Compulsory Military Service in Morocco — Mistake or Masterstroke?

Morocco has moved forward with a plan to conscript both men and women for compulsory military service in a bill expected to be approved by the Parliament in October 2018 with mixed reactions from the public, with some news outlets suggesting widespread approval and others citing marked dissent on social media.

Although reinstatement of the draft in the United States following its abolition after the Vietnam War is periodically a topic of discussion, it is clear that for the time, at least, the world’s most formidable military power remains firmly committed to an all-volunteer force. Forced military service is not only generally unpopular with the public, but the all-volunteer force is also cited as producing a better trained, higher quality cadre of professional soldiers than short-term service based on a draft. Moreover, part of the unpopularity of the draft also dates back to the widespread exemptions during Vietnam that resulted in a highly unfair application of the system. In contrast, proponents of the draft assert that it would more evenly distribute the burden of service and discourage America’s persistent military adventurism.

However, perhaps the global military behemoth fielded by the United States is not the most suitable model for a nation of 37 million people like Morocco, which cannot deploy the same level of population, economic, and technological resources as the United States. More apt models might be countries of comparable size such as Israel (population 9 million) or Switzerland (population 9 million). Both nations generally seems to field an effective military with broad popular support for national service.

Perhaps equally noteworthy is that by at least one ranking, Moroccan military strength lags far behind its most likely military rival — Algeria, particularly with regard to military budget (3 to 1 in Algeria’s favor), external debt (4 to 1 in Algeria’s favor), and active military personnel (5 to 1 in Algeria’s favor). Algeria also appears to have a decisive advantage in quantity of military hardware. Quality is difficult to assess, although it is perhaps worth noting that Algeria is largely supplied by Russia, whereas Morocco appears to have greater access to weaponry made in the United States. It appears open to question how much difference this might make.

Happy Eid el Adha — to everyone! عيد الاضحى مبارك للجميع

Today is Eid el Adha, the most significant holiday in the Muslim calendar, traditionally marked by the slaughter of a sheep in honor of God’s first ordering the sacrifice of Ishmael and then sparing him and substituting a sheep. (Yes, that is correct. The Jewish/Christian version of the story in Genesis 22 refers to Isaac; the variation in the Qur’an refers to Ishmael.) It is also known as Eid el Kbir — the big holiday.

It is common, and I suppose customary, to wish a happy Eid to all Muslims, and I do wish a happy Eid to all those celebrating the holiday. One thing I noticed while I was in Morocco, however, is how inclusive the holiday was. I was always made to feel that I was part of the feast (outsider though I was) and pressed to eat more mutton than I could possibly consume, from the head to the hooves. In that spirit, I would like to wish a happy Eid to everyone, Muslim or not, meaning no disrespect.

I realize, of course, that the Eid is not without its critics, whether because of concerns for animal welfare or the financial burden that purchasing an animal to sacrifice places on the poor, who are nevertheless faced with enormous social pressure to participate in Muslim countries such as Morocco. And yet, and yet, it is hard to deny the fellow-feeling I experienced while I was there. We should always be mindful of the less fortunate — and come to their aid in their time of need — and yet it seems it would be a shame to abandon every festive occasion on account of its cost. (It is hard to imagine a more wasteful holiday than Christmas!) Or as Shakespeare put it, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

Happy Eid, every one.

Project Soar Morocco in the News

Empowering girls through education, Project Soar Morocco has rapidly expanded from its original village — Douar Laadam in Marrakesh — to twenty-one sites across Morocco, serving hundreds of girls, according to the New York Times. The project aims to keep girls in school, enhance their education, inform them about developmental changes in their bodies as they mature (including providing them with hygienic menstruation kits so they don’t drop out of school), and encourage them to become leaders in Moroccan society, passing on what they have learned in the process.

Maryam Montague, the founder and director of Project Soar, has been a resident of Morocco since 2006 and is the proprietor of the Peacock Pavilions boutique hotel in Marrakesh. Project Soar is not only a way for her to give back to her adopted home, but also a way to fill a critical need to support girls as they become young women and enter into society. Long an icon of the Marrakesh fashion and design scene, as chronicled in her popular blog My Marrakesh and her book Marrakesh by Design, Maryam nevertheless has a core commitment to bettering the lives of those around her.

While Morocco has been the staging ground for the launch of Project Soar, Maryam has wider ambitions to expand the Project to other countries. The program — Project Soar in a Box — is designed to be easily replicated by trained volunteers and groups of girls, allowing not only for rapid and effective expansion but also sustainable development beyond the confines of Project Soar itself.

Women in the Fantasia

Not a new story, but a good one from BBC Africa. Moroccan women beat the men at their own game by taking part in the Fantasia, the most dramatic of Moroccan holiday spectacles. Men or women, I just love to watch the horses charge and the guns fire.

Is the Rif Rising?

The Rif is not the Morocco I know. Al Hoceima was a sleepy beach resort when I stopped by for a couple of days, and I spent an overnight in Chefchauen, but I never got to know the people. The time I spent among the Amazigh was in the Middle Atlas, and even then I learned only three words of Tamazight – aghram (bread), aman (water), and tarbet (girl). The guys would tell me that these were the essentials of life. The language I learned was colloquial Arabic,and my acquaintance with Shilha culture was incidental.

Al Hoceima

The Rif, however, was legendary. The Roueffa were “wayr” — tough, and people would ask me whether I knew about Abdelkrim El Khattabi and the revolt against the Spanish. It was well-known that the Rif was one of the largest cannabis growing and hashish — kif — producing regions in the world, and we were warned against venturing into the mountains lest we be kidnapped and held for ransom. The Rif had a mystique and a mystery.

Those of us acquainted with the history of the Rif in even a cursory sense are aware that the Rif was isolated and neglected by the late King, Hassan II; the regime was wary of the region’s intransigence, which had served it well as successive waves of invaders broke on the mountains over the centuries. The Rif was to Morocco as Scotland had been to England, with the exception that the independent spirit of the Rif had survived far more intact than a broken Scotland after the infamous Highland Clearances.

As a result, it is with both fascination and concern that I see the growing protest in the Rif, ignited by the gruesome death of a street vendor crushed by a garbage truck after the police threw in his meager stock. Coverage in the American press has been sporadic, but a recent article in the Nation magazine chronicles both growing unrest and a ham-handed and counterproductive response by the regime, consisting of propaganda through the mosques and arrests of the leadership, who are reported to have been beaten by the state police, on dubious charges. The trial of protest leader Nasser Zefzafi is shortly set to begin, and the world will be watching.

I would think a more constructive approach would be a mix of engagement, conciliation, dialogue, development, and further liberalization of the regime’s attitude toward Amazigh culture, which is not what is being reported. When one is dealing with a keg of dynamite, it makes sense to defuse it. After we have seen one Arab government after another swept away by popular resentment and their country’s convulse in the aftermath, I don’t think anyone would want to see Morocco thrown into chaos by its own delayed Arab Spring, despite the hopeful example set by its neighbor in the Maghreb, Tunisia.

At least among many of my friends, there has long been a consensus that the way for the monarchy to survive ultimately is to devolve power to the Parliament along the lines of the British constitutional monarchy. Whether a government characterized by dictatorial power, concentration of wealth, and widespread corruption can achieve such a transition remains an open question, but current events in the Rif would appear to lend a certain urgency to finding an answer.

Women Lead Protests Against Morocco’s Misguided Development Policy

© Paop | – Photo Credit

Women in Morocco are at the forefront of resistance to destruction of traditional practices of holding land in common, according to a recent article in the New York Times.  The Moroccan state is in the process of privatizing tribal common lands — known as Sulaliyyate — in the name of economic efficiency.  The Morocco Free Trade Agreement with the United States has accelerated the government’s privatization program as foreign investors seek to acquire land.  The trade off between social welfare and trade liberalization should be familiar to every American who has not been asleep in the 30 years since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect thirty years ago.

The women must fight on several fronts.  On the first, they are trying to defend against encroachment on their rights to hold and use land in common for agriculture and pasture. On the second, they are fighting to have their voice heard when it has historically been silenced. Finally, on the third, they are fighting for equal inheritance rights to a stake in the ownership of the land, which have traditionally been limited to men.

Souad Eddouada, a professor at the University of Kenitra who specializes in gender studies, said: “All over the country, women are at the forefront because they are less vulnerable to police brutality and incarceration. They became very successful in their fight. They had to leave their homes and were supported by the men.”

In a Fight for Land, a Women’s Movement Shakes Morocco, New York Times. The Times points out that the women’s activism is consistent with constitutional reforms codifying greater rights for women in a society where gender inequality is often stark, but they still face an uphill battle.

In a country where the monarchy worries about social stability and popular unrest, His Majesty might be well advised to review the history of the enclosure movement in early modern England. Large landowners acquired and enclosed common lands in the name of increased agricultural production, depriving the populace of their livelihoods and forcing them into urban slums. In Scotland, the “clearances,” in which Highlanders were driven off their land to make way for sheep, reached near genocidal proportions and impelled mass migration to the New World.

Not surprisingly, the efforts at enclosure met with popular resistance, including violence in some cases:

Commoners responded by organizing vigilante bands which committed ever more brazen acts of resistance. One masked gang, whose leader styled himself King John, on one morning in 1721, killed 11 deer out of the Bishop’s Park at Farnham and rode through Farnham market with them at 7 am in triumph. On another occasion when a certain Mr Wingfield started charging poor people for offcuts of felled timber which they had customarily had for free, King John and his merry men ring-barked a plantation belonging to Wingfield, leaving a note saying that if he didn’t return the money to the peasants, more trees would be destroyed. Wingfield paid up. King John could come and go as he pleased because he had local support — on one occasion, to refute a charge of Jacobinism, he called the 18th century equivalent of a press-conference near an inn on Waltham Chase. He turned up with 15 of his followers, and with 300 of the public assembled, the authorities made no attempt to apprehend him. He was never caught, and for all we know also eventually became a chief constable.

Simon Fairlie, A Short History of Enclosure in England. It was only through harsh repression in the form of the “Black Acts” that popular resistance was quelled. Equally significant for modern Morocco, where the bidonvilles are overflowing, is that the destruction of the commons created a large and restive underclass deprived of their former means of subsistence and absorbed only by the expansion of urban slums that provided a cheap source of labor in the form of their miserable inhabitants. In light of the relatively high level of unemployment in Morocco, it is doubtful that this safety valve exists.

It might behoove the kingdom to heed the voices of its women.

Fresh Impressions — Morocco Through the Eyes of Susan Davis

My friend Susan Davis recently traveled to Morocco on a cultural exchange tour sponsored by the United States Department of State. Ms. Davis — a poet and a broadcaster — recorded her candid impressions of the country in a series of dispatches home. What follows is a sample of her observations and photographs from her tour.


My first impressions of Rabat were hot, dry and salty. It smells a lot like coastal Israel. It’s green with palm trees, cypress, Jacaranda and Bougainvillea. The buildings are officious — it’s the Capital — and several parks are under construction. My hotel was once a palace and the public spaces were truly magnificent with intricate tile work and chandeliers, terraces with mature gardens and high-ceilinged dining rooms with marble floors and carved moulding. This morning I had a traditional Moroccan breakfast: fresh fruit, a mushroom omelet, a bowl of harira (a tomato based lentil soup that you squeeze lemon juice into) dates, a pastry of fried dough dipped in honey and covered with sesame seeds, three Moroccan pancakes served with butter and jam and several loaves of Moroccan bread which is shaped and used like pita but is made with barley flour and is doughy. Also, sweet black coffee and fresh orange juice.


Slippers in the Fes Medina

In Fes, we checked into our hotel, picked up a childhood friend of Loubna’s (she grew up in Fes) who works for the historic preservation trust there and headed to the Medina — the old, walled city. It’s a labyrinthine market and meeting place where you can find everything you need and everything everyone you love and must have. Spices, bread, sweets, vegetables, meat, fish, chickens, jewelry, beauty products, house wears, shoes, clothes, electronics, instruments, tiles, rugs, tea, and coffee. Fes is known for its leather goods and silver. The only thing I couldn’t find that I wanted to buy for Milo (and Aaron) was an actual Fez. I’m not kidding. I’ve been to a market like this in Jerusalem and in Cairo, but that was 30 years ago. This one is remarkably controlled given that it is pure chaos.

Fes Medina

Loubna’s friend got us access to several newly restored buildings, including a mosque and university from the 9th century, a hostel from the 12th century and a library from sometime in-between. It feels old but not ancient. Not like the Coliseum in Rome feels ancient. Maybe this is because its teeming RIGHT NOW. So much lifting and sniffing and fingering and wondering and considering and haggling and buying. And eating and drinking. Loubna’s FitBit said we walked more than 8,000 steps.

Before leaving Fes this morning we went back to the Medina to interview Hamza, an alumnus of the State Department’s social entrepreneurship exchange. He’s the youngest of five brothers. His parents don’t have a high school education, nor do his brothers. His father spent a decade training to be a master craftsman making silver and brass hand carved tea trays. Hamza got himself to college and through graduate school. He studied geometry and sacred arts. He published several books and taught at the university in Fes but wanted to do something that gave back, particularly to the community of craftsmen and tool makers he grew up around. While his brothers apprenticed with his father and eventually quit, Hamza started Craft Draft, a low profit company that offers workshops in leather bookbinding, weaving and metalwork. He trains Moroccans, trusts, kids, anyone interested in the preservation of handicrafts. He’s tremendously successful. He even brought his father out of retirement to return to the workshop and help teach. The last thing he said to me was, “if you send craftsmen to a desert island they will build a civilization. If you send engineers to a desert island they will starve to death because they can’t make tools, they can’t make a spoon.”

Fes is a man’s world. The cafes are brimming with men, only men. The women are in the park with the children. The division between the sexes is acute. There are no public displays of affection between men and women. However, men walk arm in arm and women walk hand in hand, and friends caress each other intimately but not sexually without thinking. It’s a touchy, feely, handsy place but the air is void of both sensuality and sexuality. It is dry. So, so dry. But warm, as full of human warmth as anywhere I’ve been. It smells of mint and orange blossoms, rose water and sandalwood. If I were going to be an old Muslim woman instead of an old Jewess, I’d retire here.


I was guest teaching a communications class in which the students were practicing their interview skills on me and these were the questions: (I’m not making this up.)

  • Why did you Americans choose Donald Trump to be president?
  • What can we do about misunderstandings of Islam?
  • Do you like Justin Trudeau?
  • Are you married?
  • Do you know any Muslims in America?
  • Why make podcasts when there is YouTube?

So, me/us/them/you.

Only afterward did I find out that we’ve dropped “the mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan. As Heather wrote to me — bombs have nothing to do with motherhood. Or, as I would put it: f*** that phrase.
About the cat calling. I thought one of the upsides to traveling in my dotage, in modest clothes, with dark hair, in a country where people have already spoken to me in Arabic, Spanish and Italian, would be a cat call free experience. But no. So, how do I explain this (at least to myself?) I think that what happens in a country with a majority religion is that it forces those of us not in the majority religion into the position of irrefutable other. And that’s dehumanizing and easy to objectify. (Yes, every feminist publishing between 1978 and 1992 already said this, but I had to comb through my menopausal, jet lagged brain and rethink it anyway so now you have to listen as well.) After we checked into our hotel in Casablanca, Loubna went to meet a friend and I took a walk. I wore sunglasses so as to avoid eye contact and yet the kissing noises and the invasion of personal space were relentless. I ducked into a few shops, bought some postcards (but couldn’t find stamps,) resisted more coffee, decided against getting lost in the Medina and headed back to the hotel. Just before crossing the  last street between me and air conditioned heaven, a young woman tapped me on the shoulder, and I was so balled up and tense and suspicious that I jumped, like in a cartoon and my “ Ah!!” was indeed audible. She smiled and handed me my hotel room keycard which had fallen out of my pocket when I took my phone out to use as a camera. I thanked her in English, Arabic and French. She then asked me, in French, if I spoke French, I said no, and then she said, in French, well, I don’t what she said, but I looked at her and said, “I should be careful, yes?” And she smiled and touched my hand and said “Oui!” and walked away. So that’s it for my good karma. Spent.


I drank copious amounts of delicious coffee at breakfast and we set off for Mrirt. There I interviewed Mounir, he runs a school for deaf kids. His childhood best friend Said went deaf after an illness and he was forced to drop out of school. Mounir was so dismayed by this that he learned sign language with Said and became Said’s advocate. Said went on to become the first deaf Moroccan to get a Ph.D. Mounir participated in a State Department sponsored exchange in Chicago where he networked with other educators of and advocates for children with special needs. He helped make signs for a protest, networked with other advocates and learned a ton about accessibility. Now, along with the school, he runs an NGO that helps train any and everybody in sign language. Mounir showed us the kid’s’s artwork and crafts and then they all wanted to take a picture with me and Loubna. Feeling humbled is now a daily, or twice daily experience.

We tried to eat lunch in Mrirt, but I was too much of a spectacle, so we drove the two hours on the curvy mountain roads to a different small town, where I was also a spectacle but accompanied by fewer hoots and whistles and we found a place with tajine with meat and veggies and homemade bread. The landscape from Mrirt to Casablanca fades from bright green to dried mint, the cedars grow closer to the ground and there are lipstick red poppies for miles. I alternated between marveling at the small stone substance houses with old women hand thrashing wheat in front and holding back my nausea.


Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou

Ouarzazate is a tourist attraction. It’s the desert, It’s flat and expansive and surrounded by mountains and dotted with oases — I hate to sound like one of those Americans who relate everything back to America BUT . . .  it’s a dead ringer for the Palm Springs area of California except for the ancient ruins and casbahs, camels, bedouins, and, oddly enough, campus sized movie studios. The town runs on the film industry and celebrates that history. They are most proud of Gladiator of late, but it is also where Ishtar was filmed and a bunch of other “it happened in Arabia” schlock. The place was swarming with people attached to a massive Chinese production and people working on something called “Desert Storm” which caused both Loudbna and me to visibly shudder when we saw that written on the side of the giant buses (that presumably move the crew around).


“The tomb of a woman whose beauty beguiled the sultan but whose piety caused her to refuse his marriage proposal. She went to jail for her insistence on her purity. When she was released her constant companions were birds. “

The first thing I did was go to a spa for a hammam, a traditional Moroccan bath. It involved an impossibly young and humidity resistant woman who spoke no English having me stand under a shower in an interior tiled room with small skylights, cushioned benches and a floor that sloped toward a center drain. Then she had me lie down, scrubbed me with eucalyptus goo, stood me up, poured alternating buckets of hot and  cold water on me, told me to lie down, oiled me up with argan, stood me up, washed my hair, had me lie down, rubbed me down with different goo, hosed me down, and finally wrapped me in a towel and robe and walked me to a room with a massage table and a middle aged woman who spent hours massaging me beginning with my feet and finishing with my scalp. Then I was led to a big cushy sitting room and  given sweet mint tea and allowed to take my time before returning to my own clothes and re-entering the city.

The synagogue was like a Riad with a garden and fountain in the courtyard. There was intricate blue and white tile work and a library of books in Hebrew and French.

So I was grateful for the refuge of the Riad. I hated to leave it early the next day for a guided walking tour of historic Marrakech with included the old Jewish section, the still-in-use synagogue and the tombs of the sultans and their families and servants.  I also saw the remnants of an early mosque and had the orientation and symbolism of the mosque that was put up in its place explained. I walked about 5 miles in 2.5 hours with my guide Ali who was full of good humor about the various myths of the saints, the folklore of the tombs and the size of the casbah gate. He was also eager to show off what he knew about the Jews of Marrakech and their historically Jewish neighborhood.  He seemed way more impressed with my Jewishness than I have ever been myself.

I recovered from the heat and the press of the Marrakech tourism tornado by finishing a novel on the roof of the Riad which is crowded with large planters spilling over with bougainvillea, chaise longues, shade umbrellas, hammocks and an orange and tabby cat who managed to follow the sun around the roof. I went out for dinner alone at a restaurant overlooking the  square that has the Moroccan equivalent of a mariachi band playing vague covers of Harry Belafonte and Sinatra on traditional Moroccan instruments. The surreality of this was made hilarious by the vat of pink wine that came with my lamb tajine. Also, the many opportunities to make people’s night by taking their pictures — an older couple from France who never smiled once, a set of young couples from the Netherlands who wouldn’t stop smiling and a family from Germany who tipped up their plates of berber style dessert crepes to match their we-were-somewhere-foreign expressions.  People either come for the chaos and embrace the diversity and color and constant motion (like the Dutch) or people get exhausted and offended and look for escape (the Indian couple) but no one feels neutral about Marrakech. It’s all up in your grill and you have to decide. Unless you manage a hammam and lamb tajine with pink wine in about 24 hours. Then you see the value of it all even as you feel the thundering waste and overcompensation.

Text and photos by Susan Davis

Press Freedom in Morocco — Not Quite There Yet

Human Rights Watch has released a new report on press freedom in Morocco. The report — The Red Lines Stay Red: Morocco’s Reforms of its Speech Laws — offers guarded praise of Morocco’s recent reforms to its press code, but notes that there are still potential harsh penalties, including jail time, for violation of the penal code. The new press code has reduced penalties for crossing the country’s famous red lines — disparagement of Islam, the King, or the status of the Sahara — given news outlets greater due process before publications can be seized, and made it easier to present evidence for the defense in defamation trials. Prison time is eliminated for defamation of individuals or foreign diplomats. Certainly this is an improvement over the prior 2002 press law, but clearly it does not go far enough to provide truly free speech.

In addition, sometimes what the right hand giveth, the left hand taketh away, and without reform of the penal code, many harsh penalties limiting freedom of expression remain on the books. Human Rights Watch notes that

The penal code, by contrast, in addition to the new provisions imposing prison or a fine as punishment for “red line” offenses, maintains prison terms for a range of other speech offenses. Those include defaming state institutions, insulting public agents who are performing their duties, praising terrorism, inciting hatred or discrimination, and denigrating court decisions with the intent to undermine the authority or independence of the judiciary. Many of these offenses are defined broadly, increasing the risk that judges will use them to suppress speech.

Of course, the extent to which the Moroccan population is ready for free speech, as the relatively recent film Much Loved demonstrated, may be open to question. The government banned the highly controversial film portraying Marrakesh prostitutes as a danger to morals and a disgrace to the country’s image, and the lead actress, Loubna Abidar, fled to France after being assaulted. (The fact that she went to France probably did not endear her further to the Moroccan population.) It is perhaps no surprise that many Moroccans were incensed by the film, but after all, the point of free speech is to tolerate all speech — including unpopular or insulting speech.

Americans preen themselves on the protection of speech afforded by the First Amendment to the Constitution and like to think that they are the world’s free speech champions: not so, Reporters Without Borders ranks us 43rd out of 180. (Sweden is first; North Korea is last.) Morocco is 133, not bad in the Arab World, but behind Mauritania (55) and Tunisia (97) and some of the smaller Gulf States, such as the Emirates (119).

Morocco is a long way from the Years of Lead, but she still has a long way to go.