Cultural Duality: With Downcast Eyes

Yeux Baissées

In affluent Western countries, those that aren’t “us,” the “Others,” are minority, often disadvantaged groups. In France, the Other usually comes from North Africa (the Maghreb). Like Fatma, a Berber girl, in Tahar Ben Jelloun’s With Downcast Eyes.

Fatma, like the male narrator in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, moves from her home. In this case, it’s from the hills of Morocco to France where her father has been working to support his family back home. But unlike Mohsin Hamid’s hero, she suffers every disadvantage to being a girl raised in a society harsh on women. A teacher tells her when she disguised herself as a boy so she could go to school: “Females, I can spot them, they smell bad.”

That isn’t the only cruelty she endures. The aunt with whom she lived before joining her father is the quintessential evil witch. She beats Fatma and causes her younger brother’s death.

And yet, Fatma is blessed in a way nobody else is among her generation. In a silent ritual, her dying grandfather made her the

“keeper of the secret, the guardian of words and roads, the protectress of the unnamed heritage.”

This is a notion unique to cultures outside Western civilization which often see such practices as mystical and primitive.

Fatma’s world in Morocco is hostile, poor, aimless. But she loves it, anyway, for its hills, its trees, its people.

She arrives in a dark, dreary and cold Paris, with its dizzying abundance of buildings and cars spewing smoke that assaults lungs used to pure mountain air. But there, she realizes her dreams of being counted.

She finally attends school, learns French, and adjusts nicely to her new home. It has electricity, running water, and convenient appliances. But she never really leaves her old village behind. Her father reminds her constantly not only of her origins, but the traditional expectations their culture has of women. And Fatma can’t help pitting one culture against the other, at least inside her head.

Her experiences elicit in her an ambivalence about being Moroccan and French, at the same time. Neither society is perfect. The ignorance in her native land is balanced by intolerance in the other. The hostility in it is answered with racism in the other.

Tahar Ben Jelloun’s narrative of Fatma’s duality is exquisite, perhaps among the best one can find on what it’s like to live a plurality of cultures. Born in Fez, Morocco, educated mostly in an Arabic university, living in France, and winner of a French literary award, he spins a yarn that springs from an intimate, well-examined knowledge of the clash of tradition versus modernity, primitiveness versus civilization.

Tahar Ben Jelloun

Unless one has lived it, being between two worlds may be impossible for anyone to fully comprehend. Fatma, for instance, is not quite at the margin between two opposing cultures. Rather, she has created for herself a unique world (a third one, in effect) at the confluence of both. It molds her into an individual with a duality that inevitably leads to inner conflict.

But she cannot run away from that duality. As she straddles both cultures, she falls back on one or the other according to her needs. Ironically, the pull of one culture is stronger whenever she visits the other.

I have seen Morocco as a tourist. The country fascinated me. It’s up there with things exotic, a world as far away from my own plural culture as my imagination can conjure up. It’s been invaded and changed by foreign powers and you could see the effects of that in cities like Marrakech and Casablanca.

As a casual tourist, you can get a better glimpse of its heart if you visit one of its Medinas. There you do see the marks of a Westerner’s stereotypes of the East: men in hooded flowing robes, women with their robes and hijabs, donkeys competing with humans for space in the narrow passages, exotic spices, and—of course—dancing cobras.

And yet, what do all these really tell you about what it’s like being a Moroccan? It can tell you even less what it’s like to be someone caught between an exotic world and a modern Western one. But, at least, in seeing it, you start opening your view of how the Other lives.


3 thoughts on “Cultural Duality: With Downcast Eyes

  1. This sounds like a very interesting book. I wish I had time to read it, but graduate school is swallowing up much of my time. Your review brings to mind post-colonialism and Edward Said’s book titled Orientalism. W.E.B. Dubois talks of double consciousness in his book The Soul of Black Folk. Living a life of cultural duality is similar.

    1. Good to hear from you again, Xenia. The idea of double consciousness sounds intriguing. I might check those books out.
      Good luck on graduate school and happy holidays.

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