Research in High Atlas Mountains Receives National Recognition

Research in High Atlas Mountains Receives National Recognition

By Alan BisbortĀ  More research news & stories

Fairfield’s Dr. David Crawford was dying to get into anthropology – almost literally, as it turns out. As a young man, uncertain of his life’s direction but craving adventure, Dr. Crawford flew from Paris – where he was then living – to Marrakesh, Morocco, after reading an entry in a Let’s Go guide that began, “Marrakesh is intense.”

Indeed, the intensity of the High Atlas region of this North African country led Dr. Crawford and a companion directly to death’s door, courtesy of hunger, altitude sickness, and hypothermia. At this point, though a graduate of the University of California-Santa Barbara, Crawford had yet to think of himself as an anthropologist.

“I thought I was a poet,” he explained with a laugh.

Dr. Crawford followed his initial quixotic trip with several ventures into the hinterlands of a country that had come to fascinate him. Finally, in 1998, with a better-prepared game plan – as an anthropology doctoral candidate laden with notebooks, utensils, and medicine – he returned with more serious intent.

Walking in the footsteps of Clifford Geertz, whom he calls “the single most important figure in anthropology if you worked in Morocco,” Dr. Crawford settled in to do serious field work in a village called Tagharghist (population 200) – which he calls, for simplicity’s sake, Tadrar in his book – and began the research for which he has gained recognition, and even some renown.

The result of his 10-year study, Moroccan Households in the World Economy: Labor and Inequality in a Berber Village (Louisiana State University Press), is an engaging and engaged ethnography of the Berber villagers who live in the inhospitable High Atlas Mountains, a formidably steep range that runs east-to-west 100 kilometers south of Marrakesh. Dr. Crawford’s book recently won the American Anthropological Association’s 2009 Julian Steward Award for “best monograph in environmental/ecological anthropology published in the past three years.”

Through oral histories (he learned the villagers’ language, Tashelhit) and descriptions of daily rituals, Dr. Crawford offers a richly detailed tapestry of life in the margins of the so-called Third World.

Unusual, perhaps, for a work of scholarship, the reader comes to care as deeply as the writer does for his subjects, patriarchs like Abdurrahman and his hard-bitten sons – both honoring the traditions of work “owed” their elders yet chafing under it – and the tough life of the women who nonetheless went to extremes to care for the stranger with the tape recorder in their midst.

In Tadrar, villagers survive on intensive subsistence farming of 1,400 small, disconnected “fields” and on complicated household-level labor and economic arrangements. The subtlety of these arrangements are not easily or readily revealed to outsiders, but Dr. Crawford, a sunny Southern Californian, won the confidences of some of the villagers who wished to “collaborate” with him to make a collective “attempt to explain how their part of the rural world works.”

“Life was harsh in the village but that harshness seemed different over time,” said Dr. Crawford. “At first, you’re 20-something, impervious to health fears, you’re single, there’s no sex, no beer, and it seems harsh on that one level. But then, as I came to know and care about the people in the village, the harshness of the life took on a different dimension. I could not get over the lack of medicine. But I also saw that if you got sick, people took care of you. Gradually the difficulty of the life took on a new meaning.”

He also realized that the harshness of life in Tadrar was the norm for the vast majority of the people living on the planet.

“In anthropology we have worked hard to dignify the people we study, while often overlooking the hardness of their lives,” said Dr. Crawford. “I want to dignify their lives, of course, but I don’t want to do it with a seeping romanticism. Anthropologists talk about the beauty and dignity of the lives in the villages but they never choose to live there. We are voting with our feet, so to speak.”

The one thing that the villagers wanted to convey to the anthropologist was the harshness of a rural life based on strict traditions and hard manual labor. Indeed, the only explanation of his work that made any sense to the villagers was that “city people who populated universities did not seem to understand the rural world.” By communicating with the young researcher in their midst, they wanted to set the record straight.

“They know they’re discriminated against in the cities,” he said. “They are considered dirty and backwards, and people openly make fun of them. They were pretty clear about what they wanted to say about village life, very forceful in their conversations to me.”

Dr. Crawford wrote, “I quickly came to see that the main point everybody wanted to make was that life was hard … As it turned out, I did not need any special anthropological training to understand it, or any subtle linguistic preparation. I only had to listen. Life. Here. Is. Hard. Men would gather my hands in theirs, stare into my eyes, and repeat it slowly enough that they were assured I could not miss the message.”

The Fairfield professor’s award-winning book was far more than a catalog of hard work and hard times. Dr. Crawford, like most modern anthropologists, found himself confronted by the riddle of a swiftly expanding global economy, which has shoved its way into all of the margins, including the relatively isolated Tadrar, which is 17 miles from the nearest paved road.

In the book’s conclusion, “The Market Has No Memory,” Dr. Crawford takes note of the rapid changes that swept through Tadrar during the decade he was a recurring visitor. Solar power, piped water, satellite dishes and VCRs appeared. A tourist hotel opened. Two of Abdurrahman’s sons married and fled to the city. The family unit gave a little but still held sway, as did the household, which was “the primary unit of production” in the village. Dr. Crawford discovered that there is no reliable way to measure the impact of globalization. The reality of Tadrar was too complex, he said, to fit neatly into any theory.

Instead he found that, in fact, village life was not necessarily simpler, less stressful, or less materialistic than modern Western urban life. Though some young men did leave to make fresh starts in Morocco’s urban centers, just as many returned in disgust, to be folded back into the family and household.

What Dr. Crawford believes we can learn from Tadrar is that, first, “capitalism is not the best of all possible worlds, but merely one possible world.” Also, in Tadrar “caring for others is part of caring for land, part of normal existence, part of life; ‘home’ and ‘work’ are not separate places, are not conceptually separable … By contrast, where I live, it is those who choose to care who suffer. In the United States the people who devote themselves to the infirm and the immature, who nurture elderly parents and young children, these are the people who lose wages, who have to explain the gaps in their resumes to ‘re-enter’ the workforce.”

Finally, though the village life held some “terrible hardships,” it also has “great warmth, humanity, and elegance.”

Now 44, Dr. Crawford is in his sixth year of teaching in the departments of sociology, anthropology, and international studies at Fairfield. A popular instructor, he recently was named the University’s Alpha Sigma Nu “Teacher of the Year.”

While working on his book, the Fairfield anthropologist found a kindred spirit in Bart Deseyn, a Belgian photographer who has spent part of his career documenting rural Berber life. Unbeknownst to Dr. Crawford, Deseyn had read everything he had published. He contacted Dr. Crawford and asked if they could meet.

“I was biased against photographers,” Dr. Crawford admitted. “They tend to come in, snap a few shots and leave, thinking they know all about the culture. But Bart was different. We met in Marrakesh and within five minutes were friends. His method is like something out of the 19th century. He uses a large format camera and he spends an hour or so with every subject. He lets the person decide what they want to wear, how they want to be portrayed. Each frame presents that person in the same head-to-toe way.”

Deseyn, in short, does with a camera what the Fairfield professor does with words. Their collaboration continues, as they work on another prospective book about Berber life, tentatively called Nostalgia for the Present.

This chance connection with Deseyn recalls Dr. Crawford’s own stumbling into Tadrar as a young wannabe poet 20 years ago. His simple explanation for how he arrived at his career in anthropology recalls the opening of Dante’s Divine Comedy:

“I got lost walking in the mountains and met a guy who let me stay at his house. I told him that I would be back and, years later, I was.”