Fertile Soil for Anthropologists

Professor Rachel Newcomb has a deep personal and professional connection with Morocco.

Professor Rachel Newcomb first fell in love with Morocco as an undergraduate student. While a history major at Davidson College, she’d taken a class on the history of Islam, and she wanted to see what this North African country—so close to and influenced by Europe, yet still predominantly Muslim—was really like. She went as part of a program of the School for International Training, a Vermont-based organization that offers study-abroad and other cross-cultural opportunities, and stayed with a family there and immersed herself in the culture.

“I just really liked it,” she says. Like many Americans, she had preconceptions, stereotypes of what living in a Muslim country would be like—oppressed women, people praying all the time, that sort of thing. “[Morocco] kept proving me wrong. It’s very diverse. Morocco is what actually made me an anthropologist.”

On May 15, Indiana University Press released Encountering Morocco: Fieldwork and Cultural Understanding, a book Newcomb co-edited and contributed a chapter to. This is her second book on this country, the first being a 2009 book called Women of Fes: Ambiguities of Urban Life in Morocco, which explored the everyday lives of Moroccan women.

Encountering Morocco, however, turns the focus inward. Its chapters take on the sometimes-thorny issues that anthropologists deal with in building relationships with people they also have to rely on as resources for their work. Morocco, as it turns out, is fertile soil for anthropologists, in large part because the country is very open to foreign researchers, and while it is Islamic, it is also a moderate state that embraces modernity. “There’s a long tradition of people going to Morocco for research,” Newcomb says.

Newcomb has some particular experience in this area. She lived for two years in Morocco during her graduate studies, and spent three years learning Arabic, the country’s foremost language. And during that time she met her husband. His family lives there, in Fes. (She and her husband now both work at Rollins; he’s in the IT department.) Her in-laws have been important to her fieldwork, not only in sharing their life experiences to give her a deeper understanding of Moroccan women, but also taking her to places she wouldn’t normally be able to go as a Westerner. One such place, which she writes about in Encountering Morocco, is the tomb of a saint, Sidi Bou Ghalib, where she hoped to do research. Women who want to conceive children often go to this tomb to pray. But upon learning that Newcomb is not Muslim, the tomb’s caretaker asked her to leave.

As she writes in her chapter:

Stepping into a religion as an adult is not the same thing as donning a caftan for a wedding, learning to cook couscous properly, or marrying and having children with a Moroccan. Or is it? Some Moroccans have assured me that faith will come through repetition, through the repeat performance of prayer and other ritual acts. Just say the shahada, just do Ramadan, just pray, and the rest will follow. But I doubt that my doubts would simply melt away. Even if I converted, my experience of living the religion could never be Moroccan because I am not Moroccan and can’t erase the years in which my own cultural sense of religion has been so deeply imprinted onto me. So, while professionally and personally I might like uncertainty to melt away while I imbibe the baraka [blessings] of the saint, the more I know about Morocco, the more I realize this is never going to happen. I’m embarrassed that I continued to cling for so long to the vague Orientalist fantasy that my ultimate rendezvous with a saint would somehow be transformative. But in a way, perhaps it was. Sidi Bou Ghalib’s baraka would not be enough to open up the mysteries of the universe, or even Moroccan religious expression, but it did cause me to reflect on how complex the issue of religion in Moroccan society still is. What I am certain of is that most Moroccans are not of one mind about Sidi Bou Ghalib’s powers either.  At least there is consolation in realizing that many of the Moroccans I know would feel just as uncomfortable lounging around the tomb of Sidi Bou Ghalib as I ultimately did. And this fact alone tells us there is still much to be learned.

This sort of struggle, she says, is part and parcel of doing fieldwork in a Muslim country, even an open and tolerant one like Morocco. And yet she feels drawn to this place and its people, and keeps going back. In fact, on May 15, the day Encountering Morocco was released, she took a contingent of 14 Rollins students—and her daughter, Sofia (who, not yet 5 years old, has visited the country five times)—back to that country for two weeks. They spent the first week doing a service project and raising money for a girls school in southern Morocco, then went to Fes to look at globalization issues in this very old city. 

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