By Paul Kiefer ’20
In a few important ways, Morocco did not feel especially foreign to me. It is a Muslim country, and I am a Muslim. It is largely an Arabic-speaking country, and I speak enough Arabic to navigate comfortably. Moroccan cities are dense, but I have spent enough time living in college dorms to feel comfortable in close quarters. I went to Morocco expecting to settle in easily; like many American Muslims, I imagined the Muslim world as my spiritual home – perhaps even a place where I could settle down. In large part, I chose to study in Morocco to test the veracity of that hunch.
Over the course of the following two months, I kept bouncing around Rabat – then a farming village named Bni Qulla, then Marrakech, then Fes – in search of the belonging I had imagined I would find.
If anything, I thought my access to mosques would be my key to belonging in Morocco. In keeping with a rule established during the French Protectorate period (1912-1956), Moroccan mosques are closed to non-Muslims. I’m ashamed to admit that I relished the exclusivity – I imagined the mosque as my unique point of access to this society to which I hoped to belong. When the uncoordinated chorus of calls to prayer flooded the Rabat Medina, I took it as an invitation to audition for insider status. I figured I might meet a pious elder who would invite me over to meet his family. I wanted my classmates to spot me seated in a nondescript café swapping stories with a gaggle of wizened old men. That was how I fantasized about belonging.
My first experience in a Moroccan mosque – specifically a tiny, unmarked mosque on a nondescript alley in the Rabat medina – did not produce any wholesome, fantasy-satisfying friendships. Instead, I had ten years of grime scrubbed from my skin by a grouchy man who disapproved of my pre-prayer washing technique.
I continued to drift from mosque to mosque, but I was never once invited to a stranger’s home after prayer. Instead, I was just another worshipper. When prayers finished, no one lingered for conversation. We all gathered our shoes and dispersed back into the city to go about our separate lives. While I could take part in that ritual, by no means did it make me an insider.
In Rabat, I chatted up the men selling piles of counterfeit shoes and invited attempts to guess my nationality. It was clear that I wasn’t Moroccan, but I reveled in every guess that placed me closer to the ‘Muslim World’ – Albanian, perhaps? With shopkeepers, fruit-sellers, and curious children on the beach, I always initiated conversations in Arabic, both to practice the language and to elicit startled smiles. As I saw it, I was confused about where I belonged, so it was better if others were, too.
During our week-long stay in the beautifully muddy one-street town of Bni Qulla, because I was the only confident Arabic-speaking American in the house, I alone was able to hold conversations with our generous caretakers, Said and Fatima. We talked politics and child-rearing, herded sheep and picked watermelons, and sat together to follow televised updates on a train crash outside of Casablanca. I didn’t entirely belong, but during that week, I at least felt like a bridge between my classmates and our host country – familiar enough to both that I could at least put my identity crisis to practical use.
That said, in my homestays in Rabat and Bni Qulla, I was the only person who prayed consistently. On Fridays, I walked alone to the mosque to hear the sermon. On the way home from the mosque one weekday night, I stepped into the street to avoid a bar fight that had spilled onto the sidewalk. Being a practicing Muslim was clearly not enough to make me ‘belong’ in Morocco.
The Morocco – and the ‘Muslim World’ – I had constructed in my imagination were deeply religious societies. Religion not only dominated public and political discourse but was a – or the – primary driving force in most people’s daily lives. I credit my presumptions about the ‘Muslim World’ to two influences: first, the media depictions of the Middle East and North Africa as destructively orthodox, and second, my hopes (as an oblivious white American Muslim) that daily life in a Muslim-majority country would be imbued with wholesome spiritual energy. Admittedly, my fantasy stripped much of the humanity from the Muslim world.
As I should have assumed, living in a Muslim-majority country does not magically induce deep piety in a person. People everywhere like to drink, smoke weed, have one-night stands, and gossip. Observing daily religious rituals is – at least in some regards – very inconvenient, and devoting time and mental energy to religious orthodoxy will never be a priority for everyone, no matter how often they hear the call to prayer. My bubble was burst, and rightfully so. I could go on enjoying Morocco for what it was – a country full of fellow Muslims who are both deeply relatable (in that we are all sorting out how to balance faith with human imperfection) and not bound to treat me as one of their own.
That is not to say that sharing a religious identity with most Moroccans – no matter how devout any individual may have been – did not affect my experience. Being a white Muslim – and especially an Arabic-speaking white Muslim – did sometimes elevate my status from regular, privileged white foreigner to extra-special white foreigner. At one point, a classmate brought me to her homestay family’s apartment to meet her host parents. My classmate introduced me as a Muslim, which prompted her host mother – an earnest woman with a firm handshake – to start crying. While this sort of reaction was not standard, it was a reminder that I am often given more credit than I deserve for being Muslim purely for being white. I could certainly use that to my advantage, and I did – the novelty of my existence was enough to earn me guides and interviews while I conducted my research.
I conducted my research primarily in Fes, Morocco’s oldest city and the home of the world’s oldest existing university (Al-Qarawiyyin, founded in 859). All students in my program were expected to produce a research project during the final month of our semester in Morocco, and I had come prepared: the semester before, an anthropologist (now a professor at Pomona) mentioned the existence of a community of European women who had converted to Islam and immigrated to Morocco, only to isolate themselves in compounds and avoid regular interaction with Moroccan society. A little historical digging turned up several hundred other European converts to Islam who lived and worked in a handful of Moroccan coastal cities – especially Rabat and Sale, sister cities across the Bouregeg river from one another) – during the 17th and 18th centuries, many of whom served in corsair crews (in other words, pirates!). Prior to the kickoff of research time, I began filling in gaps in the story of white convert immigrants to Morocco. The founder of Britain’s first mosque had spent time in Fes. A beatnik friend of Paul Bowles converted after his time in Tangier. At one point, a white convert from Seattle named Courtney showed up in my morning Arabic class to join our discussion. They (or we, I suppose) are everywhere – they run schools, manage spiritual retreats, own hotels and bakeries, loiter around in mosques. Practically every Moroccan with whom I spoke remembered running into a white convert. They are everywhere.
As I roamed around the country, made international phone calls, and dug through online archives in search of these white convert immigrants, I never once encountered a story of someone who had become an insider in Morocco. Some had attempted to assimilate by changing their clothing and diet, but that strategy didn’t achieve the desired results. Ultimately, practically every white convert immigrant had accepted that they would never fully belong to their new country. They are perpetually foreign and perpetually privileged. In many cases, their privileged foreignness allowed them to live very comfortable lives in the upper economic strata of Moroccan society. In a few cases, that privileged foreignness was passed on to their children: I met one descendant of an 18th-century Portuguese pirate convert who, three centuries later, still occasionally receives the advantageous treatment of a European foreigner.
Thus, through my research, I came to terms with the apparent impossibility of ever becoming an insider in Morocco. That is not a bad thing – Morocco doesn’t need another white guy to soak up money and influence.
Many white convert immigrants are attracted to Fes, the heart of Moroccan Sufism. To increase my chances of bumping into converts in the street, I set up a home base in Ibn Slimane, a working-class neighborhood perched on a ridge with a commanding view of the medieval medina. A classmate and I rented the cheapest room in the city: a bedroom in the apartment of a family who spent the entire month using us as the butt of their (loving) jokes. The room was so small that I slept with my feet propped up on top of my suitcase. To maintain my sanity, I could not spend too much time penned up inside, so I ventured into the neighborhood.
More than anywhere else in Morocco, I settled into Ibn Slimane. I didn’t know the neighbors by name, but we exchanged pleasantries in much the same way that I do with my neighbors in Seattle. I roamed the street, took photos for young couples, and began to sort out a comfortable place for myself on that ridge above the medina.
Every city has some version of a corner store: the Bronx has the bodega, the never-ending LA suburbs have the gas station, and Fes (like all Moroccan cities) has the hanut.
The hanut is essentially a counter: the customer stands on the sidewalk side and asks the shopkeeper for laundry detergent, strawberry jam, cigarettes, or whatever else they need from the overburdened, overstuffed shelves in the back.
The counter of a good hanut is made of clear plexiglass. Behind the plexiglass is a grid of compartments that hold corn nuts, almonds, technicolor jujubes, and any number of other snack-like things. The customer can then assemble their own mix, the price of which is calculated by weight. The hanut owner pours the mix into a newspaper cone, and the customer goes on their merry way.
At various points during my research, I survived on hanut snacks: cones of roasted chickpeas and raisins, washed down with lukewarm yogurt. I carry the unfortunate combination of thriftiness and a large appetite, so my reliance on hanuts was not a necessity, but a product of my silly reluctance to spend money on food.
In Fes, I had no need to rely on a hanut to keep me alive – I had access to a kitchen and regular meals. That said, I had developed a deep appreciation for the institution of the hanut, and they remained a part of my routine in Ibn Slimane. There, the hanut, not the mosque, became the emblem of a new phase in my relationship with Morocco.
I didn’t become friends with any neighborhood hanut owners. Our interactions were brief, friendly, and practical. Naturally, most were curious about my national origins and ability to speak Arabic. However, instead of inviting their guesses as I had done earlier in the semester, I began explaining that I was an American who studied Arabic in college. All of them had seen me among the crowd at Friday prayers, but I didn’t bring up religion during our transactions – I was now aware that those interjections were bizarre (or even off-putting).
Instead, I focused on taking part in a daily routine that was much more universal than a visit to the mosque: grocery shopping. I was a foreigner, yes, but I was also in need of toothpaste. I didn’t grocery-shop as a tourist activity; I grocery-shopped to make my everyday tasks possible.
One afternoon near the end of my time in Fes, I stopped by a hanut a few blocks from my apartment to buy Q-tips. The shopkeeper greeted me by name, and we made small talk about the weather.
In that interaction, I was still a white Muslim American, but my presence was normal enough to merit the same blasé reaction as any other customer. That moment – a conversation that is usually considered meaningless fluff – was the closest I came to the feeling of belonging somewhere in Morocco. That moment didn’t come in a mosque. It came while buying Q-tips.
I would like to impart the following points upon any students who plan to study in Morocco: First, remember that the Muslim World is shaped by the same human instincts as anywhere else. Second, spend time grocery-shopping. Visit the massive foreign department stores, visit the souqs, and visit the hanuts. It might be more impactful than you anticipate.