khiyyar, a term that means not just that something is "okay" or "all right" but carries the root implications of "something to wonder at," "something out of the ordinary," something truly "beneficent." As the years passed, I was to find many other accounts in which an Arab wizard uses a magic square of ink in one's palm to gain a window into the world of the jnun, but none that I read had the delight of watching the Haj take the story straight to the heart of his listener.

If those early years seemed quite adventurous it was, perhaps, for more reasons than those of boyish enthusiasm. The insecurity of the broader Moroccan order and the uncertainty of the times to come were, in fact, replicated in small — both in their characteristic features and in their flaws — in the city and region of the Haj's upbringing and in the ensuing course of his own life.


Excerpted from Two Arabs, a Berber, and a Jew by Lawrence Rosen. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: A World of Difference
Committed to Memory: Haj Hamed Britel 235 Qla'a
A Midmost Nation: Yaghnik Driss
Courier of the Horizons: Hussein ou Muhammad Qadir
A Nation among Nations: Shimon Benizri
Epilogue: Making a Difference
Suggestions for Further Reading
Additional Captions

What People are Saying About This

Akbar Ahmed

“Rosen’s genius is to make the particular accessible and its relevance to the universal apparent. It is this quality, combined with his compassion and empathy, that makes him the ideal commentator of our complex and divided world. Although based on the stories of individual Muslims and Jews in North Africa, the book really is about our common human predicament. We are truly blessed to have this brilliant and towering intellectual giant among us so generously sharing his wisdom and humanity.”

Marie-Claire Foblets

“At a time when the world is weighed down by tensions among communities and religions that lead to dangerous tendencies in many quarters to fall back on a narrow identity, here is a work that makes it clear that there is no simple truth. Rosen, with the talent for which he is well known, gives a shining example of what an ethnographic study can accomplish. Such a work makes it possible to counter preconceived and oversimplified ideas about identity and demonstrates that human beings are capable of living with complexity, religious diversity, and otherness. Thanks to the surprising proximity to his subjects, Rosen shows us the trajectories of four veritable ‘artists of life’ while avoiding the pitfalls of apologetics or romanticism.”

Richard A. Shweder

“With this book, distinguished cultural anthropologist and brilliant writer Rosen offers an innovative, urbane, and effective use of biography to write a multivoiced cultural history of Morocco. Rosen first imagined the project nearly fifty years ago while conducting fieldwork in Sefrou during the time of the Six-Day War. Ironically, tribal attachments are not disappearing as the world globalizes, which is a lesson many cosmopolitan elites and politicians have been slow to learn and which makes this book and Rosen’s provocative take-home message (‘there is safety in diversity’) not only relevant to current affairs but also tantalizing.”

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