Love Will Find A Way

The two-day workshop “The Means of Love in the Arab World: Pragmatics Beyond Norms and Trangressions” (December 11–12, 2015) came as the last in a small series of meetings that center on love, marriage and affection in the context of the Middle East and North Africa. Intimate relations and love have been scantly studied in anthropologies of the region but attention to these topics is increasing.

An Van Raemdonck

Workshops were set up in Lausanne (2012), Alexandria (2013), New York (2014) and finally Rabat (2015) to discuss and develop new research. Earlier meetings focussed more on discursive frames concerning the problems of love, family authority, religious norms, morality, and the materiality of affect. The aim of the workshops was to build upon anthropologists’ ongoing move away from the discursive, normative, and ideal and toward a more holistic approach that considers ordinary, everyday ethics and pragmatics. This approach blurs the boundaries between discourse, practice, and hierarchical conceptions of people’s actions as important and unimportant. It attempts to consider power structures, ethical discourse and materiality all together. Organized by Aymon Kreil (University of Zurich), Maria Frederika Malmström (Nordic Africa Institute / New York University), Zakaria Rhani (Université Mohammed V), and Samuli Schielke (Zentrum Moderner Orient), the Rabat workshop aimed to highlight the means by which love is communicated, practiced and embodied through language, poetry, music or objects, material exchanges and gifts. It succeeded in bringing scholars together who shed light on the pragmatics and the interactional means of “love in action.”

As one of the locations, Morocco had a large share in the discussions. Annerienke Fioole’s (University of Amsterdam) research explores “the experiences of Moroccan couples involved in cross-sex relationships deemed inappropriate.” She focuses on the role of communication and available resources in enabling cross-sex couples to establish a relationship as licit or in making them keep it unknown or illicit. Such questions are not only a matter of the couple alone, but also of their communication with family, friends and neighbors. How people handle “publicity, discretion and secrecy” in combination with available resources is therefore central in shaping marriages or affairs. The importance and omnipresence of secrecy and discretion as acts of love were also emphasized by Mathew Carey (University of Copenhagen). His research in northern Morocco demonstrated the use of concealing—even including mundane activities—as signs and acts of love. Markedly, material and visible exchanges that show or enable love were strongly absent in his fieldwork sites, since “romantic love is either private and self-referential or hidden and hard to identify.”

Spirits and humans

The work of Zakaria Rhani (Université Mohammed V), Nico Staiti (University of Bologna) and Jamal Bammi (Rabita Mohammedia des Oulémas / CJB) shared an interest in the material and spiritual mediation of love. A concern with the “deconstruction of the dichotomy between the material and the discursive” is central in their work. Rhani and Staiti presented ethnographic work on spirit (djinn) possession, relations between spirits and humans, and how love figures prominently in these relations. At Rhani’s fieldwork sites, which were places of sacred therapies and sanctuaries, “all kinds of love stories and love concerns” are experienced, with the typical characteristics of desire, jealousy, passion, pleasure, feelings of powerlessness and even the construct of marriage. Among these experiences are that a djinn inhabits, temporarily possesses, or loves the human body; that it is responsible for tying two people together or, on the contrary, blocking them from each other. The djinn is called on to change his/her feelings to liberate the involved person. A fascinating case study of inter-human djinn relations was given by Staiti whose ethnographic work centers on groups of female musicians (m’almat)—major protagonists at female parties, marriages and rites of passage—in the city of Meknes. These groups in question don’t consist exclusively of women but are joined by “effeminate men” who understand themselves as “sons of Malika,” the spirit that possesses them. Staiti’s work offered an in-depth look into the workings of one specific troupe in Meknes, its major personalities today, and its social position between marginalization and acceptance. Their djinn possession enables female and male members to live their homosexuality. Jamal Bammi discussed the mediation of love through the use of natural plants and herbs. Certain herbal compositions are used by women to draw men to them and make them commit. Other mixtures are used as aphrodisiacs or are specifically used by men. It is important, argues Bammi, to study these gendered uses of plants, to understand which plants are used for which purposes and what it means when some are exchanged as gifts, since their mediation plays a large role in those people’s conceptions of attracting, keeping, or maintaining love.

Such worries and concerns were also central in Sihem Benchekroun’s discussion, but in a radically different social setting. As a psychotherapist in Casablanca, Benchekroun shared her observations on young men and women’s searches for love, as well as on couples’ relational troubles.

Obtaining social respectability

The development of intimacy and the material transactions that are involved were the common focus in the last part of discussions. Both Mériam Cheikh (Université Libre de Bruxelles) and Sandra Nasser El-Dine (University of Helsinki) argued for the importance of considering different forms of exchanges of money and gifts as expressions of actively shaping love against a background of desire for social respectability. Cheikh looked at a group of young Moroccan women’s trajectories of meeting with men, having sexual relations and doing sex work (the whole being defined as “going out”). Focusing on the fluidity of expression of intimate relationships—potentially moving from commercial exchanges to conjugal relations—Cheikh shows how these women developed their knowledge and experience on intimacy and relations in the context of obtaining social respectability and status. Such transactions and exchanges or the “expenses of love” were finally looked at from masculine perspectives by Corrine Fortier (LAS / CNRS) and Luca Nevola (University of Milano-Bicocca). Fortier discussed male courtesy in extramarital relations among the Moorish people of Mauritania, while Nevola examined romantic discourses among countrymen in Yemeni highlands. In both cases, poetry plays a crucial role as a mediator of male discourses and expressions of love and passion.

In sum, the workshop succeeded in shedding light on the interactional and transactional nature of love in the region, presenting this topic as a fascinating and challenging field for more research.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 5/2016, pp. 31–32)