Of Sardines and Stamps, Ethics and Risk

International Sardines

I have been waiting a while to talk about my fieldwork through the prism of the sardine can. It started the day I went to visit my flat for the second time and decided to rent it. I broke one of the main two anti-risk rules, not of the ethics committee, but of my Mum. Number one is ‘don’t go in the park after dark’, and it was the second one that got broken: ‘never get in a car with strangers’. I’ve known these rules since I could talk. They pre-date the commitments I made on the Bristol University risk assessment form by about 28 years.

Now technically, it wasn’t me that broke the rule. I was being taken to ‘Thursday’ by an older lady from a charitable association who was helping a local nursery. We were waiting for a taxi and a car drove up – as often happens – and offered to give us a lift for free. Now if I’m on my own, I always say no. I wasn’t on my own though and it was the lady who knew the area well, who decided that the driver was a totally trustworthy individual. So maybe he genuinely did drive up that way once a week and always offer lifts to people going his way, or maybe he wanted to practice his language skills with the foreigner.

In any case, we didn’t get kidnapped, we got free sardines. It turns out that sardines are the global supply chain next door. In the next city along from me there are sardine canning factories and in one of these this multi-lingual middle-manager takes on about 600 women a year. You might have noticed, these sardines speak our language, in fact they say they are from those well-trusted local shops, Sainsbury’s and Tescos. But I don’t have them because I love sardines so much that I brought them here in my suitcase. And thankfully, Tescos hasn’t arrived in Morocco yet. They actually came from the car boot of this complimentary taxi.

There weren’t just sardines packed up and ready for Sainsbury’s and Tescos, there were also some for French supermarkets too. In the local shop I also saw some speaking what looked like Polish and German. So Sainsbury’s might imply that the sardines are theirs, whipped out of a global store cupboard by them, but they weren’t. They were fished out of African waters and packed by Moroccan women. I’m not trying to inspire guilt here, as far as I know sardines are a relatively plentiful fish and not on any blacklists for overfishing as yet. It gives me an opportunity though to think about what things say on the tin. Slight change of topic coming up.

We give a lot of importance in the UK to getting the paperwork in order and the stamps in the right place. I’m part of that. I want to be an ethical researcher and have all the paperwork in order to prove it. These last two weeks I’ve spent a lot of time chasing paper. It’s taken me on an interesting journey of offices, and past flags, in which I donned my suit jacket and got rid of any scarfs at the entrance. I’ve been kindly asked by people willing to help in these offices “Do you have a problem?”. I say, “Well no, not really, I’d just like to know that you are happy that I’m here doing research”. The response is, “you are welcome here, good luck”. So, if in person there seems to be no problem, how much paper is necessary? We decided, on the 10th floor of a government office, that a stamp would be a good start. So I have travelled for 18 hours this week and returned triumphantly with a very small government stamp on my piece of paper marked 12th October 2016.

Where are sardines from? Probably the most truthful answer would be to say ‘the sea’. But in our paper and classification hungry society, I, with my letters and requests, want to brand my work just like Sainsbury’s and Tescos.¹

In reality, the guarantees given by these labels and stamps often end up deceptive or meaningless. The treasured pieces of paper I would really like are not the guarantee of my research being ethical or not. The sardines are, and aren’t, really Sainsbury’s. In the same way, the commitments to ethical procedures and risk aversion are only the beginning of a negotiation of risks and ethics.² Occasionally, not getting in a car with ‘strangers’ isn’t necessarily going to reduce my risk (although I avoid it wherever possible!). Perhaps what we need to develop is the ability to believe or seriously consider what we see and feel and what we are told and experience face to face. Fish really do come from the sea, and in most cases, so long as I keep doing my best to be a good, and ethically aware guest, I really am welcome in Morocco.

Notes

Sorry some photos are stuck on my phone and it isn’t wifi or data connected.

¹ If this were an academic essay rather than a blog, I’d reference Scott, and his argument that we simplify and harm complex realities when we try to ‘see like a state’. JAMES C. SCOTT, Seeing like a state: how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed (Yale University Press 1998)

² I read that my approach here is of ethical relativism. This book is really helping me work through dilemmas and practicalities, for anyone about to do fieldwork I recommend it: REGINA SCHEYVENS & DONOVAN STOREY, Development fieldwork: a practical guide. 2nd Edition (Sage 2014).

Thursday

pomegranates

I have moved to Thursday. When the taxi was going to the town I was going to, and was going to Thursday, I thought nothing of it. Then, on the first Thursday I was in my new flat, my landlady said that the landlord had gone to Thursday. Right. Then I heard my lovely new Moroccan friend here tell some people that no, I didn’t live in the city anymore, I’d rented a place here in Thusday. So, the case is settled, I live in Thursday.

What I had been told that helped me make sense of this was that in each of the towns there is a big market one day of the week, and in this town, that day of the week is Thursday. So although I didn’t realise I was moving to Thursday when I moved here, because the town has a proper name too, I was able to work out (and I’ve checked this with people) that the town is known as Thursday because the market is on Thursday. Needless to say that the market is a big deal.

So if you are outside of Thursday and you go to Thursday that means that you are going to my town. If you are in my town and you say you’re going to Thursday that means you’re going to the market. Everyone goes to the market. So everything seems to revolve around Thursdays, and the market. It’s the day that people get off work (if they work in agriculture which most people do), it’s the day that they buy their food for the rest of the week. I should say we. It’s the day we buy our food, because I live in Thursday now.

Food isn’t the only thing at the market, but I think it is the main event. You have to go through the clothes and the stationary and the pots and pans to get to the food and everyone is headed for the food. Let’s take fruit for example. At the moment you can get apples and bananas (grown in greenhouses too nearby), the last of the grapes, the odd melon, and oranges and pomegranates. The oranges are small and green so I would have thought they were limes if I hadn’t eaten one the other day. Very nice. My taste-buds feared the acid of a lime but got the sweetness of a small orange. Not even the bland taste of a nectarine. Orange it was called and orange it was.

What else do we need to know about Thursdays? Well, there is no water. I think this is quite an important detail. On my second day here last week I mentioned that the water had been off for several hours and my landlady said (you guessed it), “yes, that’s because it’s Thursday”. Whenever too many people are trying to use the water at once it cuts off, but on Thursdays it seems everyone higher up the water-chain is using the water because it doesn’t come back until about 10pm.

Things have changed now I’ve moved to Thursday. I am now the only foreigner in town and so getting extra special care and attention, in both good and annoying ways.  Although I haven’t changed, the Morocco around me has, and that’s changed me in it. While the me in Morocco in Rabat was comfortable walking around with a modest pony-tail, and covering my hair would have made me feel like a fraud, the me here fits in a bit better with the pony-tail under a scarf. There doesn’t seem to be anything fraudulent about it. Apparently the baby downstairs was afraid of my hair. So covering it doesn’t feel like wearing a cross if you’re not a Christian any more. It feels more like taking your shoes off in someone’s house when that’s what they do. Things have shifted a little and I need to fit in a bit more here in order to be comfortable, and for others to be comfortable with me.

What was that I heard someone in some seminar say? Meaning is subjective. Maybe that’s the research moral I’m dragging out of this…. What does Thursday mean? Well it looks like it depends where you are, doesn’t it? And the headscarf? Well, right now for me it means I get a few less cat-calls and the baby downstairs looks slightly less frightened.

Couscous

couscous
Couscous for three – with meat from the Hawli of Eid!

We think we know couscous. In the Moroccan sense though, I’m not so sure. So let’s start with a quiz:

  1. What day of the week is couscous eaten?
  2. How is it cooked?
  3. With what foods does it implicitly always come, when someone says, ‘we’re having couscous’.
  4. What is the dairy product that is often used?

When I say we, really what I mean is, ‘I’, these are just some of the important things that I’ve learned about couscous since I’ve been learning and immersing myself in Moroccan culture over the last two years. So the answers are: a) mainly Fridays b) it’s steamed above the meat and vegetables c) usually there is always lamb (or another meat) squash, courgettes, carrots, sometimes a few chic-peas and a rich broth-like gravy to be poured on top, not to mention the herbs and spices! d) a salty fermented sheep-milk butter called ‘smen’ is often rubbed into the couscous as it is separated. Smen, now there is an easy name to remember!

Twice now has couscous lived up to its Moroccan reputation for me. The idea of couscous in Morocco is something far from the quick-boil stuff that we imagine elsewhere. It symbolises a labour of love to be shared and enjoyed with family, friends and guests. Perhaps like a roast dinner, but maybe with fewer implications of stress. It is also a lot tastier than any couscous I’ve eaten in Europe. When it’s steamed the couscous itself takes on all the flavour of the meat, vegetables and spices.

The first time couscous lived up to symbolising Moroccan hospitality and good-will was in my friend’s flat in Rabat. We were invited to have couscous with the family living upstairs, but we’d already arranged to eat lunch with friends. Later that evening when I came back after a mini-mission around Rabat, the daughter-in-law came and said that they still wanted us to have some couscous. I said that they shouldn’t have, but thank you very, very much (or something to that effect in imperfect French). I was not expecting the small feast that descended from the big house above. It was about 9pm and I was presented with a steaming hot plate of couscous. The size of the gesture was quite literally far larger than what we knew what to do with. I carried the plate over to the fridge and sized it up against the width of the fridge – the plate was far too big for any shelf of the normal size stand-up fridge-freezer. We ate what we could and enjoyed it before the flies of the summer heat got to what wouldn’t fit in the fridge. That seems to be the kind of gesture that turns neighbours into friends, which is really what those neighbours are to my friend.

The second time the couscous really came as a welcome relief from the sometimes intensely stressful nature of travelling to do research. This was the picture above. This was couscous at the house of the academics that are helping me out here. I took quite a long path arriving to the place of my fieldwork and in a way I still haven’t arrived. The couscous at their house, rather than a sultry coffee in a meeting room, felt like a big hug of welcome. And like in Spain, following the meal, you aren’t shooed out the door, but invited to relax, perhaps to watch something that happens to be on a nearby TV, perhaps to sit back and have a tea.

So what can couscous tell me about research? It can tell me that it is personal. In Morocco this means that it doesn’t happen in meeting rooms and hotels. Real sharing of information happens where people are most comfortable, which is in their own homes. How I might repay all these cups of tea and meals of couscous? I’m not yet sure. I try to arrive with the small sweet biscuits that seem to be the European social equivalent of a bottle of wine. It isn’t always possible though. I think that I will be present shopping for more than just friends and family at the end of this trip.

L hawli

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It bleats, it pants, it kicks, it smells, it is: ‘l hawli’.  As I pass by the market with my clearly French face, this is helpfully (and without my asking) translated for me as: ‘le mouton’. L hawli, le mouton, the sheep, has arrived in central Rabat.

The holy festival of Eid l’Kbir (big Eid), officially known as ‘Eid al-Adha’ is this Monday. The celebration remembers Ibrahim’s sacrifice and is a major festival in Islam. The exact date is determined every year according to the lunar calendar, and in Morocco the feast is accompanied by two days of public holiday. Public transport is packed as everyone goes to join their families. The festival seems to be a joyous time for everyone and I’ve never seen some of my teachers looking happier. It’s just the horned protagonists who don’t get to join in with the smiles and celebrations.

For me, the festivities started when the taxi ride to school suddenly got more interesting. Normally you hail down a little blue cab, see whether it’s going in your direction, and whether your journey is compatible with the journeys of anyone else already in it. Then, like taxis anywhere, there will be a speedy journey with strange music or chat about the weather.

This week though, as the empty land which hosted an international music festival in the Spring was turned into a different kind of living hubbub. As we pass by the market the conversations change: ‘have you bought your hawli yet?’, ‘no, not yet!’, or, ‘l hawli, no! In the market they’re too expensive! We have them in the countryside, my uncle buys him cheaper’.

At the language school where I’ve been trying to remember my (Moroccan) Arabic, hawli is clearly the word of the week. I have never seen so many sheep impressions. My first curiosity and question (to a taxi driver) was, ‘do people buy their hawli dead or alive’. The question worked better after I’d actually learnt the words for dead and alive, but by the end of the week I didn’t really need a verbal answer. These sheep were going home in-tact. My teacher confirmed my conclusion: the hawli goes home, it lives in the garden or on the balcony, the children feed it grass, and then a few days later, ta da! The adults have done their work, and no need for any more grass.

I don’t want to romanticise the hawli market. The sheep going home on hand-pushed carts are the lucky ones. A lot of them get a cord around their legs and are then instead headed for a car boot. Be that car a swanky brand new white four by four, or the boot of a small taxi.

Nor do I want to make it sound unreasonable. Perhaps if in Europe we went to the effort of going and choosing a live bird for Christmas, we would value more the life and sacrifice of that animal. Perhaps. In any case, the reality of the provenance of meat is being made painfully clear in the streets of the capital this week.

Unfortunately, I’m going to let you down at the end of this post with no actual food (again!). As an outsider, on this occasion, not wishing to impose on any families and their quality time together, I am not sharing in the festivities and the sacrifices of Eid. Instead I will do what’s expected of me as a French, white, Christian tourist and have a couple of days off too, on the beach. The sea is one thing that doesn’t close for Eid.

Spryte

spryte

My trip to Morocco begins with, ahem, Spryte. I’ve obviously changed a letter but it will get us used to the interchangeable y/i in Arabic. Of course in fact it is actually known the same here as everywhere else. So we start with sameness rather than difference.

Having arrived at Gatwick airport hot and thirsty I am confronted with the choice of paying £2 for either water, Spryte or a whole host of other fizzy drinks. Beyond the x-ray border where bottles are headed for the bin, if I want hydration, it’s this or drinking from the tap, and (this time) I don’t have time for that. A big lady in a fantastically purple dress and matching headscarf says £2 is too much and I agree. However, I also know how fast I dry out on the plane so this time I hold onto my health and just compromise on price. Although I’m not happy, water should be free! Didn’t some friendly international lawyers establish somewhere that we should always have access to water?

On the plane we have the same choice of water, sugary juice or fizziness. Furthermore, the lack of alcohol marks the transition into a slightly different culture. The woman in the seat next to me foresaw this and has a small bottle of gin in her bag in one of those containers designed for shampoo. She’s lovely, headed with her son straight to Agadir for a holiday in the sun after a year working in a hospice without a break.

I think the idea of going to another country usually comes from the desire to encounter difference. Different weather perhaps, a different culture, different people, something, some difference that has motivated us to go through passport control and risk losing our luggage for a few days. Yet, perhaps the airport administration and the-businesses-that-be know better than we do. When we arrive, a little wary and weary, what we want is something we recognize, something we understand, not yet ready to navigate the difference we came to see. Thirsty, and tired, I see what I need…. Spryte. Of course I don’t really ‘need’ it, but it seemed like I did. For the same ransom of 20 Dirhams, or just under £2. My token of homogenized sugary water this time bought me the time and the permission to sit in the airport train station café and gain the role of ‘consumer’ rather than ‘lone female looking lost’. Of course I would have preferred a home-made tea and cake, but in lack of it, I have to recognize that the sugar water was my friend.

Over-priced sugar-water is actually quite an apt introduction to Morocco. With the high temperatures that can make you light-headed with low blood pressure, sugar is welcome. Usually it comes as tea, or maybe as orange juice with added sweetness, but either way, the size of the cubes are testimony to the size of the popularity of sugar, with or without the tea.

So what does Spryte say about being at both ends of the journey to Morocco? Well, it says everything you want to hear, it says, no worries, I’m recyclable (with the little symbol for those of us who care); it says, what’s the problem? I’m just lemonade, with the symbol of a lemon on the front but no lemon in the ingredients, and then it talks to us in three languages. It has two prices, the one I paid and the one written on the bottle. It says, you can see what you want to see, but you’ll never understand it all.