Mercurius Maghrebensis

Cultural Relations from the Director of the British Council in Morocco

Entitlement and hoopoes’ blood

It’s bac time again, with thousands of young Moroccans chewing their pens and writing exams. The price of hoopoes’ blood, that sovereign booster of exam performance, is no doubt sky-high. The newspapers are full of ingenious stories of cheating. They also pay much attention to what comes next, and there was an interesting survey in L’Economiste this week about what lycée-leavers intend to do. There’s much said about career aspirations (engineering well in the lead for boys and girls) and courses of higher study. But the most interesting phenomenon is the unexpectedly small proportion of students who want to study abroad, at only 12 per cent. Why? Les complications pour obtenir un visa étudiant, la crise européenne et l’installation d’un grand nombre d’établissements étrangers de renom … This is very interesting.

The same phenomenon is picked up by Driss Lahlou in an article on career choice at the back of the paper. He highlights four major trends in Higher Education in Morocco:

  1. The growing concentration of the private HE offer in a number of major institutions with reliable quality and a distinctive offering of their own.
  2. The globalisation of higher education, with the growth too of dually awarded degrees, foreign accreditation and the increase in foreign degrees delivered locally.
  3. Growing focus on high-tech specialities like IT, telecoms and logistics – with strong appetite from the job-market for all these, especially informatic engineering and logistics.
  4. Growing diversification towards Anglophone education. “Limiting ourselves to French educations will not open us up to the world.” Really good education in English gives the student “a good mastery of the language while at the same time opening the doors of first-rate British or American teaching – still little known in the emerging francophone countries.”

That accords well with what I see. Private Higher Education is growing fast – not perhaps quite as fast as the Ministry would like, but 20% of bac students told the survey that they wanted to study privately, which hits the Ministry’s aspirations for the market, if not yet its capacity. Foreign institutions are setting up in Morocco, and foreign degrees are easier to obtain here than ever before (whatever recognition problems may remain). Closest to my desk is SIST, on the floor below the British Council, which offers degrees from the University of Sunderland and Cardiff Metropolitan. For the first time a few weeks ago, I visited Mundiapolis in Agadir, and was extremely impressed by the resource, quality and student offer.

Dr Lahlou’s third point is also interesting. Logistics isn’t a subject that has much detained me – a historian – until recently. But last week I signed an agreement with CGEM and the Supply Chain Foundation (of the UK) to establish a comprehensive framework of training and qualifications in logistics, focusing initially on the aeronautics industry. This is clearly riding a wave. The project will soon offer customised Moroccan syllabi for all levels from technician to Master’s students, and dually accredited Anglo-Moroccan qualifications. This is a very potent alliance, and I suspect a model of things to come.

Finally, education in English. I wrote recently about the growing movement towards English in education, and indeed towards English education. One Russell Group university told me recently that it has received more than 130 UCAS applications this year – almost as many as there were Moroccan students in the UK when I first arrived here. There is a growing understanding amongst the French-educated, the children of the lycée de la mission that French monolingualism is boxing them in, limiting their prospects. That English-language education is a passport to a globalised world, through universities that are disproportinately of world class.

This week I had a fascinating conversation with one of Morocco’s premier foundation institutions not just about the language and organization of ‘Anglo-Saxon education,’ but its philosophical assumptions concerning individual student autonomy, the nature of achievement, the entitlement conferred by a degree and above all the methodology of assessment. What struck me most was the mechanicity of the system that the French left behind in Morocco and which has not adapted with any real flexibility for the twenty-first century. Above all, the strange almost metaphysical rights conferred by a degree to job, security, salary, respect. It isn’t unique to Morocco (I first came across it working in Italy twenty years ago, where the intitolomento, the entitlement that a laurea bestowed, stretched to different salaries for the same job as a non-laureato). Here its corrosiveness is shown by the regular demonstrations outside Parliament by chômeurs diplomés who demand unconditional and uncompetitive recruitment into the civil service simply by virtue of having a degree. (In what? 80% of them, I gather, are graduates in Arabic Literature, Islamic Studies, Chemistry, Physics and Biology. What does that tell us?)

So I remind myself that what still characterizes British higher education is the complete absence of entitlement: a degree is just an entry-ticket to one tier of the employment market, not a season-ticket to a job. A graduate looking for a job in England still has to prove, in a very competitive market, not what she has done, but what she can do. A degree in a particular subject from a particular university may be one part of that portfolio of proof, but in these days of mass higher education, it’s only a small part. Today almost half of young Britons have degrees of one kind or another. Employers look through those degrees (what kind of university is it from? What does it tell me about this young woman?); and beyond them (what can she do? What is her future potential?) Entitlement has gone the way of hoopoes’ blood.

The Cockerel Tree

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There’s a story told by Edward Westermarck, about a judge – a cadi – who committed a variety of sins, culminating in his smearing soap across the threshold of his chambers and finding it hugely funny when visitors slipped and fell. He went on doing this, with growing hilarity, “until an angel of God said to him, ‘O stork why did you do wrong to Moslems?’ At the same moment he was transformed into stork; and he has still a black cloak and a white cloak, he has the henna of the bridegroom on his feet, and his eyes are black with antimony, and he is going on laughing as before.”

Storkification (the fate, too, of Antigone in Ovid’s Metamorphoses) for cruel and undue laughter seems to be a recurring theme in traditional Moroccan stories. The black-and-white livery of the stork is often understood as the habit of a cadi or imam, and the laqlaqlaqlaqlaq of the bird’s beak as the echo of the immoderate laughter. Generally the metamorphosis is a punishment; but sometimes it can also be a voluntary transformation of the sort described by Juan Goytisolo in his novel Las Semanas del Jardin, of a stork-man from Marrakech whose wife, working in France, abandons him for a Frenchman.

The Marrakchi, who lives next to Dar Bellarej, the stork hospital by the Abou Youssef mosque, tries to get a visa for France, fails, and sets out to find his unfaithful wife by other, magical, means. “The following day, I was aloft with a flock of storks in an ineffable state of bliss and delight. The world was at once miniature and immense: toy towns and landscapes, seas gleaming like mirrors, white mountains … My altitude, lightness and speed of movement granted me a feeling of superiority over humans, slow as turtles, tiny like insects.” He flies north with a muster of ‘real’ storks and finds his wife living with her French lover. He joins the household, ingratiating himself with his own unknowing wife, who adopts him, taking him for a female stork. “How incredible … there are lots of [storks] in my country. I’m sure that’s where she’s from … How tame! She must have fallen ill and can’t fly any more. I’ll look after her and feed her on raw fish. In our country they say it brings great luck: a guest sent from heaven, whom we must respect and offer hospitality to.” So he settles down, in the guise of a female stork, and disrupts his wife’s adulterous relationship, sleeping in his wife’s bed, shitting on the lover’s pillow and causing escalating arguments until he flies home, his job done. In due course his wife follows him back to Marrakech, happy, affectionate and full of stories about a strange stork which had flown to her from Morocco.

Storks have a special place in Morocco, which arises from their sheer numbers as they migrate south from Europe towards West Africa across the narrow Strait of Gibraltar, many spending the winter in Moroccan trees, telegraph poles and minarets. The pisé walls of Moroccan medinas are festooned with their gaunt black-and-white figures. One has only to think of Fes or Marrakech (where Ali Bey al-Abassi, the Spanish impostor, famously kept three, their wings docked, in his garden); or the Chellah at Rabat. Kenitra – Port Lyautey as was – is a particular centre for storks: in 1935 Bruet recorded 23,969 nests in Morocco of which 8,573 – more than in the whole of Algeria – were at Port Lyautey. No wonder the collective noun for storks in English is military – a muster, or a phalanx. The puzzle, though, is that until I came to Morocco I had never seen more than one or two at a time. Only here have I seen phalanxes.

They are bids of a mesmerising, gawky grace, winging home in the evening. Rabat has few more evocative sights than the storks returning to Chellah in the twilight, an awe-inspiring feathered cavalcade of huge, ragged wings flapping in on the evening breeze. Sometimes the crowds of birds descending are alarming in their density, and those already in the trees serenade their arrival with a windstorm of clacking beaks, laqlaqlaqlaqlaq …There are said to be a hundred nests there, including those on the hillside below Yousoufiya, but sometimes it seems that the evening rush-hour brings many more great White Storks home than a hundred nests could house. And home they fly, riding the thermals above the Bouregreg, where you can look magically down upon them from the heights of Yousoufiya.

But they come and go, these laqlaqs, and latterly they seem to be doing less coming than going. Stork numbers are down, though we could be forgiven for not noticing: what my daughter calls ‘the cockerel tree,’ on her walk to school still has eight or so nests stacked crazily one above the other like ragged bedsits, each with parents and three or so young. But more and more storks aren’t making it to Morocco at all on their way south.

SOS Stork Migration is a project that tracks storks to try and make sense of this. The jury is still out, and there is clearly more than one factor at work, but an important one is the tempting food-source provided by southern Europe’s great, stinking open-pit rubbish dumps. These are simply too easy, and too delicious to pass by, and many storks – more than half those tracked – never make it further than the great, gorgeously named, middens of Ejea de Caballeros, Bourg-en-Bresse, Alcazar de San Juan, Almagro, Montpellier, Lerida, Malpartide de Caceres, Dos Hermanos and so on. There’s another juicy one at Kenitra, which marks it as a must-visit on the modern stork-migration map, just as it was 80 years ago. Their diet (not difficult, or pleasant, to imagine) gives them added weight but lots of nasty pathogens. It also tempts them to end their journeys – the easy pickings of used nappies, waste food, packaging, pharmaceutical junk and heaven knows what else seems to remove the need to fly on southward for the winter sun. Only one of the seven storks tracked got as far as Senegal: another made it to Morocco but no further. The rest settled happily to gorge on the foetid rubbish heaps of Spain and France.

This is very sad. There is no visible shortage of storks right now in Rabat – and the walls of the Imperial Cities are still topped with countless feathered Capuchins. But if SOS Stork Migration is right, and the study looks unhappily convincing, the southward flight across the Straits of Gibraltar that has gone on for millennia will thin and perhaps peter out. Regulating rubbish-dumps in Europe (by reducing the food content) may help – but in the end, if we want to save the cockerel tree, we may need to stop clearing up rubbish dumps in Morocco.

 

Moroccans at Monte Cassino

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I have the clearest memory of standing, ten or twelve years ago, under the great barrel-vault of the Menin Gate, looking at the names of the 55,000 dead in the battles for Ypres, whose bodies had never been recovered. It is a melancholy place, site of an extraordinary daily theatre of the emotions when the Last Post is played at sunset, the heart-breaking bugle echoing across quiet streets. What struck me then was the number of men and officers from the Indian army, havildars, subadars and sepoys who had given their lives for the King-Emperor, very far from home in the mud of the Ypres Salient. It is a strange and sobering reflection, that victory depended on colonial armies, and that so much was given by them, so unstintingly. And of course it wasn’t just Britain’s Indian Army that fought in Europe and elsewhere: troops from North Africa – including perhaps 40,000 from Morocco – served in the Great War too, and a foundation called Forgotten Heroes 14-19 Foundation has been set up to commemorate them and promote the memory of their contribution to the winning of the war. It is a fine project and worth exploring, run by a group of people that includes Eugene Rogan of Oxford and Driss Meghraoui of Al-Akhawayn.

I was struck this morning to check my phone and find quite how often an article I re-tweeted yesterday on the Muslim contribution to the Second World War had been re-tweeted again. It clearly strikes a chord on this 70th anniversary of D-Day, when the 1944 Normandy landings are all over the press, to remember that many of the named and nameless dead are Moroccan, Tunisian, Algerian – without even mentioning the troops from East and West Africa, India and the Far East. I was mulling this over when I noticed a copy of L’Opinion on a news stand this morning, headlined on its front page Hommage aux Marocains tombés dans la lutte contre le nazisme.

It is essentially an account of the role of the Moroccan Goumiers at Monte Cassino. My father, who saw his twenty-first birthday in a dug-out opposite the monastery at Cassino in March 1944, used to say of the Goumiers,   echoing the Duke of Wellington, “I don’t know what effect they had on the enemy, but by God they scared the living daylights out of me.” Now I have a glimpse of what they did to the enemy.

“It was the legendary Moroccan soldiers of Moulay Driss Zerhoune, from Taza and the Atlas, who would breach the German lines, considered impenetrable for months, and open the route to Rome.” The French cemetery is at Venafro, twenty kilometres away, where the Corps Expéditionnaire Français was based, and there are 3,130 Muslim graves out of a total of 4,578 – sixty-eight per cent. Of the French force that took part in the Italian campaign, 72,000 – sixty per cent – were Moroccans. The Goumiers broke through the Gustav Line, outflanking Cassino, and took the neighbouring summits of Monte Majo, Monte Aurunci and Belvedere. “They had to climb steep slopes covered in mud and snow, which the Germans judged to be unscalable, before securing the peaks under German artillery fire.” Kesselring himself later said that “The French, and above all the Moroccans, fought furiously and exploited every success by concentrating their forces on each point that showed signs of weakening.” After Cassino the Moroccans marched north, and the story of their campaign is told in the 2006 film Indigènes, which had such a powerful impact, among others, on President Chirac that he finally relented on the longstanding scandal of pensions for Moroccan ex-servicemen.imgres

The Moroccan writer of the article, Abdelmalek Terkemani, notes the losses to the Goumiers at Cassino – 4,272 Muslims dead, 2,000 lost and not identified, and some 23,500 wounded, of whom the great majority were Moroccan. And he goes on to lament the growing xenophobia in Europe, where the common struggle is allowed to slip out of memory: “Photographs of these tombs, of young Frenchmen and Moroccans buried side by side, captioned ‘THEY DIED FOR EUROPE,’ should hang in every meeting room where foreigners in Europe are discussed.” But – as he concludes – “One can’t talk of this subject without remembering the unjust treatment suffered by the brave Moroccan soldiers who survived, compared to their European brothers-in-arms. Many of them died without trace, others among the survivors crippled or handicapped dragged themselves painfully for decades, to the front of French consulates demanding more just and more worthy treatment of their predicament.”

King Mohamed V was guest of honour at the first great France Combattant parade in June 1945, with Goumiers marching along the Champs Elysée, but as Terkemani points out, the lesson was not altogether well learned in France. Maréchal Alphonse Juin, the immensely successful French commander at Monte Cassino became Résident-général in Morocco and fiercely opposed the Nationalists. The present French Ambassador, Charles Fries, addressed this question gracefully and directly at the launch recently of a second edition of the 2006 history of the Goumiers, by Pierre Riera and Christophe Touron, Ana! Frères d’armes marocains dans les deux guerres mondiales. “Tens of thousands of Moroccan soldiers have twice paid the price in blood to defend our liberty. May they be assured that France will be eternally grateful to them for it.” May they indeed.

And now I know, as I leave my house in the morning and head for the office, why I am walking up rue Zerhoune, and it is a good reminder.

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Arbitraging the tortoise market

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In my garden in Rabat there are half a dozen tortoises which emerge on sunny mornings, loll in the sun, couple from time to time with a sound like wrestling wardrobes, and spend the winter under the woodpile. At least two of them were already there when we arrived in 2010. Another – Mr T – was bought in the mdina as a Christmas present. He was recently joined by a pair of middle-sized tortoises presented to us after a trip to the souq by the visiting New College rugger team, and known as Wyckham and William. There is also a baby tortoise, about the size of a half-crown, apparently born here, which lives on the back lawn and causes us to walk nervously on tip-toe, watching carefully for her small, round back half-hidden by grass. I suspect there may be more, but I am not intimate enough with any except Mr T to be sure of exactly who I am talking to.

Many diplomats stick their heads under their cars in the mornings looking for suspicious packages and wires: we go down on all fours before driving off, to make sure that one of the tortoises isn’t enjoying the warm shade of a tyre.

These spur-thighed tortoises (testudo graeca) are native to Morocco, and range free in our garden as of right. They need no care from me, and think they own the place which, as Moroccans, they do. They ignore the cats disdainfully, and their disdain is returned: I think the two species simply move at too different a pace from one another to take notice. They mostly do the same with us, ignoring us completely unless offered lettuce, in which case they line up like the Grand Fleet being reviewed at Spithead.

When we first arrived I consulted the internet anxiously to find out whether I needed to look after our sitting tenants. Rule One for tortoise-owners, according to the wisdom of the web, is that they are prone to constipation and may need occasional enemas. A little daunted, I found a very clear diagram of how this was to be done, and was relieved to discover that it demands little more than putting the tortoise bottom-first on a wooden shingle sloping downwards into a basin of warm soapy water. Gravity, it seems, does the rest.

However, such drastic (I use the term advisedly) remedies seem not to be called for in warm climates. In fact colonic irrigation for tortoises is probably necessary only in captivity in the chilly north, where they really oughtn’t to be in the first place. This shouldn’t surprise us, since tortoises are built for Africa, its temperatures, vegetation and humidity. This causes me a little guilt, thinking back to my childhood in 1960s London when every garden, including ours, had its – presumably costive – tortoise. I don’t ever remember up-ending the poor chap in warm water to administer laxatives.

Between 1895 and 1984 some ten million tortoises were apparently imported into Britain, 67% of them (how does anyone invent these figures?) from Morocco. And CITES, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species, has made it illegal to import or sell the little fellows (unless bred in captivity and microchipped) since 1984.

But there’s market pressure. The tortoise-man in the Souaika sells a big tortoise for 150 dirhams, and a middling sort of tortoise for 100 or so. Small ones are cheaper (and no doubt they’re all much cheaper if you’re not a gullible middle-aged Englishman – the RSPCA reports that they can, or could, be bought in bulk in Marakech for £1 each, which is 13 dirhams). He has trays of them, rather squashed up but not in too obvious distress; on the other hand, he doesn’t like people photographing them, which may be simple irritation at all the tourists who snap without buying, but may equally reflect a discomfort at undercover missions from animal rights organizations.

This month 66 spur-thighed tortoises were found in a sports bag hidden in the back of a van coming off the ferry from Nador at Sète in the south of France. There, it seems, they command prices of between 1000 and 2000 dirhams a pop. So for 66 that’s profit of going on £10 grand – which is why people smuggle them. Fortunately all 66 survived, though the press reports do not record whether they have been repatriated to Morocco. If not, we must wish the douaniers sètois the best of fortune with the wooden shingles and the soapy water. Wholesale smuggling of tortoises takes place too on a much larger scale, with tortoises stacked upon each other like melons, and many miserable deaths in transit.

At the retail end of the trade it seems that British tourists, nostalgic for childhood memories of tortoises-in-the-garden, are buying them and taking them home in pockets and handbags. This is tough on the handbag, which will fill up with tortoise-crap, but more importantly, is tough on the tortoise. Ours will stay where they belong when we leave, fossicking about in our Rabat garden in the sunshine to amuse and delight our successors.

Moroccans ascribe all sorts of virtues to tortoises. Some believe that their blood cures warts, some that they keep snakes away from the garden. Yet others believe that their hiss can turn children blind, though my offspring seem still to be pretty sharp-eyed. At least Mr T isn’t likely to suffer the fate of Darwin’s tortoises, sent back from the Galapagos to England, but again and again eaten en route by sailors who found them irresistibly delicious: tortoises here in Morocco are generally thought of as haram on the culinary front, because they are believed to eat – forgive me – shit. So perhaps that handbag will be self-cleaning, after all. But don’t.

Follow that oval ball

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I have on my desk a press cutting about an organization called ‘Les Enfants de l’Ovale-Maroc’ – EDOM – and it’s such a wonderful story that I shall do little more than repeat it here. Moroccan rugger has not really impinged on my consciousness these last four years, though there’s a field of waist-high buttercups in the Hilton Forest with posts at each end on which intrepid teams sometimes go out. Rugby was introduced of course by the French under the Protectorat, and has been intimately linked with France and Spain, where most of the best Moroccans play for league teams and quite a few – like the great second-row forward Abdelatif Benazzi, capped 78 times (below) – have played for France. But Morocco itself was a founder member of the African League in 1986, and has won it twice in the past decade, inserting itself into that other sphere of post-French rugby, francophone  West Africa.

Anyway, I need little convincing that rugger is a sport that breeds virtues of determination, courage, teamwork and so on, as well as being enormous fun. EDOM was set up ten years ago at Mers El Kheir, near Temara, one of the ten poorest communes in Morocco, to harness those virtues to bettering the lot of the town’s children. The president of EDOM, Dr Mohammed Missoum, says that it is “un bel example d’ingénierie sociale dans l’action de lutte contre la précarité. Nous menons des actions dans le soutien scolaire, les activités artistiques, les practiques sportifs … surtout le rugby.” I should say that “un bel example” is exactly what it is.

EDOM has seen 4,000 children pass through its tutelage, and raised 7,000,000 dirhams in a decade. It has seen its boys and girls (it is committed to girls’ education and opportunity) go on to further education and medical school. Just as important, half the national rugby team are EDOM graduates, and all benefit from the “solidarité, respect, ésprit d’équipe et courage” which EDOM and rugger inculcate. Several African countries are looking to franchise this brilliant concept. A week ago, EDOM won the 11th Crown Prince Moulay Al Hassan championship.

A few weeks ago I was in Oxford, and watched my son walk out onto the pitch for the first time in a Blue jersey, for the University Under-20s. Like every father on the touchline I was bursting with ridiculously exaggerated pride. But I think after reading this piece in L’Economiste, I’d be just as proud to have seen my son running out onto the field at EDOM.

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A dearly bought hyphen

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At the beginning of the last century, the Bouregreg valley was a lush confusion of interlaced channels, thick with reed-beds and sedge, where European residents went sniping from flat-bottomed boats in the heat of a Rabat summer, avoiding pot-shots from Zaer tribesmen. Rbatis with any sense stayed well away, safe within the walls. This fragile and beautiful environment lasted, more or less, for another century, with fields and orange-orchards slowly reclaimed from the marshes, and the truly breath-taking view of Salé across the estuary uninterrupted by building. Until recently it was still possible to make out the shadowy outline in the sand of the channel leading from the riverbank to the Bab Mrisa, up which captured ships were dragged to be dismasted and stripped of their chandlery in the basin of Salé’s arsenal.

Writing at the turn of the last century, the French Vice-Consul, Louis Mercier, described this glorious stretch of unspoilt river valley.

The Oued divides  … into a large numbers of channels which cut up this marshy soil into an infinity of isles and little patches of land of tortuous shape. Dense and varied marsh vegetation covers the low plain and shelters a whole world of water birds – marsh snipe, woodcock, curlews, plovers, ducks, cranes and so on.  Only two branches of the Oued are of any importance. The main one is the furthest east, touching the right bank, close to whose high and bushy banks it flows for 400 or 500 metres. Then it moves slowly away from the bank to take a north-south direction, then northeast-southwest, and it touches the left bank three kilometres further on.

The other important branch is roughly halfway between the two banks and follows a north-south route almost in a straight line, only to lose itself in the sandbanks a few hundred metres before rejoining the main channel. This second branch is called by the natives Es-Saqia, ‘the channel:’ given its narrowness, it can only offer passage to a single boat. This is the route which hunters take, because it leads into the heart of the marsh. It also has another advantage which is not unimportant: it is equidistant from the two banks, and puts you out of range of gunshots from one or the other. The two banks are about a kilometre apart at this point, and it is well known that the Arabs don’t like shooting from a distance. For part of the year all these alluvial lands are covered at high tide.

Having arrived at the end of the saqia, you can land and continue the expedition on foot, towards the left bank. This is only possible when the tide is not too high, otherwise you are stopped constantly by secondary channels. You can continue in that direction and rejoin the road that runs along the left bank at the foot of the cliffs and goes to Chella; or continue along the river as far as the lovely orange orchards which lie a little further on. These orchards are the property of the qaid of Rabat, hence their name, El-Souissiya, which comes from the patronymic name of his family. These orchards have, for a long time, been the objective of walks for Europeans living in Rabat. They go there by river and by land. But insecurity has been growing now for three years, and these days even the owner of these orchards doesn’t dare go there himself.

Unspoiled no longer. In the time I have lived in, and loved, Rabat, I have watched the lower part of the river transformed into the Bab el-Bahr, a stack of drab, undistinguished building around a marina. The stark white control-tower of a heliport stands like a single raised finger in front of Salé’s ancient walls. Right in front of one of the world’s most magnificent mediæval urban panoramas, it is a sad impertinence. A plywood dhow is now moored at (nailed to?) the river-front near where the old customs sheds once stood. And foundations are being furiously dug further up the river valley, for more building.

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Here, I read yesterday in a breathless account in L’Economiste, there is to be a further development, a new cultural centre for Rabat, no less, centred on a Grande Théâtre by Zaha Hadid. There’s a photograph of a 3D maquette of the whole development, and Ms Hadid’s theatre looks like an enormous marshmallow that has been sat upon by a careless elephant. The developers, Wessal Rabat, are as pleased as punch with the whole thing, which is budgeted at 9,000,000,000 dirhams, and will take shape between 2014 and 2020.

La phase II, qui s’étend sur environ 110 hectares, se positionne dans un site exceptionnel déjà desservi par le tramway, les réseaux routiers et autoroutiers, qui plus est située à 10 minutes de ‘aéroport international de Rabat. C’est dire que le projet s’insère dans un logique d’attractivité touristique et culturelle. Rabat-Salé intends to attract 4 million tourists a year by 2020 (so the red-faced Brits tumbling into the medina off the new Ryan Air flight from Stansted are only a harbinger of redder things to come). To service their discerning needs there will be not only Ms Hadid’s Grand Théâtre, but a new museum of archæology and earth science, ‘thematised promenades’ by the river and lots of hotels. As well, of course, as another marina (difficile à imaginer le réaménagement de la vallée du Bouregreg sans un marina … équipée de meilleures commodités des marinas de plaisance. Quite.)

Grosso modo (and seldom, it seems to me, has that over-used Italian phrase been more appropriate) les composantes seront à forte dominance culturelle et s’inspireront du patrimoine architectural local, afin de renforcer l’attractivité touristique de la destination. That will be the 105,000 square metres of offices, I imagine, along with the house-building programme which combine des structures futuristes et traditionelles avec des touches typiques de l’ancienne medina.

But it’s too easy to carp. Rabat is a capital city, and it’s not unreasonable that it should want all the fancy bric-a-brac that goes with being one. Nor that the biggest investment fund in Africa should turn its attention from Casa Port, once finished, to the Bouregreg, la plus grosse opération jamais realisée par le fonds Wessal. By 2020 the old sister cities across the Bouregreg will be lost in a sea of concrete, and the Casbah des Oudiyas will look down disdainfully  on a valley full to the brim with cultcha.

Zaha Hadid is a wonderful architect (I recently visited her amazing new half-finished Middle East Centre at St Antony’s in Oxford and was suitably awe-struck); and culture is a splendid commodity. This new quarter will be un veritable trait d’union entre la culture et le grand public. C’est la principale mission qui sera donnée aux cinq maisons de culture de la vallée du Bouregreg. I’m not entirely clear how this rhetorical hyphen will operate in joining culture and the general public, but I daresay the latter will pour down from both banks to throng the facilities providing the former. I very much hope it works, because the price that Rabat is paying is a large one, in the loss of the almost inexpressibly lovely views of Salé’s walls and the slow-moving river, of the patchwork of small green fields and the storks nesting undisturbed on the hillside opposite the Chellah.

I went yesterday to the high place on the bluff at Yousoufia, and looked out on the valley, with storks riding the thermals far below, and tiny fishermen casting nets. The river snaked lazily along towards the sea and the great walls of the Chellah clambered dramatically down their hillside. It will be a dearly bought hyphen.

The Bureau of Industry and Amusement Hall

Swords, students and vegetables

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Dhar el Mahraz at Fes is awash, according to press reports, with commerce illicite de toutes sortes de marchandises (drogues, alcool, sabre, prostitution …). It sounds a bit like the Baltimore housing projects in The Wire. And the neighbours aren’t great, either: Il est entouré, autre les bidonvilles de Dhar el Mahraz, Douar el Askar et Aouinate El Hajjaj, d’une zone industrielle (Sidi Brahim), de casernes militaires et de quartiers insalubres. There’s quite a bit of casual violence (the sabres are a giveaway). It’s really not the kind of place you’d want your children going anywhere near.

The odd thing is that it’s a university campus, belonging to Fes’s Université Sidi Mohamed ben Abdellah. Ten days or ago there was a pitched battle there between Islamists and Maoists which led to several severe injuries, and the death of a young student called Abderrahim Hasnaoui. The fight was over a seminar run by the Islamists called – you couldn’t make this up – Islamists, the Left and Democracy.

The details are not in the end very important, though the objection of the Maoists was to the fêting of an Islamist militant of the 1990s held responsible for the death of a leftist student in 1993. Abderrahim Hasnaoui was 21 when he died, which means that he was born in 1993, about the time of this earlier murder. So he can’t have had any direct knowledge of it, and the same is presumably true of all the other cutlass-wielding undergraduates who set about each other with such enthusiasm. The motor of events at Dhar el Mahraz was regurgitated history, myth and tittle-tattle, a narrative whirlpool of gang violence and ancient grievance. Mixed of course with testosterone and hatred: cette violence est le résultat d’une décision préméditée, as the Minister of Higher Education noted soberly.

It smacks of what is being called Tscharmil in the press. I’m told that the word Tscharmil comes from the kitchen and has to do with dicing vegetables, an unpleasant image in this context. It describes a recently much written-about epidemic of crimes with armes blanches – cutlasses, machetes, butcher’s knives, mostly home-made. The tscharmilists post pictures of loot, victims and weapons on the internet, and we are warned that street robberies with knives (and larger cutlery) are on the increase in towns across Morocco. The newspapers publish pictures of policemen with home-made sabres seized from home-made sabre factories, and they look pretty lethal (the sabres, that is).

The King has given firm instructions to police, university presidents and other authorities that they are to stop both Tscharmil and campus violence: L’université ne doit plus être un lieu de désordre, mais un endroit de recherche et de savoir. It seems that the police have responded with enthusiasm, in some cases taking much more proportionate armes blanches – razors – to the scalps of miscreants, cutting their hair off. This in turn raises all sorts of bad memories, and reminds liberal commentators of Costas-Gavras’s 1969 film, Z. It’s all a bit of a mess. On Monday this week the police were given permission to enter universities without the permission of presidents and deans to preserve public order. A sort of academic hot pursuit, to prevent sword-fights.

But what is really going on? The phenomenon of youth violence is clearly real. Several of my colleagues have been robbed with edged weapons in Casablanca in recent months. Sword-wielding students are not a figment of the imagination, and nor are squalid deaths in campus brawls, or armed hold-ups. But as Omar Saghi comments in TelQuel, the level of violent crime is nonetheless pretty low, and not really rising: l’insecurité qui, selon des médias lubriques, explose, n’a rien d’exceptionnel par rapport a ce qu’elle a été sous Hassan II. Indeed the Ministry of the Interior has just this week announced that the national figures for violent crime are significantly down. What Saghi sees is a diatisation de l’insecurité, an escalating coverage of violence in the press which plays to popular fears, underwrites resolute police action and elaborates narratives of blame. This seems plausible – we see it in Britain too, the fingering of migrants and the poor, the press-driven soap opera of threat to person and property – a de-ideologized politics of fear.

Is this all it is? I doubt it. There is an awful lot of non-specific frustration bubbling under the surface of Moroccan society, of thwarted ambition and stunted lives. These tscharmilists are football’s Ultras writ large, young men whose rage finds no other outlet than physically enforcing submission. Look at the picture at the head of this post – it’s in Rabat, of course, and shows an absurdly mighty FAR Ultra superhero violently subduing the shrimp-like fans of two rival teams. This is the visual language of thuggery, the ritual but nonetheless very real violence of young men failed by the education system and the job market, finding expression in imposing their incoherent, self-glorifying, resentful, inarticulate – but very real – personal narratives down the throats of Others.

It is a relief to see decisive action taken – but what it all underlines for me is the desperate need for investment in a reformed Higher Education sector. Dhar el-Mahraz is to be rebuilt, apparently, and not before time. Last week I was at Agadir and visited the new campus buildings of Ibn Zohr University: they are superb, carefully thought out, beautifully decorated and imaginatively finished. Though Ibn Zohr has its share of campus troubles, it is hard to imagine students crossing sabres in these splendid buildings, which radiate a respect for the student that demands to be reciprocated. And that respect, that karama, is what is missing for so many of Morocco’s young people – and what they so desperately need.

Roll up that Chap

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When I started this blog almost two years ago, I chose as the masthead picture a line of mannequins outside a clothes shop in Avenue Hassan II, between Allel ben Abdellah and Mohamed V. They seemed to me to capture something quintessential about Morocco, the melancholy of the young men chipped and battered by life, their eyes ringed with smudged brown paint, bleak, dazed and despondent. They have a teddy-boy’s quiff, a jaunty wave of the hair, and a not-quite-firm jaw. And they go resiliently on through chips, scratches and breaks, repairs and re-paintings: eternal survivors

Later I found out that the mannequin, who also has a wife and two children, is still made from moulds sold by Spanish travelling salesmen in the 1960s and 70s. I came across a small workshop on the old Kenitra road making the wife, who is known (there at least) as Monica. A week later, the foreman told us, he’d be doing a run of Monica’s consort, Er-rajul, the young man in my picture. The faces of Er-rajul and Monica, who I have come to think of as a Moroccan Adam and Eve, stick firmly in the mind: I can’t walk through a mdina anywhere in Morocco without seeing them staring sadly, perhaps reproachfully, out at me from shops and stalls. Once spotted, they are everywhere: Monica and her fibre-glass, teddy-boy husband are very much part of the imaginative fabric of my life in Morocco.

Today I was walking along Avenue Hassan II on my way to lunch, and I stopped outside the shop where I took the original photograph. I stopped without any conscious reason for stopping, in fact without being fully aware of having stopped at all. But I saw suddenly that the mannequins in front of the shop had changed dramatically, and I found myself face-to-face with a line of besuited male figures wrapped in silver foil, like a line of joints ready for the oven. If you look carefully in the photograph, you can still see the line of their jaw and the sweep of their hair, under the shiny gift-wrapping.

It felt as though someone had painted the Tour Hassan pink, or hung Christmas lights on the DGST headquarters. As though my life in Rabat was coming to an end, its imagery subverted. I took it rather personally, in fact, as a foreshadowing of my departure from Morocco at the end of this coming summer. “Roll up that chap,” as Pitt is whimsically alleged to have said of Fox, “we shall not need him these ten years.” Well, wrap him in baking-foil, anyway.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize that if it is a reference at all, it is a reference not to me but to the young man, the quintessential Moroccan. Old and chipped isn’t good enough any more – Er-rajul has to be slick and modern, his familiar, battered old face turned into an anonymizing attempt at arty chic. A bit like Morocco itself, I reflect, as I look out towards Salé over what used to be the soulfully beautiful, desolate floor of the Bouregreg valley, now a clutter of meretricious building to which has recently been added the control tower of a heliport.

Change must come, I daresay, but I am delighted to have seen the tail-end of Rabat as a truly lovely city -  with its strange interstitial population of kohl-eyed teddy boys.

La trahison des clercs

Last week saw an extraordinary press headline: Morocco’s Minister of Education: French is No Longer Valid, English is the Solution. Lahcen Daoudi proposes, in this interview, a number of radical changes to higher education policy. The Ministry, says Dr Daoudi, is to make English proficiency a condition for obtaining a doctorate. “We master neither Arabic nor French … because most scientific references are in English.” He goes on, “English is the world language for scientific research,” concluding that “French is no longer useful.” What’s more, this seems to have implications for undergraduates: “Students who want to have access to science departments at Moroccan universities must be proficient in English.” Not pausing for breath, he swipes at the current bête noire of the PJD with the words “the French baccalaureate is a dubious solution.”

This is a fascinating statement, not simply because it is true (it is self-evident), but because it has been made at all. French has been the dominant foreign language in Morocco since the Protectorate – and Dr Daoudi is a perfect French-speaker. French is the language of the élite, of the Mission; it is the language of university education in the sciences – the senior stream of the universities. So entrenched is it there that although the schools education system was Arabised by the late 1980s, school-leavers from the public schools wishing to study maths or science still have to make the incredibly demanding jump to studying in French for their degrees, while those educated privately or at the Mission cope easily enough with the same transition. Charis Bouthieri quotes a Moroccan teacher as saying that French “is [the pupils’] passport to the grandes écoles … we don’t hide it from them – the key to success is math and French.” This is what is changing.

Morocco is the jewel in the crown of la Francophonie, with one of the largest French Embassies, and one of the largest French cultural budgets, in the world. The country has 13 French cultural institutes of various kinds (Instituts, antennes and Alliances) and the Mission maintains some 30 schools (between AEFE and OSUI):  Le réseau des établissements scolaires d’enseignement français au Maroc est sans conteste le plus dense au monde. Il scolarise à cette rentrée 31 500 élèves, dont plus de 60 % sont marocains, dans des établissements couvrant les principales villes du Maroc à tous les niveaux d’enseignement. 

So Dr Daoudi is saying something very radical, proposing a reversal of a century of cultural tutelage and education, of a tight affiliation to France in language and culture which underpins the existing constellation of power. As one courtier said to me recently in another context, “The post-colonial period is over. We are entering the post-post-colonial period.” It is rather a bumpy ride.

The last few weeks have seen what I think is probably the beginning of a sea-change in Morocco’s cultural alignment. The Delattre remark (“Morocco is like a tired old mistress …”) and the Hammouchi Affair in Paris crystallized (rightly or wrongly) for many Moroccans the sense that Morocco is taken for granted, undervalued and under-respected. Demonstrators sat-in outside the French Embassy, legal co-operation was suspended. Hamid Chabat commented splenetically that it is time to replace French with English.

This could have been a storm in a teacup, but was followed almost immediately by an attack on the French-language options in the Moroccan baccalaureate that were introduced last September and signed into an intergovernmental accord between the two ministers this February.  (These are a perfectly logical attempt to ease the transition from the scientific bac in the public schools to university study in French.) The attack came from the PJD, which turned out firmly against this further entrenchment of French in the Moroccan public education system, calling it “une grave violation de la souveraineté nationale,” and “une humiliation de la langue Arabe.” The PJD, the coalition government’s senior partner, has apparently sworn to see the bac français off the field, using all possible means including parliamentary and trade union action, the latter through the UNMT, “son bras syndical.”

I watch all this as a slightly incredulous observer. It is sad that this great – and in my view inevitable – geocultural tipping-point is being reached in an apparently unplanned, unexpected way. The surprise is not that it is happening, but that it is happening so much faster than anyone could have expected. Clearly Dr Daoudi is right about English as the international language of science, of the communauté des savants. I am increasingly struck, and decreasingly surprised, by Moroccan ministries and state organizations telling me that they don’t want academic seminars and conferences translated into French, because (as the head of a major research organization said to me recently, in French), “We have got to make Moroccan researchers speak English.”

I am more surprised by the take-up of places at British universities by Moroccan students: until last year I was scarcely aware of serious recruitment. This year the swallows have made a summer – we have seen half a dozen major universities on recruiting missions, and the figures are beginning to creep upwards. Given the cost, this is very significant. Most of the students are coming from the Lycées de la Mission Française, and are students who would have progressed without reflection to French HE institutions in a previous generation. There, though, they would today find a growing number of their courses taught in English – some 25% at the grandes ecoles. For a small but fast-growing number, the anglophone universities of the USA, Britain and Canada seem to be an attractive alternative. As one very senior Moroccan said to me recently (in exquisite French), “I’m too old a dog to learn new tricks – but my children are at university in the States because without English they aren’t going anywhere.”

To this I should add the thickening of research relationships. These are still at a relatively early stage of development, but given the Minister’s remarks seem likely to thicken up a good deal. Already in the last twelve months the British Council has run three research workshops with Cambridge University and the Moroccan-British Society (on Moroccan History 1945-56; Moroccan Popular Culture; and the relationship between Economic Reform and Job Creation); and another four postdoctoral research workshops with the CNRST on Jurassic Environments, Social Policy, Nutrition and Big Data. These have laid the foundations of actual and potential collaboration between Moroccan institutions and not only Cambridge and SOAS, but also Imperial, Southampton, Bath and the Natural History Museum. Cambridge and Imperial (at 3rd and 5th in the QS World Rankings, or 7th and 10th in the THES) are major institutions for partnership with Morocco.

There are other straws in the wind, but the overall story is a simple one. The then French Minister of Education Geneviève Fioraso said last year that the English language needs much greater currency in French Higher Education, noting that in recruiting only 3,000 Indian students, “nous sommes ridicules.” The understanding is as clear in France as it is becoming in Morocco that English is the international language of scholarship. This is particularly true in the sciences, but I have recently had two distinguished Moroccan anthropologists tell me quite separately that they feel beached by the fact that most important publishing in their field is in English, and translation into French even of the most important publications can take five or ten years.

Of course at a national level such decisions are not purely pragmatic. There is much sentiment and much tenderness over identity involved (as has been very clear in the parallel polemic over darija and fus7a in elementary education in Morocco).  French, and Mission education, have been markers of the élite for many decades and closely guarded gateways. Moha Hajar of FTSE Errachidia has done interesting statistical analysis on the make-up of graduating classes from the Lyceés de la Mission, concluding that the 500 ‘top’ families of the Kingdom make up 45.19% of graduations since 1956; the top 200 families, 33.75%; the top 50, 21.36%, and the top ten families 9.84%. The Mission has been rightly described as une pepinière d’élite, and the turning towards English – or at least its current speeding up – has I suspect had a good deal to do with the shifting attitudes towards French amongst the fast-growing state-university-educated youth population. These young Moroccans are emerging in ever-greater numbers onto the job-market where they find themselves strongly disadvantaged vis-à-vis their Mission peers, and frequently en chômage. The ‘Arab Spring’ has probably speeded up such reactions: social and political change is tied up inextricably with language change in the minds of young Moroccans.

English – and I am not of course writing primarily here of the English of my own country (a collateral beneficiary), but of the World English that has been called Globish – is a class-free language, forgiving of mistakes, short on social markers. It offers a neural bypass around the constipated stratification of languages in Morocco, a way to internationalize the mind, and the career, without becoming wholly hostage to the different limitations of la francophonie and the Arabic-speaking world. English is in this sense also the workaround to deal with a language-defined élite.  A vector, if you like, of democracy as well as a hotlink to the globalised world of the 21st century.

Say it in Tamazight

Biz Card

Here is what I firmly believe to be the British Council’s first business card written in Tamazight and printed in Tiffinagh. Not a work of high literary pretension (indeed it is perfectly possible that it says, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s letter, Kill the Bearer, though I hope not), but symbolically important. Tamazight is an official language under the 2011 constitution, and it is good and necessary to recognize it in the small ways available to us. These include all the signage in the Council’s Rabat office; and this business card which demonstrates, I hope, the will to know more and the conviction that all the languages and cultures of a country in which we work are the Council’s business.

One of the other small initiatives we had in mind was the translation into Tamazight of a conference report on leadership in North Africa that the Council ran in Hammamet last November. We have the document in French, English and Arabic, but it seemed to me that such a report on youth leadership ought also to be put into Tamazight; and that this too is statement that the Council would like to make. Alas, the IRCAM tells us that it is too busy to deal with such things. This is a pity – and if any of my readers is able to recommend a translator who could help us, I would be very interested to hear.

P U L S E

Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one

Cultural Relations from the Director of the British Council in Morocco

Mercurius Maghrebensis

Cultural Relations from the Director of the British Council in Morocco

Cultural Relations from the Director of the British Council in Morocco

The Arabist

Cultural Relations from the Director of the British Council in Morocco

Cultural Relations from the Director of the British Council in Morocco

Cultural Relations from the Director of the British Council in Morocco

London Review of Books

Cultural Relations from the Director of the British Council in Morocco

Cultural Relations from the Director of the British Council in Morocco

Jadaliyya Ezine

Cultural Relations from the Director of the British Council in Morocco

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