Swords, students and vegetables

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Dhar el Mahraz at Fes is awash, according to press reports, with commerce illicite de toutes sortes de marchandises (drogues, alcool, sabre, prostitution …). It sounds a bit like the Baltimore housing projects in The Wire. And the neighbours aren’t great, either: Il est entouré, autre les bidonvilles de Dhar el Mahraz, Douar el Askar et Aouinate El Hajjaj, d’une zone industrielle (Sidi Brahim), de casernes militaires et de quartiers insalubres. There’s quite a bit of casual violence (the sabres are a giveaway). It’s really not the kind of place you’d want your children going anywhere near.

The odd thing is that it’s a university campus, belonging to Fes’s Université Sidi Mohamed ben Abdellah. Ten days or ago there was a pitched battle there between Islamists and Maoists which led to several severe injuries, and the death of a young student called Abderrahim Hasnaoui. The fight was over a seminar run by the Islamists called – you couldn’t make this up – Islamists, the Left and Democracy.

The details are not in the end very important, though the objection of the Maoists was to the fêting of an Islamist militant of the 1990s held responsible for the death of a leftist student in 1993. Abderrahim Hasnaoui was 21 when he died, which means that he was born in 1993, about the time of this earlier murder. So he can’t have had any direct knowledge of it, and the same is presumably true of all the other cutlass-wielding undergraduates who set about each other with such enthusiasm. The motor of events at Dhar el Mahraz was regurgitated history, myth and tittle-tattle, a narrative whirlpool of gang violence and ancient grievance. Mixed of course with testosterone and hatred: cette violence est le résultat d’une décision préméditée, as the Minister of Higher Education noted soberly.

It smacks of what is being called Tscharmil in the press. I’m told that the word Tscharmil comes from the kitchen and has to do with dicing vegetables, an unpleasant image in this context. It describes a recently much written-about epidemic of crimes with armes blanches – cutlasses, machetes, butcher’s knives, mostly home-made. The tscharmilists post pictures of loot, victims and weapons on the internet, and we are warned that street robberies with knives (and larger cutlery) are on the increase in towns across Morocco. The newspapers publish pictures of policemen with home-made sabres seized from home-made sabre factories, and they look pretty lethal (the sabres, that is).

The King has given firm instructions to police, university presidents and other authorities that they are to stop both Tscharmil and campus violence: L’université ne doit plus être un lieu de désordre, mais un endroit de recherche et de savoir. It seems that the police have responded with enthusiasm, in some cases taking much more proportionate armes blanches – razors – to the scalps of miscreants, cutting their hair off. This in turn raises all sorts of bad memories, and reminds liberal commentators of Costas-Gavras’s 1969 film, Z. It’s all a bit of a mess. On Monday this week the police were given permission to enter universities without the permission of presidents and deans to preserve public order. A sort of academic hot pursuit, to prevent sword-fights.

But what is really going on? The phenomenon of youth violence is clearly real. Several of my colleagues have been robbed with edged weapons in Casablanca in recent months. Sword-wielding students are not a figment of the imagination, and nor are squalid deaths in campus brawls, or armed hold-ups. But as Omar Saghi comments in TelQuel, the level of violent crime is nonetheless pretty low, and not really rising: l’insecurité qui, selon des médias lubriques, explose, n’a rien d’exceptionnel par rapport a ce qu’elle a été sous Hassan II. Indeed the Ministry of the Interior has just this week announced that the national figures for violent crime are significantly down. What Saghi sees is a diatisation de l’insecurité, an escalating coverage of violence in the press which plays to popular fears, underwrites resolute police action and elaborates narratives of blame. This seems plausible – we see it in Britain too, the fingering of migrants and the poor, the press-driven soap opera of threat to person and property – a de-ideologized politics of fear.

Is this all it is? I doubt it. There is an awful lot of non-specific frustration bubbling under the surface of Moroccan society, of thwarted ambition and stunted lives. These tscharmilists are football’s Ultras writ large, young men whose rage finds no other outlet than physically enforcing submission. Look at the picture at the head of this post – it’s in Rabat, of course, and shows an absurdly mighty FAR Ultra superhero violently subduing the shrimp-like fans of two rival teams. This is the visual language of thuggery, the ritual but nonetheless very real violence of young men failed by the education system and the job market, finding expression in imposing their incoherent, self-glorifying, resentful, inarticulate – but very real – personal narratives down the throats of Others.

It is a relief to see decisive action taken – but what it all underlines for me is the desperate need for investment in a reformed Higher Education sector. Dhar el-Mahraz is to be rebuilt, apparently, and not before time. Last week I was at Agadir and visited the new campus buildings of Ibn Zohr University: they are superb, carefully thought out, beautifully decorated and imaginatively finished. Though Ibn Zohr has its share of campus troubles, it is hard to imagine students crossing sabres in these splendid buildings, which radiate a respect for the student that demands to be reciprocated. And that respect, that karama, is what is missing for so many of Morocco’s young people – and what they so desperately need.


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