Fatna held up the knot of hair. It was a magic spell. “But what does it mean?” I asked, looking suspiciously at the neatly-tied brown square knot. “And whose hair is it?”

“Why do you think Khadija has been coming over every day? She wants me to marry her brother Muhammad. This is probably her mother’s hair. The mother’s hair is the most powerful.”

“You mean it's to make you fall in love with him?”

“Or to keep me from falling in love with anyone else.” Fatna took back the hair-knot and disappeared into the john, emerging a few minutes later smiling mysteriously. “I pissed on it," she told me.

“Does that get rid of the magic?” I began to ask, but Fatna was getting up and slipping a cassette into the video machine. The movie began with the image of a lone TV set, playing to an empty room. The national anthem was announcing the end of the broadcast day. With an effort, I tore my eyes away from the movie and tried again.

“Why does she want you to marry her brother?”

On the TV within the video, the American flag was waving. Fatna ignored me to watch the beginning of the film. The rest of the family settled comfortably onto the sofas. I gave up and turned to the film.

A little blond girl was toddling down the stairs of a middle-class suburban home. She sat down in front of her TV set. “They're coming,” she chanted in a singsong voice, her hand reaching out toward the blank TV screen.

Overlapping Symbols

Watching Poltergeist and discussing magic with my Moroccan hosts brought home to me the artful and seamless way in which my friends in Sidi Slimane weave together cultural elements from different sources. It is not the contrast between the different elements that is striking: it is the lack of contrast, the clever and taken-for-granted integration. When the film was over and we sat down to a late lunch, Fatna’s mother launched into several tales of haunted houses, stories not meant to rival Spielberg but merely within the same genre. Fatna then flatly announced, in a tone that defied contradiction, that she had seen The Exorcist and that everything in it was true, that she had seen it all in real life at an actual exorcism in Kenitra. The possessed woman had levitated, foamed at the mouth, and so on. Fatna used Western horror films as support for the validity of magic. All these different cultural artifacts — the entertainment of the Spielberg movie, the terrifying drama of spirit possession and exorcism, and even the petty manipulations of marriage magic — were for her part of one unified cultural world.

Symbols from different parts of the world overlap: a picture of the king of Morocco hangs next to a poster of the Beatles. The sounds of a religious festival outside the window (the nasal honking of the oboe-like raita, the chanting of the crowd) mingle with the televised cheering of soccer fans as Morocco goes up against Cameroon in the African Nations Cup. Activities are proximate: in the morning we watch a holy man cure a boy, then stop off at the fair where we see a woman doing motorcycle stunts; in the evening we watch an Indian fairy tale or a Brazilian soap opera or an Egyptian romance.

These kinds of transnational cultural symbols come at you from all sides in Morocco, and the town of Sidi Slimane is no exception. American or other non-Moroccan cultural artifacts which may seem familiar to a Western visitor are transformed by their setting and manner of reception. They may become status symbols; justifications for local beliefs or behaviors; symbolic repositories for what is hated, rejected, and feared, or for what is longed-for and admired. They may play several of these roles at the same time. In any case, they are incorporated into the social and cultural scene, actively interpreted and reinterpreted, judged according to local moral standards but also used to counter these standards. Often they symbolize the possibility of escape from the frustrations and limitations of daily life in Sidi Slimane.

Sidi Slimane’s 50,000 people live in the middle of a rich Moroccan agricultural region, most of them in squat, two-story apartment buildings whose ugliness is relieved by gracefully carved doorways and cool, richly-colored tile floors and walls. The law against grazing animals within city limits is flagrantly disregarded, and cows and sheep live well on the garbage that litters the town. In the dusty streets taxis and cars struggle past motorbikes and horse-drawn wagons. Prior to the arrival of the French early in this century, there was no urban center here, just farms clustered around the tomb of the local saint, Sidi Slimane. The French had high hopes for the region agriculturally, and as the countryside was irrigated and transformed into huge estates growing wheat and citrus fruits and wine grapes, the town itself took on the form of a little European village complete with railroad stations, movie theater, bakery shop, a church (now deserted) and luxurious villas hidden behind high walls.

But the real turning point for Sidi Slimane was the arrival of the American troops. The US military base, established in 1942, drew peasants from all over the surrounding countryside; the men to work as drivers, carpenters or mechanics, the women as nannies or prostitutes. Older Slimanis remember this era well. Often a 60-year-old Slimani will greet me enthusiastically, pulling from his pocket a faded picture of a youthful soldier. On the back will be a faint scrawl, "Best to my friend Muhammad, from Bill." Or a wizened woman will come up, smiling a toothless smile that turns her tattooed face into a mass of wrinkles, and say, "Okay Charley’s all right," pronouncing the words with a perfect Midwestern accent.

“Everyone knows that Sidi Slimane is the first place in Morocco where they drank Coke,” the pasha of the town told me. “Oh, so there was some influence of American culture here,” I replied. “Culture?” said the pasha, looking blank. “Coke’s just a drink.”

When US forces left “Slime ’n’ City” in 1962, the king took steps to forestall massive unemployment in the area. Hassan II brought in Polish engineers to build a sugar factory which, according to factory officials, hired more workers than it really needed, and worked at a loss for many years. Now, as workers retire, they are not replaced.

Studying for Unemployment

Sidi Slimane has a long-standing but no longer valid reputation as a good place to get work. The sugar factory (which hires only men) and an orange-packing plant (which hires only women) continue to attract people from all over the impoverished countryside. They cluster in mud houses on the outskirts of town, in slums nicknamed “Mexico” and “California” because they are considered to be as lawless as the Wild West — full of bars, hashish, prostitutes and petty crime. Many of the new arrivals cannot find the work for which they abandoned farm and home. Some women manage to get seasonal work at the packing plant, while others become day laborers: one sees them sitting on the curb early in the morning, waiting to be picked up for either housework or field work. If the family owns a horse and cart, men and boys can take loads of people back and forth to the market. But many people do nothing.

It is not only the newly-arrived who find few work opportunities. Many young Slimanis, men and women, tried hard to get sufficient education to work at some dreamed-of middle class profession. The secretary at the packing plant, who now wants only to get married, once wanted to be a doctor; one junior high school teacher still buys the books he would need if he had been able to continue studying sociology; his wife, who spends her mornings cooking and her afternoons staring out the window of their tiny home, is trained as a nurse. Many young women struggled through courses in typing but the market for secretaries is glutted.

What this means is that the town is full of young adults with nothing, or very little, to do. Many live with their parents while they wait to find work, to find a husband, to retake an exam. The educational system is such that it takes most students years of repeating classes to pass the baccalaureate. Those who, in their 20s, finally manage to graduate from high school may go on to university, but even this is frequently a dead end. The failure rate is very high and chances for employment afterward are few. So despairing is this generation of students about their prospects that a young man poring over his books may be greeted with the bitter joke, “So, you're preparing for your unemployment?” Some intentionally flunk the last year of their studies, preferring to be struggling students rather than unemployed graduates.

“The Fac is the last resort,” says one female student. Before she “gave up” and went to college, she took several national exams that would have opened up the possibility of professional education and then employment in various state institutions. Most of those who take these exams fail; many believe that those who pass have money or connections.

Those who surmount all these obstacles and get their university degrees or teacher’s certificates or professional diplomas still face more waiting. Teachers, nurses, youth workers, postal workers and others wait from a few months to several years before they are placed in their new state jobs. In short, many young Slimanis find themselves in long and frequent periods of enforced inactivity.

This means different things for men and for women. A man who has not found work will be described as unemployed (en chomage), but his sister would more likely be described as “doing nothing” (walu) or, even more commonly, “sitting at home” (glsa fi dar) — and she may spend much of her time doing just that. Public space is male space. Unemployed youths roam the city, loiter on the streets, cluster around storytellers in the market, lounge in cafes, or gather at the movie theater to watch karate films. For women, the lack of a job means the loss of the best excuse to get out of the house.

Women and Men

Both men and women complain about the difficulties involved in setting up satisfactory social relations with one another (though Sidi Slimane, with its “American” past, may not be typical in this respect). Many young men say financial constraints have put marriage out of their reach, and for this they often blame women (for their materialistic demands or refusal to live with in-laws) or parents (for withholding needed support). Unmarried men may pick up prostitutes, but this is bad for a man’s reputation. Most are eager to find girlfriends. Young women, for their part, must exercise considerable ingenuity if they are to meet men without risking irredeemable damage to their reputation and their family's honor. Since early, parent-arranged marriages are no longer the rule in a town like Sidi Slimane, women must find their own ways to meet men, but each furtively-arranged rendezvous could end in disaster, expulsion from the family, or a beating from an outraged brother or father.

In the early evenings, the streets of the town fill up with people. The excitement and frustrated energy of the young men and women is almost palpable. Most men stare openly at the young women, hoping to make eye contact that could lead to a conversation and maybe a meeting. Some make sexual comments, or grab at a woman as she passes, or mention a sum of money. Women studiously ignore the flood of male attention, and some may fight back if they are touched. At the same time they try to contact the men who interest them, perhaps exchanging a few quick words on the street. If a young woman seeks a secret tryst with a man — she may be a high school student meeting a boy from one of her classes, or a poor woman hoping to be picked up by a rich landowner who has cruised into town — she will stroll down the shariat al-hubb, the “street of love,” so called because it has no street lights.

As darkness falls, most of the women and girls disappear into their homes, and the town belongs to the men. On warm summer nights the streets never empty. Food stands selling soup, grilled meat and doughnuts stay open, the bars are full, and boys dash through the streets playing soccer or attack each other with mock karate chops or gather under a street light to listen to a boy play the oud. At home the women — whether tired out from a day of housework, studying or wage labor, or bored by a day of staring out the window — are more than likely gathered around the TV set.

Because so many women spend so much time in the home, the importance of TV in their lives becomes exaggerated. TVs and, less commonly, VCRs are found not only in the homes of state employees but in the homes of factory workers, of unemployed adults living off the tiny salary of a sister working as a waitress in Marseille, of large families living off the salary of a woman school teacher.

Because there is only one channel (in bigger cities you can get as many as four), everyone watches the same shows. After a while I nearly gave up asking my women friends “what have you been doing?” I knew the answer would be walu (nothing) and that the more important activities they were involved in — having to do with men — could not be casually announced at the beginning of a conversation but would be revealed later, surrounded with pleas for secrecy. So I fell into the local custom of discussing not our own activities but the lives of the characters on the currently running soap opera.

“Did the twins meet yet?” we would ask each other urgently. “No, they just spoke over the phone.” “Did the lawyer’s mistress get out of jail?” “Yes, and her son told him that she was framed.” And so on. We could count on the constancy of the weekly serials, knowing that the lives of the characters would move inevitably toward some kind of resolution, knowing that there would always be some piece of narrative to relate.

I remember well the day that my friend Fatima and I watched the last episode of the Brazilian serial Coeurs de Diamants. Christina had finally forgiven Paulo, realizing that he really loved her. She had agreed to take over the management of his business and to marry him as well. The last scene showed them walking hand in hand down the alleyway of his estate. A heart rose over the screen. After watching this, Fatima and I strolled down the main street of the city, floating on a haze of good feeling. We ran into a friend of hers; Fatima told me that this friend was going to be married soon. “That’s life,” Fatima announced vaguely but with conviction. “What’s life?” “Marriage,” she replied. At the time she was engaged to a man who had beaten her in a jealous rage and then fled to the States. She always referred to him as “my husband.” He had not phoned her in months. “Yes, marriage,” she went on. “A man and a woman marry and then it's over, that's it.” Such a conclusion seemed based not on her own “marriage” but rather on Paulo and Christina’s happy and luxurious future. The soap operas thus provide a kind of counterpoint to women’s real lives.

For those well-to-do enough to have them, the telephone and the VCR also play important and transformative roles, allowing for activities that women can engage in without leaving the house. The telephone opens up the possibility for extensive social contact with boys, and some girls have year-long flirtatious phone relationships with boys they have rarely or never met. Movies with explicit sex can be watched safely at home without damage to a girl’s reputation. Thus new technologies affect the boundaries of acceptable behavior.

In the household I lived with, we watched videos virtually every night. After the young woman of the house quit her job, we began to watch two or even three a day — Egyptian, Indian and “French” — “French” being the generic for all Western films, whether French, American or British.

“Please get an Arab film,” said one of my housemates wistfully as her sister and I set off for the video store. “The Arab films are about life. The French ones are only about blood.” After watching the locally available Western movies I grudgingly had to agree. The Egyptian films were romances, frequently centering on a heroine facing difficult decisions about money, work, marriage. A girl is torn between a poor but loving and handsome fiance (perhaps a friend of her dedicated but severe brother) and a rich, older seducer. Or, a woman struggles with her father (or husband) about whether she should continue her education (or career). While watching these films, we frequently discussed the correctness of the girl’s decisions. The situations seemed relevant, identifiable and also moving — it was a standing joke that if we watched an Egyptian film we would cry at the end. Western films, on the other hand, elicited gasps of surprise, horrified hiding of the eyes, fascination or prurience.

In some cases, the women interpret Western films in a way that blurs any contrast between foreign and local understandings. Poltergeist and The Exorcist certainly seemed congruent with the local spirit world. In the case of overtly sexual films, on the other hand, the women distinguished Western shamelessness from local modesty. On one occasion, as a group of Moroccan women and I watched an especially steamy scene in a Western film, one girl knitted determinedly, never raising her eyes to the screen. Everyone else’s attention was riveted on the sexy images on TV. As the movie rolled on to a less charged subject, one woman turned to me and declared, with mingled approbation and curiosity, “That’s not shameful for you, is it?”

“Yes, it is shameful for us,” I said. But my protest was not welcomed. I sensed attachment to an idea of Western amorality that creates a certain distance between the sexual images and their watchers and also suggests the possibility — shocking but also somehow appealing — of a country without shame.

The idea that Americans have different boundaries of appropriate sexual behavior seemed to be transformed into the idea that Americans have no such boundaries. “What about rape in America? For you it's normal, right?” I was asked on another occasion by an older professional man. Many people have a more realistic but equally prurient interest in Western attitudes about virginity. “In America it’s all right for women to go out with men before they’re married, right?” one scrupulously correct young Slimani woman asked me. Her tone was curiosity, awe.

Thus American shamelessness provides an image to admire and fear, imitate and denigrate. The image of the Western woman can lend an aura of high status and validity to activities otherwise considered shameful. The double standard, then, is not just that activities condemned in women are pardoned (or admired) in men; it is also that activities condemned in Moroccan women are pardoned (or admired) in Western women, or even in Western-educated or Westernized Moroccan women. If a woman has the money for the jeans and the high heels and the makeup that allow her to present a composed and integrated Western image, if she has the education to speak a refined French, if she has lived abroad and can casually drop some impressive American slang into her conversation — then she can aspire to the social image that would cloak otherwise shameful activity with an attractive and valued Western mystique. Access to Western sexual and social values is only for those who can pay for it.


The counterposition of different kinds of material and moral values is evident in the story of Amina’s sponsorship of an Aissawa evening. The Aissawa are a religious brotherhood that is quite active around Sidi Slimane. It is their practice to play music (drums and raitas) and to go into trance. Amina, a young, uneducated girl from the countryside who had been raised by a well-to-do landowning family living in Sidi Slimane, had dreamt that an Aissawa leader had said to her, “give them what is theirs.” Accordingly, she made plans to go back to the village where she was born and provide the couscous and tea and chicken and vegetables that would allow the holy Aissawa men and women to gather.

The first time Amina and I had gone to visit her village, she had insisted that we both wear gondoras — long robes that are usually worn for weddings. I was surprised to see that on this occasion she chose to wear a denim skirt and a blouse that she borrowed from me. Her chic earrings and pumps completed an outfit that advertised successful manipulation of Western styles. Borrowed gold bracelets suggested a wealth that Amina does not have. Her status as “adopted daughter” is a kind of clienthood; her work day is similar to that of a maid, but she receives no wages.

Since Amina’s mother is an avid follower of the Aissawa, and since their local leader knew the family well, it seemed that there would be no problem organizing the evening. Amina spent a day cooking the meal and borrowing the necessary trays, rugs and glasses. But when we woke the next morning, disaster had struck. The Aissawa had refused to come. Amina’s family was too poor to sponsor a satisfactory evening, they said. Couscous wasn’t enough; where was the stew? Nor would they eat food cooked by Amina: she was impure (manqoa). The implication was that she might have slept with a man the previous night and not have washed afterward — tantamount to accusing her of prostitution.

As the day went on, messengers went back and forth between Amina’s family and the reluctant Aissawa. Amina, although humiliated by the attacks on her virtue, made no attempt to defend herself on this score. She merely pointed out (with growing irritation) that she had already killed and cooked two chickens and an enormous load of couscous. Finally the balance shifted in her favor and the Aissawa tent was erected in front of her mother’s mud hut.

Thus a young female, without a shred of honor and with no powerful male on her side, was able to generate sufficient resources to initiate an evening of holy activity. But there were limits to the amount of transcendence that she was able to manifest. For although the Aissawa came to play, only the drummers were coming; the raitas would not come. And without the raitas, one cannot really enter into trance.

As the Aissawa gathered, Amina and I sat on the irrigation pipe, listening to a tape of hers. “I want to live, I want to give,” piped the thin voice on the tape recorder. “You got me searching for a…”

“Heart of gold…” Amina chimed in, knowing the sounds without understanding the words. Young villagers began to gather around us in the twilight. The only light came from the Aissawa tent, illuminated from within. Everyone wanted to listen to the American tape. “Who’s in there with the Aissawa?” asked one boy. “My brother-in-law,” replied Amina shortly. “I’m not going in there. I’m not going to serve them any tea.”

The tent was beginning to fill up with people. Some were praying; huge shadows rose and fell against the side of the tent as they stood and then knelt. Amina turned up the sound on the tape recorder. “Trailer for sale or rent,” we heard. “Room to let, fifty cents… I’m a man of means, by no means… king of the road!”

We finally went into the tent. The couscous and chicken, although prepared by an “impure” young woman, were eaten with relish and acknowledged to be good. The Aissawa chanted and swayed a little, but without the raitas it was a disappointment (“I almost feel as if I hadn’t been in a trance at all,” complained Amina’s mother the next morning.) Amina’s face remained set in a hard mask of indifference. In her denim skirt, clanking earrings and pumps, she suggested adherence to a different set of values than that put forth by those who condemned her. The music, the little group of rural young people who had gathered around the tape deck, even my presence suggested that those other values were at least as powerful as the ones she had violated.

Tangled Systems

The transnational cultural reservoir in a town like Sidi Slimane is rich with symbols in paradoxical opposition, competing and mingling systems which cannot be disentangled from each other. American cultural forms — music, films, clothes, values — can be merged into local practices (The Exorcist and the exorcist); or aggressively differentiated from them (Western shamelessness beckons or repels, but still contrasts with local decorum) or counterposed to them (rock hits and youthful Western clothes allow Amina to suggest that she is not a prostitute but a hip American teen). Nor can the domain of culture be separated off from the social and the economic. People may draw on these transnational symbols in their struggle to define, test, or transform the boundaries they experience in their lives.

A lot of people that I meet in Morocco want desperately for me to help them to come to America. One is Abdesslam, a 22-year-old Aissawa musician. His father, a small man with a moustache who manages a Shell station, is an Aissawa leader. He conducts the musicians (many are his sons), protects the safety of the women who dance themselves into trances (many are his daughters), incorporates the possessed transvestite dancers, makes the Western visitor comfortable, and is a powerful figure in a ceremony that seems to combine the saintly and the demonic.

Abdesslam is expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. It is he who conscientiously memorizes the long chants in honor of the Prophet, he who keeps his eyes on his father during the long evenings of singing and drumming and swaying, he who knows how properly to recite the myths of the saint. But Abdesslam wants to go to America.

His father does not want him to go, and I am also strangely resistant to the idea. Finally I hit on the reason why.

“Abdesslam — your music — it is the best thing I have found here in Morocco. That’s why it is hard for me that you want to go to America. I love this thing you do, with the drums and the dancing and trance. Your father — he is the muqaddam. And you — you are the young muqaddam. To me, you are something great, not like a regular person, but better, like, like…”

“Like Bob Dylan?” Abdesslam suggested helpfully, somewhat flattered.

Yes, maybe, like Bob Dylan. But should I compare my image of Abdesslam, young musician of the mystical and the divine and the magical with my image of Dylan? How does Abdesslam see Dylan? He doesn't know English. Perhaps his image of Dylan is as colored by needs, fantasies and mystifications as is my image of the saintly musicians I saw in Meknes. To me, they represented a kind of value and depth that I cannot find in North America. But to Abdesslam, perhaps, Dylan suggests other kinds of values and fulfillment.

How to cite this article:

Hannah Davis "American Magic in a Moroccan Town," Middle East Report 159 (July/August 1989).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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