Saturday, May 29, 2010

Opening the Border [ between Morocco and Algeria ]

Here is an article from the Economist about likely prospects that the drawn out border-related issues between Morocco and Algeria may be ending insha'Allah.

Algeria and Morocco

Open that border
Will the long stalemate between the Maghreb’s two big rivals ever end?

May 27th 2010 | RABAT | From The Economist print edition

MOROCCANS call the vast and arid region along their border with Algeria “the Oriental”. For centuries, trade bustled between their former capital, Fez, and cities on the western side of present-day Algeria, such as Oran. Pilgrims passed through on their way to the Middle East. Ibn Battuta, a great 14th-century Muslim explorer, set off from Tangier, on Morocco’s north-western tip, on his 30-year peregrinations that took him as far as China.

Alas, there are no Ibn Battutas today, if only because the border between Morocco and Algeria, which runs for 1,559km (969 miles), or 1,601km if you include a further stretch alongside the disputed Western Sahara, has been closed for nearly 16 years. In 1994 Algeria shut it after Morocco’s government imposed visas on Algerian travellers in the wake of a guerrilla attack on the Atlas Asni Hotel in Marrakech, in which the Moroccans suspected Algeria of having a hand. Thousands of Algerian residents and tourists were summarily expelled.

The Western Sahara row has made matters worse. For 35 years, since Spain’s departure, the territory has been disputed between the Polisario movement, which wants independence, and the Moroccan government, which has offered autonomy. The Algerians have doggedly backed Polisario. The conflict is barely closer to a resolution, though Morocco has managed to keep Polisario’s guerrillas militarily at bay.

Even leaving aside Western Sahara, the Atlas Asni incident is still a big barrier to better relations. It also impedes economic integration between the Maghreb countries in general. The Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), a trade organisation created in 1989 to encourage free trade between Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia, has failed to hold a summit meeting since 1994, in part because of the Algerian-Moroccan spat. Trade within the AMU quintet accounts for a paltry 2% of what the region conducts with the whole of the rest of the world.

Morocco’s King Muhammad VI began trying to break the logjam in 2004, when he let Algerians visit his country without a visa. Algeria’s president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, returned the favour the next year but refused to reopen the border, despite King Muhammad’s plea in 2008 and the urging of the United States and the European Union. Algeria may still feel bitter about the expulsion after the hotel attack of 1994 but it is also nervous lest Morocco use the border issue as a lever to get Algeria to back down over Western Sahara. Algeria still insists, to the irritation of Morocco, that there should be a referendum under an international agreement signed in 2003. The unresolved issue has fuelled rivalry for dominance of the wider Maghreb region, in which the two countries are by far the biggest in terms of population: Morocco has 32m people, Algeria 35m.
The benighted borderlands

Moroccan towns such as Oujda, a ten-minute drive from the border, have been hard hit. Despite efforts to reorient the region’s economy towards tourism and to draw the area into Morocco’s hub on the Atlantic, local unemployment is two-and-a-half times the official national rate of 10%. Remittances from Europe probably provide the region’s main source of income: nearly a third of the 3m-plus Moroccans working in the EU hail from the eastern area. Their king recently visited Oujda to launch plans for new factories and infrastructure, implying he could not wait for Algeria to open up. Yet opening the border to trade would plainly bring a boom.

Signs of softening between the two countries are, however, evident. Regardless of politics, businessmen are going their own way. More Algerians now take holidays in jollier Morocco, even if they have to go by air, and Moroccan companies are trying to bring their know-how to Algeria, which is rich in oil and gas but stubbornly hostile to markets and global business. Since 2007 the intelligence services of both countries have held regular meetings on counter-terrorism, in view of a shared threat from jihadists. And AMU officials have agreed to set up a Maghreb Customs Co-operation Council with headquarters in Algiers and a training centre in Morocco’s commercial capital, Casablanca. A UN man calls it “the most important move in years towards reconciliation.”

Sunday, May 23, 2010

MisReading Morocco - A Travel Writer in Tangier

We do not usually re-post things that are displeasing to our tastes. But in this instance it is being done in what we hope is constructive criticism. The following piece was posted on and needs to be "unpacked." Western tourist in Morocco, can't help but think of gnomes when he sees the traditional jilleba, and overuses the term "modern." It seems as if he is obsessed with the impending modernization of Morocco. In other words, he is asking, when are these people finally going to be just like us? We are all too smart for this kind of voyeuristic travel writing about Morocco.

The Back Lanes of Tangier

Rick Steves: On the pleasures of wandering in the evolving Moroccan city

05.18.10 | 12:11 PM ET

A week ago Monday was my birthday, and no one in Morocco knew it. To celebrate, I took a couple of hours alone just floating through the back streets of Tangier, observing.

Looking at a window filled with photos of adorable little boys wearing fezzes and gauzy girls dressed like princesses, I realize why I like the display windows of family photographers throughout the world. They show the cultural ideals to the extreme—the way mothers dream their children might look—and provide insight.

I don’t know if men run the show here, but they outnumber women in the cafés 100 to one. I want to take a skinny teenage girl’s photo. She giggles with her friends, shows me her wedding ring, and says her husband would have her head if she let me do that. Yesterday my local friend told me, “Moroccan men like their women meaty, not skinny. But that is changing with the young generation and television.”

Old men walk around like sages in robes with pointy hooded jellabas. It makes me wonder whether a teenager might say, “Dad, I know you wear it and Grandpa wore it, but I’m just not going to wear the pointy hood.” Seeing these old men in pointy, rough cloth hooded robes, I keep wanting to ask, “Where’s the gnome conference?”

Wandering through the market, I collect a collage of vivid images. A butcher has made a colorful curtain of entrails, creating mellow stripes of all textures. Camera-shy Berber tribeswomen are in town today selling goat cheese wrapped in palm leaves. A man lumbers through the crowd pushing a ramshackle cart laden with a huge side of beef. He makes a honking sound, and I think he’s just being funny. But it isn’t the comical beep-beep I’d make behind a wheelbarrow. Small-time shipping is his livelihood, the only horn he has is his vocal chords, and he is on a mission.

Wandering deeper into the back lanes, I see henna stencils in plastic wrap—a quick and modern way to stain the designs onto your hands. Another gnome walks by with a pointy hood and a long beard—half white and half hennaed red.

Tiny shops buzz with activity. One small place, no bigger than a small bedroom, has been divided horizontally with a second floor five feet high. It houses a rickety loom on each level, employing four men who wiggle in and out of their workstations each day ... all their lives.

Around the corner, the click-click-click of a mosaic maker draws me into another tiny shop, where a man with legs collapsed under himself sits all day chiseling intentionally imperfect mosaic chips (as only Allah is perfect, the imperfection is considered beautiful) to fit a pattern for a commissioned work.

It’s pouring rain, water careens down the stepped brick lane, and, exploring on, I feel like a wet dog. Drenched, I follow a woman wearing colorful scarves into a community bakery. She carries a platter of doughy loaves under a towel ready to be baked into bread. The baker, artfully wielding the broom-handled wooden spatula, receives her loaves. He hardly misses a beat as he pushes and pulls the neighborhood’s baked goods—fish, stews, bread, sunflowers and cookies—into and out of his oven. After observing the baking action, I’m dry in minutes.

Spending my birthday in Tangier, barely seeing another tourist, I am struck by how the energy here just makes me happy. This Moroccan city is not pro-West or anti-West. It’s simply people making the best of their lives. This society seems to be growing more modern and affluent ... and on its own terms. And it’s a joy to experience it.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Moroccan Female Soccer Players Fight Uphill Battle for Resources

Here is an interesting article/radio piece about struggling female soccer leagues in Morocco. It is from a Chicago Public Radio show called Worldview. Click on the title below if you would like to hear the story. The text is below. Worldview - Moroccan Female Soccer Players Fight Uphill Battle for Resources

In Moroccan society today female players who fought and won the right to play soccer have a new battle on their hands. They have a professional league, but they still lag far behind Morocco’s male players when it comes to the basics of the game- time, space and money.

Lisa Matuska reports from the Moroccan city of Casablanca that female football players today are entering the male-dominated field by the hundreds, and demanding a space to play.

Ambi soccer game

Saadia Salah is watching a local women’s football team- called Nassim- play a scrimmage. The team plays in Salah’s neighborhood of Sidi Moumen- a sprawling, low-income suburb of Casablanca.

ambi soccer game

A former player herself, Salah, 38, says when she played there were no girls teams. she would have to sneak out onto the field just to get in a few touches on the ball-

SALAH: the boys they would follow us throwing stones, when we would enter the field, they would climb the walls and throw rocks and we would stop playing, Then women wearing traditional clothing, they would peak over the wall and they would say, “come look come look,” they would call each other and just stare at us. We got embarrassed so we stopped. It was like they were kicking us out by just staring

Today many of the girls practicing here play in head scarves- wrapped extra tight, for sport. A group of boys huddles outside the fence, watching and criticizing almost every touch the girls make. Nassim is one of 24 teams in Morocco’s premier division for women’s football. The league began in 2004 and is run by the same federation as the men’s teams But Nassim’s coach Adil Farass says the women’s league is more disorganized.

FARASS: they told us this season there will be support but nothing has come, when we went to play Fqih Ben Salah we borrowed money for transport, today the referees came and we had to borrow money to pay them.

It’s difficult to compare the structure of men’s and women’s football in Morocco. Professional men’s football is supported by a youth structures like neighborhood teams, camps, and academies. Women’s football has no organizational youth structures. So when young girls want to play football, they have to join the boys in the streets.

JRAIDI: One day I was playing and Farass was with his boys team and he saw me play and came up to me and said, “you must play with my team, you play well and you have good skill” and from then on I was with him in Sidi Moumen.

Jraidi says now there are many more girls in the streets playing football.

JRAIDI: Now the problems are money, field, and the federation, we still haven’t gotten our stipend yet.

The stipend is small. Each women’s team gets 30 thousand dirham (that’s 4 thousand dollars) a year to cover costs like equipment, transportation and referees. If they have enough, the coaches try to give the girls extra money when they win. The men’s teams receive about twice that amount from the federation. Male players in the premier divisions typically have salaries that exceed what one girls’ team gets in a year.

Plus, the men’s teams get support from a well-established football industry- generating money from TV coverage, sponsorship and ticket sales. Girls’ teams in Morocco have looked for outside support, but few companies are lining up to sponsor them. Women’s games, which are free, don’t usually draw a crowd, let along a paying crowd.

Radio Mars show

Once a week on this daily sports radio show, Journalist Hassan Manyani covers women’s football - he interviews federation officials and coaches and people are calling in.

MANYANI: It’s the mentality around women and also it’s the federation which hardly manages to provide support or funds for the men’s leagues, so now there is a sort of awareness that it has to reorganize and develop women’s football but its coming, there is an awareness and this is already a good thing.

Officials from Morocco’s soccer federation did not make themselves available for this story, but Manyani predicts solutions will not come easily. One of the biggest obstacles is that most of these girls in the league are also still in high school. Men at their level are usually older, or don’t need to stay in school- for them football can be a job.

Soccer’s international regulating body, FIFA, held a symposium on women’s football three years ago. It said the next step to develop the sport is to have more women as referees, coaches and administrators.

BOUBIA: The Green Walker, This is my first team

Amel Boubia is a volunteer coach for the Nassim team.

BOUBIA: I wanted to play with Raja Ain Harouda but I stopped to practice football because I wanted to be a coach, I passed some course for football and now I coach team Nassim Hay Mohammadi.

She’s heard that this season the Moroccan federation is looking to give extra money for coach’s salaries for the women’s teams. But she’s skeptical. 37-year-old Boubia has an impressive resume in women’s sports: as a player and a coach she’s participated in women’s football camps all over Morocco. But Boubia says she still can’t find a salaried job in female sports. She uses herself as a cautionary tale.

BOUBIA: the girls must give importance for their study because the sport now is without salary and not job, you can practice sport only for your health and your feeling, not for a job.

Boubia also knows that as girls get older, more of them are pressured to leave the game by their families and society. And in her own job search now, she’s given up on Morocco- she’s practicing her English in hopes of finding a job outside the country. And that’s hard, because she sees something unique in the Nassim girls, and she’s like to continue to coach them.

BOUBIA: For the Nassim team, I think they have a good future because they’re all around the same age, they were born in 95, 94, 93 and they have potential, so hopefully they will do well.

Ambi sounds of Nassim game

On this morning Boubia watches as the team plays on a wet and rocky field. 18-year-old Ibtissam Jraidi is playing forward. While Jraidi’s playing, she isn't focused on the obstacles she’s overcome. She’s not thinking about advancing women's sport in a Muslim country, or giving confidence to young Moroccan girls. She says she’s here for another reason.

JRAIDI: Football, it’s mixed into my blood, I can’t spend a day without playing it.

And even the boys smirking behind the fence can’t argue with that one

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Casablanca's New Art Galleries and "Unsung" Old City

We must admit that Casa(blanca) is often (purposely) bypassed when in Morocco. It has too much of what we go to Morocco to get away from. Here are two articles, one from the New York Times, that celebrates Casa's burgeoning art scene and one from the Guardian that offers tips on appreciating Casa's medina (old city). Only the first page of this article is posted below because it is too long to post in its entirety. Please see the link above for the full Guardian article.


Now, Cultural Casablanca

Published: May 9, 2010

ON the industrial outskirts of Casablanca, Morocco, feral dogs roam the grounds of an abandoned meatpacking plant. Today, the sprawling factory, still replete with dangling meat hooks and blood-stained floors, is the unlikely venue for Casablanca’s largest independent art exhibition space, Les Transculturelles des Abattoirs, or the Transcultural Slaughterhouse, which has featured unusual site-specific pieces: sets of sculptured feet placed side by side on the ground, for instance, and faces pasted directly on the white tiles lining the space’s walls.

The transformation was made possible in 2009 when Casablanca’s mayor, Mohamed Sajid, warded off eager commercial developers and placed the 215,000-square-foot complex (rue Jaafar el Barmaki Avenue, Aïn-Sebaa Hay Mohammedi; 212-526-51-58-29; in the hands of Casamémoire — a nonprofit architectural preservation society — with help from the city’s nascent arts community. The move was a testament to the emerging importance of Casablanca’s cultural sector, as were the openings, over the last two years, of a stable of contemporary art galleries across the city.

Nestled amid the street peddlers and roaring diesel engines that clog Casablanca’s boulevards is the nearly two-year-old Galerie Atelier 21 (21 rue Abou Mahassine Arrouyani; 212-522-98-17-85; For Aziz Daki, the gallery’s co-owner and an art historian, the city’s mushrooming art scene is a reflection of the cultural interests of King Mohammed VI, an enthusiastic collector. “His passion for the arts has been one of the inspirations for what is now a growing group of Morocco-based collectors,” said Mr. Daki, whose gallery represents 14 Moroccan contemporary artists. “He really is one of our art world’s most important role models.”

The years since the 1999 transition from the relatively repressive reign of King Hassan II to the more tolerant and economically savvy regime of his son, King Mohammed VI, have meant big business for entrepreneurs like Youssef Falaky, a co-owner of the six-month-old Matisse Gallery (2 rue de la Convention, Quartier Racine; 212-522-94-49-99), a spinoff of a location in Marrakesh. “Before the death of Hassan II, people were living in the dark,” he said. “No one wanted to look rich. But now people are spending, and that has meant more investments in the art market.”

Hassan Hajjaj, an artist who splits his time between his native Morocco and London, was one of the first artists featured in Matisse’s Casablanca space. “Casablanca has its own special flavor,” said Mr. Hajjaj, whose work updates stereotypical Orientalist imagery with an almost Andy Warhol Pop Art flair. “The city is at that stage where there are a lot of hungry people that need spaces to show. It’s a big, chaotic city. But good things are growing out of it.”

Myriem Berrada Sounni, 29, who owns the 11-month-old Loft Art Gallery (13 rue Al Kaissi, Triangle d’Or; 212-522-94-47-65; with her 26-year-old sister, Yasmine, said the city’s art scene has gone mainstream. “At the opening of our last exhibit we had ministers and presidents of banks,” she said. During a recent visit to the gallery, little red dots signaling a sale could be found next to nearly every painting on its pristine white walls. “In Casablanca,” she said, “art galleries are now a place for people to see and be seen.”

Of all the medinas … insider's guide to Casablanca

Few tourists visit Casablanca - which is a shame, says author Tahir Shah, because it is Morocco's unsung jewel

* Tahir Shah
* The Guardian, Saturday 8 May 2010

Close your eyes and think of Casablanca, and your mind most probably comes alive with images of Bogart, Bergman, and Sam tickling the ivories in the smoke-filled Rick's Café. And there's nothing wrong with that. Except that Casablanca the movie has almost nothing to do with Casablanca the city. Shot almost exclusively in Hollywood, the wartime film portrays Casa (pronounced "Caza" by locals) as a cosmopolitan colonial crossroads of the exotic east. It features just one (uncredited) local character, Abdul the doorman. It's a fabulous example of Hollywood not letting the facts get in the way of a good story line.

Six years ago I dragged my wife and two small children from our cramped flat in the East End of London to live in Casablanca. We bought a rambling mansion with five courtyards, gardens and a pool in the middle of the sprawling Sidi Ghanem shantytown. It is quite the most magical spot but the learning curve has been a steep one, especially when we learned that the house was said to be infested from the floor to the rafters with wicked spirits, known as jinn. After lengthy exorcisms and endless renovations, we set about getting to know the city that had become our new home.

Casablanca seems to bear the brunt of every Moroccan joke, while being given a wide berth by most tourists. But spend a little time here and you begin to see that those who scorn it are missing something very magical.

In recent years the international jet-set have discovered Marrakech and a handful of other Moroccan cities. They wax lyrical about the "real" Morocco they've found in the narrow streets of labyrinthine medinas. Yet none of them ever mentions Casablanca, except to relate how they escaped it as quickly as they could. And that's the first thing that appeals to me about Casa – the absolute lack of tourists.

Eat in one of its many restaurants and the food is consistently good – because they rely on repeat business, rather than on tourists they will never see again. The restaurants, cafes and nightspots are full of Moroccans, not tourists, and thus far more atmospheric.

When the French took control of the small Portuguese-built port of Casablanca a century ago, they set about transforming it into a showcase of their colonial might. From the outset, they conceived it as a pleasure dome of art-deco architecture and European culture, the kind of city in which local Moroccans would be reminded of the imperial motherland. Luring the greatest architects from France with the prospect of building a city from scratch, the French administrators had Casablanca designed from the air, the first city in history to be laid out by aeroplane.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Moroccans Struggle to Make Italy Home

Here is an article from the Financial Times about Moroccans living in Italy and the challenges they face.


Moroccans struggle to make Italy home

By Guy Dinmore in Turin

Published: April 28 2010 18:33 | Last updated: April 28 2010 22:12

Change comes slowly in Italy and just as the industrial city of Turin is establishing itself as the country’s most progressive urban administration tackling integration issues, the tide of immigration may be starting to recede.

Evidence is anecdotal for the moment, but it appears that at least among the Moroccan community – the largest group of non-European Union immigrants, numbering some 30,000 in Turin – people are packing their bags and going home.

The economic crisis is biting and jobs are much harder to find. On top of that, new legislation makes it harder for immigrants to renew their residence permits, and the xenophobic Northern League, a hardline coalition ally in the centre-right government, is resurgent following its sweeping gains in regional elections last month.

Abdelaziz Khounati, the Moroccan president of an Islamic association that has the green light to build a mosque in Turin, reels off a list of cities where the Northern League has blocked similar projects, sometimes threatening to walk pigs across the land to desecrate it.

“First the League campaigned against the southern Italians who migrated to Turin decades ago, then it was foreigners in general. Now it is Muslims,” he says, standing in the large empty building, part of which used to be a Chinese-run clothing workshop, where the new Misericordioso (Merciful) mosque is taking shape.

It will be only Italy’s second formally recognised mosque after Rome’s, funded by the Moroccan government. For the moment Muslims across Italy worship in “cultural centres”, sometimes no more than a garage or a basement.

“We stand for an open, integrated, multicultural society where all people’s rights are respected,” he says. An Islamic cultural centre will be opened next to the mosque, promoting studies, social initiatives and inter-faith dialogue.

“The mosque has been a war of nerves,” says Ilda Curti, city councillor for integration under Sergio Chiamparino, Turin’s popular leftwing mayor, as she describes how the Northern League has tried but ultimately failed to exploit legal loopholes to block the city-backed project.

Turin, described by the United Nations as a best practice model in Italy, has focused on integration in schools and runs a scheme giving immigrant youths the chance to work as volunteer social workers, bending the rules to ensure they keep their residency.

But Ms Curti says difficulties in obtaining Italian citizenship are also driving away young and talented immigrants who have come through school but now face insurmountable barriers. The “medieval corporativism” of many professional associations makes citizenship a condition of membership.

The Northern League’s victory at the polls last month – where it defeated the centre-left administration in Turin’s surrounding region of Piemonte – is further bad news for immigrants. The League intends to strip non-Italians of their access to unemployment benefits, a feature unique to Piemonte, even though some have been paying their taxes for years.

Mohammad Mouharba was among the first wave of migrants in 1989, when Italy offered jobs and residence permits. Mr Mouharba now runs a popular bakery specialising in Arab and Italian pastries on the edge of Porta Palazzo, Europe’s largest open-air market where many fruit and vegetable stalls are run by Moroccans.

People he has known for years are going home, unable to renew their residence permits. “They expel you if you have no work. This is inhumane,” he says. “With the League it will get worse.”

His two children, aged 18 and 15, have Italian citizenship and are “more Italian than Moroccan”, he says. “But you always remain an immigrant here.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010.