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Privilege and Freedom

The sense of entitlement and freedom in Morocco is not equal in all social classes, and sometimes I wonder if Moroccans themselves understand this. For those whose parents already have money, and who are free to travel to Europe and study there, there is little to fear. They can be “lifestyle rebels” and get away with it, as illustrated in the movie Marock which glorifies a certain priviliged type of urban youth. But for a son or daughter of the poor, the situation is very different. When one’s daily life is a chase for necessities, when there is cuthroat competition for whatever scraps are available, solidarity with a group is critical. Without this, one is exposed, harassed on all sides. It may not be pretty to belong to a pack of wolves, but it is worse to be excluded. Sometimes the line between “in” and “out” is very thin.

A casual visitor to Morocco is unlikely to be aware of this because he is sheltered, not just by the places he visits and the well-off Moroccans he is likely to meet there, but by the deference that Moroccans display toward foreigners, which keeps the reality of poverty at bay and ensures that even the poorest Moroccans are amazingly civil to their guests. This quality is engrained, the product of tradition. Looked at more cynically, it is also a clever calculation. The poor Moroccan puts himself in the role of petitioner, sensing the possibility of a future payoff and carefully cultivating it, biding his time. Even among Moroccans themselves, the well-off are likely to be sheltered from the way things really are among their poorer cousins, for much the same reasons. The poorest Moroccans put out their best tea glasses, wear their best clothes, and spread the table as best they can for their guests. This is stoic pride, the generosity of tradition, and the subservience of a starving dog who doesn’t want to bite the hand that might one day feed him.

Moroccans of all ages and classes have commented to me on the lack of solidarity among Moroccans. Street crime as we know it in the U.S. is almost impossible, but even so, there is unease that things are not as they should be. Some blame a slippage of Islamic values, looking back with nostalgia to a time when society was tightly knit, and the priviliged classes were generous with the have-nots. Even today, spontaneous acts of charity are common among those upholding this tradition, but glue-sniffing children and panhandling mothers make them shake their heads in shame. In earlier times, things would never have gotten this bad. Charity was managed in private, within the network of family and neighbors. Others blame corrupt officials for setting a bad example, lining their pockets with public funds, rather than viewing their position as a sacred trust. It is widely believed that this bad example goes right to the top, and the most powerful officials are the the biggest thieves.

The king is seen as a man who wants to fix these problems, with his charitable foundations and frequent tours of the nation. The royal circuit of the Middle Ages is still alive and well in Morocco, and is one of the principal means of governance for the peripatetic king. The problem, as his defenders point out, is that he is only one man. No matter how sincere he may be in his desire to improve the life of his people, he can’t be everywhere at once. When he is on the case, hospitals get built and food gets delivered, but once he moves on, things revert to the old ways. I suspect that the problem runs deeper than either a slippage of Islamic values, or a mentality of corruption among public officials. The real problem is that wealth is not distributed fairly, as my friend Doga pointed out in his recent article. Morocco is a country rich in resources, with an intelligent and hard-working people. There is no reason for poverty to be so widespread, except systemic injustice.

Why do some have huge villas and expensive cars, while others spend their days hauling cardboard or selling empty bottles on the sidewalk to earn a few coins? Chances are that the villa isn’t owned by a talented innovator who pulled himself up from the ghetto, but rather by someone who knew the right people and took advantage of his connections. The political system allows the privileged to amuse themselves in untouchable arrogance, while those outside the gates are harassed not just by hunger, but by the police. This is what causes the predatory vibe. In place of the “level playing field” we take for granted in the West, Morocco has arbitrary power and the rule of the elite.

This is not a cultural problem, but a structural one. Indeed, Moroccan culture has a genius for softening the harsh reality as best it can. The irony is that Moroccans with the greatest freedom are also the least likely to have experienced injustice firsthand. They have never had to suffer the shame of exclusion. To them Morocco must seem freer, more open, more prosperous than it is. It is true that Morocco has made huge strides in recent years. Young women in the cities can enjoy a night on the town. People in cafes talk openly about the dark days of the past, and the changes to come. Sharply dressed young entrepreneurs make deals on cell phones, planning the next wave. But the spread of freedom is uneven. It serves the literate and well connected, those who already have the advantage, rather than those who need it most.

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