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Master and Disciple: Fancy Rhetoric, Simple Autocracy

Abdellah Hammoudi’s Master and Disciple is a sweeping analysis of Moroccan cultural structures that provides support for a paradigm of Moroccan authoritarians as the singular, supreme master in a political system filled with ostensible disciples. He asserts that in such a system, individuals subjugate their own wills, desires, and rationality to those of the Moroccan king in order to gain increasing proximity to him so that one day, they might be close enough to play a role in shaping his decisions. The king arbitrates between their interests, and his decisions are final; at the same time, he is expected to shower benefits on the disciples as a guarantee and recognition of their loyalty. Hammoudi’s theoretical description of such a paradigm is uncontroversial; however, his assertions that Morocco’s political system is defined by the model and, more importantly, that the model explains Morocco’s condition, are more debatable.

Hammoudi does a phenomenal job conveying the history of the Moroccan king and his political context, starting with a precolonial era that seems very feudalistic. The “state” is defined by the king and his network of loyal servants, kept in line by two-fold mutual obligations: temporal, with pecuniary and power-related benefits bestowed upon tribal chiefs, advisors, and wealthy urban elites that have been loyal, as well as increasing control and prestige associated with those who have dutifully and unflinchingly followed the sultan’s whims. The king is legitimized periodically by Islamic scholars’ declarations that he, as a descendant of the Prophet, is the elect of God and thus his arbitration is executed with supreme knowledge of God’s ways. Without him, the sultanate fails to exist. Meanwhile, servants, on their path to power, must endure often unfair punishments and bear harsh taxation, property confiscation, and the periodic stripping of their prestige because the sultan wills it. This experience mirrors the experience of disciples on the path to mastery in the Sufi orders so prevalent in Moroccan Islam.

The French colonizers upset the order by establishing a system of harsh oppression, not legitimized by any sort of religious supremacy, Sufi or otherwise. Their governance structure focused on extraction of resources using local collaborators, but the ultimate enforcement mechanism was a powerful state bureaucracy, not a set of feudal-type obligations. As groups like the nationalist party Istiqlal of individuals rose up to support the sultan, still considered the commander of the faithful, in his struggle against the protectorate, the sultan regained immense prestige but of a more centralized variety.

In the post-independence Morocco, the king has successfully disrupted parties and religious brotherhoods alike, ostensibly by pressuring groups like Istiqlal in the 1950s to split apart into multiple parties based on their different economic agendas. If they were able to pursue power independently, they might have united against the king, but the opportunity was precluded by the movement’s deferral to their “commander” and “master.”

While the paradigm of master-and-disciple is interesting, it also seems an underwhelming explanation for Moroccan authoritarianism. The dynamic contains broad explanatory power for the authoritarian situation in Morocco, masterfully comparing the path of the courtier to power described above to the struggles of the Sufi disciple. In Sufism, the master frequently demands his disciple forsake his old life, exemplified the Darqawi brotherhood’s extreme case in which al-Hijb Ali gave up the lucrative life of a traditional scholar to roam the country in tattered clothing, begging for food, for years, even in the midst of his parents’ home. The power dynamic not only matches the feudalistic system of pre-colonial days, but also for the modern Moroccan nation-state. The same scheme of relationships inhabits a new government structure: parliamentary factions fight each other for the king’s favor rather than against the king himself so that they might implement their policy agendas; in fact the king infrequently intends to allow any party to gain enough power to truly exercise it, a similar balancing act to that of pre-colonial sultans despite a different political landscape. Compared to other Arab and Islamic countries that have successfully evaded mainstream democratic urges, such as Saudi Arabia, Morocco’s evasion seems both more systemically-rooted and stable; it does not rely on shows of force and buying off the people to the same extent because of the master-and-disciple dynamic.

However, the paradigm of a master and disciple ultimately seems more like a rhetorical flourish that could in reality describe any highly personalized authoritarian regime (hence why these are named “sultanistic” regimes by political scientists). When this is accounted for, the whole book’s thesis seems more an extended historical dissection to support a broad theory of how “sultanistic” regimes succeed than it does explain Morocco’s specific scenario. While this may seem a success, seeing that Hammoudi’s objective was to find a pattern that could be extrapolated, it is a failure because in its rhetorical breadth the book fails to prove its truth in the specific case of Morocco. Hammoudi fails to show that Sufism’s paradigm is pervasive, nor how its power dynamics nearly certainly cause authoritarianism. Indeed, much of the book focuses on nationalistic and religious groups, often anti-Sufi, upholding the king’s status despite incongruities with his status as ruling according to revealed law or holy principles. The king himself repressed the Sufi orders for causing rebellion. Meanwhile, there is no comparative work to the other obvious historical case of divine right feudalism: Europe, which managed to avoid confinement to authoritarianism and progressed into bureaucratic nation-state democracy.

Fundamentally, the book provides interesting support for how the Moroccan system of authoritarianism is structured, but not as much for why it is stable or why any of the components involved are crucial factors to Arab autocracy in general. The explanation may, however, come from future analysis of the experience that most significantly separates the Moroccan transition to from divinely-guided feudalism to nation-statehood from the European transition: for Morocco, nation-statehood was an external idea with no cultural foundation and thus the nation-state bureaucracy could be molded by the Moroccan political culture’s master (the king) after the completion of the protectorate. Unfortunately, this specific aspect of the articulation between protectorate and sultanate is not explained in Master and Disciple, which leaves much to be desired in the book.

Master and Disciple Book Review

Master and Disciple: The Cultural Foundations of Moroccan Authoritarianism is Abdellah Hammoudi’s endeavor to describe the development of Moroccan authoritarianism as it has evolved from a cultural standard of authority and submission. Such an ambitious subject involves a thorough overview of Morocco’s political and cultural history and as such, this book is not a quick and easy read. In just 150 pages, Hammoudi provides a comprehensive understanding of all relevant background information and asserts his claim that the master and disciple power dynamic in a religious context laid the foundation for Moroccan authoritarianism under which citizens are meant to treat the governing bodies with near absolute submission.

Morocco has long been a majority Muslim population leaning toward Sufism. Sufism is a form of practicing Islam which encourages its members to undergo spiritual journeys under the guidance of a religious leader, or Sheikh. To participate in this process of Islamic mysticism, the seeker of faith is meant to place unconditional trust and obedience in his or her master. This relationship of authority and submission became the foundation of Moroccan culture which easily translated into a political dynamic. In a monarchical system, the King becomes not just a political leader, but the commander of the faithful. To stand against or criticize the King is to betray Islam, leading to unquestionable loyalty to the monarch. Thus, it becomes easy to understand why Morocco has an authoritarian political institution. Further, Moroccan culture was one of institutionalized social statuses which created a hierarchy in everyday interaction but Hammoudi also makes the assertion that today, there is more room for social mobility.

It is important to note, as Hammoudi does, that Moroccans enjoy more freedoms and rights than many of their Arab neighbors with authoritarian regimes. Today, many of these societies are experiencing conflict which may cause some to wonder why some places with the same fundamental authoritarian dynamic are more unsteady than others. Hammoudi describes the master and disciple relationship as “ambivalent,” claiming that without stable institutions and formal regulations, the dynamic can shift from total submission and obedience to resentment and murder (153). He goes on to say that this tension between master and disciple, father-son, chief-subordinate is central to Arab societies, which makes sense contextualized in an Islamic mystical understanding. Therefore, in transitional stages of society, this shift in attitude is understandable.

Yesterday, our guest lecturer, Professor Sadik Raddad from Sidi Muhammad Bin Abdullah University described Morocco as “a secular nation with a religious rhetoric” as opposed to many Western countries in which there is a secular public sphere and religious private spheres. Hammoudi’s book cannot be subject to much criticism considering its detailed and comprehensive nature, but this is one limitation to his work. As Professor Raddad asserts, Hammoudi never explains why other nations, like Britain, which had once been an authoritarian monarchy with the King as the head of the Church, progressed to  functioning democratic systems and Arab societies have not. Such a discussion would have provided more credibility and support for Hammoudi’s narrative.

Something I struggled with understanding after reading the book was why men are still in a domineering role in Moroccan society. My readings and understandings of Sufism had often placed women positions of strength and power. Dr. Sa’diyya Shaikh’s work had always influenced my understanding that not only does Islam in general allow women to have a platform of power, Sufism also advocated for female empowerment. Further, Morocco is a nation of Almazigh (or Berber) people and after a lecture on women in Morocco as well as a discussion with the director of the American Language Center, it is my understanding that Almazigh women are tough and the opposite of submissive. Hammoudi explains that the political structure of Morocco privileges men in decision making capacities based on the model of authority that has institutionally led Morocco. Hammoudi’s reasoning makes sense, but I feel that with Morocco’s Sufi and Almazigh background, there is so much fuel for women to unite and make societal change.

I cannot say this was an enjoyable read for me, as it was dense and required a lot of my time and energy to comprehend. However, despite its few limitations, I will say Hammoudi’s work is incredibly well written (even though I did read an English translation from its original French), well researched, and well-rounded. Hammoudi asserts his claim clearly that the Sufi dynamic of master and disciple has lead to the development of an authoritarian Morocco. His work also provides context for an understanding of today’s political climate throughout the region, and while this was not an easy or casual read, I really appreciate all the knowledge I’ve gained from it anyway. Throughout upcoming experiences with local students or interviews with other locals, I feel like I now have a stronger foundation on which to have those discussions.


Master and Disciple Book Review

In “Master and Disciple,” Abdellah Hammoudi focuses on his native Morocco to explore the ideological and cultural foundations of the persistent authoritarianism. He builds on the work of Foucault to show that at the heart of Moroccan culture lies a paradigm of authority that juxtaposes absolute authority against absolute submission. In his book, he argues that the schema of authority seen in the master-disciple dialectic is therefore the same as the one which shapes all precedence elations, including the superior-subordinate relationship that forms the backbone of modern bureaucratic and political order in Morocco. Its work is visible at the global level of hagiographic history and generally speaking in cultural history. In his analysis of the master and the disciple, inasmuch as they are figures of ambiguity, he finds that they appear to be in contact with the invisible (this is the meaning of the walaya) and combine within themselves the two principle (feminine and masculine) of reproduction. It is precisely their continuous presence, in the form of uninterrupted emergence of charisma, which maintains Moroccan society. Its influence is so pervasive and so firmly embedded that it ultimately legitimizes the authoritarian structure of power. Hammoudi contends that as long as the Master-Disciple dialectic remains the dominant paradigm of power relations, male authoritarianism will prevail as the dominant political form.


One of the reasons I enjoyed the book is because it helped explain the roots of Moroccan authoritarianism differently than most of the other scholarly work I have read. There are many scholars who came up with theories of why it has been so hard for democracy to take root in the Middle East. Many of these studies claim that factors like poverty, lack of education, inequality, or a lack of established civil society. All of these factors do in fact contribute to making it easier for authoritarianism to thrive. But these factors have been present in many other countries that have been able to become democratic now. The Moroccan youth have always been silenced by the patriarchal and tribal concept of respect of seniority. In presence of the seniors, the youth are taught to keep silent and listen to the elders who have more experience. So, actually the youth never get a chance to express their opinions or become part of a political elite. Indeed, the whole political and social arena is off limits to them, while the elites dominate the scene. In Morocco and the Arab world, the youth are stifled and repressed and any rebellion on their part is considered as a rejection of tradition. By using the relationship between the master and disciple, Hammoudi explains this situation in Morocco using culturally relevant conditions that are relevant within Morocco’s context.


However, I finished the book with still many questions in my mind. Hammoudi mentions that “neither inversion rituals nor the process of mystical initiation are specific to Moroccan society.” He says: “Thus the essential characteristics of Moroccan authoritarianism show it to be, despite significant differences, no more than a variant of the modern Arab authoritarianism.” I couldn’t help but think if that was the case, then why is it that Arab protestors in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have toppled their governments, while a number of other countries have yet to experience upheavals of such magnitude. Among those countries is Morocco, a country with a long history of political protests against tyrannical rule, both colonial and domestic. Central to the monarchical regime’s strength is its longevity – the Alaoui dynasty gained control of most of Morocco in 1664 – and its claim of descent from the Prophet Muhammad. King Mohammed is aided by a powerful propaganda machine – his image adorns streets and shops across the country. Hammoudi’s book, although it may have explained the conditions that contribute to Moroccan authoritarianism, it does not explain what contributes to the robustness of the Moroccan regime that has prevented it from experiencing upheavals like similar countries such as Egypt. He compares the similarity between Morocco and Egypt when he states: “Moreover, some remarks on two other Arab societies, the Algerian and the Egyptian, will help us realize that the master-disciple relationship may still be very much at work there too. Of all Arab societies countries Algeria and Egypt are perhaps the most radically affected by change since the nineteenth century, yet the paradigms of domination and submission do not differ there from the ones I have described in Moroccan society.” If Morocco is similar to Egypt in terms of the presences of the master-disciple relationship, why has it not been hit by the wave that is sweeping through the region? Egypt has experienced a revolution in 2011 when the Mubarak regime was toppled, and in 2013 when Morsi was removed. Is Morocco an exception to this rule? If so, I had hoped that he would explain the conditions that make it different from other Arab countries affected by the protests.


Another critique I have for the book is that, despite the fact that Hammoudi has tried his best to avoid orientalist approaches to explaining the conditions in Morocco, I still couldn’t help but notice the essentialist and over-simplifying approach he had towards Moroccan authoritarianism. In explaining the robustness of the Moroccan regime only through the relationship of the master and disciple, Hammoudi ignores other social, historical, economic, and cultural factors that complicate the reality of Morocco and has stripped down this phenomenon to one underlying and unchanging ‘essence’ which is Sufism. I would have hoped that he would further explore these other factors that explain the unique robustness of Moroccan authoritarianism as opposed to other Arab regimes.


In conclusion, it was interesting to read about the cultural aspects that affect the way politics are performed because scholars tend to ignore that aspect during their research and publications.  However, this book is most definitely not for the casual reader or for the general public. It uses difficult vocabulary and complicated concepts that would be difficult for the casual reader, and it seems that it is more directed to scholars and professional anthropologists. This particular style of writing makes the work inaccessible and more obscure to the average person. Scholars should take more care to make their work more accessible to the general public. But despite the fact that his book could be improved, I definitely appreciate the fact that he taken a risk in publishing this book. It is risky to write about authoritarianism in non-democratic societies, and it is definitely very dangerous for Arab scholars living in the Arab world to do so.

Master and Disciple

                Before delving into the meat of Abdellah Hammoudi’s Master and Disciple, it is imperative that we first examine the characteristics the book and its author have. Hammoudi’s Master and Disciple is an examination into the development of the authoritarian political system and the cultural sircumstance surrounding and causing it. As such the story is written from a third person narrator perspective, likely in a conscious effort to embolden the legitimacy of the books ethos, or credibility, while taking away from -the book’s pathos, or emotional impact, which would in this case would be counter-productive to the author’s objective: to provide an objective historical analysis of a time during most of which he was not alive. This can be expected from such a scholar as Hammoudi, whose purpose is not to convince but rather to inform.

                As this is a dense account of a very complex and intricate aspect of Moroccan political history, it was imperative that Hammoudi take great lengths to make sure all aspects of Morocco’s political system, often foreign to western readers, were clearly explained. As a result, that is exactly what Hammoudi did. Throughout the book, all concepts were introduced with not only a definition, but also a less literal but more comphrehensive translation of many Arabic terms that have no equivalent in English, or French in which the book was originally written. One example of such an explanation can be found on page 61, in which he describes the social classes that exist, one of which was the the descendants of saints (mrabtin). Such a social construct is more complex than apparent at first glance, and so Hammoudi eplains, ” The last category was complex; in practice its members could be classified either on top of the ladder, right below the chorfa, or lower than the masses of ordinary men and women, depending on the the authority of the charisma they inherited .” Hammoudi then goes on to articulate how dependent this status was on others. Such an ambiguous form of social status is difficult to understand for an outsider, so it was imperative that Hammoudi take the time to articulate the nuances of such a social construct. This was something Hammoudi did without fail throughout the book, almost to a fault. 

                When it came to articulating his argument, Hammoudi performed without fail. There was not a single assertion that was simply stated; in fact, the amount of detail provided to support a particular statement was often overdone, and might have even distracted from the more significant meaning.  Furthermore, there is a huge topic which Hammoudi leaves unaddressed. While Hammoudi does address in great detail the cultural factors that are to blame for the sustenance of an authoritarian government despite its interruption by French colonization, he fails to explain why Western nations were able to move away from authoritarian governments claiming divine right towards more democratic forms of government while Morocco was not. What was the fundamental difference between the two cultures that permitted France and the rest of Europe to change their form of rule, and might be hindering the nations of the Arab world. It’s all well and good that Hammoudi points to the nature of Moroccan culture and supports its identity as a perpetuating agent of authoritarian rule, but such a claim requires an alternative, an alternative that Hammoudi fails to provide. While it would be nice to support this take with a passage from the text, it is difficult to support the absence of a passage from the text with a passage from the text. Now, despite these drawbacks, it would not be possible to assert that what Hammoudi did in this text is not significant; while it is only a piece of the puzzle, it is now a piece that can be understand with far greater confidence than could previously.

                While it is difficult to challenge the credibility of the author’s information as a result of there being such a vast amount of it, it is much more feasible to support the credibility of the author due to the extensive use and citing of outside sources in his writing, as well as the fact that Professor Hammoudi is a highly regarded scholar of the mechanisms of Moroccan politics. It’s very selection by our professor further lends to its credibility, as does its relevance in discussions I have had with other Moroccan scholars of equally high regard.

                The book tells the story of how Morocco’s authoritarian style of government came to exist and has been sustained throughout a very dynamic and tumultuous history whose most significant “wrench in the gears” was a long period of French colonization and regime change. However, the story is told both from the perspective of the higher workings of the political and upper class of Morocco, as well as how those workings were manifestations of much more fundamental cultural characteristics that lended to Morocco’s current political atmosphere. One such fundamental characteristic is articulated in the book’s title, and that characteristic is the relationship between “Master and Disciple” in the form of Islam that has now been adopted by Morocco, Sufism. Despite being a religion in which the faults of humanity are to be found and conquered within the self, Sufism also asserts that such a journey of self-purification requires the wisdom and guidance of a shaykh, or spiritual guide. This ­shaykh is an extremely enlightened and wise individual, and as such commands complete respect and obedience from he who seeks guidance. This relationship, one that is fundamental to Islam in Morocco, is one that permeates Moroccan society, and is also one that encourages the subjugation of individuals to those deemed more educated, and more enlightened. To go against such a relationship is to go against Islam, and so having a king who is the commander of the faithful leads to a system of government with cannot be questioned without questioning Islam—the very backbone of Morocco’s value system and culture—in the process. This is one the more significant emergent properties—known in the realm of biology as a property of a system that arises from a unifying characteristic that exists in the system’s many components—of Morocco’s political system that Hammoudi comments on, but is only one of many. Another more tangible and auxiliary emergent property of Morocco’s government is the relationship between the king and the nobility, one whose dynamic is connected to the Moroccan custom of gift-giving and is also not totally dissimilar to that of France during the reign of Louis XIV. Strange that these two countries had/have such similar government dynamics and the one that overcame their government came to colonize and overcome the other. Now while this is only one of the many connections Hammoudi draws, most follow this theme of emergent properties. As a result, it is my belief that Hammoudi successfully accomplishes the goal he set out with, which was to illustrate how entrenched the dynamics of Morocco’s political system are in its culture, and that is why it was able to be sustained despite the significant interruption made by French colonization.

               Despite the few drawbacks to Hammoudi’s intensely focused style of writing, he fully  accomplishes what he set out to, which was to show how embedded the roots of Moroccan authoritarianism are in the fundamental relationships that permeate Moroccan culture. And if it was not possible for decades of French colonialization to disrupt the tendency of Moroccan government to default to authoritarianism, what could?


Smashing Watermelons, Smashing Politics

When I was still in the states, the two most common responses I got after telling people about my upcoming trip to Morocco were 1) that I would love the food or 2) that I would need to be careful not to talk about anything political lest someone find out that I am American or Jewish or both and somehow try to kill me. I excitedly received the first response, while rolling my eyes at the second. I was still surprised to find out just how vastly unbalanced the aforementioned view of the Morocco is. The food here is perhaps the most delicious I have ever encountered. Every night, my host family serves the most delicious koftas, tagines, couscouses, and even harissa-flavored pastas (no, I didn’t know that was a thing either, but look out America!). Fresh fruit accompanies just about every meal, including some fruit I still don’t know the Darija name for, let alone its English name. Even the watermelon here tastes better, especially when served at the end of a phenomenal meal by my host family.


It isn’t only the food, however, that makes mealtime so fascinating. This week, every meal has been accompanied by some of the most intriguing political conversations I’ve ever had. Sure, the language barriers have kept the conversation from getting very conceptual or abstract, but this actually seems to be a positive thing. It is much more tangible. On the first night, my family asked me and John, who shares a home with me, about ourselves, including our religions. Although I was at first apprehensive to admit I was Jewish, fearing that I might have to explain every small component of the complicated, depressing affair that is Israeli politics every time I returned home, I instead found incredible cultural exchange. The families eyes lit up, excited to explain their happy attitude towards Jews, informed by the rich history of Jews in Morocco. I found that discussing the politics of the Israeli Palestinian conflict was a feature, not a fright, in my stay in Morocco. The son in the family, Mohammed, explained his support for one state, while I explained my own for two. After some discussion on the matter, Mohammed’s mother casually commented that she thought the Palestinians absolutely crazy. Intrigued by this position that is even more extreme than some of the more right-wing Jews in the US, I inquired further about here opinions on the Palestinian Israeli conflict. Being that she could speak only Darija, she simplified her answer to a hand gesture in which she explained she actually preferred Israel to Morocco, if only she could live there: Israel straight, Morocco windy. Very tangible indeed.

When our program visited Sidi Mohammed ben Abdullah University, we found some obvious questions about Donald Trump. The questions, however, focused not on why all Americans were stupid, or racist, or fascist, but instead on how we thought someone as hateful as Trump could gain a foothold in America, such a powerful and respected country that is known for at least being domestically democratic. Perhaps we should have expected a Trump question, but we were nonetheless unprepared to answer. Whether because of the nature of Trump or because of the unexpectedly nuanced nature of the students’ questions, I can’t say, but evidently our confusion showed.


While all of this has certainly been a blast, and being able to tell my parents all the ways they worried too much has its perks, it also highlights a concerning dynamic in America’s relation to the world that most people I ran into expressed a severe concern for my safety and ability to have truly advanced debates in Morocco simply because it is Arab and speaks Arabic. Many scholars think that the Arab Spring failed because the Arabs aren’t intellectually prepared for democracy, but this trip has smashed that interpretation of politics for me. At least in some parts of the Arab world, the people are ready for debate about democracy. The question is, are we?



The Streets Hum

To talk simply on what has caught my eye since arriving in Morocco would require far too much time and space on the page to be remotely useful to anyone interested in the distinctions of larger scope that permeate life in Fez. As such, I will refrain from examining all the little gems that are so bountiful and easy to point out. Those are for the curious explorer to discover on his or her own. Furthermore, I am in no position to comment on the most significant of them, as the time I have been here in Fez has only allotted for my discovery of what I’m sure is a practically negligible percentage. Instead, I will try to articulate the experience I have had in being witness to the dramatic yet almost subliminal distinction that exists in the overall interaction of society, one that manifests itself in a variety of ways and one which I have come closest to describing as a sort of beehive.

The first manner in which I found this beehive-esque society to manifest itself was in traffic, both automotive and pedestrian. What first caught my eye was the manner in which pedestrians disregarded the boundry between sidewalk and road completely, and walked through moving traffic as if the cars were simply other pedestrians. Similarly, the cars moved in between lanes and and pedestrians as if they themselves were simply strolling through the street. The consistent disregard for conventional rules and distinctions adhered to in a far more significant manner in the United States caught me off guard upon my arrival, despite having read about it previously. Something I said to a friend while walking across the street was that the cars and their drivers act as if under the delusion that they are pedestrians and not the drivers of very dangerous vehicles. However, as such a paradigm is both understood by and embedded in everyone else, the result is a remarkably effective system of traffic, one that appears to be completely natural to citizens, which is why they appear to be at complete ease in between lanes of cars moving at no slow place. The only native I have seen that expressed visible discomfort was a girl who could not have been any older than five years of age, staying close to her mother while passing one of the many chaotic circle intersections that are scattered throughout the city. It is within these circles that the beehive truly comes to life, a whirlpool of activity that requires both complete attention and caution as well as daring from non-natives in order to navigate it. The functioning of such a system comes from the universal understanding that all participants are constantly both self-aware and aware of their surroundings, an understanding that cannot be safely assumed to exist in traffic “philosophies” like that of the United States. Strangely enough, though it has only been a week, I have found myself becoming more comfortable navigating this hub of jaywalkers and cautiously aggressive drivers that further add to the buzz that permeates Fez.

Now, in the eyes of an outsider (including myself upon first witnessing this phenomena), such a seemingly unorganized and chaotic system must endanger its participants far more than any other more regulated system. However, as of yet, I have not witnessed a single instance in which a car or pedestrian was in an accident. As such, I must challenge the notion that such a system is an absolute threat to the safety of everyday people trying to navigate the streets of Fez. After all, as is most likely the result of the heightened awareness required to navigate such an environment, I have yet to see a single pedestrian–and more importantly, a single driver–on their cell phone while navigating the street, or being otherwise distracted. Such is an almost omnipresent occurrence in (New York in my personal experience, and) the United States. Now, I am not making any assertions that one system is better or safer than the other, but the apparent functionality and safety of such a system can teach us that maybe we need a little more chaos in our lives, if for no other reason than to keep us on our toes.

Cafe Culture

From the window of my room in my home-stay family’s apartment overlooking a busy city square, I have been observing the city below and have been struck by the relaxed pace of society and the communal practice of people-watching. From my perch at the window, I can see several cafes, and throughout the day, the outside seating is always crowded. Even when seated with other people, everyone seems to sit facing the street square. The clients of these cafes sit there for long periods of time, not feasting on three course meals or having lively conversations. From what I can see, this tradition is all about tea and quiet observation. This is a practice I would like to try. Having grown up in the Northeast of the United States, I am accustomed to a fast-paced society in which everybody focuses on themselves and is always in a rush to get somewhere or do something. Nobody really spends time truly appreciating the places they are exploring, the people they are meeting, the food they are eating, etc. Since arriving in Morocco, I have noticed how people generally walk and talk at a more comfortable pace. I think people seem to take time to absorb and think about their surroundings.

However, it is interesting to witness the contradiction of the busy street with honking taxis and cars speeding by against the calm and collected groups of people watching the day pass by them. Many of the café customers do seem to be of an older generation, so I wonder if this tradition will fade away with time as younger people become more and more rushed and impatient. I hope that is not the case. I think we can all gain some patience and wisdom from sitting with our elders and observing the world with them.

I believe that this café people-watching practice is a form of meditation as it forces people to relax, collect their emotions, abandon any pressing concerns for the moment, and quietly reflect. Meditation and reflection is a big part of prayer. Moroccan culture is built upon Islamic values, and prayer is a major concept in Islam. The practice of prayer invites people to stop what they are doing five times a day and reflect and remember God (I have attached a photo of a mosque in Fez, where people will take the time to pray). While not everyone prays, I still think this value has factored into a community of reflection. One day while I am still here, I would like to sit at one of these cafes and participate in this form of meditation and people-watching. Sure, I am watching people from up here at the window, but it is not the same as sipping Moroccan mint tea, sitting among locals and watching the world as sort of a peer and not from a separate and isolated location. Not only would I be sitting with locals and engaging in a common practice with them, but I would also be observing and studying the actions and interactions passing me by, which would contribute to a more comprehensive understanding and impression of the culture and society of Fez.


“A House in Fez” Review


In A House In Fez, Suzanna Clarke explains how she and her husband fell in love with a country and purchased, then renovated, a centuries old house in Fez, Morocco. Their “new” home (riad) is over 300 years old and in dire need of renovation before it collapses. They are determined to restore it to an authentic Moroccan home. They find native artisans who do all the work by hand. Only able to spend a few months at a time in Morocco, a lot of the work had to be done remotely from Australia with a few good friends back in Morocco helping out where they can. The Medina, which is the old city of Fez, is the best-preserved medieval walled city in the world. Suzanna Clarke not only writes of the process of renovating the house, but also provides meaningful insights into the lives and personalities of the Moroccans. You hear about different people’s everyday life, dreams and culture. It’s heartwarming to learn the similarities that cross cultures. And it’s mind-opening to learn the differences.


In between the story of the renovations, locating tradesmen and overcoming obstacles, Suzanna also relates the rich history of the country, the religious beliefs and the customs of the people she comes across. On trying to overcome, she was quoted saying: “This is how things are done in Morocco, I kept reminding myself, taking deep breaths. It was just as well my high-school French didn’t run to swear words.” One of the things she learns, for example, that when invited for dinner it’s considered rude to stay at the host’s home after dinner is eaten. As soon as the meal is done the party is over. She also learned that comments to a family that their baby is beautiful are considered a wish for bad fortune for the baby. One of the hardships she experiences is when her Ipod got stolen. One afternoon after Sandy returned from Australia, she purchased several brass lanterns from the men who came to the riad from the lighting shop. She noticed their Ipod missing after the men left. But through it all, it was the people who helped with the restoration that made the difference. She also learns that the people in the Medina as welcoming and friendly. “The day we left, they phoned us from their new place of work, the mobile being passed around to wish us ‘trek salaama’ – safe travel. They chattered on happily in Darija and I had no idea what they were saying, but I understood the sentiment. Having shared our lives with them for so long, they felt like family. We would miss them all.”


However, as much as I enjoyed the book, sometimes I was slightly put off by the author’s tone. I sensed a bit of a Western superiority complex. Throughout the book, she complains almost way too much about how the Moroccans attempt to lie and exploit her for money. She constantly portrays herself as the weak and victimized foreigner who gets taken advantage of by the ill-intentioned natives. Right from the beginning, the author talks about how she knew she was much richer than everyone around her, and how in awe all the locals must be of her wealth and how difficult it was for her to have houses on opposite sides of the world. Her tone was sometimes too whiny. She often spends too much time complaining about how difficult it was to renovate this house. I know that living in a construction zone can be challenging, but she wasn’t doing it herself. She had a team of workers doing the actual work in the house.


Though the book leaves much to be desired, I found that it was engaging and only made me more excited to travel to Morocco and experience the culture and explore the beautiful country. Suzanna’s story is an uplifting story about how close they become with the working team, and with their new neighbors who became friends. From her story, I enjoying seeing how it is not only the final product that matters, but about the people you meet and the lessons you learn that help you grow as a person. Suzanna finds that beautiful restorations, as well as beautiful friendships, occur as “inshallah”, which means God willing in Arabic. This is the most common phrase throughout the renovation. The book really does test Suzanna’s motto – “it’s possible to do anything if you really want to; whatever you envisage just go ahead, give it a go, try. And I bet you really can.”



“A House in Fez” Review – Amani Ahmed


        Suzanna Clark’s A House in Fez: Building a Life in the Ancient Heart of Morocco is a story about an Australian couple who become enamored with the Medina in Fez, Morocco, where they make an effort to create a second home. The story is told from the author’s Western perspective and outlines the process she and her husband, Sandy McCutcheon endure restoring the property they buy. The reader experiences Fez from an outsider’s perspective as Clarke and McCutcheon integrate into Moroccan society. She relays the sights, sounds, and smells of the Medina, and the reader is instantly enchanted by her magical descriptions. Through Clarke’s story and encounters with the people working with her to restore the property, the reader gains a unique understanding of Moroccan culture as it pertains to hospitality, work ethic, and general social interaction. The reader also experiences her journey developing friendships and connections to other locals, which allows deeper insight into the culture specific to Fez. Ultimately, she and her husband complete their project and build Riad Zany after a long, frustrating, but fulfilling process.

        I enjoyed this book and found it useful as an introduction into Moroccan social culture, since  I am participating in Duke in the Arab World, staying in Fez for three weeks. I appreciated how Clarke foregrounded  the history of Fez, as it  truly gave life to the city and served to make it a more vibrant place in my imagination. I have heard and read so many wonderful things about Fez, and Clarke creates such vivid imagery, which further fuels my excitement to be surrounded by so much history and rich culture. One of the most interesting points in her book is how Fez is such a unique city, having maintained its charming, historical nature. She discusses how other cities like Marrakesh have  a greater number of  inhabitants, tourists, lights, and  malls, and that they cater  to tourists. While Fez has preserved ancient landmarks, architecture, and infrastructure, the city of Marrakesh has replaced or modernized these things. This was especially important for Clarke, as through the process of restoring the Riad (adding modern plumbing, electricity, etc.), she and the workers make an effort to retain much of the original beauty of the house, specifically the tiled mosaics in the house.

        Clarke describes all the beauty and allure of Morocco while also mentioning some of the challenges that foreigners may experience. Most significantly, the language barrier proves to be a difficult obstacle. While Sandy decides to study Darija, the Morrocan Arabic dialect, Clarke makes an effort to improve her French, which is useful because French is. Clarke further points out cultural differences, like dress code and treatment of women, which she briefly addresses after some of her interactions with local women. She offers a sentence here and there about how there are differences in women’s rights in her home country of Australia versus those in  Morocco, but she never provides a detailed discussion, which could have been interesting. For instance, after expressing appreciation for communal bathing, she mentions how she would not feel comfortable discussing saunas, a shared experience between men and women, because of the differences in their two cultures. However, I was grateful that Clarke depicted the variety of friendships she forged with traditional women like Khadija and progressive or liberal women,like Ayisha. It allowed the reader to understand that there is a spectrum of values and political beliefs among women in society despite the relatively conservative patriarchal sociopolitical structure  in comparison to Australia (although compared to some other Muslim-majority nations like Saudi Arabia, Morocco is progressive).

         Clarke is a talented writer whose words bring to life a historic and beautiful city. I would argue, however, that there are some significant issues with the book regarding her portrayal of Moroccan culture through a limited perspective. was how Clarke often voices Western concerns or even complaints, such as the slow pace of work or inconvenient methods of purchasing or locating certain products, despite the fact that she is now in a Moroccan context. She began the book genuinely passionate about integrating into a new society and meeting new people, but she ends up mostly with friends who came from other Western nations. She often portrays her frustrations with the relaxed pace of Moroccan society and seems unreceptive to the cultural lack of privacy. It seems to me that as she is an outsider moving into someone else’s neighborhood, she could express more graciousness. I will point out, however, that even she questions herself, when after deciding to no longer hire a worker who did not measure up to her expectations, she says, “Was I, despite my best intentions, succumbing to a colonial way of life after all?”(92). While her concerns and complaints came across a bit bothersome to me, I recognize how it would resonate with other Westerners visiting the country who did not previously have much exposure to a lesser developed, majority Muslim country.

        Despite this negativity, Clarke presents a generally positive narrative of the Moroccan population and their religion and expresses her own appreciation for the country and its people. By the end of the book, she even describes the workers in her home as family. She introduces the reader to different Moroccan customs, going as far as to say that she begins to miss hearing the call to prayer when she leaves the country. She explains the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset for thirty days. She expresses an admiration for the practice and even participates in part of it. Further, she discusses how similar Islam is to Christianity and Judaism and explains the seemingly minor differences in belief systems. She expresses her incredulity with how there could be so much violence for centuries about religion when different religions generally believe the same things. She quotes a young Muslim girl who tells her, “The reason people hate and kill one another is because of cultural and political differences. They use religion as an excuse” (218). In the end, beyond her frequent discomfort or irritation with locals, she humanizes this North African, Arabic-speaking Muslim population which is incredibly positive for the region.

       After finishing the book, I visited the Riad Zany blog, which appears to verify Clarke’s story and provides photos and posts that promote Riad Zany and Fez. Additionally, Clarke’s  blog offers a list of local organizations that readers may consider supporting,  like the Fez Medina Children’s Library. Riad Zany’s story is interesting for anyone, but it definitely imparted knowledge important for me as I prepare to travel to Fez. Clarke’s work is engaging and relatively well-rounded in its portrayal of the people and the city, full of detailed imagery. However, I think an interesting change could be to write the story from two points of view: one from Suzanna’s perspective as an outsider moving into Fez, and another perspective from a local as he or she adjusts to this outsider settling into his or her neighborhood. This suggestion would provide a truly comprehensive tale and would serve to elevate the story to make it more trustworthy and intriguing.



The View from Josh of “A House in Fez”–Josh Curtis

A House in Fez, by Suzanna Clarke, illuminated for me a perspective of Fassi culture (and through it, Moroccan) that really cannot be obtained by reading any Wikipedia article. Away from the common tourist destinations of Marrakech, Tangier, and even the Ville Nouvelle, Clarke’s narrative of life in the Madina offers a microcosmic vision of Morocco: just like the nation as a whole, the Madina is struggling with how to modernize for the sake of, rather than to replace, the cultural and historic past. Her rich, first-person tale of the renovations of the Riad Zany convey how, even amidst intense efforts to modernize and liberalize, wide cultural and gaps separate Moroccans from the West in terms of business and personal relationships.

The book uses extensive detail to create an image of the Madina as a city both in transition and frozen in time. Modern appliances and innovations lie beside ancient architecture designed and built long before drywall, electricity, and internet wiring. It is a testament to human ingenuity that Clarke’s builders were able to connect modern stoves and toilets to ancient sewer lines, without destroying the beautiful zellij mosaics that decorate the houses of the Madina as they have for hundreds of years. One of the most significant moments to demonstrate the fascinating way that the anachronistic, seemingly competing modes of life in the Madina coexist was Abdul’s digging out the ancient sewer. The sewer is nothing like the Western type, full of complicated piping, insulation, junctions, and fastenings that require years of training to repair. It was simply a ditch, kept open by tiled walls. This simple sewer line was more than adequate for Riad Zany’s modern toilet to flush. On another occasion, Clarke walks through the souks to pick out produce and meat, both charmed and somewhat alarmed by how fresh everything is—in the case of chickens, still wriggling when you purchase it. She uses both experiences to highlight what Clarke portrays as an important part of Morocco: how close the locals are to every facet of life. There is nothing fancy or magical really about the sewer system—a little bit of training is required to understand what needs fixing for sure, but nothing is truly incomprehensible to the lay person. There is nothing mystical about how animals are raised, slaughtered, and butchered. As a result, on the one hand, things might not work as reliably or be as easy, but on the other, one becomes better grounded and can set his or her priorities straight.

Similarly, the community is much more down to earth than most Western ones. Clarke states numerous times that everyone knows everyone else’s business, an obvious but important observation considering the nature of Madina architecture. The place was not designed from the top down, with a utopian vision for how to control people’s behaviors, but rather developed organically through interactions, both friendly and less so, between neighbors. Moreover, residents of the Madina seem to consider their neighbors’ usiness their own, as there is little sense of division between private and public space. This makes the community an interesting and charming contrast to the West, where interactions between servicers and clientele, while often friendly, is strictly business. In contrast, it appears that individuals’ employment and social lives are closely intertwined. Khadija, Clarke’s one-time neighbor, frequently blurred this line. In Clarke’s eyes, she was a close friend for whom she would buy gifts in Australia, yet the relationship was always tense and perhaps ultimately broken by Khadija’s desire to leverage their friendship for employment. Whether it was to clean Riad Zany or for Suzanna to hire Khadija’s husband Abdul as a laborer in the renovation project, requests that seemed to Khadija to be mutual favors—useful work for Suzanna and money to help Khadija’s family—seemed to Clarke to breach a border that would make things awkward when something went wrong, such as Abdul’s possible theft of towels from Clark’s riad. This distinction was an intriguing one, helping to highlight how countries with similar government bureaucracies, political systems, and commercial laws can reach different levels of modernity and retain different societal features.

Taken together, Clarke’s writing illustrates the most relevant concepts about life in the Madina. The ancient city is not simply a tourist attraction or a sight to see; it is more than just interesting architecture. It is a breathing city whose aura offers a case study in how different facets of society can be changed and what the effect is. Clarke’s immense contextual analysis and (sometimes overbearingly) elaborate details clearly convey these concepts to the reader. However, the books is not without flaws in its accounting. She never really answers the nagging problem that she may fail to capture a full picture of how Madina society operates differently from the West precisely because her and the locals’ norms are different. It is unclear to what extent her being foreign affects workers’ behavior around her, or her attitude towards locals. While Clarke makes note of these problems frequently, she never provides even a provisional explanation of how this affected her experience. Unfortunately, this fact may point to an unsavory truth that ultimately, colonial philosophies can never truly be removed from interactions with foreign cultures perceived as in greater desperation or a lower status.