Chapter III Social Exile and Virtual Hrig1: Computer-Mediated Interaction and Cybercafé

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Culture in Morocco

Said Graiouid

University Mohammed V, Morocco and

Al Akhawayn University, Morocco

“I have indeed – praise be to God – attained my desire in this world, which was

to travel through the earth, and I have attained in this respect what no other

person has attained to my knowledge.”2

Ibn Battuta, a 14th century Moroccan traveler

“Do you think that Ibn Battuta would’ve traveled the world if he’d had access

to the Internet?!”

A cybercafé user

Abstract

This chapter explores ways in which computer-mediated interaction and

cybercafé culture are appropriated by individuals and groups in Morocco.

It argues that computer-mediated communication mediates the

construction of cybernetic identities and promotes the rehearsal of invented

social and gender relations. This inventive accommodation of the Internet

(known among young Moroccan Net communicants as “virtual hrig”)

makes computer-mediated interaction, especially through the discursive

forum of chatrooms and email discussion groups, act as a backtalk to

dominant patriarchal and conservative power structures. By using a

qualitative ethnographic approach while sounding the depth of the

“cultural noises” and incrustations, which are accompanying the expansion

of cyber culture, the author also hopes to foreground the prospective

implications of New Media and Information Technologies in a non-

Western environment. While it is too early to draw conclusions on the

extent of the impact of new media technologies on individual subjectivities

and group identities, the point is made that cyber interaction is contributing

to the expansion of the public sphere in Morocco.

In a Friday sermon broadcast on Moroccan national television, the Imam (the

Friday sermon preacher and prayer leader) focused on the contribution of the

Internet and cybercafé culture to the expansion of spatial production in

Morocco. He made the point that the cyberworld should be viewed as a

workable alternative to sites of vice and moral deviance, which permeate the

real world. Citing as a reference the mosque’s middle class neighborhood in

Rabat, he deplored the absence of libraries, museums or other resource centers

that could shield the youth from the risks of idleness and moral deviance. For

the Imam, it is the emancipatory dimension of cyberspace that must be stressed.

In a way, the Imam’s view is in tune with the perception of the important

contribution of the Internet to the expansion of interaction and communication

in the public sphere. The central argument on this side is that new information

technologies are helping to dismantle traditional power structures by allowing

previously disenfranchised groups to publicize their concerns.

Along with this view, there is a concern among the general public that highlights

the risks of computer-mediated interaction on the affective and performative

identities of Internet users. A therapist who runs a weekly section on sex

education in a Moroccan daily newspaper reports the story of a woman who

blames Internet chat for turning her 17 year old son into a homosexual: “I

accidentally came across a letter in my son’s room [...] and that’s how I found

out he was gay. I can’t believe that my only son is a homosexual and it’s Internet

chat which has turned him into one” (Harakat, 2002, p. 9). The author also

reports the story of a thirty year-old woman who sought therapy to “survive”

an addiction to Internet chat and an “emotional dependence” on virtual

correspondence. The therapist explains that both cases support the argument

that virtual exile provides an alternative space to the inhibitory world of

everyday life. The argument here is that instead of regulating access to the

Internet or passing legislation to ban access to cybercafés to underage children

— as some Moroccan parliament members have proposed — the alternative

approach would be to sensitize the public about the risks of a “mindless

addiction” to the world of computer-mediated interaction.3

These vignettes reiterate some ethical and psychological concerns that have

traditionally accompanied the expansion of technological innovations. The

freedom intrinsic to a new technology has often been bracketed between the

promise of a more effective transmission and dissemination communication

model and the anticipated risks of a ritual of interaction that could jeopardize

the organizational order of lifeworld relations. In contemporary Morocco, the

ongoing deregulation of telecommunications policy is mediating an expansion

of the public sphere and reconstruction of gender and power relations.

However, this liberation is also generating attempts by conservative forces to

reproduce the dominant normative model of spatial production onto the

emergent space of the new media and communication technologies.4

This chapter argues that virtual hrig is to be viewed as a grassroots alternative

to the restrictive norms of the public sphere rather than an escape from real life

limitations. Similarly, I contend that the construction of cybernetic identities

provides disenfranchised communities with a resistance space to deal with

global exclusion and marginalization. Cutting across both arguments, I maintain

that computer-mediated interaction, especially through the discursive forum of

chat rooms and email discussion groups, underlines an expansion of the public

sphere and calls for the articulation of a communicative model whose normative

conditions can reconstruct the divide between the public and private spheres

and transcend the borderlines between virtual reality and social space.

I begin with some reflections on the method of approach to Internet research

and computer-mediated interaction. In the second section, I provide a brief

discussion of the expansion of Internet and cybercafé culture in everyday life

of Moroccans. The third section attempts a description of sites in which virtual

interaction may be reconstructing gender and power relations in Morocco. In

the concluding section, I highlight ways in which Internet culture may be

expanding the public sphere and rewriting the normative conditions of its

development.