Three young girls on the beach in Oulidia

On a discussion in an expat group on Facebook, I read again the reproaches regularly made by non-Muslim Europeans living in Morocco, “country of hypocrites”, “no freedom”, “they do Ramadan but the rest of the time they drink alcohol”, in short “hypocrisy”, “absence of freedom”, “constraint”.

I wanted to answer a lot of things, but the Facebook format doesn’t lend itself to that… and then these things, I had said them a few days earlier, to a Belgian friend who converted to marry a Moroccan woman, and who was suffering a thousand deaths because he had the impression of being caught in an intellectual and moral dictatorship that was unbearable for his principles.

And it’s true that, in my multicultural training courses, this lack of understanding of ‘Moroccan schizophrenia’ is what comes up most often, and one of the things that causes the most problems in the daily relationship. There are several reasons for this:

  1. a real Moroccan schizophrenia
  2. a total lack of understanding of the values of Islam which explain this schizophrenia
  3. a deep ignorance of Islam, which limits its perception to these constraints
  4. an ignorance of the weight of Moroccan tradition and values, especially for those who live in tourist areas and who believe, wrongly, that Morocco is Western because it has adopted consumer habits
  5. a blindness to Western hypocrisies and contradictions, which are not lesser, but others
  6. and finally, for some, a state of “lack” that makes them say anything

Moroccan schizophrenia

Yes, it exists. I talked about it in the articles on the sale of alcohol on NationalAds.

It is inevitable in a country as diverse as Morocco. Because it’s the only way to get such different people to live together well.

Very different Moroccans, some highly intellectuals, some still illiterate, one country

Contrary to what some people say, Morocco is changing extremely fast.

Many middle managers, shopkeepers, civil servants dressed in European style are the children of illiterate parents, fellahs, aroubis, “bledards”, people who are marvellously typical when you see them in photos or on postcards, but whom you only meet when you have tea with the locals for tourists, or when you ask them to build a wall or repair a pipe when you have a riad. (and then complaining about the poor quality of the work).

From people like my in-laws, then.

My husband is particularly liberal. He’s not an extremely observant Muslim, but he is observant. We sometimes have bottles of wine at home, for me, for our friends, for cooking. However, as soon as his parents arrive, the alcohol is hidden, so as not to shock them.

Tea or alcohol, a Moroccan schizophrenia

Berber whiskey, the Moroccan identity – © National Ads

At our wedding, which we celebrated traditionally, in the south of Morocco, with all the invited family, there were tables for our European guests. The only thing special about these tables was that the Coke bottles contained wine. Not a single Muslim made a mistake. The few Moroccans who drank Coke with the European guests knew perfectly well what they were doing, and nobody got the wrong bottle.

This is probably, in a nutshell, all that makes the “bien vivre ensemble” in Morocco.

An open, tolerant country with limits

Morocco is an exceptionally tolerant country. Compared to its North African neighbours and to other countries in the Arab-Muslim sphere (for it would be a mistake to limit Islam to the Arab world), freedom for foreigners is exceptional. For Moroccans, the legislation is increasingly liberal. Morocco is, for example, the only Arab-Muslim country that allows a child born without a father to have full civil status and Moroccan nationality without restriction. Even if imperfectly applied, the family code is extremely protective of women.

Nevertheless, Morocco remains a Muslim country, i.e. a country where the law is governed by religion. If you don’t accept it, you have no business being there.

Moreover, oh surprise for the French, many Moroccans are sincerely Muslim, viscerally, I would say. Being religious doesn’t prevent you from bending your morals and your faith (otherwise, why would Catholic confessionals exist, eh?), but you do it while considering that it’s wrong, and therefore that it must be hidden…

These are the foundations of this schizophrenia.

Understanding Islam is essential for understanding Moroccans

In the same way that we bathe, without really realising it, in a culture that remains deeply marked by Christian values, Moroccans bathe in a deeply Muslim culture.

Unless a Moroccan has lived his entire childhood abroad, cut off from any emigrant community and from all contact with his Moroccan family, he has been bathed in religion since his earliest childhood. He learned to read with the Koran, he had religion classes at school (it is even a subject in the baccalaureate), and he saw his parents and grandparents practice. Islam is in his blood, even if he does not practice.

Being interested in Islam does not mean that you will convert. But it does allow you to understand your neighbours, your spouse… and incidentally, to be able to discuss on the basis of “your” religion, “its precepts”, instead of putting forward arguments that can be summed up in a caricatured way as “you obscurantist and retarded jerk who doesn’t understand our marvellous secularism and our universal freedom“. (Do I really have to say that this sentence is to be taken at face value and does not reflect my opinions, quite the contrary).

Three young girls on the beach in Oulidia

Veiled, not veiled, living together, that’s Morocco

Hiding so as not to shock others

And this allows us to understand one of the bases of this schizophrenia: for a Muslim, when one commits a sin in public, one associates the spectators with one’s fault, one makes them sin too. It’s a bit similar to the Christian version, “Woe to him through whom the scandal comes”, but it’s much stronger. Stronger, because there is also the “Umma”, the notion of community.

Hiding, eating during Ramadan but at home, is not only the fear of punishment; it is above all the respect of the other, and it is this lack of respect that is punished, more than the fault.

If Muslims often call each other “my brother” or “my sister”, this corresponds to a feeling of community. And this community also has its advantages. It is a way of life that is the opposite of our individualism. It has, like any way of life, its advantages and disadvantages.

Westernisation is mostly superficial

Wearing a suit, going to the cinema, sending your children to French schools in Morocco, because the education is better there, does not mean that you give up your traditional values, quite the contrary.

Morocco practices the western weekend, but there is little work on Fridays, either because they devote time to prayer, or because they digest couscous (or both).

60% of Moroccans, including young people and young women, think it is better for a woman to wear the veil. This does not mean a “niqab”, and does not prevent veiled and non-veiled women from holding hands in the street or going to the beach together.

Moroccans are overwhelmingly attached to Islam, to respecting its practices, and challenging them is one of the few taboos that cannot be overcome.

That’s just the way it is. Full stop. And I don’t think it’s up to foreigners who have settled – theoretically – in this country with full knowledge of the facts to criticise it.

Western culture has just as many hypocrisies

Have you ever tried to drink a bottle of beer in a park in New York without hiding it in a paper bag? (And whether it’s Ramadan or not, eh…)

Do you know what happens to a person who urinates on the side of a highway in the US? How shocking you can be if you wear a swimming costume that doesn’t squash your nipples?

Have you ever wondered how the gender pay gap in France, one of the highest in Europe, is in line with our values of Equality? If it was really normal that, in a secular republic that forbids the wearing of the veil by civil servants, we finance private religious schools and refuse the construction of mosques, that we accept to make schedules reserved for women in municipal swimming pools for Jewish associations but not for Muslim women?

Let’s go even further: the concept of freedom of expression in the United States is much broader than in France. A law against Holocaust denial, which shocks no one here, would be unthinkable there. There is no “better system”.

To sum up, before accusing Morocco of hypocrisy and wanting to revolutionise it, we could apply a very Western proverb which has its roots in the Gospel and which recommends us to pay attention to the beam in our own eye before looking at the straw in the other’s…

Ramadan: the ultimate taboo?

Compared to many other prescriptions, the non-respect of Ramadan is one of the supreme taboos.

Why is this so? Because it is a collective effort, we suffer together, but we also “enjoy” together: Ramadan is not only deprivation, it is also the breaking of the F’tour together, where we invite our neighbours, our friends.

It is a blessing to share the F’tour with someone…

It’s a very special atmosphere. For those who are practising, it is really a month of spirituality, for those who are less practising, it is an opportunity in the year to be practising (like Easter for Christians) and to “catch up”, and for those who are not practising at all, it is also a time to share with all other Moroccans.

A dish to break the Ramadan fast

The traditional Ftour platter: tea, dates and sweets

Ramadan is our Christmas. It is the memories of childhood, the good little dishes lovingly prepared by the mother and grandmother…

Yes, a large number of Moroccans leave the country during Ramadan to avoid the constraints. There is talk of three million… but the same number of MREs come back to Morocco to live it better than in Europe.

Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. It is therefore much more important than wearing the veil, circumcision, or even the ban on alcohol or pork.

In my eyes as a non-Muslim, expressing a personal opinion, it is less serious not to observe Ramadan than not to do Zakat (almsgiving), another of the five pillars. As long as one does this discreetly (cf. not to shock). Indeed, by not doing the Zakat, one deprives someone (the poor) of something, whereas not fasting remains a purely personal sin. This theological exegesis remains a personal opinion… nevertheless if a Moroccan pisses you off a bit too much with Ramadan, you can always deviate the discussion on that 🙂

For a Moroccan, not respecting Ramadan is like a French player singing the national anthem of the opposing team during a World Cup game. Just to show you how important it is, and collective.

What if we focused on the good aspects?

A culture is a whole.

With the bad sides of this social pressure also come some very positive things, which are the charm of Morocco.

Moroccan Islam is also the one that organises the Festival of Sacred Music in Fez, an international meeting place that welcomes Apsara dances, Christian choirs and whirling dervishes.

A community also means mutual aid, and Muslim charity is real. Zakat is as important as Ramadan, the community supports the poor, neighbours help each other, Moroccan generosity is real (it decreases when Moroccans are very westernised).

Muslim values are also values of integrity and honesty. My practising Muslim clients are pearls who pay me on the nose, who trust me, clients like one would wish on anyone.

Living in a country is not about putting yourself in a little bubble where you can find your Ricard and your sausage, while banging your belly between expatriates, saying bad things about Moroccans. It is – theoretically – to love its culture, its daily life. If you live in Morocco and don’t like “the whole country”, you might as well not be there.

This is a translation of a post originally published on my French speaking website, here on July 2014.