Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Feb 20, 2010, Rabat

Rock the Kasbah...(had to say it)

February 20, 2010 was the day for the protests to start in Morocco. One day later, there is little sign of the thousands that marched in the streets of Rabat. People walk calmly along the main boulevard, men and women sip coffee at the café across from Parliament and the streets are clear of pamphlets. The only thing amiss is that metal barriers cordon off the main boulevard and police vans hover along the sides of the squares.

The day before, this had been the site of a protest of an uncommon but not overwhelming magnitude. The entire Mohammad V boulevard, the main drag in town, was been filled with protest groups, their chants resounding off the high rises, their mass snaking down from in from of Parliament and around the corner past the walls of the old medina. I defer to my academic director for an estimate of the attendance: about 1,500 in the morning. This is also in accordance with Facebook mathematics: 3,000 people said they’d attend the event on Facebook, putting real-life attendance expectations between 1,000 and 1,500. The day was a warm, sunny Sunday, so more people came out as the day went on (the protest inexplicably began at the ungodly hour of 10 am).

I was there around noon, and the atmosphere was intoxicating though the protest was orderly. I am always struck by how calm protests are. People were milling around, going about their Sunday business as the chants of a thousand people filled the air. As one girl in my program pointed out, it seemed like a parade. I mean, they were selling candy for gods sake. Still, there were all the trappings of a protest: the bullhorns, the chants, the flag-waving, signs calling for freedom, equality and democracy, written in an impressive array of languages (speaking to both the multilingualism of the Moroccan people as well as the importance of the international community’s attention) and the camera men high above the crowd.

There were some remarkably poignant moments: as a small fistfight broke out between either government sympathizers or plain-clothes policemen, people surrounded them and stopped the violence by praying on the lawn.

I’ve included some photos to give you an idea of the atmosphere.

As I watched with some friends from the sidelines, I noticed how the march truly did seem like a parade—there were noticeable separate groups, distinguishable by their slogan, chant and demographic. There was the group waving Palestinian and Egyptian flags—perhaps a Middle Eastern revolutionary pride group? Then there was a group lead by a man with a Che Guevara cape—Latin American-inspired radical socialist group? The most powerful though, was the veiled women holding photos of their presumably disappeared husbands, brothers, sisters, daughters and sons. To Western eyes, it was incredible seeing women with only their eyes showing demonstrating against human rights abuses. This movement of mothers organizing to demand the return of their disappeared family members dates back to the years of oppression during the previous king Hassan II. Just as the Madres de Plaza de Mayo of Argentina do, they use the sympathies and social immunity afforded to them as mothers to call for justice. One of my friends speculated that the conservative veiling was not in deference to modesty but instead to protect their identity. There also was a puzzlingly well organized group of men who walked in perfectly parallel lines. The different factions occasionally united to chant together, lead by veteran protesters who were recognizable by their standard issue revolutionary attire: army green coats, that checkered scarf (you know the one, what’s it called?) and defiantly held-up peace signs. However, these groupings speak to one of the weaknesses of the Moroccan protest movement.

Moroccans, like many around the world, like to protest. Protesters are a regular fixture outside Parliament. However, these protesters are rarely united by a single issue, making Sunday’s protest cohesive demand of reforming the structure of the government and possibly the constitution all the more unique and credible.

Still, there remains such a plethora of special-interest groups that there is no cohesive opposition party with clear demands. The result is that within the political sphere there is little possibility for real change. And this reality is why there should be any concern for unrest in Morocco. On the radio, my academic director heard a caller ask say that the protesters simply should create a party, call it the February 20th Party. Another caller responded and said the problem is that that party would not get any votes, there simply are too many competing parties out there. Perhaps because of the stratification of the parties, voter turn out is low, the last election only 37% of the eligible voting population participated. Obviously, political discourse in Morocco is lacking.

There are a few explanations for this—the electoral system, the diverse nature of Moroccan society, simply that there are a lot of things to complain about and the conspiracy theory—fractured opposition is easier for the king and his supporters to control.

The most well-known faction are the university protesters—unemployed graduates of public universities with degrees in “useless” majors like Philosophy, Biology and Islamic Studies (Computer Science and Communications are the surefire tracts to success here). These graduates are demanding the government provide them with employment. Their existence is a sign of how Morocco lacks a diversified economy to provide sufficient professional jobs, but their demands would lead, critics say, to an increase in inefficient, corrupt bureaucracy. According to my academic director (a Political Science professor among other things), in the lead up to these protests, this particular group was placated by a minister who promised them if they disbanded they would be employed by March. Abdelhay contends that if they had been present the protests would have been more “rowdy.”

In the Western media I have read so far, the protests I saw were represented in the most dramatic fashion possible while still clinging to some truth. There were some who in the North burned down a bank but they are probably people taking advantage of the situation rather than part of the organized revolution. For the time being, it seems all is calm on the Magharib front.

(that’s a really clever pun if you didn’t know. You see, Maghrib is the Moroccan word for Morocco. It also means West. Get it, huh?)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Egypt Protests: First hand account

A good friend of mine, Liana, is a Middle Eastern Studies Major at Mount Holy Oake College, and in the course of her studies decided to spent a year in Egypt with a Boren Scholarship. She originally chose Lebanon, but that was nixed because of unrest, so instead she was able to experience some of the greatest political unrest in the Arab world first-hand, from her apartment in Cairo, Egypt. Love the irony. You can read her blog here:


Friday, February 4, 2011


Here are two obvious observations:

1. TV makes the strange stranger.

2. I’m sorry Gil Scott-Heron, now the revolution is always televised.

Today I met my Moroccan host family and spent my first seven hours in their house watching TV. Here is the programming list:

-An Arabic dubbed soap opera from Argentina

-7NN: “Connecting you locally”. An English language channel broadcasting from the UAE with news that exclusively pertains to and compliments the home country.

-The Worldwide Wrestling Federation. I kid you not. The World’s Strongest Man simultaneously defeated 7 of the sport’s biggest spandex-clad stars in an epic battle only to be interrupted by the Mexican aristocrat Alguién De Río who entered the arena in his latest model Bentley to announce his unquestionable victory in the next championship fight, which would be held the next episode. It had my host mom, dad and me in stitches.

-We interrupt this broadcast to give you a Powerpoint presentation of the call to prayer

-Arab MTV

-An incest-filled dubbed Turkish soap opera

-A New Age music video celebrating Khomani, the Iranian imam that started the Iranian revolution. And speaking of…

-Non-stop-every-other-channel-coverage of the riots in Egypt.

When we were first greeted by our Academic Directors, Abdelhay Moudden and Laheen Haddad, they joked that every year they prepare something special and this year it is revolutions in the Arab world. By the time we had arrived, Tunisia had already overthrow a dictator and currently in Egypt millions are rioting in the street against a supposedly democratically elected president that has been in power for 30 years. You see, this is the first time there has ever been a successful revolution in the Arab states.

Political scientists have used the Arab world as a case study of the theory that things like revolutions, democracy, personal freedoms and human rights are not compatible with certain dominate cultures, just like socialized health care, free higher education and soccer don’t work in others.

By the way, the Arab world is defined as countries that list Arabic as an official language so it includes Somalia but not Iran, meaning the classification does not technically include, though it does imply, a common religion or race. As I mentioned earlier, there are 22 official Arabic countries while there are 57 Islamic countries in the world, many of who have experienced revolutions. This theory has attributed the lack of democracy in the Arab world to forces as diverse as Islamic fatalism, tribal societies, geographic isolation, recent decolonization and the resource trap phenomenon.

Suffice to say, it’s agreed upon that this CAME OUT OF NOWHERE. The panicked eyes of news anchors harkens back to the heady first days of the economic crisis. No one saw this coming. (It took days of riots to for travel insurance to evacuate American study abroad students. And those were the lucky ones. For more info follow Liana’s blog). No one knows what started it (Burning men? Twitter? Jasmine? Pent-up Repression?) No one knows how it will end (Democracy? Power vacuum to new dictator? Violent crackdowns and continued oppression?). And, no one knows how far it will spread (Yemen? Saudi Arabia? Morocco?). The New York Times, as always, has some great articles and opinions about it:


Despite being on the same continent as all of this strife and in a country that could be due for a revolution, I have surprisingly little first hand knowledge of what is happening. My Internet access has been spotty and the orientation schedule has been fulfilling its duty to distract us from everything we have left behind. Which brings me back to my 7 hour TV watching marathon, the closest I have gotten to being informed about the riots.

(For informed journalism, check out the International Herald Tribune, the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/pages/world/middleeast/index.html and Nicolas Kristoff is posting a lot interesting opinion pieces)

First of all, this will be primarily a Visual Media Critical Cultural Analysis Study due to my complete ignorance of the Arabic language. It isn’t Comparative since I don’t know how this is being broadcast back home but I assume biases are present on both sides. For example, Dr. Moudden said there was a 1,000% difference in CNN’s estimate for the Wednesday protest (200,000) and Al Jazeera’s (2,000,000). From here, Obama’s call for Mubarak to reform rings hollow and Israel’s fundamentalist scares sound shrill, but I am surrounded by Middle Eastern and Peace Studies majors (see last post)

The quantity and quality of the images struck me initially. That is, the quantity is endless and the quality is of shitty cell-phone resolution. There is one incident where a military or police van swerved through the streets and ran down two men. They played an overview shot, a first person shot and a few close-ups , all clearly captured on different onlookers’ cell phones. There is even a photo of a man using his cell phone as a light for impromptu medical treatment on another protester’s gaping wound.

The images also have taken a turn for the battlefield genre. One station favors a nice photomontage of wounded protestors—heads, arms, legs, more heads, Egyptian flags, you name it, and they’re bloody. As the Mubarak supporters have started to retaliate there are videos of walls constructed of overturned dumpsters and people lobbing stones across them. There is even a video of men on horses running through crowds (really want a translation about that one). This sounds like a modern dramatic interpretation of medieval warfare, and in a way, it is. This is still a mainly leaderless movement and the streets have become chaos. Last count there were 6 dead and hundreds injured. One has to hope that some sense is made soon before it escalates more.

The last thing I noticed was the English. Occasionally, recognizable alphabetic characters would pop onto the screen in the form of banners, shirts and signs. The words that Egyptians chose to translate show how they want to be portrayed to the Western media: We Want Freedom, Game Over Mubarak, and Democracy Now. They all define the movement as political, choosing words that tug at America’s heart strings (Liberty, anyone?) and avoiding mention of Islam. Although this is the beginning of Arabic revolutions, the English-speaking, namely, American world is seen as having the power to make this revolution succeed. One of Kristoff’s articles went across the screen and Obama was discussed at length, while no other world leaders were mentioned.

And while this was happening, what was did my Moroccan family think? I have no idea. Fortunately my host dad speaks some Spanish so we can communicate, but his broken Spanish and our conflicting accents made it so the political discussion only came down to: “Mubarak needs to resign. The problem is he doesn’t want to.” We watched CNN briefly enough for me to hear Fareed Whosit declare Egypt the center of the Arab world and that they were all watching but my host dad took a sip of water rather than confirm or deny the claim when I translated it.

From what it sounded like, the Moroccans are somewhat in awe. There were a lot of questions being asked back and forth. A hush fell on the room as the violent images played. The problem is, I just don’t know.

These revolution is groundbreaking for the reasons I mentioned but also because it could represent a socially meaningful application of social networking tools (the Twitter Revolution, remember?) I read a nice rebuttal to this argument in the International Herald Tribune opinion section but can’t track it down. To summarize, social networking does a good job of counting how many people believe in a certain cause so society doesn’t commit the fallacy of pluralistic concession (or something) but alone it is not a catalyst. In fact, virtually supporting a cause may completely satisfy the revolutionary urge, preventing people from acting in real life, where it matters.

It will be interesting to see how this develops, I’ll most likely be watching.

Moroccan Listings

I’ll sum up my orientation to Morocco in lists. You can await a breathless oh-my-god-what-have-I-gotten-myself-into-what-is-that-and-how-many-ways-can-you-make-a-guttural-noise at a later juncture.

My scheduled seminars for first day of orientation, in order:
1. Health Issues
2. Safety and Security Guidelines
3. Fears and Expectations
4. Lunch
5. Introducing Bargaining

Badrdine’s tips for bargaining in Morocco:
1. Show indifference
2. Shop around. Every store is the same.
3. Use Arabic. “ssalamu ‘lekum”, peace be upon you, is the way to any Morccan’s heart.
4. Bring a companion.
5. Have change in your pockets.
6. Always ask ¼ of the price.
7. If all else fails, just walk away. They’ll call you back if they can make profit.

Words taught to survive the first night at the homestay:
Shukran: Thank you
Safi: Enough, I’m full.
Shabaat: I swear, I’m fine.
Kuhli: Eat. (usually repeated by host mom)

Bad Scheduling:
Thursday, Febuary 3rd
Meet family

Friday, Febuary 4th
8:30-10:00 am
Begin Survival Arabic
Lunch with your families
Enjoy your Week end (:

My only description of my host family before meeting them:

Name: Drissi
Mother: Fatima
Father: Moustafa
Daughters: Iman and Hamid

Languages Spoken: Moroccan Arabic, English (few), French
Room: Single
Bathroom: Turkish
Water: Hot

Harper’s index, SIT Multiculturalism and Human Rights in Morocco version.
Number of monarchies in the world: 27
Number of Arabic countries in the world: 22
Number of Islamic countries: 57
Number of countries in the world: 193
Total world Arabic population: 350 million
Total world Muslim population: 1.7 billion
Total Moroccan population: 33 million
Percentage of Moroccans that identify as Muslim: 99%
Number of newly appointed judges in Morocco that are women: 25%
Percentage of Moroccans whose mother language is Berber: at least 50%
Percentage or Moroccan’s who are Berber: unknown.
Total number of people in my program: 37
Number of men in my program: 7
Number of people in the other SIT Morocco program: 12
Number of men in that program: 0
Percentage of participants majoring in International SomethingorOther: 78%
Percentage of people with a major name that is too long: 89%
-i.e. Politics with a Minor in Peace, Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation. Major in Humanities, Media and Cultural Studies. Double Major in Anthropology and International Studies with a Minor in English Literature.
Number of women with a major and/or minor with “Gender” or “Women’s” in the title: 7
Middle Eastern Studies majors: 6
Jewish Studies majors: 2

(the last five stats are educated guesses).