Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Traditional Royal Gesture on the Holiday of the Throne in Morocco

We all know how different people recount to us the same story based on what they think is important. So I decided to paste two articles about the Holiday of the Throne in Morocco and what it means and what is new because each one paints a slightly different picture.

The first is an AP article that ran in Gulfnews

Moroccan king pardons nearly 25,000 prisoners

Published: July 29, 2009, 23:14

Rabat: King Mohammad VI has pardoned nearly 25,000 prisoners, in a traditional royal gesture, on the 10th anniversary of his coronation.

He has also made small adjustments to the government.

The North African kingdom's Justice Ministry said on Wednesday that among the 24,865 prisoners, some were pregnant women, children, the aged and 659 foreigners convicted in Morocco.

Most of those pardoned were being freed from jail. However, some received reduced sentences, including 32 on death row whose sentences were reduced to life in prison.

The 45-year-old king has used the occasion to tweak the government, notably naming writer Bensalem Himmich culture minister, replacing former actress Saadia Kritef, in ill health.

And here is the second article from France24's International News Site

King Mohammed VI pardons inmates ahead of 10th royal anniversary

AFP - Morocco's King Mohammed VI, on the eve of commemorations of his 10th anniversary on the throne, granted Wednesday pardons to 24,865 prisoners, and commuted 32 death sentences, the government said.

The Moroccan monarch traditionally gives hundreds, even thousands, of pardons to inmates each year as the country celebrates the Feast of the Throne.

In selecting who should be pardoned, the king took into account "humanitarian considerations in allowing the prisoners back into society," which led to the release of 517 women who are pregnant or have children and 137 minors, the justice ministry said in a statement.

In another "magnanimous gesture", Mohammed VI pardoned 659 inmates of different nationalities and commuted 32 death sentences to life imprisonment, the ministry said.

Moroccan courts still hand down death sentences but no execution has been carried out since 1994.

The 45-year-old king will celebrate Thursday 10 years since he was crowned king after the death of his father Hassan II.

Also on the eve of the anniversary, Mohammed VI named three new ministers and a secretary of state in a mini-cabinet reshuffle, which included two members of the country's Berber MP (Popular Movement) party.

Analysts said the appointments were to help secure for Prime Minister Abbas El Fassi the support of the Berbers in parliament.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Abuse of Moroccan Migrant Farm Workers in Italy

Here is short article from the Wall Street Journal about some Moroccan migrant farm workers in Italy who were being taken advantage of, but it looks like they might actually be treated like worthwhile human beings by officials in Italy. Alhamdulilah


Moroccan Migrants In Italy Found In Poor Work Environment

GENEVA (AFP)--About 1,000 Moroccan migrants have been found working and living in squalid conditions on farms in southern Italy after being lured there, the International Organisation for Migration said Tuesday.

Many of the irregular migrants traveled from Morocco after they were promised seasonal contracts and wages that never materalised, according to IOM officials.

Instead they were paid just 15 to 25 euros a day, and even had to pay a three-euro fee to gain access to the fields where they were supposed to work, and also pay for water.

"Their living and working conditions are unsafe, insalubrious and undignified," said the IOM representative in Italy, Peter Schatzer.

An IOM spokesman criticised the prevalence of illicit migrant labour in Italy.

"According to official statistics, the informal sector represents nearly 18% of GDP so we're calling on our partners, at national, local and regional level to clean things up with employers," said spokesman Jean- Philippe Chauzy.

The IOM was called in by Italian authorities, which had established a quota system for employers that need seasonal workers.

"Our team discovered that most of the migrants have fallen victim to a fraud," said Schatzer.

"They paid a fee to a rogue agent in their country of origin and to an Italian employer, who promised to give them a regular job," he said.

"Once in Italy, the migrants found that their employer had disappeared or just refused to employ them. Without a legal work permit, many fell into exploitation."

The conditions were revealed after some 200 of the Moroccans were interviewed by the Geneva-based agency. They are likely to receive local assistance, or the chance to return to Morocco, said Chauzy.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

North Africa Seems Very Close

Here is an article from the New York Times about the French city of Marseille, and the Maghrebi (North African) cultural influence over the city.

Marseille Sways to a Maghreb Rhythm

Published: July 26, 2009

AS a warm Saturday night hung over the Mediterranean, the Algerian-French band Yazmen shuffled under the spotlights with its instruments — hand drum, flute, electric bass and a boxy, long-necked stringed instrument called a guembri — while a crowd filed into the hot confines of the windowless Tankono club.

Couples arrived with children while bespectacled record-store geeks and a bald guy in a dashiki made toasts with Kronenbourg beers. Close to the stage, a dozen or so French bohemian types in their 30s pressed together in their best thrift-store finery.

“We’re going to start with some traditional gnawa, but a bit more modern,” the lead singer, Nabil Acef, said in French. “Are you familiar with gnawa?”

Anywhere else, the question would very likely be met with pin-drop silence. But not in Marseille.

“O-o-o-o-u-u-u-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i!” came the explosive reply, as the musicians, all smiles, began a rollicking, jazz-fusion take on gnawa, a centuries-old music heard throughout North and West Africa.

Because of Marseille’s geographical proximity to North Africa and France’s colonial history there, which ended only in the 1960s, Marseille may be more deeply linked to Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria than any non-African city. Some 120,000 to 150,000 people from those three countries — known collectively as the Maghreb — live in Marseille, a bustling and slightly raffish port city of around 800,000.

And so, a palpable North African wind seems to blow through this city’s sun-baked hills, where the orange tile roofs of aging 19th- and 20th-century town houses rise and fall like the waves of the adjacent Mediterranean Sea.

Tea rooms, Moroccan restaurants, Tunisian pastry shops and hallal fast-food joints dot the wide boulevards and small passages. Hammams and hookah cafes echo with Arabic and Kabyle, the language of Algeria’s Berbers.

“You can feel like you’re somewhere in Algiers, or you can feel like you’re somewhere in Casablanca,” said Zéphora Nachite, an Algerian-born festival organizer, as she sipped mint tea at Fantasia, a cafe popular with the city’s North African crowd.

“You hear raï in the streets,” she said of Algerian pop music. “Couscous is practically the national dish of France, and especially Marseille.”

To celebrate Marseille’s deep connection with the people of the Maghreb and other ethnicities, Ms. Nachite in 2008 started the Fête de la Mediterranée, an outdoor festival of songs, crafts and food. Held again this past May, the festival is just one of the recent developments — bands, boutiques, hotels, spas — that are raising the cultural profile of North Africans in Marseille and helping to the city into a veritable Sahara on the sea.

Which is not to say that Marseille is without big-city problems. The unemployment rate is 50 percent above the national average, and the city is troubled by a lingering reputation for crime. As the French newsweekly Le Point observed in a 2007 feature about Marseille, “In the collective imagination of French people, the name is associated with the Mafia, truants and thieves.”

Still, as the same article noted, France’s second-largest city actually ranked seventh in crime that year. More tellingly, Marseille was spared the kind of violence that rocked some of Paris’s immigrant-heavy suburbs in 2005.

For Nora Preziosi, who was born in Marseille to Algerian immigrants and is a senior aide to the mayor, the key to the city’s harmony is in its integrated street life.

“It’s not like Paris, where you have the banlieues to the north or south,” said Ms. Preziosi, referring to the public housing districts in suburban Paris. Geographically segregated from central Paris, those generic and dilapidated minicities have historically absorbed many of Paris’s poorest immigrants and their descendants.

“Here,” Ms. Preziosi continued, “we have just one community, Marseille. Whether we’re North African, Armenian, Jewish, whatever, we consider ourselves Marseillais first.”

The city’s unofficial anthem could easily be “Sous le Ciel de Marseille” (“Under the Sky of Marseille”), by a young Algerian-born pop star, Kenza Farah. Sung in both French and Arabic, the song is a tender homage to the city’s bouillabaisse of cultures:

Marseille you are like a mother to me

You welcome me with open arms

Marseille, mix of colors

Consoles all who have suffered.

Any journey into Marseille’s Maghreb side should — must — begin at the Marché de Noailles, by the Noailles metro stop. The daily fruit-and-vegetable market is the whirling epicenter of the city’s most venerable and colorful North African neighborhood, which sits symbolically in the very heart of Marseille’s downtown.

There on a Tuesday morning in late May, women in traditional robes and headscarves were snapping up oranges, melons and green beans from Morocco. “Yalla! Yalla!” — “Let’s go! Let’s go!” — one vendor ordered an assistant in Arabic, after he was slow in bagging some vegetables for a customer.

Afterward, shoppers peeled off down the Rue Longue des Capucins, where every free inch seemed to be plastered with concert posters promoting an upcoming festival of “Musique Souk” and a “Soirée Orientale Avec Chaibi et Malouf.” A few blocks away, along the tiny Rue de l’Académie, women in caftans ambled into the Hammam Rafik, while men in fezzes and skullcaps removed their shoes and packed into an Islamic prayer room across the street.

At lunchtime, crowds converge on the Rue du Musée, home to one of Marseille’s most celebrated restaurants, Le Fémina. Opened in 1912 by a young man from a rural Algeria town, it is now run by his great-great-grandson, Mustapha Kachetel.

“We do home cooking using recipes that have passed from father to son and mother to daughter,” said Mr. Kachetel as a largely French lunch crowd began to file into the rustic stone-walled space. In the kitchen, women in matching striped shirts stirred steaming cauldrons and diced vegetables. “My sisters,” he said with a smile.

The restaurant’s reputation is built on its prowess with one simple dish: couscous made from barley semolina. In contrast to the yellow wheat semolina commonly found in Morocco and France, the barley variant has bigger and rougher granules, a darker color and earthier flavor.

The restaurant imports its barley semolina from Algeria, steams it to fluffiness, then tops it with a medley of slow-cooked meats: merguez sausages made from Charolais beef; brochettes of marbled lamb from Sisteron in Provence; roast chicken; and a breast bone of lamb that has been stewed in vegetable broth to make the thin layer of meat exceptionally tender.

With its venerable French clientele — which has included Gérard Depardieu and many French politicians — Le Fémina might be the city’s most enduring cultural crossover. But it’s getting plenty of company these days. Especially in the worlds of design and hospitality, young North African artists and entrepreneurs are leaving their mark on the city and updating Old World traditions for a modern European audience.

Consider Ryme Alaoui, whose grandfather was a mosaic-maker in Fez, the old Moroccan city famous for its artisans. Today, Ms. Alaoui, 36, runs Art et Sud, a showroom that sells mosaics made by artisans back in her ancestral city.

Side tables, dining tables, decorative wall panels and entire floors all glow with kaleidoscopic, intricate geometry. Any piece can be designed to order. None would look out of place in a London loft.

At Les Bains du Harem, the most classic of North African institutions — the hammam — has been transformed into a chic full-service spa that has drawn everyone from the French pop star Amel Bent (who has North African roots) to Sting.

On a May afternoon, a European-looking man in his 30s relaxed in a eucalyptus-scented steam room lined in earth-tone mosaics, after a lathery massage in jasmine soap and an exfoliation with African karité (or shea) butter and sea salt. Just outside, a French couple luxuriated on sultanic cushions and nibbled honey-pistachio pastries in the ornately sculptured relaxation room.

Sitting in the tea salon, the owner, Sandrine Aboukrat, who was born in Marseille, explained that the concept for Les Bains du Harem was inspired by girlhood outings with her Moroccan-Jewish grandmother. “Every Friday afternoon, she would come by our house, pick up me and my mom, and take us to the local hammam,” Ms. Aboukrat said.

But perhaps no one in Marseille is doing more to combine the North African and the modern than Fatiha Ouichou. Born in Morocco and raised in Paris, Ms. Ouichou, a former marketing and branding executive, made her first splash in Marseille with Le Ryad. The nine-room boutique hotel, which she opened in central Marseille in 2005, imagines a Marrakesh-style guesthouse inside a classic French town house.

Last year, Ms. Ouichou took her cross-pollination of Moroccan and Western styles a step further with a boutique, Inspiration Ryad. An airy space with white walls, high ceilings and a vast picture window, this shop feels more like an art gallery. But the goods displayed on the long white shelves — ceramic vases shaped like conical tagine cookers, leather cellphone holders sporting the Islamic hand of Fatima symbol, minimalist-chic caftans with Arabesque swirls — suggest a shelter magazine redesign of a Moroccan bazaar.

“I’m trying to raise the image of Moroccan crafts, which most people associate with the low-quality things you find in the souks,” Ms. Ouichou said.

As the third weekend in May rolled around, the two ends of the North African musical spectrum — one resolutely conventional, one energetically contemporary — flared to life in a pair of performances around Marseille. Taken together, they formed yet another testament to the diverse creativity that has emerged from the Marseille melting pot.

For the traditionalists, the weekend’s marquee attraction was at the Espace Julien, a long music hall with a tiered floor, sophisticated lighting and large stage. One night, a well-heeled middle-age crowd — many French, many clearly with North African blood — filled the seats as the Orchestre Tarab took the stage in matching black outfits. Formed by Algerian immigrants in the late 1990s while a vicious civil war tore apart their native country, the small orchestra broke into the exotic scales and polyrhythms of Old World Arabo-Andalusian music, one of Islam’s most revered genres.

Soon, they were joined by a special guest. Like the others on stage, Alain Chekroun is a native Algerian who relocated to southern France, but one telling article of clothing set him apart: a yarmulke. Mr. Chekroun is an Algerian Jew. When the spotlight fell on him at last, Mr. Chekroun closed his eyes and sang liturgical songs drawn from the Torah and his Jewish faith in a high, clear voice that was by turns mournful and joyous, as his Muslim countrymen provided the soundtrack.

FOR the younger generation, the top action unfolded back at Tankono, where Yazmen continued to blaze through a set melding the soulful vocal harmonies of gnawa through a succession of radio-friendly Western musical styles. Cosmic funk jam sessions gave way to desert blues before merging into jazzy bossa nova-like passages. Voices dropped in and out, intersecting across the melodies.

Soon, the music shifted again to a breakneck belly-dance rhythm. Girls shimmied and twirled. Guys raised their Kronenbourgs and clapped to the beat.

When the show finally finished, the musicians hopped off stage to join their fans outside the club in the Rue des Trois Mages. Earnest and thoughtful, Malik Ziad, the group’s curly-haired guitar and guembri virtuoso, explained that Yazmen’s distinctive music derives partly from its members’ different nationalities: four of them were born in Algeria; one is native French. All met in the interethnic swirl of Marseille.

And while Mr. Ziad confessed to missing his hometown of Algiers — another hot and lively Mediterranean port city filled with old French buildings and squares — he said that Marseille has proved to be a welcoming substitute.

“I see my homeland here,” he said, as the last of the crowd filed outside, the warm night air filtering into the windowless room. “The same architecture, the same climate, the same sun, even the same mindset.”

“You know, we have 48 official provinces back in Algeria,” he added. “Around Marseille, everyone likes to say that Marseille is the 49th. And it’s true.”

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Dutch Photographer Joins a Moroccan on an Illegal Boat Ride into Europe

This article from a paper in the Netherlands is a bit of a twist on the usual Moroccans-on-boats-sneaking-into-Spain story just because no one dies in it, Thank God. It would be great to be able to see the photos of the journey that are now on display in the Hague. But is this kind of documentation trivializing a dangerous act done out of the woe and desperation of poverty and oppression?


Dutch photographer travelled as boat refugee

Published: 22 July 2009 17:17 | Changed: 22 July 2009 17:36
By Rosan Hollak

Joël van Houdt followed a Moroccan who made the journey to Europe as an illegal immigrant. The photographer did not want to think too much about the dangers of the boat trip.

A young man in a white T-shirt wearing a white cowboy hat on his head and a smile on his face stands on a pedestrian crossing. Behind him palm trees wave in the breeze, expensive cars are parked along the roadside.

Nothing in this picture, taken by Dutch photographer Joël van Houdt in October 2008, betrays the difficult path this apparently cheerful boy had to take in order to walk in the Spanish sun.

Every step of the journey

But the other photographs in the exposition Entering Europe in the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague give a different impression. The man, Mohamed, is a 26-year-old illegal immigrant from Morocco. He was photographed during every step of his journey to Europe; hanging around aimlessly with his friends in a café in southern Morocco, in a small boat during a hazardous crossing, and scrambling up the coast of La Graciosa, a small Canary Island near Lanzarote. “Upon arrival we were immediately arrested,” Van Houdt (1981) told, as he walked through the exposition area recently.

“Mohamed was flown back to Morocco. But since he had ripped up his identity card and refused to tell the Moroccan authorities where he came from, he was once again put on a plane to Fuerteventura. That is where he was released after 30 days in prison. That is when I took that photo at the pedestrian crossing," Van Houdt said

Van Houdt followed Mohamed’s life for more than a year. In 2007 he flew to Casablanca for the first time. “I did not come across Mohamed until after some time. When we sat watching a football match in his home town one evening I told him about my plan to do a project on boat refugees. He said he had been toying with the idea of going to Europe for years. That same evening we started looking for a contact person.”

Boat broke in two

Finding a human trafficker proved reasonably simple. But Van Houdt did not realise that he would be dealing with characters who would take their money, but not follow through on their agreements. “We made three attempts. The second time that we went on board a boat at night, it broke in two just off the coast.”

Van Houdt knew he was running a great risk by travelling along. The rickety boats in which illegal immigrants make the crossing are anything but safe. "I felt the journey was a mandatory part of the project. That blue sea is also a beautiful metaphor: it is a boundary of water surrounding Fort Europa.”

He consciously did not stop to think about the risks he was taking. “I never checked the boats, I didn’t want to think about that, I might have started to have doubts then.”

He simply felt that he had to tell this story. “I wanted to give a boy like Mohamed a face. I hope this project helps people better understand what someone like this goes through. The media often talks about illegal immigrants in such a simplistic manner. As if they are all fortune hunters who want to go to Europe to earn money. But it isn’t that simple," Houdt said. "Mohamed left because as the eldest son in a family of nine children, he was expected to achieve something. His parents invested in him, he studied law, but there is no work in the village where he comes from. He simply could not get anywhere, so he had to leave. But he would much prefer to be able to stay with his family.”

Material confiscated

On 28 September 2008 Van Houdt and Mohamed set out to sea on a boat for the third time. “There were 28 of us there on the boat for 36 hours. We were supposed to go to Lanzarote but the captain let us off on La Graciosa.” Upon arrival Van Houdt was also arrested. He was released that same evening but his material was confiscated. “That was very stressful. I had seven memory cards with several thousand photographs.”

He then had to appear before the judge in Lanzarote, without a lawyer. “At that time I demanded my material be returned. The judge did not like that. But I thought: this is Spain, I am a journalist, what can happen to me? It was four months before I got everything back.”

In the meantime Mohamed has ended up in northern Spain. "I visited him last week. He had been at the Red Cross for four months, after that he was homeless for three weeks. Now he is in a building run by the social housing authority, with nine other illegal immigrants. He told me that one night he just couldn't take it and thought about going home. He called a friend, who told him: where you are now, that is my dream, you must stay."

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The "Tough" Women of Morocco

This piece is a nice change of pace. Laila Lalami wrote it about something that she encountered during a trip to Morocco last year. I tire of the "poor oppressed Muslim woman" bit that even Muslim women writers and academics "milk" to further their careers. And I dont necessarily know that the point of the story is that the woman is a woman or that she was an honest person. When people are angry they pick something to insult you with, sometimes it will be your gender. Not trying to be apoligetic, sexism is real - but so is chilvary and the honoring of women.

It can be 'tough' to be a female in Morocco

By Laila Lalami
July 19, 2009

Two years ago, I was invited to give a reading from my novel at a university in Ifrane, in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. One of my cousins immediately suggested I hire a driver to get there, but I laughed off his suggestion. I can drive myself! I'm not some helpless princess!

In the end, however, I had to admit I lacked the robust constitution it takes to drive on Morocco's roads and highways, so I did hire someone. His name was Younes, and he was a slight, short man with an easy smile and friendly eyes. Ordinarily, he drove a shuttle to the airport, but occasionally he took longer trips, especially in the tourist months of spring and summer.

My husband accompanied me, as did two American friends on a short detour from their European holiday. We stuffed our bags in the trunk of a dark green Peugeot 305 and headed out. I sat in the back, and was nervous until we left the suburbs of Casablanca behind us and began to see the expansive countryside, with the ubiquitous orange and tangerine trees and, as we approached Meknès, grapevines and olive trees.

On the highway, it was impossible not to notice the gendarmes in their uniforms -- gray polyester suits, red epaulets, black boots and white gloves. They looked like little Lego men, ready to take action. Arms akimbo, they stood in the middle divider and watched for infractions, real or imagined: speeding, failing to wear a seatbelt, an unsafe lane change, an expired registration or a large load that could be contraband. This last breach was the most likely to result in a large contribution to their private retirement funds.

I worried we would get stopped.

"I doubt if we will," Younes said, giving me an amused smile through the rearview mirror. "They usually don't stop cars with tourists. You remember how these things work, don't you?"

"Good thing Ken is in the front seat, then," I said. Given his red beard, blue eyes and six-foot-one, 200-pound frame, it would have been hard to mistake my friend Ken, a software engineer from Seattle, for a local. "Do you get stopped a lot when you don't drive tourists?" I asked.

"I was stopped last month. I had run a red light, and so the bulisia whistled and stopped me. You know they have women cops now, don't you? This one was tough."

Tough was an adjective I had heard often in the past few months, applied not just to policewomen but also to female customs officers, female judges or female chief residents. The common wisdom was that women were not as likely to take pay-offs, a discordant note in a country where people routinely use bribes for everything, from getting a home phone line installed to obtaining a spot on the quota-limited list of pilgrims to Mecca.

"What happened?" I asked.

"She wanted to write me up, and the ticket was 400 dirhams. I tried to reason with her. I'm a shuttle driver and people like me, we spend so much time in cars, there are certain courtesies we should be able to have. We're like cab drivers, you understand."

Having lived in Casablanca for much of that year, I understood that there was indeed an unspoken agreement between police officers and cab drivers who routinely made illegal U-turns, gamely ignored red lights and cut across lanes of traffic to pick up a fare. What remained fuzzy in my mind was why this agreement seemed to extend to drivers of buses, trucks, mopeds, vegetable carts or government cars. No wonder I never wanted to drive.

"I asked her to let me go," Younes continued, "and I added, 'May God have mercy on your parents.' I was just being polite, you understand. But then she said, 'Leave my parents out of this.' I couldn't believe it. I said, 'What are you, an orphan? You don't have parents? You don't want mercy for them?' So she got mad, and she said that my prayers wouldn't stop her from writing me a ticket."

Now he pointed his thumb at his chest. "So then I got mad. I told her that she had no business being a cop and that her place was in the kitchen."

"Uh-oh," I said. Then I realized I had sounded terribly American, which meant Younes' questions about what I understood or remembered were not likely to stop any time soon. I thought of my mother, who had tried for years to teach me how to cook, until, faced with my complete lack of interest and culinary talent, she had eventually given up. Now she passed her recipes directly to my husband, without whom I would probably subsist on a diet of frozen pizza. She, too, had often called me tough.

"What did the policewoman do?"

"She picked up her walkie-talkie and called the police station and they sent a car to pick me up." Younes laughed heartily now.

"And did you get the ticket?" I asked.

"Well, sort of. At the station, I talked to the men officers and explained that I was a professional driver and she was a strange woman, being insulted by having someone pray for her parents. So in the end we settled on 200 dirhams."

"For the ticket?"

"No, no. Not for the ticket," he said, giving me a bewildered look. "For them, of course. They took the money. You remember how these things work, don't you?"

Perhaps I had forgotten exactly how to negotiate a bribe, but I still remembered how women who didn't fit typical gender roles were undermined by men -- and by other women.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

From the Slums of Casablanca

Here is one of those "feel good" pieces from Time Magazine on "battling extremism" in Morocco which means different things to different people. A lot of the time it means giving victory to secularism and encouraging docile "citizens." Somehow analysis of the situation is always about poverty and fundamentalist religious philosophy and not about authoritarian rule or corrupt Western backed (and armed) governments. Wow.


Combatting Extremism in Casablanca

By MARISA MAZRIA-KATZ Wednesday, Jul. 15, 2009

Entering the Ben M'Sik caves on the outskirts of Casablanca, a visitor goes through a hole in a crumbling concrete wall and down a flight of stairs covered in a slippery layer of mold. At the bottom lies a dimly lit room that houses roughly 100 people. The walls are splintered, the floor damp, and thick blue tarpaulins, pregnant with leaking water, hang from the ceiling. Every morning, the people who call this place home stuff their mattresses into a corner to turn the single 97-sq.-ft. (9 sq m) room into their kitchen, washroom and dining area.

In this city of about four million, Morocco's biggest, thousands of people live in suburban shantytowns and slums. The urban squalor and poverty fuel extremism; the suicide bombers who killed a total of 48 people in attacks on downtown Casablanca in 2003 and 2007 all grew up in such places. While Moroccan authorities claim to have eradicated terrorism cells in the country's most depressed urban areas, millions of residents remain cripplingly poor. Unemployment in the slums stands at 32%. And the illiteracy rate of 64% is more than 10 points higher than the rest of Casablanca's.

Community organizer Boubker Mazoz knows these neighborhoods well. For seven years he has been wandering through the city's slums and reaching out to Casablanca's severely disaffected. When he arrives at dilapidated homes where food and money are scarce, his hosts serve him tea and honey-drenched bread. "I am after those who are left aside, forgotten, marginalized," says Mazoz, 58, whose day job is public-affairs specialist with the U.S. Department of State. "With some help, these people can produce miracles."

Mazoz believes Casablanca's bombings "could have been avoided entirely if we had just paid attention to these people." Within weeks of the 2003 attacks, he began devising ways to keep the slums' marginalized youth from turning to terrorism. Three years later, with the help of private funding and the town's mayor, Mazoz built the Sidi Moumen Cultural Center on the site of a former garbage dump in one of Casablanca's poorest ghettos. The center boasts a library, computers and a theater, and serves as headquarters for a corps of community organizers dedicated to luring impoverished kids away from drugs and extremism with educational and artistic projects.

Instead of recruiting privileged volunteers who live miles away, Mazoz is determined his organizers should hail from the slums he is targeting. "No one can speak the language better," he says. By creating role models who work and live in the community, Mazoz hopes the impact of his pioneering program will endure. "I ask my organizers, 'Do you really think it's only drugs or extremism left for you? You can be better. You can be the politicians of tomorrow,'" he says.

Now the lessons learned in Casablanca are being applied elsewhere. The project has proved so successful — over 150 volunteers have joined to mentor around 350 kids so far — it has caught the attention of Casablanca's sister city, Chicago, the old stomping ground of the world's most famous community organizer, U.S. President Barack Obama. This September, a delegation of high school students from Chicago will visit Sidi Moumen to study Mazoz's methods and implement them in deprived neighborhoods back home. "The grand vision is to make his endeavor into an international model," says Marilyn Diamond, co-chair of the Chicago Casablanca Sister Cities International Program.

The day I arrive to see Mazoz's project at work, four local girls are performing a short play about the birth of Islam. Playing the part of a queen is 11-year-old Ikram Malki. Her eyes flutter under a thick coat of turquoise eye shadow; on her head sits a crown of sequined plastic flowers. After she takes a bow, I ask about her experience with Mazoz. "There was a vacuum in my heart before he came along," she says. "This program filled the emptiness." And what does she want to be when she grows up? "A community organizer," she replies.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Open Letter to the King about Press Freedom

Here is another article from To be honest, I am surprised that they are printing anything that even hints at criticism of the King, considering their mission and who is behind them. Be that as it may, here is an article about the open letter sent to Muhammad VI (M6) about the state of press freedom in Morocco.
Open letter calls on Moroccan monarch to guarantee press freedom


By Naoufel Cherkaoui for Magharebia in Rabat – 15/07/09

A journalist's open letter to King Mohammed VI is calling attention to the plight of the press in the country. Khaled Al Jamai published the letter on Saturday (July 11th) under the title, "It has become unbearable and aggravated, and we can wait no more".

"Today, you're the authority," Al Jamai wrote, addressing the monarch, "and as the only owner of this authority, we are calling on you to stop the oppressive attacks and persecution which affect the independent press."

The journalist continued: "We are not begging for any privileges; rather we are demanding a right. You alone can guarantee the press its rights, pending the creation of an independent justice system that can guarantee it. When politics finds its way into the courtroom, justice finds its way out."

Al Jamai said a free press is essential to democracy, providing the transparency to uncover abuses of power and bribery. Nevertheless, he wrote, "These dailies and weeklies with all their journalists and employees knocked on all doors, and went to officials in order to guarantee their rights and ensure their freedom of expression, but in vain."

Due to this perceived democratic deficit, the journalist called Morocco "a country whose people no longer believes in anything". In the recent elections, Al Jamai ventured, "the people showed their rejection of a political class that has turned the Moroccan political scene into 'a market of middlemen and brokers'."

Speaking to Magharebia, Al Jamai said he didn't write the letter expecting a reply from the king. "Rather, I wrote it because I saw something wrong and I wanted to change it, because no one here has the courage to speak to him and tell him how bad the condition is."

He also argued that it is not the Moroccan press that "lives in crisis", but the regime itself. "Therefore, the regime has to find a solution... because the press is only doing its job."

Driss Chahtan, editor of Al-Michaal weekly, told Magharebia there has been a "dangerous retraction" in the freedom of expression. He said journalists want to know who is truly behind the legal actions taken recently against them.

"We don't have anyone in particular whom we can address; we know that the judiciary is not independent, and is subject to certain instructions. This makes us question the source of these instructions. When things become unclear, the last resort we have is to speak to the king to let him know that there are parties that are dragging the country downward," Chahtan concluded.

Said Ben Jebli from the Association of Moroccan Bloggers told Magharebia that many Moroccans share the opinions expressed in the letter. "However, these initiatives usually have no effect because they aren't received with the required response," he said. "They don't have any political force like that of political parties. The king is still the real actor in Morocco."

Ould Al Belad commented on the letter on the Hespress news website. "It's an influential letter that expresses the feelings of 35 million Moroccans," he wrote. "I don't understand this dangerous retraction that Morocco is witnessing now, despite moving on the right track."

Khaled Al Jamai – a former member of the Istiqlal Party's executive bureau – has previously written similar letters in which he called on King Mohammed VI to make reforms.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Home girls : Female Servants in Morocco

Here is an article from (US Military news source) about young girls working as house servants in Morocco. It is a heartbreaking phenomenon, but forgive me for not latching on to the idea that the government wants to eradicate underage labor in order to bring about universal education for Moroccan children. Just look at the state of Moroccan public schools. Ya Latif!

Underage female housemaids raise concerns in Morocco


By Sarah Touahri for Magharebia in Rabat – 09/07/09

The employment of girls as housemaids is still a worrisome problem in Morocco, despite numerous public awareness campaigns. Four NGOs joined forces on Saturday (July 4th) in Rabat to begin work on eradicating a phenomenon they consider a type of slavery.

The East-West Foundation, the INSAF (National Institute for Solidarity with Women in Distress), Amnesty International and the Moroccan Human Rights Association (AMDH) agree that work done by girls is a form of slavery, as it involves trade in human beings. They held their first forum with governmental representatives to set up a legal framework to criminalise the employment of girls as housemaids.

"New legislation is now proving more necessary than ever, and must be backed by mechanisms for implementation that clearly set out the responsibilities of those involved," said East-West Foundation chief Yasmina Filali.

Participants in the meeting agreed that the employment of young girls less than fifteen years of age must be severely punished.

The forum also recommended that failing to declare the employment of a young girl should be a criminal offence. Intermediary networks and employers must be prosecuted, and a structure should be set up to care for victims and provide them with psychological support and education.

The collective is aware that legislation alone is not enough, and must be backed by an effective public awareness strategy. This would involve starting a public debate about the issue to stir consciences, inform public opinion, and involve the press both nationally and internationally.

"Everyone's efforts must be pooled to put an end to this scourge that is ravaging Morocco,” said Filali.

The East-West Foundation has been working with INSAF for over three years in the Chichaoua area, original home to many of the endangered girls. INSAF and the East-West Foundation have been raising the awareness of parents and of children in schools about the full extent of the problem.

INSAF Director Nabila Tber said that her organisation, with its educational reintegration programme, has been seeking to change mindsets among parents who believe that they benefit from sending their daughters to work.

The organisation also hopes to create a relationship of trust between schools and families.

The ministry for social development, families, and solidarity has encouraged this kind of initiative, as it goes along government action. Minister Nouzha Skelli has set a target of eradicating the problem of young maids by 2010. This, she said, depends on all partners working together.

A draft bill aimed at putting an end to child labour is currently being studied by the government's general secretariat.

If child labour is not eradicated, stated the ministry, it will not be possible to achieve universal school education.

"The government and charities must consider strict legislation if they are to manage to change mindsets among a great many Moroccans, who do not see the employment of girls under fifteen years of age as a crime against humanity," said sociologist Naïma Mourabiti.

"We've had plenty of public awareness campaigns. What's needed is for those who employ young girls to realise that their actions are a crime punishable by law."

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Working Hard for the Dirham - Average Moroccan Monthly Salary

Here is an article from MENA (Middle East North Africa Financial Network) on the average monthly income for a Moroccan family.
They are saying that it is 5,300 DH (Dirhams) which comes to about $658.12 USD . Well that should humble us spoiled Americans a bit.


Morocco- Households' average monthly income at MAD5,300
Morocco Business News - 02/07/2009

(MENAFN - Morocco Business News) The average monthly income of Moroccan households stands at about MAD 5,300, a figure that hides flagrant discrepancies between the city and the countryside, MAD 6,100 and MAD 3,900 respectively, and between social classes themselves.

According to a survey conduced by the High Commission for Planning (HCP), about 20% of households have a monthly income of less than MAD 1,930, 40% less than MAD 2,892, 60% less than MAD 4,227 and 80% less than MAD 6,650.

The study, which was presented on Tuesday, found that the average monthly income varies according to the educational level, age, sex and the socio-professional category of the head of the family.

This income mainly comes from paid work and private non-agricultural activities (about 63%), mainly in urban areas, while agricultural activities are the main source of income in the rural ones (41%).

The survey, involving a diversified sample of 7,200 households, also revealed that 20% the households that have the highest salaries monopolise 52.6% of the overall wage bill, while 20% of households with the lowest salaries share only 5.4% of this wage bill.

"The results of this survey have allowed for a better understanding of the poverty dynamics, through three macroeconomic approaches making possible to define the factors that induced the changes noticed between 1985 and 2007, underlined Ahmed Lahlimi, the head of the HCP.

This has shown that the sustainable reduction of poverty requires maintaining the growth rate and reinforcing social equality mechanisms mainly through educing disparities in terms of income, added Lahlimi.

An earlier survey on the Moroccan middle class, which was presented in May, had found that this social class represents 53% of the Moroccan population.

The study showed that while 48% of the people belonging to the class are active, 8.2% of them are unemployed and 43.7% inactive, 26% of them housewives.

The study also revealed that the Moroccan middle class has a number of social concerns including high living costs, drought, school drop-out, unemployment, diseases, and security.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Moroccan Heavy Metalheads

Here is an article from the BBC about Moroccan heavy metal musicians. The story follows the same ol' tradition versus modernity logic that most stories about youth in the "East" tend to cling to. If you clink on the link you can actually hear the musicians if you want.

Oh yes, and comments are now working. Thank you to SK for bringing the problem to my attention.


Putting the Rock into Morocco

By James Copnall
BBC News, Rabat

Heavy metal is known as rebel music - and that is particularly true in Morocco.

"Metalheads" have been accused of being devil-worshippers, and even locked up because of their passion.

But Youssef Benseddik, a student who heads the heavy metal group Atmosphere does not seem particularly rebellious.

"Our Moroccan culture is based on Islam, on music that is not noisy, on lyrics that talk about the prophets and Allah," he says.

"If Moroccans listen to metal music, and the screaming of the singer - 'Aaargh' - they think it is not good."

Youssef and his band stress they are good Muslims - they do not take drugs or drink alcohol, and break off rehearsals to pray.

Their songs evoke what they see as terrible injustices all around them - poverty and corruption in Morocco and Africa, and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Youssef's parents are supportive - up to a point.

His mother, Rahma Benseddik, says she does not really understand the music, but she does have one of his songs stored on her mobile phone.

As any proud mother would, she likes to play it to her friends.

Jailed for Satanism

But Youssef's father has concerns about his son's music.

"Of course it's a way to express their personality, but we have to know what they want to do," says Hassan Benseddik, a friendly man with salt and pepper hair and a glint in his eye.

"If it's just to express a freedom, OK.

"But as Muslims, as Moroccans, as an Arabic society, we have certain limits."

Those limits were apparently breached in 2003 when 14 heavy metal fans were accused of Satanism, and imprisoned.

Human rights groups and performers took to the streets, saying the rockers were guilty only of wearing black clothes and singing provocative songs.

Shortly afterwards the 14 were released.

Fears of libertarianism

The incident underlined a common theme in Morocco - different parts of society have widely different ideas about what is culturally acceptable.

Even today some people believe untraditional music and the youth culture it encourages is warping Moroccan values in a dangerous way.

Morocco's moderate Islamist party, the PJD, has criticised music festivals, saying they encourage young people to take drugs and engage in immoral behaviour like sex before marriage.

PJD member Mustapha el-Khalfi says there is also a risk that heavy metal could introduce Satanic behaviour to Morocco.

"Not only Satanism as a 'religion'," he argues.

"But also as a way to give some arguments for young people to be libertarian, to do what they want to do, even if these activities or practices or behaviour are immoral."

Despite the criticism, music festivals are very popular among young people.

Michy Mano, a well-known figure on the Casablanca music scene, says young musicians of all kinds are winning new freedoms for everyone.

"The system has changed a bit, people can speak out a bit louder than they did before," he says.

"There were always people who did that, but there was repression if people spoke about political things.

"But the last 10 years it has been getting more tolerant."

'Positive energy'

All the same, Youssef says he has had to tone down the clothes he wears.

If he puts on all black outfits and pentagram jewellery - as many metalheads throughout the world do - he faces hostility.

But he has no intention of giving up the music he loves.

"We find heavy metal has a positive energy," he explains.

"Even if it is loud and noise we find it very relaxing."

Morocco is an increasingly open society.

But Youssef and other young people are still trying to work out how to be themselves, while staying true to Moroccan values.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Welcome to the Moroccan Talk Show: Al-Khayt Al-Abyad

Here is an article from the UAE paper the National about a popular Moroccan talk show that aims for reconciling adversarial parties, be they husband and wife or rivaling tribes. Sounds like a good cause but of course this is television, so let us hold on to a healthy dose of skepticism. If it can allow people to speak with a bit more critical honesty about domestic abuse, then great. But decorum is always a good thing too.

Moroccan TV shows reveals details of family life

John Thorne, Foreign Correspondent

* Last Updated: July 02. 2009 11:21PM UAE / July 2. 2009 7:21PM GMT

AIN SEBAA, MOROCCO // After eight years of estrangement, Ahmed Selami and his wife, Milouda Chinguetta, decided to meet again in the unlikeliest of places: on national television.

Mrs Chinguetta, 30, was 13 when she married Mr Selami, 36, a labourer in the dusty town of Chichaoua, in central Morocco. Eventually she fled with their four children, accusing Mr Selami of beating her.

Now she wants a divorce, and he wants access to the children. That requires expert mediation.

So one Sunday, the pair faced off on Al Khayt Al Abyad, a new chat-show that has given a modern twist to old customs and taken Morocco by storm. Its name refers to a Moroccan saying that a peacemaker binds adversaries together with a white thread – “al khayt al abyad”.

“It’s part of our traditions that when people observe their neighbours in conflict, they intervene,” said Nassima el Hor, the show’s host. “We want viewers to learn from the experiences of others how to forgive and apologise.”

Every week, warring parties – couples, families, rival villages – sit down with Ms el Hor to hash out their difficulties for a national audience. Accusations are levelled, tears are shed and sometimes peace is attained.

Since launching in March, Al Khayt Al Abyad has become a top draw for 2M, the state-owned television company that produces it, and the show’s hotline gets up to 600 calls a day, said Ms el Hor.

The show’s creators aim to tap into what they consider an increasing openness in Moroccan society. “It isn’t normally part of Arab culture to air your problems in public,” said Abdelali Rachami, who created the show with Ms el Hor and now directs it. “This is the first television show in Morocco where people do that.”

While similar foreign programmes such as America’s The Jerry Springer Show offer titillation and fist-fights, Mr Rachami and Ms el Hor take a gentler approach, treading lightly over sensitive topics and occasionally pausing filming to allow heated arguments to cool down.

“Moroccans are learning to talk about their problems in front of others,” Mr Rachami said. “We’re trying to tailor our show to Moroccan sensibilities.”

For that, it helps to be Ms el Hor, a well-known television personality who has hosted a series of chat-shows since joining 2M at its launch in 1989. With her familiar rosy cheeks and motherly air, “people trust Nassima and find her easy to talk to”, Mr Rachami said.

Even the glare of television cameras can help, said Aboubakr Harakat, a psychologist from Casablanca who appears regularly on Al Khayt Al Abyad. “People know that the world is watching, so they feel more pressure to resolve their problems.”

The pressure was on Mr Selami and Mrs Chinguetta on Sunday at the 2M studios in Ain Sebaa, an industrial suburb of Casablanca, Morocco’s commercial capital. Cameras swooped around the futuristic white stage, several of the couple’s friends and relatives were invited to speak, and short videos of their lives in Chichaoua were shown on monitors.

“Do you think your husband can change?” Ms el Hor asked Mrs Chinguetta from across a coffee table.

Mrs Chinguetta was doubtful of that. She sat tensely in a patterned gown and headscarf. What she was sure of was that she wanted a divorce.

Next, Mr Salemi appeared, a wiry man with silvering hair and tired eyes.

“I haven’t stopped thinking about my children,” he said. “I want them living alongside me.”

However, he admitted to having beaten his wife.

The couple moved to a sofa, where Ms el Hor and Dr Harakat joined them for group discussion.

“You don’t respect those close to you,” snapped Mrs Chinguetta to her husband. “I’m afraid for our daughters.”

“Shame on you for talking like that.” Mr Selami’s voice rose in indignation.

A final video was played, showing the joyful reunion of an old man with his children – a separate piece of reportage intended as food for thought for Mrs Chinguetta and Mr Selami. She watched silently while he brushed tears from his eyes.

“Milouda’s independence is important to her, and she isn’t ready yet to trust Ahmed,” Dr Harakat said. He and Ms el Hor suggested that the couple proceed slowly to build dialogue. Mr Selami and Mrs Chinguetta shook hands stiffly, and the cameras were switched off.

“In situations like this, we can’t really advise a couple to get back together immediately,” said Ms el Hor afterwards. “But we did urge them to be on good terms for their children’s sake.”

The filming complete, Mrs Chinguetta, Mr Selami and their party were whisked away to a nearby luxury hotel. The studio audience filed down a corridor and out into the gentle sunshine of a summer evening.

“Even when the guests don’t reconcile, you learn about some of the problems that can arise in life,” said Fatiha, 31, a receptionist from Casablanca who watches Al Khayt Al Abyad every week. “I’d even go on TV with my own troubles if I thought it would help solve them.”

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Polymath By Moroccan Author Bensalem Himmich

I just finished reading the book, The Polymath, and I can honestly say that it is one of the best books I have ever read. Kudos to the translator, Roger Allen.

Bensalem Himmich, the author, won several awards for it, but a book of this quality should be more popular. Here is an article from al-Ahram weekly that ran just after Himmich won the Naguib Mahfouz prize in 2002. And then there is this short review that appeared in Newsweek.

Ibn Khaldun Resurrected

by Amina Elbendary

As Cairo celebrated the centenary of the Egyptian Museum last Wednesday, another celebration took place also on Tahrir Square; AUC celebrated Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz's birthday (11 December) by announcing the winner of the seventh Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature.

Never far from controversy, the prize this year went to Moroccan novelist Bensalem Himmich for his novel Al-Allama (The Polymath), originally published in Beirut in 1997 and in Rabat in 2001. An Egyptian edition is due shortly from Afaq Al-Kitaba series.

A historical novel, Al-Allama is a fictional biography of famous 14th century scholar Ibn Khaldun that reconstructs his personal and intellectual universe focusing on the years he spent in Egypt and Syria. Himmich has been a scholar of Ibn Khaldun for many years, having relied on his Tarikh (History) and Muqaddima (Prolegomena) while writing a dissertation on the late mediaeval period in the Maghrib which earned him a doctoral degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne in 1986. He has also published a study on Ibn Khaldun. For this novel, Al- Allama, he relied on Ibn Khaldun's own Al-Ta'rif bi Ibn Khaldun wa Rihlatihi Sharqan wa Gharban (Presenting Ibn Khaldun and his Voyage in the East and the West) -- a semi-autobiographical work. Himmich is the author of seven other novels including Majnun Al-Hukm (Power Crazy) which won him the Naqid Award and which AUC Press will shortly publish in English. Himmich is currently professor of philosophy at Mohamed V University in Rabat, a consultant to the Moroccan Academy and vice-president of the Writers' Union.

Established in 1996, the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature also includes the translation of the award-winning novel into English by the AUC Press. The award committee is made up of Ferial Ghazoul, professor of English and Comparative Literature at AUC, Ragaa El- Naqqash, writer and literary critic, Abdel-Moneim Tallima, professor of Arabic language and literature at Cairo University, Hoda Wasfi, professor of French literature at Ain Shams University and Mark Linz, director of the AUC Press. El-Naqqash described Al-Allama as "a novel that deals with the problematic relationship between the intellectual and authorities. Bensalem Himmich has produced a musically structured work made up of two melodic phrases: one historical and the other contemporary. Thus the novel addresses our times through the transparent veil of history."

Reading the judges' citation Ghazoul remarked that "Al-Allama is a historical novel and yet imagination plays an important role in personalising the biographical sketch we have of Ibn Khaldun. The orientation of Bensalem Himmich in this novel in particular, and in his fictional corpus in general, converges with that of the master, Naguib Mahfouz, in its quest for presenting the actual and the real in the garb of the fictional and the imaginative, in the mobilisation of historical events as material for storytelling."

In his acceptance speech Himmich outlined the dual poles that govern his approach to fiction; the philosophical and the historical. Explaining the former he said: "My devotion and attachment to the individual -- but not to individualism -- is what spurred me on the level of writing to understand the expressive possibilities of the novel and its communicative usefulness. Fiction allows the creation of the characters and the narrative unfolding of their life trajectories through the fabric of relations and intrigues in which they are embedded... I find in the novel strong semantic ties with informal philosophy revolving around existence and being; it possesses the most fertile grounds for reflection on human issues. In its liminal manifestations, the novel relates fundamentally to modes of meaning (or their absence) in the dialectic of life and death." As for the historical pole: "I see everything as heritage, that is, as history; for even what we produce today will one day be transformed into heritage."

Himmich also explained his indebtedness to Mahfouz: "What I have learned from the work of great masters of Mahfouz's stature is that language is the living treasury of the novelist. Language is the hallmark of the novelist... The genuine literary labour is to develop the language and to innovate it in a modernising way. This means the attainment of verbal and semantic freedom at once in a tightly dialectical mode as we witness in the past in the works of [Abu Hayyan] Al-Tawhidi and in the present in the works of Mahfouz. Influenced by these two figures, I find myself inclined toward the poetics of exposition rather than the poetics of grandiloquence, attracted to a transparency and simplicity that is hard to attain rather than to decorative and unfamiliar flourishes."

And finally, "What I continue to learn and derive from such writers is this lesson: the novel is as much the cultivation of knowledge as it is the application of creativity."

The AUC Mahfouz Medal for Literature is more often than not greeted with controversy within Egyptian intellectual circles. This year, though, reactions have been subdued: perhaps the award has taken observers by surprise as many in Cairo are not quite up to date with Maghribi literature. But the annoying question will undoubtedly be asked this year too: Why Himmich? Why not so-and-so? Indeed, why any author?

Anyway, this year's award ceremony had the new touch of readings from Naguib Mahfouz. Actress Raghda and actor Hesham Selim each read selections from Mahfouz's oeuvre, Raghda in Arabic, followed by Selim in English. They read the story "Half a Day" from his collection The Time and the Place as well as selections from Echoes of an Autobiography. One might confess, however, that Raghda's rendition was infinitely more appealing, animated and enjoyable, especially as she managed through her voice alone to inspire the audiences with the nuances of the text and the different characters and levels of consciousness in the story. Perhaps in the future this tradition could be extended to include readings from the winning work which -- in AUC Mahfouz Award tradition -- is often unfamiliar to the crowd.

At the ceremony, the AUC Press also announced the publication of translations of recent Mahfouz award winners, Edwar El-Kharrat's Rama and the Dragon and Somaya Ramadan's Leaves of Narcissus.


The Polymath By Bensalem Himmich

In this historical novel, we meet perhaps the most famous of all Arab intellectuals, the 14th-century historian and judge Ibn Khaldun. It is near the end of his life, and Khaldun has settled in Cairo after decades of advising North African and Spanish Muslim rulers. Amid rumors and rebellions in among the Mamluk rulers of Egypt, Ibn Khaldun is hired, fired, imprisoned and dispatched to negotiate with the Mamluk's saber-rattling adversary, the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane. Readers have to plow through a long introduction to Ibn Khaldun's ideas before reaching the best part of this work, translated from Arabic: the personal history of a still-influential polymath.

--Liat Radcliffe