Monday, November 30, 2009

Eid Al Kbir in a Berber Village

This article is nice because it gives an intimate description of the Eid that just passed in a rural Berber village in Morocco.


Celebrating Eid Al-Adha in a traditional Berber village

Eid Al Adha from aida alami on Vimeo.

Aida Alami lives in Casablanca and writes for Le Journal Hebdomadaire, a French-language Moroccan magazine. She describes celebrations during the Eid Al-Adha holiday that concludes the hajj.

Two days after Americans feasted on turkey, Moroccans chowed down on lamb.

This weekend was one of the most important celebrations for Muslim people around the globe. For centuries, people annually sacrifice a sheep to follow a hallowed tradition. In Morocco, even people who cannot afford to buy meat most of the year save up to be able to buy a sheep.

This tradition is based on making some sort of sacrifice to show God a full commitment. The legend says that God had asked the prophet Ibrahim, known as Abraham in English-speaking Judeo-Christian culture, to prove his full dedication by sacrificing his only son: Ismael.

Even if it was the hardest decision he had ever made, according to the tradition, Ibrahim ultimately decided to show his loyalty to God and kill his son. After he thought he had done so, God spoke to him and revealed that instead, he killed a sheep and saved the son. Muslims use this story to illustrate willingness to make a great sacrifice to show allegiance to God.

Since then, Muslims commemorate what they see as a miracle by sacrificing a sheep at the same time every year.

In the Berber village of Azimime, located in the south of Morocco almost 40 miles from Marrakesh, a family celebrated Eid Al-Adha in a typical festive way. Like every other year, the women wake up first, around 6 a.m., to make special foods for breakfast.

Kids and adults put on nice clothes bought for the occasion. Neighbors walk around the village to wish each other a happy holiday and stop for a cup of tea. After the men slaughter the sheep, the women start cooking all its parts. The first meal is a barbecue with all kinds of meat: liver, heart and so on. The families get together to celebrate and eat. The Eid celebration sometimes last three days — until all the meat is eaten.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Paying for the Eid Sheep in Morocco

Mabrook al `Awashir! It only seems right to post a story about the Eid. Eid Al-Kbir in Morocco sure beats anything I've ever seen in the US. Here is an article about Moroccans buying sheep for the Eid even if it is beyond their means.

Moroccans ignore high costs to honour Eid al-Adha rites


Saturday marks the start of Eid al-Adha in Morocco, a religious and cultural occasion that preserves long-cherished rituals and Prophetic tradition.

By Imane Belhaj for Magharebia in Casablanca – 27/11/09

Despite tough financial times, many Moroccan families will still adhere to an ancient ritual when Eid begins on Saturday (November 28th). The Adha feast calls for the sacrifice of a sheep, but honouring the custom can prove costly.

Like many Moroccans, Ibrahim, aged 54, has been setting aside hundreds of dirhams from recent paychecks to be able to afford a sheep. He is determined to participate in the sacrificial rite to please his wife, three children and mother. There is no possibility of forsaking the practice because of the cost.

At the sheep market in Casablanca, Malika evaluates her choices. She will not leave until she gets the ram that her family deserves, regardless of how much it costs: a healthy and horned ram, as dictated by the Sharia. Her husband has to pay for just the right animal, so she will not feel embarrassed by an inferior selection.

"People do nothing these days except watch the sheep that are brought into the neighbourhood," Malika tells Magharebia. "They weigh them just by looking at them from their windows and can price them even better than the vendors."

Malika is determined to buy a ram that will dignify her among her neighbours.

Some Moroccans let their relatives do the slaughter and the cooking. Each year for Eid al-Adha, Samira heads to Mohammedia to celebrate with her husband's parents.

"We spend three days there and it is an event for a family reunion, as many family members, whether single or married, come home," Samira noted. After the celebration, she and her husband return with bags of left-over meat.

But whether one stays at home or lets relatives perform the ritual slaughter, housewife So'ad says, prices are higher this year – well above the budgets of most families. Some sheep cost as much as a small calf.

So'ad blames "greedy" livestock breeders for the annual price spike. Brokers, or shanaka, contribute to the exorbitant cost, she argues. These wily operators intercept sheep farmers on their way to the market, buy their livestock and then raise the price to make a re-sale profit.

"People shouldn't complain," secretary Hoda countered. "Peasants need the extra cash in return for their efforts in raising their livestock." Besides, she added, "the event calls for some sacrifice".

Earlier this month, the Moroccan government tried to reassure the public by explaining that prices for sheep may vary depending on the quality and the age of the animal, the vendor's location and how close to Eid the animal is purchased.

The official explanation did little to persuade Nabil Mohamady. The Casablanca resident tells Magharebia that prices make little sense, especially when last season's heavy rains led to fertile pastures, an abundant harvest and good-quality livestock.

With the price of a sheep at least 3,000 dirhams, loans are becoming a common practice. Banks offer tempting packages to lure in the biggest number of clients.

Mostapha applied for a bank loan, as he does every year. His company lends him the money to buy the sacrificial sheep and allows him to repay the funds in ten monthly instalments. Such financing options allow even those with limited incomes to enjoy holiday traditions.

Even with changing social conditions, some Eid customs remain unshakable, such as the tradition of setting up neighbourhood communal fires, where young men cook the heads for a small fee.

Some households insist on handling the slaughtering themselves, a skill mastered after years of practice. Most people, however, choose to seek the help of ritual butchers, who roam districts in search of clients. They are often accompanied by young helpers eager to make extra money by assisting in the skinning process.

"Slaughtering fees are constantly on the rise," Ibrahim complains. "It climbed from 50 dirhams per sheep to 150 within a span of 3 years. That is quite overpriced. Slaughterers take advantage of the fact that people have no choice but to purchase their services at whatever price they name."

Rachid does not care much for the feast preparations. Like many of his friends and their wives, Rachid decided to leave on a vacation to enjoy the holidays in Marrakech or Agadir, where rated hotels offer competitive packages for the holiday.

Rachid's avoidance of the tradition typifies a new trend. Indeed, Eid al-Adha is already starting to lose its social and religious value, with the wealthy seeking to dodge it, while the poor striving hard to be able to afford the sacrifice, sociology professor Ali Fdaili argues.

"Things should be the other way round; the affluent should be buying the sacrifice to give away to the poor," he tells Magharebia.

Economic conditions play a role in changing behaviour patterns, no matter how deeply-entrenched they may be, confirmed social analyst Mostapha Rajeh. Compassion for the needy, which constitutes the basis of the customs and traditions of the feast, has become threatened.

Still, there are those who adhere to the meaning of the feast. Sa'id, who lives alone in Casablanca, has a good job which enables him to afford a sacrifice. He prefers, however, to offer the money to a needy family living in an older district of the city. The day of the feast, he fixes a small meal and shares it with a few friends.

"It's a laudable Prophetic tradition that drives us to think about people who might not have had a morsel of meat throughout the year and are eagerly awaiting the occasion. I feel such a relief when I help some poor family buy a sacrifice because I know that is going to make everyone in the family happy," Sa'id says.

"This is the true spirit of solidarity that Islam urges."

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Lack of (Foreign) Funding Threatening Moroccan Farm Reforms

Here is an article from Reuters about attempts to implement farm reforms in Morocco, and how Morocco is looking to secure Gulf money in order to do this. Unfortunately, the small farm method,which is better for the environment and poor farmers may have to be sacrificed in order to bring in the big money.

Morocco says no funding threat to key farm reforms

Fri Nov 20, 2009 2:01pm GMT

By Amena Bakr and Zakia Abdennebi

SKHIRAT, Morocco (Reuters) - Morocco has the resources to press ahead with farm sector reform, even if many foreign investors are unwilling to commit for now, industry officials said.

Foreign investment in the north African country had fallen by a third in September compared to a year earlier, according to government figures, as the global banking crisis made investors loath to venture into new markets,

Morocco has said it needs to muster 150 billion dirhams to upgrade and diversify agriculture, which suffers from droughts and poor yields.

A 10-year farm reform drive seeks to replace cereals, which account for 75 percent of Morocco's arable land of 7.5 million hectares, with more lucrative crops such as olives and boost food exports as trade barriers fall.

Gulf Arab investors should be ideal partners for the plan as their countries need to secure food supplies after prices rose sharply.

Yet big inward investment deals have been largely absent.

At a two-day conference near the Moroccan capital Rabat, local officials sought to convince Gulf investors that heavy bureaucracy and complex land ownership rules, long seen as decisive obstacles, are a thing of the past.

The charm offensive has worked in some cases -- Saudi Arabia's Tabuk Agriculture Development Co. said it planned to invest about $10 million in Moroccan olive farming early next year. It started looking at opportunities in Morocco in 2008.

And an Abu Dhabi-based private sector investment firm told Reuters this week it had signed a contract to lease up to 700,000 hectares of farmland in southern Morocco and would invest 30 million euros.

Commitments so far are relatively small but Moroccan industry officials are staying upbeat, saying foreign investment is very welcome but not essential for its farm reform plan to succeed.

"There is already a commitment from (Moroccan) state and financial institutions," Tarik Berkia, a managing director at Moroccan bank Credit Agricole, told Reuters.

"The money is there. If there are big scale projects, we could call upon foreign funds. That does not mean foreign money is not welcome."

He said there was keen interest in farm projects from French, Australian, Spanish and Italian investors.

Some Gulf investors at the conference said they were starting to sit up and take notice of Morocco's farm sector.

"All the world is worried about food security and Gulf countries are investing in Sudan and Western Asia," said Ali Hamid al-Missifri, first executive manager at Qatar International Islamic Bank. "I think there's now an opportunity to go to Morocco -- it's a very important agricultural country."

Other delegates said they were still put off by Moroccan red tape and the relatively small size of farm units generally on offer.

"I'm not coming here to invest in small land," said Saad al Swat, chief executive of Tabuk Agriculture Development Co. "We're not talking about 500 or 700 hectares. Our farm in Saudi is 35,000 hectares... With a small farm, nobody is going to notice your input in the economy."

© Thomson Reuters 2009 All rights reserved

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Moroccan Police Use Demand For "Prior Permission" to Stop Visits to Sahrawi Activists

Here is a press release recently posted by Human Rights Watch about the treatment of Sahrawi activists by Moroccan authorities. They won't stop until somebody in the West tells them to stop. And let us not overlook the recent expulsion of Sahrawi activist Aminatou Haidar by Morocco to Spain where she is not being permitted to leave.

Morocco/Western Sahara: Reverse New Rule on Sahrawi Activists’ Contacts
Police Use Demand for Prior Permission to Break Up Visits by Foreigners

November 16, 2009

"A country that prides itself on openness is now telling some citizens that they can't decide who may visit them...This is an unacceptable restriction on the right of association and the right to privacy."
Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director

(New York) - Morocco is taking another regressive step on human rights by blocking "unauthorized" visits by foreigners to the homes of Sahrawi activists in Western Sahara, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since October 19, 2009, police have interrupted five such visits by Spanish journalists and human rights lawyers, telling them in each case that these visits they require prior clearance from the authorities.

This practice, which has no apparent basis in Moroccan law, represents a new restriction on the rights of Sahrawis and of visitors to the region. Previously, plainclothes police generally did not interfere when foreigners entered the homes of known Sahrawi activists, although they often openly monitored such visits from a distance.

"A country that prides itself on openness is now telling some citizens that they can't decide who may visit them," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "This is an unacceptable restriction on the right of association and the right to privacy."

Restrictions on visits to the homes of Sahrawi activists coincide with a visibly tougher posture by Moroccan authorities toward those who advocate self-determination for the contested Western Sahara. Morocco has exercised de facto rule over the former Spanish colony since 1975 and considers it an integral part of Morocco. Other states have not formally recognized this claim.

Seven Sahrawis have been in detention since returning October 8 from a visit to the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria that are administered by the Polisario Front. The Polisario is a pro-independence movement that contests Moroccan sovereignty and demands a referendum on self-determination for the people of Western Sahara. Moroccan authorities accused the detainees of harming "external state security" and referred their cases to a military court, a rare and ominous development for civilian defendants.

King Mohammed VI himself has signaled the new tone toward Sahrawis who favor a vote on self-determination and who, effectively, question Morocco's claim of sovereignty over Western Sahara.

"One is either a patriot, or a traitor," the king declared on November 6, the 34th anniversary of Morocco's "Green March" to take control of the region. "Is there a country that would tolerate a handful of lawless people exploiting democracy and human rights in order to conspire with the enemy against its sovereignty, unity and vital interests?"

The foreign visitors who were forced to leave the homes of Sahrawis in the recent incidents were Spanish journalists and lawyers who traveled to Western Sahara to observe the trials of Sahrawis and to collect human rights information.

In the most recent incident, on November 12, Luis Mangrané Cuevas, a lawyer representing the General Council of the Spanish Bar Associations (Consejo General de la Abogacía Española, CGAE) tried to visit Sultana Khaya, vice president of the Forum for the Future of Sahrawi Women, at her home in Boujdour. Mangrané had come to the region in order to observe the trial of Sahrawi activist Hassana Alouate.

Police intercepted him near Khaya's house and said he would need authorization to enter. At the police station they told him he could meet with Khaya instead in a café. But when the two sat down in a café to talk, policemen arrived, ordered Mangrané to leave Boujdour and escorted him to a taxi station, where he boarded a taxi to El-Ayoun.

The details of the four previous incidents are as follows:

On November 10, at about 7:30 p.m., Mangrané and Dolores Travieso Darias, another Spanish lawyer sent by the GCAE to observe a trial, visited Hassan Duihi at his home in El-Ayoun. About 30 minutes later, plainclothes police came to the door and told Duihi, a member of the Sahrawi Associaton of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations (ASVDH) who frequently receives foreign visitors, to ask the two lawyers to leave his home and return to their hotel. The police told Duihi that he must obtain prior clearance from the police for any foreigners he wants to have visit him at home.

On November 3, at about 9:10 p.m., six plainclothes policemen came to the home of El-Ghalia Djimi, vice-president of the ASVDH, in El-Ayoun, during a visit by two Spanish lawyers. The lawyers, Ines Miranda and Araceli Fernàndez de Córdoba Cantizano, were in town to observe the trial of Sahrawi activist Cheikh Amidane, on behalf of the International Association of Jurists for Western Sahara, which is based in Spain. The police told the lawyers they had to get permission to visit homes from the Communications Ministry and ordered them to leave the house. Djimi had been receiving for years at her home foreign visitors interested in human rights without first notifying the authorities. Officials have now told her that she must get permission from them in advance when she wishes to have foreign visitors.

On October 22, plainclothes police told two Spanish journalists, Beatriz Mesa of Radio Cope and El Periodico and Erena Calvo of Ser Radio and El Mundo daily, to leave the home of Sidi Mohamed Daddache, president of the Committee to Support Self-Determination in Western Sahara (CODAPSO), in El-Ayoun. Both reporters are based in Morocco and accredited by Moroccan authorities.

On October 19, plainclothes police came to the El-Ayoun home of Hmad Hammad, vice president of CODAPSO, and ordered Ruth Sebastien Garcia and Simplico del Rosario Garcia to leave. The two Spanish lawyers had come to El-Ayoun in order to attend the trial earlier that day of Sahrawi student activist Mohamed Berkane.

On three research missions between 2005 and 2007, representatives of Human Rights Watch visited many private homes in El-Ayoun and Smara, including those of Sahrawi activists. While plainclothes police frequently were visible observing the homes from a distance, they did not interrupt these visits.

"Human rights activists, like everyone else, should be free to receive and visit whom they wish, without getting permission," said Stork. "Authorities who restrict that right look like they are trying to cut off the flow of information about their own practices."

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Moroccan Carpet Confidential

Here is an article on the rug trade in Morocco and how the women who make the rugs rarely see the big bucks that tourists pay for them. Just another reason to bargain a bit harder next time you're in the souq.


Moroccan carpet confidential

Rural women weavers struggle to earn a fair price for their intricate rugs.

By Erik German - GlobalPost
Published: November 13, 2009 06:20 ET
Updated: November 13, 2009 17:16 ET

KOURKOUDA, Morocco — It takes more than 20 pounds of raw wool and 60 days of handwork to fashion one of Morocco’s famous carpets. The weavers in this village say it’s hardly worth the effort.

“You can’t give a damn about carpets anymore,” said Rakia Nid Lchguer, 57, who, like many weavers in this country’s remote south, spent a decade perfecting her art, beginning at age 6. “The market barely repays the cost of the wool,” she said.

Morocco’s vibrant rugs come in a variety of styles — from flat-woven hanbels to the fuzzy creations crafted by Nid Lchguer and her neighbors. The pieces fetch hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars on carpet shop floors in Marakesh, Fez and abroad.

The rug stores are as common to Moroccan cities as bright lights on Broadway, and the haggling done inside is a visitor’s rite of passage. Hours can pass with merchants sipping tea, trading fibs with tourists about what the final price will be. Overpayment is the norm.

Yet middlemen ensure that little of that money finds it way back to villages like Kourkouda. While the World Bank estimates Moroccans make an average of $6 per day, in these arid hills south of the Atlas Mountains, that figure seems optimistic.

Seated on the cement floor of a home where she raised seven children, Nid Lchguer said immediate needs have sometimes forced her to sell a finished carpet for as little as $40. The raw materials cost her $33, she said.

While talking, she cleaned tufts of raw, ivory-colored wool by scraping it between two steel brushes. Her neighbor, Fadma Hassi, 65, stopped spinning yarn nearby and said, “That’s if you get to sell it.”

This time, the women have been lucky. Someone ordered on commission a plush carpet with roughly the same footprint as an American twin bed. With the help of a third neighbor, the weavers will split $50 three ways in exchange for an amount of labor that seems alien in a mechanized age.

The rug’s warp alone — a continuous string forming the piece’s vertical threads on the loom — will require hand-spinning a piece of yarn the length of 10 football fields. Among other tasks in the coming weeks, the women will hand-tie more than 100,000 knots no bigger than this lower-case o.

Not all Morocco’s carpets are crafted from hand-spun wool in isolated homes. Some weavers work in small cooperatives, others in factories. Some get their wool pre-spun at the market, others even buy synthetics. But the artisans — the overwhelming majority of whom are women — share similar problems.

“The money is not going to these ladies, for sure,” said Bouchra Hamelin of Al Akhawayn University, who teaches free marketing classes to Moroccan weavers and other artisans. “They don’t know how to write, how to read. They don’t have access to the internet so they don’t have access to customers.”

Instead, Hamelin said, men with trucks have access to the weavers. A middleman tours isolated villages and souks, buys low, drives to the cities, then sells high. “He is the person making the money,” she said.

Women in some villages have formed cooperatives in a bid to bypass middlemen. An association of 88 weavers in Anzal, about 35 miles from Kourkouda, have been marketing their wares directly to tourists since 2007. Like all the weavers interviewed for this story, they speak a local language called Tachelhit, which predates Arabic’s arrival to the region.

Even leaders of the group acknowledge that sales haven’t been stellar. The association’s treasurer, Zahara Ait Ali, said she’s only sold four carpets since the group was formed — a typical number, group members said — for a total of about $300. Still, she said, working through an association is better than going to the souk alone and haggling with a carpet dealer.

“The professionals in Marrakesh, the people who work in the bazaars, they try to drive the prices down,” she said. “In our region no one will speak out about low prices.” It’s hard to tell precisely how much of a cut the middlemen are taking. After all, concealing the wholesale price is the essence of the game. But a brief encounter with a traveling rug merchant named Mohammed Ait Tar offered a clue. Flagged down on a rutted mountain track, he showed off a load of carpets jammed to the ceiling of his tiny, diesel Citroen Berlingo.

He pulled out one plush, coffee-table sized carpet from a stack of rugs he said were woven nearby. What he did next underscored the warm hospitality visitors often encounter in this region, and also hinted at how little the piece must have cost him.

“Here,” he said. “A gift.”

Thursday, November 12, 2009

International Congress on Ottoman Rule in the Mediterannean held in Rabat Nov 12-14

Morocco was the only Country in North Africa that resisted Ottoman rule. So, its kind of ironic that a congress on Ottoman rule in the Mediterranean is being held in Rabat right now. If you are there, go have a look-see. Here is the article explaining the conference.

Congress on Ottoman's Mediterranean to be held in Morocco
An international congress on Western Mediterranean under Ottoman ruling will be held on 12-14 November in Moroccon capital of Rabat.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009 11:35

World Bulletin / News Desk

An international congress on Western Mediterranean under Ottoman ruling will be held on 12-14 November in Moroccon capital of Rabat.

The OIC Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA, Istanbul) and the Royal Institute for Research on the History of Morocco (IRRHM, Rabat) are jointly organising an International Congress on "The Maghreb and the Western Mediterranean during the Ottoman Period".

The congress aims to promote research on the history of the Maghreb and the Western Mediterranean region during the period of the Ottoman State by exploring the existing and new directions of research and offering scholars and specialists an opportunity to present their findings and share information, IRCICA said on website.

"The period will be covered comprehensively, to generate a forum of study and academic discussion on its various aspects. The Ottoman presence in part of the region under study had varying degrees and spheres of impacts on all of the region.

"Thus the theme will cover the relations between the Ottoman State and the Maghreb and Western Mediterranean region with regard to the effects of developments relating to the central state, the provinces, and the neighbouring countries, reciprocally; economic, social, cultural and educational developments, press and publications," IRCICA said.

An important aspect of the congress is that it will also address issues relating to historiography and the state of research on the history of the region during the Ottoman period.

The languages of the congress will be Arabic, Turkish, English and French. Simultaneous translation will be provided.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Corner of the Desert Called Home - but is it Morocco or Not?

Please excuse us if we ignore all of the big celebrity visits to Morocco and post this article from Le Monde Diplomatique's English Edition about a Saharan artist, Aziza Brahim, who sings poems written by her grandmother in Hassaniya Arabic about the struggle for Saharan autonomy. ( I think there is a typo in the article. Her grandmother's name is most likely Bint Mabruk and not Mint Mabruk) If you click on the link, there is video.

From Sahara exile to future freedom

A corner of the desert called home

Aziza Brahim, the Sahrawi singer, relays to the world the sorrows and the protest of her people. But her work is not just political: she sings, too, of love and life

by Colin Murphy

Three images of Aziza Brahim come to my mind: cross-legged on the floor of an adobe house in the Sahara, swathed in a traditional melfa, talking politics; legs dangling over the stage of the extraordinary Roman amphitheatre in Merida, Spain, singing to an accidental audience of daytripping tourists; and in foul temper and hoarse voice over lunch in London, a late night behind her and a nerve-inducing concert ahead.
Aziza Brahim sings La Sensación Del Tanque in Merida, Spain

Let’s start with the last image: Aziza Brahim, whose short album Mi Canto topped the World Music chart on the influential earlier this year, was in London at the behest of the city’s annual African Music Festival. Backstage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall later that day, a procession of eager young aficionados sought a few minutes with Brahim. Their enthusiasm was not simply for her music, however; some seemed barely acquainted with it. What they proclaimed was passion for her cause.

Brahim rewarded them, from the stage, with the concise proclamations of her politics that introduced each song. She carried a flag onstage with her, and spoke of a homeland enriched with the blood of the fallen. After the concert she talked business, in private, with representatives from a couple of small World Music labels.

That was this summer. So was the impromptu visit to Merida, a pit-stop on the long drive north, from an open-air concert in Seville, to her hometown of León. The day was hot, and Merida offered a timely break from the languor of the road. Brahim walked alone into the vast, empty Roman auditorium and swung herself onto the stage, perching at the centre, in its heart. She started to sing, and the auditorium filled with a song of war, of family and of the desert. She brought to the ancient Roman theatre a music whose antecedents had perhaps once been heard at the southern fringes of the Roman Empire. There were no proclamations of politics, and she returned to the road, refreshed.
Coming home

In October, after a summer of successful concerts across Spain and elsewhere in Europe, Aziza Brahim took a break. She flew to Algiers and then took an internal Algerian flight to Tindouf, in the west, near the border with Morocco. She was collected there by a friend, and they drove south, in a jeep. They passed through a military checkpoint that indicated they were leaving Algeria, though they were not near the international border, and then through another checkpoint, apparently unmanned, that signalled they were entering new territory. They left the road and drove across the desert, and arrived shortly at a house of rough cement-and-adobe walls with an iron sheeting roof and light radiating from small windows, low to the ground. It was three in the morning.

The steel door to the house opened with the approach of the engine, and children streamed out, followed by their parents. Inside, a long, low table was laid with plates of dates and biscuits, and music played on an old stereo powered by a car battery. Brahim greeted everyone, and introduced her sleepy three-year-old daughter: cousin, niece and granddaughter to the people who crowded around. A party started, and finished just before dawn with the family strewn on cushions and carpets throughout the house. Aziza Brahim was home.

When Aziza Brahim speaks of her pueblo, this is what she means: her people, who live here, in the Hammada of the Sahara. Brahim was born here 34 years ago. But when she speaks of her patria, she does not mean this place. She means another corner of the desert, some hundreds of kilometres to the west: one that is less arid, and far more developed; and one that is not within Algeria, but is – currently – within Morocco.

Aziza Brahim’s people are the Sahrawis of Western Sahara; Western Sahara was once known as Spanish Sahara and is today – depending on who you listen to – either a province or a colony of Morocco. Morocco claims historical, pre-colonial sovereignty over the territory (which has rich phosphate deposits and fishing waters) and has occupied it since the Spanish withdrawal in 1975; but the Sahrawis’ claim on their land is vindicated by an International Court of Justice ruling from 1975, stating that the territory has the right to self-determination.
Moroccan offensive

Following that ruling, King Hassan II of Morocco mobilised 350,000 people to march south into Western Sahara in an ostensibly peaceful conquest, known as the Green March; at the same time, but more discreetly, he sent in the army. Many of the Sahrawis fled east, across the Algerian border, where they congregated in refugee camps. Morocco fought the Sahrawi liberation army, the Polisario Front, till 1991 when a ceasefire was agreed pending a referendum on the territory’s status. United Nations peacekeepers came in to supervise the referendum; they are still there; the referendum has still not happened. Morocco has successfully stalled.

The refugee camps have become institutionalised, and are home to the Polisario government in exile. There is a basic administration in the refugee camps, some paltry free enterprise, and almost no formal employment. The Sahrawis survive thanks to humanitarian aid and remittances from the diaspora, like Brahim.

Returning home is a luxury Brahim does not afford herself often: this was the first visit in three years. She spent the week almost entirely around the family home; they danced at night to Mauritanian pop, shopped for melfas, brewed and drank endless small glasses of mint tea, and got to know each other’s young children who played together, barefoot, in the dust. One of the older children transferred a MP3 copy of one of Brahim’s songs to her mobile phone, and it was soon jumping from phone to phone around the camp, via bluetooth.

One afternoon during the week, Brahim brought us next door, to the home of her grandmother, Ljadra Mint Mabruk. Brahim’s grandfather had died earlier this year and her grandmother was in mourning. She was unable to leave the house or receive male visitors. Instead, she hung a muslin curtain across her room, and allowed us sit with Brahim on one side, while she talked to us from the other. Her silhouette was visible through the curtain, jabbing with her finger or waving her arms when she talked of her granddaughter’s music.

Ljadra Mint Mabruk is one of the most renowned Sahrawi poets. Known as “the poet of the rifle”, her war poems have become anthems of the Sahrawi struggle – anthems to which her granddaughter has given new voice, and new rhythm: many of Brahim’s songs are versions of her grandmother’s poems, performed in a fusion of traditional Sahrawi singing and western blues-rock. Brahim’s signature song, La Sensación del Tanque (the feeling of the tank), is a poem by her grandmother that describes the feeling of climbing into a captured Moroccan tank, imagining what had taken place inside it.

Composed orally in Hassaniya, the Arabic dialect spoken by the Sahrawis, Ljadra Mint Mabruk’s work has been little published and less translated (Brahim sings them in Hassaniya). One untitled poem, translated into Spanish by the Sahrawi writer Bahia MH Awah, concludes with the following lines: “We will show them that the Sahara is not Agadir/ Nor Casablanca/ It is simply the Sahara/ A people that aspires to their freedom/ And has pursued it across a century.”
Fighting through poetry

“I never thought that my poetry would be put to blues or rock”, said Ljadra Mint Mabruk (through Brahim’s translation). “They put them on the radio or on the television now, though I never thought of these things when I wrote them. Of course, the circumstances in which they were written limited their impact, but my intention when I wrote them was that they could be listened to wherever. I want what I write to reach as many people as possible.”

“She always wanted to fight through her natural medium, poetry”, said Brahim of her grandmother. That fight is one Brahim continues, relentlessly. “While my people are oppressed, and condemned to live in refugee camps, I am not going to stop”, she said. “I am going to try and bring the sorrows and protest of my people everywhere I go. I am very proud to be Sahrawi, to represent my cause.”

For now, Brahim represents that cause from a base in León, using her music to promote the cause even as the cause helps draw attention to the music. For Salek Baba Hassena, the minister for co-operation in the Polisario government, Brahim is well placed as a spokesperson.

“She represents the generations who were born, grew up and were educated here in the camps”, he said. “She represents the stages of exile and of the first years of the camps – the hardest years, the years of the war – and she has also lived through the stage since 1991, following the ceasefire, awaiting the referendum. And I hope she will live through the stage of liberty and independence.” From exile to future freedom, he said, her modernised Sahrawi music “encompasses these different stages”.

That freedom, he said, was “inevitable”. “The day of victory is certain. We are sure that this day will arrive – perhaps not soon, but it is guaranteed to come.”

I asked Brahim what she would do when that day arrived. “When my country is free, I will return and live there with my people”, she said, “and sing to them of other things: of daily life, of love and loves lost; of things I can’t sing of today, because they don’t mean anything to me, for now.”

Yet even though, for now, her music is intimately bound up with politics, Brahim is too complex a musician, and too ambitious a singer, for her music to be the slave to a cause. Politics, for her, is ultimately about her people, and her family: as on that hot afternoon in Merida, it transcends the specificity of their struggle; the lament becomes uplifting.

And if a nationalist music is characteristic of modernity, Brahim is in other ways post-modern: she has multiple identities that allow her to slip seamlessly between the starkly different worlds through which her family and her music take her. These are the different images of Aziza Brahim. Any one of them is merely a snapshot. The thing that unites them is her song.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

King inaugurates Qur'anic School in Eastern Morocco

Here is an article from the official voice of the Moroccan government, MAP, on the opening of a Quranic school by the king M6. It's interesting how all the cards in the deck get "played." And please note the caveat the begins " while taking into account the contemporary changes...." Perhaps one day the believing religious people will be left alone with their religion and the journalists with their journalism without the government feeling the need to "shape" everything.

HM the King inaugurates Koranic school in eastern Morocco

Ferkla essoufla - HM King Mohammed VI inaugurated on Friday the "Imam Nafia" Koranic school in the rural commune of Ferkla Essoufla (province of Errachidia, 482 km southeast of Rabat).

The educational facility, worth some 2.82 million dirhams ($385,000), spans on an area of 2,000 square metres, and includes classrooms, two rooms for Koran memorization, an IT room, a library and other administrative spaces.

The school will provide a mutli-disciplinary training in sharia, while taking into account the contemporary changes requiring openness on modern sciences and foreign languages.

The school has a capacity of 245 students for the 2009-2010 academic year, an average of 30 students per class.

This institution is designed to contribute to spreading religious knowledge and teaching students the authentic values of the Islamic religion, including tolerance, rectitude and moderation.

The province of Errachidia counts over 7000 students enrolled in 154 religious education schools and institutions.

Last modification 10/30/2009 04:33 PM.
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