Thursday, January 28, 2010

Reading Crisis Alarms Moroccan Writers

It seems that there is crisis of book reading in al-Maghreb. Maybe turning off some of the televisions might help. Just a suggestion. Oh yes, and I would really disagree with the statement that most of the books in Morocco with the best info and analysis are in English or French. But I guess it depends on what kind of information one values. Here is the article from


'Reading crisis' alarms Moroccan writers


Ministry of Culture data show that Moroccans read only 2.5 books per year, while 1 in 10 don't read books at all.

By Naoufel Cherkaoui for Magharebia in Raba — 28/01/10

Worried by what they characterise as a national "reading crisis", Moroccan writers recently gathered to discuss restoring readers' love of books.

Cultivating a love of books begins in school, agreed the authors who took part in the January 22nd event in Rabat.

"We believe in the fundamental role that books play in the field of education," said conference organiser Mohamed Madkouri, who also chairs a pro-education group called the Popular Childhood Movement.

"We're implementing an annual programme for reading because our focus is on the problem of children and young people's aversion to reading," he added.

Writer Mohamed Behjaji suggested that a joint effort by the ministries of Culture and Education to encourage reading in schools may help Morocco overcome the reading crisis.

"There should be an international book day in which exhibitions are organised to remind people of reading," he told Magharebia on Friday in Rabat. "Moreover, there should be a partnership between the Ministry of Culture and the Interior Ministry for helping local councils acquire books. It's also a duty to start a real dialogue on the issue of book distribution."

Behjaji said the internet had dramatically changed reading habits.

The internet is a "dilemma" in that it offers opportunities to interact with the world, but it also has "two dangers", writer Mohamed Moujahid told Magharebia.

"The first is that knowledge comes to us through [the internet] in pieces, while book-based knowledge comes within the framework of a certain context," he said. "The second danger is laziness, because we've become addicted to copying and pasting."

A survey undertaken by author Hassan Ouezzani paints a bleak picture of the state of reading in the country. Citing research conducted by the Ministry of Culture in 2001, he said that Moroccans read only 2.5 books per year, while 1 in 10 do not read books at all.

In his work "The Book Sector in Morocco: Reality and Horizon," Ouezzani researched the types of books available to Moroccans. He found that more than 27% of the total number of publications was in the literature and criticism field, while legal sciences accounted for 18.11%. French-to-Arabic translations were far and away the most numerous, which he said might point to a shortage of books originally published in Arabic.

Khaldoun Mesnaoui, who heads the New Horizon Movement to promote cultural instruction and awareness, said more Arabic-language publications need to be created.

"There is also a problem at the level of quality," he told Magharebia. "Most of the books that are rich in valuable information and in-depth analysis are published in English and French."

Mesnaoui said the family and schools played key roles in encouraging students to read.

"I think that in order to get out of the crisis that reading is now undergoing, we need to have education for citizens that makes them understand that reading is a part of their daily routines," he added.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Trafficking of Moroccan Women in the United Arab Emirates

Sorry for the delay in posting. I have been "Reading Haiti," and actually traveled there to help in relief efforts. Here is a short article from the BBC about Moroccan women forced into prostitution in Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi court jails 13 for trafficking Moroccan women

A court in Abu Dhabi has jailed 13 Syrians for trafficking Moroccan women to the United Arab Emirates to work as prostitutes.

Seven men were given life sentences. Five other men and one woman were jailed for 10 years each.

According to court documents, the women - some as young as 19 - had been lured with the promise of well-paid work.

One man - described as the ringleader - escaped to Syria and was sentenced to life in prison in absentia.

An Ethiopian maid was sentenced to two months in jail.

The women were told they had to work as prostitutes to pay back the money it had allegedly cost to bring them from Morocco.

They said they had been locked up, beaten, starved and then chauffeured under guard to clients in hotels and homes.

Abu Dhabi police raided three flats after one of the women escaped from a villa in Al Bateen, where she was being held, in October last year.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Morocco is the "waiting room" for Africans trying to get to Europe.

Sub Saharan Africans stranded in Morocco. We have heard variations on this story before. No solution seems to be in sight. Here is an article from . There is video footage on the original page for those interested.

On Location: Death in the Sahara
Morocco is the "waiting room" for Africans trying to get to Europe.

By Erik German - GlobalPost
Published: January 8, 2010 06:30 ET

OUJDA, Morocco — In his eight-year struggle to find a home in Europe, Nigerian migrant Kingsley Okojie, 35, describes crossing oceans and deserts, escaping prisons and border guards and watching dozens of friends perish along the way.

Living in a trash-strewn camp where Morocco abuts Algeria, Okojie has no documents or passport stamps to prove where he’s been. Only memory and a shaky video, saved on his cell phone, record the 25 comrades he says died of thirst when a Sahara-crossing this year went badly wrong: On the tiny screen, dead bodies dot a sandy plain; one by one, the camera pushes in on their gaunt, eyeless faces baking in the glare.

“The women, the little baby, the pregnant women, everybody died,” Okojie said.

By some estimates, millions of sub-Saharan Africans embark on dangerous odysseys to Europe each year. They cross deserts in the back of trucks and take to the seas in hand-made boats, all in hope of building better lives Italy, Spain or beyond. But officials who track migrants say an increasing number of them are ending up like Okojie — stuck in North Africa with dwindling chances of escape.

“We call them stranded,” said Jean-Philippe Chauzy, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration in Geneva. “In some cases they stay in that situation for years.”

Countries like Morocco and Libya were once bridges to Europe, he said, but they’ve become more like holding pens. Economies in southern Europe are faltering, “the surveillance of land and sea borders is being increased, re-admission agreements are being signed, Europe is closing its doors,” Chauzy said.

Precise figures on stranded migrants are hard to come by. It’s an undocumented population that survives largely by keeping out of view.

But Chauzy said one indication more Europe-bound migrants are getting stuck is the rising number who have given up on their journeys and applied for his organization’s program of voluntary return. In Morocco in 2005, only about 250 migrants applied for and received free
plane tickets home paid for by the IOM. This year, more than a thousand did.

Human rights activists who work with migrants say the stranded population grows year by year. Where there were about 1,200 people living in camps outside Oujda three years ago, now some 2,000 are surviving in tent villages scattered through the woods outside town, said Hicham Baraka, co-founder of an aid group called the Beni Znassen Association for Culture, Development and Solidarity.

“Morocco has become a waiting room,” Baraka said. “Right now the immigrants, they are everywhere.”

Baraka said Europe’s closed-door policies simply drive migrants into the company of clandestine human traffickers. And he said the deportations — whether forced by European authorities, or voluntarily undertaken — are actually serving to swell the ranks of the 10,000 to 15,000 sub-Saharan migrants currently living in Morocco.

“You deport a person,” Baraka said “and he comes back with 15.”

When failed travelers step off the free flights home, they say they’re faced with disappointed family members and cast adrift in a job market that’s left them behind. One of the few marketable skills the returnees have is their knowledge of the route north. There are so many people desperate for help getting there, deportees say they quickly find other hopeful migrants willing to pay them as guides.

“They are wasting their time by deporting illegal immigrants,” said Fred Ogbeifuu, 27. After Spain deported him to Nigeria in 2004, Ogbeifuu said he guided six people on his second trip north.

“If they deport me this time around, I will come back with all my family,” Ogbeifuu said. “I will pack them down to Europe.”

It was just such an arrangement that led Kingsley Okojie’s 25 fellow travelers to their death in the desert this year.

Okojie’s first trip had ended with his arrest in Spain in 2007. He said he’d spent just 8 months in the country. Still, in that time, he’d managed to find a job at a grocery store in Madrid — and marry the girl who’d followed him from Nigeria and had just given birth to his son, Kingsley Jr..

Okojie said he spent 48 days in a Spanish jail while a lawyer unsuccessfully argued his case. When police came to drag him aboard a plane bound for Nigeria, Okojie said he nearly went crazy trying to resist.

“They had to tie me,” he said. “Yeah, they tied me.”

Back in Nigeria, Okojie couldn’t find work. Before his departure, he’d studied business administration at university, but there was no money to continue. Desperate to return to his family in Spain, beset by requests to be guided north, Okojie said he finally decided, “I have to move.”

Twenty-six people moved with him, from Nigeria to Mali to Niger. But the Land Cruiser they hired to take them into Algeria became lost in the braided sand tracks that crisscross the Sahara. The truck strayed into Libya. “A journey that was supposed to take us two or three days
took us two weeks,” Okojie said.

Food and water soon ran out. As the weakest died, their bodies were thrown from the truck, he said. One girl in the group had saved a bottle of 7-Up for herself for days. Near the end, she chose to give this last bit of liquid to the driver, Okojie recalled, begging him, “Take us out of this desert.”

“She died,” he said. “Everybody died … save two.”

Libyan police found Okojie and one other man in a patch of desert littered with bodies, he said. One of the officers was so appalled by the scene that he recorded it, giving a copy of the file to Okojie, he said.

The surviving pair was treated for severe dehydration, he said, before authorities threw them into a jail for illegal immigrants. Okojie said he escaped earlier this year, alongside hundreds of others who staged a jailbreak. He then made his way to Morocco, carrying little more than a crucifix he hopes to give his son, and his video record of the dead.

The final image in the phone is of Okojie himself, being drenched with water outside a medical clinic. He is seated on a concrete step, head down, his skin glinting like wet granite. His lean frame doesn’t resemble a famine victim so much as a marathoner — or, as Okojie puts it, “a soldier.”

His lonely war with distance is waged with a singular yet familiar goal. “To be with my family and live a wonderful good life with them.

A good life, a good job,” he said. “That’s my dream.”

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Bou Regreg River of Rabat - Pirates, Slaves and History

Here is an article from the National 's Travel Magazine about the Bou Regreg River in Morocco and the history that surrounds it.



Pirates of the Bou Regreg

Faisal al Yafai

* Last Updated: December 26. 2009 3:43PM UAE / December 26. 2009 11:43AM GMT

The story of Rabat is the story of a river and of the pirates who made Morocco.

Pushing down from the Middle Atlas Mountains, the Bou Regreg river is a vein forking along the exposed skin of the country. Just outside Rabat, the river is joined by thin strips of water, ploughing zigzags and curves through the middle of Morocco, until it finally forces itself through the brown sand, splits the sister cities of Rabat and Sale and spills languidly into the Atlantic.

From the beach below the Kasbah, I am pushing the opposite way, up past the pinks and blues and greens of parasols scattered in an arc around the sea, up the stone steps that reach the lookout of the Plateforme du Semaphore as it is thrown from the Kasbah’s walls. The sun washes out everything it touches, a haze of white on the canvas of Rabat, and swimmers shield their eyes when they look back at the land. By the middle of the afternoon, Rabatis are glad of the water and tumble down the steps to its embrace. Young men in shorts and white baseball caps rush down the uneven steps, taking two at a time, arms around each other as they jump. The girls behind them nudge each other, towels wrapped around their wide hips, some in bathing suits, some in scarves.

From the wide viewing platform at the top of the steps, the shape of the city is clear. This was the first part of Rabat to exist, a defensive structure called a ribat that fortified the coast. The Kasbah grew up around it and is still in some ways the most authentic part of the city, with white walls and blue doors, with intricate script curling around the edges; colours that make foreigners coo.

From the edge of the Kasbah, a tangle of streets brings you into the old medina. Unlike the medinas in Fez or Marrakech, it is calm, quietly bustling, a gathering place for the community rather than a destination for tourists. Shops selling handicrafts and spices, music and clothing are all jumbled together, and new sellers place carts full of clothes or children’s toys in the middle of the narrow streets for passers-by to pick at. The shops aren’t there to sell: everyone has come to buy.

Poking my head into a shop with a crowd of boys listening to hip-hop, I am beckoned to join the crowd. For the next hour, I am introduced to a wide range of Moroccan and French music. Sami, the only one who works in the shop and thus the custodian of what music is played, urges me to listen to Nabyla Maan, a young Moroccan singer-songwriter.

“She takes our heritage and she throws it out for the world,” he says approvingly. And she does: Maan’s music is a little microcosm of the new and the old, of traditional acoustic instruments and modern electronic sounds. She is the line between the past and the present, between the medina and the city. I walk off with a pile of CDs happily tucked into my back pocket, including Maan’s latest work, on the cover of which she is reclining on the beach with her guitar, the sea fading to nothingness behind her.

The history of this city is governed by the sea. The waters of the Bou Regreg flow down from the east of the city, out where the ancient Roman city of Sala Colonia sits. A place of thick stones and walls, it looks like rubble, lying in hues of brown and orange dust in the sun, open to the sky, the haze coming off the nearby river. The city was abandoned in the 12th century and its residents moved across the river to Sale. A similar fate befell the other great historical monument of Rabat, the Hassan Tower. A thick, imperial work of sandstone in the middle of ruined columns, the tower is the remains of what was meant to be the largest minaret in the world in the 12th century. Built during the reign of the caliph Yaqub Al-Mansur, at the same time as the grand Koutoubia mosque in Marrakech, it was eventually abandoned. But the building of the tower 900 years ago also marked something else – the end of Rabat’s dominance as a city. For centuries it languished – until the pirates came to Sale.

Sale is Rabat’s younger, quieter sister: a city with a past. In the 17th century, the city of Sale was a pirate republic. Pirates were nothing new in North Africa. They had existed since the decline of the Roman Empire and flourished as the Byzantine Empire retreated – but it was after the 15th century, as the Arabs, Berbers and Jews of Al-Andalus fled south, that piracy took off. The cities of Tunis, Tripoli and Sale - in today’s Tunisia, Libya and Morocco - became havens for the Barbary pirates, who roamed as far away as Iceland, attacking ships and even raiding coastal towns for slaves. Captives were taken from Ireland and England, from all along the coasts of Spain and Italy, and brought to North Africa, or what was known as the “Barbary Coast” to Europeans, to work in ships or live in harems. Although this slave trade in Europeans – the so-called white slave trade – did not reach the levels of cruelty and numbers of the Atlantic slave trade, the pirates were barbaric. It was the English, with a gift for making the terrifying commonplace, that named them the Sallee Rovers, kidnappers in the night named as for a weekend football squad.

Sale prospered through trade and plunder; in its heyday in the early 17th century, a group of outlaws formed a pirate republic here and, later, merged with Rabat to create the Republic of Bou Regreg. In doing so, they began the modern history of Morocco and doomed Sale to a bit part.

The railway line to Sale curves east from Rabat before turning in a voluptuous curve north across the river. From here, an ancient scene unfolds: fields of sparkling green, with no signs of modern life to distort them, old boats sitting dull on the river. Inside the thick, brown city gates, Sale is a sleepy place. Literally: at three in the afternoon, everyone is asleep. They sleep luxuriously, spreading themselves across their merchandise, bodies arched precariously over tables, wrapping themselves around each other, the afternoon sun lulling them to sleep without fear. Here no one will take their things or harm them in their sleep. In the shadow of the Grand Mosque in the centre of the medina, they are safe.

Left alone, I wander the shuttered streets, among buildings painted cobalt and brass. On the steps outside Cinema Malak, I sit down to sip a drink, using a map to shield myself from the sun. There is something deeply peaceful about Sale, but there is little to see: it is a village beside the city, a vision of how much of Morocco still is against the wide boulevards of what it wishes to become. The medina’s walls now keep modernity out, because while life is unchanged inside, the rest of Sale has become a network of suburbs, a commuter belt for Rabat.

Young boys on bikes roll past me, watching me curiously, but saying nothing. The occasional old man smiles; endless galabiyyas and peace greetings. “Do you want to swim?” a bunch of shirtless boys carrying towels ask me casually. They are going outside the city walls and down to the river to bathe. We talk for a while but they never ask the question I am asked everywhere: where are you from? Here, I am no one and everyman.

From Bab Bou Haja in the south-west, where the path runs down to the water’s edge, I trace the outline of the massive city walls until I reach Bab Mrisa, the greatest of the city’s old gates. It is beautiful, a hulking vision of empire in stone and curve, and yet is almost ignored. Elsewhere, the gate would be a major attraction, but there are no tourists here, only residents whose eyes have looked upon the walls too long. At Cafe Essoufara, an all-male cafe of simple white tables and rigid chairs, I wait out the heat of the day. Men are playing cards and -watching a spaghetti western on TV. In the back young teenage boys play arcade games. I sip coffee and think of the sea.

Who were these captives who were brought up the Bou Regreg and what must life have been like for them? In Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe’s 18th century novel about a castaway, Crusoe’s adventures begin after he is captured by pirates and taken to Sale, passing through the city’s still standing gates. “Our ship making her course towards the Canary islands ... was surprised in the grey of the morning by a Turkish rover of Sallee, who gave chase to us ... and were carried all prisoners into Sallee, a port belonging to the Moors.” Defoe does not detail Crusoe’s hardships in Sale apart from to talk of the “common drudgery of slaves” and Crusoe soon escapes. Not everyone was so lucky.

Of those kidnapped from the coasts of Europe, many were sold to the ruling pashas in cities like Sale, who used them to build public works and buildings or to row the corsair galleys. Many, especially the women, were purchased for their ransom value. The others who were sold to private individuals followed the fate of slaves everywhere – some became companions to their owners, others were worked hard and died.

Facts about the pirates and their captives are hard to come by. Before I came to Rabat I had read -astonishing facts about the Europeans brought in chains to North Africa: I had read that, in 1600, half of the population of Algiers was made up of European converts to Islam and their descendants; or that, in the mid-17th century, when the colonies in North America were flourishing, there were more British slaves and concubines in North Africa than there were colonisers in the whole of North America.

It is impossible to know the truth – that time is shrouded in myth and often overshadowed by the subsequent colonial crimes. Even the numbers of slaves are unclear: some historians have challenged the usual figure of 35,000 European slaves, estimating their number at over a million. The facts about that time may lie in dusty manuscripts and documents across the region, for future scholars to unpick.

What is certain is that the traffic was not all one-way. Many European sailors became pirates or worked for the rulers in Tunis or Algeria. Few now remember the Dutch pirate Simon de Danser or the English pirate Captain John Ward, but these were men who rose to great status and wealth attacking Europe’s shipping. There were many others: between the 16th and 17th centuries, there were at least 15,000 “renegade” Europeans working in Barbary, many as captains. Some were former slaves who had converted to Islam, others were looking for opportunity and wealth.

There were two crucial differences with the later Atlantic slave trade: here, the defining factor was not race and no one was doomed to slavery simply by the circumstances of their birth. The other was that there was a way back.

Many slaves were released after several years, or if their families could raise ransoms. The English diarist Samuel Pepys recorded in 1661 that he had met two -Englishmen who had previously been slaves in Algiers who “did make me full acquainted with their condition there. As, how they eat nothing but bread and water ... how they are beat upon the soles of the feet and bellies at the Liberty of their Padron.” Across Spain and Italy, Catholic orders would collect money to free the slaves: churches across the south of Europe had collection boxes designated for that purpose.
The roads out of Sale are thronged with cars and on the way back to Rabat there is a poster of the King and someone has mischievously written “pirates” underneath it, either as a piece of decoration or social commentary. In a way, the two are linked: without the pirates, there may not have been a king. The Republic of Bou Regreg, formed out of the twin cities of Rabat and Sale, lasted for around 40 years and was finally ended by the rise of the Alawite dynasty in the middle of the 17th century, which tired of the provocation of the pirates and pushed to unite the country. That dynasty has survived, through all the upheavals of the region and the world, unbroken to this very day: the current king of Morocco is a direct descendant of the first Alawite Sultan Moulay al Rashid.

Heading back to the medina, I get into a taxi and find there is already someone inside, a dark, striking teenage girl half-covered by a black headscarf. She is wrapped in her own thoughts in the very corner of the car and we ignore each other until she breaks the silence and asks me a question in English. She turns out to be from Mauritania, a young teenager without family studying in the Moroccan capital. No doubt there is steel behind the shyness, but for a while as we talk I can’t see it, so protective am I of this small woman in a city far from home.

In the gathering darkness of the medina we walk straight down Mohammed V avenue, amid the lighted lamps of sellers offering cooked meats and sandwiches, as she tells me of the poverty of her country and the loneliness of Rabat.

Together, we dip under a narrow archway at the very end of the medina and find ourselves in a vast cemetery, two strangers in a country that isn’t ours. From here to the lighthouse there is nothing but white tombstones, the endless dead turned to face the sea. How many were foreigners, I wonder, brought from villages across Europe to live and work in a foreign land? How many longed to be buried in the land of their birth? She leaves for home and I stand there under the stars thinking of what forces still bring outsiders to this land. The days when the corsairs sailed up the Bou Regreg have long gone, but the endless waters of the Atlantic still bring new people to this calm and quiet city, to a land that isn’t theirs.