Possessed by Love:
Gender and Romance in Morocco

Douglas A. Davis and Susan Schaefer Davis1

We in the West hear little about romantic love in other parts of the world, and this has led many people to believe it does not exist in non-Western cultures, or that it is a recent innovation, following on the heels of the global spread of Western media. In what follows, we will explore this question from the viewpoint of Arab Muslim culture in general, and Morocco during the last decade in particular. We begin with the Arab poetic tradition that influenced European notions of courtly love, and then examine the ideas of current Muslim authors on the position and influence of Islam on love, sexuality, and couple relationships. Finally, we look for evidence of these ideas in current experiences of love for Moroccan young people, living at a time when marriages arranged solely by parents are being replaced by those desired by the couple and approved by parents. In these matches, and the relationships preceding them, young men are more likely to feel love so strongly as to be "possessed," while young women always have a practical eye open, even when strongly drawn to a suitor.

Western views of love and romance

Most Americans today plan to "fall in love" and to choose a spouse on this basis. In Morocco, and in most of the world's cultural history, this has not been the primary basis for marriage; instead, marriage was an alliance between families, and the couple involved were meant to get along but did not need to be "in love." Yet the idea of love existed, and is becoming more important for young people in many parts of the world. Just what is "being in love," and is it similar in different cultures?

Although the topic of romantic love has been neglected by social scientists until recently, there are several important general discussions of this topic. In a 1992 book, Helen Fisher uses a natural history approach to analyze the occurrence of love (as well as monogamy, adultery and divorce) in various cultures. Fisher describes being in love or infatuation as being "Awash in ecstasy or apprehension ... obsessed, longing for the next encounter ... etherized by bliss" (1992, p. 37). She goes on to argue that "above all, there was the feeling of helplessness, the sense that this passion was irrational, involuntary, unplanned, uncontrollable" (1992, p. 40). Obstacles to the relationship seem to make the passion more intense. Finally, she concludes that this feeling must be universal among humans. She is supported in this by the research of two anthropologists, William Jankowiak (the editor of this book) and his colleague Edward Fischer (1992). They looked at data from 168 cultures worldwide, and found that 87 percent of them showed evidence that romantic love existed.

Tennov (1979) cites some evidence on the European attitude toward limerence or romantic love in the Middle Ages which resonates with the attitudes expressed in Islam and the Islamic culture of Morocco. She cites a thirteenth century handbook for witch hunters, the Malleus Maleficarum (Witches’ Hammer) by Kramer and Sprenger, prepared at the request of a Pope. The authors claim that "all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable (Kramer & Sprenger, 1971, p. 122). As we will see below, some Muslim scholars feel that Islam mandates separation of the sexes based on a similar fear of women's seductive capacity. Thus being in love with a woman was said to be the cause of all evil, and the beloved woman controlled a man's actions by bewitching him (Tennov, 1979, p. 236). The Art of Courtly Love, a tenth/eleventh century work by Andreas Capellanus, also sees men who are in love as enslaved by women, and while the author excuses the men, he blames and condemns the women. His statement on women and love is echoed by one of the young Moroccan men we will quote below:

The mutual love which you seek in women you cannot find, for no woman ever loved a man or could bind herself to a lover in the mutual bonds of love. For a woman's desire is to get rich through love, but not to give her lover the solaces that please him.... (19_, p. 200).

Tennov notes that these attitudes supported a change from matrilineal to patrilineal descent with an accompanying control by males. She asserts males blamed females for a limerence or infatuation that tied them to women, concluding that "limerence may have been a persistent thorn in the movement to control women's reproductive capacities" (1979, p. 240). We suggest below that a similar ambivalence about women’s role in male romantic affections characterizes modern Moroccan society.

Love and lust in Arab Islam

The position of Islam on love and sexuality, at least in the western part of the Arab world, is convincingly summarized by a Tunisian author, Bouhdiba (1975/1985). Bouhdiba argues that Islam is pro-love and tolerant of sexuality when sanctioned by marriage:

Unity is attained by the affirmation of Eros. ... God himself is a being in love with his own creatures. From the thing to the Supreme Being, love exists as a guarantee of unity (Bouhdiba 1975/1985, p. 212).

Sexual pleasure in marriage is thought of as both a privilege and a duty. Congugal bliss is described as a foretaste of paradise and a proof of God’s love. On the other hand, Islamic accounts of love and sexuality often conclude that this divine model is seldom attained by human beings, and Bouhdiba suggests that "one must probably be a prophet oneself ... if one is to grasp, conceive of and above all achieve this essential unity" (ibid.). The rhetoric of love and erotic passion sanctioned by the religion has often led, according to Bouhdiba, to the unleashing of excessive libidinal force, and to the subjugation of women as the objects of male lust:

By confining woman to pleasure, one turns her into a plaything, a doll. By doing so one limits love to the ludic and one reduces the wife to the rank of woman-object, whose sole function is the satisfaction of her husband's sexual pleasure. Marital affection is reduced to mere pleasure, whereas in principle pleasure is only one element of it among others. But by stressing the child-bearing role of women, one valorizes the mother (Bouhdiba 1975/1985, p. 214).

Bouhdiba contends that the privileged yet closely circumscribed role of the mother in the Arab Muslim household, as well as the sharply gendered roles prescribed for adults, have created a cult of the mother that is the central dynamic in Muslim child-rearing and a cause of modal personality styles in "Arabo-Muslim" societies (ibid.). The corollaries of this basic personality structure include: unequal responsibility for control of one's passions, with the male allowed freer rein even as the female is blamed in instances of fornication; a mother-child bond that is the strongest tie in the society; and sharply contradictory expectations by the males reared in such households of women as both idealized nurturers and sex-objects. The mother-centered Arab household confronts the male child with a world of women he must eventually renounce, and many of the connotations of this early immersion in a society of mother, aunts, and sisters have erotic implications. The boy is taken to the hammam (public steam bath) by his mother, and Bouhdiba asserts that this and other experiences of physical intimacy with women leave a legacy of charged images that are evoked in the context of adult sexual activity, so that "the Arab woman is the queen of the unconscious even more than she is queen of the home or of night" (Bouhdiba 1975/1985, pp. 220-221). It is this primal, ambivalent, femaleness, we believe, that the adult male faces in the jinniya, `Aisha Qandisha, who possesses men and makes them her sexual slaves. Behind the idealized image of the pious and pure mother/sister is an antithetical fantasy of a fallen woman--lustful, seductive, and dangerous:

Arab man is still obsessed by the anti-wife whom he seeks in every possible form: dancer, film star, singer, prostitute, passing tourist, neighbour, etc. The dissociation of the ludic and the serious examined above still continues, then, and acts as a stumbling block to the sexual emancipation not only of women but also of men (Bouhdiba 1975/1985, p. 243).

The contemporary societies of North Africa, in Bouhdiba's view, are experiencing a sexual and religious crisis, as women seek to move beyond the traditional roles assigned them, and men resist this change:

Today Arab woman is striving to renounce the illusory kingdom of the mothers and is aspiring to an affirmative, positive rule, rather than a mythopoeic one. ... She is determined to affirm her ability to give. ... I give love, therefore I am. ... And yet there is a curious ambiguity inherent in the concept of female emancipation, as if the partners could be dissociated from the question, as if one could emancipate oneself alone! As if Arab man were not alienated by his own masculinity! (Bouhdiba 1975/1985, p. 239)

The Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi has written several important works on gender differences in contemporary Moroccan society and the relation of these to Muslim history and modern political and economic conditions. In an argument similar to Bouhdiba's, she argues that gender politics are rooted in Islam and deeply revealing of the political issues facing North African society today:

The conservative wave against women in the Muslim world, far from being a regressive trend, is on the contrary a defense mechanism against profound changes in both sex roles and the touchy subject of sexual identity. The most accurate interpretation of this relapse into "archaic behaviors," such as conservatism on the part of men and resort to magic and superstitious rituals on the part of women, is as anxiety-reducing mechanisms in a world of shifting, volatile sexual identity (Mernissi, 1975/1987, pp. xxvii-xxviii).

Mernissi argues that, in contrast to Muslim praise of legitimate sexual pleasure, conjugal intimacy threatens the believer's single-minded devotion to God, and hence the loving couple is dangerous to religious society. While Bouhdiba asserted that the true basis of Islam is a unity through love (whether attainable or not), Mernissi concludes that "the entire Muslim social structure can be seen as an attack on, and a defence against, the disruptive power of female sexuality" (1975/1987, p. 44). Mernissi develops this argument from the concept of fitna or "chaos" (lit., temptation, enchantment), frequently applied to fornication, which she contends is embodied in women's erotic potential, so that society maintains its equilibrium only by controlling women's behavior. From the time of the Prophet on, Mernissi argues, males have felt the need to veil and seclude women and to surround sexual activity with rule in order to keep men safe from the seductive potential of women. The emphasis on female sexuality as the force that drives erotic relations for both partners in heterosexual encounters accords well with our reading of the role of magic and possession in love affairs. The male is anxious about his powerful longings for physical intimacy and the loss of autonomy it implies, and he projects desire onto the female, casting her as the agent of unrestrainable lust.

The Arab poetics of love: Layla and Majnun

In an influential work on the origins of Western European romantic discourse, Rougement argued that the seminal tradition of courtly lyrical poetry in 12th century France owed its origins to the confluence of Persian Manicheanism and Middle Eastern Sufi rhetoric transmitted by Muslim Spain (Rougement, 1954, pp. 102-107). These Eastern sources of romantic imagery and practice drew on Arabian models in the qasidas (odes) of Imru' al-Qays and other oral poets of the late pre-Islamic period (Sells, 1989), and this native Arab romanticism is a well-spring of passionate language for modern society, with sources at least as deep as those of Western Europe. A thousand years before Romeo was moved by the radiance from Juliet’s window, the oral poets of Arabia rhapsodized about the qualities of the remembered belovéd.

The most persistent and evocative of the early Arabic romantic stories has probably been that of the star-crossed lovers, Layla and Qays/Majnun, whose unconsummated passion has inspired both the scholarly and the popular imagination of the Arab world for many centuries. The legend of Layla and Majnun probably has pre-Islamic roots. The earliest recorded version is that of Ibn Qutayba (d. 889), and a variety of anecdotes attributed to the love-crazed poet were recorded in the ninth and tenth centuries A.D. (Khairallah, 1980, p. 49). The early sources attribute to Majnun a variety of poetic fragments also credited to other poets, including all those that mention a female beloved named Layla (from the Arabic l-y-l, night) (Khairallah, 1980, p. 53). Arab and Western scholars are divided on whether there was an actual Qays bin al-Mulawwah, of the Beni 'Amir tribe, who lived in the seventh Christian (first Muslim) century. In any case, the verses attributed to him passed from the oral tradition to a more or less stabile text when they were compiled a century later (Khairallah, 1980, pp. 60-61). By 1245 A.D. a written corpus of Qays/Majnun's poetry existed, and this and other versions are widely read today. In later centuries the story of Majnun and Layla was adopted and expanded by the Persian sufi poets Jami and Nizami; and it has retained a fond place in the popular imagination of both Arab and non-Arab Muslims. The modern Egyptian poet Ahmad Shawqi (d. 1932) wrote a a verse tragedy "Majnun and Layla," and an immensely popular version in song was created by the Egyptian composer/singer Abdel Wahab, and this is still widely played and sung on Arabic radio stations.

The story itself, as recounted by Ibn Qutayba, has two children, Qays and Layla, of neighboring clans, growing up together in the proud herding culture of Arabia. The two meet as children and, each being perfect in beauty and grace, fall immediately in love:

I fell in love with Layla when she was a heedless child,
when no sign of her bosom has yet appeared to playmates.
Two children guarding the flocks. Would that we never
had grown up, nor had the flocks grown old!
(Khairallah, 1980, p. 136)

Qays begins to compose poetry to Layla, but she is unwilling to respond in public to his praise of her beauty, and her family is shamed by this broadcasting of love. Qays becomes as one possessed by jnun, the usually invisible beings who share the earth with humans, and he is thereafter known as "Majnun," possessed. He tears off his clothes and lives alone in the desert with his poetry, and he will converse only with those who ask him of Layla. All attempts to mediate between the two families and arrange a marriage fail, and Qays/Majnun spends his life as a wandering mendicant, communing not with the real, but with the imagined Layla:

You kept me close until you put a spell on me
and with words that bring the mountain-goats down to the plains.
When I had no way out, you shunned me,
But you left what you left within my breast.
(Khairallah, 1980, p. 136)

Majnun's poetry is itself the source of his estrangement from Layla, in the sense that her parents object to the notoriety it brings them through her--and Layla herself is described as complaining of Majnun's poetical divulgence of the secret of their love (Khairallah, 1980, p. 65). Khairallah argues that in the Arabic tradition from which the Majnun corpus springs, "love and madness are pretexts for poetry" (1980, p. 66). Majnun's love-torment may therefore be seen as drawing on his poetic gift, since a talent for poetry is associated with a tendency to powerful cathartic emotion, and with possession by a creative daemon. Madness is also a metaphor for passion, however, and it may be “feigned in order to claim inspiration and total bewitchment by the muse of love and poetry” (ibid.). Not only is the actual Layla of the legend portrayed as the natural stimulus for Majnun's passion, but her name is used in incantatory verses reminiscent of Sufi dikr, in which chanted repetitions of evocative syllables induced a meditative trance analogous to that of the Prophet Mohammed when he received each part of the Quran. The powerful need to divulge the message received in poetic form through such cathartic experience has remained a feature of popular practice in many parts of the Arab world, and a recourse to poetry for expression of the strongest and most personal feelings is characteristic of many traditional Arab men and women (cf. Abu-Lughod).

The love of Majnun for Layla is fated, inexorable, transforming, and undying, and it is compared to a magical spell under which he labors and by which he is inspired:

She's Magic; yet for magic one finds a talisman,
and I can never find someone to break her spell.
(Khairallah, 1980, p. 74)

Majnun’s passion for Layla has been represented in each era of Arab and Persian writing. For the 13th century philosopher Ibn 'Arabi, as for other Sufi writers, Majnun's love is represented as ultimately transcending the real, physical Layla to attain a mystical union with her idealized form (Khairallah, 1980, p. 78). From the earliest of the verses ascribed to him, Khairallah argues, it is "difficult to draw a demarcation line in Majnun's poetry between the erotic and the mystical, or between the profane and the sacred" (ibid, p. 81.). For a thousand years this tragic love story has inspired Arabic-speakers, and millions can quote a stanza or two of Majnun's poetry, such as his reaction to finding himself one night at the camp of Layla's people:

I pass by the house, the dwelling of Layla
and I kiss this wall and that wall.
It's not love of the dwelling that empassions my heart
but of she who dwells in the dwelling.

The examples we present below of love and romantic longing come from a society geographically and temporally distant from the Arabia of Qays and Layla, but one in which romantic love is still extolled, and men are still possessed and obsessed as a consequence of passion.

Zawiya, the community in which we have heard most of the examples of passion and obsessive love that follow, is an Arabic-speaking town of roughly 12000 in the Rharb, an agricultural region of northern Morocco. We have been interested in Zawiya for over 25 years, and one or both of us has visited every year or two. In 1982 we spent a year in Zawiya as part of the Harvard Adolescence Project, conducting fieldwork on adolescence (cf. Davis & Davis, 1989). We observed family dynamics and child-rearing practices and interviewed over 100 young residents of Zawiya about a variety of topics, including love, marriage, and sexuality. In 1984, susan returned and recorded open-ended interviews with twenty adolesents, and in 1989-90 she recorded young adults in Zawiya and in Rabat (the Moroccan capital) their beliefs and experiences concerning love and marriage.

The Demon Lover: `Aisha Qandisha

One sort of love-possession seen in Morocco is of a less poetic sort than experienced by Majnun, but its sufferers are described with the same epithet--"majnun," possessed by jnun. Experience of the jnun, invisible beings with whom humans share the earth, is pervasive in Morocco. Crapanzano, whose work on the ethnopsychiatry of possession in Morocco is the best in English, has presented several examples of possession by the most distinctive of these beings, the jinniya (singular female of jnun) `Aisha Qandisha (Crapanzano 1973, 1975, 1977). Capable of appearing in visible human form, she is the most commonly named of the jnun, who are most often referred to generically. Males are the usual victims of Lalla (Lady) `Aisha, as she will often be called to avoid the risk of explicitly naming her. She dwells near wells and water-courses and may appear either as a seductive and attractive woman or as a hideous hag. If the victim does not notice her cow or goat feet and plunge an iron knife into the ground, he will be struck (mdrub) and inhabited by her (mskun). He is then likely to become impotent or to lose interest in human women, and he may suffer a variety of physical or psychological effects unless and until his possession is brought under control by the intervention of one of the popular Moroccan curing groups. Although there are many of these in all parts of Morocco, the Hamadsha (cf. Crapanzano, 1973) are the group particularly concerned with possession by `Aisha Qandisha. Members of the Hamadsha are found in most neighborhoods of northern Morocco. They are likely to have themselves been possessed by `Aisha Qandisha or other jnun before joining the group, and they have learned to alleviate the effects of possession by means of distinctive trance-inducing musical performances and sacrificial rituals. Several of the accounts we have heard in Zawiya of males overwhelmed by sexual or romantic problems were attributed to possession by `Aisha Qandisha or other of the jnun, and several of these have been successfully treated by Hamadsha performances.

In a detailed account of Hamadsha history and practice recounted for Douglas in 1982, a Hamadsha member from Zawiya attributed the central role of `Aisha Qandisha in Hamadsha belief and curing to the fact that the jinniya had fallen in love with one of the patron saints of the Hamadsha, Sidi (saint) `Ahmed Dhughi, several hundred years ago. Sidi Ahmed was inspired to play the flute and drum of the Hamadsha, and women heard him and fell instantly in love. The attitude of the Hamadsha toward Qandisha is ambivalent. On the one hand she is seen as the source of the suffering they and their clients experience and which draws them to the Hamadsha music and trance. Yet many of the terms used to refer to her connote respect or deference, and this does not in every case seem to be a mere attempt to evade her wrath. And just as the jnun number among themselves Muslims and unbelievers, those influenced by `Aisha Qandisha and other jnun may be seen as good and pious people, spoken of as struck by "clean" `Aisha, or as derelict, violent persons transgressing against Islam, and hence stuck by "dirty" `Aisha (cf. Davis, unpublished).

Crapanzano notes that the language of possession offers the sufferer a collective symbolism for experiences of problems of sexuality, marriage, or family responsibility. Males who are unable to carry out expected roles of suitor, husband, or family provider may undergo an experience of possession by `Aisha Qandisha, whose emotional demands and jealous interference with relations with human women externalize the apparent psychological conflict. Both Crapanzano's published accounts of possession by `Aisha Qandisha and those we have heard frequently involve possession after a failed love affair, an estrangement from a spouse, or the death of a family member.

Tajj: An example of love-obsession

Milder forms of suffering caused by failed or unrequited love are often attributed not to the jnun explicitly but to magical influence, as in a case recounted to Douglas in 1982. The young man described, N., was a friend of our friend and research assistant, Hamid Elasri. The first meeting with him occurred on one of the long night-time walks around Kabar, a small city near Zawiya, during the Ramadan fast--a time when many people stay awake much of the night after breaking the day-long fast with a heavy meal, and walk about town visiting with friends. N. called out to Hamid, and they had a brief conversation on a street-corner, agreeing to meet to talk later in the evening. Hamid gave the following account of N.'s troubles:

N., who was about 24 years old in 1982, had been engaged khotbato a girl for several years. They were both elementary teachers in a nearby large city. He wanted to break the engagement, but he was both worried about the dowry money he would have to repay and afraid of the magic [suhur] he believed her family had put on him. He believed they put something in his food which caused him to be obsessed [tajj] with the girl. He also became impotent, and he found himself giving a lot of money to her family. What money he had left he was increasingly spending for wine to try to forget her. The girl's family were apparently pressing him to turn over his entire salary to them. He told his father about this, who took him to a fqi--a man with Quranic and practical religious training. The latter examined his hand [muhalla] and wrote something there as a means of telling the subject's current situation and future, said N. had indeed been the victim of magic, and performed some counterspells.

Like other accounts of which we heard concerning infatuation, there is an assumption here that the feelings of love are overwhelming and pathological, and that they imply supernatural influence. Blame for the male's inability to deal with his love reasonably, or to put it aside, is laid on the female beloved (and her family). N.'s father intervenes on his behalf, calling on the white magical powers of a fqi to counter the black magic of the girl's family. A few days later, Hamid and Douglas met N. in another town, and he said he was enroute to visit relatives. Hamid assumed, however, that N. was in fact going to visit a nearby beach resort, where we had just seen the brother of his fiancée, but that he had been ashamed to admit this evidence of how obsessed he still was. The following week, near the end of Ramadan Douglas had occasion to talk with N., whom we met on another night-time walk. He asked about Douglas's interest in Moroccan psychology, and pointedly asked what he thought about the problems that arise when a man and woman in the same line of work marry, as is the case with him and his fiancée as newly trained primary teachers. N.’s problem had not resolved itself when we left Morocco at the end of the year.

N.'s inability to reconcile himself to marriage to his fiancée, despite his obsession with her, is a more extreme form of a male love-dilemma of which Douglas heard repeatedly. The male finds a young woman toward whom he is powerfully drawn sexually and emotionally, but either there are powerful obstacles--often in the form of family opposition or limited economic resources--in the way of a marriage. Gradually the man grows suspicious or hostile toward the woman, and he begins to expect or experience physical and emotional symptoms he attributes to magical influence. Moroccan popular culture is permeated with the concepts of magical influence and poisoning, although suspected instances are treated with circumspection by the concerned parties out of fear of the uncanny.

Romance, love, and marriage in Morocco

Many changes are occurring in Morocco today. While the population was mainly rural in the 1960s, it is now about equally rural and urban. Public education barely existed before Morocco became independent from France in 1956, while today all children should attend at least primary school. Although this goal is still being pursued in remote rural areas, in cities nearly all children attend. Many young people attend high school, while few parents did; in the mixed classes, young people have a chance to meet. Marriages in earlier generations were mainly alliances arranged between families, to which the young people were supposed to agree. Today many of the young, especially males, select a potential mate and request their parents' approval. Girls too may have someone in mind, but it is not culturally acceptable for them to make such suggestions.

These trends were apparent in the semi-rural town of Zawiya, where we carried out research on adolescence in 1982 (Davis and Davis 1989). When we asked 100 adolescents who should select a marriage partner, 64% of the girls and 55% of the boys said the parents should choose. Older youth, and those with more years of education, were more likely to want to make the choice themselves. Among a smaller number of their older siblings, about half chose their own spouse, but only one fourth of the adolescents said they wanted to do so (1989:126).

When we pressed him for estimates about the frequency of pure love marriages, Hamid suggested that 5% in his experience marry for love, 30% through family arrangement, and another 20-30% when forced by legal or family pressure after the girl became pregnant.

This conversation grew out of Hamid's recounting of the story of A., a Zawiya friend whom he and Douglas were planning to visit at a beach resort where he was vacationing away from his estranged wife. He had married a beautiful local young woman who had been previously married off by her family to an older Moroccan man in France. The first husband divorced her a year later, when she hadn't produced a child. She became pregnant by A., and her family pressured his family to arrange a wedding. After the marriage, A.'s mother increasingly put down the bride, and she would become angry, catching A. in the middle. A. was in the process of divorcing the wife, because he couldn't fight his mother. He still loved the wife, who bore his child after they separated.

Hamid and Douglas found A. at the beach resort, and spent an evening with him listening to Arabic and Western music and talking about life and love. A. was intensely preoccupied with his wife, and he had spent much of his vacation week at the resort listening to romantic music and dreaming about her. He was fond of Elvis Presley's song, "Buttercup," with its vivid imagery of the palpitations of passion:

When I'm near the girl that I love the best
My heart beats so it scares me to death.
I'm proud to say that she's my buttercup
I'm in love, I'm all shook up.

The Arabic song to which A. was especially devoted at this time was a poignant piece by the popular female singer Fathet Warda. It's refrain, a drawn-out "You have no thought [of me],"ma'andikshshifikara, seemed to A. to capture the feeling his wife must be having for him, and made him realize how he longed for her. A few months later, A. and his wife were reconciled.

Zawiya attitudes toward marriage

To better understand young people's feelings on who should choose a spouse, we devised a marriage dilemma that we discussed late in 1982 with twelve young women and three young men who were especially comfortable talking to us. We said there was a couple who loved each other and wanted to get married, but the parents were opposed. We had to stress that they were really in love, because there is an expectation that a young man may declare his love just to convince a girl to spend time with him; this is a semi-rural setting where dating is disapproved. When we asked what the couple should do, eight people said they should follow the parents’ wishes, and six that they should pursue what the couple wants, but in a way to reach a compromise and make it socially acceptable, including entreating relatives to convince the parents. Only one young man, aged 18 and in high school, said that the couple's wishes were clearly more important than those of the parents.

If that boy gets married to the girl he likes, they will certainly live happily. Because money is not happiness; happiness is something the heart feels. The boy must have the feeling that the girl likes him. This is why I say that if the boy is hooked on a girl and he truly loves her, he should go and propose to marry her no matter what she's like. It is not the father who should choose for the son a girl he doesn't like. It is the son who should decide what he likes. ... It is not the father who is getting married.

A more typical response was that of a young woman of nineteen who had attended primary school.

She should follow her parents' decision. Parents come first. ... If she goes against their wishes it will be her own reponsibility. She'd be ungrateful [literally, cursed by them], very much so. If she marries him against their will, she'll face a catastrophe, an accident or something--or even death, some kind of death. They may have an accident or something--she shouldn't. Her parents told her not to marry him: she shouldn't marry him, period. ... Since she has grown up, [her parents] have taken good care of her: they clothe her, give her money, provide for her needs. Whatever she asks for they provide, and then at the end they give an opinion and she rejects it. This is not possible; it is not admissible that she doesn't accept that advice.

Like many others, she notes the respect due to parents, and fears negative consequences of disobedience. Others said more specifically that if they married against parental wishes, they would have no support in marital disputes, and nowhere to return to in case of divorce.

This young woman's response reflects both a social conformity and a practicality in matters of the heart that we found in most young women, single and married, semi-rural and urban. We have noted elsewhere that young women in Morocco develop a sense of socially responsible behavior (`aql) sooner than their male counterparts (Davis and Davis, 1989, p. 49), and this is reflected in their attitudes toward romance. While Douglas heard several tales of young men's infatuations and longing, Susan heard very little to suggest that young women had similar experiences. They did have romantic encounters, and did care for the young men, but not as totally and intensely as the young men--or it was not apparent in the way they spoke. Furthermore, they nearly always had a practical eye open to the consequences of their relationships, which could be social censure, but that they hoped would be marriage.

Young women's personal experiences of love

When girls discussed magical influences on them related to love, they usually mentioned a spell cast to keep them from marrying, not something done by a male who wanted to possess them. Only a few young women talked about love in a way that approached the kind of intensity described in early and current Arabic songs and poetry, and which Douglas encountered in young men. One case was that of Amina, a Zawiya woman in her twenties with a primary education.

A girl has to go through a period of intense attachment (rabta). The girl feels a great love for a boy. They start talking, kidding around. She starts learning new things [from him]. They exchange thoughts. The girl starts to become aware of things [lit. awakens].

Amina notes that it is all right for couples to have such interactions now, though discreetly, and how things have changed.

In the past it wasn't right. It was shameful for a boy to talk to a girl. A boy would have one week to ask for a girl's hand and marry her ten or fifteen days later. He only gets a good look at her when she moves into his house.

Amina describes her own experience of romance:

A boy will tell you "I trust you. I care for you...If I don't see you for just half a day I go crazy; it seems to me I haven't seen you for a year." And at that time the boy does have feelings. He cares for you. Truly. Powerfully. But he doesn't have any money [to marry], and you just keep sacrificing yourself for him, talking to him, laughing with him. And you lose your value [reputation]--and your family's. Okay, people see you together, but you say, "They don't matter to me. Because even if I'm standing with him, he'll marry me, God willing."

And finally, he doesn't marry you - how do you feel? It feels like a calamity, like a "psychological complex." You feel angry at home, and you're always upset, because you don't trust anyone, even your parents. You sacrificed yourself for that boy, talking to him even in public.... (Davis and Davis 1989, p. 123).

Notice that Amina repeats the boy's intense statements, but not her own. She clearly felt strongly about him, both risking her reputation to be seen with him in public, and evidenced by her condition after they broke off. But is the core of her concern lost love or a lost opportunity for marriage? Which was it that motivated her to take the risks of which she was clearly aware?

Another young woman reports romantic experiences close to what Douglas heard from young men, but still with somewhat less intensity, and, certainly, an awareness of the consequences of her actions. When we spoke Jamila was married and in her twenties. She had grown up in a small town but now lived with her husband in the city where she had attended the university.

Jamila describes a typical way of couples getting together, something she first experienced around fifteen:

There were guys who followed me, but I did not feel anything towards them. Nothing; I had no reaction to them. They were classmates, but I never thought of having a relationship with any of them. And when anyone wrote me a letter telling me about his feelings toward me, I thought it was humiliating; I thought he just wanted to make fun of me and take advantage of me. I got mad at him and wouldn't talk to him anymore.

At sixteen, one young man who had been just a friend became something more. She found herself

wishing to be near Karim. I used to hope to meet him all the time, and I started desiring kissing and hugging him. That was because when I was near him, I used to feel very relaxed; I felt a great pleasure at being near him. Also, when I was going out with him, I tried everything possible to meet him. When he told me to meet him at night, I would go out at night, even when it was dark...I used to tell [my mother] that I was going to study with Naima...

Yes, he taught me a bit of courage. When we were together, he told me about a movie he had seen or a book he had read. Sometimes he kissed me, but when he wanted to sleep with me, I couldn't accept. I wouldn't let him. I never had sex with Karim...I used to tell myself "If I sleep with him, I will stop liking him." That was my idea; I don't know why. ... I used to have worries. I knew there was the possibility of getting pregnant. The other possibility was that he would lose control and then I would lose my virginity.

While she gives practical reasons for avoiding sex, Jamila also describes the ideal of platonic love a bit later.

Emotions are strong in youth. I think that if I had slept with Karim, I wouldn't have remained so attached to him. ... That's called platonic love. In platonic love, however, there are no kisses, no sexual relations, nothing. One loves a girl and they know they love each other, but they don't meet. Our love was in a way ideal. If we had slept together, we probably wouldn't have stayed--I personally still feel attached to him and still think about him. I don't know about his feelings.

The relationship finally ended after about four years. Yet even in its midst, Jamila was not entirely carried away.

I also used to tell myself that because of the problems with Karim and his family, I was certainly not going to remain with him a long time. Despite my love for him, our relationship was doomed to stop. I was always afraid of the future. ... There was no hope.

Partly because of this, and for other practical reasons, in spite of her love she refuses Karim's offer to take things into their own hands and elope.

Once he suggested I run away with him. ... I said no. I didn't want to do that. I told myself that even if I had run away with him, I would have had to go home sometime, and they would have refused to take me. I was worried that it would hurt my father and be embarrassing to him. My family gave me a certan freedom to go wherever I wanted to. They didn't ask me for anything as long as I passed my exams at the end of the year, They also used to buy me whatever I wanted. So in the end, I just couldn't leave. It didn't make sense. ... But any day I wanted to meet [Karim], I did.

Other young women described marrying their husbands because they loved them, but in a matter-of-fact rather than passionate way. Qasmiya is a small-town woman in her twenties, married for three years. She describes the process of her marriage to a husband she cares for. It provides a good example of the results many traditional young women (she has a primary education) hope for when they venture to interact with men in an environment where dating is not accepted.

I met him one day when I went out to the country...he was working. He said "Hey, girl," and I said "Yes." He said "Would you knit me a sweater?" and I replied "When you are ready, I'll knit for you." One day I was passing by, and he was on his way to visit his friend, our neighbor's son. ... He asked his friend, "Does this girl live here" and the other said yes. He asked, "Can I speak with you?" I answered, "If it is something serious, I will speak with you, but if you are going to take advantage of me and then abandon me...." I spoke with him over about fifteen days, and then he came: he brought his family and came to propose officially. He proposed quickly, I mean, we didn't wait long...When I spoke with him, I found what I wanted. I talked with my mother. I told her there is a guy who wants to come and propose to me. I told my mother because it is not proper to tell my father such a thing. I told my sister first. ... and she told my mother.... I said, "I don't speak with him, but they are coming to propose," and his sisters and family came and my parents agreed.... When I spoke with him, I knew that he is good. He has a white heart; he is not nasty. From his warmth, I knew that he is good. He buys me clothes, gets things [presents] for me. ... My husband takes good care of me; I mean, we assist each other. He loves me. ... I mean, I show my pride in him to my girlfriends and he shows his pride in me to his boyfriends.

Another young matron says she married her husband because she loved him, but her description is hardly rhapsodic; her concern with the practical is evident. She was in her twenties and had completed high school, and been married and living in a medium-sized town for about three years when we spoke. She had met her husband in his office.

At the beginning, I was not sure that he was a good man. I married him because I loved him, that's all. You cannot know if he's good. I used to speak with him on the phone. ... because in [a small town] I couldn't meet him--impossible. Someone could see us and tell my father or something or tell my family.... He is serious. Before marriage I wasn't sure about that. I couldn't know, because you have to live with someone; it's life that lets you know if a person is good. I found out that he is serious from what people say and from what I see. Since I don't work, I rely on him for many things.

An urban young woman near thirty said she had been through two "shocks" or crises before she married her current husband at twenty six. Although she didn't go into detail, the crises involved men she didn't marry. She met her husband through relatives, and married him after three months. She was currently working and taking university courses, and had two small children.

I had decided to marry him, and to convince my parents if it was necessary. ... I had experienced a shock in my life, and it affected me. I said "I might find a husband, or I might not;" I got sort of a complex.... [One] was frivolous: he used to date many girls and lie, and my husband was not like that. So I was attracted to him and said, "Anyway, he won't lie to me or take advantage of me."

Marriage for me must be founded on love; one cannot marry someone without love--impossible. Then one has children and they become everything to you; you have to raise them. That is marriage for me, hapiness. There are ups and downs, of course, but with love you can surpass them, you can make sacrifices.

Farida, an urban teacher and graduate student of thirty who is still single discussed her problems in finding the right man, and her family's reactions.

Everybody in my family is upset; my mother wasn't, but now she is. There is a problem: it's really unbelievable. ... I'm a little concerned, but not in the same way as my family. I'm concerned because I cannot find a perfect match. I've been meeting young men, but I haven't been satisfied....

At the beginning I say, "This is the man of my life," but when we talk and become more intimate I get another picture of him. I dislike every one for a different reason. I don't want to marry for marriage's sake, just to have children and a family. I want someone who shares my studies, my interests. I want something besides marriage and home, something that would link us more...I may be wrong, because everybody says that you can't find a perfect match....

They say in my family "You must marry a rich man, someone who has a car".... In my family they don't insist on his youth or good looks. No, what is important is that he has money.

Although Farida disapproves of marriages based on material concerns, she says the family has much influence with such demands. She describes a friend of hers who loved a young man and had a good relationship, but he was not rich. In the end the girl decided she wanted a more comfortable life, and did not marry him.

Susan encountered a similar view in a discussion with a Moroccan social scientist in his early thirties. She said that she thought marriage in Morocco was changing, and that while in the past it was an alliance between families based largely on economic considerations, today romantic love between the partners was more involved. He said no, it was almost the opposite. In the past, money wasn't that important, but today, if a young man didn't wear a suit and have a car, a young woman wouldn't consider him, even if she cared for him.


Thus the experience of romance in Morocco differs for males and females. Both sexes today hope to marry someone with whom they are compatible (mutafehemin; literally, they understand each other). But females rarely seem to experience the same intensity of romantic passion as males. This may be partly because they are less likely to report such feelings to anyone but their best friend, given the still-functioning ideal of female purity. However, their socialization to behave responsibly from an early age, the myraid warnings of sexual dangers, and the practical importance of forming a stable marriage all encourage young women not to rely only on their feelings. Young men as children are more likely to be given whatever they want, and expect similar indulgence in adulthood. The involvement of families in marriage decisions serves to temper some of their impulses, and the objects, the young women themselves are perhaps the best insurance against terrible mistakes.


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A Version of this paper has appeared in W. Jankowiak (Ed.) Romantic passion: A universal experience? New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 219-238.

Copyright (c) Douglas and Susan Davis, 1995. All rights reserved.