What’s this holiday about anyway?


For the past few days there have been Moroccan flags everywhere, because yesterday was a national holiday in Morocco, the 35th anniversary of the Green March.

Let me first say that southern Morocco, also known as the Western Sahara, is contested territory, and talking about the issue with Moroccans can be tricky business. Morocco claims the area as its own and has been in conflict with Algeria, Mauritania, and independent factions like the Polisario over its sovereignty. Meanwhile, the United Nations doesn’t recognize the Western Sahara as part of Morocco.

The Green March of November 6th, 1975, helps shed some light on the emotional significance of the Sahara problem. Here are the basic details, which I pieced together by just asking a few people, “So, what’s this holiday about anyway?”

Thirty-five years ago most of Morocco had been decolonized but Spain still controlled what makes up the now-contested area. On November 6th, 350 thousand people peacefully demonstrated in the south and marched into the Sahara, Moroccan flag in one hand, Koran in the other. Some people marched from Rabat all the way to Dakhla, 1700 km away. The Spanish then, peacefully, surrendered control of the Sahara to the Moroccans.

Most people I surveyed agreed on and stressed a few things: a) the march was peaceful; b) the march led to the reclaiming of the Sahara by Morocco; c) the marchers (and the King) were righteous.

In fact King Hassan II in all of this is both invisible in the narrative according to which 350,000 spontaneously marched 1700 km, and aaaall over it. One person clarified that the king had forced the issue of the Sahara with the Spanish because he could tell, based on a few failed coups d’état, that he needed to galvanize support. And though most Moroccans at the time were probably supportive of a plan to oust its colonizers, the reign of Hassan II is not known as a time of freedom for Moroccans.

I also read a novel a few months ago that described a practice by the Makhzen, or royal forces, of rounding up people for parades during the reign of Hassan II:

It’s worth noting that the Makhzen had earned themselves a terrible reputation in the area. The caïds, the super-caïds, the khelifas and their acolytes never visited the villages except to round up the population for “serbice.”

Serbice,” an arabized form of the french word “service,” always took place in Marrakesh, along the road between the airport and the Red City [Marrakesh]. Every time an emir, the leader of some little kingdom or the president of some banana republic visited the city, the Makhzen got busy moving the masses of the area, presumably to give the visitor an unforgettable welcome party.

Le Bonheur des Moineaux de Mohamed Nedali (2008)
(my translation, from French)

Yeah I know. Fiction. Grain of salt.

The thing is, I’m an outsider who’s not emotionally invested in Moroccan patriotism, so I’m naturally skeptical.

Learning about the glorious events of another country’s history, though, has forced me to think about some of the historical “facts” I learned in elementary school:

“Yeah, everyone thought the earth was flat, but Columbus was all, no guys, and I can prove it! So he sailed the open sea and found, ya know, America!” Et cetera.

Almost every day is a struggle to wriggle out of my own preconceived notions, to stretch my mind, and at the same time to approach things with a healthy amount of skepticism. Being open to the world and willing to challenge your worldview doesn’t mean uncritically swallowing another, but it does involve taking a look at the some of the bullshit we all absorb over the course of our education.

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Filed under cultural understanding, Moroccan fiction, Moroccan History, Moroccan traditions, Morocco

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