A Foreigner in Rabat

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A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College


A Foreigner in Rabat: An Analysis of Conformity in Moroccan Culture Using the Concepts of Ruggiero and Allport

Denisse Chacón

Resting face down, I lay flat and completely naked on the tile floor as the tall dark woman (who was naked too) scrubbed my body from head to toe. I didn't speak Arabic or French, but she insisted on showing me the filth on the scrubber; I imagine she was imploring me to bathe more often. The bathhouse environment did not suit my preconceived notions of what restrictive Moroccan life ought to be like. The decorative bathhouse, also known as a hammam, was an enormous, obscure, and steamy room occupied with women bathing and being bathed. In the U.S. it would be taboo to be entirely nude in a sauna and-god forbid!-to come into contact with a naked employee of the sauna. My experience taught me that, as an American, I am not exempt from living in a restrictive society. However, my familiarity with American culture disguised the restrictions I conformed to. Living as a foreigner in Rabat, Morocco, allowed me to appreciate the freedoms and restrictions I took for granted in the U.S. and exposed me to an unfamiliar way of living. Upon my arrival, I found that my cultural ignorance resulted in numerous unforeseen occasions where I was scolded or laughed at for my inappropriate in-group behavior. In those dreaded incidents, I often wondered, how did Moroccans decide what correct behavior was and why did people yield to these unwritten rules of behavior? Vincent Ruggiero's and Gordon Allport's concepts of perception, truth, and in-group loyalty offer us insight into the parameters of conformity and the reasons people conform.

Perception can be defined as the lens we use to see and interpret the world (Ruggiero 33). Ruggiero explains that as children, "We are told about the world before we see it. We imagine most things before we experience them. And those preconceptions . . . govern deeply the whole process of perception" (33). In other words, we acquire perception first and then experience the world according to our existing perception. When I arrived in Rabat, my host-parents warned me not to leave the house without a male companion and without "proper" apparel. Unaware of what great upheaval I would create, I chose to leave early one morning, alone, wearing jeans and my hijab. I yearned to wander the cobblestoned alleys of the medieval labyrinth that surrounded me. During the day, the narrow streets of the walled city grew heavily congested with businesses and food stands occupying every inch of space available. I wanted to take a peaceful walk before the businesses opened, to admire the white walls, the arched wooden doors, and the leafed rooftops that pieced together the medina. That day it became crystal clear that in Rabat it was absolutely forbidden for a woman to leave home alone wearing jeans and a hijab; doing so was the equivalent of a promiscuous whore leading virtuous men to sin. If perhaps I had not worn a hijab, I might have been dismissed as a tourist. Regardless, most Americans would agree that there was nothing wrong with wearing jeans; most Moroccans would argue the opposite. Ruggiero states, "To a greater or lesser extent, what we regard as our unique perspective bears the imprint of other people's ideas and beliefs" (34). Therefore, we do not form our own judgment; we adapt our thinking to the judgment already in place in the geographic location and era that we are born into.

Given the numerous perceptions among diverse cultures world-wide, how then do people find the correct and righteous path? Ruggiero answers this by stating, "It is foolish to look for guarantees of correctness-there are none" (66). One evening during dinner, my devoted Christian roommate, Kaitlyn, decided it was her calling to evangelize our Moroccan family. Convinced that her faith led to the ultimate path of Truth, she began by gifting Christian Bibles (which are illegal in Morocco) to our host relatives. Straightaway, I clarified I was not Christian and that Allah had my utmost respect; then I sat back as I witnessed the incredulous dialogue unfold. Kaitlyn boldly asserted, "The Holy Bible was written before the Quran; therefore, it shows us the correct way to follow God." Appalled, Issam (who refused to translate the statement to his father) assured Kaitlyn that "the Quran is the correct way because it includes the things the Bible left out." It became evident that in both religions "[truth] was considered an understanding among the gods, or an idea in the mind of God" (Ruggiero 32). Neither party could support claims with evidence. No one was knowledgeable about concrete historical dates or the spread of their religion. In this sense, religion provided an all-encompassing "security blanket" that contained pre-packaged opinions about morality (Ruggiero 35). People tend to assume that the religion of their predecessors is flawless. However, this can be misleading. "Because assuming stifles curiosity and guessing denies the importance of evidence, neither is likely to lead to knowledge" (Ruggiero 55). Consequently, it is hopeless and intellectually irresponsible to assume there is only one righteous way to live (Ruggiero 36).

If it is evident that perception is flawed and lifestyles are not entirely righteous, why then do people continue to conform to their culture? Prior to our arrival in Rabat, as Kaitlyn and I boarded the ferry, I declared, "I will never submit to wearing a hijab!" While waiting in line, I noticed an old woman struggling to carry her belongings. After I had helped her, the grateful old woman insisted on gifting me with a hijab and teaching me how to wear it. Seeing I was clumsy, she gracefully arranged the colorful hijab over my hair. How could I refuse such a kind gesture? That's when it occurred to me that I was conforming, and the ferry had not even left the Port of Gibraltar. Ruggiero writes, "Loyalty and affection toward the people or things involved may distort our vision" (34). Furthermore, it is this distorted vision that paves the way for conformity. As I noticed that every woman on the ferry wore a hijab, I decided I preferred to camouflage myself rather than to let my radiant red hair scream I was a foreigner. In Rabat, my host-family was my only connection to Moroccan life, and I grew attached to them even when I didn't agree or understand their ideas. Allport writes that a child "does not wait for understanding before he develops fiercer in-group loyalties" (46). Though I was an adult, my dependence on my host-family and my fear of being scolded summoned me to conform. Allport states that a child "normally would be attached to his clan anyway, simply because it is an inescapable part of his life" (47). In the case of children who are reliant on their families in every sense, "[t]his attachment to one's being is basic to human life" (Allport 47). I was no different than a child when I arrived in Rabat since, in order to successfully adapt to the new setting, I needed my host-family.

My six-month journey in Rabat ended in the fall of 2011; however, the memories and lessons continue to follow me to this day. For one, I learned that the strangers who allowed me into their home were no different than I. The members of the Jamay family and I shared the same fears of being reprimanded and the same need to feel loved and accepted. The difference rested in our geographic locations, which were governed by different moral codes. A friend of mine put it simply: "If you travel to the land of purple and green people, you will find they are just like you." We are the same species; we may wear different colored lenses, but no view is superior or truer than the other. They are simply the lenses we were given by our parents, and we continue to see the world through these lenses. Although initially using ready-made lenses is practical and necessary to make life comprehensible, as we grow older, we are capable of crafting our own lenses and making our own educated judgment.Being abroad enabled me to see beyond the scope of familiarity. It was my willingness to conform rather than my ability to question that allowed me to adapt successfully. In return, I gained a new perspective about the inherenthuman drive to conform.


Works Cited

Allport, Gordon. "Formation of In-Groups." English 1D Handbook: Advanced Composition and Critical Thinking. Ed. Anna Villegas. Stockton: San Joaquin Delta College, 2014. Print.

Ruggiero, Vincent Ryan. Beyond Feelings: A Guide to Critical Thinking. 9th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies, 2011. Print.