By Mohamed Chtatou
By Mohamed Chtatou
Morocco World News
Rabat, July 24, 2013
One morning in early July, as I was taking my daily leisurely stroll on the famous Promenade des Anglais, a verbal fight between two beautiful and scantily dressed girls caught my attention. Apparently, they were fighting over a handsome guy standing at a distance, surely blowing his ego out of imaginable proportion. As I stopped to watch the amusing exchange unfold, I heard the following dialogue:
– Girl 1:
Ne t’approches pas de moi pétasse, si tu envahis mon espace je te fous une baffe.
– Girl 2 :
Toi, chose merdique, tu as envahi mon intimité, tu veux me prendre mon copain, je te foutrais mon coup de poing sur ta gueule de merde, quand ça me chante.
Girl 2 was gesturing close to the face of Girl 1, invading her private space in a way that is unacceptable in the Western World.
In the West, every individual has his own private space, referred to as the “bubble”. It is very rude to enter someone’s bubble under any circumstance. In this part of the world, privacy is very important, as important and vital as the air one needs to live, if not more.
When I was a student in New York in the 80s, a friend of mine became incensed during a subway ride together when I attempted to read the paper in a crowded space, almost throwing the pages open on commuters’ faces. Later, she explained to me that even in crowded spaces you have to respect the “bubble”, otherwise people may feel uncomfortable. She taught me how to read my paper without being disrespectful to the many honorable “bubbles” around, and I am ever grateful to her.
In America, privacy is so important that it is inscribed in gold in the constitution: the privacy of the home, the privacy of correspondence, and the privacy of life. There have been recent allegations against the National Security Agency (NSA) eavesdropping on people and their conversations. These allegations reduce the concept of the “bubble” to a mere joke. Recently, Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former CIA employee, prided himself for being the Guardian’s source for the series of leaks on the NSA and cyber-surveillance.
This scandal is revealing to the world that the NSA has violated the secrecy and the privacy of cyber exchanges and information through an official program called “PRISM”, of the American Big Brother. In this regard, the Guardian questions, “What is the fundamental issue here?”
“For many observers the key question is the exposure of a troubling imbalance between security and privacy, against a background of rapid technological change that now permits clandestine surveillance on a massive and Orwellian scale. Legal safeguards and political oversight appear to be lagging behind. The Guardian revelations have underlined the sheer power of electronic snooping in the internet era and have injected new urgency into the old debate about how far a government can legitimately go in spying on its own people on the grounds that it is trying to protect them.”
This scandal has made people reevaluate how much privacy they really have, suggesting that the important privacy the west holds so dear is a mere chimera. The government eavesdrops on its citizens and undoubtedly knows every detail of their private life and all their secret phantasms. It seems that in the name of national security, the American government will transgress every constitutional right of its citizens, with almost no collective reaction on their part.
On learning that the American government can order the Internet companies to provide private information and correspondences of all users on the ground of national security, one wonders if major cyber companies offer free email services as a trap to collect information on the world at large. The Guardian informs us that the American government has asked the Internet companies to turn in information:
Internal NSA documents claim the top secret data-mining program gives the US government access to a vast quantity of emails, chat logs and other data directly from the servers of nine internet companies. These include Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL and Apple. The companies mentioned have all denied knowledge of or participation in the program.
Minding personal business
That morning on arriving back to the hotel, I began to read the latest news on Morocco World News and came across the excellent article of Erin Geneva entitled: “Minding your own business: a foreign impression of Moroccan society”. From her writing, I gathered that the warmth of Moroccan culture fascinates her and she approves of its communal overtones and inclinations, which means that she may give up her “bubble” while being in the company of Moroccans.
In the 80s, when I was teaching Peace Corps Trainees courses on Moroccan culture and cross-culture communication, they would often ask me the Darija or even Fus7a word for “privacy”. Because the concept itself is almost unknown to Moroccans, I would wrestle my brains to come up with a long tortuous phrase of my own, instead of single word.
The truth of the matter is that Moroccans care less for privacy, because all of their living is communal. Children live with their parents as long as they wish, even when they grow older. Grandparents and widowed aunts live in the family house and are taken care of until their death. Food is scooped with bread from the same plate and eaten in communion with fingers, without using forks and knives because people believe that it is a gift of God, and using an intermediary between the food and the mouth is an insult to this blessing.
Moroccans sit together, eat together, sleep in the same room, and wash together in the bathhouse, 7ammam. In the traditional family construct, there is no such thing as “privacy”. If you want to be alone you must either be deranged, possessed by spirits, jnoun, or mischievous. The popular adage has it that only Satan is inclined to act alone, ma kaykhrej men jma3a ghir chitan, and this is corroborated by the excellent Edvard Alexander Westermarck (20 November 1862 – 3 September 1939). Westermarck is a Finnish philosopher and sociologist who conducted very serious work on Moroccan society and published an opus in two volumes in 1926 entitled, “Ritual and Belief in Morocco”, as well as “Wit and Wisdom in Morocco” in 1930.
Moroccans always huddle together, and they are a close knit society as a result of three main reasons:
1- Patriarchal social order:
The tribal past, still so strong, symbolized by the patriarchal system. The extended family lived under the same roof and shared space, food and destiny;
2- The respect of seniority:
The older the person gets, the more valuable he becomes in terms of experience and wisdom. Children, even when they are adults, still live with their parents to take care of them and benefit from their advice;
3- Religious background:
Islam is communal religion: prayer is best done in community, and so is pilgrimage and Ramadan, three important pillars of Islam. Also, not to forget the concept of the ummah: Islamic nation, the nation of the faithful.
The tea ceremony
The communal sense of the Moroccan society is best symbolized by the tea ceremony, in the traditional sense. The extended or large family gather around the circular tray for this ceremony that is initiated by the master of the house. This ceremony is not only about making and drinking tea, it is about renewing the bonds of togetherness after a day of work, and the sweetness of the tea is one way of gluing the ties of family membership forever. During the long ceremony, people exchange stories and news and interact and renew the vows of love.
This social function was celebrated by the famous popular group, Nass El Ghiwane in the early 70s of the last century by their song entitled, “siniyya” with a tone of bitterness and grief, as if crying over the loss of this habit:
Fin li jam3ou 3lik ahl niyya
Wa hya siniyya
Douk li wansouk
Fin ahl ljoud w rda
Fin 7oumti wa liliya
Wa hya sinniya
“Where are those who gathered around you
O wonderful tray
Where are the good and generous people
Who partook in the ceremony
Where are the sweet nights in my neighborhood
O wonderful tray”
This togetherness was also symbolized by the circular format of the dining table and the living room. Today, this circularity is broken forever by the intrusion of the television set into homes, and as a result togetherness is merely physical and not verbal, and the dining table has become rectangular and the tea tray oval. Worse, the tea ceremony has ceased to exist in urban dwellings and it only survives in rural areas.
In spite of the invasion of the information technology of the Moroccan homes, the togetherness concept is still strong, the warm culture described by Erin Geneva is still commonplace, thank God.
Eye contact and touching
Moroccans express their warmth, love and togetherness by touching, kissing, hugging and making eye contact. It is totally accepted, if not encouraged, by their social code. Words alone will not convey the warmth of feelings; they have to be accompanied by physical touch or eye contact.
In older times, women used to wear a white cloth, named 7aik, over their body letting only one eye show, but that eye can be extremely expressive when the contact is made with another person. It could express appreciation, disapproval, sexual interest, etc.
When I was a student in London in the late 70s, I used to travel daily from North London to Central London to go to the university. During my time in London, my favorite hobby was watching the people riding the underground. I did not realize that I was minding other people’s business and intruding on their bubble, and by so doing breaking the social code of conduct. One day, however, a lady sitting next to me handed me a newspaper:
– Here young man read, she said
– I do not want to read ma’am, I replied
– Do read and stop eyeing other people, it is very rude.
Everybody in the car stopped reading and looked at me to show their approval of her suggestion. Since then, I always carried some reading material with me.
The Moroccans, besides their use of Tamazight, Arabic or other international verbal languages for communication, make use of a “silent language”, the language of gestures and touches. Love is not expressed well enough if hugging and kissing is not used, and approval will not be approval if a wink is not made, etc.
This “silent language” is very extended and very precise, and visitors to Morocco find difficulties in using this language and, sometimes they use the wrong gesture. I remember many Peace Corps Volunteers talking about their students laughing at them for using a gesture with sexual connotation, without meaning to, of course.
Morocco is undoubtedly the land of many enigmas and the “silent language” is definitely one of them. It remains mysterious and secretive, so long as it is not broken and its content is assimilated.
In Morocco, minding other people’s business, to use the expression of Erin Geneva, is not a license to be nosy and impolite. There are limits to this dictated by religion, social etiquette, respect of the other, politeness and the famous concept of improperness, 7chouma.
The Moroccans do not mind the business of each other to encroach on their privacy, but to express respect, love and warmth and to bring them within the Moroccan social interaction circle, so they do not feel alienated, but can be an integral part of the society. It is also a way of sharing food, good times, celebrations and human brotherhood.
In short, minding other people’s business is a potent form of dialogue of cultures and the best form of inter-cultural communication that is possible, especially in a time when the world has become a planetary village, as the Canadian visionary social scientist Marshal predicted in the 50s.
Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor at the University of Mohammed V in Rabat.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial policy
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