David Seddon, The Peasants: A Century of Change in the Eastern Rif, 1870-1970 (Folkestone: Wm. Dawson & Sons, 1981).

Henry Munson, Jr., The House of Si Abd Allah: The Oral History of a Moroccan Family (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984).

The idea of “traditional society,” so popular in the development literature of the 1950s, has long lost its attraction. But its cousins and descendants live on, as the literature on Morocco attests. Many intellectual careers have been built on observations of Morocco’s essential tribalism — its “segmentary” social structure. This heritage of the past, supposedly still dominant, is brought forward to explain most things Moroccan, from the successful rule of King Hassan to life in rural villages.

Tribal, segmentary, kinship-based life in Morocco is supposed to make class nearly irrelevant as a category of analysis. Instead, Moroccan society is thought to be governed by a host of conflicts among small “tribal” groups or their equivalent. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz calls this anarchy “a cloud of unstable microcosms.” Knitting the chaos together are the Moroccan elites, who build alliances among segmentary groupings. Ultimately, the whole system is held together by the king, through a combination of force, mediation and charisma. The royal public relations department could not have invented a more suitable mythology.

Segmentary analysis has been an intellectual swamp for years, with little capacity to explain change or understand struggle. But ideological vision has made it seem like a high ground. Not only have distinguished foreign experts clung tenaciously to this perspective, but even most Moroccan intellectuals have come to accept it in some form.

David Seddon’s Moroccan Peasants bursts into this stagnant intellectual universe with great power and illumination. Though ostensibly a specialized monograph on peasant society among the Ulad Stut of the Moroccan northeast, it is in fact much more — a devastating attack on the whole segmentarist tradition. It sets out a keen argument at the theoretical level, presents the case in terms of a century of Moroccan history and roots the analysis in a detailed local case study. With real flair, it carries the critique into the heartland of the theory — a poor, undeveloped, backward rural area with a tribal past.

Seddon’s book is extremely modest in its presentation, so unpretentious and understated that there is a danger that a casual reader might neglect its essential importance. The book does not announce itself as a pathbreaker. Nor do its theoretical sections dominate the text. Seddon simply goes about his task with method, clarity and precision, building always on the minutely-studied reality of northeastern Morocco.

He begins by showing that the segmentary, tribal or kinship-based system in rural Morocco was already in retreat by the middle of the 19th century, as capitalism began to penetrate the region. Equality among families gave way, as local chieftains emerged with their control of “men, horses and weapons.” At the opposite pole, poor members of the tribe began to migrate to eastern Algeria to do seasonal wage work on the farms of the French colonial settlers.

The remainder of the book charts the steady weakening of the tribal, pastoral system and the steady growth of class during the course of a century of Moroccan history, with all the connected economic, social and political implications. The process is shown not schematically, or as a sudden and unambiguous process, but grounded in a rich, complex and thoroughly nuanced reality.

As the book begins, the Ulad Stut are almost completely pastoral, living in clusters of tents and moving with their flocks of sheep and goats from one part of their range to another as seasons and grazing conditions dictate. With colonialism comes settled small-scale agriculture, as private property steadily eats away at pasture land. Finally, in the independence period, peasant society gives way to urban society with its modern class structure clearly emergent. Steady pressures interweave with temporary crises to propel change. Population increase and taxes are two constant elements, while drought and war intervene from time to time to speed up the movement of history. Towns arise first as Spanish administrative and military outposts, but as the colonial era draws to a close their indigenous population increases and their roots in the countryside deepen. One of the very best sections of the book is a detailed study of the local town of Zaio — its economy, population and politics. Here we see the emergent petty bourgeoisie — the shopkeepers, hairdressers, restaurant owners, bakers and the like, as well as the teachers and local administrative officials. There is also a bourgeoisie, a proletariat and a sub-proletariat. Each class has real but declining connections with the countryside. Tribalism as a mode of behavior has not totally disappeared, but it is extremely weak, even in this small town in the heart of the countryside.

The working class that springs from this impoverished land cannot generally find wage work locally. This was true in the early period of migrant work in Algeria. During the colonial period it remained true, as migration to Algeria continued and as others signed on as soldiers with Franco in the Spanish Civil War or moved off to find work in Europe or in the burgeoning cities of French Morocco. Finally, in the recent period, migration to Europe has been the dominant mode. Seddon estimates that as many as 20 percent of the adult males in the region were working in Europe in the late 1960s. As this safety valve has been eliminated with the European economic slowdown, the social crisis in the countryside has grown. Aware of this, Seddon predicts “substantial and persistent urban unrest” in his text. No book is a better background for understanding the recent uprisings in the north.

Seddon writes well. We are introduced to many colorful characters and revealing episodes during the course of the text. There is Hamed Moussa, the 19th century tribal chief with his dozen slaves, many wives and enormous tent, who manages to hold onto power for 30 years by skillful tactics of factional maneuvering. The segmentary system, though weakened, still flourished then. A later portrait is of Qaid El-Merid, who began as a simple employee of the French and ended up one of the great landlords under the Spanish, having made off with large tracts of communal land through various ruses and a clever manipulation of the new colonial laws. By this time, tribalism was overshadowed. El-Merid was not even from the local lineage, and gained his power and wealth through relations with the colonial state. Finally, in the recent period, we encounter Haj Ali Shadli, Haj Ali Bey ayr, Haj Salah, and other prosperous local businessmen in the main district town. They own grain mills, trucking enterprises, construction companies and similar businesses and maintain close and cordial relations with the local officials. Capital is now unambiguously the dominant feature of local social relations.

Seddon carefully analyses Moroccan politics, in an effort to show why “patronage” politics continues to predominate, giving the impression of segmentarism. He discusses at different points such English and American writers as Gellner, Geertz, Hart and Waterbury, showing the essentially ideological basis of their concept of politics as clientelism. Through many examples drawn from both national and local politics, Seddon shows how “patronage” is a fully modern reality, in which participation has been eliminated through intimidation and a sense of futility, not through tribal vestiges.

Seddon breaks with many canons of orthodox analysis. He vigorously and convincingly refutes the idea of “traditional notables” as the governing force in the countryside. He also steadfastly refuses to employ the concept “Berber.” But for all Seddon’s achievements, he leaves the reader seriously disappointed in one thing: his failure to engage the French and Moroccan analysts, reserving discussion of their work to an occasional footnote. His critique of segmentarism would have been far more complete had he gone just this small distance further. It would have been very exciting to have seen Seddon’s critique of Remy Leveau, Paul Pascon and other major experts on the Moroccan countryside.

Only very rarely does a book successfully challenge long-held modes of analysis. Seddon has taken the best of Marxism and of peasant studies and applied these creatively to a field that was in desperate need of innovation. Few who are serious about Morocco or the modern Middle East can afford to ignore this important and challenging book.

Henry Munson’s The House of Si Abd Allah likewise provides valuable background to the recent social unrest in the north of Morocco. This intriguing oral history tells the story of a small village family as recounted by a poor peddlar from Tangier and his niece, an educated woman living in the United States. The book is great fun to read — like a novel, with a marvelous cast of characters. It conveys the texture of everyday life with a success usually reserved for fiction.

We are transported to the dry, rocky Jebala hillside, to the “village of the streams” where Si Abd Allah is born in 1870 and to which the whole extended family is attached. We hear of the loves, aspirations, rivalries and disappointments of these kinsmen and their neighbors. Those who remain in the village are mostly landless. They scratch out a living growing mint and making charcoal by illegally cutting down trees. All await the gifts of the richer family members who work in Tangier or the even richer ones who work in Europe. Collapsing rural society is here in microcosm.

We also follow family members to Tangier where we hear of life in the “cobblestone quarter” and other modest neighborhoods. Some live in shanties, others in real houses. Here the family members are cut loose from the bonds of soil and village. They scramble to put bread on the table, leading a servile and miserable existence on the margins of urban life as casual laborers and petty vendors. Some of the men are destroyed by whiskey, hashish and whores. The women are cursed by the cloistered life that the city imposes, the angry behavior of their husbands, and by grinding poverty. A few escape to Europe and become rich by local standards. The rest cling on, hoping for a turn of luck.

Al Hajj Muhammad, the peddlar, is the main storyteller. He is a wonderful, Rabelaisian character, with great energy, wit and lust for life. His deeply religious outlook is combined with a critical eye for society and its hypocrisy. He peppers his discourse with humorous tales and revealing comments. Of local Moroccan officials, he says at one point, “If a rich man farts, for them, it is as though a canary has sung.”

Al Hajj Muhammad’s niece, Fatima Zohra, is the other teller of the family tale, providing a counterpoint to her uncle’s account. Her perspective is especially effective because it is nuanced, understanding and sympathetic, not totally at odds with that of her uncle and the other members of the family. In particular, she describes how religion is woven into the lives of family members, how it becomes a vital psychological support for people whose lives are barren and harsh. And Fatima Zohra is enough of a Muslim herself to speak with feeling about the exhilarating experience of worship.

There is more dissonance when Fatima Zohra discusses the role of women. Her uncle represents a traditional male perspective, with its constant emphasis on women’s sexuality and their threat to men. She totally rejects this point of view. From her we learn of the indignities, beatings, cloistering and often the utter hopelessness of most women’s lives.

While Al Hajj Muhammad is a great tale-teller, he outrages and saddens us as often as he delights. His male chauvinism is often hard to stomach. At the same time, we also sense the tragedy in his relations with women. He has married nine and divorced eight, never having found a stable and loving companion and never having fathered a child, much less a son. His religious views can be equally offensive and are sometimes expressed as narrow and ugly prejudice. Here, we see how personal and social crisis fires his bigotry against Jews and Christians. In fundamentalist fashion, he sees a return to faith and expulsion of the unbelievers as the answer to Morocco’s post- colonial dilemmas.

The accounts of Al Hajj Muhammad and Fatima Zohra are prefaced by Munson’s excellent introduction, which provides both general background on Morocco and commentary on some of the main themes to follow. Munson is frank about his interviewing methods, which are somewhat unorthodox, but which seem well-suited to bring out the best from the tale-tellers.

In his introduction, Munson also takes aim at Clifford Geertz — a scholar whose reputation has long been overinflated. This critique is extremely useful, even though it concentrates on Geertz’s inconsistencies and not the conservative political implications of his analysis. Actually, Munson has been heavily influenced by Geertz, and herein lies a clue to the limits of the book’s perspective. Munson approaches Moroccan society as an anthropologist mainly interested in family, clan and social divisions. He could have selected many different kinds of people for his oral history, but he has made his choice in line with his special interests. The result is a picture of a society highly fragmented, with rampant mutual antagonisms. As Al Hajj Muhammad says: “We are so busy eating one another, that we don’t see that the Christians are eating us all.”

Had Munson interviewed others, especially those involved in the work of organizations or political groups, the result might have been quite different. This is an obvious limitation of oral history. We need to remember it especially here, for Munson’s success will probably lead to generalities based on the book. We should remember that his touching, rich and persuasive insight is limited to particular lives and to particular visions of those lives.

How to cite this article:

James Paul "Seddon, The Peasants; Munson, The House of Si Abd Allah," Middle East Report 127 (September/October 1984).

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