Arabist book review: Women's Burdens in Morocco

“Dos De Femmes, Dos de Mulet” (“Woman's Back, Donkey’s Back”) is a proverb in the mountain villages of Morocco. The Moroccan journalist Hicham Houdaifa chose it as a title for his first book of reportage, which focuses on the most vulnerable of Moroccan women — women who are illiterate, legally non-existent (because their births were never registered), single mothers (with no rights because their marriages were never registered) or vulnerable seasonal workers. With the help of some of Morocco’s impressive NGOs, Houdaifa criss-crossed the country last Fall interviewing underage brides; waitresses in Casablanca bars; some of the tens of thousands of women who pick the fruit that is exported to Europe (and are sexually exploited by their male superiors and the wealthy families that own farms)'; and others. Avoiding condescension or sensationalism, Houdaifa presents a picture of hard work and terrible unfairness, of the way — despite Morocco’s supposedly progressive family code and its economic development — rural uneducated women remain a reservoir of cheap, vulnerable labour. Most of these women are brutally cut off from any chance of improving their lot, but spend their lives toiling to try to offer a slightly better chance to their children. 

The book is the first in a series of investigative books to be published by the independent publishing house, En Toutes Lettres, run by Houdaifa and his wife, the cultural reporter Kenza Sefrioui — both veterans of Morocco’s quashed independent press. 

 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Arab world rejects Ridley Scott's Exodus as inaccurate, Zionist, blasphemous

At least three Arab countries have banned Ridley Scott's movie Exodus, featuring Christian Bale as Moses. Egyptian censor Abdel Sattar Fathy explained that: "the movie contains misleading information, including that the Jews helped build the pyramids and are God's chosen people.". The Egyptian Minister of Culture has described the film as  "Zionist," and a statement from the Ministry said that censors found "intentional gross historical fallacies that offend Egypt and its pharaonic ancient history in yet another attempt to Judaize Egyptian civilization, which confirms the international Zionist fingerprints all over the film." There are truly quite a few historical inaccuracies in the film, but not more than in your average Hollywood movie. 

Scott's choice to give the Biblical miracle of parting of the Red Sea a pseudo-scientific explanation, ascribing it to an earthquake and undercutting its divine nature, was not appreciated.

The United Arab Emirates also banned the film. In Morocco, it was reportedly Minister of Communication Mustapha El Khalfi, a member of the governing Islamist Justice and Development Party, who pushed to have the film banned (after the Al Jazeera satellite channel raised the issue) even though it had been approved by the Centre Cinematographic Marocain.. But in fact it's unclear where the decision originated. The main objection in Morocco was not to the Jewish people getting credit for the pyramids but rather to a scene in which God may be personified as a small child who speaks to Moses. Depicting God is forbidden in Islam (and even depicting his prophets is frowned upon). Much of Exodus was actually filmed in Morocco, which is used as a backdrop for many films set in the Middle East, and which is trying to expand its cinematographic industry (and had just spent millions of dollars to hold the International Marrakesh Film Festival). 

Scott had previously come in for some criticism for his all-white cast of lead actors (subalterns are of color, as far as I understand), and responded by saying that he couldn't get the financial backing to make a block-buster film like this if he cast "Mohamed so-and-so." Rupert Murdoch, who owns the film's distributor, was surprised to find out that all Egyptians weren't white.

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

A Moroccan scandal

My latest for the Latitudes blog of the New York Times looks at a strange controversy that broke out here last week, shaking up the usually very staid (not to saw cowed) political and media scene and pushing the King to the exceptional step of revoking a royal pardon.

Soon after news of Galván Viña’s release appeared on the independent news site Lakome, it spread across social media. Pardons in other countries can be controversial, too, but this one had everything to shock and anger: Here was a Spanish criminal getting away with abusing Moroccan victims, and a royal prerogative trumping the justice system.

Last weekend the colonnaded Avenue Mohammed V in central Rabat echoed with the chants of young protesters (“Long Live the People!” “Down with Perverts!”) and their running footsteps, as they dashed away from police squadrons. Other small demonstrations have since taken place in other Moroccan cities.

 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

From slaughterhouse to art house?

Here is another post about culture in the Arab world. When I was last in Morocco, I discovered Casablanca's Culture Factory, an amazing project to re-purpose the city's abandoned old slaughterhouse as a cultural center. I went back recently and was surprised to discover that although artists have continued to hold all sorts of activities there, the project remains in legal limbo, because the city won't grant it any formal recognition. I wrote about it here

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

In Morocco

One of the strangest things about traveling from Egypt to Morocco is exiting a news maelstrom and entering a low-news-pressure zone. Egypt is so full of news these days, and so the focus of international media, that it is almost shocking to me to be in a country that, when Google-searched, does not even return any news stories. And yet, of course, things are happening here too. I was also shocked, for example, to find out that 80 people have set themselves on fire in Morocco since 2011.

I was traveling last weekend (to Fez, which after the devastation that Aleppo has suffered is probably the most amazing medieval Arab city in the region) so I have just found time to link to this post, for the NYTime's Latitude blog, about Morocco's political scene. 

 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.