For bread alone

Moorishgirl points out that Paul Bowles’ translation of Mohammed Choukri’s For Bread Alone has been re-published:

Luckily for those of you who would like to finally get your hands on this seminal Moroccan novel, Telegram Books in the UK is re-issuing it this month, so I’ll be sure to pick up a copy when I’m in London in July. You can also get it on You’d better get a copy and read it, or you are dead to me.

Damn right. Find out more about Choukri here.

World Refugee Day in Morocco

Today is World Refugee Day. I recently received an email announcing this forum for Sudanese refugees in Egypt and elsewhere. Good luck to them, and I hope the debate on the recent handling of last year’s sit-in continues there.

Meanwhile, in Rabat, Ursula went to a sit-in in front of UNHCR’s office this morning. Here is what she reports:

I wanted to write something on immigration when I came to Morocco, and I’ve been researching a story for the last few weeks. The thing is, there are (at least) two types of immigration going on: the immigration of Moroccans to Europe, and the immigration of SubSaharan Africans to Morocco (and then perhaps Europe). This post will be about the second. The terrible irony being that Morocco—a country from which millions have emigrated to Europe, where they face discrimination—treats immigrants and refugees on its own soil in a shameful manner.

Continue reading World Refugee Day in Morocco

Film review: MaRock


Long before it came out in theaters, the movie MaRock (by first-time director Laila Marrakshi) caused an uproar. The film’s been debated in the Moroccan press for months (and it’s been a cover story for both main French weeklies, Tel Quel and Le Journal) . While secularists and liberals have championed the film as a great step forward for freedom of expression, others have accused it of being a needless attack on Islamic values that most Moroccans hold dear. The Islamist newspaper “Et-Tajdid” called on readers to boycott the film, and the Islamist opposition party the PJD (Justice and Development Party) has asked the government to ban it.

So what’s the fuss all about? MaRock is a teen romance, and in most respects it’s a pretty classic coming of age story. But the teens in questions are the moneyed, Westernized children of Morocco’s elite, and the romance is an inter-faith one.

There are some wonderful performances (notably by the young lead actress, Morjana Al Alaoui , who does a wonderful job capturing the innocent recklessness, the sweet bravado, of a good-hearted teenage beauty; but also by many of the supporting actors). There are also some sharp scenes, here and there, that tackle so-called “taboo” subjects head-on. The furor over the film has focused on the sex and religion-related scenes–the ones that show the relationship between a Jewish boy and Rita, the Muslim protagonist, or the ones that show Rita insouciantly refusing to fast during Ramadan.

Personally, I found MaRock’s protrayal of social realities and tensions more interesting than its supposed critique of religiosity. I liked how the film created interesting contrasts between the very rich and the very poor, put them in the same frame and showed the ways in which they occupy the same space but live different lives, or the way in which they interact. I liked how the privilege of the teens (in a country in which many are desperately poor) was contextualized and questioned.

The film opens with a conversation between two young street kids who sell cigarettes, commenting on the well-off children of Morocco’s elite walking past them to a rave-like party. It then shows a shot of an elderly man (probably a parking attendant) praying between the gleaming BMWs of the young party-goers. Later on, there is a scene in which obnoxious drunken teenage boys hit on a pretty helpless housemaid. The driver and maids in Rita’s house on the other hand are more present than the young girl’s parents, and the affectionate relationships she has with them are given some very nice scenes.

Unfortunately, MaRock starts strong but loses steam. The central romance is resolved by an extremely convenient tragedy, and the final scenes come across as a trite valentine to the director’s own teenage years.

Cross-posted at Moorishgirl.

Jeune Afrique and Morocco

Moorishgirl highlights a Jeune Afrique special on Morocco, focusing on the old secularists vs. Islamists debate (a largely misleading debate, in my opinion) and then says:

I was disappointed by the piece on the media: No mention of the problems that Tel Quel, Le Journal Hebdo and other news magazines have had with the judiciary.

Want to know why? Because Jeune Afrique is bought and paid for by the Moroccan regime to provide positive reporting. Le Jounal Hebdo, a real independent weekly, did a great piece on how the whole setup works, with on one occasion Jeune Afrique receiving 950,000 euros for its work. I’ve seen similar paeans to autocratic regimes much worse than Morocco’s, such as Tunisia’s. The magazine’s publisher is doing little more than accepting blood money to keep silent, even if the odd article (notably on culture) is interesting.

Takfir in Morocco

There is an interesting if rather confused piece about takfir movements in Morocco in this month’s English edition of Le Monde Diplomatique. It’s interesting because these movements have drawn little attention in Morocco, since they were born in Egypt in the 1970s and for the most part have not had a very public role elsewhere. They also show the multi-faceted nature of Islamic fundamentalism, with so many factions and different offshoots that it reminds me of the “People’s Front of Judea/Judean People’s Front/Popular Front of Judea” skit in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

However, I found the article rather confused because while the headline, “Morocco: slums breed jihad” would lead one to suspect that the argument is that poverty breeds terrorism, most of the article is devoted to explaining the beliefs of the takfiris and the networks they’ve created. This is an old dispute when we talk about Islamist terrorism: is the idea in itself violent or is it conditions of living that inspire violence? While the answer is probably a mixture of both, I tend towards the first option. It may be popular to point to the Arab world as have failed its development and try to explain violence as the result of “arrested development”, but in many cases the key advocates of violence were not particularly poor: think of Muhammad Atta, son of a comfortably middle class engineer, Ayman Zawahri, scion of a prominent family of doctors and theologians, or even Osama Bin Laden, heir to a vast fortune and playboy millionaire until he found his calling. (At the same time, think of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi and his origins in Jordanian slums.)

In other words, poverty breeds conditions when idle young men who see limited horizons in front of them may be tempted by a radical ideology. But the ideology has to be there in the first place. And here it’s important to distinguish between the many different types of Islamism, some reformist, some conservative, some democratic, some autocratic, some progressive, others backwards.

For those who don’t know what takfir is, here is a long explanation from the article:

The bomb blast at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba last month confirmed that the cause of global jihad is no longer confined to peripheral areas such as Afghanistan, Chechnya or former Yugoslavia. It is now striking at the heart of the Arab Muslim world, with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco directly in the firing line.

The bomb attacks in Casablanca on 16 May 2003 revealed the existence of a new form of fundamentalism – takfir. Takfirists are no longer content to fight the United States or the “Zionist entity”; they brand Muslim leaders, and all their direct or indirect supporters, as infidels (kafir) and condemn them as apostates. They preach political violence as a means of forcing states to return “to the laws of God and the society of the Prophet of original Islam”. Their aim is not only to overturn unpopular and corrupt regimes but to cleanse the existing political order.

The movement Takfir wal-Hijra emerged in the 1970s after a split in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood; it has inspired one of the main ideologies of violence in the Muslim world, especially since the early 1990s. It is sometimes referred to as “Takfiri Salafism” and it constitutes a clear break with other Islamist movements that are prepared to engage if necessary in legal political activity aimed at establishing an Islamic state through the ballot box.

The importance that Takfirist doctrine has assumed for armed groups reflects a deep gulf between this extreme fringe of Islamism and countries that are themselves rooted in traditional Islam. In Morocco, where the king is regarded as a descendant of the Prophet, we are witnessing a shift in the boundary between jihadists and their targets within Muslim society. A few weeks before the attacks of May 2003 fundamentalist groups issued a declaration of apostasy against the Moroccan state and Moroccan society and distributed it in mosques in slum districts of Casablanca.

A Salafist activist spoke of Mohamed Fizazi, 57, a primary school teacher, the Moroccan Takfirists’ “theoretician”, who was sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment in August 2003. He said: “Fizazi was found guilty of pronouncing the Muslim profession of faith [There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet] differently from others.” This comment demonstrates how the Takfirists’ relationship with Islam has changed and how other Muslims are now considered heretics.

An inquiry conducted after the Casablanca attacks (like the investigation into the Madrid bombings of 11 March 2004 in Spain) revealed that most Takfirist groups originate in the shanty towns and disintegrating districts of Casablanca, Meknes, Fez and Tangiers. It also showed that extremist groups have a solid, active local base and are not just dormant cells waiting to respond to commands from al-Qaida, even if Osama bin Laden’s network has played a major role in providing logistic support and formulating strategy.

Figures for 2002, when more than 166 civilians were assassinated, suggest the extent of Takfirist violence in Morocco. But mass media have taken care not to publicise them and do not much cover the violence, which usually happens in the poor districts. The autonomous activities of local gangleaders – self-proclaimed “emirs” such as Fikri in Douar Sekouila on the outskirts of Casablanca and Rebaa, a militia leader in the Meknes suburbs, and some dozen others heading local groups – show they act on their own initiative and not always on instructions from somewhere in Afghanistan.

The Takfirists are part of a new generation of Islamic fundamentalists from Morocco’s urban slums. Their strongholds are what locals call al-karyan, the disused quarries in industrial zones left to decay after independence in 1956. The shanty towns that have mushroomed there in the past 20-30 years are home to uprooted landless peasants, victims of a rural exodus. Most Takfirists, like the suicide bombers of 16 May, are karyanis, from a class of social outcasts living in the shanty towns.

All of which reminds me of a good friend of mine who was walking down the street of a poor quarter of Cairo with a Muslim Brotherhood activist. A man with a long black beard dressed in traditional robes — the marks of the ultra-pious — walks by them and throws a dirty look at the Muslim Brotherhood activist. “He’s a member of takfir wa al hijra,” the Brother says. Then he added, with an air of contempt, “extremist!”

The point is that there is a real effort that can be done to curb extremism by closing down the sources of funding for the real extremists (mostly Saudi Arabia) while engaging other Islamists in a political dialogue even if some of their ideas are distasteful (as they are to me). In most Arab countries, this is not being done.

P.S. At the risk of contradicting what I said above, I’m also pasting an article I wrote a few months after the 16 May 2003 bombings in Casablanca that looks at the slums from which most of the bombers came on the day of a local election. Click “more” below to see the story.

Continue reading Takfir in Morocco

Egypt tries to make itself useful in the Western Sahara

Al Jazeera reports that Egypt is now getting involved in the Western Sahara dispute, claiming it can bring the two parties back to the negotiating table.

“Egypt, which has a neutral position on the issue of Western Sahara, will engage in contacts with the two parties,” Mubarak’s spokesman Majid Abd al-Fattah told reporters on Sunday after the president met with visiting Moroccan Foreign Minister Muhammad Binaisa.

A laudable aim, no doubt, but I find it strange how over the past year at least Egypt has tried to position itself as a negotiator and mediator in virtually every conflict in the region. There’s always been Palestine, but now Egypt is taking the risk of becoming directly involved by essentially helping run a post-Israeli pullout Gaza Strip. Then there was Iraq, where Egypt is training police officers and hosting a regional conference later this month. And there’s Sudan, on which Egypt will be hosting a conference in a few days.

The Egyptian government would probably say that this is normal due to Egypt’s stature in the region and its long-standing role as mediator, which it particularly developed during the Oslo peace process. I don’t think this is the whole story, though. In fact, Egypt has been unable to assert itself as a mediator during most of the Bush administration, which preferred to bypass altogether regional leaders like Egypt. That has been the case with Israel/Palestine, where Egypt had to take a risky position in the Gaza Strip to re-enter the picture. In Sudan, a country Egypt considers its “near-abroad,” it was completely bypassed in the Machakos process and does not seem to have much relevance to the UN sanctions process right now. In Iraq, Egypt was ignored and then offered police training support, it seems to me, mostly to ingratiate itself to the Bush administration which has desperately been looking for Arab partners in the occupation of Iraq. Police training is so far all they could get, but it is better than nothing.

The bottom line is that Egypt’s influence is waning, and that its current activity probably shows two things: it is eager to maintain the appearance of influence for domestic and regional purposes, and it is eager to convince the US it is a useful ally and not, as many US policy-makers (and not only neo-cons) believe, an obstacle to the spread of democracy in the Arab world. I wrote an article (here [pdf] if you have a subscription) about this in the Middle East International a few months ago.

But going back to the Western Sahara conflict, while I don’t think that Egypt can make much progress where the UN, EU and US have failed (especially considering Moroccan and Algerian intransigence), it would be a good thing for more attention to be given to it. James Baker, who worked as the US’ special envoy, has given up, but hopefully the next president, whoever he is, will send someone new and try to get it going again. The conflict has lasted for too long for no particularly good reason except stubbornness and inertia. This Economist story has a good update, and concludes:

The simple fact is that Sahrawi dreams of independence have not faded. Both in Laayoune and in the far-off refugee camps, there is talk of taking up arms again for what everyone calls The Cause. In September, Morocco received a jolt when South Africa added its moral weight by recognising Sahrawi statehood. And at the UN, even America has declared impatience with supporting a mission whose initial mandate was to arrange a referendum, and which has so far cost $600m.

I must say I think the story is a bit too biased against Morocco. But then again, I’m told my Moroccan roots tend to show when discussing the Western Sahara. My feeling is that while Morocco should at least grant some form of limited sovereignty to the Saharaouis, it is important that the Sahraoui movement does not simply hand over what it reaps to Algeria, which has been pulling the strings all these years. I think that is a key concern for Morocco that has to be solved, and also believe that a semi-federal system that would integrate a large degree of autonomy for the Western Sahara would not only be good for that region, but for Morocco at large. It would help the slow and halting spread of democracy in the country by putting decision-making into the hands of locals rather than in Rabat. It’s a tendency I observed traveling around Morocco a few weeks ago, and I hope it continues.

HRW on Gaza and Morocco

Two important reports have been issued recently by Human Rights Watch. One is quite timely in light of yesterday’s vote in the Israeli Knesset to pull out of Gaza is about Mass Home Demolitions in the Gaza Strip:

Over the past four years, the Israeli military has demolished over 2,500 Palestinian houses in the occupied Gaza Strip. Nearly two-thirds of these homes were in Rafah, a densely populated refugee camp and city at the southern end of the Gaza Strip on the border with Egypt. Sixteen thousand people — more than ten percent of Rafah’s population — have lost their homes, most of them refugees, many of whom were dispossessed for a second or third time.

As satellite images in this report show, most of the destruction in Rafah occurred along the Israeli-controlled border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.  During regular nighttime raids and with little or no warning, Israeli forces used armored Caterpillar D9 bulldozers to raze blocks of homes at the edge of the camp, incrementally expanding a “buffer zone” that is currently up to three hundred meters wide.  The pattern of destruction strongly suggests that Israeli forces demolished homes wholesale, regardless of whether they posed a specific threat, in violation of international law.  In most of the cases Human Rights Watch found the destruction was carried out in the absence of military necessity.

HRW reports on Israel/Palestine are always extremely well researched because of the political sensitivity of the issues they address. This one includes some very revealing satellite imagery of Gaza that shows the extent of destruction that took place. What’s important about the report is that it highlights that

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to “disengage” from the Gaza Strip holds little hope of relief to the residents of Rafah.  Under the plan, the IDF will maintain its fortifications and patrols on the Rafah border indefinitely.  The plan explicitly envisions the possibility of further demolitions to widen the buffer zone on the basis of vague “security considerations” that, as this report demonstrates, should not require a buffer zone of the kind that currently exists, let alone further mass demolitions.

The second report is about the crackdown on suspected Islamists that followed the May 16 2003 Casablanca bombings, which were a setback for due process and human rights in a country that was just beginning extensive reforms under the new king. But the report also notes some positive developments for Morocco, notably in the form of an “Equity and Reconciliation Commission” that is the first in the Arab world to be set up to look at past abuses. Still, the commission’s power is limited.

Western Sahara: the secret negotiations

The French-language Moroccan magazine Tel Quel — a great read on a country little covered elsewhere on the web — has a cover story on the history of underground negotiations between the Moroccan political class and the Sahraoui independence movement since the 1970s. Timely reading in context of South Africa’s recent controversial decision to recognize the Sahraoui Republic as a state, something that most Western states continue to refuse to do. It really seems that there is a missed opportunity to solve the problem once and for all, notably because official negotiations have come to a dead end (witness James Baker’s resignation as the UN’s negotiator in the matter and the postponement of a referendum), the players directly involved (Morocco, Algeria, the Polisario) seem reluctant to revive them and other governments that could influence them (the US, France, Spain) are distracted by the war on terror and other matters.

Maroc/Polisario: Les négociations secrètes