Ben Jelloun to Le Pen Voters: Pack Your Bags

Famed Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun, known particularly for his novels in French, had some sharp words for the 750 French expatriates in Morocco who voted for Marine le Pen: “it is time to leave.” Ben Jelloun writes, “Even though Morocco is above all a country that is hospitable, open, and generous, it otherwise demands respect.” Ben Jelloun has not forgotten that following a speech by Jean-Marie le Pen, blaming Moroccans for unemployment, a young Moroccan was thrown into the Seine. And he has not forgotten that after an admittedly horrible murder by a young Algerian man named Mohamed Merah, Marine le Pen’s comment was that “the boats, the airplanes, will soon arrive full of Mohamed Merahs.” Ben Jelloun denounces the Front National as “neither a party of the Left nor of the Right, but one that is at its base racist and violent and would have the French believe that solutions derive from barring foreigners from France.” For the sake of self-consistency, Ben Jelloun argues that people who hate Arabs and Muslims should not continue to benefit from living in Morocco. The taste must be particularly bitter when it comes from former colonizers living among the people they colonized. To paraphrase Mr. Talleyrand, they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing since 1956.

Ben Jelloun’s description of the Front National has an eerie familiarity to anyone who has been subjected to the racist ramblings of Donald Trump over everything from “bad hombres,” to building walls, to banning Muslims. It is the language of hatred and fascism. The same dynamic of blaming supposedly criminal immigrants for subverting society, stealing jobs, and committing crimes applies both here and in France.

And yet, loathsome as I find the le Pen’s Front National and Trump’s Republican Party, I am reluctant to call upon people to quit the country — recognizing that our situation and our history are not the same as Morocco’s. We have had too much of “love it or leave it” in this country. And we have too much of a tendency to apply our exclusionary instincts to the people to whom we should be most welcoming, whatever our fears. Supposedly, Syrian refugees “do not share our values.” This is not a sentiment or a paradigm we want to encourage.

We are are the nation that allowed the Nazis to march in Skokie, recognizing that they are the soul of evil and yet — for just so long as their demonstrations were peaceful and their conduct within the bounds of the law — giving them the same right to express their views — however hateful — as anyone else. The Republic will survive. We are in far more danger from those — like our current president — who would shut down free speech in this country and eviscerate the First Amendment.

I admire Mr. Ben Jelloun tremendously. He probably has more important things to worry about than 750 French Fascists disporting themselves in Morocco.

The Decline and Rightward Drift of Religion in America; Movement toward Tolerance in Morocco

As religion in America is churning, with growth largely limited to Evangelicals, Morocco seems to be inching toward greater religious tolerance, according to the Middle East Eye. The trend toward religious conservatism in the United States is disquieting, but Morocco’s nascent movement toward greater tolerance is a positive step.

I have no brief for the clandestine proselytizing by fundamentalist Christians in Morocco while I was there; it is a version of Christianity I find particularly distasteful. However, the state should remain neutral with respect to adherence to or propagation of religious views and protective of the rights of minorities.

Separation of “church” and state would be a tremendous leap for Morocco, where political stability is still bound up with religious orthodoxy, and the King styles himself Emir al Mu’minin — Commander of the Faithful.Proselytizing of Muslims is still a criminal offense.

We are still a long way from abandoning it in the United States, although there are legitimate concerns over the growth of right-wing Christianity, the increasing politicization of religion, and growing intolerance of Islam under the banner of “religious freedom” — an ironic code for intolerance. A civil society coupled with freedom of conscience is essential for any democratic state. If America is to remain a democracy, it must maintain it, and if Morocco is to become a democracy, it must embrace it.

The Moroccan-American Business of Moroccan-American Business

مرحبا بكم في هذا الاجتماع التجاري!

The greater metropolitan area of the District of Columbia has a vibrant Moroccan-American community. There are a number of social and professional networks and regular community events. From my experience, many of these events, such as the upcoming Second CEO Small Business Summit, feature a range of distinguished speakers and interesting topics. This year’s Summit will be headlined by Ilyas Al Omari, governor of Tangier, Tetuan, and Al Hoceima. The event will take place on May 19, 2017 from noon to 6 p.m. at the National Press Club. Tickets can be purchased at Eventbrite and must be purchased in advance.

However, these events do not always draw the attention they merit. It was a shame, for example, that at the last event I attended, one of the more vigorous and prominent journalists critiquing Donald Trump’s press policies — David Cay Johnston — a winner of the Pulitzer Prize who broke the story on Trump’s tax returns, drew an embarrassingly small crowd at the end of the program. This was truly a missed opportunity, particularly in light of the importance of a vigorous press as a check on arbitrary power in both our countries.

My experience is that these events are open and inclusive — both to Moroccan-Americans and to others such as myself who simply share an interest in Morocco. I certainly understand a certain Moroccan skepticism toward organized business and political activity; without being unduly critical, it seems to me that there are enough cases in Morocco of organizations and government that serve the self-interest of an exclusive group that a certain skepticism comes naturally.

However, my conviction is that while these events do create a certain amount of visibility for their organizers, they are primarily motivated by genuine desire to perform a public service, raise important issues, and bring the community together. Accordingly, I urge my friends, acquaintances, and anyone else with an interest in Moroccan-American affairs and the relationship between our two countries to take a closer look, attend, and participate. If my experience is any guide, you will be amply rewarded.

(Full disclosure: a number of my friends are active in the organization and promotion of many of these events.)

Sahara Back on the International Front Burner

There are few more volatile flashpoints in Moroccan political discourse, in my experience, than the status of the Sahara, known in my day as a “red line.” Depending on one’s point of view, Morocco has either reasserted sovereignty over its Southern Provinces following the Green March in 1975, celebrated in Morocco as a national holiday, or an oppressive occupation denying the rights of the indigenous Sahrawi people to self-determination.

As the United Nations Security Council endorses renewed negotiations after a recent flare up of the conflict in the southern village of Guerguerat, the Washington Post reports that there may be some hope for a negotiated regional autonomy plan floated by Morocco and supported by France, although the Polisario Front guerrilla opposition continues to hold out for “self-determination through a referendum for the local population, which it estimates at between 350,000 and 500,000.” Wash. Post.

After 40 years under Moroccan administration and a frozen status quo since a cease-fire in 1991, one could be pardoned for being skeptical about the prospect of resolving the conflict in the near future; however the fact that the issue is once again on the international front burner is probably healthy.

The Greening of Morocco?

In the opening of The Graduate, Mr. McGuire has one word for the young Benjamin Braddock: “Plastics — there’s a great future in plastics.” The future appears to be less bright for plastics in Morocco, where the government is vigorously pursuing its campaign against the formerly ubiquitous plastic bag or “mika,” which has long littered the Moroccan landscape. In the past year, the government has reportedly seized 420 tons of plastic bags since passing a ban. The initiative follows the opening last year of Morocco’s massive solar power plant in the Sahara.

This is not to say that Morocco does not continue to face significant environmental challenges, particularly in the areas of desertification, water pollution, and destruction of river systems from projects such as dam construction.

Death of a “Mule Woman”

The ugly side of the Spanish enclaves in Morocco has surfaced once again. The two enclaves — Ceuta and Melilla — are the focus of a host of social ills, notable among them the cross-border duty-free manual portage of goods by desperate and impoverished women. The women — colloquially known as porteadoras or “Melilla mules” — carry hundred pound packs on their backs into Morocco for a few euros a day. So long as the woman are able to carry the goods on their backs, they are classified as “personal items” and therefore are not subject to customs. The authorities justify this barbaric arrangement as an economic benefit to the community. The trade is hugely profitable; the BBC estimates that it brings in at least $300 million euros a year to Melilla alone, and perhaps double that.

The issue received a flicker of attention yesterday when the Middle East Monitor reported
that the crowd crossing the border crushed a woman to death, another anonymous casualty of the cross-border trade. Michael Kinsley once said that the scandal is not what is illegal, it is what is legal. He might have been thinking of Ceuta and Melilla.

Mohammed V remembered

Casablanca is a great movie, and it has long been my favorite. I saw it first well before I ever dreamed that I would end up in Morocco, which is perhaps just as well, since this movie’s relationship to the city in which it supposedly takes place is tangential at best. It is basically an American movie about European problems, particularly noteworthy for the complete absence of Moroccan characters.

Marking the 75th anniversary of the movie, however, today’s Los Angeles Times also makes a more sobering observation. “Civilized” Europe was engulfed in the second cataclysmic war of the century, creating mass death and destruction unimaginable were it not for the catastrophe of the First World War little more than twenty years earlier. Germany was shipping six million Jews — and millions of others — to be gassed and burned in the Eastern death camps, with the complicity of most of conquered Europe.

One bright ray in the vast darkness was the refusal of the Moroccan Sultan, later King Mohammed V, to allow the Nazis and their puppets, the Vichy French, to ship Morocco’s Jews out of the country to be exterminated. The Times quotes his famous dictum:

“I absolutely do not approve of the new anti-Semitic laws and I refuse to associate myself with a measure I disagree with,” he told the French officials. “I reiterate as I did in the past that the Jews are under my protection and I reject any distinction that should be made amongst my people.”

This is not to say that Morocco’s relationship with the Jews is uncomplicated. Most of them departed in the 50’s, to the regret of at least some portion of the people they left behind. Even today, many return from Israel to visit and observe holy days, despite the tensions resulting from the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To say that Europe had much to be ashamed of would be to grossly understate the case, but in this dark moment in history, Morocco had reason to be proud.

Recommended Reading

A couple of months ago a friend of mine — a poet and a broadcaster — asked about novels set in Morocco, since her work was taking her there for a roughly two-week working tour of the country. She’d read Paul Bowles and excluded Hideous Kinky. I did have a couple of suggestions, but my friends had many more. Here’s a rough list, in no particular order:

  • Mohamed Choukri, For Bread Alone
  • Tahir Shah, The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca
  • James Michener, the Drifters
  • Jeffrey Tayler, Glory in a Camel’s Eye (nonfiction/travel)
  • Linda Holeman, The Saffron Gate
  • Laila Lalami, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits
  • Laila Lalami, Secret Son
  • Gavin Maxwell, Lords of the Atlas (nonfiction, formerly banned in Morocco)
  • Elizabeth Fernea, A Street in Marrakech (nonfiction)
  • Peter Mayne, A Year in Marrakech (nonfiction)
  • Abdellah Taia, Salvation Army
  • Abdellah Taia, An Arab Melancholoy
  • Abellah Taia, Infidels
  • Tahar Ben Jelloun, The Sand Child
  • Tahar Ben Jelloun, Leaving Tangier
  • Lawrence Osborne, The Forgiven
  • Fatima Mernissi, Dreams of Trespass (nonfiction)

Without mentioning specific titles, people also recommended books by Driss Chraibi, Walter Burton Harris, Leila Abouzeid, Mohamed Zefzaf, Abdallah Laraoui, Bensalem Himmich, and Abdelhak Serhane,and Mohammed Mrabet’s collaborations with Paul Bowles and Mohamed Choukri. It looks as though I have my reading cut out for me.

New work by Laila Lalami, author of the Moor’s Account

Acclaimed Moroccan-American author Laila Lalami has announced the completion of two new books, a new novel entitled The Other Americans and a work of nonfiction entitled Conditional Citizens.

Although best known for her Pulitzer Prize shortlisted novel the Moor’s Account, Lalami is also the author of Secret Son and Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, in addition to her wide-ranging commentary in such publications as the Nation and the New York Times. (I had a short take on Secret Son and the Moor’s Account when they came out.)