It’s striking how, with a few honourable exceptions, the British press skates lightly over events in North Africa, with coverage that is often cultural and picturesque as much as critically informative; and as for the Sahel, we read very little indeed of real interest, at a time when it is becoming more important than it has been in a century. British journalists and academics seem to suffer from linguistic and cultural diffidence, and long-term, in-depth analysis is all too rare. Recent exceptions were George Joffe and Jeremy Keenan on terrorism in the Sahel, both writing on OpenDemocracy.
This makes reading what French journalists and academics write all the more important, and a key vehicle for the former is the monthly Le Monde Diplomatique which, as well as publishing a French edition on paper, has an English edition on the web at mondediplo.com. It’s a subscription edition, but very reasonably priced.
The October 2012 edition of LMD has several useful articles (the front page gives you the teaser paragraphs and no more, because of the paywall). There’s a good piece on Libya – Libya’s Democracy Hijacked , by Patrick Haimzadeh which examines the disjuncture between election results and government composition in Tripoli, as well as the dynamics of salafi and Islamist forces. Looking more generally at the salafi/Islamist face-off and its impact is As’ad Abu Khalil, whose piece Behind the Arab Protests looks at the support from Saudi Arabia for the salafiyya and from Qatar for the Islamists, with all that this means in terms of no-go areas, enthusiasms and policy preferences – as well as outright violent conflict. Finally there are two pieces on Morocco by Pierre Daum. Not Enough Change in Morocco tries to read the realities of discontent beneath the surface of constitutional change; and Morocco’s Other Country examines briefly the history of the Rif’s troubled relationship with the centre, and its impact on today’s unrest. There’s much that’s useful (and a good deal that’s depressing) in Daum’s articles, which focus on events in al-Hoceima since February last year, and examine too the on-again-off-again involvement of al-Adl w-al Ihsane in the protests.
I was struck by one comment, on rifi religiosity: “People are very religious here, but it’s a traditional Islam without beards or full veils,” said Hocine M’Rabet, a town councillor in Ait Youssef Ali, near Al-Hoceima. “The Islamists have no control over them, because they regard the Arabic language as sacred, which doesn’t please the Berbers.” In the November 2011 elections the PJD failed to win a single seat in the Rif. I think that comment, “People are very religious here, but it’s a traditional Islam without beards or full veils,” should be engraved on the desk of every journalist and political commentator writing about North Africa and indeed the MENA region in general.
I’ve often wondered about the odd-looking fruit sold by boys by the road through the cork-forest of Mamora. They are clearly a delicacy, and often one particularly choice specimen looks as though it is balanced on some sort of terracotta cone, in all its glory like a golf ball waiting to be driven off to the far horizon. I have never stopped to buy one. But I came across a passage by William Lempriere, writing in the late 18th century, who comments approvingly upon the “acorns of a remarkable size and sweet taste,” which grow in the forest. So now I know. What do they taste like? I shall have to stop and buy some to find out. Do you cook them? Eat them raw? And what are they called in darija?