Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Forgive Me Friend: Mohammed and Ibrahim

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Forgive Me Friend: Mohammed and Ibrahim

Article excerpt


This essay examines my accidental conversion to Islam and its discomforting consequences for my fieldwork in Morocco. While my conversion and my subsequent efforts to grasp its significance represents an awkward extreme, I use the episode to challenge similar tropes of friendship and obligation, accident and rapport in the American reflexive ethnographic tradition, especially in Morocco-one of the tradition's classic fieldwork sites. Focusing on my friendship with Mohammed (a Moroccan) and his efforts to negotiate my ambivalence, I argue that what remains underexplored in this ethnographic tradition and its thinking on friendship is the act of forgiving. [Keywords: Reflexive Anthropology, Mistake, Friendship, Forgiveness, Islam, Morocco, Conversation]

In Morocco I tend-like many American anthropologists-to seek rapport with a smile. Fassi retailers refer to American tourists by the code word miska-chewing gum-all teeth and lips. (British tourists, by contrast, are ad-dam al-barid-cold blood.) Yet, a Moroccan acquaintance of mine characterized Americans as tragically sad friends. The US is so enormous, he said, and everyone so mobile, that "you Americans are always ready to drop a friend." He's right, in my experience. The friendly first steps of rapport are, if not the opposite of friendship, a firm defense against it. Defense against the long-term obligations and demands of friendship may be why so many American ethnographers have focused on these themes in Moroccan social life. Perhaps, this is also why my dearest friend, Mohammed, assures me in his inimitable English: "Ibrahim, I have no interest in you."

"Rapport" is, perhaps, anthropology's most cherished concept, the sine qua non of fieldwork. Without rapport one merely observes from afar; with it, one participates. "That mysterious necessity of anthropological field work" (Geertz 1973:416), rapport evokes not so much friendship as utility- an intentional spontaneity, suspended between levity and labor, sheer calculation and mere tolerance. Nevertheless, Clifford Geertz famously commented that he and Hildred Geertz established rapport in Bali only by mistake. The Geertzes were present and observing as armed police raided an illegal cockfight. Instead of "pull[ing] out our papers"-which is to say, instead of their acting properly-the Geertzes fled (1973:416). Before this they had been intent on establishing rapport, "wander[ing] around, uncertain, wistful, eager to please" (1973:412). Fleeing the police was, in contrast, spontaneous and unintended, and the hospitality it established entirely "accidental." And yet, Geertz notes, "it led to a sudden and unusually complete acceptance into a society extremely difficult for outsiders to penetrate" (1973:416).

In the later essay "From the Native's Point of View," Geertz debunked rapport as a "preternatural capacity to think, feel, and perceive like a native," and advocated instead a technical and "a bit less magical" emphasis on "experience-near" concepts of personhood (Geertz 1983:56, 58). Yet the Geertzes' Balinese ineptness suggests the converse: rapport freely emerges when the ethnographer fumbles, abandons technique; the magic of rapport is its emergence from accident. And precisely because it is "not a very generalizable recipe"-not a formal element of fieldwork-the mistake may lead to deeper ethnographic intimacy: their "accidental host," writes Geertz (1973:416), "became one of my best informants."

Experimental or reflexive ethnographies, especially those written on Morocco in the 1970s and 1980s, intentionally (at times, infamously) stretched the boundaries of rapport, drawing in part on Geertzian themes of accidental or unintended connections.1 Their motivations surely differed; reflexive authors emphasized fieldworker-informant relations as messy, muddling, and, at best, negotiated, chiefly to refute ethnographers' authoritatively transparent recording of society and culture. …

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