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Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco
By Paul Rabinow
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Remnants of a Dying Colonialism
The Sais plain which stretches over lightly rolling countryside between the cities of Fez and Sefrou (both founded in the ninth century A.D.) is one of the most fertile areas in Morocco. Its verdure totally belies any romantic imagery of desert tents or Moorish landscapes. Leaving the magnificent walled city of Fez, the landscape is more reminiscent of France. The Sais was one off the regions in which French colonial implantation had been most active, bringing mechanization, irrigation, and profit.
The regularly drawn fields, the rich dark soil, the elevated irrigation canals that snake along for miles, the grid-like patterns of orchards, and the occasional farmhouse exemplify perfectly what Jacques Berque has chosen as a symbol of the French colonial experience in North Africa: the land without people surrounded by the people without land/ The tile roofs of the scattered farmhouses stand in strong contrast to the clusters of farmworkers' mud and brick dwellings, which become more frequent as one moves along the Sais plane towards Sefrou. The farmhouses are still clearly set off by fences and the workers' quarters by cactus hedges, but the owners of the farms are no longer French. Much of this area had been nationalized and is run by the Moroccan government. The rest is owned by the affluent merchants of Fez.
Even after passing through this fertile countryside, one is struck by the lushness of the city of Sefrou as it appears on the horizon. It is hidden from view as one approaches from Fez. The hills are now somewhat more substantial and the vistas less sweeping and regular. Sefrou, with a population of some twenty-five thousand, is literally an oasis town. The richness of the irrigated Sais hides this fact at first; but behind Sefrou lie the Middle Atlas Mountains, which are now dry and largely deforested. A series of rocky, sparsely populated hills and plateaus lie to the south of Sefrou and lead to the mountains proper. Sefrou itself is located within a narrow piedmont which circles the lowest edge of the mountains and which is marked by a series of large springs which water sizable gardens, orchards, and olive groves. The Moroccans call such an ecological niche the dir — literally, the "breast." This niche follows a series of geological faults along the edge of the mountains. As one follows the line of the dir, one also follows a line of well-watered, climatically favored, and prosperous towns. Sefrou is such a town.
Because of its location Sefrou has served as a marketing and commercial center for the tribes in the surrounding region. In addition to the farmers who work the gardens of the oasis, and the merchants, it has traditionally had a large and active population of artisans. Sefrou has also had, as far back as the ninth century, a dynamic Jewish community which has often served as a link between the urban community and the rural Berber tribal groups. These Moroccan Jews activated an exchange of mountain products (wool, mutton, rugs) with imported and manufactured goods (textiles, tea, sugar).
French colonization of the farmlands around Sefrou — which began in the late 1920s and increased steadily until the 1950s — and the establishment of French governmental, commercial, and educational institutions in the town had a substantial impact on Sefrou's growth and direction. Following the colonial policy of Lyautey, they built new quarters, a Ville Nouvelle, alongside the older walled medina of Sefrou. They never colonized Morocco to the extent that they did Algeria, however. The French population of Sefrou in 1960, for example, was less than 1 percent, and this included the new wave of schoolteachers.
I was driven to the Hôtel de l'Oliveraie, perhaps one hundred yards outside the crenelated walls of Sefrou's medina. Old and drab, its paint cracking, L'Oliveraie was clearly a decaying edifice, yet it had its charm. One entered through a double jalousie doorway into a rectangular room divided approximately in half by a shabby screen. To the left were some ten neatly set tables (I never saw more than two in use) and to the right were a long wooden bar, several bare tables with old restaurant chairs, and a rickety pinball machine in the corner. All the windows had shutters, most half open, and the pall or quiet of the late afternoon hung over a besotted Moroccan cab driver, the only customer, at the moment of my arrival.
Emerging from behind the bar with a swift bow, neatly groomed but casually dressed, was Maurice Richard, the owner of the hotel, the patron. Yes, he did have a room; in fact he had ten, would I follow him? Which shall it be, he mused, and a gentle charade began, although its hollowness and pathos were apparent from the start. Richard later showed me to one of the ten tables, holding the chair for me and graciously informing me that there was only one menu.
The next morning, my fourth in Morocco, I had coffee and bread in the courtyard of l'Oliveraie. It must have been lovely in earlier years. There was an enclosed garden with a grillwork from which vines once grew, there were metal tables which once shined, and there was Ahmed, the waiter, impeccably groomed, who might have served (or so I imagined) tables of French families preparing for the tasks of the day ahead. I was alone. It was already getting hot. Ahmed brought me the brown earthenware coffee pot with a polite, pseudo-French bow, refused my overtures, and moving swiftly, left.
How ethnographic. In Morocco only several days and already I was set up in a hotel, an obvious remnant of colonialism, was having my coffee in a garden, and had little to do but start "my" fieldwork. Actually, it was not exactly clear to me what that meant, except that I supposed I would wander around Sefrou a bit. After all, now that I was in the field, everything was fieldwork.
Whistling, moving his portly frame with speed and grace, Richard appeared from behind his jalousie doors, wished me "bon appetit," and handed me a tourist card to fill out. He was somewhat surprised that I was American. He was sure, he said, that I was an Eastern European (which I suppose I am, ethnically at least), and then he launched into a hearty but cautious set of pleasantries.
The second day in Sefrou he told me his life story. He was from an upper-middle-class Parisian family. He had left home in 1950 to seek adventure, ending up in Morocco, where he had followed a series of professions ranging from mechanic to hotelkeeper. The lack of the usual French reserve and hostility was startlingly indicative, I mused, either of a transformation of French culture once it left France or an intense loneliness on Richard's part. Here it was the loneliness which prevailed. It quickly emerged that he was a Parisian manqué. The expectations his family of colonels and doctors had placed on him was too heavy to bear, and so he had left them to wander through an existence of assorted lower-middle-class trades.
He was also a failure historically; he had arrived in Morocco a generation too late. The first wave of French immigration to Morocco occurred in the late 1920s, and brought mainly farmers and military men; the second wave, mainly functionaries, arrived during and shortly after the Second World War. Obviously, there was a sharp difference in outlook between the older colon population and the newer arrivals. The "old Moroccan hands," les vieux Marocains, as they were called, had a more personal contact with the Moroccans themselves. Particularly in the Sefrou region, where they had established the first mechanized farms, they often knew Arabic, worked closely with their Moroccan workers, and were not cloistered in French ghettos. Their paternalism was tempered by a kind of rugged individualist approach. They had cleared the land, they had turned scrub into well-tended and productive farms, they "knew" the Moroccans and said that if you trained them, they would work well. One had the impression that Richard could have fit in with these farmers, small entrepreneurs, and jacks-of-all-trades. In any case, the remnants of this community by and large accepted him.
But Richard came to Morocco in 1950, as part of a very different group of immigrants. These nouveaux vieux Marocains as they were contemptuously called, lived mainly in the great colon centers of Casablanca and Meknes; they almost never knew Arabic, and had little or no contact with the Moroccans outside business hours. They saw themselves more in the style of the insular colon in Oran or Algiers. Their ties were to France and they were committed to a French way of life. By the early fifties over 80 percent of the French population in Morocco was living in major cities. Moreover, they were mainly government functionaries. The percentage of functionaries was even higher than in the mother country. They were not to sustain their presence for very long.
Richard sought the earlier identity but was overcome by the later one. He arrived when opportunities for the average Frenchman were closing down, not opening up. Instead, he confronted an active antagonism between the French and Moroccan communities. Richard was too weak to escape or resist it. He found the now hardened lines between the two communities too political to cross. Although his personal dealings with the French community in Morocco were always painful for him, he never found a way either to integrate with them or free himself from them, because he was not courageous enough to defy the colon codes in any major way. Richard never learned Arabic. He repeatedly expressed a keen desire to do so, but he had mastered only a few words and phrases. What once would have been interpreted by the Moroccans as a welcome gesture from a newcomer might now, after eighteen years, seem mockingly insincere. Richard was clearly discouraged from following these impulses by the French community in Meknes, where he first settled, and by his wife, an Algerian colon, who boasted of her racial superiority. He was supportive of my fledgling efforts to learn Arabic. He asked me about methods, encouraged me and then would drift to a reverie about how he should have learned Arabic when he first arrived, how it would still be the thing to do, but helas, his duties just would not permit it. Richard was truly a remnant of a dying colonialism, except that he had never reaped the earlier rewards.
Each morning Richard revved up his 1952 Ford and roared the kilometer and a half into Sefrou to pick up his supplies. As there were almost never any guests at l'Oliveraie this amounted to provisions for himself and his wife, the newspaper (Le Petit Marocain), and some wine. Except for a little passing contact with the storekeepers and exchanges of pleasantries with officials, Richard's world was restricted to the wino cab drivers, his wife, and two or three old French couples who accepted him as an equal. These last were people who had been in Morocco for forty years and had made niches for themselves as handymen or storekeepers. They respected the Moroc cans and lived essentially en retraite, both retired and in retreat from contemporary France. There were only a few of these gnarled, old Frenchmen left. Richard observed each death with a sense of increasing despair; each loss significantly eroded his world.
It has often been said that the worst of the parent culture is exported with it, and this was certainly the case for the young French residents I knew in Morocco. In France one may choose between doing military service or some alternate civilian service overseas in the ex-colonies. Morocco had a severe shortage of teachers for its bilingual school system and has been forced to import large numbers of French teachers to sustain it. Each year, therefore, a score of young couples arrive in Sefrou to perform its civilizing work. They are largely young bourgeois who come to Morocco to avoid the barracks and to live out fantasies not feasible for them in France. They can afford villas, complete with gardens and servants. Of equal importance is the fact that in Morocco they can dominate. They dominate the servants, whom they treat with the obligatory patronizing condescension; and they dominate their students, whom they perceive as culturally inferior and not truly worthy of the luxury of hope. Within their own community they observe the old social distinctions and hierarchies of France, but with a new twist: now they can play the leading roles.
Accordingly, they dominated and despised Richard. There was a prescribed ritual which was reenacted each year with a painful and predictable regularity. As the new couples arrive in Sefrou they stay first at L'Oliveraie while their affairs are being arranged. Shortly they learn from more seasoned countrymen that l'Oliveraie is beneath them socially. At first, talking with Richard seems natural enough to them; he is an old hand, and he is French — one of their own in this foreign setting. Richard would repeat the same tired formulas and desperately try to create a relationship. There would be glimmerings, at times, but it never seemed to materialize. After these young couples had moved to the villas they might return to l'Oliveraie once, perhaps even twice, with their new acquaintances, but never more. The circle would close in the fall, as the new arrivals were ingested into the little community and told simply that Richard was "un pauvre type." His world was soon as impossibly distant from theirs as it would have been in Paris, except that in Sefrou there was little else for him.
Ironically enough, Richard began each fall with warnings about the Moroccans, their unpredictability and irrationality. He was trying to please, no longer knowing himself whether he believed his own stories, but feeling that the stories would fit the preconceived ideas of his new audience. In the first weeks they succumbed to their fears. Once settled in, however, such crass indulgence changed rather quickly to a more insidious rhetoric of "objectivity." They were there to educate the Third World. They liked the Moroccans, of course, they found them beautiful, exciting, and intriguing. But les indigènes simply could not do arithmetic. Despite the French efforts, the students just did not seem to learn. They were sympa but inferior. Richard was merely inferior.
Richard was actually quite lucid about the nature of his situation, but he was absolutely incapable of changing it. He was in the wrong position at the wrong time. The hotel's decline fed itself; the more he lost on the hotel, the more the young French shunned him, the more the Moroccan functionaries refused his company, and the more dependent he became on the near alcoholic cab drivers, who were ostracized even by their own community. Each year one more of his circle died. The more he pressed the more strained his smile became, the more urgently he clung to the new arrivals the more surely he drove them away. Colonialism was dying, and neocolonialism was taking its place.
I encouraged him to talk, and he was overjoyed. I spent many hours during those first few weeks listening to his stories. I was fluent in French and the entree was immediate. The structural possibilities of the situation were also ideal for collecting information. I did not conceptualize it this way at the beginning, and for this reason (among others) I never systematically pursued this situation. I had come to Morocco intent on studying rural religion and politics. It seemed self-indulgent to be chatting with Richard about his past. One must be problem-oriented, my professors had insisted, and not be sidetracked by diversions, intriguing as they might seem. Further, one presumably risked being stigmatized by the local Muslim community.
Actually, I had been in a rather ideal "anthropological" position. I was fluent in the language, familiar with the culture, concerned with related issues, yet unquestionably an outsider — all by the fourth day in the country. With Richard I was not in a position of dominance or one of submission. I had access to Richard as well as the younger French. The whole structure of the relations between them was easy to formulate and the needs of the various participants were such that they were in search of an outside observer to whom they could recount their troubles and reflections. I was in no position to threaten them, or to offer direct economic or political assistance. In retrospect, this climate was ideal for anthropological inquiry. At the time, its very ease and accessibility seemed to discount its potential value. Surely fieldwork required more toil.
The stillness of the hot afternoon, some two and a half months later, remains clearly in my memory. So does the emptiness of l'Oliveraie and the gloss of the wooden bar and its brass rim. Richard and I were chatting quietly with long pauses between remarks. He was in his habitual pose, bent over the bar, chin resting on his palm, as if preparing for an arm-wrestling match, the other arm jauntily placed on his hip. His eyes were opened wide with an eagerness still shining through. I was sitting, slightly hunched over, on a bar stool across from him.
Excerpted from Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco by Paul Rabinow. Copyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsPreface to the Thirtieth Anniversary Edition
Forward by Robert N. Bellah
1 Remnants of a Dying Colonialism
2 Packaged Goods
3 Ali: An Insider's Outsider
5 Respectable Information
Afterword by Pierre Bourdieu