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Waiting for the Rain

On my second visit to Essaouira in March 2005, I sat for a few hours with my friend Mohamed, a journalist and union representative. He’d just come from a meeting organized by the Party of Justice and Development, Morocco’s largest Islamic party. He explained that the region of Essaouira has four members of parliament, each from a different party, all of them equally worthless. “We have four political colors here, but they’re all the same color, black.” The Party of Justice and Development doesn’t have much of a foothold in Essaouira, but they sent some of their elected officials from other parts of Morocco to meet with the locals and present their views. Mohamed was at the meeting to see if they had anything new to add.

He told me that in Morocco before the colonial period, there was no such thing as parliamentary democracy as we know it in the West. There was only traditional tribal politics. Political parties didn’t start forming until the transition from colonialism to independence. Even then, they tended to have a tribal base. The Independence Party, for example, which was and still is the largest party in Morocco, was a vehicle for the interests of the large political families of Fez. The resistance fighters of the Rif Mountains had their own movement and party. Even today, the parties are organized around key personalities rather than ideology. As a result, they tend mainly to enrich their leadership. They serve more as vehicles for dispensing patronage than as parties presenting a political vision to the nation as a whole. Before democracy can function in Morocco, Mohamed said, the country needs to complete its transition from tribal politics to ideologically based parties.

He went on to tell me about a project he is working on with the Moroccan government and the World Bank, to improve economic self-sufficiency in the countryside. Each region of Morocco has a key city that serves as a magnet for people coming from the countryside in search of work. In his region, that city is Essaouira, and its attraction is tourism. In Casablanca there are manufacturing jobs, in Tangier the port. Since more people are coming to the cities than those cities can absorb, the goal of the project is to help remote villages develop their own resources so more people will stay there. The strategy is to provide micro-loans to rural women, since research has shown that women are more likely than men to invest in a project they can do at home. Men tend to take the money with them to the city, which isn’t the point. Mohamed asked rhetorically, “What type of work is there in the countryside? Farming and animal raising. So we’re focusing on a project for raising goats.” With their micro-loans, women can buy a few goats and use their milk to make cheese. Later they can advance to a textile project, using the fleece to make carpets and clothing.

One problem with this is Moroccans’ consumer habits. They tend to prefer modern, factory-made products to traditional ones. “If you put two stores side by side in central Essaouira, one selling local baskets and the other plastic tubs from China, which store do you think would have more customers?” Mohamed said that a change in mentality is needed, to get Moroccans to understand that buying traditional, locally made products helps keep money in the local economy. This led me to recall how in America in the 1950s, products such as Wonder Bread, made in factories and distributed nationally, drove local bakers out of business. Later there was a backlash, and people came to realize that locally made bread was a better product. Because enough people were willing to pay the higher price, independent bakers came back into fashion. Perhaps the problem in Morocco is that choosing quality over price is a luxury few can afford. Whatever the reason, Mohamed seems to be right about Moroccans’ preferences. I have a friend whose mother works in a clothing factory in Fez, and there used to be more than twenty factories like it in the city. Now there are only three. Competition from China has driven the others out of business.

I asked Mohamed if he felt that the high percentage of unemployed young people in Morocco, who are torn between the excesses they see in the media and the grim reality of their daily lives, might produce an “explosion.” This is the worry of people like Olivier, the owner of a guest house in Marrakech where I stayed with my mother. To my surprise, he said no. On one level, he sounded like an apologist for the Moroccan government, saying that the state is well aware of the problems and is putting programs in place to correct them. On a deeper level, he explained that the monarchy is in a very strong position today because Hassan II played his hand so well. Overt repression is no longer needed because the population is now pacified. Opposition movements are either co-opted or in check. This allows Mohammed VI to work “against” the policies of his father. He can allow greater freedom of expression, or proclaim himself “king of the poor” without fear of unleashing demands for change that he can’t control.

In Mohamed’s view, the state has consciously destroyed the quality of public education since the 1980s in order to leave young people politically passive, without the knowledge of history or the critical skills they need to interpret the world around them. As a result, they can be easily led by the children of the rich, whose private schools have not been destroyed in the same way. This is a shocking claim, which my friend Boumedian later endorsed from his own experience. When he was a university student in the early 1980s, students took their studies seriously and so did the professors, continuing discussions outside of class and even inviting students into their own homes. The debate was stimulating, and students entered into it with the sense that ideas mattered. My friends in college today tell a different story. The majority of students at Nabil’s high school didn’t even graduate. They either failed the national exam, or dropped out along the way. Nabil thinks that changes made to the high school curriculum over the last few years were made with the express purpose of reducing the success rate, on the theory that if fewer people enter the university, there will be fewer graduates looking for work. University students feel a sense of hopelessness that what they are learning is worth anything. In practical terms, it has little relevance to the workplace. As knowledge, it is hopelessly out of date. They go mainly to socialize and kill time, for lack of anything better to do.

A generation ago, Moroccan universities were known as centers of leftist agitation. The state encouraged the rise of an Islamist opposition, which gained control of the campuses and shut off the possibility for debate. Discussion got channeled into right-versus-left shouting matches, creating a stalemate that has continued for twenty years. Today, much time is wasted in a perpetual tug of war between students and the administration. Bureaucrats throw up administrative hurdles, and students respond with demonstrations that shut down the campus for days at a time. Police spies keep an eye on everything and make reports. Whether through intellectual laziness or fear of rocking the boat, professors avoid engaging their students in ways that will stimulate their thinking. Many students choose not to come to class at all, preferring to work independently and showing up only for exams.

Nabil gave me the example of his Spanish professor who handed out a text with a political theme. When one sees injustice, the text said, it is immoral not to speak out. Pretending injustice isn’t happening is just as bad as participating in the injustice itself. Nabil asked the obvious question, “How can we apply this to our situation today?” The professor cut him off. “We’re only here to analyze the text, not apply it to anything.” Apparently he didn’t see the irony. Nabil saw two possible explanations for this. The first was that the professor was reluctant to get into social criticism, which he didn’t think was likely. The man was a dogmatic leftist who spent much of each class lecturing students on his views. The other possibility was that the man was simply an egotist who could care less about exchanging ideas.

A friend of Nabil’s had an even better example. One day, his English professor threw up his hands and exclaimed, “What am I here for? Why do I bother with you? If your parents had money, they would send you to a decent private school.” The outburst brings us back to Mohamed’s point about the inequality between the public and private school systems. The public system barely even pretends to educate anyone, and both professors and students can see through the ruse. The effect is to kill initiative, instilling a sense of resignation through which young people can be easily led. As Nabil put it, most people who can read might as well be illiterate, because they never learn to analyze the information they take in. Meanwhile, the rich send their children to private schools that do a far better job of preparing them for the complexities of the modern world. Families that can afford it will send their children to Europe, or to a high school in Morocco that follows the French or Spanish model. The question is, why doesn’t the Moroccan government insist on the same high standards in its public schools?

Mohamed’s answer is that this is the result of a deliberate political calculation. The rich are preparing their children to rule the country, and the children of the poor are being prepared for obedience. The media play a role by distracting young people with consumerism. Whatever pocket money they have is spent on mobile phones, Nike ripoffs, pirate DVDs or chatting on the internet. In one way or another, it all flows into the pockets of the rich. Unable to understand the causes of their predicament or make meaningful plans for the future, they dream of escape to the land of abundance they see in the movies. For all these reasons, Mohamed doesn’t think there will be an “explosion.”

He gave two examples of how people can remain apathetic even in seemingly intolerable conditions. The first involves rural poverty. He recently took part in a census project that required him to visit a number of remote villages. In many of those places, poverty is so extreme that the sole diet is tea and bread. When there is no water, which can happen during a long drought when the wells dry up and become contaminated, even this rudimentary diet becomes impossible. So what do people do? They go hungry. “They sit there, waiting for rain.” They know there are jobs in the cities, and they understand that if a man makes the trip, he might better the situation for himself and his family. Yet desperation stunts the imagination. Instead of doing anything, they simply wait in resignation for the rains to come.

Mohamed’s other example involved unemployed college graduates, who are probably the most active group in demonstrating against the Moroccan government. They want the state to give them jobs, which has always puzzled me. Instead of putting their energy into demonstrations, why don’t they take a chance on a small start-up project? Wouldn’t selling CDs or T-shirts be better than nothing? Even families that aren’t that well off could probably round up $2000 in seed money for a small project. It might not be what they studied in college, but isn’t it better than waiting years for a government job that will never come? Mohamed explained that most of these people don’t really want to work. “What they want is an official post, which in Morocco means getting a salary without having to work.”

I have a friend like this in Larache. He got a job with the city through family connections, and spends most of his day goofing off. He and a coworker cover for each other, so neither of them works more than half a day at a time. Mohamed is involved with an association that started an experiment several years back, offering loans to unemployed college graduates to start their own businesses. They found only one taker. He used the money to open a pizzeria on the main square, and today he is a millionaire in dirhams, which means he has at least $100,000. His friends are still where they were, waiting for the state to give them jobs.

Perhaps this shortage of people willing to take destiny into their own hands is due to that Arab fatalism we’ve heard so much about, in which people do nothing because they believe that good fortune falls from the sky, inch’ allah. Yet I doubt it. I think that Moroccans’ sense of resignation is a response to their social conditions, not its cause. It must be said that the Moroccan state has proven skilled at manipulating this feeling, even promoting it. It is easier to control a restive population with feelings of powerlessness and confusion than with guns. If people are resigned to their situation, then no matter how miserable they become, they will never ask “What is to be done?” as Lenin did. Instead they will sit waiting for the rain to fall.


Comment from Liosliath
Time: December 16, 2006, 23:46

Wow, what a great post! I have a lot to comment on, but I think I’ll read through the post a few more times – ton of info here, holy cow.

Comment from Laurent Szyster
Time: January 16, 2007, 19:44

Dear Eatbees,

Your post has a lot of interesting information about a country I know best from migrants settled in Belgium (where I live).

Having lived in central Africa and having traveled a to the four corners of the world, there is one thing you wrote I tend to disagree with:

“I think that Moroccans’ sense of resignation is a response to their social conditions, not its cause.”

My experience in very poor countries teached me exactly the opposite.

I came to believe that a culture of submission to state violence and religious dogmas is the main cause behind the widespread social stagnation you describe.

I don’t know Morroco but I visited Egypt a few times, mainly outside the tourists circuits. What striked me most when discussing with people there was how they were all trapped into a chain of oppression.

All ideas are submitted to the imams, men are subject of their rulers, husbands are the tyran of their wives, brothers are dictators to their sisters, etc, down to the children beating their donkeys.

A son that rebels against his father will loose the authority he enjoys upon his sister. A husband that defy the social order is at risk to loose his power over his wife. The ruler that wants to free himself from religious dogma puts his own position in great peril.

What I saw in Egypt is that since everybody is the tyran of somebody else, nobody can free himself without also loosing the benefits of oppressing the one below him.

Voila, that was my 2c tip.

Keep up blogging …

Kind regards,

Comment from eatbees
Time: January 17, 2007, 00:00

Laurent, you have some excellent points here. I know a lot of Moroccans who would agree with you. This is the Arab mentality in a nutshell—a hierarchy of tyranny—a curse that is very difficult to break. Islam was designed to break it with compassion and solidarity, but as the centuries wore on, the old “Pharaonic mindset” reasserted itself. In the Arab world today we see nothing but tyrants. Almost every Arab will agree. Some will also quote the Qur’an, which says that people get the leaders they deserve. So what you are saying about a “culture of submission to state violence and religious dogmas” is right on, I think. Along with that goes pessimism, a victim mentality, and a failure to “take the bull by the horns” and do what is necessary to change the situation. Do you have a solution? I don’t. This article was written because I asked a friend, “Won’t the people rise up?” and he said no. What he made me see, and what I wanted to point out here, is that the State is aware of this psychology and manipulates it consciously.

Comment from Laurent Szyster
Time: January 17, 2007, 17:09

Hi Eatbees,

Frankly, I’m not sure about that one: “Islam was designed to break it with compassion and solidarity, but as the centuries wore on, the old ‘Pharaonic mindset’ reasserted itself.”

If Islam was indeed a social revolution for the bedouins living in the Arabic peninsula, on the contrary it was quite a social regression for the people conquered and converted.

The archeological findings in Damascus for instance is a testimony of that: two centuries after the muslim conquest, the old hellenistic city had completely disappeared along with its public places, its appartment blocks and the very notion of citizenship. Instead the town became a chaotic agglomeration of tribal houses built like forts.

The (painfull) truth (for muslims) is that the arab conquest were in effect quite similar to the barbarian invasions in the western roman empire. For the hellenistic world the regression was spread on a few centuries instead of a few decades, slow but steady … and without renaissance after a millenium.

What I believe is that, exactly like in the feudal europe of the 16th century, a dramatic reform is badly needed in Islam in order to break free from a millenium of social, scientific and philosophical stagnation.

Beeing myself a non-muslim, I can’t tell what to reform or what to repudiate in Islam. But I would suggest that a new look upon pre-islamic history would be a good starting pointing.

Kind regards,

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