Saturday, January 23, 2010

God willing? Maybe. We’ll see? Perhaps.

Hazel and I went out to the Jardin El Harti on Sunday morning, our object to find Paul and distract him from his schoolwork. The day was warm—beautifully, unseasonably—the park crawling with kids, mothers in conversation with each other, lone bench-sitters, families of all sorts. I’d registered this phenomenon at some level before, but was knocked over the head with it Sunday: there’s a guy with an official blue workman’s coat and a whistle whose job it is to tweet miscreants off the bordered lawns and other restricted areas, shame whomever out of whatever behavior is considered bad for the park. It’s disconcerting. And it reminds me of a glorious picture of my friend Margaret. We’re in high school, vacationing in Paris by ourselves, giddy with our own sense of freedom and self-possession. She’s standing on a square of fabulously manicured jewel-like green grass in the Jardin du Luxembourg—smiling gleefully, posed right in front of a little white and black sign that reads Pelouse InterditeStay off the grass. Ha!

We spent a good part of our year in France thumbing our noses at the French way of carefully drawing between the lines, howling at the ridiculousness of public attempts at control, glorying in the wide American sweep of Central Park—or we would, later, compare this un-manicured and “natural” Frederick Law Olmsted design with the confining squares and rectangles of perfectly planted French color and proportion. We liked to believe that it was très French to try and control people in public spaces. Being in Morocco, a formerly French-controlled country, you see the vestiges of colonial rule still in evidence—thus the whistle-blower, or at least the idea of him. And it was Ghita, my friend Céline’s friend, who theorized that Moroccans operate as if they are still under that Protectorate, in the ways in which they think about themselves in the world. Her argument is that many Moroccans live still inside a colonial state of mind, that colonized modes of being and thinking still dominate the Moroccan psyche.

Doesn’t Michel Foucault write about this very same phenomenon? He does. I won’t attempt anything but a flash—as I understand it, in talking about power and knowledge, Foucault compares modern society to a group of prisoners perpetually under the watchful eye of guards who, in reality, are either there or not there. He uses 18th-century philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Benthem’s prison design, called the Panopticon, as metaphor. In Benthem’s design (never realized), prisoners can be seen at all times by the guards but the guards themselves can never be seen—thus the feeling of always being watched—though you’re never sure. You live in a state of perpetual fear. I sat on a bench last Sunday looking at these two boys stepping over an eight-inch prickly and weed-laced hedge, gingerly treading on the spiky grass beyond—only to be tweeted and shooed by the striding man in blue. The whistle periodically cut through our playing ball with Hazel. I think Foucault would argue that even though you can’t hear it this instant, you know the whistle might blow if you step over the hedge. So you knuckle under, you’re cowed, and you don’t step over the hedge—or if you do, you’re prickled by an internal fear in addition to the hedge. Power is achieved by someone else (elsewhere) through an idea you can’t get out of your head—even when you’re all by yourself.

A long time ago Paul came across a website called which pulls together recent thinking on questions of modern life (and claims to "promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society"). One of the very cool questions they’ve posed in the last couple months: In what ways have computers changed the ways we think? A German thinker responds. Take for example the Google search. You type in Virginia Woolf; it’s Google’s internal calculus that decides for you which sites pop up and in what order. You’ve ceded control and in fact have no way of knowing how exactly they’ve ordered what they’ve found on your behalf. Would you have made the same choice? How much do we like to think of this kind of pre-determination? Or do we? My example is fairly benign, and yet…

So here’s another way of looking at it: Inshallah—that ubiquitous and ever-useful Arabic phrase, in service in so many contexts. No real brother that we use as often in English—God willing? Maybe. We’ll see? Perhaps. Hazel and I went to see if we could get into this photographic gallery on Mohammed V, Galerie 127, advertised as the only designated photographic gallery in all of the Maghreb (which—maybe?—I haven’t defined yet in this blog-space: the Maghreb by modern definition includes Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and in earlier days meant only the area in these three countries between the high ranges of the Atlas Mountains and the Mediterranean, the word maghreb translating from the Arabic so: place of sunset or western. Thanks, wikipedia). At any rate, we’d gone once before without any luck—but found two arresting images posted outside, each note-card size, each with a single figure: two different boys, two different pastel-colored track suits, each in a pose of yogic near-impossibility (for most of us), feet dangling over shoulders, slim pelvis to the sky, forearms braced in dust and gravel, color washed out except for the bodies—brown hands and black hair, track suits against white walls and white dust. The perspective is tourist snap-shot style: camera held slightly above the subjects, looking both down and into them.

This second time, I decided to ask the young attendant sitting on the sidewalk outside the entrance (that leads to a set of stairs that winds up three flights to the gallery, passing along the way eye surgeons and ob/gyn offices, each opening onto the steep stone and tile stairwell) if the gallery was open (why did I do this?)—he said yes. We got up there, of course closed again, this time a sign posting the hours—either I noticed or it was new. When we got back down the winding way (examining again several huge cheap oil paintings showing a trio of Saharan horsemen riding full tilt toward us), I told the attendant the gallery was closed and gave him the hours (why did I do this?). And then he said, nodding slightly, “Inshallah.” Huh? No! Those are the hours! There’s no “Hope so” about it! In retrospect, maybe he didn’t understand me and inshallah is just the go-to response? Or he did, and inshallah is the go-to response. Hard to know. And countless other instances: we visit Abderraman and say good-bye, see you next week maybe? Inshallah. A couple months ago, Céline says maybe we could go to Paris together sometime with the girls? And answers her own question—“Inshallah, comme on dit ici”—Inshallah, as we say here. (We go this Wednesday for a week with them, Hazel and I.)

The circuitous route back from inshallah: this phrase that acknowledges the forces beyond our human realm, or the forces at work outside of what an individual can control. Paul just now said: Moroccan Google. Google as secular techno-version of inshallah? Maybe so.

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