Thursday, March 11, 2010

Site of Memory Essay

One midterm down, two to go. Friday at noon I am officially on spring break, woohoo. I have to go study my Arabic plurals and possessives now, but, at the risk of self-aggrandizing, I would like to share with you an essay I wrote for my history class. We were supposed to include our personal interactions about a site of memory, of our choosing, and also incorporate some outside research. So without further ado, here's your bedtime reading for the next couple of days.

I felt intimidated to meet a man of authority, feelings similar to those I might feel before meeting an elected official in the United States. In fact, the closest I have come to such a meeting would be the time that I, as part of a group of students, met with a staff member representing a representative to the U.S. House of Representatives. We were part of a national coalition of youth lobbying Congress to support clean energy and take action against climate change; however, standing at the back of the group, I did not directly contribute to the lobbying effort.

For whatever reason, the uneasiness that accompanies the making of acquaintances is multiplied when that new person is famous, or deemed important in some way by society. The Chief’s warm, two-handed shake helped to assuage my initial nervousness, and he immediately ushered my fellow students and I into his home. We took places on cushions around two tables which had been waiting with place settings for our arrival and took stock of the place. I began to let my guard down when I saw how similar his house was to others I had seen in Morocco (minus the chairs). Perhaps I had expected something more grand and ornate for a Chief, or alternatively maybe a semi-permanent dwelling, as I was told we were meeting the leader of a nomadic tribe. But instead, at the risk of generalizing, I think it is permissible to describe his house, in the context of Morocco or maybe rural North Africa, as normal.

As is normal for guests in Morocco (in my limited experience thus far), we were immediately served food. But I then saw the Chief carrying out baskets of bread, dishes of salad, plates of steaming lentils and beans, and fruit for dessert. There was one younger man helping him at times, but the Chief was doing an equal or perhaps greater share of the serving work. Two more of my expectations were thus deflated. I had expected such a respected old man, as chief of the tribe, to sit with us and be served upon. I had also expected that it would be women serving the meal. This expectation was founded in my Moroccan cultural experience thus far rather than any misogynistic beliefs about the role of women.

In fact we did not see one woman during the entire duration of our visit (about two hours); we were later informed that there were no women there at that time, and that it was the men who had cooked the food. I was not alone in my surprise at this knowledge, though in hindsight I realize now that my initial expectations reflect blanket generalizations I had formed about people from vastly different cultural, social, and geographical backgrounds. The most concrete link between this man, and his tribe and their way of life, to that of my young urban host family is a constructed and porous national identity that has only officially existed for 54 years. Rather than thinking about how this experience would fit into my limited knowledge of Morocco, I should have been thinking about its many differences and contrasts to life in Rabat’s medina.

The Chief then served us very strong and very sweet tea that was flavored with a somewhat bitter powdered sap. As we drank and relaxed after the meal, we began to ask him questions about his life. Fadoua acted as translator, though parts of his answers were probably (and inevitably) lost in the process. From my recollections, and those of my fellow students, I am able to piece together the following impression of this life.

Ba Saleh is the Chief of this village, which is located in the region of Mhamid. He has authority over three distinct nomadic tribes, the Bono, a Tuareg tribe, and one other one whose name escapes me. He estimated there are 70 to 80 houses in the village and surrounding area, which is sometimes known as Bono. Each house represents one extended family whose precise numbers are unknown. Each tribe chooses a representative to the government, and Ba Saleh is a step above them in terms of ‘political’ (for lack of a better word) authority. He was chosen by his people, and, being a fourth generation Chief, part of his legitimacy as the leader comes from his family lineage. It is important to note that he is not a man of religious authority. The importance of Islam to these tribes is unknown, though it did not play a major role in our discussion.

His people are primarily nomadic camel herders, though they also keep some goats and sheep. The camels are owned by each family rather than the tribe as a whole. He estimated that one family, depending on their situation, has anywhere between 60 to 500 or maybe more camels at one time. In addition to their animals, they also grow crops for subsistence needs. These crops include beans, wheat, lentils, and other vegetables; in addition most families own a certain number of date palms.

The importance of family in this way of life was clear throughout our discussion. It is the only other obvious link (besides national identity) to life in Rabat that I observed, though this importance manifests itself in different ways. Identity is found as a member of the larger tribal community, but the organization of the family seems to dominate the pragmatic everyday concerns of the people of Bono. Though they may be herded in a communal fashion, animals are owned by individual families. Agricultural plots are farmed by families, and the date palms especially are individually owned and passed down from generation to generation.

The Chief has two wives, though I learned nothing about them or their daughters. Of his seven children, two are female and five are male. Two of those males are away at school, and the other three are out living with the animals. Because of his age, and presumably also his respected position, the Chief now lives a more sedentary life in the village. But he does leave the village from time to time, and he said he spends a month or more of each year travelling.

As I understand, it is the younger to middle aged members of the tribe who lead nomadic lifestyles with the animals. Women were fairly absent from our discussion, and his answers to our questions about them seemed shorter than other answers. I gathered that if a man is nomadic then his wife (or wives) is too, and the other way around, depending on the individual case.

Despite the ambiguities resulting from our discussion concerning the role of women, the role of the national government in the Chief’s life is clear. From his perspective, the government’s role as a beneficial force is nonexistent. Rather, it seems that the government is much more eager to play a bothersome role in the Chief’s life. To my knowledge, a social contract, in the theoretical and practical sense, between these people and the government that ostensibly holds authority over them is largely nonexistent. By social contract I mean the provision of basic rights to the people by the government in exchange for some sort of allegiance or support. The Chief made it clear that as a tribe they do not pay taxes. There was no mention of services rendered for them by the government, and I would not expect to see (nor did I observe) a gaudily framed picture of the King in the Chief’s house.

There is a multitude of ways to explain how this situation evolved, and it is one that has been playing out in different ways throughout the history of North Africa. Perhaps one factor that contributed was the nationalist movement, its selective memory, and its assertion of a dominant Arab national identity. As Abdellah Hammoudi writes, the growing nationalist movement between 1930 and 1950 pushed earlier, more ‘traditional,’ structures to the background as it waged an ideological and historiographical battle with the colonialists. Ironically, “While the colonial party became increasingly archaic, the national party became more modern—hence its denunciation of native chiefs (quwwad), of contrĂ´le civil, marabouts…” (Hammoudi p. 166). The traditional authority of tribes did not mesh with the Nationalists’ efforts to glorify the ‘Moroccan’ history of central authority, hence it was often discarded or marginalized.

If their exclusion from the Nationalist movement of the 20th century helped to cement the current separation of Ba Saleh’s people from the government, then the foundations of that gap were laid long ago. It might sound farfetched, but in one sense those foundations date back to the Arab invasion of the 7th century AD, or even before that, to the Romans in the 1st century AD. The ambitious foreign or local power is concerned with one primary goal: a centralized monopoly of power in a geographic region. The discussion of local jihad in Mohamed Kably’s essay on the methods that central powers in medieval Morocco achieved legitimacy is pertinent here. Kably distinguishes between the local and foreign forms of jihad used by states to legitimize their authority. Foreign jihad was directed towards outside threats, whereas local jihad was waged against settled agricultural populations, more restless (and often more resistant) nomadic populations, and everyone in between. This violence asserted the ruling state’s dominance and extended its sphere of influence and authority. Even though geographically isolated groups of people often did not benefit from inclusion in this sphere, they were still faced with the choice to pay taxes, suffer through the state’s jihad, or fight for the right to retain or win their independence of both. In one form or another, these kinds of interactions between marginal local groups and ambitious central powers, foreign or local, have been occurring in North Africa and around the world for many centuries.

I am not saying that the situation of Chief Ba Saleh’s tribe can be explained using such a generalized view of history, nor am I trying to idealize their situation as a passionate struggle of david versus goliath. However, I do think it is fair to extend some kind of line from the long tradition of tribal struggles with and against the authority of central states to the relationship that exists between the Chief’s people and the national government today. Hammoudi’s discussion of the nature of pre-colonial central power in Morocco summarizes the situation more aptly than I am able to. He writes that “If a group remains on the margins, it means either that it lacks political influence or that it is in a state of rebellion. It could also imply a mutual reduction to insignificance of the dar al-mulk and the marginal group” (p. 135). (Hammoudi’s term dar al-mulk describes a Moroccan-specific ‘house of power’ with authority based on religion and claiming a communal purpose.) The tribes in and around Bono are not interested in rebellion or asserting political influence; rather, it seems their marginal status comes from this ‘mutual reduction to insignificance of the tribe and the government. I do not know why Ba Saleh’s tribe does not pay taxes, how long this has been so, or whether it is a situation common among many Moroccan tribes. It is clear that his tribe has no need for the government, and it seems that the government is not interested in forcing a social contract upon his tribe (and probably not on others too). Perhaps the government is not willing to exert the energy required for such an endeavor, or perhaps since independence they have tried and failed to do so. The geographic isolation of the village of Bono from the central authority is probably one factor among many others. Regardless of how it evolved, one of Ba Saleh’s anecdotes is very telling of his and his tribe’s relationship with the government.

He said he and his tribe get stressed about things in life from time to time (as we all do), and the government seems to be the biggest source of this stress. As a way to escape, they (presumably the men) go camp out in the desert to drink camel’s milk, to sing and dance, and to just get away from life. It made me smile to imagine this escape, and it is a thought-provoking story I will never forget. There we were, a group of American tourists (and also students) on vacation, turban-clad, with plans to ride camels and sleep that very night in tents in the desert. No less than an ‘authentic’ Saharan experience (minus most of the authenticity), right? But as I was feeling more conscious about my turban, I was also enjoying the fact that we would be employing and enjoying the very same means of escape that the Chief and his tribe do.

But if the desire for a vacation is universal, the desire for a national identity is not. I do not know if the Chief is a self-described Moroccan; I did not ask. I do know that his tribe has been living in the same general region that they currently inhabit for at least a couple of hundred years or more, and I do believe they intend to stay there. That is longer than the modern state of Morocco has existed; before the Nationalist period helped to cement the identity of North Africans into that of one state or another, a tribe like the Chief’s knew nothing of national borders.

Works Cited

Hammoudi, Abdellah (1999). “The Reinvention of Dar al-mulk: The Moroccan Political System and its Legitimation.” In Rahma Bourqia & S. G. Miller’s (ed.s) In the Shadow of the Sultan: Culture, Power, and Politics in Morocco. The Center for Middle Eastern Studies of Harvard University. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.

Kably, Mohamed (1999). “Legitimacy of state power and Socioreligious variations in Medieval Morocco.” In the Shadow of the Sultan: Culture, Power, and Politics in Morocco.


  1. Excellent essay! I'd give you an A.

    Professor Maxwell

  2. i'll need some time to finish reading this :)