For one thing, this book is in French. There’s no translation in English, and it would probably also be hard to do, since parts are in transliterated Moroccan Arabic, although not much. This is a collection of stories of women, children, and of whole families in Morocco in the 1980s. Aïcha Ech-Chenna is often regarded as a hero in Morocco. She was a pioneer in the field of social work, and completely changed the way that most Moroccans see marginalized people in their society. Ech-Chenna encouraged Moroccans to see unwed mothers, orphans, sex workers, child maids, and other marginalized women and children as people caught up in a larger system. She helped people to see that choices aren’t as transparent as they seem to be, and that people act in a larger network, in a bigger context.
This book is a collection of the stories of some of the women and children that Ech-Chenna encountered in the 1970s and 80s as a social worker. The stories are told in chapter form, with each chapter focusing on a different story. Unfortunately, the quality of the writing isn’t very high, and some of the stories feel very disjointed. The individual stories aren’t told in a coherent form – they feel like someone’s train of thought transcribed. This quality makes them both more realistic, as if someone was telling them to you directly, but also the level of the writing is not as high and I found it hard to really get into most of the stories.
For me, the way in which the stories are displayed doesn’t allow the reader to get a better sense of the social work system, or of the larger system of inequalities in Morocco. The stories are presented as individuals, without any indication that they are all in some sense the products of the environment in which they live. The problems that these people face and the systemic failures and difficulties they come up against are not laid out, are not presented as a common factor in their stories. While this may seem like an irrelevant critique, it’s central to my problem with the book. Ech-Chenna’s importance in Morocco stems from her ability to connect these individual stories to larger social issues, to convince people that it’s not always an individual choice that you make that determines your fate, but really a set of choices within a much larger context. Her ability to create the link between a person’s life and the circumstances in which they live, especially in cases of drug use, alcoholism, pre-marital sex, or other taboo issues in Moroccan society – that’s a huge achievement of her career and I wish it were better underlined in this collection of stories. In a well written book, this might be an annoyance, but here, it feels like a missed opportunity.