Arriving in Casablanca, A Poet’s Progress, Newtopia Magazine #3

Three months after I got back from Morocco, the riots in Tunisia began and within days, it seemed, the government fell. Friends who knew I had recently been in northwestern Africa wondered if Morocco would be next. “No,” I said. “The Moroccans love their king.” And then I would give them a list of reasons why they should. For instance, when there were demonstrations in the capital requesting some civilian representation around the time that Mubarek fell, the King conceded the time was right for limited democracy in Morocco, and began discussions on how to build the best parliament. I told my friends that present social efforts in Morocco were an example of the power an enlightened monarch had to create positive change seemingly impossible in more democratic countries.

But, my friends taunted me, there are accusations of human rights violations in Morocco, they haven’t behaved well toward their neighbors or even some of their own people. I bet if you talked to some of the Sahraui, they said, they would have a different opinion on the king—but you can’t because they’ve been forced off their land by government forces into refugee camps in neighboring Algeria. It’s a hereditary monarchy in two thousand and twelve, for Christ’s sake. There’s no free speech, no free press, the king owns a piece of everything for sale in the country, and he tolerates obvious graft and corruption and probably skims a little bit for himself.

Okay, all of that is probably true. But King Mohammed VI has a program well underway that will ensure that Morocco—a country with no oil reserves—will be energy independent well before the end of the decade (with 40% of that supplied by Green power sources). He is doing that by turning the barren desert into windfarms, and is powering even the most remote areas with solar panels. He’s aggressively pursued social programs and contraception and pre-natal and post-natal care, passed laws designed to protect and educate children and women, and built hospitals and schools and roads. He has funded huge infrastructure projects, like an important dam and a four-lane highway system that’s employed millions of untrained workers in the remotest and poorest parts of the country. He has started women-owned cooperatives that have given illiterate women a place to work with other women where they can earn a decent wage and self-respect. And, like I say, the Moroccans love him, especially those old enough to remember his father’s notorious reign—whose rule was more Draconian than post-colonial. And I didn’t see a single photo of him in military garb or perched upon a tank. Instead he usually finds a way to get his family into the photo ops, standing proudly beside the mother of his children. So all I’m saying is that if you have to live under a king, Mohammed VI is a pretty good one to live under.

And, like I said, there was no revolution in Morocco.

September 15, 2010:


Sign upon leaving the Casablanca Airport:

We apologize for the
inconvenience of the
under way works.

Morocco is the farthest west you can go in the Moslem world. The name Morocco comes from the Arabic word for “the region of sunset.”

This year’s Destiny Day—the anniversary of the day the Koran came down from the angels to Mohammed—fell on the Friday before we arrived. It was also the last day of Ramadan and a day of great feasting that traditionally lasts until 3 or 4 a.m. Even though the crowd in the plaza outside the mosque this year was over a quarter million, there was no need for extra police to manage the crowds.

Although giving to the poor is important year-round to all Muslims, on Destiny Day they are especially encouraged to give food to the pilgrims who have traveled from across the country to Casablanca’s Hassan II Mosque, the second largest mosque in the world. This year was a good year for many Casablancans, and there was more than enough chicken tajine and royal couscous, the traditional foods of the mountain people and nomads this year. Entire families with their best casserole dishes and cooking pots were lined up ten to twelve deep at every food station until the early hours of the morning, waiting for their chance to kneel and serve the faithful.

It is said that if you make a pilgrimage to a holy site like this mosque during your lifetime, it will absolve you of all of your blemishes for the equivalent of one thousand and one months. One thousand and one months—a common number in Arabic for innumerable—is also the equivalent of eighty-three years and four months, so basically an entire life. For this reason it is thought that one pilgrimage to a holy site like the Hassan II Mosque and you’re pretty much covered for a lifetime. Since it is so expensive and difficult to travel from Morocco to Mecca—it would cost over $5000 just in transportation for most Moroccans, a sum far out of reach of the average nomad or rural family—there are holy sites in almost every district, often the tomb of a holy person or sage.

On a walk downtown to one of the King’s four palaces, we pass two competing bookstores—one is called Dar Al Fikr, the House of Thoughts. The bookstore across the street is called Dar Atta Kafa: the House of Culture. The House of Culture is filled with books about architecture and art, flower arranging and computers, fashion and modern cinema. The House of Thoughts is filled with books on philosophy and politics and religion, the walls lined with calligraphized quotations from the Quran, and photos of the King and his smiling family.

This is a juxtaposition that I will encounter throughout this trip—the co-existence of two visions of Morocco. There are those whose way of life is disappearing—the nomads and elders—and those whose life is just beginning, who dress like the young men and women on big city billboards and smile at them from flashy western fashion magazines. They talk on the latest cellphones as navigate the cracked stone sidewalks in stiletto heels and red Converse All Stars. Some women look as modern as they can, with make-up and stockings, and there are even a few bare shoulders and tiny strips of their bellies showing. But if they dress this way in the cities—and I saw no one dressed like this in the rural areas—they are regularly denounced on the city streets by shabby looking men with real hatred in their eyes, who wiggle their fingers at the women’s backsides in obscene gestures. It is common, however, to see a young woman in modern dress walking arm in arm with one dressed traditionally. But I never saw a woman in a full burqa holding the hands of anyone other than her youngest children.

When older Moroccans meet, the customary greeting man-to-man is a handshake and then the fingertips are raised to the lips for a kiss and then pressed to the heart. When the men have all greeted one another, then the women are acknowledged with a short bow in their direction, the women’s heads a little lower than the men’s. More stylishly dressed men and women greet each other the way Parisians do—by pressing their cheeks together, simulating a kiss. Sometimes they kiss both cheeks, sometimes they start over and do it all over again.

It is still light out at eight p.m., the time of the fifth and final prayer of the day. I watch a man in a black suit stop at the fountain in front of the the mosque. He washes his hands and wrists three times. Then he splashes water on his forearms up to his elbow three times. Then he splashes his face three times, washing his ears, brushing his hair back, finally washing his feet and ankles. Now he is pure enough to enter the mosque.

Ibrahim—our guide—tells us that when a Muslim has sex, they cannot enter the mosque until they have purified their entire body. He says that Fatima, Mohammed’s daughter, is taught to be remarkable because she was never “defiled by blood.” He says that redefining these attitudes toward sex and women in a modern idiom is the challenge of Islam today in the advancing countries. When I ask him about the schisms in the Islamic church he says that every Muslim is affected by their interpretation of the Koran but that “many people don’t really believe what they have been taught because those who are teaching them don’t believe what they are teaching—that’s the problem.” He says that Berbers have taught their children how to cross streets ever since the days of the caravanserais with the same advice that the mullahs are giving to the Muslims in Casablanca today about moving forward: “Cross … and be careful.”

Fifty percent of Morocco is under twenty-one, which puts a stress on the wage-earners. Although medical care and schooling (including a university education) are free, if you’re feeding twelve mouths it’s very difficult to keep everyone fed. It used to be necessary to have that many children because many of the children died, and the quality of a couple’s old age even today depends upon someone being able to take care of them when they’re no longer able to take care of themselves. For millennia having numerous children has meant the difference between a comfortable retirement and the childless ones who can be spotted begging every day in the streets of the bigger cities.

Ibrahim says that nine of the children in his family have died and now there are three—he has one brother and a sister—who take care of their parents. Before one of them buys a new car or a widescreen TV for themselves, they first make sure that their parents already have one or don’t want one.

Everyone in Morocco—including the nomads and rural farmers—knows that the most important element that must be controlled in order for people to live well is the size of their families. With the construction of over two dozen new hospitals in the last decade, infant mortality has plunged and there are more mouths to feed in every household. And free education up through the university means that children are staying at home years longer without contributing to the family income.

Today birth control is free and widely available even among the nomads and the most rural families, and the birth rate is rapidly falling. Thirty years ago the average family may have had twelve children, but when free birth control became widely available in the early 1980s, it quickly dropped to eight. Ten years ago it had dropped to six, and today an average family plans on having three or four children. Ibrahim and his wife have two, with no plans for a third. His wife is employed and childcare is difficult during the good months when he is leading tours. But he is lucky because his family lives in Marrakech, so he can spend an evening and morning with them one night every three weeks when he is on the road.

But it’s hard to change human nature when the problem isn’t only consistently distributing birth control to the farthest reaches of a kingdom that is largely unconnected by roads, but of overcoming generational cultural expectations as well. The last generation spent their entire lives denying themselves in order to serve their parents, knowing they would receive the same treatment when their time came. But their children are more concerned about their own lifestyle than their parent’s retirement. They spend their money on things their parents don’t understand or approve of, like cellphones and fashionable clothes. Not only has the older generation’s future been taken away from them, but they are often still serving their own parents, and their children are rarely home and show little interest in helping out around the house. The younger ones spend their days in school and their evenings with friends doing homework or playing soccer. And since the children are not interested in pursuing the nomadic lifestyle, there is almost nothing the elders have to teach them, and the children are frustrated that their parents are unwilling to cross over into the future. No generation in the history of the world has probably been more distant than the last nomads and their children.

A thousand years ago, Ibrihim says, their Moroccan ancestors fought with the desert and sun and water in order to survive. Now they have conquered the desert, and their life is somewhat easier. But their children have tasted freedom, and world culture as seen through television and education—and although they speak the same languages (mostly French and Arabic and a local dialect) they live in two separate worlds with nothing to say to each other.

More damaging than all the rest, the children are now exposed to pleasures and temptations that their parents have spent their whole lives repressing. The parents are worried because what they see happening with their children—the lack of respect for the traditional way of life and their elders, their dancing to lascivious music and dressing in provocative ways and speaking the tongues of the infidels—has been foretold in the Koran as the End of Days.

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