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The Morocco Show

This piece was written during the Gnawa Festival in Essaouira at the end of June, after I’d been back in Morocco for four days. Mohammed is a friend who lives in Essaouira, a journalist and activist who was previously referenced in my post “Waiting for the Rain.”

Even though I’ve been away from Morocco a long time, the details of buildings, dress and behavior are instantly familiar to me, and the rhythms of life envelop and somehow comfort me. I guess this makes it hard for me to fully relate to a statement like Mohammed’s that “Morocco is a hard place to live in,” even though the evidence is all around me. Last night a discussion broke out between Mohammed and another friend as to whether Morocco is a “horrible” country as Mohammed put it, or merely a “cruel” one as my other friend said. My friend defended the idea that a country can be cruel without being horrible, which led to the question of how Morocco can be cruel and generous at the same time. I pointed out that Moroccans feel a moral obligation to help each other, even strangers, while Americans tend to feel that other people’s problems are none of their business. My friend feels that if Morocco ever succeeds in developing itself to the European level, this generosity will disappear because it’s a holdover from Morocco’s communal past. In fact, he feels that this type of generosity is actually an obstacle to Morocco’s development, because it goes against individualism which is a necessary condition for progress.

I don’t know if it’s just because I’m at the Gnawa Festival, which attracts eccentric young people after all, but there seems to be a wider range of self-expression in Morocco than I’ve seen in the past. I’ve seen a punk with a mohawk and a Ramones T-shirt, an emo with a buzz cut and long locks falling into his eyes, chin goatees, specially cut sideburns, afros, dreadlocks, even the occasional piercing or tattoo. The question is whether all this will lead to expression on any other level, as happened in the 1960s in the West when youthful self-expression mutated into political struggle. I suspect that most of my friends here would say definitely not. In fact, they would call such expression a ruse, a false freedom, a distraction from the real problem which is, as Mohammed put it, that the rich run the country in their own interest. Just as it always has, power in Morocco comes from the top, so nothing ever happens here unless it’s in the interest of the power elite, the Makhzen.

In this vein Mohammed mentioned an article he’d written in which he traced Gnawa back to its historic origin as the music of slaves, and proposed that modern promoters of Gnawa are creating a new generation of slaves, in this case the slaves of globalization, the global consumer economy that in Morocco profits only the rich. As we watched an open air concert I proposed, “So the rich want to turn Morocco into a show for foreigners to get their money, rather than developing the country in the interests of its people,” and he replied, “That’s it in a nutshell.” The Makhzen is happy to see the young poor of Morocco amuse and distract themselves with hairstyles and such, because they expect that’s as far as the self-expression will go. Meanwhile they could care less about the future of these young people, at best seeing them as props in the show they’re putting on, a show called Morocco.

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