Category Archives: Morocco

The “Trabway”

Traffic in downtown Casa has been particularly congested in the last few months due to tramway construction. Drivers found some boulevards suddenly reduced from four lanes to two, and the historic Boulevard Mohammed V is almost completely blocked. Here’s what it looks like these days:

I think Casa is still in the “grumbly” phase of this major infrastructure project, because I’ve rarely seen much enthusiasm from Casaouis about the new Tramway, scheduled to be finished on 11/11/2011. One friend told me that the project is sometimes jokingly referred to as the “trabway.” “Trab” means dirt, which is all that we see so far of the tramway project.

A rep from Casa Tramway says that the company did a lot of outreach, both to take into account the public’s input and to let them know about the project once it was underway–where to park, how to drive around the blocked streets, etc–but having never heard of any of this from anyone else I’m skeptical about the efficacy of their outreach… (although a very cute animated tram popped up today on their website to give tips on avoiding roads under construction)

It’s hard to imagine how a city will look like, and feel, and function, once a project like this is completed, but here in Morocco Casablanca will not the guinea pig. Rabat, just an hour away, is very close to offering tram service to the public. Right now the system is up and running, but only on a testing basis. What a tease…

In my very unscientific poll of taxi drivers in Rabat, I’ve found that there are some mixed, but generally positive, feelings about the tramway. The construction and newly narrowed boulevards have caused some traffic headaches, I’m sure, but at least the project has taken shape. And compared to the mess that is downtown Casa right now, boy does Rabat look sleak and sexy. Check out the “zellige” (mosaic) motif on the trams.



Filed under Casablanca, Morocco, Rabat region, Transportation development, urban development, Urban Morocco

Drumroll…February 20th!

I’m a little late or right on time, depending on how you look at things, to talk about what’s been going on in North Africa in the past month or so. Ben Ali resigned on January 14th, Mubarak finally left a month later on February 11th, after 18 days of protests. Algerians have been demonstrating for awhile now, and Qaddafi may have his days numbered.

To paraphrase a question I’ve heard time and again in the Moroccan, American, and French press, not to mention my friends and family back home: so…what about Morocco?

February 20th has been looming for some time now as the day when Moroccans would take to the streets to peacefully demonstrate for reform. I started hearing rumors about a march a few weeks ago, and the date has been all over facebook for some time.

Morocco was ruled for thirty-eight years by Hassan II, the mere mention of whose name still makes some people nervous, but the current king, Mohammed VI, is softer in his approach to security and more progressive. In the past decade M6, as he’s affectionately called, has launched several royal initiatives to promote development. In the past few years Morocco has gone from #124 in the Human Development Index in 2004 to # 114 in 2010.

Like Tunisia and Egypt, though, Morocco has its share of demonstration-provoking issues—unemployment, low wages and high food prices being the big ones. In 1981, protests against the high price of food turned into riots, a memory which apparently fed the mild hysteria leading up to today.

Ostensibly, February 20th was about calling for reform of the parliament, which now acts as a rubber stamp for the king. When I searched “20 Février” on facebook, though, I found mostly anti-February 20th groups. “Stay at home on February 20th if you love our king!” seemed to be the recurrent message of these groups and facebook pages.

Actually, for a couple of weeks now facebook users have been using pictures of the king and his family as their profile picture. It seems that in the current climate, where demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt (and counting) have led to the resignation of national leaders, many people are taking criticism of the government to mean rebellion against the political and spiritual leader of the country and the symbol of Moroccan unity: the king.

The result has been a patriotic, almost reactionary atmosphere, which is sort of counter-intuitive when you consider how excited Moroccans have been over the ousting of Ben Ali and Mubarak.

Cars decked out to show support for the king:

Another decked-out car, filled with guys proudly wearing the Moroccan flag.

Al Jazeera English’s coverage of the protests in Rabat hints at the delicate situation in Morocco, which has evolved a lot in the last decade but still struggles with corruption and concentration of power and money.

Here’s what the famous February 20th protest looked like today in Casablanca.


Filed under Middle East, Moroccan History, Morocco, politics, the Arab World

Who’s to blame for last week’s flooding?

A week after major flooding around the country but especially in Casablanca, even Le Matin is critical of the city’s and the Wilaya’s (county, kind of?) “non-strategy” in the face of natural disaster.

Mayor Sajid continues to say not only that the city couldn’t have prepared for last week’s flooding, but that a plan cannot be put in place: “We can’t anticipate these kinds of situations.” (“On ne peut pas se projeter dans des situations pareilles.”)

Not true, according to an opinion piece on the same day in Le Matin by Youssef Chiheb, director of the “Urban Social Engineering” Masters program at l’Université Paris XIII. He suggests adding a disaster plan into the Plans de Développement Communaux (PDC) of every Moroccan city, similar to protocols put in place in Romania, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Although Chiheb’s piece overtly offers suggestions for a better disaster response on the part of the city, what’s most striking about his piece is his criticism of the residents who make the exact same claim: that the government’s response to last week’s floods fell short.

“The fly-by reports on television or in the press show the same images of devastation, disorganization, impotence of municipal authorities and improvisation of state services. These same sources summarize a public opinion that is always demanding of and accusing, whether rightly or wrongly, the authorities. “There has to…All we need is to…It’s the state who…It’s the elected representatives who…”. Here is a discourse that is obsolete, conformist and sterile because it never accounts for individual responsibility in this recurring disaster. If the evacuation channels for rainwater are inadequate because they’re dilapidated and outdated, it’s also the fault of the populace, who fills and blocks the gutters with food waste. In every neighborhood, the gutters are clogged. Water flowing in the streets accumulates and follows topographical inclines. As a result, large avenues, radials, and highways on an incline become the [hydrographical] beds of artificial streams.” (emphasis mine)

Casablanca certainly has a waste disposal problem. No need to be a trained engineer to observe that there is a lot of trash in the street. But we’re not just talking “déchets agroalimentaires,” as Chiheb says, but also trash in garbage bags. Why is this distinction important? Because people aren’t just throwing their banana peels on the sidewalk, they’re also trying to dispose of trash in a more organized way.

Implicit in the whole “déchets agroalimentaires” comment is something I hear very often about Moroccan cities. In the past few decades, there’s been a huge influx of immigrants from the countryside: pronounced l3arobia, and often with a hint of contempt. Countryfolks think they can just live in the city the way they lived in the countryside, goes the common complaint, to the detriment of the entire city.

It would be disingenuous to say, for the sake of political correctness, that individual residents don’t have a responsibility to adjust their behavior. But if the municipality fails to provide support or even outreach, we can’t claim that residents are to blame. Especially since those who might be considered most “guilty” of disposing their trash in the street are likely also to be those who suffer the most when the streets flood.

To read more:
Le Conseil de la ville dépassé par les évènements (Le Matin, lundi 6 Décembre)
Opinions & Débats: La prévention contre les risques de catastrophes naturelles doit être intégrée dans les plans communaux évènements (Le Matin, lundi 6 Décembre)

See also earlier post: Casa, under water

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Filed under bidonvilles, Casablanca, Immigration, Morocco, urban development, Urban Morocco, urbanisation

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

The world, “upside down”

Recognize this?

It’s a map of the world in 1154, according to Al Idrissi, a twelfth century Andalusian geographer of both Arab and Berber descent. He was born in Ceuta, which is now a Spanish enclave geographically located in Morocco–or Sebta, part of Northern Morocco that’s illegitimately occupied by Spain, depending on who you ask.

Two things about this map.

One, it’s round. Contrary to the myth that Christopher Columbus discovered that the earth was round (“discovering” entire an entire continent in the process), many people already knew, or at least had a hunch, that this was the case.

Two, the map is oriented in such a way that it appears to be upside down. If you can’t make out the shape of the continents, know that it says “South” at the top, “North” at the bottom, “West” to the right and “East” to the left.


Filed under Africa, Middle East, Morocco

Eid Mubarak Said!

Today was Eid al Fitar, the holiday that marks the end of fasting for Ramadan.

I’ve barely had any chance to write about Ramadan, but you should know that it’s a month-long holiday that floats around on the calendar. Since the Islamic months correspond to lunar months, Ramadan (simply the name of a month) starts and stops on a different day every year. You don’t ever know for sure when until religious leaders have observed the appropriate phase of the moon and declared the holiday to have begun or ended.

Last night, after sundown, someone in charge in Morocco saw a sliver of the new moon, and Ramadan was declared to be officially over. Eid mubarak said!

After we heard the announcement on TV, I went with my friend and her mom to get some groceries. The street was buzzing with shoppers scrambling to make calls on the payphones, hail taxis, and get what they needed for that night’s and today’s marathon of cooking and eating.

A bunch of sisters (to my friend) and nieces and nephews came over after ftour and we had carry-out roasted chicken with fries and pizza, before turning in for the night at around 3:30. Only about two hours after my normal-ish bedtime during Ramadan.

Today, the day of Eid, also happens to be a Friday. Friday is to Muslims as Sunday is to Christians, a holy day. This is when you traditionally have couscous here. It’s not a religious thing, or a strict rule, really. It’s just a custom. In any case couscous is an intense dish and really filling, so not an everyday thing anyway.


Before and after couscous, family members were coming and going, and phones were ringing nonstop with calls from family and friends wishing each other a happy Eid. Even Maroc Telecom, one of the major wireless companies, sent out texts to wish its customers happy Eid.

I’ve been psyched about how many kids have been hanging out here–in the new outfit they usually get for Eid– because I still understand next to nothing when I’m sitting with adults, accommodating as they might be to my limited derija. Tata turns out to be just one of the many adorable little kids related to my friend.

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Filed under Islam, Moroccan food, Moroccan traditions, Morocco, Uncategorized

27th night of Ramadan

Last night was the 27th night of Ramadan. It’s a huge occasion when children–or, ahem, twenty-five year old bents, dress up, makeup and all, and have their picture taken on something resembling a throne. A bent, by the way, is a girl or an unmarried woman.


Filed under Moroccan traditions, Morocco