Black Army, Black Thursday, Black Deeds

My colleagues in Rabat report a small but noticeable increase in street-crime over the last year or so, with more muggings and bag-snatchings, and more associated violence. I don’t see much of it (though a young man tried last weekend to pick my pocket in the Souaika) and Rabat still seems to me one of the safest cities in which I’ve lived. But I am male, 6′ 4″ tall and heavily built: many of my Moroccan female colleagues disagree, and say that there are parts even of the town centre where they wouldn’t walk alone after dark. This might suggest that it is women who are most threatened, and perhaps so; but a recent victim in my office is a tall young man.

I was musing about this yesterday, and wondering if anything is really changing – it’s all too easy to see a trend in anecdotes – when I came across an article I cut out of a magazine a few weeks ago, about violence (Nouvel Observateur, 19-25 April). There is of course a difference between street-crime and outright violence, but the two are not disconnected.

The NO has three articles in a section called A l’école, dans la rue, sur la route … La violence gagne du terrain. It starts with a reflection on the events of 11th April in Casablanca, when on their way to  the infamous FAR-Raja draw at the Mohammed V stadium, the Black Army, FAR’s ultras, went on the rampage, armed with knives, cutlasses, sabres and rocks. It was a full scale football riot, preceded by challenges and taunts, for which the visitors came prepared. There was rioting in the streets, widespread vandalism, violence to passers-by including women and children, and more than 200 arrests. Trams, buses, cars, shops, cafés and windows were destroyed, babies tipped from prams, women assaulted. The police were taken quite by surprise (or perhaps had a naively cunning plan which involved tipping the FAR fans out at Casa Oasis – a plan which was thwarted by the Black Army’s still-more-cunning use of the emergency button on the way through Casa Voyageurs). The web played a large part, both in the build-up (Vous vivrez un remake du match de “Borsaid” en Egypte où des centaines de supporteurs ont trouvé la mort … n’oubliez pas de dire adieu à vos parents avant de venir as the web traffic put it); and in the scramble to clear up, with most of the arrests apparently attributable to film and photographs posted on the internet (which suggests a number of questions).

What is very striking about this incident is that, unlike the British football hooliganism of the 1980s, it wasn’t in the end aimed at the opposing fans. Despite the blood-curdling internet-rhetoric, the violence was inflicted on public and private property, bystanders, children and women. There’s an odd mismatch here, of rhetoric aimed in bullishly masculine voice at rivals, and brute violence carried out on those who aren’t armed or able to respond. The violence, in fact, of the frustrated coward, all mouth (as they say) and no trousers. I don’t mean to imply that my fellow Rbatis of the Black persuasion are incapable of man-to-man violence, or that I would cheerfully share my morning coffee with a posse of them. But it seems to me that they slip very easily into violence that is something quite else – an attack on the weak or inanimate, an expression of their own fears, frustrations and inadequacies – as they did on that vile day in April.

The important part is not the squalid explosion of violence itself, so much as what lies behind it. In the same section, an article by Hayat Kamal Idrissi, and an interview with sociologist Khalid Hanefioui, try to dig deeper. They identify a growing stress in Moroccan society, and a failure of the social mechanisms that control violence. They link prevalent and growing violence within the family, against women, and in school (2,800 instances of violence scolaire registered by the Ministry of Education in urban schools between September 2011 and July 2012) with a rapid normalization and acceptance of violent behavior. Yasser Mezouari is quoted as saying that the stress of everyday life, social inequalities, economic conditions, unemployment, the growing needs of every individual … seem to be at the root of markedly more aggressive behaviour. He goes on to say that by being exposed to violence every day, people end up thinking it a normal behaviour which we just have to live with. People become more and more isolated and mistrustful … and shared social values like solidarity, pity, social cohesion and even love fade.

This makes sense. In a society where hidden violence against the weak – women, children – is all too common (Anaruz reports that 74% of Moroccan women suffer violence within the family), it seems likely that tolerance for public violence and preparedness to use it, will grow. What holds it back are the social mechanisms of control and deterrence, which are themselves growing weaker. Hanefioui describes the profound changes that Moroccan society is going through in every sphere, and asserts plausibly that conflict, one of the main sources of violence, is omnipresent – in the heart of the family, at school, in the administration, in business, at university, in the public space. This conflict has its roots in our inability to manage difference (difference of sex, of generation, of culture, of ideology, of value-systems). And this difficulty is made even sharper as society is overtaken by the accelerating pace of its own change … He notes the normalization of violence, the absence of any agreement as to what constitutes violence (or even what sorts of violence are intrinsically unacceptable); and the soi-disant legitimate and frequently violent reaction of men to the changing position of women under the new moudawana. While cautioning that there is still a lack of hard data on which to draw firm conclusions, he says that the violence observable throughout Moroccan society could be analyzed as a regression towards archaic and infantile modes of expression which weaken social cohesion … a sign and a consequence of the crisis of society: a crisis that is cultural, economic, of values, of identity and of political model. And lest we be in any doubt what he means by archaic, Hanefioui says: We are, once again, in a pattern of the conquest and reconquest of territory, almost at the level of the ‘reptilian brain,’ in the purest Darwinian tradition of the Struggle for Life.

I hope this is overstated. From where I sit, violence is distant, hard to make out and frequently ritualised. Quite often, sitting outside the café below my office I look up from my newspaper at the sound of thundering feet and shouts of defiance as a few dozen demonstrators, usually chomeurs diplomés, race past, pursued by police. None of the café’s clients move, the young shout as they run, the police wave their batons in a ritualistic sort of a way, and no one gets caught or hurt. But clearly this reticence is not universal. And how could it be? In many ways the remarkable thing about Morocco is that this profound frustration at the pace, implications and meaning of change in every sphere of life, does not engender greater social disorder. It is the real, if equivocal, achievement of Moroccan government and society to have contained, not without difficulty, the stresses and violent explosions that have driven Tunisia, Libya and Egypt into revolution. But Morocco desperately needs the safety-valve on the pressure-cooker to let out some steam, in forms other than blind violence.


In two weeks time (on 21st June) the British Council will be holding a lecture by Prof. Nabil Matar, Professor of English at the University of Minnesota. Details of the lecture will be posted on the Council website, but I thought I’d write a short taster for this blog. Prof Matar, who will talk about The Role of Morocco in the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13), is the leading scholar of early modern relations between Europe and the Maghreb, and has written a trilogy of splendid books about England’s relations with Islam and with North Africa between the mid-sixteenth and the late seventeenth centuries. If you’re asking yourself why the Council is sponsoring a lecture by a professor from Minnesota, I should explain that Prof. Matar, who is originally from the Lebanon, did his PhD at Cambridge and received a British Council award for post-doctoral study there, before moving to the US in the 1980s. And his subject matter is of particular importance to Moroccans interested in Britain, as to Britons interested in Morocco. The Moroccan British Society is co-hosting the lecture with us.

Professor Matar has a large number of books to his name, all but one of which I have pulled down from my shelves as I write this: Islam in Britain, 1558-1685 (1998); Turks, Moors and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery (1999); In the Lands of the Christians: Arabic Travel Writing in the Seventeenth Century (2003); Britain and Barbary 1589-1689 (2005); Europe Through Arab Eyes, 1578-1727 (2009); and Britain and the Islamic World (with Gerald MacLean, 2011). The titles alone give an idea of the richness of his work for historians of diplomacy, culture, religion and literature, as well as for all of us who are fascinated by our shared past.

Europe through Arab Eyes focuses largely, though not exclusively, on North Africa (‘the triple Maghreb’), and touches on captivity narratives as well as the accounts of ambassadors. Prof Matar had to achieve a remarkable mastery of the Arabic sources, not just because they are scattered and inaccessible, but because they are quite different in kind to those of European travellers in the Maghreb. He describes the intricate process of research and the making of this wonderful book in an interview that he did for the University of Minnesota Bookstore, which you can find in podcast here: I strongly recommend it as an introduction to his work, and as a foretaste of just why his lecture will be a pleasure to hear.

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