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A nation must think before it acts.
The title of this 350-page book sounds, perhaps intentionally, like the beginning of a barroom joke. What follows is anything but. Lawrence Rosen, professor of anthropology at Princeton and adjunct professor of law at Columbia—and one of the first MacArthur “genius” grantees—has applied the talents honed by a half-century of scholarly pursuits to produce a stimulating, layered, and nuanced portrait of Moroccan society and culture in the throes of change but still deeply grounded in its particular, Islamic-centered universe.
Two Arabs, A Berber and a Jew was first conceived at the very beginning of Rosen’s distinguished career, in the Moroccan town of Sefrou, about 30 kilometers from Fez, where he undertook his initial fieldwork under the direction of Clifford Geertz. At the center of the story are four individuals—two Arabs, a Berber, and a Jew, all of them sincere believers in a Supreme Being—whose lives, as told to and understood by Rosen over the course of subsequent decades, provided him with considerable material for some of his earlier studies (for example, Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society, co-authored with Geertz and his wife Hilda, in 1979; Bargaining for Reality: The Construction of Social Relations in a Muslim Community,1984; and The Culture of Islam, 2004). Rosen’s decision to revisit their stories to elucidate their meanings, as part of a broader synthesis of his life’s work, was a good one.
The book’s language is occasionally dense, as with all of Rosen’s writing. But while it doesn’t make for a fast read, it’s worth the effort for anyone looking to get below the surface of events. As the best anthropologists often do, Rosen not only provides numerous insights into Moroccan and Islamic culture, but offers much to chew on for Western readers regarding their own culture, their view of the Muslim “Other,” and the human condition as a whole.
The four men whom Rosen characterizes as “extraordinary ordinary people” did not really know one another. Yet each interacted regularly with people like the others, and they were thus representative of a larger whole. More importantly, each reveled in his differences from the others—differences well represented in Moroccan society. As Rosen makes clear in his prologue, this is one of his central themes: The acknowledgement, acceptance, and championing of differences is deeply etched in Moroccan and Islamic culture. As he has throughout his career, and without romanticizing matters, he argues that the four dramatis personae of the book “share a culture in which difference is vital, in which the diversity of their inclinations and connections is seen as enlivening their range of social possibilities.” Difference for them “forms a basis for linkage, rather than a fault line of separation.”