Two Arabs, A Berber and a Jew: Entangled Lives in Morocco
University of Chicago Press, 2015, 400 pp., $27.50 (paperback)
The title of this 350-page book sounds, perhaps intentionally, like the beginning of a barroom joke. What follows is anything but. Lawrence Rosen, professor of anthropology at Princeton and adjunct professor of law at Columbia—and one of the first MacArthur “genius” grantees—has applied the talents honed by a half-century of scholarly pursuits to produce a stimulating, layered, and nuanced portrait of Moroccan society and culture in the throes of change but still deeply grounded in its particular, Islamic-centered universe.
Two Arabs, A Berber and a Jew was first conceived at the very beginning of Rosen’s distinguished career, in the Moroccan town of Sefrou, about 30 kilometers from Fez, where he undertook his initial fieldwork under the direction of Clifford Geertz. At the center of the story are four individuals—two Arabs, a Berber, and a Jew, all of them sincere believers in a Supreme Being—whose lives, as told to and understood by Rosen over the course of subsequent decades, provided him with considerable material for some of his earlier studies (for example, Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society, co-authored with Geertz and his wife Hilda, in 1979; Bargaining for Reality: The Construction of Social Relations in a Muslim Community, 1984; and The Culture of Islam, 2004). Rosen’s decision to revisit their stories to elucidate their meanings, as part of a broader synthesis of his life’s work, was a good one.
The book’s language is occasionally dense, as with all of Rosen’s writing. But while it doesn’t make for a fast read, it’s worth the effort for anyone looking to get below the surface of events. As the best anthropologists often do, Rosen not only provides numerous insights into Moroccan and Islamic culture, but offers much to chew on for Western readers regarding their own culture, their view of the Muslim “Other,” and the human condition as a whole.
The four men whom Rosen characterizes as “extraordinary ordinary people” did not really know one another. Yet each interacted regularly with people like the others, and they were thus representative of a larger whole. More importantly, each reveled in his differences from the others—differences well represented in Moroccan society. As Rosen makes clear in his prologue, this is one of his central themes: The acknowledgement, acceptance, and championing of differences is deeply etched in Moroccan and Islamic culture. As he has throughout his career, and without romanticizing matters, he argues that the four dramatis personae of the book “share a culture in which difference is vital, in which the diversity of their inclinations and connections is seen as enlivening their range of social possibilities.” Difference for them “forms a basis for linkage, rather than a fault line of separation.”
A related theme of Rosen’s oeuvre is the centrality of the individual in Moroccan society, though Moroccans do not conceive individuality in the same way as modern Western societies, which tend to prioritize autonomy above all else. Instead, for a Moroccan, “what makes a man is establishing a set of interconnecting obligations.” Individuals are engaged in perpetual efforts to form alliances with others, relationships are constantly being renegotiated, bet-hedging is ubiquitous, and all actions generate tacit but mutually understood obligations.
To reinforce his point, he employs the classic Orientalist method of linguistic analysis, thus implicitly rejecting the bad name unfairly given to it by Edward Said and his disciples. In Arabic, Rosen notes, there is no infinitive with which to properly render “to be, or not to be,” hence the famous phrase is frequently translated as “either I or we.” For Rosen, this constitutes “a revealing reflection of the emphasis in Arab cultures on the crucial role for identity of relationships rather than self-fashioning.” For the millions of people whose limited knowledge of the Middle East is often expressed in a few pat clichés regarding the unchanging and uniform nature of tribalism and a stereotypical caricature of monochromatic Islamic faith and practice, Rosen’s portrayal will come as a shock (if they bother to pay attention). Nor is he afraid of being accused of the shibboleth of “essentialism,” having no problem asserting (and explaining what he means) that Arabs have a strong affinity for analogy and are greatly at home with ambiguity.
Scholars will also note that Rosen’s analysis differs in important ways from Ernest Gellner’s explanation of the relations between Moroccan tribes according to the theory of segmentary opposition, and John Waterbury’s classic depiction of segmentarity as a fundamental factor in shaping modern Moroccan politics. While this theory assumes that tribes are sharply delineated and structurally exact, Rosen views tribes as far more malleable and able to change their shape, amoeba-like, to fit changing circumstances. Local kin groups and coalitions act in a similar fashion.
So who are these four “extraordinary ordinary” men? Haj Hamed Britel was, by the time that Rosen came to know him, “an elderly raconteur,” having either participated in or observed many of the events that marked Morocco’s transition from a near-medieval monarchy in the late 19th century to a modernizing monarchy in the late 20th (via a half-century of French colonial rule). The Haj, as Rosen refers to him, shared in detail his own experiences and recollections of these portentous events, to the benefit of all those keen to better understand the period.
But for Rosen, what is most important is the material between the lines, so to speak—not what the Haj says but the way he says it. The Haj focused on personalities rather than on desiccated events or abstractions. Yet the biographical tense, as it were, sounded somewhat different coming from him than from a Westerner. The Haj’s accounts hinged on his detailed knowledge of situated personalities—namely, their personal traits and networks of attachments. Understanding his sense of history and identity required Rosen to keep track of an extraordinary range of people and their interconnections. This was biography as the mapping of a dynamic network.
Time had a different quality for the Haj, as well: The crucial factor in his narrative of events was whether an act had continuing effects, or was no longer relevant to later occurrences. An event defined as “recent” might have actually occurred long ago yet still have a continuing impact, whereas a more recent event might be spoken of as having happened “long ago” because it had no ongoing effect. Rosen teases out of these differences in order to construct a coherent understanding of the Haj’s approach to the world; the result is broadly illuminating.
So is his discussion of “truth” as understood by the Haj: Determining the “truth” of a particular event very much depended on the credibility of the source, which in turn depended on the source’s associations and effects on others. Thus it was the person who made a story believable, not the other way around. The believability of the narrator established facts.
Some of the most sensitive and revealing of the Haj’s discussions with Rosen were those relating to slavery, an institution condoned by the Quran and practiced throughout Islamic and Moroccan history right into the 20th century. Reluctantly, and remorsefully, the Haj acknowledged that in his “wild and crazy” youth he, too, had owned slaves—children, no less—who had undoubtedly been taken captive and sold into slavery. Haj Hamed’s difficulty with the subject constituted, in Rosen’s view, one of those moments when a Quranic precept came into conflict with changing social practice, and thus potentially threatened one’s fundamental beliefs. Like many other Moroccans, he says, Haj Hamed was a scriptural realist, someone who takes the Quran literally when he can, but is not unwilling to weigh his commitment against the practicality of applying each of its propositions. The issue of slavery, Rosen suggests, may have posed a test to the Haj’s commitment to complete literalism, but it did not undermine his faith. The Haj expressed his admirable moderation in a statement made by many Moroccans—that they don’t need others who professed greater piety to tell them that they are less than good Muslims.
Similarly, Yaghnik Driss, the second “Arab” of the book’s title, was “a perfect guide to the religion of tolerance that Islam incorporates despite domestic extremes and foreign stereotypes.” A native of Fez, Yaghnik was what the Quran calls one of the people of the middle, deeply attached to both Islam and the modern world. This was made apparent by his lengthy rendition of Islamic and Moroccan ideas regarding the nature of creation, the cosmos, and mankind’s ultimate destiny.
While human fates are predetermined by God, this does not obviate free will; rather, God has simply recorded in advance the choices that individuals will make. In contrast to the interpretations of many Muslim theologians and common beliefs among Muslims, Yaghnik viewed the nature of men and women as being the same, while perhaps not always being distributed in the same proportions. Hence, while believing that women have a tendency to be frivolous and to go astray (a common justification for keeping women under male control), he also believed that this may be due to their having received less education, as well as lacking exposure to good leaders who might have encouraged them to develop reason. Jnun (jinns) exist (it says so in the Quran), but Yaghnik was able, like some of the leading Islamic modernists such as Mohammed Abduh, to render them harmless or neutralize them by invoking, alternatively, God’s name, Freud, or modern science. Making a pilgrimage to Mecca was a religious duty, but was forbidden if it placed a severe burden on one’s family; having children is obligatory but having more children than one can support is forbidden. Fundamentalists (‘usuliyyin) who want to isolate Morocco from contact with non-Muslim countries, or simply exploit religion for political purposes, are to be rejected, while those who take a middle position—that is, are sincere in their faith and practice, recognize the power of the law to provide appropriate boundaries for society, and are “in the world as is”—are lauded. The big question, for Yaghnik and others, and for all observers of Morocco, was and remains whether a middle way—namely societal balance underpinned by a moral order grounded in Islam—could endure in the face of increasing stresses epitomized by the growth in wealth gaps, corruption youth unemployment, and the attraction of the “bad” kind of fundamentalists.
According to the Rosen, when Moroccans meet they commonly inquire into each other’s origins (asel), a term that implies the sources of one’s nurture and hence attachments to others. They do this to gauge the possibility and desirability of forming their own attachment to others. Unlike Haj Hamed and Yaghnik, Hussein ou Muhammad Qadir’s asel is that of a member of a sub-fraction of the Ait Youssi tribe residing in the Middle Atlas Mountains south of Sefrou. He is an ethnic Berber, North Africa’s original inhabitants, who are historically defined by the language they speak and their tribal social organization. Berber speakers (there are three main dialects in Morocco) constituted a majority of Morocco’s population on the eve of the French protectorate, and are commonly considered to number 40-45 percent of the country’s 34 million inhabitants. Rosen characterizes Hussein as “a savvy and insightful entrepreneur . . . whose pride in his language and culture mesh seamlessly with his attachment to operating in a wider marketplace of goods and people.”
Berber identity has become far more salient on the Moroccan national stage in recent years. Indeed, the new Moroccan constitution, adopted in 2011 as the centerpiece of a package of reforms designed to take the wind out of “Arab Spring” protests, defined Moroccan identity as both Arab and Amazigh (Berber), and recognized Tamazight (the Berber language) as an official language alongside Arabic. The renewed emphasis among activists on Berber particularity, and the state’s partial efforts to accommodate and thus contain its manifestations in order to maintain national unity, does not, to be sure, indicate that Morocco is on the verge of a major ethnic schism. But it does suggest new possibilities.
As Rosen has shown in earlier studies, ethnicity is only one component, and not necessarily the most important one, of a Moroccan’s personal and social identity. But that doesn’t mean that these distinctions are meaningless. Hussein provides a fascinating example of the complexities at play. He is immensely proud of his Berberness: he speaks the language at home, tweaks Arabs for their inability to make certain sounds present in the Berber language, and tells Rosen that Berbers are more pragmatic and less arrogant than Arabs, both in politics and in other facets of life.
At the same time, he rejects efforts by others to tell him what it means to be Berber. In discussing the infamous episode of France’s “Berber dahir” in 1930, when the Protectorate regime sought to elevate the status of Berber customary law to a separate and equal status with Islamic law, Hussein indignantly commented that Berber law is Islamic law. (Indeed, France’s actions boomeranged, and helped to drive Morocco’s Arabs and Berbers closer together in an informal social compact that eventually led to political independence.) In his business dealings, particularly the buying and selling of land, Hussein’s identity and connections as a Berber were outweighed by other factors. His attitude toward national politics, including toward those who purported to represent Berber interests, was sardonic and skeptical. Too much attachment to ideology, he believed, limited one’s ability to engage in flexible relationships, the key to succeeding in one’s endeavors. While favoring a strong monarchy, Hussein appeared more attached to local relationships than national ones.
Over the years, Hussein prospered economically. But as with Yaghnik, Hussein was concerned that the old certainties that bound society together were being undermined. Everything nowadays, he said, was impersonal, and focused on money (flus). In his opinion, shared by so many others in the region, corruption was now rampant. What they meant by “corruption” was not the need to give kickbacks per se, but “the failure to share with those with whom you have formed ties of dependence whatever largesse comes your way.” For Hussein, the kinds of payments that now needed to be made in daily life—to policemen, to bureaucrats, teachers, medical personnel, and the like—were seen as dirty, a prostitution of one’s values and an impediment to engaging others in relationships of trust through establishing reciprocal obligations.
The Jewish community in Morocco predates Islam by many centuries. By the eve of independence in 1956, it numbered approximately 270,000 people (out of a total population of 11 million), who lived in cities, towns, and remote villages in the Berber hinterlands and played various social and economic roles in society. Today, it numbers no more than 2,000-3,000, yet ironically the Moroccan state has gone out of its way in recent years to emphasize the country’s Jewish heritage. It has refurbished historic synagogues, ensured the maintenance of cemeteries, and even inserted into the constitution a passage recognizing the “Hebraic” contribution to the fashioning of Moroccan collective identity.
In addition to this homage, the government has promoted an idealized version of Jewish-Muslim relations in Morocco through the centuries, not entirely unlike the characterization of Polish-Jewish relations in Warsaw’s new Jewish history museum. Nonetheless, Jews of Moroccan origin (now mainly concentrated in France and Israel, with smaller groups in Canada and the United States) have embraced this characterization themselves, as have liberal circles in Morocco and Berber activists—each for their own reasons. It is thus fascinating to encounter reference to Morocco’s “Jewish” aspect by Hussein the Berber entrepreneur, who speaks fondly and longingly of the Jews who once lived in Sefrou and the surrounding mountain villages. More significant still is the account of the fourth member of Rosen’s quartet, Shimon Benizri, “the kindly Jewish cloth dealer, meek in the finest sense of the word, devoted to his family and totally at home, first in his rural community and later in town, in a country that has always had a set of relations to his people that escapes easy judgement.”
Rosen begins the chapter with a suspenseful episode: the outbreak of the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The tension and uncertainty in Sefrou, where there is still a sizeable Jewish community, is palpable. How will the war unfold? How will it affect inter-communal relations? Already there are reports of Muslim youths throwing stones a Jewish school. The venerable Arab-Islamic Istiqlal party calls for a boycott of all those who have ties with Israel and its “sinister allies.” Will “big men” instruct ordinary people to undertake rampages against the Jews? What will be the message imparted, implicitly or explicitly, by the Moroccan state?
In the end, not much happened. The Jews of Sefrou played for time, closing their shops for part of the period to avoid possible incidents (a partial boycott was already in effect). The war’s quick end, forceful statements by the King and his representatives about the historically good relations between Jews and Muslims in Morocco, and the temporary closure of the Istiqlal party’s newspaper helped return matters to normal.
Most interesting for our purposes was the offer of protection to Benizri and his family made by the wealthy leader of a Berber tribal faction on the first evening of the war. The leader had protected Benizri, and his father before him, when they had lived and traded in the mountains. Arriving at Benizri’s house with his wife and teenage son, he proposed renting a home in the Jewish quarter in which both families would live, thus giving a clear message to any potential troublemakers that the Benizris were under his protection. When the Benizris declined the offer, assuring him that they felt perfectly safe, he suggested that his son sleep at the foot of the stairs leading up to their house. This offer, too, was politely declined. But the gesture was indicative of the long history of good relations between Jewish communities scattered throughout Moroccan “Berberistan” and their Berber Muslim neighbors.
Benizri was what Berber activists today call an “Amazigh Jew”—someone who spoke the Amazigh language, lived in harmony with his neighbors, and benefitted from the protection of Berber chieftains as he moved between tribal zones as a merchant and trader. While he may not have uncritically accepted the label of “Amazigh Jew,” Benizri described life among the Berbers with affection. And as Rosen states, even if his account was somewhat romanticized, it’s clear that Berbers and Jews had an important network of relations in their daily lives, and the violation of a Berber patron’s protection of “his” Jew was a serious matter.
Indeed, Jews were often compared to women in this regard. More generally, Rosen offers a valuable description of the ambiguous and intertwined relations between Jewish communities and both rural and urban Muslims throughout the ages. This state of affairs often offered the Jews a sense of security and belonging, but did not preclude episodes of violence, particularly at times when the power of central authorities had weakened. Social ties with Muslims could at times also weaken the fabric of the Jewish community, even leading to the loss of members through conversion or intermarriage.
The stresses of the 20th century—colonial domination, modernity, nationalism, and so forth—almost brought the Moroccan Jewish community’s existence to an end. Violence toward Jews in Sefrou substantially increased in the fall of 1967, leading Shimon Benizri and his family to sell their belongings and immigrate to Israel. When Rosen met them years later in their new home, he found them grateful for the security of life in Israel, but mourning the loss of their homeland even still.
How to account, Rosen asks, for the combination of “antipathy and succor, condescension and care” that characterized Muslim Moroccan society’s relations with its Jewish neighbors? Rosen suggests that these relations were governed by a framework of cultural norms that included several elements: the centrality of reciprocity in the dominant Muslim culture; the role of the Jew as an internal stranger; a Moroccan variant of the tribal ethos that was unusually accepting of outsiders; and the role of ritual, which, as a feature of both Jewish and Muslim life, served as a point of commonality. As many observers have noted, the departure of the Jews has left many Muslims genuinely saddened. Rosen attributes this to their recognition that they lost a part of their own social identity with the Jews’ departure, as well as their belief that the Jews took some measure of prosperity with them. But feeling less rich in terms of their social connections by far outweighs any other kind of impoverishment.
What is left of this world, and of the old Morocco in general? Both the Haj and Benizri have now passed away. But Rosen suggests that their ideas, “however reframed, will suffuse their own cultures, however transformed, for a very long time to come.” Indeed, even as change in the 21st century proceeds at a breakneck pace, Two Arabs, A Berber and a Jew, with its emphasis on the durability of cultural practices and morals, provides a healthy and needed perspective on both other societies and our own.
Ending on a note of hope, Rosen observes that the collective lesson of these four men, and their no-less-extraordinary wives, is that identities are and should be intertwined. Throughout all of the ambiguities and indeterminacies in their lives, these men maintained their faith in God-given reason, and continued to believe that we are all in this together. Here’s hoping that enough other people see things this way as well, even as the historic diversity of the Middle East diminishes with each passing year, each passing war, and each passing exodus of refugees.