Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A One-Sided Campaign for the Moroccan Constitution, or Stop Praising Morocco for Being a Model of Reform it Hasn't Yet Become

Constitution. Can't live with one, can't live without one (apparently).
Here are links to 3 recent articles from the Guardian, The Brookings Institution, and AFP about the Moroccan constitution and the run-up to the typically one-sided election. The Brookings article is also pasted below.

One Sided Campaign Spurs Moroccans to Vote "Yes" to Reforms

Morocco's Moment of Reform?

Morocco's Reform Reflect Real Divisions Within the Society

Morocco's Moment of Reform?

Anouar Boukhars, Assistant Professor of International Relations, McDaniel College
Shadi Hamid, Director of Research, Brookings Doha Center

The Brookings Institution
June 28, 2011 —

Keen observers of Morocco have long argued that the gradual democratization of the rules of the political game will not materialize without bottom-up pressure from ordinary Moroccans. It is public outrage over corruption and political systems oriented around power and privilege that have served everywhere as a catalyst for systemic change. Despite the popularity of the monarchy in Morocco, there has been a growing mismatch between the public’s aspirations for development and democracy and ruling elites’ insistence that the existing institutional architecture is needed to accommodate gradual reforms while maintaining stability.

In the absence of a credible opposition willing to challenge the monarchy’s prerogatives, it seemed only a severe crisis of governance or external shock could force democratic change onto the policy agenda. That moment finally came with the stunning overthrow of the strongmen of neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. Those dramatic events gave birth to the February 20 protest movement. Despite its relative failure to mobilize large numbers of Moroccans, the protesters—a loose coalition of leftists, liberals and Islamists—injected a new nervousness in the corridors of power. The monarchy quickly grasped that the strength of the leaderless movement did not come from its numbers but from the legitimacy of their demands.

King Mohammed VI’s March 9 speech, in which he outlined parameters for constitutional change, was a direct reaction to the rise of new opposition forces. In an attempt to seize the initiative, he promised wide-ranging reforms, including an elected government and independent judiciary. He announced the formation of an ad-hoc committee entrusted with revising the constitution. The king’s preemptive moves, coming so quickly after the initial protests, helped in stealing some of the opposition’s momentum.

Indeed, the last two months have seen the February 20 movement lose some steam, limiting its ability to reach the levels of popular mobilization seen in Egypt, Yemen or Bahrain. In addition, public perception of the protesters has shifted as the movement struggles to articulate a workable vision for political change while shaking off suspicions it has been hijacked by radical Islamist forces. The horrendous terrorist attack in Marrakesh on April 28—in which 17 were killed—only intensified the uncertainty surrounding the movement and heightened anxiety that social and political agitation could end up benefiting violent Salafi movements.

These fears accentuated with the revolts of Salafi prisoners in May and the hardening of the February 20 demands, as reflected in their calls for cancelling the king’s popular Mawazine Festival (featuring Shakira) and direct attacks on Morocco’s notorious intelligence services (DST) for running secret detention facilities. The protesters’ targeting of the DST came at an inopportune moment, as the agency’s reputation for effectiveness was boosted with its swift arrests of the perpetrators of the Marrakesh attack. The February 20 refusal to back down elicited a violent response from the state’s security services, leading to demonstrations on May 29 in which dozens injured and one killed—the pro-democracy movement’s first “martyr.”

With King Mohammed’s June 17 speech outlining long-awaited constitutional revisions, February 20 finds itself at a difficult crossroads, trying—and struggling—to devise a response to one of the few Arab regimes that has demonstrated a flexible and apparently effective approach to the Arab revolts. Its lack of charismatic leadership and raucous decision-making process have also given the impression of a movement lacking in organizational discipline and riddled with ideological contradictions.

On the eve of the king’s speech, the balance of power between the regime and the protesters had clearly changed from the early months of 2011. In a move that kept labor unions and other syndicates off the streets, the government doubled subsidies, raised public sector salaries, increased minimum wage, recruited 4,300 graduates in the public sector, and cancelled farmers’ debt. Unlike the zero-sum political games of other Arab states facing turmoil, the Moroccan regime skillfully portrayed the promise of top-down reform as a win-win compromise between the old authoritarian constitution and the parliamentary monarchy model demonstrators have been calling for.

The new constitution provides for an “elected” prime minister drawn from the ranks of the largest party in parliament. With the king’s consent, he has the authority to appoint and fire ministers as well as dissolve parliament. Under the proposed reforms, parliament—which had long been relatively weak—now has the potential to play a more assertive role. The exercise of parliamentary oversight of the executive branch is strengthened by lowering the threshold for launching investigations (just one-fifth of its members) and introducing a censure motion against cabinet ministers (one-third). The new constitution also sets into motion a decentralization process, whereby more power is devolved to elected regional councils. On the flip side, the constitution maintains the king’s dominant position in Moroccan politics. He remains the country’s supreme religious and military authority. In matters of security—it is up to the king to decide what exactly that means—he, rather than the prime minister, will have the authority to convene the cabinet. In other words, the king will continue to have veto power over all major decisions.

Despite its failure to significantly limit the king’s powers, the new constitution provides a margin of political maneuverability that did not previously exist. The key question, then, is whether Morocco’s established political parties will use it. The success of the king’s reforms—thus far unrealized—will depend on the ability, or more likely the willingness, of parties and civil society organizations to maintain pressure on the monarchy and push the envelope further. Here, there is little reason to be optimistic. The parties’ responses to the king’s original March 9 speech were disappointing, as evidenced in their timid proposals for constitutional reform.

With few exceptions, none of the parties dared discuss the provisions outlining the king’s religious (article 19), “sacred” (article 23), and legislative (article 29) powers. Even the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), arguably the country’s only credible opposition actor, adhered strictly to the framework that the king laid out in his two major speeches. It should come as no surprise, then, that the political class assured the public that the proposed constitution exceeded their demands and expectations.

It is perhaps unrealistic—and at odds with much of political history—to expect King Mohammed, however benevolent, to voluntarily diminish his own relevance as monarch. Certainly, he can be blamed for falling short of February 20’s expectations, but the legal opposition, including Islamists and leftists alike, bears responsibility for failing to push harder. Of course, it is difficult to determine the origins of the problem. Political parties, after all, were legalized and allowed to participate in elections because they accepted the king’s legitimacy and prerogatives. They operate in an environment where speech criticizing the king—who the constitution considers “inviolable”—is criminalized.

Many Moroccans hold out hope that the youth wings of the established parties succeed in challenging (and perhaps dislodging) their compromised leadership of patronage-driven elites and politicians. Whatever its tangible successes or failures, the effects of the February 20 movement are undeniable. The movement has helped bring to the fore a new dynamic of young political activists mobilizing against entrenched power structures and calling for greater democracy and representation not just in Morocco as a whole but also within the political parties and organizations of which they are a part.

There is now, then, an unprecedented opportunity for both sides. The new constitution empowers the parliament and the political parties to play a more assertive role—if they choose to play it. The threat of revolt and instability—as well as their own indigenous protest movement—give them bargaining power vis-à-vis the king. Importantly, the constitution’s provisions also allow the king to use his unlimited prerogative to block real changes. What he does, and chooses not to do, is critical. As unlikely as it now seems, the best-case scenario is that the king follows the spirit rather than the letter of the new constitution, respects the will of his people, and resists the urge to intervene in affairs of the elected government. Constitutions matter, but what matters more is what people do with them.

This is where Morocco’s friends in the West come in. The time for prioritizing economic liberalization at the expense of democratic reform is over. While Morocco may be more “progressive” than most its neighbors, it is still a state that relies on political restrictions and repression, albeit with a subtler touch. The United States and the European Union should stop heaping praise on Morocco for being a model of reform it hasn’t yet become. American and EU policy must be re-oriented to focus on a number of critical priorities: freedom of association and speech, constraining the powers of the king and the makhzen (royal court), and strengthening the role of elected institutions, such as parliament. Meanwhile, economic aid, as the new European Neighborhood Policy states, must be linked to the idea of “more for more” with “precise benchmarks and a clearer sequencing of actions.”

King Mohamed has declared his commitment to substantive reform and democratization. It is only fair that the United States and Europe hold him to his own promises. The stakes are considerable. If constitutional reforms lead to separation of powers, independence of the legislature and judiciary, and a monarchy that removes itself from day-to-day rule, the regional implications could indeed be significant. Then—and only then—should Morocco be considered a “model.”

Saturday, June 25, 2011

"They've Got Money and We've Got Nothing:" The Hellish World of Sex Tourism in Morocco

Here is a video report from France24 about the rising levels of foreign sexual predators in Morocco, especially those targeting Moroccan children.

Morocco: the Hellish World of Sex Tourism


Think of Morocco and you think of palaces, bustling souks and age-old traditions. But the postcard image hides a darker reality: the country is a magnet for paedophiles and sex tourists. Across the country, hundred of thousands are being exploited under the gaze of their pimps. Ours reporters took secret footage of this hellish world where men, women and children are all for sale.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The New Moroccan Constitution: Real Change or More of the Same ?

Here is a commentary from Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
It gives a good background to the main issues and parties involved in the constitution debate. At the end she comments that, "The new constitution might bring about significant change, but only if Moroccans continue to exercise pressure on the king."
The New Moroccan Constitution: Real Change or More of the Same?

Marina Ottaway Commentary, June 20, 2011

The constitution King Mohammed VI announced to his country on June 17 has been greeted by Moroccans with a great deal of ambivalence. Although it appears to be a foregone conclusion that a majority of Moroccans will vote “yes” in the referendum announced for July 1, many will do so with reservations. The young protesters who have been organizing periodic demonstrations beginning on February 20—hence the name, February 20 movement—have already announced that they do not intend to stop their actions. In fact, protests took place on June 19, drawing thousands of protesters in Casablanca and smaller numbers in other cities.
A large number of interviews during a recent trip to Morocco suggest that the king may well have succeeded in staying ahead of the protest that has led to the demise of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and plunged Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain into turmoil and violence. Whether this is just a short-lived victory in the first skirmish of a long battle or a turning point on the road to transforming Morocco into the Arab world’s first constitutional monarchy will depend not only on how the king acts in the coming months, but also on the capacity and willingness of Moroccan political organizations to build on the opportunities the constitution offers them. It may also depend to some extent on the persistence of a protest movement that has so far not been able to mobilize the huge crowds seen in Tunisia and Egypt.

Drafting the Constitution

The constitution, like all preceding ones, was written by a commission of experts appointed by the king, rather than by an elected constituent assembly or another representative body. It thus falls in the category of constitutions granted to the nation by the king, rather than those crafted by a representative organization embodying popular sovereignty. The guidelines for the new constitution were outlined in a speech given by King Mohammed VI on March 9 and the commission subsequently worked to flesh out an outline provided by the palace or, as Moroccans put it, “le pouvoir.” The commission was headed by Abdellatif Menouni, an advisor to the king, leaving no doubt where the directives came from.

The palace also set up a consultative body to work in conjunction with the commission of experts. The strangely named “mechanisme de suivi,” or accompanying mechanism, was also headed by an advisor to the king, Mohammed Moatassim, and functioned as liaison between the drafters of the constitution and political parties, labor unions, businessmen associations, human rights organizations, and other groups or even individuals interested in having an input in the new constitution. Some presented entire constitutional drafts, some only suggestions on key points. Once the submissions were made, however, there was no follow up or debate. The organizations were not shown a draft of the new constitution until June 8 and even then they were not shown a written document but only able to listen to an oral presentation that they discussed in a marathon ten-hour meeting. Inevitably, in the following days the country was abuzz with conflicting rumors of what the new constitution entailed, as various parties and individuals leaked their version to the press. The members of the “mechanism” only saw a written draft on June 16, the day before the king presented it to the nation in a televised speech. Similarly, the council of ministers was asked to vote on the draft on the same day of the public announcement.

Despite the narrow limits of consultation and participation imposed on the drafting of the constitution, the process was probably more open than previous ones. The mainstream political parties represented in the parliament accepted the process and have already made it clear that they will campaign for a “yes” vote in the referendum. This is not surprising, because the parties represented in the parliament are tame and more concerned about maintaining their prerogatives by supporting the initiatives of the monarchy than setting forth programs of their own. Remarkably, the Party for Justice and Development, the Islamist party that came in second place in the 2007 parliamentary election but remains in the opposition, has made it clear that it supports the new constitution, arguing that it contains sufficient guarantees of democracy. The major reason for the party’s acquiescence is apparently the desire to continue and complete the process of integration of the Islamists in the legal political process, a goal that the PJP has been working toward for years.

The February 20 movement on the other hand rejected the new constitution even before it was unveiled because of the manner in which it was drafted and pledged to continue protesting. The February 20 movement has never succeeded in mobilizing huge crowds similar to those that brought down Zine al Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. By the participants’ own estimates, their most successful protests were carried out on March 20 in Casablanca, Rabat, Tangiers, and a number of other towns, but even these protests were relatively small compared to those other countries experienced.

Like protests movements in other Arab countries, the February 20 movement is a leaderless and structureless amalgam of young people. It holds monthly general assemblies in the towns where it exists, with each assembly being autonomous of the other. The assemblies are open to the public and coordination among the different groups takes place, to the extent it does, via Facebook—the number of users in the country doubled in the last few months. The movement is looked at with suspicion by the mainstream political parties, although, as in other countries, the young wing of many parties have joined in without official blessing by the parent organization. The movement appears to have broad demands—essentially for democracy and jobs—but not anything that could be called a program.

Parallel to the youth groups that constitute the February 20 movement, a number of leftist political parties, independent labor unions, left-leaning human rights organizations, and Islamist movements have set up a Council to Support the February 20 movement. Most important among them appear to be the Islamist movement al-Adl wal Ihsan (Justice and Charity, or Justice and Spirituality as it insists on translating the name recently), the United Socialist Party (PSU), and the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH). Given the array and the ideological diversity of parties and organizations that belong to it, the support council is deeply divided with members forming alliances against each other. More structured than the movement itself, the support council holds meetings and issues communiqués, but it is not clear that the members of the February 20 movement themselves agree with the positions taken by the support council or even, as some conversations revealed, know of its existence.

Identity Politics
The two most controversial issues to surface during the debate over the constitution were related to the definition of the identity of the Moroccan state: whether Morocco should be defined as an Islamic state, and whether Morocco should recognize Amazigh, the language spoken by the Berber minority, as an official language.

The discussion concerning the place of Islam is caught in the problem of the relationship between Islamist parties and organizations and “civil” ones—the increasingly accepted word to denote parties that outsiders would define as “secular.” Such parties refuse to be characterized as secular, fearing the latter term can be interpreted as implying irreligiosity. The term civil not only has no such implication, but also put the religious parties somewhat on the defensive as being “uncivil.” The tension between Islamic and “civil” parties is not unique to Morocco but common to all Arab countries, particularly in this period of transformation. Indeed relations are even more difficult in Tunisia and Egypt. In Morocco, the Party for Justice and Development is legal and has been participating in several cycles of parliamentary and local elections. Although it remains a devil for some, it is at least a known devil. But the issue is far from being solved even in Morocco.

What exactly happened in the debate over the place of Islam in the Moroccan state remains difficult to understand with precision, in part because of the confusion between what different organizations actually said and what they are alleged to have said and in part because of the use of code words that are not always clear. Islamists have been accused by civil parties of having insisted that Morocco continue to be defined as an Islamic state. Islamists deny that this is the case and argue that they even favored a definition of Morocco as a “civil state with an Islamic reference.” On the other hand, there is no doubt that a suggestion that the constitution includes a reference to “freedom of conscience,” rather than the guarantee that people belonging to other religions would be free to perform their religious practices was vehemently denounced by the general secretary of the PJD as opening the way to unacceptable and provocative behavior such as public display of homosexuality and violating in public the Ramadan fasting. In the end, the constitution defines Morocco as a Muslim state in the preamble, and states that Islam is the state religion in Article 3, which also guarantees freedom of religious practices to all faiths. Compared to the text of most Arab constitutions—which proclaim sharia as one of the sources, if not the source of law—the new Moroccan constitution, like the previous one, is quite liberal. It should also be noted that in Morocco religion is an integral part of the king’s power: as the officially recognized “commander of the faithful” the king would see his position somewhat diminished if Morocco was not defined as an Islamic state.

The new constitution also recognizes Amazigh as an official language, despite the objections by conservative elements and by those who thought such recognition would dilute Morocco’s Arab identity. It also contains a reference to the plurality of influences on the Moroccan culture, including Andalusia, more broadly the Mediterranean culture, the people in the Sahara, Christianity, and Judaism. The compromise in this case appears to be language that makes it clear that the official status of the Amazigh language will be implemented slowly.

The King’s Power

Identity issues caused the most controversy while the constitution was drafted, but in the long run the real issue is how much power the king will exercise under the new constitution—and thus how much progress Morocco has made toward becoming a constitutional monarchy or, in the language favored in Morocco, a parliamentary monarchy where the king does not govern.

Even the most ardent supporters of the new constitution do not claim that the new charter reduces the king to ruling without governing. That, they argue, is neither possible nor desirable in Morocco. The new constitution reserves for the king three areas as his exclusive domain: religion, security issues, and strategic major policy choices. In addition, the king will remain the supreme arbiter among political forces. Under those rubrics, the king could very well control all important decisions, if he so chooses.

There are new formal limits on the king’s power. He cannot choose any prime minister he wants, but must respect election results and name “the president of the government,” as the prime minister is now called, from the party that received the most votes. The king will no longer participate in and preside over the meetings of the cabinet. Rather, it is the president of the government who now presides over the renamed Council of Government. However, the king presides over the cabinet, which in that case is still called the Council of Ministers, when security issues or strategic policy decisions are at stake. Since the constitution does not clearly spell out what would constitute a strategic decision, it appears that the decision is up to the king himself. His position as arbiter also gives him the power to weigh in on the most important issues.

The constitution undoubtedly broadens the power of the parliament, allowing it to pass laws on most issues; it takes steps toward protecting the independence of the judiciary; and it increases the role of a number of independent commissions. What it fails to do clearly and unequivocally is reduce the power of the king.

How much change

The new constitution might bring about significant change, but only if Moroccans continue to exercise pressure on the king. The history of political reform in Morocco shows the importance of pressure. The first big recent wave of change came when King Hassan was approaching the end of his life and understood the importance of opening up the political system some in order to facilitate his son’s rise to the throne. He was under pressure to make changes. King Mohammed followed on the path of reform, but progress was made increasingly slowly as he felt more sure of his position. It took the Arab Spring, with the example of what can happen to regimes that refuse to change and the beginning of street protest in Morocco, for the king to conclude that it was time to relaunch reform.

The impact of the new constitution depends on the way in which it is implemented. As an opposition legislator put it to this author, the constitutional text has potential. In order for it to be realized, the parliament has to adopt the necessary legislation and make sure that it provides maximum space for the political forces. The past performance by the parliament suggests that it is not a foregone conclusion that the parliament will make good use of the potential. Although Morocco has a stronger tradition of political parties than most other Arab countries, the parties suffer from the same problems as the entire political system does: they are top-heavy, internally undemocratic, with little renewal of leadership.

As a newer party more committed to change, the PJD may be less hidebound than other organizations, but one party is not enough. Furthermore, if the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM) wins the parliamentary elections that will probably be held in October, the power of the king is likely to remain strong. The PAM was created by a friend of the king before the 2009 municipal elections. Not only did it perform well at the level of the municipalities, but it established a strong presence in the parliament without ever participating in a parliamentary election—members of other parties simply moved over to the newly created entity. Before February, the PAM was expected to do extremely well in parliamentary elections, but it is not so clear how recent events will affect it. There is no doubt, though, that if a party close to the king was to win elections the reform momentum could easily be dissipated. The outcome will also be affected by the capacity of the February 20 movement to stay alive if a large majority of Moroccans approve the constitution in a credible referendum.

How far the king’s top-down reform will go may well depend on the strength of a bottom-up push by political parties and protesters.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Reading Morocco's New Constitution: The King Proposes Limited Changes

Some have called the changes "revolutionary," others believe that they are no where near being enough. It all depends on your viewpoint. Here is an article from the New York Times about King's speech on Morocco's new constitution. ___________________________________________________
Morocco King Proposes Limited Steps to Democracy

Published: June 17, 2011

In a major effort to try to respond to calls for more democracy and accountability, King Mohammed VI of Morocco announced proposed constitutional changes on Friday night that would reduce his own nearly absolute powers and name a prime minister from the largest party elected to Parliament as head of the executive branch.

But his plans fall considerably short of the constitutional monarchy that many protesters have demanded and leave the king with absolute control over the military and religious matters.

The proposals will be put to a national referendum on July 1 instead of in September as originally planned.

The prime minister, who would be formally called “president of the government,” would be able to appoint government officials and ministers and would have the power to dissolve Parliament. The judiciary would be an independent branch; the king has headed the council that approves all judges.

It would mean a “government emerging through direct universal suffrage,” the king said in an eagerly awaited speech on national television. The changes, he said, will “make Morocco a state that will distinguish itself by its democratic course.”

The king would remain head of the Islamic faith in Morocco and be called “commander of the faithful.” But a reference to the king in the current Constitution as “sacred” would be replaced by the expression: “The integrity of the person of the king should not be violated.” Islam would remain the state religion, but there would be a new guarantee of religious freedom.

The king, who is 47 and has been in power since 1999, has been facing growing pressure to respond to calls for democratic change and a constitutional monarchy from the February 20 Movement for Change, which began on Facebook and has carried out a series of rallies in major cities. While thousands attended the rallies, they did not compare in size to those elsewhere in the Arab world, and there has been relatively little violence or state repression of the demonstrators.

As the Arab Spring has rolled through the Middle East and North Africa, monarchies have withstood the demand for change better than secular autocrats. And Morocco, on the western edge of the region, has not escaped the demand for change. The king, who is considered a reformer and a more gentle ruler than his feared father, King Hassan II, has been criticized for stalling far-reaching reforms after terrorist bombings in Casablanca in 2003.

He has also been accused of allowing the advisers and former schoolmates around him to become wealthy from state contracts and monopolies, and of tolerating corruption.

But the proposals he unveiled on Friday were a considerable effort to try to get ahead of the calls for change.

In the last few months, he released some 200 Islamist prisoners who had been jailed in the roundups that followed the 2003 bombings.

The final draft of the reformed Constitution explicitly grants the government executive powers. Government ministers, ambassadors and provincial governors would be appointed by the prime minister, subject to the approval of the king. The prime minister could dissolve the lower house of Parliament after consulting the king, House speaker and head of the Constitutional Court.

And in another response to demands from protesters, Berber will be made an official language alongside Arabic.

The king said that the constitutional reform “confirms the features and mechanisms of the parliamentary nature of the Moroccan political system” and lays the foundation for an “efficient, rational constitutional system whose core elements are the balance, independence and separation of powers, and whose foremost goal is the freedom and dignity of citizens.”

The proposed changes did not satisfy all the protesters, who say they will continue to hold rallies pressing for more change, including one scheduled for Sunday.

Najib Chawki, an activist from the February 20 Movement, told Reuters that the reform “does not respond to the essence of our demands, which is establishing a parliamentary monarchy. We are basically moving from a de facto absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy.”

But many Moroccans will see the changes as a judicious effort by the king to promote a gradual move toward democratic accountability. Mohammed Nabil Benabdallah, secretary general of the small Party of Progress and Socialism, said they show Morocco is entering a new era.

“There will be a new balance of powers,” he told Bloomberg News. “It paves the way toward the establishment of a democratic state.”

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Moroccan Artisans Restore North African Jewish Center in Jerusalem

Here is an article from Haaretz about Moroccan artisans who have traveled to Jerusalem to restore a center for North African Jews in traditional Moroccan style.
There is an interesting comment by a reader about the (Muslim) Moroccan quarter that was destroyed by the Israeli army in the old city of Jerusalem in 1967, and the possibility of acknowledging its destruction. But alas, we are in the era of selective, fragmented,and competing histories.

A touch of Morocco in the heart of Jerusalem

A newly restored center for North African Jewish heritage promises to become one of the capital's most colorful tourist sites. But not everyone is thrilled with the ambitious renovation project.

By Nir Hasson

When you ask 24-year-old Abdullah Dara his profession, he replies "soccer player." But for the last few months, the 24-year-old from Rabat, Morocco has been working in Jerusalem - in the family business.

Dara is an expert in the art of zellige, the Moroccan mosaics that decorate walls and floors. His work involves preparing ceramic surfaces painted in various colors and breaking them with a delicate hammer into thousands of tiny, identical pieces. Then he and other workers arrange the miniature pieces into a giant puzzle to create a beautiful colored surface.

For the last few years, a team of Moroccan workers has been immersed in a zellige project in the heart of Jerusalem - the renewal of the David Amar World Center for North African Jewish Heritage.

The center will be dedicated on Sunday in the presence of President Shimon Peres and former President Yitzhak Navon. Dara did not hesitate to come to Israel. "We work all over the world," he says. "My brother has already worked in Spain, Dubai and France."

The center is situated between King David and Agron streets behind the Palace Hotel in Mahaneh Yisrael, one of the first neighborhoods outside the walls of the Old City. The building was constructed in the mid-19th century by Rabbi David Ben Shimon, founder of the community of North African Jews in Jerusalem who distinguished themselves from the general Sephardic Jewish community. It was used to house new immigrants from the community.

After four years of renovation and hundreds of thousands of stones, which Dara and his friends assembled into dozens of square meters of mosaic, the old building looks like a sultan's palace. It has definitely turned into the most colorful building in Jerusalem.

Authentic Moroccan style

The association of Jewish communities of North Africa, which has reconstructed the building, decided to build it in authentic Moroccan style - complete with an Andalusian-style garden, water fountains, carved and painted doors, ornamentation on the walls, and colored floor tiles.

Since there is not a single contractor in Israel who knows how to do this kind of work, the organization recruited the help of contractors and artisans from Morocco. However, the Interior Ministry tried to prevent their entry. "They didn't understand that they aren't foreign workers, they're artists. Every time they went home for a two-week holiday, it took me half a year to bring them back," says Haim Cohen, chairman of the association. When the workers finally did arrive, they didn't keep to the schedule. The Israeli employers were so afraid that the mosaics would not be ready on time for the festive ceremony that they prepared an emergency plan: wooden boards with a photograph of the mosaic, meant to serve as a cheap substitute for the real thing.

The renewal of the building in this style angered Jerusalem preservationists, who see it as importing foreign architecture and damaging a historic building.

Preservationists had reservations

"This undermines preservation, but I admit that it turned out special and has tourism value," says Itzik Shweiki, Director of the Council for the Preservation of Sites in Jerusalem. "This style is what was supposed to be the original character of the neighborhood," says Cohen.

Indeed the site is expected to become one of the city's leading tourist attractions. "The purpose of the center is to preserve the [North African Jewish] heritage through dress, music, vessels, piyyutim [liturgical poems] and prayers...and bring them to the general public," says Cohen. This will be done through exhibitions, a library and a computer center for studying the history of North African Jewish communities.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Clash of Images [of Morocco] by AbdelFattah Kilito

Here is an interesting review and discussion from a popular book lover's website on a recently published translation of Si AbdelFattah Kilito's The Clash of Images. The reviewer writes that The Clash of Images will force American readers to question their understanding of the images that pervade our society and the power they exercise in our lives.

The Clash of Images by Abdelfattah Kilito, translated by Robyn Creswell

By Natalie Storey

Abdelfattah Kilito sets his short stories in places rich with stunning imagery, such as in the shadows of a cinema, where an Arab boy watches cowboy movies, “anxious and trembling with desire.” The movie’s images -- the duel, the mount-up, the Indian attack, the fight in the saloon, the kiss -- help push the boy into adulthood and leave him troubled by their power to entrance. “In the cave whose lights had just come on they were freed of their chains, yet they wanted nothing more than to put the chains back on, to dive back into the darkness, lose consciousness of themselves and let their gazes glide over those fleeting, illusory, and deceitful images,” Kilito writes in his collection of stories, The Clash of Images, recently translated into English by Robyn Creswell.

Such scenes and the reflection that follows them provide a fascinating analysis of images in post-modern society, by an author who proves he is not desensitized to them. The collection contains 13 loosely linked stories, told mostly from the perspective of young North African men and boys. Kilito, a professor at the Mohammed V University in Morocco, primarily writes criticism of Arab literature, but makes a deft turn to a blend of fiction and memoir in The Clash of Images. The stories verge on family and cultural history, blurring the line between fiction, fantasy and reality in an attempt to cope with the meeting of Islam and the West’s various forms of image making -- the photograph, the comic book, the film and even literature like Don Quixote. Kilito attempts to map the transition of a culture from oral and text based modes of representation into today’s world, where the image rules. The stories accomplish deep reflection about the role of the image and its manipulation of identity in post-modern society with winsome storytelling and delightful characters.

The Clash of Images will force American readers to question their understanding of the images that pervade our society and the power they exercise in our lives. In the author’s note, Kilito wonders whether the image ushered Arabs into the modern world, pointing out that everyone must have a “double” today, at least in the form of government identification. This rests uneasily in societies that forbid making physical representations of God’s creation. Kilito’s Arab ancestors were faceless, lacking ids and photographs, he writes. Yet, “My idea is not at all to pity them,” Kilito writes. “What I’d like to know… is what profit they made by giving up figural representation.” The question to American readers of themselves becomes: What profit do we make by living in a society obsessed with images?

When I lived in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan from 2008 to 2011, I experienced the clash between the Muslim villager’s idea and my American idea of images. The refusal of my Arabic teacher’s eldest daughter to be photographed frustrated me. I couldn’t understand how else to remember her face, if I did not possess an image of her. While studying the stories of Islam, I found it difficult to visualize the Prophet Mohammed, of whom no authentic images exist. I asked my tutor over and over again, “But what did he look like?” I thought it would be easier to understand the stories they told me if I could imagine the main character in detail. Finally, my teacher acquiesced, providing a brief description from a hadith: He was handsome, with long eye lashes, and he wore a beard that often carried the red hue of henna. I quickly realized my error. The physical description of The Prophet allowed me to imagine a caricature, a stereotypical Muslim, like one from a cartoon strip in an American newspaper, an inaccurate representation. Yet, I still regret the lack of photographs of the women I cared about in Jordan. The contours of their faces have faded, a fact I cannot interpret any other way than a loss, one that an image might have remedied, at least partially. It seemed then like a contradiction for which there was no solution and Kilito, while skillfully sketching the lines of the conflict, doesn’t provide one either. Images both trouble and awe the characters of his stories.

The narrator of the story, “The Image of the Prophet,” takes up a similar issue, that of representing the Prophet Mohammed to facilitate understanding. A young Muslim boy in a French school, the narrator is confronted by an image of the Prophet in a French text book in a picture depicting the Hegira, the Muslims’ forced migration from Mecca to Medina. In the picture the Prophet, “wore a turban, a checkered jalabiya, and a flat leather sack strung across his chest. A short, trim beard covered his jaw.” Upon seeing the image, the narrator reflects:

This was, on the part of the illustrator, a risky undertaking, and one whose full consequences he didn’t seem to have considered -- unless, knowing the students who made up his audience were rather provincial, he was simply defying a prohibition he felt to be unjustified.

Although the image disturbs the narrator, his instructor never mentions it. The narrator’s pondering leads him to this conclusion: “The image is a site where eyes flee from each other, where glances never meet, where there is no face-to-face or actual encounter.” Here, Kilito’s narrator emphasizes the inherent superficiality of representation. While the image is beautiful, and while it conveys information, it also manipulates. In this way the story reaches its crescendo -- lacking dramatic action, the narrator instead offers a meditation on a small, but revealing instance of cultural collision.

The power of images has occupied Kilito’s work before, surfacing in his book of literary scholarship, Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language, translated into English by Wail Hassan. Kilito describes the shock and confusion of the Moroccan scholar as-Saffar, who first saw a crucifix in France in 1845. (Aside from the figure appearing real, as-Saffar was shocked because Jesus Christ, a prophet in Islam, is not believed to be the son of God, nor is he believed to have died on the cross.) As-Saffar notes the “strong passion for mirrors” of the French and a set of a play in the theater that, although drawn on paper, looks real. As-Saffar, according to Kilito, described the French as “masters of deceptive appearances.” The statement reads nearly like a prophecy, a foreshadowing of the airbrushing of models in magazines, video games with hyper real graphics and other types of image manipulation, which saturate Western society today.

Although the stories lack what Western readers would think of as narrative arc -- their conclusions come instead as brief epiphanies of thought -- they gain charm and believability from their young narrator or, in the case of third person narration, the young main character, and his earnest attempt to reconcile the two worlds he grows up in. The narrator proves obsessed with comics, books and films. In “Pleiades” Abdullah follows a girl named Pleiades (Thurayya in Arabic) through the streets, hoping they will accidentally meet. Pleiades earned her reputation by removing a photo of a boy from her bra and eating it to demonstrate her passion. When Pleiades has a change of heart and finally kisses Abdullah, he thinks of literature. “The verse of Mallarme, 'It was the blessed day of your first kiss,' sprung inevitably to his lips, along with the bittersweet aftertaste of an old photograph.” Kilito’s boy characters will grab the attention of readers with their humor and capacity for introspection. While the stories offer myriad insights into the world of young Moroccan boys, they also provide a site of reflection, points of reference to begin questioning our own cultural values, our own ideas of image and identity. The translation of this book into English is truly a gift to American readers.

The Clash of Images by Abdelfattah Kilito, translated by Robyn Creswell
New Directions
ISBN: 978-0811218863
128 Pages

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Moroccan Poet Wins Ashiqat Poetry Contest for Arab Women

Here is an article about the Ashiqat poetry contest and first prize winner Bahija Nahoudi from Morocco who won for her poem, بقايا امرأة or,"Remains of a Woman" The poem is also pasted below in Arabic.

Published: Jun 2, 2011 15:18 Updated: Jun 2, 2011 16:58 and Yves Saint Laurent celebrate the winners of Ashiqat poetry contest

Ashiqat, the region wide poetry contest for Arab women initiated by in collaboration with celebrated Saudi poetess May Kutbi, and inspired by Belle, the new oriental fragrance from Yves Saint Laurent, concluded its ten-week run on a festive note, with a recital celebrating the winners of the poetry writing contest. The six winners, determined by audience voting on, will be featured on Ashiqat 2, a follow-up to May’s successful lyrical debut album.

The competition received nearly one thousand of entries from women across the Middle East: UAE, KSA, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Morocco."The level of participation has surpassed our expectations. We were looking for individuality, creativity and potential and were delighted to see so many talented and confident women join Ashiqat”, said May Kutbi who screened all entries and selected the finalists on a weekly basis, alongside a distinguished panel of Arab poets and journalists.

The following are brief profiles of the winners:

Bahija Nahoudi from Morocco, placed first garnering 2,083 votes from anaZahra audiences for her poem Bakaya Imra’a (Remains of a Woman).


بقايا امرأة

بهيجة ناهودي - المغرب

سئمتُ شكي
سئمت اكتئابي
سئمتُ أسئلةدون جوابِ
سئمتُ أرضا ته تز فوقهاأقدامي
وأصطدم فيها بالحائط والجدارِ
سئمت ضعفي
سئمتُ يقيني بأنني
في حياتك،

سئمتُ بقاياامرأة أخرى
سئمتُ منك حبا
يشبه الشفقةأوالعطفَ
فهي ما تركَت لي منك شيئا
لَعِبَت دور البطولة في كل القضايا
وكَتبَت لنا أنا وأنت دورالضحايا
ما تركت لي إلا أشلاء وبقايا

أخذَت نارك وإحساسك المجنوْن
أخذَت ورودك وكل الغصوْن
ما تركَت لي إلا أشواكا وشجوْن
ما تركَت لي إلا صمتا و سكوْن
وخنجرا يمزق أحشائي بجنوْن
كلما رأيتها بعينيك تجول

أخذَت منك الفرح وحتى الْدُّموْع
ما تركَت لي إلا الدمع من الْشُّموْع

فهي لم تُغادرك يوما
ما زالت فيك سيفا
يذبحك بعنف إن تَذَكَّرْتَ
ما زالت فيك عطشا
بأنهاري وبحاري ما ارتوى
ما زالت فيك حمى
تقاوم دوائي بكل القوى
فإلى متى
ستدمرني حرائق بِغيرتي أنا أشعلها
وأمشي على أشواك لا ورود لها
إلى متى
/> سأدور كالإعصار في عواصفي ورياحي
وأخوض حربا بيني وبين كبريائي
إلى متى
سأقاوم شبح امرأة لم تُغادرك
والآن لا تُغادرني
وأرضى بدور البديلة في فيلم حياتي
إلى متى
سأرضى بقطرات حب منك
وأنا أموت من الظمإ
إلى متى يا قاتلي

أيا رجلا يزرع الآهات ب صدري
ويرسم التجاعيد على جبيني
لقد تعب الفؤاد من التسولِ
والإنتظارعلى باب الأضلعِ
وصبري خَلَّفَنِي وحيدة
على أرض الأحزانِ
أمشي على رماد آلاف سبقوني
أيا رجلا يكتب بدمائي
قصة أنيني
سألتك بالله
كفى استنزافا لشراييني
سألتك بالله
مَزِّق صفحاتها من دفاترك
أَو مَزِّق صفحاتي