Qunfuz

Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for the ‘North Africa’ Category

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.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 5, 2014 at 4:46 pm

All Things Considered

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I was a guest on BBC Wales’s All Things Considered, a religious programme, talking about Christians in the Arab world in the light of the Arab revolutions. Also talking are the Right Reverend Bill Musk, based in Tunisia, Bishop Angelos, who serves the Coptic community in London, and the Reverend Christopher Gillam, who admires the Syrian regime and overemphasises Syrian Christian opposition to the uprising. Apologies for my voice, which was heavy with cold.

Gillam’s problem may be that he only speaks to ‘official’ Christians. Here‘s an article on Christian opposition to the regime. I like this quote: “The Christian churches have been bought, and have allowed themselves to be bought,” criticizes Otmar Oehring, a human rights expert with the Aachen-based Catholic aid organization Missio. “They’re ignoring the fact that so many people are dying.”

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 12, 2011 at 8:36 pm

Changing the Air

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Zein al-Abdine Ben Ali is in Abha, Saudi Arabia. France wouldn’t have him. (Despots, note the speed with which a sponsor drops a client who has outlived his usefulness.) Arab activists are calling for protests outside Saudi embassies.

In Tunisia, the extent of the people’s sacrifice over the last month is becoming clearer. Reports describe Ben Ali’s police terrorising rural areas with punitive rapes and random murders.

And the terror continues. Since Ben Ali’s fall, Tunis and other cities have been plagued by violence. Some of it, such as attacks on Ben Ali family businesses, can be classed as revolutionary. Some more of it is the natural result of taking the lid off after so long; a mix of exuberance, criminality, and what Gazmend Kapplani calls an ‘orphan complex’:

Tyrants are merciless beasts, precisely because they leave behind distorted societies worn down by oppression and above all suffering from an orphan complex. Those who give themselves over to indiscriminate looting and destruction the minute the statues come down are like orphaned children robbing the corpse of a false and terrifying father.

But the most terrifying violence appears to be organised by Ben Ali’s militiamen. Tunisians report battles between army forces on the one hand and ‘police’ and other highly-trained, well-armed gangs on the other. Some of these gangs have been driving through residential areas shooting randomly at people and buildings.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 17, 2011 at 2:24 am

This is What Victory Looks Like

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photo by Hassene Dridi for AP

Written on the night of January 14th 2011

The dictator, thief and Western client Zein al-Abdine Ben Ali, beloved until a few hours ago in Paris and Washington, has been driven from Tunisia. His reign was ended not by a military or palace coup but by an extraordinarily broad-based popular movement which has brought together trades unions and professional associations, students and schoolchildren, the unemployed and farmers, leftists, liberals and intelligent Islamists, men and women. One of the people’s most prominent slogans will resonate throughout the Arab world and beyond: la khowf ba’ad al-yowm, or No Fear From Now On.

It is to be hoped that Tunisia will now develop a participatory system based on respect for citizens’ rights, that it will reclaim and develop its economy, implement social justice, and move out of the Western-Israeli embrace. The revolution, however, is beset by dangers. Although the head of the snake has been sacrificed, the conglomerate of interests behind the Ben Ali regime is largely still in place, and will be working furiously to restrict and roll back popular participation. For this reason it is of crucial importance that Tunisians are tonight raising the slogan ‘al-intifada mustamura,’ or ‘the intifada continues.’

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 15, 2011 at 4:09 am

Scenes from the Revolution in Tunisia

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The protests in Tunisia are growing and spreading. What began with Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide in Sidi Bouzid at first declared itself a rebellion against unemployment, then became a revolt against corruption. Today ‘freedom’ is one of the words most vigorously chanted. Almost all sectors of society have joined demonstrations and strikes against the Bin Ali regime, a World Bank favourite. Tunisia’s intifada is far more broadly-based than the Green Movement in Iran. In this case, however, Hillary Clinton says the United States is “not taking sides.” Meanwhile the regime has closed schools and universities indefinitely. Human rights groups say over 50 protesters have been murdered by American and perhaps Israeli munitions. The regime claims the figure is 21. Particularly in this lamentable period we must salute the bravery and sacrifice of the Tunisian revolutionaries, and thank them for bringing us hope.

The first film is to a soundtrack of revolutionary Tunisian pop music. The sign the man waves at 0.40 says ‘No Fear After Today’ or ‘No Fear From Now On.’ The second features the symbolic burning of a Bin Ali artwork. The third shows a hospital dealing with the dead and injured, and is not for the faint-hearted. I put it up to remind us of Neda Sultan, and because the BBC doesn’t (although it does have this report).

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 13, 2011 at 2:59 am

Posted in North Africa

Inspiration from Tunisia

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The anti-regime protests spread across Tunisia involve trades unionists, the unemployed, lawyers, journalists and students. The people chant against “the killers of the people, the flayers of the people.” Their slogans include “Tunisia is the people, not the government,” “We’ll solve the police crisis, we’ll solve the Tunisian crisis,” and (I think – the sound isn’t clear) “Work, Freedom, National solidarity.” The first film shows a Tunisian town continuing to fearlessly demonstrate despite tear gas and truncheon attacks. (A maths teacher has been shot dead by police during the protests). The second (over the fold) shows a demonstration in the capital. Arabic speakers can follow this link to al-Jazeera’s round-up of the most recent developments.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 5, 2011 at 4:28 pm

Posted in North Africa

The Tunisian Intifada

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The dictatorship of Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali, a Western client, is in serious trouble. A full-scale intifada is raging. It began in Sidi Bouzid as a protest against unemployment, corruption and police brutality. Then it spread to Sousse, Sfax, Meknassi, and the capital, inflated by long-simmering resentment at Tunisia’s lack of civil liberties. Because Ben Ali is a client, and because Tunisia is a mass tourism destination, the Western mainstream is leaving this largely alone. But here’s Nesrine Malik in the Guardian, and al-Jazeera (see below) is doing well. In the context of a horrific upsurge of nihilistic sectarianism in the Arab world, it is to be hoped that the Tunisian revolution will grow and develop, and teach a lesson to the Arabs in real, not illusory, action towards change.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 3, 2011 at 4:27 pm

Posted in North Africa

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