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Berber Village: the Story of the Oxford University Expedition to the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco

Bryan Clarke, Berber Village: the Story of the Oxford University Expedition to the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco

The first time I had leafed through the ethnographic account, Berber Village: the Story of the Oxford University Expedition to the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco was in the early 1990s when I was working on my BA monograph on early 20th century British fiction on Morocco in the American Legation library in Tangier. I had since become a passionate collector of antique books on Morocco. The edition of the Berber Village I bought many years later through Amazon was the original one published in 1959. The book jacket shows three villagers and a mule casting their eyes toward a village at the foot of a mountain. There is a sense of peace and serenity that envelops the whole landscape. This idyllic impression is a little misleading. The book is a plain and unpretentious account of an expedition undertaken by a handful of undergraduate students at Oxford University in the summer of 1955. The expedition was sponsored by the Exploration Club affiliated with the university with the aim of enabling the participants to conduct fieldwork in a distant village in the Atlas Mountains.

In hindsight, this looks like a terribly imprudent decision. Morocco, still under French occupation, was going through a period of unrest following the exiling of Sultan Mohamed V in 1953. Violence had erupted in the cities and was countered by a severe and ruthless crackdown from the colonial authorities. By the summer 1955, the colonial venture was in its last throes. After nearly 44 years of continuous presence, the colonial establishment had exhausted itself and for the French settlers the future never seemed so bleak and uncertain.

The Oxford scientific expedition consisted of a zoologist, an ethnologist, a geographer, a botanist as well as a biochemist and a Moroccan interpreter. Unaware of the political circumstances, they would experience these turbulences piecemeal, even if during their stay in the remote and isolated village in Telouet, (the seat of the Kasbah of the Glaouis) the risks were far less imminent. Bryan Clarke, the zoologist who led the expedition and wrote a documentary account of it, is now Professor Emeritus, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at the University of Nottingham, UK. In 2010 Professor Clarke won the 2010 Darwin Medal awarded from Royal Society “for his outstanding contribution to understanding the genetic basis of evolution”.

Berber Village is not a record of scientific findings; far from it. It is a humorous and engaging account of the mundane incidents, interactions, and mishaps experienced throughout the journey from England to the south of Morocco. Even more interesting is the mass of historical details, geographical descriptions, and personal impressions which retain a great deal of importance for a student of Moroccan/ North African colonial history today. As an ethnographic account, the book describes the particularities of encounter with foreign subjects which involve a reciprocal sense of curiosity and amusement, mutual fascination and eventually shared, often lasting affection.  Take, for example, this situation:

We had been camped for two days before we received our first visitors. They came in single file down the steep path from the village, their djellabas hitched up above their knees. They paused at the edge of the camp.
‘Peace be unto you,’ they said.
‘Unto you be peace.’
‘You are well?’
‘We are well. Thanks to God.’
Greetings over, we invited them in and they sat hesitantly on the edge of our camp beds. We made tea, and I introduced the members of our party. We asked our guests for their names.
‘Mohammed,’ said the first.
‘Mohammed,’ said the second.
‘Mohammed,’ said the third.
Conversion was slow in starting. They looked at Peter, heavily built and strong, and inquired if he was not the leader of the party. Humphrey said no, and pointed to me. They were puzzled, looking first at Peter’s bulky frame, then at my unathletic figure. They nodded among themselves. Finally one of them turned to me.
‘You must be very intelligent,’ he said.
We eventually learnt to sort out the three Mohammeds.

Bryan Clarke, Berber Village: The Story of the Oxford University Expedition to the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco (London: Longmans, 1959), pp. 66-67.

This first encounter represents a threshold moment, establishing the parameters, ethics, and politics of contact.  The sense of confusion is mutual. The odd sameness resulting from identical names of the natives is countered by the apparently puzzling nature of power relations among the visitors. Beyond the whimsical quality of the incident, the reflexive gaze, as shown in the subsequent meetings, develops into a self-effacing mode of communication. The seemingly awkward and bizarre gestures of the Other are integrated as part of a more complex system of human interaction. Gradually, the sum of exchanges evolves into a bond of friendship and deep incomprehensible attachment. However, if roads can cross temporarily, they eventually diverge. For Clarke and his company, the goal of the visit was still the same: conduct research in the most austere and dispassionate terms. In the traditional ethnographic spirit, the lines between the object of study and the studying subject must be kept separate. The participatory role of the scientist must be monitored closely so that no emotional drift may influence the findings of the fieldwork. Today these theoretical premises and related methodological procedures are repudiated by a new generation of anthropologists who believe that the fissures between fieldwork experience itself and the solitary intellectual exercise are artificial demarcations.

Bryan Clarke and his company were of the old clan. They believed in the sharpness of their gazes; they trusted their paraphernalia; they never questioned the received taxonomies of their respective sciences. In short, they conducted fieldwork in such mechanical ways as disciplined soldiers perform their ‘duties’ in the battlefield. The inescapable sympathies naturally caused distraction, confusion, even uncertainty. But in the end it was the placid vision of science that triumphed, or so it seemed.

Today the enduring value of Berber Village resides not so much in its scientific endeavor as in the simple tale it relates. The graphic scenes of human contact, the intimate thoughts and impressions, the fluid mundane actuality of plain and ordinary individuals, make the book extremely rich and appealing even after the lapse of over five decades.

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