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Maybe Not Stuck?

During the six weeks I’ve been in Morocco, I’ve been to Essaouira, a fishing and tourist town on the Atlantic coast that is home to Morocco’s Gnawa tradition; Fez, the historic political and cultural capital that is now struggling to accommodate a million and a half people; Taounate, a town in the Rif Mountains surrounded by natural beauty; Rabat, the modern capital which at times feels almost European for its prosperity and contemporary lifestyle; Casablanca, a chaotic megalopolis of twelve million people of which I know only a few corners; Setti Fatma, a village in the Atlas Mountains known for its waterfalls and excellent hiking opportunities; and Larache, a fishing and commercial town on the north Atlantic coast, where my friends are artists and poets.

I’ve seen old friends, made new friends and acquaintances, and met a wide range of people, progressive and conservative, rich and poor, young and old. These include a journalist, activist and social critic who works in educational administration; two computer wizards who have proven it is possible in Morocco to support themselves through freelance web design and programming; a young sociology student with an interest in Morocco’s history and rural traditions; an urban family of very modest means whose hope is that their daughters will find economic stability in marriage, and their sons through jobs with the state; a collection of young teachers from different parts of Morocco who share a house in the town where they teach; a family of kif growers that includes a professional singer of rai, a style of popular music; a deaf-mute who helps support his family by ferrying visitors across the lake in his rowboat; a divorced mother of two who works in the civil service and has a profound interest in Gnawa, Sufism and Islamic spirituality; a designer of hotel and club interiors who was fed up with his employers and decided to strike out on his own; a young woman recently returned to Morocco from Québec because she sees a chance to apply her marketing experience here; a collection of activists from the youth wing of the USFP, Morocco’s largest socialist party; a young blogger and Gnawa musician who aspires to a career in journalism; an independent-minded young woman whose ambition is to help her friend launch his web hosting business; a Dutch businessman converted to Islam who is in Morocco to oversee a project that will provide water to the desert by pulling it out of the air through condensation; a middle school art teacher with ambitions to transform the public spaces of his city into open air art exhibitions in which anyone can participate; a young poet and journalist who makes his living by laying out pages for local newspapers; and a teenage mechanic who is struggling to steer his life in a positive direction despite the poverty and hardship in which he was raised.

I think such a wide range of contacts in six weeks reveals Morocco’s essentially open character. It’s easy to make friends here, and follow a thread from one experience to another until one arrives in unexpected situations. Usually but not always, these are pleasant; and often it’s the worst-off Moroccans who are most willing to show a stranger their best face. In any case, I didn’t come to Morocco with an agenda to meet with members of groups X, Y or Z. It happened spontaneously, so it is in no way a “study” in the sociological sense; it is simply the sum of those encounters which I, one wandering human, have stumbled upon out of curiosity, or while following my personal tastes and interests.

In Morocco I feel like I’m constantly voyaging from one microcosm to another, and most of them are unaware of the rest. Morocco’s very diversity ensures that any “study,” or attempt to sum up life here in a few words, will fall flat. For example, Morocco has people with high levels of professional skill who regularly travel abroad, and take the latest conveniences for granted in the same way that we do in the West. At the same time, Morocco has people who live in desperate poverty while struggling for every scrap; and such a life carries the same risks it does everywhere in the world, such as drugs, prostitution and violence. But to take this to another level, even the struggle between the two worlds of wealth and poverty, power and powerlessness fails to describe Morocco, because most people fall between the two extremes; and in any event, people’s lives turn on other axes besides the axis of wealth and poverty, such as the axes of tradition and modernity, family loyalty, or personal ambitions and tastes. In the end, the only thing that can be said for sure about Morocco is that it is a nation of contrasts. For every claim one can make about it, it’s possible to find a contradictory case.

All this is really a long lead-in to a retraction of sorts. When I returned to Morocco six weeks ago after an absence of three years, the first thing that struck me was that nothing has changed; and for a while I was fixated on the political, economic and social reasons for this blockage in development. In fact, I was saddened enough by the lack of progress to wonder if perhaps Morocco was no longer for me. Why would I, an American with independent means who could live anywhere in the world, invest emotionally in a country that feels stuck in the habits of the past? When Spain freed itself from dictatorship after the death of General Franco, the new era of democracy that followed brought with it a flowering of commerce and culture that has transformed the social landscape over 35 years. Similar changes are occuring in Eastern Europe, Brazil, Mexico and Turkey; but Morocco feels like it will wait another twenty years for such changes to even begin. Nevertheless, while I’d certainly like to see Morocco reach the level of prosperity, self-confidence and individual expression so visible in Spain today, I have to retract my previous judgment that nothing has changed. Morocco is indeed changing; and to be honest, even my poorest friends have seen some improvement in their lives over the past few years. One got a job as a teacher that allows him to live independently and support his family; another moved with his family to a larger apartment in a better neighborhood, where they no longer have to fear the local thugs. Those who already had a comfortable home may have added a computer or a washing machine while I was away. There are more cars on the streets, better products in the stores. Change may not occur at the pace we want or expect, but there is an inevitability to growth or development, and Morocco won’t be left out.

A recent poll by the Moroccan magazine Nichane, conducted jointly with the French newspaper Le Monde, asked Moroccans to rate the performance of King Mohammed VI after ten years on the throne. 91% of respondents said they were either highly or moderately satisfied, while only 9% gave him negative marks. My first reaction was that this figure is surely too high, since world leaders like Obama or Sarkozy never achieve such numbers. Clearly some respondents were less than honest, fearing that a negative view of the king would get them in trouble. But 91% is an impressive figure, and I was sure it would be trumpeted by the palace. Instead, the opposite happened, and the issue of Nichane in which the poll appeared was pulled from the stands under state order. Apparently the role of the king is so far beyond debate, that it is unacceptable for Moroccans to judge him even positively! Despite this paradox, I have to admit that I share the poll’s conclusion. On balance, the lives of Moroccans are improving in tangible ways, however slowly.


Comment from Maysaloon
Time: August 13, 2009, 09:39

Thank you for this insightful post on Morocco. I know next to little about this wonderful country, but I imagine the problems facing them there are as great, if not more so, than the rest of the Arab world.

Comment from Zakaria RMIDI
Time: August 21, 2009, 22:25

Hi Marcel,
Thanks a lot for this perceptive article. Your perspectives are to the point; yes Morocco is improving, but slowly. I see that this sweet home is much better than all the other neighbouring countries. We only still need to do more efforts so we can get rid of illiteracy and corruption as well as working more and more to restore the judicial system. I think that all this will help flourish the country.
Concerning the poll about H.M. King Mohamed V, i’m against such a thing. The one here, in Morocco, feels like he can’t speak about the performance of the king, since his performance speaks about him, speaks in a very positive way. Secondly, it is true that in the Moroccan constitution, it is forbidden to itroduce the king to the public opinion as a topic to be evaluated. Thirdly, Nichan and Telquel are magazins which are working in accordance with a specific agenda that is supported by some French lobbies. If you go back to all the previous issues, you’ll find that the focus is on: the king, Islam and homosexuality; things which are still considered as taboo subjects. These magazines try to tackle them, but not in a professional and a reliable way. I, actually, always read what they write and I appreciate that but I do not agree with them all the time.

Kindest regards

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