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.

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