Monday, April 16, 2012

A funny thing happened on the way to Marrakech...

This past week was wonderful.

We had visitors from the United States (read: my boyfriend's parents came to Morocco for the first time!) and we had a great week showing them around Rabat and Marrakech. It is always an interesting experience having guests. Not only does it give you an excuse to take time off from work, but it encourages you to see the world around you from a new perspective. Things that you take for granted -nearly getting hit by speeding cars when trying to cross the road, weaving through the old medina streets, living less than ten minutes away from the King's palace, to name a few - all become special things again.

It also gave us a reason to re-visit Marrakech. When I mention Morocco to friends, family, and strangers back at home, one of the most common outbursts I get is, "oh, Marrakech, right?" or "Marrakech Express!". In a nutshell, Marrakech is one of the most well-known aspects about Morocco. Naturally, as a tourist with less than a week to explore the country, it is a high-priority destination. The stories of snake charmers, story tellers, monkeys, and fortune tellers are not hyperbole, but rather reality. The old medina that we stayed in feels more chaotic than our familiar Rabat medina. Not only is it packed with tourists and polyglot shopkeepers haranguing said tourists, but there are also donkeys pushing carts filled with anything from fresh produce, engine parts, or cases of Coca-Cola. Did I mention everyone rides motor bikes? Even women in djellabas and head scarves?

Outside of the congested medina streets are high red clay walls that wrap around the city and seem to glow as the sun sets, setting fire to the palm trees and ducking behind the tall distant mountains that are still capped in snow.

Marrakech is no exception to the rule that Moroccans live in a world of paradox, where you find elements of tradition next to modernity, a desert climate next to snow-capped mountains, an illiterate man who has never left the country can speak multiple languages. It is this juxtaposition of opposites that makes Morocco so culturally rich and expansive. There is no one singular Moroccan experience.

With that being said, I'd like to share a particularly unique experience that happened to us on the train to Marrakech. The train ride between Rabat and Marrakech takes about 4 and a half hours. The first time I took a weekend trip there my friends and I bought 2nd class tickets, without knowing that in second class there is no limit to how many tickets could be sold. Long story short? We ended up standing body-to-body in a sweaty train car for half of the ride before we could find a seat. Ever since then I have learned my lesson. For long train rides I always pay a little more and buy a first class ticket. First class is the only section of trains in Morocco where your ticket corresponds to a specific seat and car number. Especially since we were traveling with guests, we thought that our choice would give us peace of mind. We took an early morning train and within minutes of departing the Rabat Ville station we all began to nod off.

I didn't notice that a few stops into our trip a young woman (about my age, in her 20's) got into our car and sat in the empty seat next to me. About twenty minutes later, my boyfriend nudged my arm to wake me up when he noticed the girl next to me writhe about and then fall to the floor, totally sprawled out between the two rows of chairs facing one another. My first thought was perhaps she was having a seizure, but I quickly realized that this couldn't be the case. Her eyes seemed glazed over and she was moaning loudly and uncontrollably as she tried to rip her shirt off. She seemed really upset and started dry heaving. The only thing we could do was try to wake her up, but nothing seemed to work. Within seconds, she began having what is best described as a severe tantrum. She flailed her legs and arms in all directions with great force while still moaning loudly. So loud, in fact, that by this point we had acquired a bit of an audience outside our car looking on in awe. The next thing I knew she began slurring a single phrase in Arabic over and over. It was difficult to understand exactly what she was saying, but from what I could gather, it was something to the tune of, "he has everything, I am alone." Later, she began reciting what seemed like Quranic verses, "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great), "La ila illa allah wa Muhammad rassoul allah" (There is no God but God and Mohamed is His prophet), and another verse about "Shaytan" (Satan).

An older woman from a neighboring car came in to help us try and restrain her. Without missing a beat, she immediately called her daughter to bring her a bottle of water and her perfume. When I saw how relatively calm she was by this seeming medical anomaly happening before us, I began to piece together my knowledge of Moroccan folkloric culture. I started to wonder if this was what Moroccans call a djinn (spirit) possession. The woman began to spritz the girl's face with water and then sprayed perfume around her face, presumably in attempt to make her come to her senses. Nothing seemed to work. She didn't flinch at the water. She continued to moan and wail the same phrases over and over again. Shortly after, the people in the car took her iphone and started playing a Surah from the Quran off of her iphone's iTunes library and tried to hold it up to her ear. I was pinned to my seat, trying to sort out my own feelings about the event happening in front of my eyes. Should I be scared? Uncomfortable? Intrigued? Excited? All I knew was I wanted to stay calm, alert, and absorb as much of the scene as possible. Within minutes, the conductor of the train came in and started to help move the girl off the floor and lay her down on a row of chairs, helping another man in the car pin down her limbs as she tried to kick them off.

I don't know how much time passed as we sat there watching the scene unfold. After they got her off the floor, she began speaking French and English, but repeating the same lines she had been saying in Arabic. She then started screaming, "Ana Mohamed!" (I am Mohamed!) "Ana min Filastine" (I am from Palestine). A few minutes later she made eye contact with my boyfriend and started to have a conversation with him in English. She was telling him how lucky he was that he doesn't live in Morocco, to which he replied, "But I do. I live in Rabat." Without missing a beat, she said, "You're welcome in my country." She continued, "Do you know who I am? I am Mohamed. I come from Palestine. Do you know Palestine? I am beautiful and therefore no one loves me. I am all alone." It was shortly after this episode that the train conductor suggested that we leave the cabin and he helped us find new seats as the girl slumped back into her hysterical trance-like state.

As our train ride was coming to an end, the same girl, now conscious, found us in our new seats. Accompanied by the train conductor, she sincerely apologized to us for her actions. She appeared incredibly embarrassed and upset. We left it at that.

So, what happened exactly?

Following my gut instinct, I decided to look more into Djinn spirits and their role in Moroccan folk tradition. Djinns are spirits who live in a parallel universe to human kind's. The word "djinn" in Arabic comes from the verb meaning to conceal or to hide, since they are invisible to the human eye. In the Quran it states:

 "Indeed We created man from dried clay of black smooth mud. And We created the Jinn before that from the smokeless flame of fire" 
                                                                (Surah Al-Hijr 15:26-27)

In the Muslim tradition djinoun (plural of djinn) are believed to have the ability to inhabit minds or bodies. If a person does become possessed by a djinn, the name of Allah must be used to expel the spirit from its host. When I looked at a website that detailed the symptoms of djinn possession it became even more peculiar. The girl's behavior matched so many of the characteristics listed - seizure-like movements, talking to oneself, quick to get angry or weep with no apparent cause, erratic behavior and movements, moaning, and groaning. I also spoke to a few Moroccan friends who immediately recognized the behavior I was describing and said that it was most likely an episode of possession.

While I am skeptical of attributing this particular case to spiritual or religious affliction, it was chilling to me just how accurate the descriptions of djinn possession that I read were to what I saw happen before my eyes. Thinking back to Morocco and its paradoxical culture, I couldn't help but be amused by the circumstances: a young girl seems to fall ill by a spiritual possession in the first class car of a train to Marrakech. In her feverish state, she recites ancient scripture in multiple languages. Fellow passengers attempt to calm her down by playing Quranic verses...from her iphone. 

What else could have happened?

I spoke with two Moroccan women who work at the study abroad organization where I work - one is a Darija (Colloquial Moroccan Arabic) professor from Fez and the other is our cleaning lady. When I described the scene to them they first thought it was what they called a Suraa/Sur3,  or a hysterical episode. However, when I told them about her Quranic recitations of "Allahu Akbar" and "La ila illa Allah wa Muhammad rassoul Allah"  they immediately looked at each other with a look of understanding. They explained to me that in their opinion it was most likely the response to a khbar al-mout or death announcement that she received via telephone. 

In reality, who really knows what happened? It definitely is interesting to specultate. This experience has shown me another way in which Morocco walks the line that divides tradition and modernity. In the 21st century many families still hold onto ancient rituals and folklore surrounding spirits, life, and death. For instance, it is common knowledge to  Moroccans that if you whistle inside you are inviting djinn into the home. It is also not a good idea to pour hot water down the drain because that is where the djnoun live and it will upset them. If it truly was a death announcement, why is it that her reaction was so much different than what I would have if I was in her position? Is it a personal difference, or perhaps a greater difference in our cultural upbringing? 

What I witnessed on the train ride presented me with a new challenge: at what point does it no longer make sense to assess an experience through the lens of local culture? Should I take the word of my friends and colleagues who have lived here their whole lives, or should I refer back to my own sociocultural upbringing and attribute what I observed to a fit of extreme psychological hysteria induced by stress or traumatic news? I suppose this is part of the fun in obtaining cross-cultural understanding.