Clifford Geertz







In late February of 1986, a week or two before the massive joint celebration of the 25th anniversary of Hassan II's accession to the Moroccan throne and the 10th of his launching of the Green March into the Sahara (the March actually took place in November of 1975, but it was ritually assimilated to Coronation Day for this milestone occasion), the municipal council of a small city in the east-central part of the country issued a decree. Henceforth, the color of all buildings in the city was to be beige: crme, in the French redaction, qehwi, in the Arabic. Paint could be obtained at designated outlets.


Compliance with this decree was, as one would expect, very far from complete, and the city, Sefrou, 28 kilometers due south of Fez, of which it is in many ways a miniaturized version, remains in fact more white than anything else, and when not white, pastel. But, as one would not expect (at least I did not), the decree was, among certain sorts of people and in certain sections of the city, immediately and completely obeyed: brightly colored, variegated house faades, some of them masterpieces of design bravura, were painted over during the course of a day or two, into a dun homogeneity--la vie urbaine officielle. Behind this event, trivial in itself and of very uncertain permanency of effect, lies a long and far from trivial story, political and cultural at the same time. The changing shape of the city, its changing class and ethnic composition, the changing relations between it and its hinterland, it and its economic base, it and its governing elites, it and the national power, and most critical of all, the changing, and diversifying, sense of its inhabitants as to what citadinit--that French word that translates so awkwardly into English but so readily, as mudaniyya ("belonging to and in a city," as Mohammed Naciri has put it), into Arabic--really means, were all caught up in a bitter and many-sided debate, a debate about what a proper "Islamic city" ought to be, how it ought to feel, what it ought to look like.1


Driven on by the controversies swirling about the assumptions, or supposed such, of "Orientalism," the debate in scholarly circles over "The Islamic City"whether there is such a thing; what, if there is such a thing, is "Islamic" about it; and how much, if there is such a thing and we can isolate what is Islamic about it, its religious character matters in terms of how it "really" works--has quickened in recent years.2 The exaggeration of the uniformity of city life throughout the Islamic world, the idealized quality of descriptions of that life, which are overly dependent upon a few models and upon theories in place since Ibn Khaldun, the tendency to see such cities against the background of European norms, and the ahistorical, hypertextual conception of Islam as a social force within them, have all come in for severe attack. The very idea comes now with a question mark welded to it.


Be that as it may, surely there has been a good deal of constructing of chimeras, imagined entities that never were, in scholarly work on North African and Middle Eastern cities. Just as surely, there has been, in such work, a great deal of genuine discovery that ought not to be discarded simply because it proceeded from Weltanschauungen not now in favor.3 But the important point is that whatever the status of the idea of an Islamic City is in scholarly discourse, Orientalist or otherwise, it is very much alive in the minds, and in the discourse, of workaday Muslims--urbanites and countryfolk, masses and elites, alike; and, in fact, is made even more alive by the enormous transformations cities are now undergoing in the Islamic world. "A certain idea of a city" becomes, if anything, more vivid and more absorbing as it becomes harder and harder to see it in the disordered sprawl of modern life. The Islamic City grows increasingly significant as a notion and an aspiration, or perhaps merely significant in a different way, as the conditions for its existence become more precarious, disparate, and difficult to realize.


There is by now scarcely a city or town in the whole of the Middle East, however ancient, that presents a historically coherent face to the world. This is, of course, true to some extent throughout Asia and Africa, but it seems especially characteristic of Arabo-Islamic cities (and certainly of Moroccan ones, certainly of Sefrou), because new city forms tend less to replace old ones, update them, or absorb them into themselves, than to grow up around them, leaving the old ones more or less intact. Mudun, mudun judd, villes nouvelles, habitations spontanes ... clandestines ... periphriques, are all in place at once, like remains from different floors of a multiply occupied archeological site. The urban landscape is not merely various, as are all such landscapes, it is disjunct. It is within such a landscape of diverse orderings that point in divergent directions that the discourse--popular, political, and itself multiple--about the Islamic City, a discourse of buildings and institutions, fayades and ideologies, street nets and public services--the semiotics of mudaniyya--takes place.


"Semiotics" has become a bit of a red-flag word, and often enough one of uncertain reference as to what is meant by it changes and proliferates. My use of it is simply Saussure's original one, "the science of the life of signs in society," without further commitment either to the formalistic varieties of it that have grown up in the structuralist tradition or to the scholastical ones that have grown up in the Peircian. Wittgenstein's view that thought (feeling, belief, construction, judgment) is a public activity, carried on not in "the head," "the heart," or some other gossamery private place but in the plein air world by means of sign systems--that meaning arises in use, and use is social--is the grounding notion; the rest must come from descriptive analysis. And though the signs involved are, so far at least as human beings are concerned, predominantly linguistic, they are not exclusively so: images, numbers, melodies, gestures, and, in the case at hand, objects of the built environment (or, for that matter, the unbuilt) interweave with words, and words with them, to produce the web of perceptions we weakly call "experience." The semiotics of urban life, in the Islamic world or anywhere else, is but the interpretation of that life in terms of the expressions in which it trafficks.4


In the history of Sefrou, and most vividly in its recent history, all these concerns come together: the progressive disarticulation of the urban landscape as the city grows; the intensified concern with the idea of the Islamic City as a governing norm; the increasing difficulty of defining such an idea and such a norm in the context of the progressive disarticulation and the sense, therefore, that the idea, and thus perhaps even Islam itself, is endangered; the "reading-in" (or, to adapt a phrase of Richard Wollheim's, the "seeing-in") of all this into the physical appearance of the city; and the emergence of it into sharp social, economic, cultural, and most specifically and consequentially, political contestation as these changes proceed.5 Municipal decrees about what color houses should be, hardly critical themselves, catch up, as gestures do in such an emblematic environment, a lot of themes.


Sefrou, this thousand year old town of, in 1984, some 40,000 to 50,000 inhabitants, set amid olive groves in the watered piedmont that separates the great Fez-Meknes wheat plain from the sheep and strip-farm Middle Atlas, is hardly representative, in the statistical sense, of Morocco, much less of North Africa, the Middle East, or the Muslim world. Nor, though it includes within it almost all the elements of a classic medina in their classic forms--mosques, walls, baths, impasses, bazaars, fountains, caravansaries, shrines, citadels-is it any sort of ideal type of Islamic city.6 Its use is neither as a sample of something nor as an epitome of something, but as an instance of something: a case in point. The value of looking hard at it and what has been happening to it recently is that of all instances: after doing so one may see in other instances matters otherwise occluded. Examples instruct, they do not prove.7





In 1911 on the eve of the Protectorate, the city of Sefrou was about to hectares in size, contained possibly 6,000 people, of which nearly half were Jews, and consisted of the walled old city of passages and impasses; the medna qadma, an impacted Jewish quarter; the mellh, in the dead center of it; and a city citadel area, also walled, the qal'a, just above it.


A decade later, in 1922, with the Protectorate at last firmly in place, and the city officially municipalized, Lyautey style, it was 13 times as large-about 130 hectares-and consisted of the old areas plus a new Arab quarter, laid out on a gridiron plan just outside the walls, and a French villa area, with shaded gardens and serpentine streets, in the hills above the citadel. In 1944, toward the close of the Protectorate, the municipal boundaries were expanded again, to 380 hectares (the population now was 18,000, less than a third Jews, getting on toward 1,000 French), the added area being more "new medina" quarters plus some extramural marketplaces.


And there they stayed until 1982, when a Socialist government, recently and almost accidentally come to power and facing a new election, suddenly, amid intense controversy, some of it physical, more than tripled the city's official size to about 1,200 hectares so as to bring within its political ambit the "peripheral," "illegal," "alien" (berrn) settlements that had sprung up with stunning rapidity during the previous decade, and whose votes they saw as theirs. This was a social revolution (or an attempt at such, for in the event it failed) through municipal redefinition.


In this deliberate, stage-by-stage augmentation of the city to 120 times its original extent (and about 9 times its population) over the course of some 70 years, its modern cultural genealogy can be seen, as one after another form of life, European, Euro-Moroccan, country Moroccan, comes to occupy some part of its site, distributed around its traditional Arab and Judeo-Arab medina core.8 Some of these forms of life--the French, the Jews--have largely disappeared, or at least the populations that introduced them have. ("We have lost both our brains and our pockets," one old-line Sefruwi said to me.) Others, country Moroccans, mostly Berber-speaking, mostly rude, have only recently appeared with very much force. ("The city used to eat the countryside," the same man, a longtime construction entrepreneur of no little weight, said, "now the countryside eats the city.") And it is this final, final to date, addition that may, in the end, prove the most transformative. Since the Socialist in-gathering, the citizenry of Sefrou is more than half half-urban.


To simplify a complex situation, but to do so precisely in the way Sefrouis themselves for the most part simplify it when trying to make sense of what is happening to them, the explosion of rural immigration has divided the city into two major categories, conceptually at least (and what is more important, rhetorically), quite distinct: "Real Sefrouis" (sefrw hqq) and "Outsider Sefrouis" (sefrwi berrn).9


Real Sefrouis, who sometimes also refer to themselves, in a kind of bilingual pun, as sefrw carr, "Sefroui squared" (i.e., sefrw-sefrw) in the nisba system of social labeling that prevails here), are, or claim to be, descendants of families who have been present in the city, if not since its founding---and some claim even that--at least for a very long time. Arab-speaking, they are mostly land holders, merchants, professionals, or, increasingly, civil servants, and though they come in all classes, from the abject poor to the crocodile rich, the unusually compact city elite--social, political, economic and cultural alike--is drawn from among them, and long has been.


The Outsider Sefrouis are the in-migrants. (Sefrwi berrn, another nisba, which also has the force of "stranger," "alien," or "foreigner," is not a contradiction in terms, but an emphatic, and, like sefrwi hqiq, a contested, rhetorical classification.)10 Heavily, though not exclusively Berber-speaking, and in any case mostly at least partly bilingual in Arabic, they live on, in diverse proportions, returns from recently sold-off rural farms, remittances from relatives working in Europe, and casual labor, casual trade, and, to an uncertain extent, casual crime.


Both sides of this divide are, thus, at once very new and very old. And it is between them--diffuse, heterogeneous aggregations rather than true groups, or even factions--that the economic, political, and cultural contestations of public life, always intense in this masculinist, power-candid world, take place more and more often.


The Real Sefrouis, about a third of the Muslim-Jewish-French population at Independence, about a third of the (larger) City Muslim/Country Muslim one now, live almost entirely outside the old city core. The lower and middle classes have been moving into the gridiron quarters abutting the walls since the 1940s. Since the 1950s, the elite, which, anchored as they were in secluded family alleyways, were slower to abandon the medina, have taken over the villas of les quartiers chics (or, in another pointed bilingual pun, sheikhs) left empty by the departed French. The same elite, the bulk of whom belong to some seven or eight large local families, have inherited the municipal administrative apparatus, strengthened their economic position, especially in land holding, transport, and construction, and related themselves to the Monarchy as "king's men," much as their fathers had related to the Protectorate government as notables indigens. During the Independence struggle itself, their grip was briefly shaken by the power of upstart nationalist leaders, mostly from the Muslim reformist party lstiqlal; but it was soon restored as the Monarchy, reasserting its ascendancy, reasserted theirs. By the 1963 municipal elections, they were back in place; the same men, with the same interests, the same resources, and the same understanding of mudaniyya: Arabo-Islamic "cityhood."11


On the Outsiders side, the peripheral settlements they created so explosively in the 1970s and 1980s are not crowded "bidonville" shack areas, of which Sefrou has virtually none, but disorderly expanses of substantial stone, brick or concrete-block houses, generally urban in type, set haphazardly (and illegally) on the landscape: uninvited suburbs.


Significant migrations from the countryside began immediately after Independence in 1956, but they were largely absorbed into the popular quarters of the old city that were left vacant by townsmen moving into the extramural sections, away to larger cities, or in the case of the Jews, to foreign countries. After 1970 or so, when the exode rural, as even monolingual Sefrouis call it, grew from a stream to a torrent, such absorption into established structures was no longer possible. The new settlements sprang up, house by house; first, in the barren, unstable limestone areas above the city, and then, more disturbingly, in the huerta (Spanish for "orchard")--the irrigated olive groves that, forming the city's aesthetic frame and providing a fair amount of its income, have been for centuries the sign of its "oasis" felicity--below it. And where the earlier migrants had been mostly landless poor, attracted to the city out of necessity and the hope of somehow scraping by in its darker corners, the later ones were people who, though hardly well-to-do and with no real economic base in the city or any prospect of one, were, from their alienated farms and their European remittances, not uncapitalized. The dwellings they built-sizable structures, designed to be noticed and to last-show it.


This phase of the transformation of Sefrou thus changed more than its social composition. It changed, as the earlier phases had not (or not more than marginally), its aspect, air, demeanor, look. What was once a chiseled jewel set in a paradisian garden was now a sprawling, disorganized, anything but jewellike bourg, another French word everyone in the city seems now to know.





This socioeconomic transformation of Sefrou from a highly defined administrative, commercial, and cultural complex--an urban solidity in a tribal flux--to a diffuse conglomeration of buildings, people, activities, and institutions, fully permeable to the life ways around it, was bound to issue eventually in political expression, even in a traditionalist monarchy still resistant to electoral politics. When the ratio of urban population to rural in the region goes from about 1:4 to nearly 1:2 in 20 years; when real city property values increase more than 5 times (and in the unbuilt-up areas, 10 to 20) in the same period; when, as a rather broad guess, three-quarters of the huerta (half of which in any case belongs to two percent of the population) has already been built over, and the process is accelerating; when probably two-thirds of the buildings in the town, the bulk of them without water or electricity, many of them without road access, and all of them without sewers, have been built since 1960; and when a large flow of funds (exact figures, or even inexact ones, are unavailable) from wage work in Europe is going to finance this construction boom in a city otherwise economically stagnant if not declining, the established power structure, no matter how long it has been in place, how firmly it is reinforced by central authority, and how culturally legitimized it is, is going to be put under something of a strain.


The extent of this strain became suddenly apparent in the municipal council elections of 1976, when that structure, in fact, cracked. The representatives of the traditional elite, who had monopolized the council since Lyautey set it up in 1913, were summarily turned out, and the Moroccan Socialist party, never before much of a factor, won, to everyone's astonishment including its own, three-quarters of the seats. Though the council, hemmed in on all sides by bureaucratic and police control in a system euphemistically called "tutelage," la tutelle, is quite limited in its capacity to act on its own, it is, simply by virtue of being a popularly elected body in a local government otherwise centrally appointed, the main expression of locally rooted power balances. The dramatic displacement from it of the sons and grandsons of the men who traditionally manned it, a public humiliation of some consequence, inaugurated, therefore, a kind of Prague Spring in Sefrou: a period (7 years as a matter of fact) in which an unexpectedly opened door was, amid rising tension, outside pressure, and a certain amount of mere violence, relentlessly and, so it seems, definitively, re-shut.


This odd interregnum, a populist moment in a paternalist system, was made possible by the Monarchy's practice, inherited from the Protectorate and further perfected, of using municipal elections as a form of public opinion polling--sondage. Elections are, in general, controlled, but at each one, certain places are allowed a more or less free rein in order to bring political realities into open view. How does the land lie? Who must be dealt with? The next time, this relative freedom disappears and other places get a chance to have a less fettered vote. In 1976, it was Sefrou's turn to experience sondage democracy. In 1983, the experiment was over, and the Sefrou elite was thrust bodily back into office. Not a single Socialist was returned. The party collapsed as a local force. Its main leaders left the city.


But however brief and however beset by utopianism, factionalism, and civil service foot-dragging (but not by Marxist ideology, which played little or no role), the Socialist interlude brought the question of what sort of city Sefrou should be into heightened relief. The displacement of the Real Sefroui aCyiin notability, the extension of the city boundaries (and thus of legitimacy and city services) to include the Outsider Sefroui settlements, and the vigorous attempt on the part of the council to increase its freedom of action vis-a-vis the central administrative apparatus (that is, to weaken la tutelle), challenged not just traditional privileges and traditional exclusions, but also, if inadvertently, the idea of the Islamic City within whose frame such privileges and such exclusions were defined. Setting out to make a local social revolution, an enterprise in which they more or less totally failed, the Socialist "new men" made, rather against their own inclinations, at least the beginnings of a cultural one. They left the material economy about as they found it. They left the symbolic economy--the figuration of city space--thoroughly transformed.


What the Socialist interruption interrupted was neither the directions of change that had, well before its advent, gripped the city, and which continue to advance now that it is over, nor the structure of social inequality that, even during its tenure, sharpened and solidified. It interrupted the way in which these directions and inequalities were represented and perceived. By enfranchising the Outsider population, not just legally (which, in a traditionalist tutelle state, does not matter all that much) but morally (which, in such a state, especially if it is Muslim, matters a very great deal) the Socialists reinforced both the in-migrants' determination to be included within the body of the city and inscribed in its landscape; and, perhaps even more powerfully, the Real Sefrouis' determination to set the criteria-lifestyle criteria in the first instance, attitudinal, in the second-upon which such inclusion rests. It is the clash of those determinations (what are the signs of mudaniyya now?) that has become the nerve of social struggle.





Shortly before the double celebration I mentioned earlier of his quarter century as king and his decade as Saharan commander, Hassan II gave a speech in his palace at Marrakech-broadcast on the state radio and television--to the association of Moroccan architects and city planners: "un veritable cours d'architecture et d 'urbanisme," as the royalist newspaper Le Matin du Sahara had it.12


Morocco has been marked at each great period in its history, he said, by an architectural originality. One recognizes immediately the monuments and buildings of the Idrisi, Almoravid, Almohad, Sa'adi, and 'Alawi periods. Each dynasty (the first of these, semi-mythical, is 8th century A.D. and supposedly the period when Islam arrived and Fez was founded; the last is Hassan's own, which arose in the 17th century) has stamped its epoch with its style. Now, however, a decline has set in. All sorts of ill-designed and ill-constructed buildings are appearing haphazardly around our ancient cities. Garish European-style houses, vulgar and ostentatious, are proliferating in the wealthy quarters. The classic form of the Moroccan Islamic city, the flower of our cultural greatness, is disappearing into a nondescript, alien sprawl.


For example, he said, take Sefrou. Not long ago it was a lovely little place, with its gardens, its walls, its mosques nestled at the foot of the Middle Atlas--a beautiful expression (he called it a jewel) of the authentic Moroccan tradition. Now it had become shapeless and ugly (laide, though he was speaking Arabic). Faced with the prospect of a doubling of our housing capacity by the year 2000, it is necessary to construct "Moroccan for the Moroccans." "We must give to our works a national character; preserve, amidst modernization, that which is beautiful and authentic; conserve" (as apparently Sefrou has not) "the spiritual identity, Muslim and Maghrebian at the same time, of Moroccan architecture and urban form." As the Le Matin report pointedly concludes: "One understands from this that His Majesty, Hassan II, whose reign is one of the most glorious and the most productive of our History, wishes to leave his mark, as brilliantly as he has politically and economically, through an original architecture, modern and authentically Moroccan, in a word through an architecture."13


The king's cours, singling out Sefrou before the entire country as an egregious case of un-Moroccan, un-Islamic urban blight, shook, as might be imagined, the reinstalled royalist city council quite severely, especially as it was followed almost immediately by an official reprimand and a command to "do something" by Accession Day from the provincial governor at Fez. But, in fact, it merely brought to a boil a process of cultural confrontation already well underway in the city.


The dismay of the Real Sefrouis at the city's physical transformation had grown to enormous proportions during the Socialist period, producing a litany of moral complaint, class resentment, and aesthetic nostalgia; a self-conscious effort to recreate the institutions of a properly Muslim city was begun. The traditional office of muhtasib, a sort of combination religious preceptor, moral policeman, and market administrator, once extremely powerful but fallen into almost complete disuse, was restored to political prominence in 1982 during the bitter struggle that returned the old guard to power. A long-time traditionalist leader (and, as an 'Alawi sharif, a distant relative of the king) was appointed to it, and promptly indicted the Socialists as "atheists." A very large, classically styled mosque--built by the state and called the Hassan II--was completed just outside the walls, replacing the old grand mosque (which was itself refurbished) in the medina as the official city mosque, and the muhtasib was also designated as its Friday sermon-giver. Other classically Muslim offices--the nzir, administrator of religious properties; the qdi, religious judge; the 'del, notary; the muqqadem, quarter chief; the amn craft head--were similarly reemphasized as canonical features, signs if you will, of a genuinely Islamic city. Public baths, public ovens, neighborhood prayer houses, market fountains, and other traditional civic institutions were renovated, and an outburst of rather demonstrative private mosque building by leading notables occurred.14


At the same time as this cultural, or religiocultural, revivalism was developing on the Real Sefroui side (and much of it was essentially cosmetic--the muhtasib's power over moral or economic life is marginal at best; religious courts are very restricted in scope; craft heads are advisory elders, not guild chiefs), a counterassertion, in a vocabulary at once similar and rather different, was taking place on the Outsider Sefroui side.


The Outsiders' self-assertion as authentic city people (madan), their determination to move from the margins to full inclusion in urban society grew steadily more intense, and was fed by the Socialists' reach toward them, their swelling numbers, and their sense of being treated as barbarian intruders, morally unwelcome and materially neglected. (The term they usually use to indicate their move from the country to the city is not the Real Sefrouis' exode rural, which makes them sound like tattered refugees, but hijra, the Arabic at once for emigration and immigration, and, of course, for the Prophet's move from Mecca to Medina that inaugurated the Muslim Era.) And this determination, the determination to complete their hijra, is also most emphatically expressed in an architectural idiom, a rhetoric of mosques and houses and, most especially--and most surprisingly--faades.


Faades are surprising or, perhaps at the deeper level of embodied meaning toward which we are reaching, unsurprising, because, as has often been remarked, classical medina houses are turned radically inward. They present to the public streets and alleyways a uniform and (a chastely decorated door occasionally aside) extremely subdued face: whitened walls and small, grilled windows well above eye-level. It is in interior courts, gardens, and reception rooms, brocaded women's quarters, mosaic fountains, and carpeted tea salons, that status display takes place. From outside, a rich man's home and a poor one's look hardly different; within, they contrast as a palace to a hovel in their decorations, furnishings, and use of space. Certainly, this is true in Sefrou; not only in the Medina proper, where there are virtually no external markings at all and a street looks like a solid wall, irregularly punctured with narrow entryways, but in the immediate extramural quarters as well, where one does not know (at least if one is a stranger) prior to entry whether one will be confronted by a cave or a jewel box. And it is this, perhaps the most charged domain, certainly the most intimate, of urban imagery that the Outsiders in their sprung-up suburbs have completely reversed. They have turned the city house, semiotically, inside out.15


The houses the Outsiders have built are, as mentioned, mostly substantial stone and concrete structures, many of them quite large and arranged haphazardly, given their "illegal," thus opportunistic siting, along rutted paths and tracks. Within, most of them are strikingly bare. Indeed, they are often virtually empty--large spaces with but an isolated bed or a forlorn table and chairs. Most of their owners' capital is sunk in the structure itself and in the hyperinflated land on which it is built, and the absence of city services (water, electricity, sewage, roads) in any case limits what can be done: there are no reflecting pools or back-lit divans here. It is on the exterior walls that display occurs. Almost all these houses are very brightly painted in bold, primary colors-reds, yellows, greens, blues, even now and then purples, oranges, and pinks--garishly intermixed, and a great many are further decorated, sometimes in an all-over fashion, with designs based on traditional craft motifs-especially ones taken from carpets and textiles, and to some degree from pottery, leather work and female face-tattoos.16


The general term for these flamboyant faades (which, as they tend to be fourwalled, are perhaps more exactly referred to as envelopes) is the French fantasia, the term used for the famous horsemanship and powder-play displays of tribal Moroccans; like those displays, they are public demonstrations of individual force. They are, as everyone recognizes, both the Outsiders, who produce them, and the Real Sefrouis, who wish to erase them, statements: claims, announcements, arguments, demands.17


The edict that the faades were to be painted over in civilized beige was thus more than the council's response to the necessity to "do something" visibly and quickly before Accession Day.18 It was a move in what has become a quite selfconscious politics of signs.


Turning their houses inside-out, the Outsiders seemed to threaten to turn Sefrou as a whole inside-out; to make its colored peripheries, not its decayed core, its defining feature. The aesthetic and moral reaction by the Real Sefrouis to the faades as offenses against mudaniyya was, if anything, more passionate than their concern with the intruders' material claims, which they felt able enough to hold at bay. Where the Socialists had sought to accommodate the Outsiders' demands for inclusion in urban society by legally incorporating them into the municipality, the notables sought to make them--now that they were, alas, so included--at least look like proper urbanites. Sefrou, the council said, should be "The Beige City," as, say, Marrakech was "The Red City."19


The upshot was, in fact, a bit of a compromise. Most of the Outsiders did paint over their houses (the peripheries changed color almost overnight), in exchange for an implicit recognition of them as proper urbanites, entitled to proper municipal services such as water, roads, electricity and the like, not illegal squatters who ought to be (and occasionally have been) bulldozed away.20


This compromise in deference to the king, if that's the proper word for it ("bargain" might be a better one), has hardly ended the confrontation.21 It has merely moved it onto a new plane of discourse, one in which the issues are represented as being between various interests within the city, not between it and aliens gathered along its edges. This can be seen in a remarkable letter in the Istiqlal Party newspaper, Al-'Alam, dated February 15, 1988, from a resident of Sefrou's largest, fastest growing, and most energetic peripheral settlement, Dhar bin Seffar.22


One of the most astounding things is the scarcity of drinkable water in Sefrou, though it lies at the foot of the Middle Atlas. This fact is one of the paradoxes that leave the observer in perplexity trying to answer a clamor of questions. We do not need to remind our citizens of what the Atlas Mountains represent for Morocco in general as a reservoir of water for our country.

Here we reach the subject of this correspondence, which we publish on behalf of the families living in the quarter Bni Seffar, who request, through it, that the big problem of drinkable water be attended to and that the needs of about 2,500 people be met.

This quarter does not have more than a single fountain, toward which its inhabitants rush early in the morning in order to grasp a few drops of its watery generosity [jd].

We do not speak here of the long lines, of the long waiting, of the fights that arise among the waiting people ...

What the residents are asking for is for the opportunity of benefiting from the drinkable water to be given to all without discrimination, especially as it has been observed that those in charge of the distribution favor certain sides [factions, parties] against others. That is clear from their giving the privilege of obtaining water to some residents and neglecting the others.

The residents of the quarter request from the members of their municipal council, who poured promises upon them during the election campaign [against the Socialists], to stop this favoritism and consider all the residents as equals, no difference between this one and that one, but only in light of his acts in the service of the general interest.

What these humble people request is nothing more than the simplest of human rights: just some water to quench their thirst, and they will not upset [alarm, threaten] anyone! They want only water ... !?





The sovereign division in Western thought between Meanings and Materialities is, like the very similar and derivative one between soul and body, perhaps overdue for retirement, certainly for revision. Meanings of any value in human life are inevitably sunk in materialities. Materialities that bear on that life in some practical way inevitably do so within a webwork of sense and expression. "Symbol" versus "reality," "form" versus "content," "the world as experienced" (perceived, interpreted, understood) versus "the world as thing" (object, cosmos, causal manifold) are hardly more useful for framing accounts as to how matters stand with the "Islamic City" than is "mind" versus "matter." A "figure of space" (to adopt a phrase of Steven Mullaney's about Elizabethan London) in which "topography tends to recapitulate ideology," and ideology to transform topography into a "legible emblem," an "icon of community," a "social text," the "Islamic City" would seem not easily divisible into its force as a sign and its significance as a force.23


Though local in its impact and parochial in its concerns, the struggle in Sefrou between 1976 and 1986-over different concepts of how a city should look, how and by whom it should be governed, who should live in it, what its life should be, where its center should lie, its expanse be segmented, its boundaries be placed-was nevertheless part of a far more general process with far wider implications.24 Not only are the images of "cityhood" "citadinite" and "mudaniyya," around which dispute pivoted, widely distributed throughout the Middle East, but the effort to rework the landscape of urban life so as to give it anew an intelligible form is also part and parcel of the similar reworking, now almost everywhere evident, of the umma's understanding of the toUles directions world in which it is these days enmeshed. Reading the signs in urban sprawls (something nearly as difficult for the inhabitants of them as it is for external observers) is a necessity for anyone who would not get lost in them, left adrift--baffied, clumsy, angry, and powerless.


To change the face of a city (or the faade of a house) is to change the way those who live in it understand it and to put under pressure the cultural frames by which they have been used to understanding it and the terms of which they have been used to living in it. Auden's famous phrase about "a new form of architecture / a change of heart" is more than a poetic figure. What is happening to the "Islamic City"--and not just in Sefrou--is what is happening to "Islam." It is losing definition and gaining energy.







1    See, M. Naciri, "Regards sur I'evolution de la citadinite au Maroc," La ville arabo-musulmane (London, 1984), pp. 37-59. I am deeply indebted to Professor Naciri's writings on Moroccan and mid-eastern urban development (cf., inter alia, "Les politiques urbaines: Instruments de pouvoir ou outils de developpement?" in J. Metral and G. Mutin, eds., tudes sur Ie monde arabe, No.1 [Lyon, 1984], pp. 13-42; "Politique urbaine et 'politiques' de l'habitat au Maroc: Incertitudes d'une strategie," ibid., pp. 71-98; and, with M. Ameur, "L'urbanisation clandestine au Maroc: Un champ d'action pour les classes moyennes," Revue Tiers Monde, 26 [1985], 80-92), as well as to extended discussions with him concerning the issues raised in this article, though he is not responsible for the use, or misuse, I have made of his counsel. Similar remarks apply to M. Yakhlef, former President of the Sefrou municipal council. See his unpublished thesis: "Ta!awwur adwat al-siyasat al-mahalliyya bi madTna SufrU. awakhir al-qarn 19 1956." Faculty of Letters, University Mohammed al-Khamis, Rabat, 1986.

2    For varying views, from varying disciplines, see J. L. Abu-Lughod, "The Islamic City-Historic Myth, Islamic Essence, and Contemporary Relevance," International Journal of Middle East Studies, 19 (1987), 155-76; J. Bisson and I.-F. Troin, eds., Present et avenir des medinas (de Marrakech Alep) (Tours, 1982); A. Bouhdiba and D. Chevallier, eds., La ville arabe dans l'Islam (Paris, (982); K. Brown, "The Uses of a Concept: 'The Muslim City,''' in P. Soli: et aI., Middle Eastern Cities in Comparative Perspective (London, 1986), pp. 60-68; D. Eickelman, "Is There an 'Islamic City'?" International Journal of Middle East Studies, 5 (1974), 274-94; B. S. Hakim, Arabic-Islamic Cities (London, 1986); R. Holod, ed., Toward an Architecture in the Spirit of Islam (Philadelphia, 1978); A. Hourani and S. M. Stern, eds., The Islamic City (Philadelphia, 1970); A. Y. Saqqaf, ed., The Middle East City, Ancient Traditions Confront a Modern World (New York, 1987); R. B. Serjeant, ed., The lslamic City (Paris, 1980). For some of my own views on Islam and urban life, see "Suq: The Bazaar Economy in Sefrou," in C. Geertz, H. Geertz, and L. Rosen, Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society (Cambridge, England, 1979), pp. 123-313. Most of the material to be discussed here was collected during a return study of Sefrou (a city I have been working on since 1964) from November 1985 to March 1986. The locus classicus of the Orientalism controversy is, of course, E.Said, Orientalism (New York, 1978).

3    For an excellent example of the use of traditional "Orientalist" literature, from Marais and Massignon to Brunschvig and Lvi-Provenal, together with Arabic sources (ai-Rami, Battuta, Mohammad al-Khodja) and direct observation, to produce a balanced and realistic picture of the elements of traditional Arabic cities and their Islamic base, see Hakim, op. cit., esp. chs. 1 and 2.

4    For an explicitly semiotic analysis, rather more centered on "communication" than is my own "interpretivist" approach, of some aspects of (rural) social structure in northern Morocco, see R. Joseph and T. B. Joseph, The Rose and the Thorn: Semiotic Structures in Morocco (Tucson, 1987). R. Joseph has also written, rather diffusely, on "The Symbolic Significance of the Moroccan City," in J.-C. Vatin et aI., Connaissances du Maghreb (Paris, 1984), pp. 345-54. (Cf. his unpublished "The Moroccan City as a Text," 21 pp., 1984.)

5    R. Wollheim, Painting as an Art  (Princeton, 1987), esp. ch. 2. Wollheim's term is, of course, a reworking for the visual arts, of Wittgenstein's "seeing-as," the master idea of interpretive semiotics. For an incisive formulation, more strictly semiotic-that is, less psychological, as well as more rigorous-of the issues involved here, see N. Goodman, Languages of Art (Indianapolis, 1976).

6    Virtually all of the 37 odd "design elements" Hakim (op. cit., pp. 68 69, 98-10 I) lists for classical medinas generally (and Tunis particularly). from vaults ('aqd) and street-spanning rooms (sbt) to Sufi "monasteries" (zwiya) and public squares (sha, riyd) are found in Sefrou. Only a few Ottomanish elements like turba (ruling class cemetery) or dwn (courthouse) are absent. It is not entirely clear whether anything deserving the name of madrasa, "institution for higher religious learning," has ever existed in Sefrou, but there are dozens of ordinary Qur'anic schools (msid).

7   Sefrou is an unusually thoroughly studied city, even for Morocco, where urban studies have long been highly developed. See, in addition to C. Geertz, H. Geertz, and L. Rosen, Meaning and Order, and M. Yakhlef, "Tatawwur," already cited; L. Rosen, The Structure of Social Groups in a Moroccan City, unpublished Thesis, University of Chicago, 1968; idem, "A Moroccan Jewish Community During the Middle Eastern Crisis," The American Scholar, 37 (1968), 435-51; idem, "Muslim-Jewish Relations in a Moroccan City," International Journal of Middle East Studies, 3 (1972),435-39; idem, Bargainingfor Reality (Chicago, 1984); H. Geertz, "The View from Within," in R. Holod et aI., Architecture as Symbol and Sell-Identity (n.p., 1980), pp. 63-70; T. Dichter, "The Problem of How to Act on an Undefined Stage: An Exploration of Culture, Change, and Individual Consciousness in the Moroccan Town of Sefrou, with a Focus on Three Modern Schools," Ph.D. Thesis, University of Chicago, 1976; P. Rabinow, Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco (Berkeley, 1977); H. Benhalima, "Sefrou, de la tradition des Dir a l'integrationeconomique moderne: Etude de geographie urbaine," Thesis, Troisieme Cycle, University Paul Valery (Montpellier), 1977; "L'artisanat Sefroui: son agonie et les limites de sa renovation," Revue de geographie du Maroc, 28 (1977), 41-51; M. Chaoui, "Sefrou: De la tradition a l'integration, ce qu'est un petit centre d'aujourd'hui," Lamalif (July/August 1978). 32 39; N. Stillman, "The Sefrou Remnant," Jewish Social Studies, 35 (1973), 255-63; idem, The Language and Culture of the Jews of Morocco (Manchester, 1988); Ch. Foucauld, La connaissance du Maroc, 2 vols. (Paris, 1888), vol. I, pp. 37 ff.; Lahbib, Si Bekkai bin Embarek, "Sefrou," Bulletin economique et social du Maroc, 15 (1952), 230-42; D. Ovadiah, The Community of Sefrou (in Hebrew), 3 vols. (Jerusalem, 1974-75); R. Le Tourneau, "L'activite economique de Sefrou," Hesperis, 25 (1938), 269 86; M. Baddir, "L'economie sefriouie entre Ie passe et Ie present," Memoire de Licence en Sciences Economiques. University Sidi Mohamed Ben 'Abdellah (Fez), 1979-1980; M. Ibrahimi, "Baladiyya Sufru wa dawruha fi  tanzim al-majal al-hadari," Memoire de Licence en Geographie, University Sidi Mohamad bin 'Abdellah (Fez), 19821983: A. Moumou, "Sufru al-hadamat al-ta'limiyya wa-tazim al-majal," Memoire de Licence en Geographie, University Sidi Mohamed bin Abdellah (Fez), 19841985; N. Essioti, "al- Majlis albaladi li madna Sufr min 1963 ila 1976," Memoire de Licence en Lettres, University Sidi Mohamed ben Abdellah (Fez), 1983; Chafai', El Alaoui El Hassane, "Naissance et developpement d'une municipalite marocaine sous Ie Protectorat Franais: Sefrou (1912-1956)." Thesis, Troisieme Cycle, Institut d'Histoire des Relations Internationales Contemporaines, University of Paris (I), 1985. Except for direct quotations, I shall not cite these publications in the sequel, but it should be understood that I am dependent upon them for much factual material. I am also indebted to Dr. Mustapha ben Yakhlef for 1982 census materials on Sefrou, and to Abderrahmane El Moudden for general research assistance.

8    The development of the city prior to this century is difficult to trace in any detail, though that it seems to have been reasonably stable in size and appearance over an extended period can be seen from AI-Bakri's lIth and AI-Idrissi's 12th century brief references to it. (AI-Bakri, Description de l'Afrique septentrionale, W. de Slane, trans., [Paris, 1956]; AI-Idrissi, Description de l'Afrique et de l'Espagne, M. Dozy and M. J. de Goeje, trans., [Leiden, 1866]; both these are partial translations.) The city walls took their present form in the 18th century; the earliest population figures are from de Foucauld, op. cit., of 3,000 in 1886, surely a mere estimate and likely an overly conservative one. All this is not to say that nothing ever happened in or to Seftou until the French arrived, but merely that it seems to have happened much more slowly and episodically, and, so far as we can see, within a reasonably stable urban framework. For some discussion of the pre-Protectorate history of Sefrou, see, Geertz et aI., op. cit.; Yakhlef, op. cit. The present urban population of Sefrou is difficult to estimate exactly, because the most recent figure (1982) of 38,833 is for the pre-expansion city; the "berrani" quarters being "illegal" are counted (and undercounted) as "rural." By now the "real" population of the town must be approaching 50,000.

9    About 70 percent of all post-war immigration into Sefrou up to 1971 took place in the I 960s; more recent figures are unavailable. but the 1970-1980 decade seems to have been even more active. In 1971 about 40 percent of the town population was recently in-migrant from the countryside; by now the figure must be getting on toward two-thirds. (In 1984-1985, only 23 percent of the parents of secondary school students--and 32 percent of the students themselves--were city born.) For simplicity's sake I give Arabic glosses in the singular.

10  On the centrality of the nisba as a categorizing device in Sefrou social life, see Geertz., "Suq," op. cit.; Rosen, Bargaining, op. cit.

11  For the "effacement et survie des notables" in the immediate Independence and post-Independence periods, see R. Leveau, Le fellah marocain, defenseur du trne (Paris, 1976), esp. Part I; Cf. J.Waterbury, The Commander of the Faithful: The Moroccan Political Elite (London. 1970).

12  "Pour un salon du btiment de I'urbanisme et de l'architecture," Le Matin du Sahara, March 1, 1986. This is not a transcript of the king's speech, which I was unable to obtain, but a reporter's (more or less official, considering the source) commentary on it in connection with an architectural exhibition in Casablanca that followed upon it. My own summary is thus a paraphrase of a paraphrase, filled out with accounts from Sefroui informants who heard, as I did not, the original speech.

13  lbid. The tendency for political leaders in the Muslim world to see architecture and city planning as critical to the sustenance of an authentic Islamic consciousness in the modern world, and threatened by "sudden affluence," "an unprecedented growth of building activity," "urbanization without urbanism," and "ruralization of city life," is very general: see, for example, His Highness the Aga Khan, "Opening Remarks." in Holod, op. cit., pp. viii-ix; Hassan Bin Talal, Crown Prince of Jordan, "Introduction," in Saqqaf, op. cit., pp. ix-xiii, from which these quotes are taken.

14  For a description of these offices and their (much weaker) cultural position in Sefrou of the 1960s, see Rosen, "Social identity and points of attachment," in Geertz, Geertz, and Rosen, op. cit., pp. 68 ff.

15  For a discussion of the classical medina house (dar), see Hakim, op. cit., pp. 95-96, who outlines three "Islamic and ethical requirements" for them--privacy, interdependence, and btin versus zahir--remarking of the last: "One of the essential values in Islam is emphasis on the Batin of the Zahir (the external aspect of self or a thing). For example, internal goodness and well-being are emphasized and arrogance discouraged. The courtyard house and its aggregate organizational pattern is suitable for the application of this principle. Hence we find that the external walls are kept simple and relatively bare with few openings. The courtyard as the central important space is decorated--when the owner can afford it to a high level of artistic sophistication, despite the fact that it is accessible to and enjoyed only by the occupants, and occasionally their relatives and close friends." There are, of course, other reasons, traditionally, for this pattern: the desire, in the absence of an effective security system, to conceal wealth from predatory view and a general emphasis on civic and religious equality.

16  Rural women in Morocco are largely unveiled, elaborate face-tattoos often serving (especially among Berbers) as the equivalent. City women, at least in a place like Sefrou, are, after marriage, mostly veiled as a sign of both their propriety and their urbanity. It is tempting to place the house faades within this larger, very subtle, system of symbolic "faciality," but I do not have the evidence at this point to do so. Some of the signs painted into the faades are traditional magical images: the hand of Fatima, geomantic figures, the name of Allah, or even the whole Ftiha, in Arabic writing; yet others seem to be tribal marks. The detailed symbolism of all this-- extremely varied, highly developed, and enormously intricate--remains to be investigated.

17  The process by which these houses come into being is also too complex to be entered into here. They are almost all built by traditional masons under the direction of the owners, the faade designs coming mainly from the latter, who in addition to craft motifs are often influenced by the ostentatious "neo-Moorish" pleasure palaces being built by the new rich of Fez in the upscale "quartiers chics/sheikhs" there. (The main such quarters are popularly referred to as al-Dallas, in honor of the American television show, and al-Pyramids, in honor of Farouk. For all his animadversions--he reputedly has issued a decree forbidding the building of such "un-Moroccan" houses in Fez--Hassan II has recently built an elaborate "guest-palace" for distinguished foreign visitors in al-Dallas; and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia has built an enormous vacation home, complete with airport and--so it is said--harem, just east of the city.) The Sefrou development, in itself necessarily simplified in this brief account, is part of a vast and various evolution of "architecture et urbanisme" now going on all over Morocco. The role of real estate speculators, of the growing influence of Fasi magnates, and of central government planification in Sefrou's transformation are other critical (and interconnected) matters that will have to be returned to on another occasion, as are the beginnings of aI-Dallas-like construction in Sefrou's quartiers chics and the decline of the old city into red-light quartiers dangereux.

18  Though it was, of course, that. Another thing the council did was to erect two very large, very permanent, and very beige towers, shaped like giant chess rooks, with the king's coronation and anniversary dates carved onto them, on either side of the high road toward Fez. It is doubtful that the king will see them as what he had in mind. Everyone in Sefrou I talked to, including those who caused them to be put up, seemed to regard them as surpassingly ugly.

19  Marrakech's fame as "The Red City" (al-Hamr) is, of course, international; but most classical Moroccan cities have a color they regard as distinctive of them. The "beige" idea seems to be the result of a folk etymology of Sefrou as deriving from sfer, "yellow." It should also be remarked, as one of the ironies of all this, that, as they were not themselves Outsiders, but highly urbanized petty professionals (two-thirds of their leaders were school teachers, the rest pharmacists, lawyers, medical assistants, etc.), the Socialists' view of the faades was hardly different from that of the average "insider" townsman. Their sympathy for the in-migrants' social deprivations did not extend to approval of their tastes. The original "beige edict" was in fact enacted (but not promulgated) by the Socialists, and the notables council had only to revive it.

20  Bulldozing "illegal" settlements is far from unheard of in Morocco, and has occurred occasionally in Sefrou. In order to prevent this from happening, the settlers (or the land speculators who sell them the land) commonly first erect a mosque, prior to putting up any houses, with the notion that the government will not want to be seen to be destroying a mosque. One result is that, especially given the increase in mosque building by prominent Real Sefrouis mentioned earlier, there are now a great many mosques, of all sizes and descriptions, in Sefrou.

21  On the central role of "bargaining" in Moroccan social relationships, see Rosen, Bargaining, op. cit.

22  "Discrimination among the inhabitants of the quarter Bni Saffar in getting drinkable water," AI-Alam, February 15, 1988 (no. 13,713). I am grateful to Abderrahmane El Moudden for bringing this letter to my attention and for help in translating the highly flowery prose in which it is cast. Apparently, with the Socialists broken in Sefrou, Istiqlal has emerged again as the main local oppositional voice. More recently, the local branch of Istiqlal has launched a full scale attack upon the municipal council for neglecting the needs of the city with respect to a wide range of issues-commercial, educational, and economic, as well as social. (See: "In an ordinary session of the council of the Istiqlal party in Sefrou it is requested that the city be provided with a modern network of water distribution and electricity for the dark quarters ... open an Institute for Applied Technology, increase the number of doctors ... develop tourism ... etc." AI-Alam, April 2 and April 6, 1988.)

     Many in Sefrou believe that one reason the Socialists were "allowed" to win in the first place was to break the local hold of Istiqlal. Whether or not this is true, it is the case that the Outsider Sefrouij/ Real Sefroui confrontation is much more enduring and more deeply felt than political party allegiances, which, as a matter of fact, shift rather easily according to strategical, even personal, considerations.

23  S. Mullaney, The Place of the Stage: License, Play and Power in Renaissance England (Chicago, 1988), pp. vii, viii, 7, 10. Mullaney's study, though directed toward a quite different city, in a quite different culture, at a quite different time, and concerned with ritual, royal authority, and the theatre, rather than architecture and municipal politics, is conceived in terms --"an open-ended sociohistorical hermeneutics" (p. xi)--very similar to those I have employed here: "The [late Medieval and Renaissance European] city was a ... symbolic work in its own right, a social production of space, an oeuvre ... composed and rehearsed over the years by artisanal classes and sovereign powers, for whom meaning was always a public event, culture an 'acted document' and power a manifest thing, to be conspicuously bodied forth and located in the urban landscape" (p. 10).

24  So far as Morocco is concerned, developments similar to Sefrou's occurred after the 1976 sondage experiment in small cities across the country (Taza, Sidi Kacem, Sidi Slim an), producing a mini-revolution emphatic enough to alarm the Throne and end the experiment in such cities. The experiment was then transferred to the larger ones (Fez, Meknes, Tetuan, Marrakech), where presumably--though we shall see--it could be better controlled. On Moroccan politics in general during the 1970s and early 1980s, which were eventful (two coup attempts, the Saharan campaign, prolonged drought, growing foreign and domestic debt) without very much actually happening, see R. Leveau, "Le fellah, le trne et les aut res, " paper delivered at the 18th Annual Meeting of the Middle East Studies Association, 1984.



Toutes directions: reading the signs in an urban sprawl, in: International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Aug., 1989), pp. 291-306.


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