Qunfuz

Robin Yassin-Kassab

Dusklands

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maghrebLast summer I travelled in Morocco (where I used to live) in order to write an essay for the Maghreb issue of the Critical Muslim, which I also edited. This essay is available in full online (for free). To read the other essays, stories and poems (and there are some truly brilliant ones) you’ll have to buy the issue (available on Amazon) or subscribe. Please support the journal/ magazine by encouraging your local library/ college to subscribe.

Morocco’s Arabic name, ‘al-Maghreb’, emerges from the root gh-r-b, which denotes concepts including the west, distance, and alienation. ‘Ghareeb’ means strange. ‘Ightirab’ means living outside the Arab world, whether in the west or the east. ‘Maghreb’ also means sunset, dusk, the evening prayer, the time at which the daily fast is broken. Al-Maghreb al-Arabi refers to the entire Arab west – Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, the Western Sahara – but Morocco has no other name. It is al-Maghreb al-Aqsa, the furthest west, the strangest.

The ancient Egyptians believed they spent the afterlife wandering ‘the Western Lands’. William Burroughs, who lived in Tangier, wrote a novel inspired by the notion. When I lived in Morocco, teaching English at the turn of the century, a Syrian woman of my acquaintance used to play on the word like this: la tustughreb, anta fil-maghreb or, Don’t be shocked, you’re in Morocco! On this return visit I heard the same phrase from the mouth of a Moroccan man in a train.

But shocked I was, a little bit, twelve years ago.

I’d been living in the mashreq, the Arab east, before I arrived, and (foolishly) I expected the maghreb to be similar. I found a much more liberal place, one much less subject to taboo. For instance, depending on class and region, a Moroccan girl with a boyfriend is not quite the social catastrophe it would be further east. Moroccan sleaze is not hidden away (which is perhaps, overall, a good thing). I once almost pushed my son in his pushchair past men engaged in a sexual act, not in a dark basement but among the trees at the side of a main road. Several times I walked past the same exhibitionist in central Rabat. There were police nearby but they ignored him. And I frequently saw ragged street children sniffing glue-soaked rags, more of a South American scene than an Arab one. (I didn’t see that on this recent trip). In addition to public taboos, Moroccans lack the softness and eloquence, the courtliness, of the eastern Arabs. But they also lack the airs and graces, the intense class resentments, the hypocrisies. You don’t feel everyone is judging everyone else as you can do in the east, at least not in the same way, not to the same extent.

Then there were the contradictions, or perhaps the diversity, better put, of language, ethnicity, culture and, most of all, class. Parts of the big cities were comparable to Europe in their lifestyles and aspirations. Some of my students went to French-language schools, spent their holidays in Europe, and spoke French at home. Meanwhile much of the countryside was consigned to illiteracy and grinding poverty. There was almost no modern infrastructure out there. The people didn’t speak French. Some didn’t speak Arabic either.

I return twelve years later to Rabat, once my home, a handsome capital surrounded by red walls and built in that distinctive architectural style which connects Andalusia to West Africa. Rabat’s ‘new city’ contains tree-lined boulevards, embassies and white villas, and the enormous Makhzen (royal court) compound. The madina al-qadima (old city) and kasbah (fortified settlement) are to the west. A necropolis lies west of the madina. Then comes the beach and its piers, the crab-crawling rocks, and the cold Atlantic. The madina is neither traditional nor modern: it’s contemporary, and Moroccan traditions are an integrated part of contemporary life. The glossy-artisanal rue des Consuls is designed to serve foreigners, in the past and the present, but it’s by no means an over-touristed souq. The flea market in the mellah (what used to be the Jewish quarter) deals in antiques, broken office machines, and books – classics and curiosities in Arabic, French and English.

My visit comes in Ramadan, whose rhythm has overtaken the madina. This means quiet mornings and bustling afternoons. As the maghreb prayer calls, the sunset is dispersed by light Atlantic cloud, then the streets empty and silence reigns while the fast is broken. A fat moon rises. An hour later boys are sitting on the steps of the kasbah beating drums and singing traditional songs, not for show but to amuse themselves. A couple break into dance as they walk past. More drums and picnics down on the beach. The mosques are full (of both men and women) for Ramadan taraweeh prayers, and the markets are crammed until two in the morning.

Outside the city walls, the Chellah, once a Phoenician, then a Roman settlement, is a suitable location for historical musings. Morocco’s first Islamic rulers were the Idrissis, Zaydi-Shia, and like the current monarchs, descendants of Ali and Fatima. They built Fez and founded its great religious institutions. Then the murabitoon (Almoravids) of the Sanhaja tribe swept from Senegal and Mauritania as far as Spain. The greatest and most tolerant Almoravid sultan, Yusuf bin Tachfin (reigned 1061–1106), founded Marrakesh and ruled from Ghana to Lisbon. Later, by Khaldunian process, urbane decline set in, and the Almoravids were swept aside by the muwahidoon (Almohads), a new set of puritanical nomads who first burnt then refurbished Fez and Marrakesh. Next came the Merenids of the Anti-Atlas Zenata tribe, but in the fourteenth century Bubonic Plague and chronic infighting splintered the polity, and Portuguese soldier-traders took over the coastal ports. The Saadi dynasty pushed back foreign encroachment, and in the seventeenth century the Alawi dynasty took over. It still rules today.

‘Khaldunian process’ refers to the theory of Tunis-born ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), the historian and founder of sociology, that dynastic rule works by a cycle whereby a new and innovative group strengthened by tight social cohesion, asabiyya in ibn Khaldun’s word, defeats the old rulers, then in victory becomes urbanely civilised, then decadent, and eventually loses power to a new, highly coherent group. ‘So it is’, writes Robert Irwin in this issue, ‘that the wild and sometimes fanatical tribesmen are able to defeat and conquer empires and cities and go on to create new states.’ As Irwin notes, ibn Khaldun, who emphasised the decisive role of social and economic forces, saw ‘urban life as leading to degeneracy’ and looked at luxury with disdain. The great historian is regarded as an objective, neutral scholar. But Irwin throws fresh light on ibn Khaldun, arguing that he had strong Sufi tendencies.

The most intact building inside the Chellah’s walls is an elegant Merenid mosque with a patchily blue-tiled minaret. (Moroccan minarets, ancient or modern, are not the cones or needles of the east, but rectangular towers. They look like the church towers of Spain.) On the slope above the ancient foundations and the mosque, whitewashed cubes topped by octagonal domes contain the remains of holy men – marabouts. Trees fill the gaps: bananas and olives, palms and figs, bamboo, baobabs and firs. Storks (onomatopoeiacally named laq-laq in Arabic) make that deep repetitive click with their beaks. They are huge birds, almost humanoid as they step the corridors between the trees, giants as they flap overhead. Their nests look like giant rings on finger-like trunks in the near distance. Beneath the walls a woman tends her field of greens enwalled by high bullrushes. She wears a broad straw sun hat from the Rif. And beyond her, the flood plain of the Bou Regreg, the river separating Rabat from Salé.

Salé was once a pirating capital. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries the north African maritime economy was dominated by corsairs (from the Arabic qursaan). The original pirates were Moriscos who’d been first forcibly converted to Christianity, then driven out of Spain. They understood their work not as mere piracy but as an effort to rebalance power in the Mediterranean. At that stage Christian sailors north of the sea were as keen on slaving as the Muslims. It was a very lucrative business. Captives of high birth could be ransomed; those of education could earn their freedom. One well-known slave was Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616), author of Don Quixote, ransomed by his parents after five years of captivity. The Sally Rovers, as Salé’s corsairs were known in English chronicles, roved as far as Cornwall to snatch hostages.

Earlier in its history, Salé was the upper limit of the Barghawata confederation, which ruled its own coastal state from the eighth to the eleventh centuries. Barghawata’s syncretic religion of Sunni, Shii and Khariji Islam alongside Amazigh traditions and perhaps Judaism, boasted a king-prophet, Salih ibn Tarif, who produced his own eighty-sura Amazigh ‘Quran’. Alongside pockets of Shiism, Barghawata’s influence persisted in the mountains until it was finally eliminated by the rigidly orthodox Almoravids, castigators of heresy in al-Andalus too. Today the entire region is Sunni, of the Maliki school.

More recently, the city has provided an illusion for the screen. When I lived in Rabat I sometimes saw helicopters hovering over the beach across the river. Black Hawk Down (2001) was being filmed. Salé was pretending to be Somalia. The cinema and other forms of shadow-play make a constant Moroccan theme, as we shall see.

After a week spent in Rabat and nearby Casablanca, meeting Moroccans and indulging in nostalgia, I headed down the Atlantic coast. If I’d made a different journey this narrative would have taken a different route, but I wanted to go somewhere I hadn’t been before. Twelve years ago I visited the northern coast, Asilah and Tangier and the beautiful village of Chefchaouen in the Rif. I saw the imperial cities of Meknes and Fez (the latter absolutely central to Moroccan history, and boasting – now Aleppo’s been half destroyed – the most intact medieval Arab-Islamic city in the world), the nearby Roman ruins of Volubilis, the shrine town of Moulay Idrees, and Middle Atlas towns like Sefrou. I wandered the High Atlas, and climbed Jebel Toubkal, north Africa’s highest mountain. I clambered through the Todra Gorges and followed the desert trails as far as M’hameed. I explored the vast caverns near Taza and sojourned in Oujda on the (closed) Algerian border. So: been there. Done that. (Of course all I did was cover roads, lines on the map. I’d actually seen far less than one per cent of the country.)

But this time I made a journey south down the Atlantic coast, then inland to Taroudannt and Marrakesh on my way back to the airport at Casablanca. I justified the route like this: most Moroccans live on the coasts; the coasts have determined Morocco’s economy and foreign relations; I was aiming for al-maghreb al-aqsa, the Furthest West; finally, on the coast in this Ramadan July it should be cool enough to think.

The Atlantic Coast

First stop was el-Jadida, then further south, passing Safi where your sardines are packed, to Essaouira, an exhilarating place with its huge doors, high ramparts and constant wind.

El-Jadida has a full complement of Moroccan summer tourists, but no foreigners; Essaouira, on the other hand, is one of the most (foreign) touristed spots in the country, and Ramadan here exists in parallel to holiday world – but these aren’t package tourists, and the place hasn’t been squashed by them. In fact, a positive cross-fertilisation is apparent in the art, craft and fashion on sale.

The Atlantic isn’t gentle like the Mediterranean. It raises powerful waves to crash against the shore. It’s cold, and there are perilous undertows. Surfing is a more popular pursuit than swimming, though there are swimmers, sometimes women as well as men.

In both towns, late afternoon fishermen are joined by footballers, walkers and runners. And these people are fasting. The day I met the cinema critic Adile Semmar, he’d been swimming because ‘I was too tired to either work or read.’ The option of going to sleep in the weak hours seemed not to occur to him. This is a million miles from Saudi Arabia.

Both towns were shaped by the Portuguese, although Mogador Island (actually two islands) off Essaouira, a purple production centre under the Phoenicians, has ancient origins. In 1764, with the Portuguese expelled, Sultan Muhammad ibn Abdullah (1710–1790) hired the French military architect Theodore Cornut to rebuild the city, like so many Moroccan cities a happy accommodation of European, Arab and African influences. El-Jadida, called Mazagan, remained in Portuguese hands for another two centuries. It finally earned its name el-Jadida – the New – when Jews from nearby Azzemour were settled here in the nineteenth century. Unlike in other cities, el-Jadida’s Jews were not confined to a mellah.

The mellah first appeared in 1438. As Louis Proyect notes in his contribution to this issue, ‘the Sultan created a mellah near the palace after a number of Jews were killed in the aftermath of a rumour that they had placed wine in the mosques of Fez, a city with a large Jewish population’. Ostensibly, they ‘made the Jewish communities appear as outcasts, isolated from the wider society’ but in fact ‘the Jewish quarters were quite porous. Jews were able to move in and out of the mellah and even settle in other cities where there were none’. The mellah constituted a ‘Jewish space’ within rather than an isolated part of the city. ‘It was a locale from which the Jewish community interacted with the city as a whole, and with the wider world.’ However, there were some ‘ridiculous laws’ that ‘required Jewish women to wear shoes of different colours, one white and one black, as well as the code that prevented Jews from riding horses’. But Jews never faced an ‘existential threat’ in the Maghreb.

Back in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Portugal, formerly Muslim-ruled, was expanding aggressively, its focus on naval routes and its deployment of advanced military technology setting the pattern for later, further-flung European conquests. El-Jadida was founded in 1506 under the name Mogador, and the commercial fortress colony rapidly became one of the most important entrepots in the country.

Both towns reminded me of the other side of the continent, the Indian Ocean, where Arabs and Africans, Islam and the Portuguese, also collided and intermingled. Here too there’s the legacy of a slave trade, and multilingualism, and whitewashed box houses on a sparkling sea. Architecturally, these ports bear resemblance to Muscat and the Gulf ports, the surviving old quarters at least, and to the ports of east Africa and western India. El-Jadida’s ‘Portuguese City’ reminded me specifically of Galle in Sri Lanka. European encroachment intensified dramatically in the nineteenth century. In the seventy years before the French Protectorate, Morocco was constantly harrassed but, unlike its Algerian neighbour, was not swallowed up. It therefore had some time to respond to the challenge by means of indigenous reform.

In this period the monarchy often worked as hard as any contemporary presidential candidate, travelling the national territory not only to gather taxes but to establish economic, political and military alliances with tribal chiefs and warlords, more closely integrating the national space. And there were other attempts to catch up. In 1865, for instance, Sultan Muhammad IV (1802– 1873) introduced a state-sponsored printing press.

But the European tide was unstoppable. Military and economic pressure steadily undermined the reforming state. Its authority was eaten away by the ‘Protections’, whereby first Europeans, then any Moroccan working for or associated with Europeans (eventually including even aristocrats and ministers), were granted immunity from Moroccan law. The International Zone based on Tangier and guaranteed by Britain and Germany was a geographical extension of the Protection concept, and another blatant invasion of Moroccan sovereignty. The final collapse was brought nearer by the disastrous reign of Sultan Abd al-Aziz (ruled 1894–1908), more noted for amusements than concrete achievements. His palace hosted firework displays, a cinema, and photographic equipment grazed over by sheep. Meanwhile overspending, debt and lawlessness increased, and rural rebellions erupted.

Yet, then as now, civil society flourished and even to an extent repaired the damage to the social fabric done by the monarchy and foreign encroachment. Muhammad al-Kattani (1858–1927) head of a zawiya (Sufi lodge) in Fez, called for Islamic revival through ijtihad and resistance to European penetration. This late companion to Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905), the Mufti of Egypt, and similar mashreqi reformers founded a newspaper and issued mass-produced pamphlets. A very political player, when the traditional ulema accused him of heresy he cultivated an alliance with Sultan Abd al-Aziz, then supported the successful take-over by Abd al-Hafeez, Abd al-Aziz’s brother. But this was his undoing: fearful of al-Kattani’s rising popularity, the new sultan had him beaten to death in front of his wives and children.

Wherever I travel in this country, I can’t escape the cinema. There’s an Orson Welles Square in Essaouira. The city ramparts provided the setting for the opening scene of the great director’s Othello (1954) – the Moor, after all. The Portuguese Cistern in el-Jadida was used for the film’s riot scene. Nor can I escape the strong Moroccan aesthetic, which in recent years has neither withered nor been consigned to the dread realms of ‘folklore’, but on the contrary has adapted and flourished under contemporary pressures. The country’s current mass architecture uses ‘modern’ materials yet remains entirely and distinctively Moroccan because of the colour schemes, the large doors and balconies, the roof terraces, and structurally, the upper stories jutting out into the street. These houses are brightly and individually painted, which means cityscapes here are seldom grey or monotonous. On the shore south of Essaouira, surrounded by curious goats, I realised something obvious: the primary colours of the Moroccan aesthetic are taken from the environment – pure shades of blue from sky and sea, ochre from the sand, the greens of the trees, the pinks and reds of the mountains.

Morocco’s sustained and successful artisanal culture seems even healthier now than when I lived here. Indeed, its painted wooden furniture, leatherwork, silver jewellery, and clothes, have carved out a global niche. Moroccan clothes, constantly changing and relentlessly fashionable, have influenced Western designers since the 1960s. Off the catwalks, Moroccans easily and elegantly combine Western casual with revived Arab and African styles to synthesise their own: a mix of djellabas and tunics, tracksuits and burnouses. In general, they look good. The women look very good.

Then there’s the ubiquitous visual art, paintings for sale or on the walls of private homes, particularly art naif and abstract works referencing the Berber motifs traditionally patterned into carpets. Marrakesh is not the only city to boast several galleries of high-quality contemporary art. Contemporary Moroccan literary production includes novels and memoirs, both gritty realist and magical romantic. As Marcia Lynx Qualey’s essay demonstrates, the region is steeped in poetry which often represents and serves as the ‘voice of dissent’ (not necessarily political). The great living poets of the Maghreb, Qualey informs us, craft their work in ‘many interconnected tongues’, including modern standard Arabic, Darija or Moroccan Arabic, Tamazight, and French. And Anita Hunt describes Mauritania as the ‘land of a thousand poets’, often-overlooked but remarkably diverse and creative.

Food is another manifestation of the aesthetic, for alongside Syrian- Lebanese cuisine, Morocco’s is the richest and most idiosyncratic in the Arab world. Friday couscous is still served in homes, mosques and restaurants. For the rest of the week there’s a range of tagines and pastillas flavoured with cumin, saffron and mint, merguez sausage and grilled fish or fruits de mer, flavoured breads and perhaps the world’s best olives, tongue-curling sweet things, snails-in-pepper-soup, and orange juice on every corner. Most often of all, harira soup – tomatoes, meat and lentils – its bubbling odour omnipresently teasing throughout the long Ramadan days. And mint tea, of course, which brings with it its own serving rituals and a whole other branch of artisanry – the teapots and glasses which are now as popular in bourgeois west London as in a Moroccan café.

It’s a fine environment to travel through, and now I make a meditative focus on the basics of movement: locating the train, coach or grand taxi station (demoting in this order as I move south); finding accommodation and food. There’s enough to think about getting from A to B. In each place I concentrate on finding my bearings, making a map, saying hello. I sniff the air and taste the mood. Then I leave.

But before I arrive at my next destination, allow me to remember Casablanca, the country’s largest city and industrial heart, and setting for the famous Bogart-Bergman film (1942) – though that was actually shot at the Warner Brothers studios in Burbank, California. For much of its history, Casa was a small pirate port. Its dramatic growth spurt occurred in the twentieth century as a direct result of colonialism. Before building, however, the foreigners destroyed. In 1907, following the murder of eight Europeans, a French gunboat levelled parts of the city.

Morocco finally lost its independence to the Protectorate in August 1912 when Sultan Abd al-Hafeez (the killer of Muhammad al-Kattani) was forced to resign; he was replaced by the much more pliable Mawlay Yusuf (1881– 1927). French Resident-General Lyautey moved in to establish ‘indirect rule’, a theatrical system of dual government in which the Makhzan’s ritual pageantry was preserved or increased while its actual power diminished to (partial) authority over religion, culture and education (90% of Moroccans were illiterate when the French left: a result of the apartheid system in which Europeans, Jews, Amazigh and Arabs were educated separately, and the last two categories barely at all). The French technocratic bureaucracy, meanwhile, made all the important practical decisions concerning the law, the economy, and infrastructural development.

This shadow play covered the nakedness of both the monarchy and the occupation, but didn’t fool the countryside. Foreign rule was fiercely resisted by the Zayan confederation in the Middle Atlas and by Abd al-Kareem (1882– 1963) in the Rif mountains (Abd al-Kareem’s main target was the Spanish, who had occupied the north). It took the imperial powers several years and many dead soldiers to put down these challenges. The French employed a scorched earth policy to defeat the insurgents.

Then they turned to developing ‘Le Maroc Utile’ – the central Atlantic coast and the wheat fields of the adjoining plains. Architect Henri Prost’s modernist and ‘neo-Mauresque’ ‘new cities’ appeared next to the ‘old’. The zoning of old and new, and Lyautey’s romantic respect for defanged ‘tradition’, saved the old. Moroccan madinas are still whole and entire; they avoid the savage interruptions (by motorway, car park or Stalinist towerblock) of Cairo, Damascus or Baghdad.

The new cities are often very pleasant too, but were clearly not built for Moroccans. One sign of this is Casablanca’s central Sacre Coeur, a huge, useless cathedral in white concrete (but I’m too harsh: now desacralised, it has found a use as an occasional venue for arts events, and also sheltered a pregnant dog when I visited). There’s a good view of the city from its birdshit-spattered tower, including across to the almost equally arrogant Hassan II mosque, third largest in the world, with a laser aimed at Mecca, much resented by Moroccan interlocutors who wish the garish thing were named ‘the Moroccan People’s Mosque’, seeing as the Moroccan people paid for it.

Scorched earth and better conditions in the new cities sparked a rural exodus and a population explosion, resulting in shanty towns or bidonvilles sprouting on the urban outskirts. French rule also catalysed an independence movement spurred on by soldiers and migrant workers returning from France, where exposure to racism, poor work conditions, and to the citizens of other colonised countries, expanded leftist and anti-imperialist political awareness. Nationalist intellectuals established ‘free schools’ and cultural and literary associations – another of the recurrent episodes of civil society stepping in to repair the damage done by sultans and imperialists.

The Amazigh

My hotel in Taroudannt is outside the walls, not far from the first fields, but can’t be described as quiet because it’s right next to a mosque, a sand red one with a cream stripe, Maghrebi crenellations and a keyhole window on each side of the minaret. The loudspeakers are directed right at my room, so I hear taraweeh and qiyam al-lail as if on a soundsystem at the Notting Hill Carnival. Fortunately the qari’s recitation is beautiful. So too is the collective voice of the distinctively Moroccan tahaleel chanted after dawn, and the tarteel after the asr (afternoon) prayer.

Taroudannt is the commercial and artisanal capital (there’s no industry) of the Souss valley, a wide plain between the High Atlas and the Anti-Atlas crammed with argan trees and citrus groves. Its streets are cluttered with bicycles and motorbikes (women ride here too, although it’s a somewhat more conservative place than the coastal cities), and horse-drawn carriages, which create a traditional odour of straw and dung. The town is much more populated than last time I was here, twenty years ago with friends escaping a package holiday in Agadir. We stopped for the night in Taroudannt on the way to Marrakesh. I remember a freezing dawn waiting for the bus to pass through, a few men hunched against a wall, heads hidden in their pointed hoods. This time it’s hot. I try to write on the hotel’s roof terrace but I drop too much sweat on the page. A pink gecko regards me wearily from a wall. So I give up and sweat in the streets instead. In the main square stalls sell grilled prawns, figs, enormous melons. A crowd of storks dances overhead. Most people here are Shleuh Berbers. Tashelhit is spoken alongside Arabic.

Up to 45 per cent of Moroccans speak a Berber (more properly, Amazigh) language: Tashelhit in the south, Tamazight in the Centre, Tamarif in the north. Almost all of the remaining 55 per cent (except perhaps for the speakers of Arabic’s Hassaniya dialect, found in small southern and eastern settlements) are of partly Amazigh ancestry. Morocco’s most widely spoken language is Durija, Moroccan Arabic, which, by its music, vocabulary and grammatical peculiarities, is Arabic mapped onto an Amazigh base. It has a distinctive rhythm in which a phrase sounds like a shrug; its vowels are either elided (so Kareem becomes Krim) or lengthened (so Mohsin becomes Mohseen). There is a case to be made that Classical Arabic (or its Modern Standard version) is an elite language in Morocco, one that preserves elite power, that it’s even perhaps in some way a little ‘foreign’ – but Durija is as Moroccan as couscous. Those Arab nationalists crazed by the homogenising urge (an impulse which has wrecked Islamism too) worry about the ‘purity’ of Durija, but people who understand Arabism as a cultural reality, a powerful set of linguistic, social and political relationships between diverse peoples, celebrate Durija as an example of the tremendous breadth and possibility of the language.

Arabism is a matter of civilisation, not of race, and without the Berbers, Arab civilisation would have had no Tariq ibn Ziyad (who led the Muslim armies into Spain in 711), no ibn Battuta (the great travel writer; 1304– 1369), and no al-Idrisi (the geographer and cartographer; 1099–1166). From this perspective, the Amazigh like the Kurds and Nubians are an essential component of the Arab collectivity.

French orientalists, however, with their racial theory and divide-and-rule strategy, categorised Arabs and Berbers as separate races. The nationalist backlash to colonialism then emphasised the language of national unity (or homogeneity) and sought to erase difference. Amazigh language and identity was too often regarded as an embarrassment, even as a threat.

In recent decades there’s been a backlash against the backlash, a Berber Pride movement which in its most extreme forms has used terms such as ‘invasion’ to describe the slow Arabisation of north Africa. According to Adnane Addioui, the head of Enactus, an organisation of students, academics and business leaders committed to ‘entrepreneurial action to transform lives and shape a better more sustainable world’, and a welcoming host in his Salé home, this is a line taken by those with an extremist secularist agenda which rejects Islam as ‘foreign’, though it arrived in Morocco long before Christianity took root in England, and most of its fiercest propagators were Berbers. ‘I’m a proud Amazighi,’ Adnane declares, ‘but I don’t consider that my people were colonised by Arabs.’

Indeed they weren’t. After the Umayyad general Uqba ibn al-Nafi‘ (622– 683) rode his horse into the Atlantic, swearing that he’d conquered all the land there was to conquer, he was driven back to what is now Libya by the Amazigh queen Kahina. The indigenous population rejected Arab conquest but welcomed Islam. The Bani Hilal migrations in later centuries did much more damage, and did alter demographics, but the Arabisation of the region occurred primarily as a result of trade, intermarriage, and the influence of itinerant scholars and mystics.In the words of cinema critic Adil Semmar: ‘No Moroccan can claim to be 100% Berber, and no-one can claim to be 100% Arab.’ In ‘racial’ terms, positing a distinction between Arabs and Amazigh is as absurd as distinguishing Celts from Anglo-Saxons in England. Yet when I met Hafida Elbaz of the Association Solidarité Feminine, who prefers to speak French, she was at pains to emphasise that ‘there are hardly any Arabs’ in the country, that most ‘Arabs’ are in fact Andalusans. By this narrow ethnic reckoning, there are hardly any Arabs in Syria or Egypt either.

Adil Semmar, who I met in a Rabat café, believes the Amazigh pride campaign, at least in its more extreme and anti-Arab manifestations, is not a popular movement but an elite concern of limited relevance. Yes, there’s a small autonomy movement in the Rif. This is what happens when ‘people lose faith in institutions but, thinking locally, they don’t take on the whole system’.

But the fact remains that some rural Moroccans can’t speak (and certainly can’t read) Arabic. As a result they are at a disadvantage in the state’s courtrooms, even in hospitals. This problem is finally being remedied. ‘Now our children can learn to write the language at school,’ Said Dafyollah, hotelier and mountain guide (he’s in my guidebook), told me proudly.

The language is now being written and taught using the ancient hieroglyphs of the Tifinagh alphabet (official signs are now trilingual – French, Arabic, Amazighi). Adil Semmar describes the choice of this third alphabet (after the Arabic and the Roman) as mere ‘political correctness’. After all, English use of Roman script does not entail submission to Rome, and bringing yet another script into areas of high illiteracy will not necessarily prove empowering. Said agrees Arabic script might have been more practical.

Amazigh-language radio and television broadcasts are now an integral element of Moroccan media, and the state no longer prevents parents from naming their children with Amazigh names. But are these language rights enough? ‘No, not yet enough,’ says Said. ‘We sometimes feel the Arabs have marginalised us.’ (The examples he gives are economic, and relate to the urban-rural divide.) ‘But we are taking our rights little by little.’

In conversation Said also makes such statements as ‘Our Arabic culture is beautiful,’ which seems to prove Adil and Adnane’s point that the issue is not one of starkly delineated ethnic groups in conflict, but of establishing rights for people excluded by illiteracy and poverty as much as by language. Unlike in Algeria or Libya, where Amazigh populations and cultures have been more brutally suppressed, the Moroccan king (and therefore state) has welcomed (or perhaps co-opted) the Amazigh movement. It is unlikely, therefore, that Arab-Amazigh tensions will expand.

Said takes me to Tioute, a village at the foot of the Anti Atlas. The road would pass through desert were it not for the ubiquitous argan trees, which can survive in temperatures of up to 50 degrees. The fruit is bitter – believe me, I’ve tasted it. But the crushed nut produces a vitamin E-rich oil with a host of cosmetic and culinary functions. The Tioute palmerie contains 3,000 trees and makes very pleasant walking. The village’s ruined kasbah, however, is doubly ruined by the monstrous incongruity of a garish new restaurant (no customers inside). Before the restaurant, part of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944) was filmed here. Further east, the crumbling kasbah of Ait Benhaddou has provided the setting for tens of films, including Jesus of Nazareth (1977), Time Bandits (1981), and Gladiator (2000). While we’re on the topic, the ‘Lebanese’ scenes of George Clooney’s Syriana (2005) were shot, very obviously, in Morocco, featuring Moroccan clothes, Moroccan houses, Moroccan faces, and Durija. Clearly, for Hollywood, one Arab location is as good as another.

Tioute’s kasbah was once owned by the Glawi clan, a family counted among the ‘Lords of the Atlas’, brutal warlords whom the French subcontracted to keep order in the High Atlas and the south.

‘Are the family still around?’ I ask.

‘A few are in Taroudant,’ says Said with a wave of the hand and an audible sneer.

‘They’re the ones who helped the French.’

‘That’s right.’ He purses his lips and raises his brow.

In 1953 Thami al-Glawi, pasha of Marrakesh, conspired with the French to depose Sultan Muhammad V (1909–1961) in favour of his uncle. The sultan had become increasingly uncooperative with his colonial overlords. During World War II he refused to implement Vichy orders to detain and deport Morocco’s quarter of a million Jews. In the post-war years he entered an uneasy alliance with the nationalists who would form the Istiqlal or Independence Party. Istiqlal’s intellectual leadership calculated that it needed the symbolic value of the Sultanate on its side, something comprehensible to the country’s illiterate, pre-nationalist majority. In 1947 Muhammad broke publicly with the Protectorate by affirming Morocco’s ‘Arab-Islamic destiny’, and was rewarded by a wave of popular devotion. By 1953, when the Glawis helped the French depose him and he was exiled to Madagascar, his figure had become a symbol of national suffering under colonialism. In the frequently insurgent north, a Moroccan Army of Liberation launched attacks against the Spanish and French occupiers. Meanwhile the Istiqlal’s 1944 Manifesto of Independence called for a democratic constitutional monarchy.

Morocco achieved independence in 1956, but the monarchy never became constitutional, nor the state democratic. In stages the sultan, now styling himself ‘king’, seized control of the army and security services, the Interior Ministry and Justice Ministry. Instead of redistributing land deserted by the colonists, he bought it up himself.

Tyranny and Civil Society

I came to Tarroudant from Sidi Ifni, several hundred kilometres down the coast from Essaouira, both the furthest south and the furthest west that I’ve been in Morocco. Such are the microclimates on the journey, trapped between the ocean, the mountain ranges and the desert, that a twist of the road is enough to throw the environment from lush tropical to alpine forest to baked bare rock. I’d been in keen travel mode, but now in Sidi Ifni time seemed to readjust in the drizzle-thick mist which coats the back of your throat and sometimes tastes of seaweed. Even when the weather clears, as it did on the day I walked north amid soft, wild, crumbled sandstone boulders and brilliant moss cascading from the cliffs, there’s still an eery mix of mist and sunshine, no line between sea and sky. My hotel hung above a house that looks like a ship, which hangs above the beach. After maghreb there’s a competition here between drums and amplified rai from a water-front restaurant, and camels looming hugely through the fog, and the relentless crash of waves.

It’s a wonderful place to visit, but perhaps not so wonderful to live in. If you look up ‘Sidi Ifni 2008’ on YouTube you’ll find scenes of large, angry crowds, and police kicking down doors, dragging men from their homes, administering savage beatings. The protestors and rioters were demanding work opportunities and better transport links.

Sidi Ifni was a Spanish possession from 1859 until 1969; Spain still holds two enclaves on the Mediterranean coast – Ceuta and Melilla. The Spanish built the Saharan/art deco fusion centre in the 1930s, the Plaza d’Espagne (now predictably renamed Place Hassan II) and its fairyland municipal buildings around a tiny park of conifers and palms. Throughout the town, blocks of housing are integrated so simply and elegantly into the scrub hills that the place feels like a dream, but the Plaza d’Espagne in particular seems unreal, like a perfect North American suburb about to be visited by a Stephen King horror. But it’s much more unbuttoned, laidback, than American suburbia. Perhaps the air is Latin American, with Tuareg turbans added. Paella is served alongside tagine. The lamp-posts are blue.

Not very far away, as borderless as the ocean’s horizon, lies the sparsely-populated and phosphate-rich Western Sahara, in dispute since Spain pulled out in 1975. Moroccan maps incorporate it into the national territory. The UN disagrees, holding that tenuous Moroccan historical ties to the area do not justify its annexation. But the ‘Moroccanness’ of the Western Sahara is a populist cause adopted by Hassan II (ruled 1961–1999) after a series of coup attempts revealed his vulnerability. He mobilised the 1975 ‘Green March’ of hundreds of thousands of Moroccans into the southern desert, whipping up petty nationalism and deflecting attention from his economic and political failures. The result was a grievously expensive war with the indigenous independence movement and its armed wing, the Polisario. A large section of the Saharan population has been languishing for decades in Algerian refugee camps. Sand berms scar the desert. The UN has called for a referendum, whose implementation in the face of Moroccan obstructions is as likely to happen as a two-state solution in Palestine. In any case, demographics are being altered by the state’s sponsorship of immigrant Moroccans. The territory remains tense, closed to journalists. In recent years there’s been an upsurge of protest and corresponding repression in the Saharan city of Layoune.

Most damagingly, opposing positions on the Sahara have kept Morocco and Algeria at loggerheads, their borders closed, killing commerce in border communities and ruining any hope of a Greater Maghreb economic zone. According to Adnane Addioui, ‘Morocco and Algeria both produce propaganda to make our people hate each other. But we have the same make-up, the same challenges, the same resources. This region won’t be a rising force unless we’re together’.

The king’s firm alignment with the West helped shield Morocco from effective international action over the Sahara. A still more crucial monarchical alignment was the one begun by Muhammad V and developed by Hassan II – the alliance with the same rural elite which had served the French. This relationship – which made it possible to ignore the urban political classes – is one of two key factors behind the state’s abject failure to develop the countryside. It’s not so much that the notion of building a modern social infrastructure didn’t occur to Hassan II; his deliberate policy was against such development, not only because it would unsettle his rural friends, but also because, like the French before him, he feared that education would translate into militancy. Responding on television to student protests in 1965, the king expressed himself thus: ‘Allow me to tell you, there is no greater danger to the state than the so-called intellectual; it would have been better for you to be illiterate.’

Illiteracy, and its correlation with poverty, Berberism and rural abandonment, is perhaps Morocco’s most important social and political fact. Twelve years ago, a Rabati student who worked for the Makhzan answered my question on what to do about the illiterate classes with this simple sentence: ‘They will die.’ He wasn’t the monster his statement suggests. What he meant was the proportion of illiterates would decline as the old died and the young went to school. But his optimistic prediction has not worked out. The adult literacy rate today is only 56 per cent.

Despite illiteracy and diversions in the Sahara, the monarchy has had to meet several waves of mass resistance. The largest were the protests and riots involving students and workers in Casablanca in 1965, savagely put down (hundreds killed) by General Oufkir (later shot for his part in a failed coup d’etat). Throughout the seventies and eighties state repression intensified through the disappearances of dissidents (most famously, the leftist politician Mahdi Ben Barka; political imprisonments, and a ‘state of emergency’, into what became known as the ‘Years of Lead’.

Once again, it was civil society which brought the country through this grim period and into the new century, ameliorating the monarchy’s oppression and neglect. Morocco has an effective National Human Rights Council. In rural areas, women’s cooperatives have expanded social and economic opportunities (tourists are advised to buy their craft souvenirs, or argan oil products, directly from such organisations). In several cases, NGOs run their own literacy programmes.

Some groups provide support to victims of marital violence. Some lobby against the employment of child maids (a practice much reduced since I lived here). There are organisations which work with abused and sometimes drug-addicted street children. Hafida Elbaz’s Association Solidarite Feminine works to prevent unwanted children being thrown on the streets in the first place, or being cooped in orphanages which she describes as ‘as bad as Ceaucescu’s’. The Association does this by counselling unmarried mothers, teaching them their rights, attempting family reconciliation, and helping them find work which offers childcare facilities.

I walked to meet a couple I knew when I lived here, a couple who happen to be gay. They are a rarity, two men living together. They know of no other case. Their gay friends with education and means have left the country; those without have married. Homosexual lovemaking can have you jailed for three months. The law is sometimes applied. Amongst the urbane classes, meanwhile, the king’s sexuality is an open secret (of course he has married and produced an heir).

In Casablanca I met Karima Zoubir, a prize-winning director whose latest film is Camera/ Woman, a documentary about a divorced woman and family breadwinner who works as a videographer of weddings. Female videographers are preferred to men as they film uncovered women at weddings, but covering the parties means working at night, which results in social opprobrium.

Morocco has been at the vanguard of north African cinema as it achieves world standing. As Jamal Bahmad writes in his essay on Maghrebi films for this issue:

Over the last few decades, this cinema has offered a realist critique of the neoliberal present and a critical repertory of ordinary subjects’ small acts of resistance against daily regimes of oppression. Cinema is thus one of the contemporary Maghreb’s compelling postcolonial archives and, in decades to come, a source of social history and perhaps lessons and seeds for change at the hands of a people yet to come.

According to Rabat-based film critic Adil Semmar, film production has jumped from an annual four or five films a decade ago to twenty features a year today, two or three of which are of the highest quality. He recommends two in particular: Death for Sale (2011) and Sur la Planche (On the Edge, 2012). Fashionable subject matter over the last ten years has included first women’s issues, then migration issues, and now terrorism. Cinema has benefited from state support, though Kareema complains that it rarely disburses funding for documentaries. The television channel 2M, however, is now promoting investigative documentary films.

On the subject of women, Kareema makes the obvious but worth-repeating statement: ‘Morocco isn’t one thing; it’s a lot of things.’ She’s from Safi, where there’s no segregation and wedding parties are mixed. In Amazigh cultures, she says, women have often played prominent roles. On the other hand, in parts of the Rif a woman is forced to remain unmarried if her family can’t find her a cousin as a spouse.

In this field, the monarchy has been a progressive force. Muhammad V’s daughter Lalla Aisha was an early unveiled woman active in the public sphere, and something of a national role model. And Muhammad VI, the current ruler, was responsible for pushing through the progressive 2003 family law code, or Mudawwana, which sets the marriage age at eighteen, allows a wife to initiate divorce, considers husband and wife as equals before the law, and constrains polygamy (a practice which was already dying out). The king encouraged it, but it was left to women’s groups to publicise it in Durija and the Amazigh languages. Even after their work, Karima says, ‘the Mudawwana hasn’t done much at all to change life in rural areas, because rural women aren’t aware of it.’ Which brings us back to illiteracy. In a country which offers itself as a screen for Hollywood’s high-tech, half the population can’t read the daily newspaper.

For those who can, Morocco’s press is brave and lively; journalists have sought to expose corruption and abuse, and have paid the price, often in prison cells. In the 1990s a ‘Years of Lead’ literature emerged, books and magazine features detailing the abuse of former political prisoners and their families. But press freedom has actually declined under the new king. Papers such as Le Journal, Demain and Doumane have been repeatedly censored and fined. Many of the best journalists give up and look for work abroad. During my trip, an edition of the French paper Le Monde was swept from the newsstands because it had covered furious protests against the royal pardon of a Spanish paedophile.

The Simulacrum

Muhammad VI succeeded his father in 1999, a couple of months before I arrived to live in Rabat. His almost immediate sacking of Driss Basri, his father’s dread interior minister, raised popular expectations. In 2003 the young king set up the Equity and Reconciliation Commission (ERC) to compensate the victims of the Years of Lead and to allow a public airing of their stories. The rules of the game: abusers weren’t named and Hassan II wasn’t criticised. The recommendation for judicial reform in the ERC’s final report (2005) was ignored. Still, in the grim Arab context the experiment represented a refreshing openness as well as great political intelligence, a willingness to compromise, to play for hearts and minds, the better to keep hold of the reigns of power.

Defanged, surviving leftists returned home from exile or their desert cells, but starting in 2001 the radical Islamist threat rationalised a new bout of repression bluntly aimed at supporters and associates of the al-Qa’ida-linked Salafiyya Jihadiya. This group was responsible for the 2003 suicide bombings in Casablanca which killed forty-five people. The bombers lived in Casablanca’s bidonvilles, which now contain between a quarter and a third of the city’s population.

Morocco has a private media, a parliament and a prime minister. From a certain perspective, through a certain blur, it looks like a functioning democracy. But Muhammad VI’s relationship with parliament is very similar to the French Protectorate’s relationship with Muhammad’s tame forebears. It’s equally theatrical, just as much a shadowplay, an illusion. The king divides and rules the political class through a multi-party system (over forty parties) carefully calibrated so that no party can ever exercise real power. In the words of journalist and blogger Ahmed Benchemsi, ‘Freedom at the polls coexists with a structurally rigged electoral system.’ The parliament, like the Protectorate’s Makhzen, is an empty symbol, a simulacrum, a screen.

Abysmally low voting rates suggest the people understand the game. The king, meanwhile, stands at the apex of a business empire as deeply sunk into the Moroccan economy as the military empires are sunk into Egypt and Pakistan. He’s the country’s biggest landowner and banker, he controls the market in basic foodstuffs, and his family owns Morocco’s largest conglomerate, the SNI group. Forbes magazine estimates Muhammad VI’s personal wealth at $2.5 billion, making him five times richer than Britain’s Elizabeth.

Put beside that, this statistic: five million Moroccans live abroad, not counting illegal migrants – far more than Egyptians or Turks, although those countries have double Morocco’s population. The largest expatriate population is in France. (In this issue of Critical Muslim, Suhel Ahmed reviews the French prison film A Prophet, an important take on the condition of les beurs, French people of Maghrebi origin.) A recent survey says 70 per cent of Moroccans would like to leave the country. By now we are desensitised to photographs of Moroccan bodies washed up on the shores of southern Spain. We don’t think much about the fact that some Moroccans readily risk death to escape economic and developmental stagnation.

In 2011, influenced by the revolutions to the east, a massive rally for reform in Rabat kicked off the youth-led 20th February Movement (see Cecile Oumhani’s ‘Diaries of a Revolution’ for background on the uprisings in Tunisia and Libya, and their aftermaths). Demonstrations erupted in all major Moroccan cities, cohering around slogans such as ‘Down with Autocracy’. The king responded almost immediately. On 9th March he announced a commission to draft a new constitution, and on 12th June interpreted the draft to a television audience. On 1st July, after a mere fortnight of debate, the constitution was approved by 98.5 per cent of voters, a suspiciously high rate given that the 20th February Movement had rejected the document. And the fortnight between the constitution’s appearance and the referendum was hardly characterised by ‘debate’. According to Adnane Addioui, a critical Muslim if ever I’ve met one, imams dedicated their Friday sermons to describing a no vote as a vote against Islam. The word ‘YES’ was pasted up in the streets and inside taxi cabs.

The constitution supposedly ensures ‘the rule of law’, an ‘independent judiciary’, and an ‘elected government that reflects the will of the people, through the ballot box’. But the reality is once again very different from the appearance, once again a shadow play, a rhetorical sleight of hand in which the noble sentiments of one passage are undermined by the details of another. Nothing much changed, but the monarch’s carefully stage-managed manoeuvring (assisted by the New York PR firm Beckerman) took the wind out of the Moroccan spring’s sails.

And as the sails slumped, repression intensified. The state refrained from gunning people down, but three protesters died from beatings, and many were imprisoned on trumped-up charges. The protest rapper Mouad el-Haked has been imprisoned since September 2011 on the very questionable basis of assaulting and ‘insulting the police’.

What to do now? When Adnane Addioui welcomed me for iftar, he stressed the necessity of the people owning and responding to their own problems, not waiting for the theatrical state to wave its wand. He drove the point home with a blizzard of Durija proverbs: ‘Break it and the state will pay’; ‘to rent is not to own’; ‘the shared face is never washed’. He prefers ‘empowerment’ to charity, because ‘charity is an institutional method for keeping people in their place’. The organisation he heads in Morocco, Enactus, works with more than 2,000 students and over forty colleges and universities. One of its many recent projects has been to assist deaf people in the Salé region to set up an e-learning and media facility, creating four jobs.

Adnane sees what he calls ‘social entrepreneurship’ as a necessary complement to political process. As the revolutions further east are demonstrating, a leadership, indeed an entire social structure, is required to fill the gaps vacated by a challenged or failing state. It’s not enough to overthrow; we must, simultaneously, build.

He loves the Arab revolutions, despite the mounting losses. He points out that Egyptians, Libyans and Tunisians, unlike Moroccans, are returning home from abroad to try to shape their societies. He calls for radical change: ‘Chemotherapy is no good; excision is necessary!’ I’m surprised he speaks so openly. Others have asked me not to go on record with their criticisms of the monarchy. ‘But I don’t have an issue with the monarchy!’ he responds. ‘I have an issue with a mindset, with an unaccountable system. A transparent, constitutional monarchy would be perfect.’ So this engaged radical is not asking for more than what Muhammad V seemed to agree to in the forties and fifties when he joined forces with the Istiqlal to seek national independence.

In the meantime, what is it that keeps the monarchy going? What saves the state from revolution?

‘Why is Morocco peaceful?’ A young man pulled on his iftar spliff and returned the question to me. ‘Because of this, the hashish! This is why Moroccans say ‘everything’s fine’. And you’ve seen the state of Morocco…’ Of course, most Moroccans make no closer approach to hashish than catching a nose-full as they pass street corner smokers, so this explanation works only as a metaphor for wilful disengagement. (Naguib Mahfouz’s wonderful novel Adrift on the Nile uses this symbolism. The dramatic final frames of the film version show the anti-hero stumbling between gutted buildings screaming ‘Don’t smoke hashish!’)

Among the non-narcotic reasons for Morocco’s apparent stability is, first, the monarchy’s intelligent statecraft. In this respect, it’s more of an institution, and a frequently meritocratic one, than a one-man show. The king’s advisers, business partners and international friends work hard to anticipate, respond to, and defuse unrest. Again and again the monarchy has reinvented itself, adapting to colonialism and anti-colonialism, the Strong Man Age and the Liberal Age, Arabism and Amazigh Pride. Like a professional actress it rushes through the dressing room and appears a moment later as an entirely different character. There’s no comparison with the clumsy savagery of a Qaddafi or an Assad. Nor with the amateurish gangsterism of a Bin Ali or a Mubarak, upstart plunderers arrived late on the scene.

And here is the second reason for the monarchy’s longevity: its deep-rootedness, which means that when the monarchy is thuggish, it hides itself under a mystical curtain. Even if its failures helped to open the country to foreign penetration, even if it collaborated with colonialism, it still predates colonialism. The king is of the Alawi family, descended from Ali, bearing the Prophet’s blood, and among his official titles is ameer al-momineen, Commander of the Faithful. Temporal and spiritual authority are united in his person. For all the simulacrum of liberal democratic modernity – again the theatre, the silvered screen – state propaganda makes it very clear indeed that the king’s semi-sacred presence is the real source of power. As in the old dictatorships, pictures of the boss grace almost every public wall. In cafés he’s portrayed drinking tea; in cake shops he eats cake; in toy shops he kisses children. God, Country and King is written in whitewashed stone on the hills watching over towns. Cloth slogans draped across streets repeat state TV rhetoric: love and sacrifice for the Giver and Builder, Commander of the Faithful, King Muhammad VI.

The third and related reason for the monarchy’s stability is the innate conservatism which is persistent and widespread in the Arab world, despite the revolutionary surges. It was well articulated by Fou’ad, a middle-aged man who worked in my Essaouira hotel, and who walked his bike alongside as I made my way to the bus station. Working from the same mentality which blames women when men beat them, he blamed ‘the youth’ for starting the trouble in Syria, Egypt and Tunisia. When I told him about the Syrian regime’s systematic employment of rape and torture, its constant massacres and its ethnic cleansing (this was a few weeks before the massive poison gas attacks in Damascus), he shrugged and conceded that every leader makes mistakes, or his hangers-on make mistakes behind his back, but still he must be obeyed. (This position – loyalty to the wali al-amr, even if he’s unjust – is in fact the traditional quietist position of the Sunni ulema. Syria’s Shaikh Ramadan Bouti destroyed his reputation by clinging to it until his assassination in March 2013. The uselessness of this traditional position in the face of vast injustice is one factor contributing to the spread of radical Salafism.) In fact, Fou’ad continued, it would be best if every country had a king, like Morocco. Then there’d be peace and stability everywhere. It was noticeable, after all, that not one monarchy had collapsed into revolution. His analysis, of course, ignores the Bahraini monarchy, as well as the oil wealth factor which allows Gulf monarchies – for now – to soothe their people’s frustrations with cash, but it does betray the traditional Arab desire for a strong man leader, a father figure, a hero – a desire which Egypt’s General Sisi is exploiting as I write.

Fourthly, the deliberate delaying of development turns out to have been a clever Machiavellian policy. The republics to the east rushed to distribute land, to nationalise foreign and domestic industry, to build hospitals, schools and universities. They did it badly, corruptly, but still they did it. And the unemployed graduates produced by these regimes became their nemesis, the urban foot soldiers of revolutionary activism. In Morocco too, protesting unemployed graduates have been a common sight for two decades, but they haven’t yet reached a critical mass. The real critical mass is the one which still can’t read. And the mystique of the Sharifian ruler has a longer shelf life amongst the illiterate.

Finally, the terrifying examples of the Arab countries currently undergoing revolution and counter-revolution strike silence into many a Moroccan heart. I was in el-Jadida when Tunisian leftist Muhammad Ibrahimi was assassinated, sparking another round of protests and strikes. Liberals and secularists were threatening to launch a campaign against the ruling Nahda Party to mirror the tamarrod campaign which precipitated a military coup and mass slaughter in Egypt. Libya was violently unstable, perhaps chronically so. The Syrian death toll averaged between one and two hundred a day.

But the story isn’t over. Morocco’s social problems are persistent; its economic problems are increasing. After 2011 the public space is forever changed. Adnane Addioui again: ‘However limited, 20 February was a real revolution. The proof of that is that people are talking now. People are criticising the king on TV. The taboo has gone.’ And Adil Semmar: ‘20th February never existed as an organised movement, but the spirit is still there. It’s not going away.’

Marrakesh is a good place to end. Specifically, the central Djemaa al-Fnaa, or Gathering Place of Extinction, so-called because it once hosted executions. Now it hosts foreign visitors and Moroccans in all their diversity, as well as sorcerers, snake charmers, storytellers, henna patterners, monkey-masters, Gnawa drummers, acrobats and dancers. As dusk falls, the food stalls open, displaying a panoply of food and drink, an interlocking nexus of aromas and flavours.

This Maghreb issue of Critical Muslim aims to offer a banquet as varied as the one displayed in the Djemaa al-Fnaa, a topical and geographical breadth to mirror (or at least hint at) the vastness and complexity of the region. As well as the essays on Maghrebi politics, history and culture already mentioned, we have outsider perspectives. Julia Melcher analyses Tangier’s ‘Interzone’ as experienced by foreign (and alienated) writers such as William Burroughs and the Bowles couple, deliberate strangers who helped construct our contemporary Anglo-Saxon vision of north Africa. And John Liechty’s amusing, irascible and perceptive piece recounts the attitudinal idiocies and bureaucratic malice suffered by an American married to a Moroccan. The issue also contains Maghreb-influenced short poems from George Szirtes and (the half-Tunisian) Sarra Hennigan.

Meanwhile in Marrakesh, prices are up to tourist levels. I’m not resentful. The city deserves to spoil itself, being, as it is, a location on the circuit for the rich and beautiful of the world. Sean Connery and (ex-con) Jimmie Boyle are just two Scottish examples of those who’ve bought riyads in the Marrakesh palmerie. An Absolutely Fabulous episode was shot here. The place is famous. And it’s beautiful – its elegant Koutubiya mosque, its palaces and surrounding walls, its splendid souqs.

It touches 47 degrees in the early afternoon. Then black clouds thicken, red dust sheets drape the sky, thunder cracks, and rain falls in fat splotches. From the roof terrace I make out a rainbow plunging down to tall trees and red houses, all against the wall of the rearing High Atlas.

 

Citations

CM09: The Maghreb JANUARY–MARCH 2014 3-28

I am indebted to Susan Gilson Miller’s bright and informative, A History of Modern Morocco (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2013). For more on the Glawi family and other southern warlords, the indispensable book is Gavin Maxwell’s classic Lords of the Atlas: The Rise and Fall of the House of Glaoua 1893-1956 (Eland, London, 2004). A devastating critique of Hassan II’s tyr­anny is provided by Gilles Perrault, Notre Ami Le Roi (Our Friend, the King). (Editions Flammarion, Paris, 1993), in French. The hashish metaphor is worked through in Naguib Mahfouz’s Adrift on the Nile (Bantam Doubleday, New York, 1994); and the guidebook I refer to is the Lonely Planet Morocco: Country Guide’ (Lonely Planet, London, 2011).

See also: Barnaby Rogerson, Marrakesh Through Writer’s Eye (Eland, London, 2006); Peter Mayne, A Year in Marrakesh (Eland, London, 2002); and Walter Harris, Morocco That Was (Eland, London, 2007)

A brilliant deconstruction of the new constitution, its contradictions and deceptions, is provide by Ahmed Benchemsi at: http://ahmedbenchemsi.com/hello-world/; a list of Berber personalities can be found at http://tamazightinou.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/list-of-berber-personalities-in-history.html; and information on the revived Tifinagh script can be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tifinagh

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 5, 2014 at 4:46 pm

One Response

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  1. Hello.
    Nice post, I like your blog.

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    January 5, 2014 at 8:10 pm


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