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Spirits of Displacement and Diaspora

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - SDD (Spirits of Displacement and Diaspora)

Reporting period: 2017-10-01 to 2019-09-30

The object of SDD is to assess the social and cultural impact of physical displacement of communities through the analysis of the consequences of spatial change on religious ritual practiced by the Moroccan working classes. The brotherhood known as the Gnawa recently passed from the role of outsiders in Moroccan society, to representatives of Moroccan immaterial cultural heritage. However, the vital space of gnawa rituals, the old medinas, are being gentrified all over Morocco. Moroccan communities in Europe experience an inflow of Gnawa members who seek spaces to perform their ritual activities in very different spacial contexts.

The detailed study of how the gnawa react to forced displacement and transnational diaspora illustrates how gentrification modifies the culture and society of the working classes globally. By combining urban geography and migration studies, SDD sums to the general understanding of the sociospatial dialectic, showing how space contributes in maintaining communities together. The awareness of how the disruption of space implies social disintegration should encourage policy-makers to prevent displacement and defend the 'right to stay put' of communities, not only to protect an abstract right to proper housing, also to protect the spatial devices through which internal social balance is kept. Underestimating these interactions might lead into an involuntary increase of conflicts, including ethnic conflicts, as well as anti-social behavior and ideologies.

The overall objective of SDD is to provide a new methodology to address social and spatial change, by combining the tools of urban anthropology such as the ethnographic method and the qualitative sensibility to the intimate and symbolic implications of space, with the comparative and broad vision of the geographies of gentrification and migrations. This requires a paradigm shift also in the positioning of the researcher, who has to involve in local conflicts and actively collaborate with communities under threat of displacement, in order to understand the role of space in social dynamics. To develop guidelines for this research method, also meaningful for policy-makers interested in containing the negative effects of displacement, is also an aim of this project.
The outgoing phase at Harvard University included training in Urban Anthropology and Anthropology of the State, a 3-terms course in Standard Arabic, a rigorous Ethical training, and extensive access to libraries and media collections. Fieldwork research developed in Casablanca, Barcelona, Rome, where interviews and other material (songs, images, video) on the brotherhood's ritual and social life were collected. The fieldwork developed through personal involvement with key informants, participation to ritual, meetings with members of the brotherhood, including women, and an understanding of the urban dimension of ritual life. The research focused also on relocations in Casablanca's central districts. A video recording of the aftermath of an eviction was edited and published, and shared by mainstream press in Morocco, resulting in thousands of online visualizations.

Research in Barcelona and Rome allowed to map the diffusion of the Gnawa brotherhood in Europe, While works on the gnawa are abundant, this is the first comprehensive map of the paths and links through which the brotherhood extended into Spain, Italy, Germany, France, Belgium, the UK, and the US. Studying forced displacement and transnational migration highlights the role of space is ritual life.

During the outgoing phase, the project results were presented in France, Portugal, Italy, and the US. Responding to a demand of Harvard's Department of Anthropology, I organized a three-day conference at Harvard's Barker's Center inviting scholars, activists, and other experts in urban displacement from different countries. The conference was a success and will lead to the publication of a special issue which will contain guidelines for research in communities affected or threatened by displacement.
For anthropology, SDD represents an advancement in the understanding of the urban dimension of spirit possession, which moves beyond orientalist conceptions of religion as pre-urban and pre-modern, The structure of gnawa towards religious orthodoxy reflects the way urban working classes relate to power and to planned space: deframing and unsettling political power. SDD unveils how displacement is reorganizing this relation with the state, possibly leading to a situation even more explosive than during the 2011 protests known as 'Arab spring'. Meanwhile, religious behavior among the Moroccan communities in Europe contradict the paradigm of pre-secular Africa and secular Europe. The two shores of the Mediterranean reflect one each other, integrating in a single post-secular and post-colonial cultural environment.

For gentrification studies, SDD opens a field of analysis on the cultural consequences of displacement that moves beyond previous understandings of 'phenomenological gentrification' conceptualized by Peter Marcuse, to a whole new field of study which focuses on what exactly space means, and on what happens to communities when their spatial arrangement is modified. This approach requires a methodological turn, which accepts direct involvement into struggling communities as an epistemological tool, requiring the researcher to take sides and action in defense or advocacy against removal. The guidelines for this kind of activist research will be developed during the incoming phase, and are interesting also for policy makers concerned by the social consequences of relocations, generally invisible for planners.

SDD has a different set of impact on professionals working with the gnawa in the context of ethnopsychiatry or ethnopsychoanalisis. The approach to Gnawa rituals in the Nineties stressed the therapeutic aspect, until an older paradigm of transcultural psychiatry returned dominant,failing to understand the potential of rituals like the Gnawa. Through secondment, I will transfer partial results of SDD to practitioners of clinical psychiatry who might use them to deal with Moroccan patients in Europe.
Poster of the closing seminar of the outgoing phase at the partner institution (Harvard University)