Britons have many geographical misconceptions about North Africa. The first is the ‘horizontal fallacy,’ the blithe assumption that North Africa is an east-west line of states stretching from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, along the Mediterranean coast. Most journalistic commentators on what they would probably call ‘the Middle East’ or ‘the Arab World’ could count off the five coastal states, probably in the right order, but would be hard put to it to enumerate the next layer of states and peoples to the south. This Mediterranean-centred, map-driven perception accounts well enough for the seaborne empires of Rome, Carthage, Byzantium and Istanbul; and for the commercial and naval empires of the Middle Ages and the early modern period. But it doesn’t really represent the dynamic of a culture which looks in both directions, standing as it always has, on the shores of a great sand-sea stretching south into Africa – the Soudan, as the whole belt of land south of the great desert used to be called.
Morocco in particular has always had a tremendously important north-south axis, with much of its history shaped by continuity with al-Andalus to the north, and the well-travelled road southwards into inner West Africa. A cultural and political zone that stretched from Barcelona to Timbuktu surrounded the core lands of the sultanate; and into it from the south spilled wave after wave of vigorous incomers – three imperial dynasties, innumerable slaves, travellers, traders, wives, concubines, soldiers and musicians. Timbuktu was conquered by Al-Mansour in 1591 and ruled tenuously by the Sultan for almost two centuries. What is now Mauretania and much of northern Mali named the Sultan at Friday prayers. The three great, virtually identical eleventh century minarets in Seville, Rabat and Marrakech symbolically tie the northern part of this great cultural hinterland together. From the south Tijani pilgrims travelled from Senegal to Fes and the shrine of Mawlana Ahmed al-Tijani; Moroccan merchant dynasties like the Benjellouns established offshoots in Senegal and elsewhere. The Casablanca Financial City project is designed explicitly to make Casa the financial services and export gateway into Africa.
So it isn’t very surprising that modern Morocco’s foreign policy and commercial activity are deeply implanted in West Africa. Nor is it surprising that migrants and students from West Africa travel north in search of education and employment. Some, to be sure, are on their way further north into Europe; but many, perhaps most, are in search of education. Of all African countries Morocco is the second largest destination (after South Africa) for transnational student movement, generous with student support for Africans at its universities and proud of its record.
But Morocco is no longer as welcoming as it was. There is a hard-edged, discriminatory attitude taking shape which sets Africans apart, and a country which for centuries has been, if not colour-blind at least open, omnivorous and many-hued, is turning its shoulder towards Africans here. As a micro-barometer of official attitudes I have watched with interest the rise and fall of the street-traders in the arcade below our building in Allel ben Abdellah. After February 20th 2011, when it was clearly felt that harassment of African vu-compri (as the Italians charmlessly but accurately call them) was imprudent, they started to arrive, moving few yards each day up into the nouvelle ville from their pitches in Avenue Hassan II. Their cheerful smiles and groundsheets covered in carved giraffes and hippos, necklaces, combs and telephones became pleasantly familiar. Occasionally you’d see them bundle their stuff away in a hurry and leg it back down the street, having caught a glimpse of an approaching uniform, and once or twice I saw them not leg it fast enough, and get some half-hearted stick as a consequence.
But they always came back, until the late spring of this year, when they suddenly disappeared back towards the mdina, like a falling tide, and the arcades of Allel bin Abdellah were restored to their more usual, less colourful denizens. These men are probably not students, but for those who are, life is getting more difficult too. An article published during the summer on Grotius.fr gives a dry, uncomfortable account of the predicament of the 8,000 or so African students, mostly from Cameroon, Senegal and the Ivory Coast, at Moroccan universities, on the government bursaries, which are a plank of Moroccan aid to African countries, or in private establishments. On the whole, they don’t have an easy time – and all accounts suggest that it is getting worse.
“In the stories they tell of their lives, the students describe the gap between their expectations before they left home, and the reality, once they have arrived. Culture shock is painful, and incomprehension total. They meet Moroccan society in three places: the university, the street and – for students who live in an apartment – the neighbourhood. At university, relations with Moroccan students are rather distant, the Moroccans rather scornful of their sub-Saharan fellows. It’s difficult to make contact, because they mostly speak Arabic, a language in which the African students haven’t yet mastered. Experience in the street, most of all in the popular quarters, is negative for most African students. They are insulted, called “azzi,” a pejorative dialect word for a coloured person. They are harassed, and even have stones thrown at them by the children of the quarter. As for relations in the neighbourhood where they live, these are often warmer and more polite, and the students feel a little more at home.”
This throws the Africans in on themselves, in their own African communities, sharing flats and expenses. “Faced with Otherness, they try to recreate a familiar and a family atmosphere.” And they forge a shared identity – often calling themselves ‘Blacks,’ regardless of their country of origin, finding solidarity in their foreign-ness and a retreat from an often hostile environment.
And now I feel guilty for not having bought a three foot high giraffe.
I touched in slightly macabre fashion recently on the dangers of Moroccan roads (Don’t Drive in Ethiopia). Today’s paper (L’Economiste, 3rd September) takes up the same tune and looks at reasons for this ‘terrorisme routier’ on what it calls ‘the most murderous roads in the world.’ This is slightly hyperbolic, but only slightly: Morocco stands second in the Arab World in the road deaths league, behind only Algeria in its awful roadkill, and sixth in the world. The Minister of Transport, Aziz Rabbah, says that 80% of all accidents are caused by the behaviour of drivers, and as the article puts it: “Dying on our roads is hardly worth commenting on. All these tragedies are caused by drivers sending text messages, drunken driving, talking on the telephone, excess speed, sleepiness at the wheel, the behaviour of pedestrians, the craziness of motorcyclists …” and no one seems to do anything about them. He points out that in the US the mobile phone companies have run campaigns to stop mobile phone use while driving – but here, perhaps because no specific statistics are collected, zilch. And on driving schools (‘if anyone is responsible for the bad driving of car-users, it is the driving schools first’), equally zilch. What I didn’t know is that it all happens right now, in summer: figures for the months of July and August in the last three years are up on the other ten months of the year by between 10% and 27%.
Drive carefully, and watch out for the big black limo doing 160 kph while its heedless driver talks on his phone.
Morocco and Great Britain have ratified a film co-production treaty, first signed before I arrived here in 2010. This has been a long time a-coming, but is now fully operational, and a cause for much celebration. What it does is to define and encourage Moroccan-British co-productions (a finicky business) and to make them eligible for Moroccan tax incentives and British Film Tax Relief (as well as the BFI film fund). Audiences around the world already know some of the spectacular scenery of Morocco, even if they don’t always know what they’re looking at – Ait Ben Haddou standing in for ancient Rome, or Essaouira for a corner of the Game of Thrones. Now there will be more. As the Chief Executive of the BFI, Amanda Nevill, says, “British filmmakers, from David Lean through to Christopher Nolan, have long since looked to Morocco for its stunning landscapes and substantial production infrastructure. This treaty will be a catalyst to grow opportunities to pool creative and financial resources and foster a deeper sense of collaboration.” For the British Council this is a long-awaited fillip to our fast-growing cinema programme and a splendid infrastructure for production work between the two countries.