Sunday, August 30, 2009

Racism as I see it in Morocco

First, thanks to Jillian for your kind words. It's nice to hear that. I hope you don't change your mind after reading this next post. Let me reiterate the point that I've made in other posts: my experience is mostly from my village; it's not representative of Morocco as a whole.

Racism as I see it in Morocco

Before I get into this topic, a couple qualifiers. First, this is what I’ve witnessed; it doesn’t apply to all Moroccans. It would be pretty hypocritical to say, “All Moroccans are racist in this way.” Given that I live in one of the least educated, least cosmopolitan regions in the country, it’s likely that I witness stronger attitudes. Also, I apologize for any under or misrepresenting that I have done. It’s important to take my position as a white male into account when reading this post; obviously my perspective is different than a person of different race. Finally, this is a touchy issue; there’s no way to write it that reflects well on anyone. Same for America; if you wrote a history of racism in America, it would not be pretty.

There is a lot of racial tension between Arabs and Berbers (although I use the word Berber in this essay, Amazigh is the word that Berbers call themselves. Berber is the name that the Romans used, meaning barbarians). Berbers have been in Morocco for thousands of years, whereas Arabs came to the country starting in the 9th century A.D. There is a history of conflict between the two groups, with Arabs being the dominant side. As I experience it, most people identify their ethnicity (Arab or Berber) by the language that their parents speak, but the truth is much more complicated. Although Arabic is the dominant language in Morocco, some 70-90% of Moroccans have Berber blood in them. But it is rare to meet an Arabic speaker who identifies as ethnically Berber. I have experienced negative attitudes towards Berbers amongst Arabs. When I first started traveling in this country, I was excited to tell other Moroccans who I met that I spoke Berber. Surprisingly, this elicited negative reactions from a lot of people; now I only tell certain people in certain cities that I speak Berber. Several Arabic speakers have told me, “Berber is like Chinese to me.” Others question why I learn the language; they say that Arabic is the only worthwhile language in Morocco. I’ve been told that Berbers are stupid, backwards, and uneducated. One man told me that before Islam came to Morocco and saved the Berbers, they were subhuman. Provinces that are traditionally strong Berber regions (Khenifra, my province and the Rif) were neglected under the previous King, although this trend has reversed somewhat under the current King. Berber-speaking children are taught in Arabic by teachers that do not even speak Berber. On the other hand, there are plenty of Arabic speaking Moroccans that get along just fine with Berbers. Mostly the tension between the two groups is a small issue. I have even met people who have taught themselves Berber because they were interested in the history and culture of the country. And the negative attitudes do not run just one way, either. Just this week, in my site, a couple of young men were telling me how dangerous Arabs are and that I need to be careful when I travel amongst Arabs. In fact people say that quite a lot in my site.

I believe that Jews are the most hated ethnic group in Morocco. Historically, there used to be a large Jewish presence in Morocco. Many cities have a “mellah,” which was the Jewish section. However, more recently negative attitudes have become the norm. Hatred towards Jews is open and not apologized for. In my town, the Berber word for a Jew, Uday, is used as an insult. One time in a large group I told people not to say bad things about Jews, that it is racism. They asked me why I was defending Jews, was I a Jew? I tutor a local girl in English and I was asking her about racism in Morocco. I asked her why Moroccans are racist towards Jews. She said that it wasn’t racism. She said Moroccans don’t like Jews because they are dangerous and sneaky. During Peace Corps training, Jewish volunteers are encouraged by Moroccan staff to keep their ethnic identity a secret because “coming out” could irreparably damage their community’s perception of them. Although Moses is accepted by Muslims as a prophet and the “old” testament is a part of the Islamic canon, there is a passage in the Koran that vilifies Jews and Pagans (I wish I could find exact passage, sorry). I’ve met one person who professed not to hate Jews. We were having a discussion about the political situation in Israel/Palestine and he was being pretty unfair against Israel. He said that, even though he was criticizing Israel, he wasn’t racist; he had “lots of Jewish friends.”

Black people are the target of a less vehement sort of racism. There are a couple of darker men in my site and they are often jokingly, disparagingly teased as being black. One adjective for black is sometimes used to mean “bad.” My host family and I were talking about racism and they asked me if I held racist feelings against blacks. I said no. They asked if I would marry a black person. I said yes. They said that they weren’t racist, but that they would never let one of their family members marry a black person. Lighter skin is seen as being more beautiful. An older Moroccan woman said to me, “I’m ugly. Look at my skin: it’s black!”

Other ethnic groups are also the target of racism. East and South Asians come to mind. There are a couple volunteers of East Asian descent that are teased. Young men in my site will pull their eyes tight if we’re talking about China.

I believe that some Moroccans have racist attitudes towards Moroccans. I know this sounds strange, but a recent experience with another volunteer who (sort of) appears Moroccan solidified my opinion. This racism against Moroccans is felt most strongly by Moroccan women. Another way to state this attitude would be to say that sexist attitudes are common in Morocco and that they are directed most harshly and frequently at Moroccan women. If a woman appears Moroccan, different dress and behavior is expected of her. White female volunteers certainly receive harassment, but with my limited experience I would argue that it is of a different sort. Because of her appearance, the volunteer who (sort of) appears Moroccan was held to the standard expected of Moroccan women, exposing the double standard. Dressed conservatively by American standards, but with her hair uncovered, the volunteer received lots of vulgar sexual harassment from Moroccans – harassment that a white woman would probably not get in the same situation. Swimming in the ocean, the volunteer received vulgar invitations that a white volunteer probably would not receive in the same situation. In her site, the volunteer was assaulted in public, in plain view of several people. When asked, after the fact, why they didn’t come to her assistance, the people said, “Because she looked Moroccan.” The volunteer speaks Arabic well, making it easier to confuse her as Moroccan. She says that she sometimes intentionally makes mistakes so that people will be more likely to perceive her as American. I’ve heard of Moroccan looking male volunteers receiving milder harassment such as bars refusing to serve them alcohol, but primarily this racism affects women. A Moroccan certainly wouldn’t call this racism; they might say that white women are given more freedom because they aren’t Muslim. But if people are making a judgment about an individual because of their (perceived) membership of a racial group, that’s racism. Another example: in my site, the women from out of town (the teachers, nurses, and doctor) dress conservatively. It is expected of them. Female volunteers have come to visit me and they don’t cover their hair and don’t dress as conservatively as the Moroccan women. They have never received any harassment. There is a different standard for them. If this volunteer who (sort of) appears Moroccan came to my site, I would worry that men in my site might harass her.

Finally, it would be terribly unfair to talk about racism in Morocco without discussing racist attitudes held by foreigners towards Moroccans. The histories of French and Spanish colonialism in Morocco are one of condescending paternalism and harsh suppression. Today, tourists treat Moroccan customs as exotic, queer curiosities to wonder and gawk at. I’ve heard some virulent, disdainful comments about Moroccans cleanliness and hygiene. Worse than the tourists, however, are the foreigners who live in Morocco and make terrible generalizations about Moroccans. Peace Corps volunteers, unfortunately, express some racist attitudes. You would think that living with Moroccans would improve volunteers’ ability to make distinctions between individuals within a group, but I think living here has increased racism amongst volunteers. “Moroccans are … stupid, unclean, sexist, dogmatic, lazy, etc.” If one were to substitute the word “Moroccans” for another group such as “blacks” or “Jews,” the statement would become unpalatable for the very person who uttered it. Yet volunteers make these sort of statements without batting an eye. I don’t want to hold myself up on a pedestal on this issue; I’m guilty of making sweeping generalizations as well.

So what to make of this? What I’ve written is kind of depressing. It calls into question the Peace Corps mission of increasing world friendship if Americans living in other countries increases animosity and misunderstanding. For the most part, PC volunteers are liberal do-gooders who had bought into the “world friendship” thing before they came over, making their conversion into bitter people all the more unfortunate. There are volunteers who have had negative experiences who will leave the country with a bad taste in their mouths. It’s sad to see. I argue, however, that good outweighs the bad. Personally, I’ve had some negative experiences, but I hope that readers of my blog recognize that my time here in Morocco has been overwhelmingly positive. I hold some negative opinions of Moroccan culture, but mostly the exchange between cultures has been good. I think that most volunteers would agree.

It’s Ramadan. For those unaware, Ramadan is the month that the Quran was revealed to the prophet Mohamed. It is a holy month in the Islamic calendar (the calendar is lunar, so Ramadan moves forward a little every year). Good Muslims should abstain from eating, drinking, smoking, sex, speaking bad words, having bad thoughts from sunup to sundown for the entire month. Sunup is the time when you can distinguish a black thread from a white one, meaning that is still dark – 4:15 am this morning in Morocco. Sundown is the setting of the sun, not darkness – 7:00 pm last night.

For me, Ramadan is a time of stomach pain and unhealthy eating patterns. I feel uncomfortably hungry for most of the afternoon. When I break fast, I normally gorge my shrunken stomach to the point where I am uncomfortably full for most of the night. Most people in my village eat two or three meals a day during Ramadan: break fast, dinner, and a meal at 3:30 am before the sunrises. I’m always too full to eat dinner and I don’t like waking up at 3 to eat and fall back to sleep on a full stomach, so I pretty much eat one meal a day.

The best part about Ramadan is that I get invited over to lots of people’s houses to break fast. Each house has slightly different food and it’s mostly all delicious. Thursday night I went over to one of my friend’s house for break fast and I ate a lot. I’m quite fond of his wife’s food. My stomach was feeling uncomfortably full. I went to my host family’s afterwards to say hi and my host mom gave me a bunch of grief about not coming to their house to break fast. She said that she had made extra food just for me and it was going to go bad. She asked me to have a piece of buchiya, a flat bread cooked on a skillet. My host mom’s buchiya is my favorite; she prepares it with large amounts of fresh, melted cow butter. So I said yes. After I finished eating, I really thought my stomach might burst. I told them how I was feeling and they taught me a Berber saying: “Cchigh s alln.” It means, “I ate with my eyes [and not my stomach].” It seemed very appropriate.

Things are good. Everything is slow during Ramadan. Work doesn’t happen as quickly, but I’m moving forward on a couple of projects. For our hammam project, it looks like a hammam is going to buy one of the stoves that we were “selling,” so that’s a very positive outcome. I might partner with the volunteer that I worked on the hammam project with to do a household stove conversion project. Mostly though, I lay around my house, reading and writing. I go out and hang out with people for a couple hours every day to pass the time. This year, a friend and I have taken to riding our bicycles to a nearby spring 30 minutes away in the couple hours right before break fast. It’s a good way to pass what is normally the hardest part of the fast.


Charlotte said...

I found your blog through global voices online and just wanted to say hi. I'm really enjoying your analyses of the things you see around you - and it's great to find a fellow blogger writing about Morocco... Looking forward to reading more!

Jillian said...

Another great post (and thanks for the thanks!)

This is a discussion that I've been wanting to have for a long time. Perhaps we should bring together some bloggers to discuss the topic - it's about time the Moroccan blogosphere did something like that!

Incidentally, I agree with the majority of your post, except two points; first is the assessment that Jews are the most hated ethnic group in Morocco. In my urban Morocco experience, I heard far more vitriol toward "job-stealing Africans." There's a fear and hatred in a lot of the coastal cities of Sub-Saharan migrants, and in two years in Meknes, I only once heard an anti-Jewish comment (oddly enough, it was directed at me, and I'm not Jewish! The guy seemed genuinely crazy, though).

The other is the remark about the behavior toward Moroccan-looking women; I think calling it racism takes away from what it really is: total, utter misogyny, something that exists in every pocket of the country (though of course not from everyone). I don't even think the double standard is what's important, rather, the fact that Moroccan women are held to the standard of being "good Muslims" whether they like it or not. No freedom to choose not to be religious, regardless of what the religion actually says ("there is no compulsion in religion")

I used to ask my adult and college-aged students really inappropriate questions in class - I'd always start the semester by asking their permission to do so, and making sure no one objected (no one ever did, not once), then during discussion times I'd bring up questions about race, religion, the monarchy, the Sahara, and all the other things we weren't supposed to talk about. One fun question was, "would you ever marry a non-virgin?" A lot of the men surprisingly said they would, but some would say "but only if she were foreign." Their reasoning, I suppose, was that it was "okay" for a foreigner of another culture not to be a virgin, but not for a Muslim.


Anyway, I found it hard too not to generalize about Moroccans at times; it IS a relatively homogeneous culture with few underground counter-cultures (at least that I could access), so those assumptions are all too easy to make.

Thanks again.

wide-eyed innocent said...

I´ve actually been thinking about writing a post on racism, so yours seems especially timely to me. I mentioned in a recent blog that my host mom was urging me to find a husband during my upcoming trip to the US...I didn´t report everything she said, which included, ¨Find a man with skin like yours. Good, pale skin. Then your babies will have good skin, too. Don´t marry someone with dark skin.¨

It made me sad, because she´s such a sweet person...she has just completely bought into the ¨paler is better¨ paradigm. She loves her own light-ish skin, so much that when it darkened up a bit during her recent pregnancy - the classic ¨pregnancy mask¨ - she asked me to buy her some Fair & Lovely so she could bleach it away.



mary ellen newport said...

I have to go with your female readers, Dunc, regarding sexism vs racism. Of course, the two intersect as vividly portrayed in your post and your followers comments. I would love to hear what your traveling companion thinks of your analysis as well. Love, Mom

Kristin said...

Hey Dunc,

Finally, I am actually reading your blog. You write a lot! It's awesome, you put a lot of thought into all your posts. So, I was thinking I'd just add a bit to your racism blurb. I kindof have to agree with Jillian, I think blacks may receive the most racism country-wide, although perhaps not in our region. I talked with other volunteers who are black, and they had CRAZY stories of how they were treated by Moroccans - not in their villages, but mostly when they would travel to cities. People would should just random names of west African countries, or shout DOG or SLAVE. For those volunteers, it was better to stay in their villages, because traveling was made so incredibly unbearable. They also said that racism from white volunteers was difficult - one black volunteer was talking about it to a white volunteer, who kindof excused the Moroccan by saying "it's because you don't look American." Um, an African American IS American. And, like another person posted, black skin was definitely seen as "bad". Our host mom would constantly talk about how she wasn't pretty because she was "black" (she's really a nice brown color), and she wasn't good like me, with my white skin. We'd CONSTANTLY tell her this was not so, that her skin was beautiful because her heart was beautiful, and we'd always ask her "Didn't Allah make your skin that way, and so isn't it a good thing?" and she'd say yes, we're right, thank Allah for being alive, but then the next day just say the same thing again. And another instance of racism in town - our good friend, who has very dark skin, is a butcher, and another shop keeper from across the street shouted at him one day "HEY BLACK! get me a half a kilo of meat!" or something like that. But NOT said in a joking way, said it a very derogatory, rude, and holier-than-thou way. Our friends face just kindof hardened, and he slowly (very slowly) went about getting the half kilo of meat. It was clear he was not happy about the interaction, even though I'd seen him joke about his skin color with his friends. It's one thing coming from your friends - it's a whole other thing coming from the jerk across the street who really means it.

We have also had discussions with Moroccan friends about Jews - one friend said they are all bad, etc etc. But, I want to see if you find this - older Moroccans had a much better impression of Jews. ALL the young men in our village watched al-jazeera, hated israel, and had never met a Jew. Our host mom, though, remembers when Jews lived IN town, when she was a kid. She said that there was no problem between the Muslims and the Jews when she was little, they all got along, and one Jewish man owned a clothing store in town and would help poor families by giving them clothes. So, I wonder if the anti-semitic attitude is a more recent phenomenon for Moroccans, basically since the creation of Israel and now with the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestians.

A very complicated subject to discuss, way to go for broaching it!

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Issam said...

WHat the hell do u know about moroccans and the way they perceive things, what makes what u know is the way you perceive is rather correct. u know little about moroccans. and i'm moroccan.

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Anonymous said...

I agree many people their so racist,Why those stupid people spending their time doing that stupid things.

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Sarwar J. S said...

Hi Duncan,
I stumbled across your blog while searching to know more about Moroccan society and their culture.

I have thought that I will visit the country pretty soon, the tales of the place fascinate me a lot.

Would love to talk and communicate with you more.

Jaeyong Han said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jaeyong Han said...

I really like your article and the way you write, you really know how to put your thoughts together into words .
I am Moroccan and I must agree that some Moroccans are racist but not in a dangerous way. Actually Moroccans are the most tolerant among all the other Arab countries. Racism here in Morocco is not as dangerous as it is in America or Europe ..etc. From my point of view, I think Amazigh(Chluh,Berbers) are mostly to receive the harsh racism being called names such as "uneducated","mean","stupid"... but it doesn't mean that they never integrate with the so-called-Arabs, because after all we're all Moroccans. The same thing goes for dark-skinned people(or blacks), Moroccans mostly joke and call someone "Azzi(black)" or "Lwiyen(colored)" but it's not out of racism . I know so many black people who lives here Moroccans were or Immigrants and they're living just fine . Maybe Moroccans prefer the white-skin but they don't hate dark people either . It's just a matter of how good a person is in integrating with others and how well he is dealing with people, Moroccans feel more secure and are friendly with confident people. Be confident and they won't push you away further more, they would want to be like you. And everything else you mentioned is due to culture and religion .

nadia reaves said...

I really enjoy reading this article simply cause it s true and cause im Moroccan myself , i just want to say that you forgot to talk about the 'racism between Moroccan from Fes and Moroccan form Rabat, witch is i believe is the worse ....try to found out a little about it you ll be amazed ....