The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged morocco
Books in the mail

I just received a copy of No Exit, Yoav Di-Capua's new book on Sartre and Arab intellectuals (it is essentially an intellectual history of the post-colonial Arab world) and its cover is very, very cool. I very much enjoyed Di-Capua's last book, Gatekeepers of the Arab Past, a great historiography and was happy to meet him in Austin (where he teaches at the University of Texas) on the sidelines of South By Southwest a few years ago. It'll be some more rigorous reading than I'm doing now (I've been devouring Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem sci-fi series, see great reviews here and here) but looking forward to it.

Also recently received are two books on Morocco (and Jordan) – it's relatively rare that you get serious and in-depth English-language scholarship on Morocco, so good to see that – and a collected volume edited by Alfred Stepan including many A-listers and friends (Rached Ghannouchi, Carrie Wickham, Nathan Brown, Monica Marks, Radwan Masmoudi, etc.) that looks at the Egypt vs. Tunisia question post-Arab Spring. With chapter titles like "The roots of Egypt's constitutional catastrophe", it's pure Arabist geek-bait.

On the protest movement in Morocco's Rif

The protest movement (known as Hirak Shaabi or hirak for short) that has been going on in Morocco's northern mountainous Rif region for the last eight months was met with a police crackdown over the Eid holiday. In response for calls to protest in the town of Al Hoceima, police blocked roads between Al Hoceima and other towns and imposed what one observers called a "de-facto daytime curfew." Videos filmed by activists circulated online showing larger crowds marching on side streets, and being chased and beaten by riot police. You can see a number of such videos and photos embedded in this coverage by the local independent site Le Desk.

I've written a few things on this lately. For Al Fanar last week, I wrote about the reaction of Moroccan social scientists, who say the Rif region remains misunderstood and that the divisive coverage of the protests and the heavy-handed response of the authorities have missed an opportunity for a serious debate about unequal development among other topics. 

For the New York Times Sunday Review, I wrote about what has sparked the protests -- going back to the death of a local fish-seller last Fall, and then much further, to the Rif's long history of revolt and violence. The historian Paul Vermeren calls the Rif’s history “a succession of tragedies.”

One could also say that it all started at least a century ago. In the 1920s, Abdelkrim el-Khattabi led the tribes of the Rif in an insurrection against Spain, establishing an independent territory. After the Spanish and the French -- Morocco's two colonizers -- launched a brutal attack on the region, bombing, gassing and burning villages to the ground, Khattabi was defeated and ended his days in exile in Cairo.

In the late 1950s, after Morocco's independence, the region rose up again. Then Prince Hassan II, future king and father of Mohammed VI, led a bloody military crackdown. He held a lifelong grudge against the region, calling its inhabitants "savages" in a televised speech and withholding public investment in services and infrastructure for four decades.

Mohammed VI reversed that policy. He initiated huge infrastructure projects -- a container port in Tangier, a high-speed train -- in the north of the country. Many other projects and investments have been promised or are underway. But so far the benefits have largely failed to reach the locals, even as they have raised their expectations.

Moroccan academic on hunger strike for right to "speak freely"

I have recently started writing a column for the Al Fanar site (a bilingual site that cover higher education issues across the Arab world). For the second installment, I met with a Moroccan professor, journalist and activist who is in the center of a controversy here over freedom of speech. Maati Monjib, a historian and a leading figure of the February 20 protest movement, was banned from leaving the country last month. 

Mr. Monjib said the ban is an attempt to intimidate him: “They want me to stop my activism, to discredit me, and to silence others.”
Our meeting took place in the offices of a human rights NGO in Rabat—a dilapidated apartment decorated with bright traditional tiles and graffiti.  Monjib is alert and combative, despite the fact that for part of the interview he sat in a wheelchair and that two days before this he was hospitalized. He received a steady stream of phone calls, answering friends’ inquiries with: “I’m OK. I’m resisting!” A petition of support has been signed by prominent Moroccan and foreign academics. The Middle East Studies Association has written to the king and the prime minister of Morocco to request an end to the travel ban.

Freedom of expression and academic freedom will be issues of concern for me. So will any promising new educational initiatives and ground-breaking research, as well as the cultural and scholarly debates of the day in the region. 

Much Loved, Much Hated: a Moroccan film about prostitution is banned

The number one topic of conversation in Morocco in the last few weeks has been the film Much Loved, by director Nabil Ayouch. The film tells the story of prostitutes in Marrakesh; it premiered at Cannes and some scenes were leaked -- and widely viewed -- online. These include a scene featuring a gay prostitute, rich Gulf clients who mock the Palestinians as a bunch of parasites, some explicit dancing, and some more explicit dialogue (I believe the words the women speak are the most shocking element in fact). 

Judging from the snippets I've seen, the movie's style is naturalistic, almost documentary; the  dialogue is reportedly based on research the director and lead actress carried out with sex workers. 

Before the director even presented his official request to screen the movie in Morocco, it was banned here, for being "une atteinte a l'image du Maroc," ("an insult to Morocco's image"). The lead actress has received death threats. 

The director's protestations of shock sound hollow to me; you don't screen a movie with this style and subject at Cannes and expect no blowback back home. But of course the ban is ridiculous. Those who support the director -- like the editorialists of the liberal magazine Tel Quel -- have pointed out that as usual decision-makers and public opinion are much more concerned with the representation of social problems than with the problems themselves (an attitude that is frequently found in the Arab world). There is a significant amount of prostitution in Morocco, and Moroccan women have a reputation of being both terribly attractive and immoral in other more conservative Arab countries (whose men come here to take advantage of these qualities). But as Omar Saghi writes in Tel Quel, Moroccan women are considered "loose" only by the standards of Gulf Arabs, and why should they interiorize these views? He writes that "Egypt, close to the Gulf, has long paid dearly for this comparison: after having veiled its women, decreased salaried female employment, and lowered a lead cloak on its beaches, Egypt remains, for the Gulf, a pagan country with shameless women who speak too loud and have the regrettable tendency to go out in public. To fix the problem of prostitution in Morocco, we should abandon an apocalyptic vision and come back to our senses: end the prostitution of minors, punish pimps and trafficking networks, spread information about health hazards...As far as defending the image of Moroccan women, let's stick to two things: keep demagogues out of this, and stop comparing ourselves to Yemenis." 

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. 

 

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.

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.

 

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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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.