A Letter From Morocco
three children, publishing several books, and spending many years
teaching philosophy at Holy Cross, Hilde Hein took early retirement
to pursue a third career as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco.
Diotima asked Professor Hein to reflect on her experiences as a
Of course your request lodged a seed in my mind, and so, as I walked to the home of my Arabic tutor today, knowing that I would partake of food with his family in the evening after the day’s fast, I reflected on my experiences in Morocco and, in particular on how they were affected by this season of Ramadan. Having lived here now for over five months, I am no longer astonished at sights, smells and sounds that initially seemed striking, exotic, or repellent - horses, donkeys, even occasional sheep or cows and their inevitable residue amidst the traffic of automobiles and motor bikes, veiled women and men in djellabas, flocks of children in school smocks, pushcarts heaped with sticky and fly-infested pastries, dead rats and scrawny cats, and, especially now, many beggars. Ramadan is a time for fasting and meditation, when everyone, during daylight hours, is commended to attend to the condition of the poor; but the rich return home at sundown to a breakfast of hareira, a hearty soup, dates, eggs, fresh bread and sweet pastries, while the poor remain in the street. Almsgiving is an obligation, one of the five pillars of Islam. Today, as I passed a pair of beggars seated at the side of the road, two cart porters stopped in front of them to converse. One carried a refrigerator in his cart, the other was delivering a large new TV. Someone had certainly chosen a less charitable way to observe Ramadan. I have strong political reservations about the system of almsgiving, but every religion does promote selective charity, more I think to the advantage of the donors than the donees, and, not incidentally, preserving the difference of status between them; but Islam is an equalizer in some respects - or so it seems. Everyone with a home to return to watches the same prettified soap opera on television while enjoying their personal variant of the evening’s first meal. And this is followed by a trip to the mosque and the performance of ritual prayers made in the attitude of prostration, head pressed to the earth, that most pleases and proximates Allah. Everyone glorifies the One God, and celebrates the words of his prophet.
Morocco is a monarchy, whose young king, Mohamed VI, claims descent from the prophet. While there are political parties and a Prime Minister, appointed from the majority party by the king, Morocco is also a theocracy with a state religion. Surely there is something contradictory about the king’s pronouncement in August 1996, that henceforth Morocco would be a democracy; but perhaps it is no more contradictory than impartial elections in Florida or, more generally, the prospect of an election won by less than half of an eligible and disenchanted electorate. Disenfranchisement is a well-warranted state of mind. In Morocco, drinking alcohol is a criminal offense, especially during Ramadan, but polygamy is permitted if one can afford to keep one’s wives (up to four) at an equal status. However, the Koran also notes that this is almost impossible and therefore recommends against it. Nevertheless, it is condoned, and, more importantly, fosters and is part of a tradition that sequesters and keeps women in a subordinate position. Their rights of inheritance are minimal, and even their claims to their own children are in jeopardy should their husbands choose to divorce or repudiate them. Women are legally at the mercy of men. Two thirds of Morocco’s women are illiterate, and while there are well-educated, prosperous, and ambitious women, the prevailing cultural model presents women as homemakers and mothers, rarely mixing with men outside the family, and indeed covering themselves with scarves and jellaba when they have cause to go out. A jellaba, by the way, is a very practical garment, not uncomfortable and easily slipped on over whatever one happens to be wearing, often pajamas, and in it the woman becomes a rather shapeless object and is officially invisible. For this reason, many women find wearing it a convenience as much as a statement. Moroccan men can be a nuisance. Like American men, they take up a great deal of space to which they feel similarly entitled, and they do not hesitate to assault women with rude and unwelcome propositions. Children learn accordingly and often follow tourists or any western-looking person down the streets, taunting and begging. This is a serious hindrance to the tourist trade, which Morocco hopes to encourage.
Like most former colonial and "third world" countries, Morocco faces globalization. The recent discovery of oil in an eastern province sparked a surge of hope for self-sufficiency, but in today’s interconnected world that is not a viable option. Morocco is developing procedures that will encourage foreign investment. In fact, its oil will be extracted by foreign companies, leaving only 25% of the profits to Morocco. Morocco also exports phosphates (for fertilizer) and various agricultural products, but recent years of drought have severely diminished crops and left many people without work. Even certified engineers, doctors and teachers cannot find jobs here, and so the prospect for young people is demoralizing. There is an atmosphere of defeatism, enhanced, I believe, by the prevailing view that whatever happens is in accordance with the will of God, and that one must accept one’s fate as it is given.
But, of course, I am a restless and ambitious American. I believe in getting things done and meeting the world with energy and purpose. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I am encouraged, to a degree, to impart that attitude. It is rightly taken as one of the hallmarks of the American success story that Morocco hopes to emulate - the good news that we are bidden to broadcast. But we are also urged to be culturally sensitive to an ethos that is entirely otherwise, and there are more contradictions, some great, some small. Sometimes I despair of accomplishing anything whatsoever and sometimes I consider it an act of unconscionable hubris to think that I "ought" to accomplish something. What could be more culturally insensitive? When I ask myself such questions, I ponder the philosophical differences that define our cultures. It is not colonialism alone that links our separate histories, but an intellectual tradition common to east and west. Plato and Aristotle are as much a part of North Africa as of North America, and it is thanks to their preservation by Arab hands that the writings of Greek philosophers are even available to us. Plato’s distinction between a world of matter and a realm of eternal spirit fits comfortably with Islam, perhaps more so than with the materialism that dominates America. But Marx is also studied here, alongside of more traditional sociological historians such as the 14th century thinker Ibn Khaldoun. Of course, their ideas are no more the everyday fare of ordinary Moroccans than of Americans, and yet they shape the vocabulary and flavor the practices of all the people. Making comparisons, I cannot overlook our differences, and yet they seem somehow trivial. I am struck more profoundly by the things we hold in common, our affections and disaffections, what saddens and pleases us, our loves and our laughter. I think, too, that among the more credible insights made by philosophers is that of Spinoza and Schopenhauer that we are driven by a great impersonal force that moves us relentlessly, through misery and adversity - as well as good times, to perpetuate and even reproduce ourselves beyond reason or good sense. How else to explain not the cunning of history, but its stubborn endurance? I cannot in good conscience say that my presence here is a force for good; but neither, I hope, is it an instrument of evil. It is accepted in kind, with humor, good will and some indifference by the Moroccans. They absorb me and a few will think warmly of me after I am gone. Most will remain untouched as I will have been unmarked by them, and so our great travails to make a difference and be of consequence go largely unnoticed and perhaps that is as it should be.