Monday, January 31, 2011

Morocco Watches Nervously as Egypt Erupts

Here is an article from AFP about the effects and possible effects of the Egyptian riots on Morocco. Power to the People!

Morocco watches nervously as Egypt erupts

(AFP) – 13 hours ago

RABAT — Morocco is watching nervously as other North African countries erupt in revolt, with warnings even from within the royal family that it will probably not be spared.

Morocco has not been touched, yet, by the violent protests that have ended the rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, threaten Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and have shaken Algeria's Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

"But we mustn't be deceived, almost every authoritarian systems will be affected by this wave of protest, Morocco will probably be no exception," a cousin of King Mohammed VI warned in an interview published Monday.

"It remains to be seen whether the revolt is just social or also political, and if the political parties act under the influence of the recent events," Prince Moulay Hicham told the Spanish daily El Pais.

The 46-year-old, third in line to the throne, is nicknamed the "red prince" because of his criticism of the monarchical system in Morocco.

He said the political liberalisation launched in the 1990s after Mohammed succeeded his authoritarian father Hassan II had virtually come to an end, and reviving it while still avoiding radical pressures would be "a major challenge."

The events in Egypt dominate the Moroccan press but the government has so far made no comment. However it gave proof Monday that the regional situation has it worried with its swift reply to a report that it had redeployed troops.

It summoned Spain's ambassador to protest reports in the Spanish media that the troops had been brought from Western Sahara in case of protests.

"The government of the Kingdom of Morocco issued a categorical denial to these false statements...," said Communications Minister and government spokesman Khalid Naciri.

He underlined the government's "indignation" at the "unfounded allegations" -- which actually first appeared on the Facebook page of Moroccan journalist Ali Lmrabet -- that troops had been moved towards Casablanca and Rabat.

"The role of any government is to take precautions against anything that might encourage instability."

In the wake of the unrest in Algeria and Tunisia, the authorities said last week they would maintain subsidies on basic necessities like flour, sugar, cooking oil and butane gas to stop costs rising in line with world prices.

However Naciri insisted that the decision was not influenced by events in Morocco's neighbours, where the price of such goods helped to spark revolt.

Pro-government newspapers have also reacted strongly to suggestions that unrest might spread across Morocco's borders, in particular to an interview with dissident journalist Aboubakr Jamai carried by France's Nouvel Observateur.

Jamai predicted that "If Morocco goes up, the disparities in wealth are such that the rebellion will be much bloodier than in Tunisia."

The weekly Le Temps led charges that Jamai and the foreign press did not know what they were talking about.

Businessmen questioned by AFP tended to agree, saying that the hereditary monarchy in Morocco had more respect than the authoritarian presidencies of Ben Ali and Mubarak who had kept themselves in power through a firm grip on the electoral process.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Morocco Takes Measures Against the Tunisian (and now Egpytian) Influence

Here is an article about the reaction of Moroccan authorities to the events in Tunisia (and now Egypt) which might seem to threaten the country's stability.

Morocco takes measures against Tunisian contagion

By Sinikka Tarvainen and Mohsin el-Hassouni Jan 28, 2011, 20:57 GMT

Rabat - While the unrest in Tunisia has been spreading to other Arab countries, nearby Morocco has remained remarkably calm.

Four cases of people setting themselves ablaze have been reported recently, but they were believed to have been motivated by non-political reasons such mental health, economic or family problems, according to local media.

Morocco does not lack problems, which could spark political trouble. Rural poverty unleashed an exodus into city slums where massive unemployment and lack of perspective has increased the popularity of Islamic fundamentalists.

The country has a long tradition of 'bread riots,' and groups such as university graduates - nearly 30 per cent of whom are unemployed - also stage demonstrations that sometimes turn violent.

There is resentment against the country's privileged elite, which includes people such as King Mohammed VI's influential friend Fouad Ali el-Himma.

If Himma's Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM) - a rising force on the country's political scene - continues to 'interfere' with other parties, that could lead to Tunisian-style unrest, the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) warned.

Moroccans do not, however, question the legitimacy of the king, criticism of whom can land journalists in prison.

'There has never been a demonstration against the king, who is seen as guaranteeing stability,' according to observers in Rabat.

Mohammed VI's position is reinforced by the fact that he is the official leader of Moroccan Muslims, a factor which has slowed the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

Prime Minister Abbas el-Fassi's government, however, is aware that Morocco is not immune to contagion from Tunisia, and is taking preventative measures against it.

Police dealing with demonstrators have been advised to avoid violence. The authorities have also announced new subsidies for basic products such as sugar, oil, wheat, gas and petrol.

The government - which already spent more than 2 billion dollars on subsidies in 2010 - wants to keep prices down, even at the cost of endangering budget stability, observers said.

Government spokesman Khalid Naciri denied that the subsidies were linked to the events in Tunisia. Morocco 'does not act in function of events in other countries,' he said.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Adventures of the Moroccan Berber who Explored America in the 1500s (c.e.)

Let's take a little break from current affairs. Here is a piece that ran in Saudi Aramco World a few years ago about a Moroccan man of Amazigh ancestry from Azemmour who was enslaved and ended up accompanying Spanish explorers to America in the 1500s c.e.. History has generally referred to him by the name the Spanish called him, Esteban.

Esteban of Azemmour and His New World Adventures

Written by Kitty Morse

In the spring of the year 1539, a tall black man lay mortally wounded by Zuni arrows in the village of Hawikuh, in what is today northwestern New Mexico. If he prayed in his last breaths, he surely addressed God as "Allah." How did a Muslim come to visit—and die in—New Mexico in the early 16th century? I had never come across such a figure during my university history studies in the United States, nor had I read of him in French history books at the lycée in Casablanca, Morocco, where I grew up. I heard of him only quite recently, by accident.

My father lived in Morocco for more than 50 years until his death in 1994. He left to me and my brothers a restored pasha’s residence in the old city of Azemmour, near the Atlantic coast. While sorting through his personal papers, I came upon a small sketch in a leather-bound guest book. It portrayed a handsome young man with full lips and high cheekbones. A solitary feather adorned a head of tight curls. The drawing bore the signature of John Houser of El Paso, Texas.

Intrigued, I called the artist on my return to the United States. He explained that his drawing was the likeness of a 16th-century North African slave called "Esteban" or "Estebanico" by his Spanish masters, a man better known in his native Morocco as "al-Zemmouri" ("the man from Azemmour"). He was, in fact, one of the first natives of the Old World to explore the American Southwest.

In 1993, Houser had been a guest in my father’s home while he worked at the nearby studio of noted Zemmouri sculptor Abderrahmane Rahoule. Over a period of three weeks, using a Moroccan model, Houser created a clay bust of the "black Arab, and...native of Azamor" whom we know today thanks to the lengthy, detailed memoir of conquistador Cabeza de Vaca, which carries the title La relación y comentarios del governador Alvar nuñez cabeça de vaca, de lo acaescido en las dos jornadas que hizo a las Indias (The Account and Commentaries of Governor Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, of What Occurred on the Two Journeys That He Made to the Indies).

Al-Zemmouri’s town derives its name from a Berber word for "wild olive tree." Today, the reflection of the town’s massive white ramparts in the Oum er Rbia River is one of Morocco’s more picturesque landmarks. The walls surround the labyrinthine madinah, or old city center, as well as the 500-year-old ruins of a Portuguese garrison, established there during a 30-year occupation. Portuguese cornices, decorated in the ornate Manueline style, still frame the majestic windows of their 16th-century military headquarters.

Long before the Portuguese occupation, however, Phoenicians and, later, Romans traveled down the Atlantic coast to trade with the indigenous Berbers of Azemmour. By the 12th century, the town had become a center of Islamic culture; philosophers like Moulay Bouchaib Erredad attracted disciples there from across the Arab world. One of them, Lallah Aicha Bahria, undertook the long journey from her native Baghdad to visit Erredad, but she died on the northern bank of the river, just a stone’s throw away from her long-awaited meeting with her mentor and lifelong correspondent. The town erected a monument to her at the river’s mouth and to this day women from around the country visit the site to seek guidance in resolving affairs of the heart.

Three centuries after Lallah Bahria’s death, the Republic of Azemmour was composed of a patchwork of tribes and shaykhdoms. At the time of al-Zemmouri’s birth, around 1500, skirmishes between local Berbers and Portuguese invaders were on the rise. In 1508, the king of Portugal exacted an annual tribute in kind from the town: 10,000 achabel, a species of shad prized as much for its delicious flavor as for its oil, which the Portuguese burned in their lamps.

In 1513, Shaykh Moulay Zeyyam defiantly withheld the tribute. Portugal responded with a flotilla of 400 ships bearing 8000 men and 2500 horses. On August 27, during a fierce battle that lasted more than four hours, the Portuguese set fire to barges on the river and delivered a crushing military blow to the Zemmouris. Their dominance restored, the Portuguese regained access to the achabel—and also to wheat, wool and horses, which they traded for gold and slaves in sub-Saharan outposts.

As a young man, al-Zemmouri may have heard rumors and stories of adventure from Portuguese sailors. There was no shortage of adventure to be had: Prior to his circumnavigation of the globe, Ferdinand Magellan was among those who spent time in Azemmour, and in fact was severely wounded in a battle with Berbers.

In 1521, drought and famine ravaged the Maghrib. Shad, once so plentiful, virtually disappeared from the shrinking Oum er Rbia. The fertile Doukkala plains surrounding Azemmour became parched and barren. Many starving Zemmouris were captured by Portuguese and sold into slavery; others sold themselves to the Portuguese in exchange for food. The exact circumstances of al-Zemmouri’s enslavement remain a mystery. We do know that a Spanish aristocrat of modest means, Andres de Dorantes, looking for a personal servant, purchased him in a slave market of Castile.

In 1527, Dorantes’s royal connections won him a commission and orders to join the expeditionary force of Pámfilo de Narváez, a one-eyed, red-haired veteran of the conquests of Cuba and New Spain (now Mexico) who was already infamous for his cruelty toward the people of the Americas. Esteban, as he was now known, accompanied Dorantes. King Charles V of Spain granted him the authority to settle all of La Florida, a territory that stretched from the southern tip of the Florida peninsula westward to the "Rio de las Palmas," today’s Soto de la Marina River in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico.

The route of the Narváez expedition remains subject to debate. Cabeza de Vaca, the group’s treasurer, did not write his Relación until 12 years afterward, and it includes great miscalculations of distances and dates, and confused chronology.

The expedition’s departure from Spain, however, is well documented. On June 17, 1527, Narváez and his crew of 600 set sail in five caravels from San Lucar de Barrameda in Andalusia. It would become, according to translators Martin A. Favata and José B. Fernández, "one of the most disastrous enterprises in the annals of Spanish history."

The Atlantic crossing proved so arduous that 140 men jumped ship upon reaching the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. Soon afterward, 60 people and 20 horses perished in a hurricane off the coast of Trinidad. The Spaniards finally dropped anchor off the La Florida coast on April 12, 1528, somewhere near today’s Old Tampa Bay (or perhaps Sarasota Bay). Narváez took formal possession of La Florida on May 1 of that year.

He then decided to send his ships and 100 of his men ahead to their final destination, Pánuco, on Mexico’s Gulf Coast, while he led the rest of his force there overland—a journey whose length he apparently underestimated.

Narváez, Esteban and the rest of the expedition headed north to the province of Apalachee, near the present city of Tallahassee, where, according to captured Timicuan Indians, there were great quantities of gold. Instead, the Spaniards found 15 huts and a few meager plots of maize. Narváez was bitterly disappointed.

The ensuing weeks were fraught with fever, drownings and Indian attacks. To ward off starvation, some of the men resorted to eating their horses. Only the threat of mutiny persuaded Narváez to abandon the march on August 4. He gave orders to return to the coast. There, he and his men built five small boats. "And we agreed that we would make nails, saws, axes and other necessary tools out of our stirrups, spurs, crossbows and other iron items we had, since we had such a great need for this," noted Cabeza de Vaca. They used horsehair to fashion riggings and rope, and sewed their shirts together for sails. They "skinned the legs of the horses in one piece and cured the hides to make skins for carrying water."

By the time they set sail, they had lost more than 40 more of their number to illness and starvation, not counting those killed by Indians. Only one horse remained. Esteban, his master Dorantes, Castillo and a crew of 45 left the "Bay of Horses"—possibly in today’s Apalachee Bay—on September 22. "So great was our hardship," wrote Cabeza de Vaca, who took the helm of another of the boats, " forced go out into such rough seas without having anyone with us who knew the art of navigation."

The water bags made of hide rotted within a few days, and the men who attempted to drink seawater died in agony. The meager rations of raw corn were soon depleted. Yet Esteban and his companions clung to life. At the mercy of capricious winds, they drifted westward along the Gulf Coast, coming ashore periodically to forage for food and replenish their water supply. In this manner, they covered more than 1500 kilometers (930 mi) in just over 40 days.

At the mouth of the Mississippi, strong currents pushed two of the boats, including the one piloted by Narváez, out to sea. They were never seen again. Relief came to the others on November 6, when, according to Cabeza de Vaca, "a great wave took us and cast the boat out of the water as far as a horseshoe can be tossed. The boat ran aground with such force that it revived the men on it, who were almost dead." They were on the island of Malhado near modern-day Galveston Island, Texas.

The Indians inhabiting the island, while friendly at first, quickly turned against the expedition. Fifteen of the survivors—including Cabeza de Vaca, Castillo, Dorantes and Esteban—were enslaved and dispersed among several local tribes—an ironic twist for the already enslaved Zemmouri.

The Indians, in awe of their prisoners’ mental and physical fortitude, ordered them to act as medicine men during an epidemic of dysentery. Cabeza de Vaca relates that "they wanted to make us physicians, without testing or asking for any degrees, because they cure illnesses by blowing on the sick person and cast out the illness with their breath and their hands. So they told us to be useful and do the same. We laughed at the idea, saying they were mocking us and that we did not know how to heal. They in turn deprived us of our food until we did as they ordered."

Castillo was the first to try his hand at healing, and—doubtless to his own surprise—he was successful. As word spread, he enlisted the aid of Dorantes and Cabeza de Vaca. Esteban, too, soon became a healer, ministering to increasing numbers of patients. Cabeza de Vaca wrote, "Our fame spread throughout the area, and all the Indians who heard about it came looking for us so that we could cure them and bless their children.... People came from many places seeking us, saying that we were truly children of the sun. Up to this time Dorantes and the black man had not performed any healings, but we all became healers because so many people insisted. They believed that none of them would die as long as we were there."

Nonetheless, the "children of the sun" still hoped to reach Pánuco. On September 15, 1534, when their captors were busy harvesting prickly-pear fruit, they made an escape, and were taken in by another tribe that had heard of their abilities. The four began performing minor surgical procedures, using European techniques of the day: On one occasion they opened a man’s chest to remove an arrowhead. "The entire village came to see [the arrowhead] and they sent it further inland so that the people could see it. Because of this cure, they made many dances and festivities as is their custom...and this cure gave us such standing throughout the land that they esteemed and valued us to their utmost capacity."

The Spaniards thought it wise to appoint Esteban as intermediary between themselves and any natives they might encounter in their wanderings, for only he had learned six of the local dialects. Cabeza de Vaca explained another reason as well: "We enjoyed a great deal of authority and dignity among [the Indians], and to maintain this we spoke very little to them. The black man always spoke to them, ascertaining which way to go and...all the other things we wanted to know."

Esteban’s abilities, and the position of the four men as wanderers in a new world where their very survival was in question, made his status that of companion rather than slave. And none of the four men could have imagined how their understanding of native medicine was to change their status, and their standard of living, among all the other tribes they would encounter.

As their medical miracles multiplied, so did the gifts. The four were held in such awe that they could lay claim to anyone or acquire possession of anything. Yet they sought no riches. "After we had entered their homes," writes Cabeza de Vaca, "they offered us everything they had.... We would give all these things to their leaders for them to distribute."

Medicine men from the Arbadaos tribe, who made their home on the banks of the Concho River near present-day Big Spring, Texas presented Esteban and the others with two sacred gourds and an engraved copper rattle. These objects greatly added to their credibility as shamans. "From here on we began to carry the gourds with us, and added to our authority with this bit of ceremony, which is very important to them." For the Indians, hollow gourds with pebbles in them were "a sign of great solemnity, since they bring them out only for dances and for healing ceremonies, and no one else dares touch them.... They say that those gourds have powers and that they came from heaven, because there are none in that land.... They are washed down by the rivers during the floods."

Around Christmas 1536, the four healers and the legions of Indian followers they had acquired reached the Pueblo de los Corazones ("Village of Hearts"), today the town of Ures, 160 kilometers (100 mi) from the Gulf of California, in the state of Sonora, Mexico. "At this time," Cabeza de Vaca writes, "Castillo saw a buckle from a sword belt around an Indian’s neck, with a horseshoe nail sewn to it.... We asked the Indians what it was. They replied it had come from heaven. We questioned them further, asking who had brought it from there. They told us that some bearded men like us, with horses, lances and swords, [had done so]."

Cabeza de Vaca, Dorantes, Castillo, and probably Esteban as well, desperately wanted to make contact with their countrymen, the first they had heard of in more than eight years. De Vaca’s Indian companions, however, were reluctant to search for them. They knew of Spanish plunder, slave raids and brutal killings, and that local Indians did not plant crops for fear of attracting the attention of the avaricious Spaniards. De Vaca writes: "When I saw [the Indians’] unwillingness,... I took the black man and eleven Indians and, following the trail of the Christians...caught up with four...on horseback, who were quite perturbed to see me so strangely dressed and in the company of Indians. They looked at me for a long time, so astonished that they were not able to speak or ask questions. I told them to take me to their captain.... After I spoke to him, he told me that he had quite a problem because he had not been able to capture Indians for many days...[so] he and his men were beginning to suffer want and hunger.... He wanted me to ask [the Indians] to bring us food, although this was not necessary since they always took care to bring us everything they could."

The fact that their countrymen were taking slaves, and indeed demanded that de Vaca turn his Indian followers over to them, caused Cabeza de Vaca, Castillo and Dorantes great distress, and made the long-hoped-for reunion only bittersweet. "They said that they were lords of that land, and that the Indians should obey and serve them, but the Indians believed very little or nothing of what they were saying," especially that there was some kind of bond between the slave-raiders and the "children of the sun." "Speaking among themselves, [the Indians] said instead that the Christians [the Spaniards] were lying, because we [the children of the sun] had come from the East and they [the Spaniards] had come from the West; that we healed the sick and they killed the healthy; that we were naked and barefoot, and they were dressed and on horseback, with lances; that we coveted nothing but instead gave away everything that was given to us and kept none of it, while the sole purpose of the others was to steal everything they found, never giving anything to anybody."

Cabeza de Vaca could not hide his dismay at the other Spaniards’ cruelty and greed, and in fact in his Relación he would urge more humane policies on the Spanish crown. Years later, as governor and captain-general of the South American province of Rio de la Plata, de Vaca would initiate a number of progressive reforms in Indian affairs.

Under Spanish escort, the four reached San Miguel de Culiacan, 150 kilometers (90 mi) away, where they met with the mayor, Captain Melchior Diaz. He seemed to lend a more receptive ear to their pleas of leniency towards the Indians. Diaz instructed the Indians that if they professed a belief in God, they would be left in peace. (His promises were broken before the four Narváez survivors had reached Mexico City.)

On July 24 in Mexico City, Antonio de Mendoza, the viceroy of New Spain, greeted the four with fanfare, but their return to the Spanish fold was not without difficulty. For almost nine years, they had gone naked and lived off the land like the Indians. They found it hard to adapt to contemporary Spanish life.

For his part, Esteban became a well-known figure on the streets of Mexico City, and he enjoyed relative freedom. However, his linguistic abilities soon caught the viceroy’s attention. He acquired Esteban from Dorantes, and appointed the Moroccan interpreter and scout for the expedition of the French-born Franciscan Fray Marcos de Niza, who was being sent north to investigate rumors of great wealth beyond the northern border of New Spain.

Hernando de Alarcón, a contemporary of Esteban’s who would later investigate his death, describes the dashing Moroccan’s departure from Mexico City on March 7, 1539 with an entourage of women, Indians and several Spanish friars, including Fray Marcos, the titular head of the expedition. Esteban was wearing "certain things which did ring, ...bels and feathers on his armes and legs," and he was flanked by a pair of what were probably Spanish greyhounds. The animals must have been a comforting presence to Esteban, since this breed of gazehound is descended from the North African saluki, a dog believed by Moroccans to possess baraka, or a blessing.

The Moroccan and the friar did not see eye-to-eye. Pedro de Castañeda, a soldier who accompanied Coronado on a subsequent northward expedition, gives us this explanation:

"The Negro did not get on well with the friars, because he took the women that were given him and collected turquoises.... Besides, the Indians in those places through which they traveled got along better with the Negro, because they had seen him before."

Esteban traveled some distance ahead of the main body of the expedition. Near their destination, in spite of strict orders to await Fray Marcos, he pressed onward to the village of Hawikuh, 20 kilometers (12 mi) southwest of today’s Zuni Pueblo. He apparently expected the Zunis to greet him with the same fanfare he had experienced when visiting other tribes. He was, it turned out, overconfident.

He sent messengers ahead to the fortified village bearing his gourd rattle adorned with a white and a red feather. But the village chief reacted with scorn, either because the decorated gourd came from a hostile tribe, or because Esteban had unknowingly disrupted a sacred ceremony. According to Nick Houser, an anthropologist and project historian for the Twelve Travelers Memorial of the Southwest, "al-Zemmouri was probably just in the wrong place at the wrong time."

The chief denied Esteban and his entourage entry to the pueblo, and ordered them confined outside the village. For three days, they were denied food and water while the council of elders debated. Some suspected Esteban of being a Spanish spy. Others thought it unreasonable that the white-skinned Spaniards would send a black man as a herald to their pueblo, as the Moroccan had claimed.

According to a secondhand account in Fray Marcos de Niza’s Relación, which is taken from testimony of surviving Indian members of Esteban’s party, "in a great rage [the chief] threw the mace to the ground and said: ‘I know these people; these bells are not of the same style as ours; tell them to go away at once, because otherwise there will not be one of them left alive.’" Unfortunately, as they were virtually imprisoned, leaving "at once" was not possible. Desperately thirsty, Esteban attempted to reach water at a nearby river, and was immediately shot down by Zuni bowmen. According to Alarcón, the chief appropriated Esteban’s precious belongings, including "four green dishes which he had gotten, together with that dogge, and other things of a blacke man."

Learning of the massacre at Hawikuh, Fray Marcos retreated to Mexico City, where his account of the journey referred to the village and others around it—which he had not laid eyes on—as "The Seven Cities of Cibola," and described them as immensely rich. Scholars disagree on the reason for his mendacity; perhaps it was simply a desire to have something positive to report to the viceroy. The result, in any case, was Francisco Vásquez de Coronado’s expedition of 1540 to conquer what by then were believed to be cities of gold.

Five hundred years later, a centenarian Zuni oral historian told the following story in the 1992 television documentary Surviving Columbus: The Story of the Pueblo People, produced by the Institute of American Indian Arts for PBS:

The people who lived at the steaming springs had a giant who led them, who
walked ahead of them as their guide. And the people from Hanihipinnkya had
the twin war gods as their leaders. The Sun Father knew that the giant could
not be killed, so that when they brought the weapons to the twin war gods they
pierced them with arrows, but the giant wouldn’t die.... Sun Father said: ‘His
heart is in the gourd rattle. The gourd is his heart, and if you destroy it you will
kill him, and your way will be cleared.’ The younger war god stepped forward
from the fighting and shot the gourd rattle. The giant fell and all of his people
ran away.

Could this legend be a reference to Esteban?

Four hundred fifty years after his death at Hawikuh, Esteban returned to the American Southwest in the form of John Houser’s clay bust. After plaster impressions, waxing and investing, a bronze replica was finally cast, and it is currently on display at the XII Travelers Gallery in El Paso. Nick Houser hopes that a two-meter (12’) statue of Esteban al-Zemmouri will be unveiled soon as one of the 12 such statues commissioned by the city of El Paso to commemorate the most important explorers of the American Southwest.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Tunisia Revolt: Can it happen in Morocco?

Is Morocco next? This is the question on a lot of people's minds. Who really knows.
Here is a piece by Aida Alami about the prospect of a Tunisian style revolt in Morocco.

Tunisia Revolt: Can it happen in Morocco?
Morocco has high levels of unemployment and poverty. But few expect a revolt.

By Aida Alami — Special to GlobalPost
Published: January 19, 2011 05:42 ET in Africa

CASABLANCA , Morocco — The fall last week of one of the most dictatorial rulers in the Arab world, Tunisia's President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, has prompted many here to ask who might be overthrown next.

The Tunisian revolt began in the small town of Sidi Bouzid after a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in despair at the lack of opportunities for educated young Tunisians. His self-immolation ignited protests that began to spread around the country over joblessness, corruption and frustration with the lack of freedoms.

Weeks after the first demonstrations, something no Tunisians dared to dream of happened: Ben Ali, the man who had ruled the country with an iron fist for 23 years, capitulated and fled the country.

Many here call it the “Tunisian Miracle,” and now all eyes are on the other Arab countries — especially those in North Africa. Ben Ali’s downfall electrified the region and many are now exploring what lessons should be learned.

“Let the Tunisian people show the way for the Arab world — no more dictators!” said one tweet by a Moroccan lawyer who blogs under the name Ibn Kafka.

Scholars also expressed hope for future changes.

“A salute to Tunis, which has opened the road to freedom in an Arab world devastated by years of waiting on the curb,” said Burhan Ghalioun, head of the Center for Contemporary Oriental Studies in Paris and a political science professor at the Sorbonne.

But could something similar occur in Morocco?

“Is Tunisia the first domino to fall? Will the Tunisian ‘Jasmine Revolution’ spread through the Maghreb, and perhaps throughout the Middle East?” wonders Dominique Moisi, a senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations.

He remains doubtful. And many North African analysts agree. Moisi said that although the recent reforms in Morocco seem modest, they are still an important movement in comparison to Morocco’s more static neighbors.

“This is due to two things: ‘monarchy’ and ‘reform,’” writes Moisi in the daily French paper "Les Echos." “Faced with strong opposition, particularly from the Islamists, Morocco's king, ‘the Commander of the Faithful,’ has a legitimacy that is lacking in the military that holds power in Algeria and in Mauritania, and in the Ben Ali family in Tunisia.”

Morocco has some of the same problems faced by Algeria and Tunisia such as unemployment and rising costs. But Morocco also has political stability derived from the uniting symbol of the king. Mohammed VI, who has been in power since 1999, has also worked hard to modernize and develop the country. Besides trying to reform the economy, he has implemented many social reforms: in particular, more legal rights for women. He has also undertaken staunch anti-terrorist measures since the 2003 attacks on Casablanca that left 45 people dead.

But one major problem according to other observers is that the Moroccan regime, like the one in Tunisia, has been repressing individual freedoms, restricting freedom of the press and punishing activists who protest too loudly.

"Tunisia has been famous for a long time for its authoritarian drift,” said Khadija Riyadi, president of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights. “We must not forget that the limitations of freedoms is growing in Morocco. There are lots of examples: trials against journalists, arbitrary detention of human rights activists. All this does not portend anything good."

Unemployment and poverty are also a factor. But even though food prices rocketed last year sparking minor protests in the country, it seems unlikely that they will lead to political instability. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization announced this month that the food price index rose 32 percent between June and December 2010. Prices are expected to climb even further in the coming year.

“In Morocco, poverty may be larger and more visible than in Algeria or Tunisia, but stomachs are less likely to go empty,” Moisi said.

How can the Moroccan government avoid the worst-case scenario? By stimulating the country economically, argues Khalid Tritki, editor of the Casablanca-based online business publication "Maroc Eco."

“The events in Tunisia may be an opportunity for the rebirth of politics in Arab countries,” he said. “From now on, practicing politics means saying the truth, acting on it and ensuring that people feel change on a daily basis.”

Friday, January 14, 2011

Joy as Tunisian President Flees, The People of Tunisia are (Almost) Free at Last!

It is beautiful timing that the people of Tunisia were granted the blessing of a reprieve from decades of repression the day before the Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday. King said :
... everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve... You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.
We are grateful for all of the servants in Tunisia who have renewed hopes around the world. May God have mercy on those who gave their lives. The biggest hope being that this taste of freedom will "stick" and that we won't have to keep on pretending like everything is okay anymore. wa Alhamdulilah . And yes, the silence and tepid response by Western governments shows us how much of a priority "spreading democracy" really is for them in this part of the world.

Here is an article
by Anthony Shadid from the New York Times about the joyous effect of the Tunisian "opening."

Joy as Tunisian President Flees Offers Lesson to Arab Leaders

Published: January 14, 2011

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Hours after President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia on Friday, a Lebanese broadcaster, in triumphant tones, ended her report on the first instance of an Arab leader to be overthrown in popular protests by quoting a famous Tunisian poet.

“And the people wanted life,” she said, “and the chains were broken.”

The day’s seismic events in Tunisia, the broadcaster, Abeer Madi al-Halabi, went on, would serve as “a lesson for countries where presidents and kings have rusted on their thrones.”

Tunisia’s uprising electrified the region. The most enthusiastic suggested it was the Arab world’s Gdansk, the birthplace of Solidarity in Poland, which heralded the end to Communist rule in Eastern Europe. That seemed premature, particularly because the contours of the government emerging in Tunisia were still unclear — and because Tunisia is on the periphery of the Arab world, with a relatively affluent and educated population. Yet the street protests erupted when Arabs seemed more frustrated than ever, whether over rising prices and joblessness or resentment of their leaders’ support for American policies or ambivalence about Israeli campaigns in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009.

Tunisia’s protests were portrayed as a popular uprising, crossing lines of religion and ideology, offering a new model of dissent in a region where Islamic activists have long been seen as monopolizing opposition. Even if they serve only as inspiration, the protests offer a rare example of success to activists stymied at almost every turn in bringing about change in their own countries.

“A salute to Tunis, which has opened the road to freedom in an Arab world devastated by years of waiting on the curb,” said Burhan Ghalioun, head of the Centre d’Études sur l’Orient Contemporain in Paris and a political science professor at the Sorbonne.

That the events in Tunisia took place far beyond the region’s traditional centers of power did little to diminish the enthusiasm they seemed to generate. In fact, the very spectacle of crowds surging into the streets and overwhelming decades of accumulated power in the hands of a highly centralized, American-backed government seemed an antidote to the despair of past years — carnage in Iraq, divisions among Palestinians and Israeli intransigence and the yawning divide between ruler and ruled on almost every question of foreign policy.

The protests’ success gripped a region whose residents have increasingly complained of governments that seem incapable of meeting their demands and are bereft of any ideology except perpetuating power. The combustible mix that inspired them — economic woes and revulsion at corruption and repression — seemed to echo in so many other countries in the Middle East, American allies like Egypt foremost among them.

Al Jazeera headlined its broadcasts: “Tunisia ... the street creates change.”

Mohammed al-Maskati, a blogger in Bahrain, put it more bluntly on Twitter. “It actually happened in my lifetime!” he wrote. “An Arab nation woke up and said enough.”

Through the eight years of the Bush administration, democratization was at least a rhetorical priority of American policy in the Middle East, even as the United States maintained its support for Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other authoritarian governments in the region. On Thursday, as the protests in Tunisia were escalating, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton issued a scathing critique of Arab leadership and the region’s political and economic stagnation. Her comments seemed one attempt to reposition the United States, which backed Tunisia’s dictatorial leader as a partner against terrorism.

In the end, the most dramatic change in the old Arab order in years was inspired by Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old university graduate who could find work only as a fruit and vegetable vendor. He set himself on fire in a city square in December when the police seized his cart and mistreated him.

A Facebook page called Tunisians hailed him as “the symbol of the Tunisian revolution.” “God have mercy on you, Tunisia’s martyr, and on the all free martyrs of Tunisia,” it read. “One candle burns to create light and one candle beats all oppression.”

In Egypt, his name came up at a small solidarity protest.

“Egypt needs a man like Mohamed Bouazizi,” said Abdel-Halim Qandil, a journalist and opposition leader who joined dozens of others at the Tunisian Embassy.

The momentum of Tunisia’s street protests overshadowed other instances of dissent in the Arab world. In Egypt, protesters, often lacking in numbers, are occasionally beset by divisions between secular and religious activists. The mass protests in Lebanon that followed the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister, in February 2005 ended up deepening divisions in a country almost evenly split over questions of ideology, sectarian loyalty and foreign patrons.

Tunisians’ grievances were as specific as universal: rising food prices, corruption, unemployment and the repression of a state that viewed almost all dissent as subversion.

Smaller protests, many of them over rising prices, have already taken place in countries like Morocco, Egypt, Algeria and Jordan. Egypt, in particular, seems to bear at least a passing resemblance to Tunisia — a heavy-handed security state with diminishing popular support and growing demands from an educated, yet frustrated, population.

In Jordan, hundreds protested the cost of food in several cities, even after the government hastily announced measures to bring the prices down. Libya abolished taxes and customs duties on food products, and Morocco tried to offset a surge in grain prices.

“It’s the creeping realization that more and more people are being marginalized and pauperized and that, increasingly, life is more difficult,” said Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut. “You need little events that capture the spirit of the time. Tunisia best captures that in the Arab world.”

Despite the enthusiasm, the scene Friday night in Cairo might serve as caution.

The protesters who gathered at the Tunisian Embassy in the upscale neighborhood of Zamalek chanted slogans into a megaphone and waved red Tunisian flags. They went through a litany of the region’s strongmen — from Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya to Hosni Mubarak of Egypt — and warned each that his day of reckoning was coming.

“Down, down with Hosni Mubarak!” some chanted.

“Ben Ali, you fraud! Mubarak, you fraud! Qaddafi, you fraud!” others shouted.

They were ringed by police officers in black berets, and outnumbered by them, as well. They had little room to maneuver. And an hour later, the protesters went their way, a Tunisian flag flying from one of the cars, as it ventured down a largely empty street.

Nada Bakri contributed reporting from Beirut, and Liam Stack from Cairo.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Bread, Freedom, Dignity! - The Tunisian Protests Continue

Here is an article from the New York Times about the protests going on in Tunisia right now.
There is also a great blog piece by Robert Mackey of the NYT about how Tunisians are using the internet to document whats going on. Check it out here, it has a lot of good video clips and links straight from Tunisia.

Mayhem Spreads in Tunisia; Curfew Decreed
Published: January 12, 2011

TUNIS — The government of Tunisia scrambled alternately to appease critics and to crush growing unrest on Wednesday as a three-week-old wave of violent demonstrations spread for the first time to the capital, where swarms of protesters called for the ouster of the authoritarian president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

The protesters came together after circulating calls to rally over social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Many were unemployed college graduates, and they angrily demanded more jobs and denounced what they called the self-enrichment of Tunisia’s ruling family.

Army units and riot police officers were deployed around the city around dawn in anticipation, and they quickly dispersed protesters with billy clubs, tear gas and bullets.

By late in the day, the government decreed a nighttime curfew. And there were reports that some relatives of the president were leaving the country for their own safety.

At one of several demonstrations, witnesses reported that the security forces had shot and killed four protesters. Some said the army had used rooftop snipers to fire on the crowd. Rights groups said they had confirmed more than 30 deaths before the day began, all in skirmishes with the police over the last several days.

“How can you fire on your own people?” said a 30-year-old business owner taking refuge from the police as they broke up a protest near the French Embassy and train station downtown. “If you do that, then there is no return. Now, you are a killer.” He declined to provide his name for fear of reprisals.

Tunisia is in some ways the most European country of North Africa. It boasts a relatively large middle class, liberal social norms, broad gender equality and welcoming Mediterranean beaches. United States officials give it high marks for its aggressive prosecution of terrorism suspects.

But Tunisia also has one of the most repressive governments in a region full of police states. Residents long tolerated extensive surveillance, scant civil liberties and the routine use of torture, at least until the economic malaise that has gripped southern Europe spread here, sending unemployment and public resentment skyrocketing.

The government began the day trying to placate the protesters. The prime minister announced in a televised news conference the replacement of the interior minister — the public face of the crackdown. The government pledged to release prisoners who had been arrested in the demonstrations, and to initiate commissions to investigate excesses by the security forces as well as corruption in the government.

But the sacrifice of the interior minister did nothing to calm the protesters, who took to the streets downtown and in working-class neighborhoods on the outskirts as well.

Even as the prime minister pledged to release prisoners, security forces were apprehending others in their homes. One was a spokesman for the outlawed Communist Party, Hamma Hammémi, who had became a voice of the protests in French news media.

“He explained that the regime has lost all legitimacy,” said his wife, Radhia Nasraoui, a human rights activist. “So we were expecting this.”

By midday, cafes along Tunis’s main tree-lined boulevard were pulling in their tables and chairs to avoid tear-gas fumes, and pedestrians scurried in fear of brigades of riot police officers patrolling the streets.

In Sfax, Tunisia’s second-largest city, word spread that workers had called a general strike, and violence broke out in the cities of Thala and Douz as well.

By late afternoon, the government announced a curfew of 8 p.m., and businesses around Tunis hastily pulled down their gates as employees raced home.

President Ben Ali and other officials have sought to place blame for the unrest on foreign terrorists or Islamic radicals capitalizing on the frustrations of the unemployed. But there was little evidence of any reference to God or Islam around the protests on Wednesday, and some demonstrators called the assertion insulting.

“They say the people are terrorists, but they are the real terrorists, Ben Ali and his family,” said Ala Djebali, an 18-year-old student hiding in the train station after a protest downtown.

Protesters seemed to direct much of their anger at the great wealth and lavish life of President Ben Ali’s second wife, Leila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser, and their extended family, most notably their son-in-law, the billionaire businessman Mohamed Sakher El Materi.

Mr. Materi, whose company Princess El Materi Holdings includes a major “independent” newspaper here, is a member of Parliament and a prominent official in the ruling party. Like heirs to the presidents of Egypt and Libya (and the current presidents of Syria and Lebanon), Mr. Materi is also discussed as a potential successor to President Ben Ali.

A gracious dinner at Mr. Materi’s home was detailed in a cable from the American ambassador to Tunisia that was released by the antisecrecy organization WikiLeaks and fueled at least some of the outrage: a beachfront compound decorated with Roman artifacts; ice cream and frozen yogurt flown from St.-Tropez, France; a Bangladeshi butler and South African nanny; and a pet tiger in a cage.

On Wednesday, however, there were reports that Mr. Materi had fled the country and taken refuge in another mansion he owns, in Montreal.

Mona El-Naggar contributed reporting from Cairo, and J. David Goodman from New York.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Trouble in Tunisia - Riots and Abuse in Another Part of the Maghreb

Morocco and Tunisia have a lot of shared history and culture. So too the culture of high unemployment and frustrated youth, and cencorship. Here is a link to Aljazeera's comprehensive covering of the crisis. Below we have pasted a timeline of events in order to understand how things got to this point.
Timeline: Tunisia's civil unrest
Chronicle of nationwide demonstrations over the country's unemployment crisis.
Ryan Rifai

December 17: Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old unemployed graduate in the central town of Sidi Bouzid, sets himself on fire in an attempt to commit suicide.

Police had confiscated fruit and vegetables he was selling because he lacked a permit. He is still being treated for third-degree burns across his entire body at a hospital near Tunis, the capital.

Bouazizi's act of desperation highlights the public's boiling frustration over living standards and a lack of human rights.

His self-immolation sparked demonstrations in which protesters burned tyres and chanted slogans demanding jobs. Protests soon spread to other parts of the country.

December 20: Mohamed Al Nouri Al Juwayni , the Tunisian development minister, travels to Sidi Bouzid to announce a new $10m employment programme. But protests continue unabated.

December 22: Houcine Falhi, a 22-year-old, commits suicide by electrocuting himself in the midst of another demonstration over unemployment in Sidi Bouzid, after shouting out "No to misery, no to unemployment!"

December 24: Mohamed Ammari, an 18-year-old protester, is killed by police bullets during violent demonstrations in the central town of Menzel Bouzaiene.

Chawki Belhoussine El Hadri , a 44-year-old man, is among those shot by police at the same protest.

Hundreds of protesters rally in front of the Tunisian labour union headquarters over rampant unemployment, clashing with Tunisian security forces in the central towns of al-Ragab and Miknassi. Skirmishes break out when security forces stage overnight crackdown campaigns.

December 25: Rallies spread to Kairouan, Sfax and Ben Guerdane.

An interior ministry spokesperson says police were forced to "shoot in self-defence" after shots in the air failed to disperse scores of protesters who were setting police cars and buildings ablaze.

December 27: Police and demonstrators scuffle as 1,000 Tunisians hold a rally in Tunis, calling for jobs in a show of solidarity with those protesting in poorer regions. Demonstrations also break out in Sousse.

December 28: Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country's president, warns in a national television broadcast that protests are unacceptable and will have a negative impact on the economy. Ben Ali criticises the "use of violence in the streets by a minority of extremists" and says the law will be applied "in all firmness" to punish protesters.

The Tunisian Federation of Labour Unions holds another rally in Gafsa province, which is squashed by security forces.

At the same time, about 300 lawyers hold a rally near the government's palace in Tunis in solidarity with protesters. Lawyers march in several other cities as well.

The governors of Sidi Bouzid, Jendouba, and Zaghouan provinces are dismissed for unspecified reasons related to the uprising, according to the Pana news agency.

The Tunisian ministers of communication, trade and handicrafts, and religious affairs are all sacked for reasons related to the uprising, Al-Arabiya news channel reports.

Abderrahman Ayedi, a prominent Tunisian lawyer, is allegedly tortured by police after they arrest him for protesting.

December 29: Security forces peacefully break up a demonstration in the northeastern city of Monastir but allegedly use violence in the town of Sbikha. There are also reports of police brutality in the town of Chebba, where one protester is hospitalised.

Nessma TV, a private news channel, becomes the first major Tunisian media outlet to cover the protests, after 12 days of demonstrations.

December 30: El Hadri, shot by police six days prior, dies of his injuries.

France's Socialist Party, the main opposition, condemns the "brutal repression" of the protesters, calling for lawyers and demonstrators to be released.

December 31: Lawyers across Tunisia respond to a call to assemble in protest over the arrested lawyers and in solidarity with the people of Sidi Bouzid.

Authorities react to the protests with force, and lawyers tell Al Jazeera they were "savagely beaten".

January 2: The hacktivist group "Anonymous" announces Operation Tunisia in solidarity with the protests by hacking a number of Tunisian state-run websites, temporarily shutting them down.

Several online activists report on Twitter that their email and Facebook accounts were hacked.

January 3: About 250 demonstrators, mostly students, stage a peaceful marchin the city of Thala. The protest turns violent after police try to stop it by firing tear gas canisters.

At least nine protesters are reportedly injured. In response, protesters set fire to tyres and attack the local offices of the ruling party.

January 4: The Tunisian Bar Association announces a general strike to be staged January 6 in protest over attacks by security forces against its members.

January 5: Mohamed Bouazizi dies of self-inflicted burns. A funeral is later held for him in Sidi Bouzid, his hometown.

January 6: It is reported that 95 per cent of Tunisia's 8,000 lawyers launch a strike, demanding an end to police brutality against peaceful protesters.

January 7: Authorities arrest a group of bloggers, journalists, activists and a rap singer in a crackdown on dissent. Some of them reportedly go missing.

January 8: At least six protesters are reportedly killed and six others wounded in clashes with police in Tala, a provincial town near the border with Algeria. Another three people were killed in similar clashes in the Kasserine region.

In Tala, witnesses said police fired their weapons after using water cannons to try to disperse a crowd which had set fire to a government building. The crowd has also thrown stones and petrol bombs at police.

January 9: Two protesters named Chihab Alibi and Youssef Fitouri are shot dead by police in Miknassi, according to the SBZ news agency.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Turkish Men Becoming "Marriage Magnets" for Moroccan Women

Here is an article from Hurriyet, a Turkish paper about the rising number of Moroccan women marrying Turkish men, sometimes to be second wives.

SE Turkish men becoming marriage magnet for Moroccan women

Thursday, January 6, 2011
MARDİN - Doğan News Agency (DHA)

National boundaries and a distance of thousands of kilometers have proven no obstacle to love with hundreds of Moroccan women choosing to abandon their lives in North Africa for marriage, often as second wives, in Mardin.

During the past two years, more than 400 Moroccan women have moved to the southeastern province of Mardin to become the wives of Turkish men they met online, Doğan news agency, or DHA, reported earlier this week, adding that 150 Moroccan-Turkish couples tied the knot in the first 10 months of 2010.

The influx of Moroccan women began after villages in the area started opening their first Internet cafés. When the province’s Gökçe jurisdiction opened its first such location, local men – regardless of their marital status – began chatting with Moroccans over the Internet. Following marriage proposals, several moved to Mardin, in some cases accepting the existence of the men’s first wives who also live in the same house.

After two more Internet cafés opened in Gökçe, more local men reportedly found Moroccan women on Internet. In addition to several bachelors, 15 married men asked women to move to Turkey to live with them.

The transition for the Moroccans is easier because many of the villagers already speak Arabic thanks to their ethnic background.

Some 40 Moroccan women were said to be living in the province’s jurisdictions of Gökçe last year, up from the 15 previously.

In nearby Ortaköy, 10 Moroccan women have now taken up residency. Some of the women can reportedly speak Arabic, French, Spanish and English and many have university degrees.

Turkey does not legally recognize polygamous marriages but the practice still exists in some areas. Second wives are married in religious or cultural ceremonies and have few legal rights. However, because of their interpretation of Islamic beliefs, many of the women have said there is nothing wrong with being involved in a polygamous relationship.

First Moroccan brides in the district

Monia, who did not give her last name, was reportedly the first Moroccan bride to come to Gökçe. Calling her marriage to 36-year-old Halit Öncel “fortune,” she said she wanted to share her life with her new husband. Öncel already has a wife and 11 children from his first marriage.

Öncel said he first identified himself to Monia as a single man, but later told her the truth before proposing two months later. Monia accepted, and Öncel legally divorced his wife before legally marrying Monia. The new couple has a son, Yunus Emre, from the marriage, but continues to live together with the first wife and the other children.

Monia reportedly graduated from a religious university in Morocco and speaks French fluently.

Aziza Eroğlu, another Moroccan university graduate who was teaching French in a kindergarten in Morocco, also agreed to move and live in Mardin as a second wife to İskender Eroğlu.

“She fell in love with me and accepted all the consequences,” said Eroğlu, adding that because of his first marriage, his marriage to Aziza was not legal, but that the three lived together without problems.

“Despite her good life in Morocco, she came here because she fell in love,” he said.

Jamila, who also did not give her last name, was the first Moroccan woman to move to southeastern Turkey as a legal wife, according to official records. The woman, who speaks French and Spanish, worked at a textile factory until she met and agreed to marry Samir Bozdağ. Following a Moroccan-style wedding in the North African country, the couple settled in Gökçe.

Gökçe Mayor Haluk Çelik said all of the marriages were organized beyond the municipality’s control. “Our Moroccan wives, who on average speak three languages, attend Turkish literacy courses organized by the Kızıltepe Public Training Center.”

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Morocco, The Children's Book

Here are two short reviews, one from the Chicago Tribune and the other from the New York Times, about a book published recently about life in a Moroccan village and an Australian city. It is called Mirror, and it depicts, without any words, two families, one Moroccan and one Australian and their parallel lives just across the page from each other.

"Mirror" by Jeannie Baker

December 04, 2010|By Mary Harris Russell | Special to the Tribune

Make time for this wordless story told by Australian author Jeannie Baker through extraordinary collages. Opening the book's cover reveals two separate books, mirrored stories of two boys and their families, one in Australia and one in Morocco. Each boy spends a long day doing errands with his father. The Australian world may be more familiar to us - urban traffic, big box stores and small ones too. The Moroccan boy and his father arise, eat with several generations of family, and head to a bazaar, their donkey laden with marketable items. The collaged-illustrations draw our attention to similarities - the peaceful loving hands making meals, the adults and children constructing the warmth of their shared spaces. Baker helps us see the beauty of ordinary life, spice markets or parking lots.

Just Over the Page, a Parallel Universe

Published: November 4, 2010

For years a gulf in the book world has been widening. The digital age has brought about a separation between a book’s story and its platform, its medium of delivery. The same story can now make its way to the reader by iPod, iPad or iPhone; by Kindle, Nook or Sony Reader; by laptop or desktop; or of course, by the old-fashioned printed page. As the options increase, the platform itself becomes more transparent and, some would argue, irrelevant. Today’s reader has grown so used to encountering pages of different shapes, sizes and technological eras that he or she hardly notices the page itself anymore.

In such a world, how can print compete with stories downloaded at the speed of light? Two new picture books offer a possible answer.

In “Shadow,” Suzy Lee, a South Korean illustrator, depicts a little girl playing in her family’s attic. From the very beginning, Lee’s story knows that it is in a printed book. The orientation of the drawings invites the reader to turn the book on its side so that the pages flip bottom to top rather than right to left.

The girl and the objects stored in the attic — a ladder, a pair of worn-out shoes, a broom, a bike — crowd the top page. The bottom page shows the shadows that the girl and the attic’s contents cast in the light of a ceiling-mounted bulb.

The girl’s play is both typical and endearing. She fans out her fingers to make the shape of a bird. She puts an old shoe on her head and pretends to be a storybook wolf. As the girl’s game progresses, the shadows beneath her come to life. The finger-bird flies from her fingers. The broom in the corner becomes a giant exotic flower, and the tires of the bicycle turn into the sun and moon. As each item transforms, its mundane incarnation disappears from the top page and its fantastic shadow below emits a yellow, other­worldly glow. The seam that separates the top page from the bottom is no longer simply an artifact of print technology — it is a border between the world the girl sees and the world she imagines.

Soon, the shadows themselves realize this. To the girl’s horror, the shoe-wolf leaps over the seam and into the attic, ready to eat her. The finger-bird saves the girl by leading her over the seam and into the world of shadow and yellow glow. There, magical creatures protect her.

Lee is a natural at drawing children. Her pictures evoke a timeless charm reminiscent of Crockett Johnson and Sheldon Mayer. The girl’s expressions and poses are those of a child, not those of an adult shrunken in size.

More impressive than Lee’s cartooning, however, is her understanding of the properties unique to the printed book as storytelling devices. Could the pages of “Shadow” be scanned into a computer and read on a screen? Certainly, but that border between the real and the imagined, presented here as a divide that can be felt by the reader’s fingertips, would be reduced to a row of pixels in a slightly darker hue. The shoe-wolf’s leap would be between two spots on a screen rather than from one world to another. In printed form, “Shadow” suggests a third reading at yet a different orientation. By turning the book another 180 degrees, the reader puts the shadows on top, giving the story an entirely new feel.

There is a similar awareness of medium in Jeannie Baker’s “Mirror.” Upon opening it, the reader discovers two parallel books within: on the left, the story of a family living in Australia, and on the right, a family in Morocco. A short passage in English introduces the Australian story, while an Arabic passage on the facing page introduces the Moroccan one. The Australian pages flip right to left, the Moroccan pages left to right. Baker follows the families as they go through an ordinary day of morning rituals, shopping and shared meals. She presents the panels of the two narratives at the same pace, devoting the same amount of space to each family.

With beautiful, meticulously constructed collage, Baker shows two very different worlds. Her Australian city is filled with words. Slogans decorate T‑shirts, storefronts and license plates. A G.P.S. gives directions. Signs direct busy traffic. Baker’s Moroccan village, on the other hand, is completely wordless. Instead, it is a land of color and texture. Women’s woven head scarves, the landscape’s rocky soil and the baskets of food in the marketplace stand in contrast to the Australian family’s smooth, shiny environment.

Unlike Lee’s shoe-wolf, Baker’s characters never become aware of the physical seam that separates them. Even so, elements of each culture make their way to the other side. At a home improvement store, a scarf adorns a woman waiting in line behind the Australian father and son. In the marketplace, the Moroccan son squats to draw a picture in the sand. As he does, he pulls his robe up over his knees, revealing jeans and sneakers beneath. The stories end with the Australian family sharing a moment together on a Moroccan rug and the Moroccan family gathering around a newly purchased personal computer.

Baker, like Lee, designs her book as an object to be held. By asking readers to flip the pages in different directions for each of her narratives, she speaks to the cultural differences between Australia and Morocco. By placing the narratives side by side, opening toward each other, she highlights their similarities.

For many stories, the means of delivery, paper or pixel, may truly be irrelevant to the reader’s experience. But works like “Shadow” and “Mirror” prove the vitality of the printed page.