In the glory days of anthropology, Western researchers would travel all over the world compiling ethnographies of the peoples and cultures they encountered. The goal was impartial and exhaustive recording of what those peoples and societies were like; they were there as dispassionate observers. An unattainable goal from the start, but over time anthropologists also learned that mere observation of others was missing much of the picture. They had to turn inwards, which gave birth to the movement of autoethnography. Our reactions to, and learning from, the “otherness” we observe in other peoples and cultures is as important as the goal of faithful observation. Not being an anthropologist, but nevertheless wanting to try may hand at at least a facsimile of their work, I decided to keep a sort of research diary detailing not only my observations about the culture and people with whom I was interacting (the traditional ethnographic approach), but also my own feelings and reactions to that (the autoethnographic approach). The context of the study was a set of semi-structured interviews I did in Immouzer Kandar, Morocco, asking people about what sharia law meant to them. This essay then is a summary of those diary entries. It was originally meant to be much more extensive that the few notes I have here, but lack of time constrained my writing. Such is life.
Observations and Reactions
I spent 27 months as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco from 2016 to 2018, so this current research project represented a 5 year absence. I found that many of my observations during this visit were a reminder of behaviour I had come to know well during my time in the Peace Corps.
The inevitability of Comparison
One’s reaction to Morocco will of course depend on where one is coming from. In my case, it was the United States via Spain. So this was my point of comparison. The comparisons I found myself making between Morocco and the United States centered around four topics: the typical Moroccan schedule, norms, the “privilege of progress”, cafe culture, and the physical environment.
By schedule, I mean primarily when the events of the day typically happen. For the average American, one’s schedule may be something like this: wake up between 6 and 8, eat breakfast, work from 9 to 5, with a lunch break at noon, dinner somewhere between 5 and 7:30, with bed around 11 to midnight. Moroccans, though, operate on a much later schedule. For example, I stayed with my old host family during the duration of this research. We often ate lunch at around 4 pm and dinner at midnight. This is typical of the generally later hours Moroccans keep. Imouzzer Kandar was always busiest in the late evening (from about 7pm to 11pm). The stalls were open, the cafes full, and the center was full of young people promenading. This was in marked contrast to Spain, which I flew into and left from, where I struggled to find things open beyond 9 pm. And the same is true to a lesser extent in the United States.
The epitome of this night owl mentality was one of my host brothers. When I complained to him that he never ate with the myself and the rest of the family, he told me, “Look, I was out last night till 4 a.m., so my breakfast was when I woke up at noon, my lunch at 8 p.m., and my dinner even later. So our schedules just wouldn’t line up at all.”
When I commented on the comparative lateness of Moroccan’s schedules, my host mom suggested that it was all to do with chronic unemployment. Without the imposed strictures of the corporate timetable, Moroccans generally stayed up later than they should. I think that is only part of the phenomenon, however, as most in their family worked according to a set schedule, and those that did kept the same late hours.
The lateness of the schedule extends to a general tardiness in everyday life. Most of the interviews I conducted were at the back of the mktaba, a copy shop with a little office in the back. I would try and arrange set times for the interviews to make sure participants didn’t all arrive at the same time, but nobody was ever on time. The tardiness ranged from just a few minutes to hours, to not showing up at all in some cases. There was one particular woman who brushed off our interview several times despite assurances she would show up. When I did finally manage to interview her, and I jokingly scolded her on her habitual flakiness, she just smiled, shrugged, and said “Ana maghribiya” (I am Moroccan).
This tardiness is in line with Moroccans generally easy-going, relaxed attitude towards life, which I think has some basis in religion. Ila ktab is something people say here (if it is written), referencing the fact that all our deeds are already written in God’s book. If something is going to happen, it will happen, there’s no sense in trying to hurry it along. Things can only happen according to the will of God; the inshallah that always accompanies any sentence that has reference to the future. Although recent scholarly work has pushed back on reading too much into Muslim fatalism1 there is certainly some undercurrent of fatalism in Moroccan life. From the boys on bicycles I observed on the roads, holding onto the back of a truck with one hand while keeping their handlebars straight with the other, to the unwillingness to contemplate the future beyond a shrug and murmur of “everything is written”, I ascribe some role to fatalism.
When accustomed to the social norms of one place, being immediately plunged into quite serious and deep conversations in another place will inevitably lead to moments of shock when one realizes those norms do not exist in the new place. It is one thing to understand that intellectually and another to encounter it in conversation. An example. Because many of the questions touch upon religion, many of the interviewees were curious to hear about my own religious values. In one such conversation, I was explaining my perspective on some of the differences in how Christians regard the Bible versus how Muslims regard the Quran. For Muslims, each word of the Quran is literally the same word that was said by God, and hence no deviation is possible from anything found in the Quran (at least for many orthodox Muslims). In contrast, even the most ardent Christian recognizes that the Bible is not literally the words of God himself, they are through the medium of prophets, scribes, and other observers. When they say the Bible is the word of God, they mean it is inspired by God, not that he literally wrote every word, unlike the Quran. And there is more wiggle room for interpretation of the Bible without being considered heretical. I gave this interviewee the example of homosexuality. I said that even though the Bible includes language about stoning homosexuals, few Christians would endorse this punishment. The interviewee responded “Oh, I wish we would still stone them today.”
I was momentarily stunned, but then she was already off on another conversational direction, as if the idea of stoning people was as innocuous as a remark about the weather. And in the interviews themselves, I had a question that asked respondents if they agreed that sharia law meant restricting women’s role in public, and why they did or not agree with that statement. They mostly responded that sharia law gives rights to women in an Islamic society, but a couple of responses were somewhat shocking to a Westerner. One simply said that women ought to be back in the kitchen. The other was more thorough in his explanation:
“Islam suggests that women should stay at home. This isn’t restricting women, it’s valuing women. If I say that women should be at home, it’s because I think women’s bodies were not created to do hard physical work, they were created to be at home. It’s like asking a cat to bark, they just can’t do it. Women are like princesses, they should stay at home and raise kids for future generations; men were created to work. It’s like I say, women are just not created for work. If a boss yells at her, she will be mentally and emotionally hurt. Men can deal with this, and women cannot. Thus, it’s good for women to stay at home. I’m facing this problem now; I want to get married but I can’t find a woman who wants to stay at home. All the girls I propose to just say"I want to work.”
What surprised me most, though, was not what I consider a rather patronizing statement, but that the facilitator who was with me, a woman, nodded and said “Yes, women aren’t made for such work. We were made to stay at home.”
Of course, if Moroccans broke the norms I’m used to as an American, doubtless I broke many norms they are accustomed to. I can only try respect the norms I know they follow, like only eating with the right hand, uttering the appropriate “God phrases”, 2 greeting men with a kiss, handling group introductions in a circular pattern, and so on. There are norms that I don’t know about, however, which doubtless inspire some shock. Or not–I’ve found that Moroccans are generous enough to extend the benefit of the doubt to any behaviour of mine they consider strange. I’ve found that as a foreigner I’ve had more leeway to ask questions and engage in behaviour that native Moroccans wouldn’t.
Five years had elapsed between my Peace Corps service in Imouzzer Kandar and this research. I had naturally expected great changes in the lives of the people I had known in the Peace Corps; in fact I wondered how many of them would still be in Imouzzer. As it turned out, they were nearly all still there, and all in the exact circumstances. It felt as if five years had elapsed for me, but Imouzzer and all the people in it had remained in a state of stasis that whole time, awaiting my return. Two of our former students had married, one was now employed, and another attending university, but the rest were all still at home. I found this sad because most of them are not in the position they want to be. These are mostly youngish women who want to get married and live a traditional lifestyle, or if that is unattainable–at least find employment. But instead, they face day after day living at home under their parents, cooking and cleaning. In Morocco, courtship is driven by men, and so women are, to an extent, at the mercy of waiting for an eligible bachelor to notice them. Of course, that is true to one degree or another for women all around the world. It’s more extreme in Morocco, however, because men can only marry once they’ve found stable, contracted employment. Since such employment is rare, most men aren’t in the position to marry, and hence the supply of men to marry is minuscule. So, with just a few marriageable men, and a whole population of eligible women, these men get their pick of Moroccan women. That is why there are so often huge age gaps in marriage between the genders. Men often only find stable employment in their thirties, but still want as young and beautiful bride as possible. So, you’ll often see a rather ordinary-looking older man with a dazzling young bride, with an age gap of ten years or more.
Unfortunately, this favouring of younger women essentially means that a Moroccan woman who ages past twenty-three or twenty-four will probably be passed up for marriage by younger peers. The window for a woman to get married is rather short. The women I talked to who were beyond this marrying age, however, did not seem to want to grapple with that reality. They all spoke as if marriage was going to happen in the future, somehow. There were no prospects for it, but somehow it would happen. “When I am married…” was an expression I often heard. It made me sad, that this one goal that meant so much to these women would probably be denied them, not through any fault of their own. I wondered what the future would hold. Would they stay as children in the house indefinitely, growing old with their parents? I saw that future in one of my host sisters; in her forties, she was beyond marrying age and will live with her parents till they die. She at least has employment cleaning houses, so that brings a measure of independence. I wondered that my former students did not seem more worried about this being their future, but I felt I could understand it. It’s behaviour that is natural to me too, the wish to avoid unpleasant thoughts (i.e. thinking about future events that have to happen for you to achieve your life goals, which seem unattainable at present). You put them off by thinking that somehow things will work out, your future self will somehow be better than your present. I suppose that is even more true of religious people, it’s part of faith.
For Moroccan men, of course, the economic conditions that preclude marriage are also frustrating. I would think less so than for women though because men are allowed some sexual deviancy without much societal opprobrium, which would not be extended to women. One of our male interviewees, for example, spoke quite openly of a sexual encounter he had had with a Belgian woman; none of the female interviewees would ever have admitted to such behaviour.
For men and women, the “next steps” in the normal progression of life are often not available in Morocco. That is, there is often no hope of stable employment, marriage, home-ownership, or children. That explains the state of stasis I felt I had returned to. We are more accustomed to taking these privileges for granted in the U.S. I call it the privilege of progress. I have stumbled into most of these steps of progress through no exceptionable ability of my own, simply that I am privileged to live in a place where the bar to achieve such progress is lower.
Friendship and cafe culture
The way male friends interact is also different from what I’m used to with my own friendships in the U.S. As an adult American man, I find most of my friendships are fairly utilitarian, or even transactional at times. I have friends to do social activities with (i.e. play a board game or watch a new movie), or help with the occasional task (like pick up from the airport), rather than to try cultivate a true emotional connection. In that way, my friendships are rather shallow and event-based, and the true intimacy that some people seek in friendship is only shared with my spouse. And the few friends I do have seem to be looking for this same kind of transactional friendship; a friendship based on the mutual desire to do certain recreational activities as a group.
I do not observe this same kind of friendship in Morocco; they seem deeper and to have a greater time commitment. During this latest stint in Morocco, I observed this type of friendship with one of my host brothers and two of his close friends. He would meet them in the cafe most nights, where they would sit and drink coffee and talk for hours. I accompanied them on an occasional night, and could see that they didn’t really plan these events explicitly. One would just come to the cafe and assume that sometime the others would file in and join him at the table. Through habit, they had settled on a designated place and time to socialize every day.
Even though I have a more introverted nature, and do not seek out a lot of social interaction, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat envious of this pattern of sociability I saw. Which was surprising, because in my two years in Morocco previously, I had come to dread been invited to the cafe. At that time, the cafe just meant sitting in a cloud of cigarette smoke for hours on end having to make small talk, and wondering how long I was obligated to stay. And I suppose I still feel that way, but seeing my host brother’s easy daily friendship with these men did make me think that a lot of Americans, including me, might like that level of socialization. They have this with pub culture in Britain, but the equivalent bar culture in America has been dying. That may be part of why American men find it so hard to form friendships in adulthood.
Isolation, Demographics, and the Drari
Drari means “boys” in Moroccan Arabic, but in Peace Corps lingo it refers specifically to Moroccan male teenagers. They need special designation because they are the bane of most Peace Corps Volunteers’ service. They are the ones whose constant scrutiny and comments contribute most to the sense of isolation that one often feels as a foreigner in Morocco. There is a sense of otherness that comes to you as you walk around; people might stare or openly speculate as to who you are or what you are doing. Even if I didn’t speak Darija, it would be obvious what “Merikani” means. I heard that as I walked around. People can feel either faintly hostile in their scrutiny of you or otherwise they single you out to welcome you: “Welcome in Morocco!” This constant scrutiny, of always being aware of my difference from the people around me would get to me as a Peace Corps volunteer. Sometimes we’d put off errands because we didn’t want to walk around in the crowded town center. And I’d often feel a mild sense of annoyance or anxiety when walking past a group of young men, trying to anticipate if they’d leave me alone or make some sort of comment. Usually this would be something benign, but I found I disliked it. I didn’t really grasp this oppressive scrutiny as a Peace Corp Volunteer until we took the ferry to Spain for the first time. Stepping off the ferry at Tarifa, it felt like a physical weight was lifted. I suddenly realized that I had regained my anonymity. The Spaniards there just assumed I was Spanish (until I started talking anyway); I felt more at home. Perhaps knowing my own tendency to feel this way makes me more sensitive to it, because I felt it immediately upon returning to Immouzzer.
The other thing that struck me was how young everyone was. Morocco’s demographic profile looks totally different from America’s. Its population is far younger, and you can grasp that when you walk around town and are surrounded by thousands of teenagers and twenty-somethings. That may also explain the second thing I noticed, which was that Moroccans seem more attractive than Americans in general. Makes sense given that younger people are more attractive than older. It could also have something to do with the fact that Moroccans are generally in better shape physically, and tend to wear clothes that are more forgiving to the human figure.
The physical environment
Flying from Malaga to Fes gives one a chance to compare and contrast the landscapes of northern Morocco and southern Spain. From the remote distance of an airplane, they are indistinguishable, separated only by the narrowest strip of water. One notices a difference on the ground though in the human influence on the land. Before noticing the difference in housing styles or city layout, I found myself immediately noticing all the litter.
This was always a sore spot for Peace Corps Volunteers, who are probably some of the people least likely to litter. I remember an occasion when I was walking with a Moroccan and he tossed the plastic soda bottle into a field once he had finished with it. To his astonishment, I went to pick it up. When I got back to to him, he seized the bottle from me and threw it back into the field.
This casualness about litter contrasts with Moroccans veneration of a Moroccan town called Ifrane, which they call the Switzerland of Morocco. The word they unfailingly use to describe Ifrane is “nqi” (clean). A Moroccan man even told me that when I went there, no matter how hard I searched, I wouldn’t be able to find a single piece of litter. Not true! It has about as much litter as a typical American town, but I suppose our reaction to what constitutes a lot of litter depends on where we live. All the Middle Atlas region, where the research took place, could look like Ifrane if they had the same pride of place in their own towns as they do in Ifrane. It’s a shame because Morocco has such incredible natural beauty.
Of course, faulting Moroccans for littering is the epitome of swallowing a camel while straining at gnats. It’s hypocritical of me to tsk tsk them about some stray wrappers when I’m from a country that has contributed more to carbon pollution than any other. And the average Moroccan’s footprint is an order of magnitude lower than mine. I was particularly impressed by the garbage disposal for the entire block of flats where I stayed being just one small bin, the same that one household would use in the States (see picture below). Part of the problem is undoubtedly that litter is visible for anyone to see, but I can’t visibly see the impact of U.S. industry on the environment in quite the same visceral way.
And efforts are being made to promote eco-friendliness. In a Summer camp for children I visited there, one of the skits was about the need to preserve our natural resources. Pictured are the children gathered around a water well, talking about water conservation.
It’s just as well because climate change is wreaking havoc in Morocco. 2022 was the hottest year ever recorded in Morocco, eclipsing a record from 2020. And 2023 has been another extremely hot and dry year. Imouzzer Kandar, where this research took place, has been hit hard. When I was here as a Peace Corps volunteer, a lovely little creek ran through town, filling numerous ponds and small lakes. It was a source of pride for the town, the origin of the water of a bottling facility, and a tourist attraction for Moroccans from drier regions. For the last two years, however, the hot, drought-like conditions have turned the stream into dust. I saw the same thing in Ifrane; lakes empty because of the new conditions.
I took this picture of the stream in 2016:
And now in 2023:
It’s robbed the city of much of its charm. Without the meandering stream feeding the parks and lakes, the stream of tourists has also dissipated. Apart from the aesthetic loss, the hotter weather conditions are also a severe source of discomfort in daily life. There is no air-conditioning anywhere in Imouzzer Kandar, and with temperatures reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit during my work here, there was no indoor escape from the heat like Westerners enjoy. I would stand up from my interviews with my back wet with sweat from pressing against the chair. Imouzzer is one of the coldest places in Morocco too; while I was here, Fes routinely topped 110. Moroccans are incredibly tough about weather though; daily life continued as normal, with the weather regarded more as a slight nuisance than anything dire.
White Man in Africa
I attribute this phrase to my wife, Bethan’s, uncle, who served many years as a Foreign Service Officer in Africa. In his usage, he felt that any white person (more particularly a white man) could probably talk his way into any high level meeting or event; there is an assumption of importance that comes with those identities. I have never actively sought this out, but I have rather had this imposed upon me in Morocco. During our two years prior in Morocco, my wife and I would often be invited to attend events by virtue of our whiteness. We would be put on the stage or asked to speak a few words to give an international flavour or prestige to the events. The same phenomenon happened this time around on a couple of occasions.
On the first, I was asked to attend a summer camp closing ceremony. I had assumed, rather foolishly, that I would just be able to watch as an observer. No such luck. Despite being dressed only in shorts, shirt, and flip flops, I was hauled up on stage to address the young people. I had never met any of the camp leaders before, but they just assumed that I had something intelligent to say, this complete stranger sitting watching their ceremony.
On the second occasion, I was introduced as a sort of cultural attache for a meeting with an Israeli mayor and his staff who are looking to become sister cities with Imouzzer Kandar. This one had a little more stakes to it, as there are no cities in Morocco that share sister city status with Israeli cities. Such relations are now important, however, as Morocco and Israel have recently been working on improving (or even establishing) bilateral relations. Most importantly from a Moroccan perspective, Israel recently recognized the Western Sahara as belonging to Morocco, following the example of the United States. I was curious to see the reaction of people in Imouzzer Kandar to this sister city proposal, but everyone I talked to seemed fairly enthusiastic about it. I think the recognition made by Israel has gone a long way in Morocco. In fact, Netenyahu is supposed to make an official state visit to Morocco, which would have been unthinkable several years ago.
I was understandably nervous to be part of the meeting, for various reasons, but wanted to support my former Peace Corps counterpart, who was the main driver behind this proposed partnership. Once again, however, I think my presence was mostly symbolic. I gave a short speech, but I believe the Moroccans mostly wanted me because I somehow gave a veneer of legitimacy to the occasion. I suppose you could feel rather hurt at your value being ascribed to what you are rather than who you are, but I’ve found I don’t really mind being used in this way. If one is to be stereotyped, it is obviously more pleasant to benefit from the stereotype. Americans of colour get no such benefit in Morocco, which was a common source of frustration for non-white Peace Corps volunteer.
My time in Morocco happened to coincide with the Women’s World Cup. I thought this would make little impression on Moroccans, but I was wrong about that. The cafes were packed. It was cute to see all these grizzled Moroccan men sipping their coffees yelling at the screen and cheering the goals. Even at the local market, men were gathered around the television watching the games (see the picture I took below).
Because I was curious, I made a point of asking everyone I met how they felt about the team and how proud they were. The responses were generally positive, but there were a few people I talked to who didn’t care for the team. When I asked why, their responses were usually based on the fact that they didn’t think women should be playing football in the first place, or that the uniforms bared too much flesh. One woman told me she was turned off by the sight of the players hugging their male coach after the game. These were the minority opinion, however, and I think this will boost participation in girls’ sports in Morocco. That was one of our goals as Peace Corps Volunteers, actually. We tried to start a girls’ running club, and later a basketball club, but we couldn’t sustain it. The running club just didn’t attract many interested participants, and with the basketball club, the only court in town is in the high school, and the principal eventually told us he didn’t want to use it anymore (long story, but mostly local politics to blame).
Change in status from Peace Corps
In Peace Corps we were placed into host families from pretty much day 1, so at a point where we knew no Arabic and precious little about Morocco or Moroccan culture. So everything had to be done for us because we were pretty much helpless. Couldn’t turn on the hot water on the shower because we didn’t know how to light the butane tank; didn’t know how to use a Turkish toilet, didn’t know how much anything should cost and what things should be bartered for, and couldn’t ask how to do any of these things because we couldn’t speak Arabic. And so, our host families were used to seeing us more or less in the same way we might view toddlers trying to live on their own in America. And although we eventually did learn all these things, it’s hard to shake first impressions, and so we were always in a position to be fondly patronized. It’s sort of like when you return to your parents house as an adult; you’ll always be the kid.
Returning as a confident visitor who knew how everything works, however, made life very different for me in Morocco. No longer did I feel like I needed to eat out of obligation to spare the feelings of my host, or to stay up later than I wanted because I was worried about being too anti-social. Nope. I slept when I wanted, ate however much I wanted, and refused to eat anything I didn’t like. It was glorious. It felt like I was finally enjoying Morocco as an independent person…well, as independent as one can get while staying in someone’s house and eating their food. Also, I didn’t manage to shake the habit of having to drink hot chocolate with every meal; Moroccans are always concerned that I don’t drink tea, and insist that I have some sort of hot alternative.
One thing that did not change from Peace Corps, however, is having to make conversation during the commercial breaks of the Turkish soap operas. At one point, my old host dad looked at me and asked “Karim (that’s what they call me), is that war still going on with Russia and Ukraine?” I said I thought so.
Lack of Sleep
There was one unexpected occurrences that accompanied this research – my inability to sleep. Morocco is only 6 hours different from Illinois, so the jet lag should not be that consequential. And yet, I found that I could not get any decent sleep the first few days. I am not exaggerating when I say the first 96 hours in Morocco, I probably got about 12 hours of sleep total. I could not figure out what the problem was, but my body refused to sleep. By the end of that fourth day, the lack of sleep was taking a significant toll. I spent the day in a state of near-weepiness. The slightest emotional setback threatened to bring tears to my eyes. This was new territory for me, and entirely unwelcome, especially in the context of having to interview people. It gave all my interactions a gloomy feel that day, which doubtless translated to the ways I interpreted people’s, at least on that day.
See for example:
Acevedo, G. A. (2008). Islamic Fatalism and the Clash of Civilizations: An Appraisal of a Contentious and Dubious Theory. Social Forces, 86(4), 1711–1752.
Elliot, A. (2016). The makeup of destiny: Predestination and the labor of hope in a Moroccan emigrant town. AMERICAN ETHNOLOGIST, 43(3), 488–499.
Menin, L. (2020). “Destiny is written by God”: Islamic predestination, responsibility, and transcendence in central Morocco. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (New Series), 26(3), 515–532. ↩︎
Like saying “inshallah” when referencing the future, saying “bismallah” before entering a home, taxi, or before eating, and so on. ↩︎