Becoming Diasporically Moroccan

By October 26, 2017Globalization

On the ferry from Spain to Morocco

My recent book Becoming Diasporically Moroccan explores how next-generations after migration use communicative resources to feel ‘at home’ in their ancestral homeland. By following some Belgian, Dutch and French Moroccan-origin families, I learned the embodied and linguistic strategies next-generation young adults employed for ‘becoming-Moroccan’ through where they were hanging out and spending time in public space,  from marketplaces to nightclubs. By investigating how these interactions actually took place, as opposed to how they are reported when back at ‘home’ in Europe, I illustrate some of the social tensions about ‘Moroccanness’ as it is performed diasporically – in Morocco during the summer, when the diaspora ‘comes home’ and around the world.

As people migrate from place to place around the globe, more and more ‘next generations’ are born into a place where they both belong, and do not belong – they are ‘from’ there, but also ‘from’ somewhere else. Increased access to modes of travel mean that we can be ‘from’ somewhere and regularly visit another place where we are ‘from’. But sometimes those visits mean passing through borders where we are categorized: we become ‘strangers,’ even if the passport says we are not.

I first encountered this phenomenon on a ferry boat between Algeciras, Spain and Tangier, Morocco, in July 1999. I was a person who precisely fit a well-known category: an American college student, spending a summer backpacking through Europe. I was by myself for this leg of the trip, but found that I quickly met people on this boat: other European travelers, looking for adventure in Morocco, as well as Moroccan families living in Europe who were going ‘home’ for their summer holidays.

I was bowled over by the cacophony of voices I heard on that boat, speaking all varieties of European and Moroccan languages. I was surprised that there were so many people making this journey, since I had not known about the massive flow of Moroccan guestworker migration into Europe during the 1960s and 70s. The ferry was overflowingly full with Moroccans who seemed to be ‘going home,’ yet who were definitely coming from homes in Europe. Even today, that ferry is a microcosm of Moroccan migration in Europe, where original migrants, now grandparents and great-grandparents, travel with their children and grandchildren between homes. It is a place where Moroccans from all different parts of Europe might meet each other, since many still travel by car overland from their European homes in order to spend their summer holidays in Morocco. It is also a place where they encounter the border: when travelling by ferry to and from Morocco, passport control often takes place during the three-hour ride. Moroccans from all over must present their passports and national identity cards


The route to the port cities of Algeciras and Almeria in southern Spain is signposted in Latin and Arabic scripts

On the ferry crossing from Algeciras to Tangier, I have observed many times how a negotiation of belonging happens as each passenger steps up to the customs officers processing entries. Moroccan citizens are recorded by their national identity card number; the system assumes that if you are ‘Moroccan,’ then you have a Moroccan national identity card. I have watched over and over how individuals step up to the desk to have their passport stamped for entry, and must negotiate being ‘Moroccan’ or not, based on having an ID card, or knowing their national identity card number. One of the diasporic visitors (DVs) who participated in this research, in fact, entered as ‘Belgian’ because she had lost her ID card. Even while she spoke Moroccan Arabic with the officer, who acknowledged that she is a citizen, he stamped her as a visitor, with the same type of visitor ID number in her Belgian passport as I have in my American passport.

These small instances of classification, or categorization, all contribute to an experience of what it means to be ‘Moroccan’ or to be ‘diasporically Moroccan’ for migrant-origin European-Moroccans who took part in this research. During their annual summer visits, ‘being-Moroccan’ a categorial ideal-type, shaped through dimensions and practices of embodiment that emerge in the encounters DVs have with resident Moroccans. I argue that this category exerts considerable force because of the tension of ‘betweenness’ in their materially ‘Moroccan’ bodies – visually categorizable as ‘Moroccan’ – and their materially and expressively ‘non-Moroccan’ corporeality. They belong because of their ‘Moroccan’ bodies, lineages, families, and attachments, yet do not belong because of their ‘non-Moroccan,’ ‘European’ habits, preferences, sensibilities, speech, and ways of being in and through their skins.

I do not, however, want to accept this problematic ‘betweenness’ as the final definition for ‘being diasporic’. Instead, this book is concerned with how DVs reconcile this duality in interaction by negotiating the ways they are categorized through embodied and linguistic practices of belonging. It is also about how these categories of ‘Moroccan’ and ‘non-Moroccan’ are themselves malleable, and are changing in response to the way DVs and others engage with them. So, the subject of this book is not ‘being diasporic’, but ‘becoming diasporic’: exploring how the practices, interactions, experiences, and encounters of people who participated in this research emerge into new, vibrant categorizations of ‘diasporicness’ that change what it means to be ‘Moroccan’ both in Europe and in Morocco, and are becoming more recognizable and more solidified with every return visit.


While the categorial distinction they face in Europe is something about descent – not coming from the right parents – in Morocco it is something about place – not being from the right environment, where place-based knowledge, practices, and forms of embodiment are immediately recognizable and categorizable in interaction. For individuals in such diasporically-oriented communities, place and descent are not mapped directly on to each other; they are inevitably askew. For the participants here, the circumstances of their parents’ mobilities led to their residence outside of Morocco, just as circumstances of others of their generation led to residence in Morocco. Each circumstance, through many interacting parts, leaves traces on their bodies and in their practices that are made relevant when coming face-to-face. In encounters where the rupture of migration is relevant, descent and place become pivots for categorial belonging.


The way I present this discussion also gives categories, and modes of belonging to them, a certain amount of agency or force: they are working on people, evoking certain behaviors, being made relevant as specific practices. Following methods in membership categorization analysis and ethnomethodology, I used micro-analysis of interactions – to the extent that I was able to record and document these interactions for sequential analysis – to demonstrate how participants responded moment by moment in relation to categories that were made interactionally relevant by their practices. Over repeated iterations of similar activities, patterns emerge of a certain range of practices that are accepted by interlocutors, juxtaposed against unacceptable ones, creating the fuzzy and shifting boundary of categorial belonging. Through micro-analyses, we can see how, as people do things with categories, categories are also shaping the scope of what people can do – up to and including how new categories might emerge as a social collective of individuals are continuously pushing at the edges of current ones.


Wagner, L. (2017). Becoming Diasporically Moroccan: Linguistic and Embodied Practices for Negotiating Belonging. Bristol: Multilingual Matters. Book page on publisher’s site.

Author Lauren Wagner

Lauren Wagner is an Assistant Professor in Globalisation and Development at Maastricht University. Her research focuses on issues of diaspora and belonging through microanalysis of everyday encounters, based both in linguistic recorded data as well as in participant observation of materialist atmospheres.

More posts by Lauren Wagner

    Congrats on your new book and thanks a lot for a fascinating post about ‘becoming diasporic’. This is the first time I’ve read about the term ‘diaspora’ but it is actually not a new phenomenon in my context as well as in Australia. I have some relatives who were ‘boat people’ migrating from Vietnam to Australia during wartime. They are Australian citizens who are fluent in English as they speak and behave like any other Aussies living and working in Sydney. However, when they talk to their families and friends within the Vietnamese community or when they come back home in Vietnam, they seemingly have a different identity. For instance, my auntie hardly ever bargains when she goes shopping in Sydney but she tends to do so during her annual trip to our home town in Vietnam (regardless of the price). Perhaps she is aware of the distinct social practices of the two places which decide what is permissible (or impermissible) to do in each setting.

  • S_A_

    This is such a good read! Thank you, Prof. Wagner! I’m from Belgium and it’s great to read about this topic, since it really is something that is very present in Belgian society. This feeling of never belonging somewhere completely is something my Belgian-Moroccan friends all describe as a very common feeling within the community. They are all very proud of their heritage, but are also often seen by Moroccans as not ‘real Morrocans’. And then, many of them get told that they aren’t ‘real Belgians’ either… And to make matters even worse, when there are problems or there is some trouble they are always considered ‘the other’, for example: a news article told a story about a Moroccan thief. It turned out the man was Belgian-Morrocan, but the article stressed his Moroccan heritage. And the opposite is true as well: friend of mine told me the other day that he didn’t know a habit his grandparents do during the Ramadan, so they told everybody that he didn’t know because he was Belgian…

  • Eleonora Beolchi

    Congratulations on your book, Lauren!

    Reading your post took me back to when I was travelling around the south of Spain and got to see a lot of those ferry boat signs along the street. It made me think of how close Spain and Morocco are, 2 different countries, geographically belonging to two different continents, yet so influential culturally on one another. As a European, I’ve never really thought of that ferry boat as a transportation for Moroccan families to go home for summer holidays, but it’s always been sculpted in my mind as a tool to move towards Europe (more than from Europe to Morocco) if that makes sense… and it’s probably the first time that I can make an analogy between these people going back home for holiday and myself going back to Italy from Australia for the Italian summer.
    There is not much difference at the end of the day… I feel my identity has slightly changed the more I live in Australia, so everything I “go home”, I feel in between the 2 counties and the 2 cultures… I enter Italy with my European passport and then once I am there, I’ve got my Italian ID card, just like the Moroccan people mentioned in this post. I am Italian, I feel Italian but a different Italian, not the same that left Italy 6 years ago.
    So thank you for showing me another perspective of something that I’ve culturally always perceived with a different purpose and for consequently allowing me to see a similarity with those Moroccan families going back for Moroccan summer 🙂

  • Eleonora Beolchi

    Same in Italy… the second generation of immigrants that are to all intents and purposes Italians, are referred to as Moroccan, Albanian, Romanian depending on their other nationality when they are involved in any episode where the Italian media may want to take distances from, but at the same time these are people that have grown up or lived many years far from their home country and have somehow lost part of the habits and behaviours. Hard to comment on such things…

  • 44285736

    This article is an interesting look into the sense of belongingness from the Moroccans to visit their land of origin. The kind of cultural identity is the one thing that connects people of different ethnicity to feel the sense of belonging, a sense identity, to a culture which gives meaning to their existence. No matter what country people settle in as immigrants their sense of community remains in a foreign land. Though the next generation are not foreign because there are born in the country, they still have a sense of identity to their parents identity. I came across a similar situation when I was watching the rugby world cup when PNG defeated Wales. The PNG team was made up local players and some Australian born players who had PNG heritage. They were proud to represent their people and villages to play for PNG. So, the article captures the essence of having a common cultural identity that unifies the ethnic groups and gives them sense of belongingness across political boundaries. Australia is a multi-cultural society where you have different ethnic groups calling this place home while at the same time maintaining their cultural identity.

  • X_C_X

    Your example of your auntie’s same practice in going shopping in Vietnam as that in Sydney reflects what Eleonora Beolchi mentions above that the habits and behaviours of migrants have changed a lot since they have lived in a new environment(culture) or have been raised in a different way from that they are taught to do back in “home country”. When my Chinese friends who also study (only) in Aus asked me about when I would go to China after this sememster ended the other day, they usually said “你什么时候回去?”(When will you go back?) while my cousin who is the second generation grown up in Australia asked me in the way of “When will you go to China?” The differences of their choices of language (Chinese and English) and the choices of word “back” and “China” make me become aware of distance in my cousin’s sense of belonging of his Chinese gene that he becomes more Australian instead of Chinese even though he speaks Chinese at home with his parents and grandparents.

  • MB24

    Congratulations on your book Lauren. From your post, the book looks to offer a fascinating insight into the practical effect of the movement of people between their original homeland and other places. One issue that arises from your discussion is the seeming rigidity of the law in the example you gave. However, the law need not be so rigid and incapable of being adapted to better suit circumstances in which a person has a legitimate expectation to their Moroccan or other identity.

  • MeganLouise

    Congratulations on the new book you have published! How exciting!
    This article is so interesting and I imagine a lot of people who have migrated to Australia, being an extremely multicultural country with a vast amount of areas that welcome different cultures. I read this article and immediately thought of my Abuela who moved from Spain to Australia and then moved back to Spain after 20 years. She explained to us that this was because she felt out of place in Australia and identified Barcelona more as her “home”.