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  • Medicine and the Saints: Science, Islam and the Colonial Encounter in Morocco, 1877–1956 by Ellen J. Amster
  • Anne Marie Moulin
Ellen J. Amster. Medicine and the Saints: Science, Islam and the Colonial Encounter in Morocco, 1877–1956. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013. 350 pp. $30.00 (978-0-292-76211-4).

Ellen Amster’s book deals with the history of colonial medicine in Morocco between 1877 to the date of its independence in 1956. The author has tapped an impressive array of sources in the French archives and combined them with anthropological material from contemporary Moroccan society, resulting in an authoritative historical piece.

Amster has chosen public health as a vantage point from which to describe medical science and Islam and to assess the promises and failures of the French program of reforms after occupation. Amster opens the narrative with the 1907 murder of Dr. Camille Mauchamp in Marrakech, suspected of poisoning patients with European drugs. This was not an isolated drama. In an article for MERIP, Jim Paul portrayed doctors in Maghreb as agents of colonial penetration and informers; some of them paid with their lives for the ambiguities of the medical mission civilisatrice.1

Administration in Morocco, conducted by Marshall Lyautey and his staff, has been depicted as modernizing, particular for urbanism and hygiene, with innovations even being transferred from the periphery to the metropolis, as described by Paul Rabinow in his French Modern.2 Ellen Amster has a different view: she holds that the French protectorate actually missed its targets and was unable to improve the sanitary situation of the population. She goes even further by suggesting that hurried modernization in Moroccan cities worsened the local conditions by far: the opening of broad avenues fractured the urban space of medinas, the development of new trades resulted in the decline of local crafts and the implosion of social solidarity, and the traditional organization of garbage collection and water pumping was irreversibly dislocated. Still more to the point, Amster shows that the modern institutions providing care to the destitute weakened the waqf system (charity foundations).

According to Amster, the ideal formulated by Lyautey and his circle, modernizing without damaging the traditional culture, was self-contradictory and actually never worked. She goes even further by claiming that modernization ran counter to the French’s expectations and paved the way to their defeat. School education, instead of successfully spreading the gospel of the new citizenship, contributed to foster and invigorate local resistance and fueled nationalist dreams of recovered sovereignty, as illustrated by the program of Istiqlâl (independence) launched by Allal al Fassi in 1940.

If the first axis of the investigation into the colonial enterprise is historical, the second is anthropological. For Amster, it is the Moroccan body, more than the urban landscape, on which the French state attempted to stamp its mark, [End Page 162] hoping to ensure its domination by modifying the traditional ways of care and cure. Overall, it is the female body that focused the new masters’ attention: it was seen as the repository of traditional values antagonistic to the French way of life. Modern wives, mothers, and daughters were expected to generate the new citizens and to facilitate the emergence of modern society. The phrase “Midwife to modernity” thus turns to be an excellent metaphor to characterize the French strategy. Here again, Amster shows that not only did the reforms fail to curb infant and mother mortality, the encouragement of modern sexual and reproductive health was counterproductive.

Her terse denunciation of the crude gynaecological practices introduced by modern doctors in Morocco misses a point, however. At the same time, Western pregnant bodies in Europe were equally exposed to obstetricians’ ruthlessness: the resent against the display of female flesh on a surgical table has fostered Western claims for the humanization of deliveries, in and out of feminist circles! Amster is sometimes also excessive when portraying the annihilation of women in the Moroccan society, where ladies of rank enjoyed some power and where sex segregation does not prevent women at home from developing supportive networks.

Along these pages, Amster mobilizes Michel Foucault’s critical approach to the State. Foucault described the State as...


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pp. 162-164
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