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Book Review: The Voice of the Rural

Book review of Alessandra Ciucci's The Voice of the Rural: Music, Poetry and Masculinity among Migrant Moroccan Men in Umbria (2022)

Published onNov 25, 2022
Book Review: The Voice of the Rural

The Voice of the Rural: Music, Poetry and Masculinity among Migrant Moroccan Men in Umbria, by Alessandra Ciucci (2022)Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

In The Voice of the Rural: Music, Poetry and Masculinity among Migrant Moroccan Men in Umbria, ethnomusicologist Alessandra Ciucci explores the significance of rural music in expressing nostalgia for home, an act of cultural affirmation by and for displaced migrants through their practice of connecting to the rural (l-‘arubiya). Indeed, among migrant Moroccan men in Umbria, the connection to the North African countryside of their past through music is a critical act of place-making within a deeply xenophobic social landscape. 

We are also introduced to Umbria – not as it is typically known for its bucolic beauty and tourism – but as a site of oppression, labor exploitation, xenophobia for Moroccan migrants in light of the recent rise of neo-fascism in Italy. Ciucci examines the hypocrisy evident within a do-gooder culture that welcomes migrants to Italy when they are useful, while still holding hostility when migrants compete with locals for jobs.

Ciucci selects the male lens to view her interlocutors’ culture, stating that “the voice of l-‘arubiya is deeply entangled with a construction of a masculinity, of what it means to be a real man, defined in relation to a man’s courage, his stoicism, the sense of duty he shows toward his family and his community…manhood is a critical dimension of l-‘arubi (the rural)” (p. 25). The author describes the role that masculinity plays in the relations between migrants and the nations where they reside and also analyzes the larger neocolonial context that portrays the west as advanced and vigorous and the east as backward and impotent.

In this text, Ciucci is successful in painting for us a picture of how modern-day realities of class stratification, and the geographic juxtapositions they inevitably create, make clear the colonial past. She exposes the commodification and fetishization of the labor of migrant men who, even while being subjects of household rumor and community gossip in Umbria, are still able to inhabit the spaces they occupy via strong ties to the stories, music, and voice of their rural homeland.

Chapter 1 traces the construction of the Moroccan rural folk type (l-‘arubi) from different perspectives, starting with an analysis of the ways in which French colonial-era dictionary-making and historiography produced the term l-‘arubi. Its use evoked class identity and became opposed the sophisticated town dweller, with rural Moroccans being socially marginalized on the grounds of their ethnicity, status, and corresponding assumption of ignorance.

Chapter 2 focuses on the account of a hazardous crossing from Morocco to Italy via a song called “L-hərraga.” It is about the tragic death of a young Moroccan man traversing the Mediterranean and portrays the perils of undocumented migration, a reality that informs the lives and culture of l-‘arubi. Through this rural music, the testimonies of those who migrate allow them to share the experiences of their voyages, thus bringing about much-needed cultural validation and an affirmation of humanity.

Chapter 3 begins with a discussion of the racially derogatory terms that have the effect of othering migrants from rural Morocco, terms that Moroccans themselves engage with and examine. She traces how an encounter between the French Expeditionary Corps and Italians at the end of World War II influenced the perception that many Italians nowadays hold of migrant Moroccan men. Ciucci’s aim here is to locate how the manhood of these migrants has been problematically constructed and fetishized.

In Chapter 4, Ciucci investigates how the voice is conceived as a sonic phenomenon in which the musical characteristic of timbre is central, for it acoustically embodies nature, geography, history, nostalgia, and romantic intimacy. Here, she makes critical connections to how the use of timbre in Moroccan rural music allows emigrants to aurally reconstruct a sense of the rural masculine self that is made invisible because of the migrants’ alienation and status as others. Akin to the sound of a best friend’s voice, the timbre of the voice of the rural (sawt l-‘arubiya) helps migrant men from Morocco remember and re-engage with themselves in affirming ways.

In her conclusion, Ciucci reaffirms her belief that “the rural” (l-‘arubiya) is a complex notion that is at the core of the personhood of rural Moroccan migrant men. Says Yassine, one of Ciucci’s interlocutors, “this music is in the blood, as soon as you hear it you start dancing all by yourself… It is a feeling that you use to break that absence; I cannot explain it, I cannot talk about it…the absence of your country is inside you. I want to go back because that is where my origins are. Here I feel like a foreigner; here ‘integration’ does not exist. People here do not trust you” (p. 178). Thus, the practice of hearkening to the voice of the rural becomes a political declaration, an act through which it is possible to engage in conversation with histories and borders, so that rural migrant men can still be men, in spite of all the impingements on their dignity.

Ciucci’s experiences as a welcome listener within Umbria’s Moroccan communities indicate a strong commitment to a singular and focused ethnographic lens. This credible perspective may be a critical starting point for the gleaning of greater anthropological meanings. By maintaining geography, nationalism, race, gender, class, labor exploitation, culture preservation, and loss of the music and voice traditions of the Moroccan old country within the frame, Ciucci paves a new way of understanding the anthropology of work as a distinct realm of scholarship. The book’s social and linguistic perspectives on the psychology of trauma and the persistent musical habits inherent to migration are novel lenses through which one can view agrarian labor anthropologically. Indeed, Ciucci describes for anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, and migrant laborers a way to, together, hold knowledge and build understanding across cultures.

Author Biography:

Christa Núñez leads CAN Cooperative Media, the Learning Farm, and the non-profit organization Khuba International. She implements community and school programs such as the Ubuntu Library, Quarter Acre for the People, and Equitable and Edible Farm School. Through her Ph.D. studies in Global Development at Cornell University, and in her organizations, Christa prioritizes the diversification of land holdings and the communal sharing of stories.

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