Category Archives: History

Recent history or the distant past, from post-colonialism back to 8th century refugees from Iraq, or further…


It’s all about the ramparts.  The waves breaking on the rocks just beyond, the rows of sombre cannons facing the sea
P1010476(even if the only thing left to aim at is a stray seagull).
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The fabled isle of Mogador lies just offshore, amid the crashing waves, on the far side of the smaller Iles purpuraires (the purple islands): this one with the fort is Dzira Sghira; it was disarmed by the French when they bombarded the town in 1844.
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The Phoenicians established some trading posts on Mogador, or the iles purpuraires, back in 1100 BCE (Amazigh tribes had been fishing in the bay for a couple of thousand years before that).  In about 600 BCE, the Phoenicians established the settlement of Migdal, or watchtower, on the island now known as Mogador.  Then, in 500 BCE, Hanno the Carthaginian visited Mogador and established the trading post of Arambys.

Starting in 25 BCE and lasting until about 300 CE/AD, Juba II established a Tyrian purple factory, processing murex and purpurae shells found in the intertidal pools between Mogador and the mainland
into precious purple dyes used to color imperial Roman senatorial togas.  (Tyre is a city in Lebanon where these dyes were also produced.)  Tyrian purple was valued in part because the color was supposed to improve rather than fading with age.

Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans: oh my!

I want to go find a tidal pool, but this seems challenging.  In the meantime, James chooses a cannon, ready to repel an attack from the sea,

and we encounter our Ifrani friends, the Dye family.
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Jeremy, Zoe, and I climb the tower to peer down on things from above.  Beware incoming seagull!P1010600

The town was known as Mogador until Mohamed III had it rebuilt by French and Genoese architects and builders and renamed it Essaouira (little fortress souira, or well-drawn picture souera).  The name Mogador may come from Migdal, or from the saint Sidi Mogdoul whose shrine is here (he was reputedly a Scot–MacDougal–shipwrecked on the coast, and endowed with baraka).  The French changed the name back to Mogador, but independence brought a return to Essaouira.

Baraka Mohamed: maybe some of it will rub off on us.

Jem and Zoe pose in the circle close to the entry to the ramparts.P1010606 P1010608

But it looks a little different from the other side, in the evening light.

That’s one of the interesting things about Essaouira: it’s both a tourist center and (still) a fishing village, even though the fishing industry has suffered in recent years.

As tourists, we enjoy the wandering musicians (whose music Zoë hopes to share),
P1010614 P1010613and we go horseback riding on the beach in the afternoon.

I like talking with our guide, Brahim.  He sits on his horse so comfortably, kicking a leg over now and again: half the time, it looks  little like he’s lounging on a sofa.P1010621

“Were you a jockey?” I ask.  He’s got the physique and the professional comfort level.  Brahim nods.
“Did you get hurt?”  He nods again.  It’s a stupid question.  All jockeys get hurt.
“Break some bones?” Nod.  Enough already, Betsy.  It’s like picking at a scab–I can’t quite stop–but at least I can stop with the personal questions.Brahim
photo Zouina cheval

“Where is there racing in Morocco?”
Marrakesh, Rabat, Casablanca, Tangia: all the major cities.  The responsibility for organizing the year’s racing rotates among the cities, so each one takes a turn.  Ibrahim rode for an owner with a large stable–nine jockeys.  But then the owner married a French woman, moved to France, and sold all his horses.  Ibrahim was a little unsure what to do next.  He came to Essaouira to meet a friend at the Gnawa music festival–he’s also a musician, in his spare time–and he discovered Zouina Cheval was in need of a manager.  He and the boy leading Jeremy run the stable, just the two of them.  Ibrahim likes it better than being a jockey–likes talking with the tourists, meeting people from all over the world.  He has a wonderful face, with wise eyes.
brahim photo Zouina cheval
Brahim only worries when the riders are a mixed group, like us.  “Your son is doing well, but sometimes the children cry.  I worry they won’t be happy.”

We too were worried that Jeremy would be unhappy–but now I only worry for the young man leading Jeremy.  Jeremy is as happy as can be–and demanding as well.  “Vite! Vite!  Ma mère a dit wakha, c’est bon.”  Jeremy mingles French and Darija like a Moroccan.  “Fast, fast!  My mom said it’s ok, it’s good.”  The young trainer gets his boots splashed by a sudden wave, and runs up the sand.  Jeremy laughs and laughs: “Encore! Dans la mer! Encore!”  Again! In the sea! Again!
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Nancy and Jeff look very professional–Nancy says it’s her first time “running” a horse.  She did beautifully.

J and Zoë and I splash through the surf with Mogador in the background.  Visible on the island are the mosque and a women’s prison, now defunct, originally built by Moulay Abdelaziz in 1897 to lock up rebellious member of the Rhamnna tribe.

Here are two photos of the prison from (a great resource): first, “Berber prisoners” sent to this prison by Moulay Abdelaziz, 

and then a view of the four gates constituting the only way in or out of the prison.  island_prison_2_h300
The structure had no roof.  Prisoners evidently had to take the rain or sun as it came.

By contrast, this sunny, breezy afternoon on the beach feels like such a luxury–as indeed it is.  It turns out that we’re in Essaouira during the non-windy time: the wind blows constantly from April through September.  Brahim tells tall tales, of the village down the coast where every house has two doors.  All summer, the wind blows from the north and villagers use the southern door.  All winter, the wind blows from the south, and villagers use their northern doors.  (The town now hosts a wind farm, so there’s definitely an abundance of  wind.)

After our ride, we head back to Essaouira, which is gleaming in the evening light.  The juice sellers here decorate their stands with what strike me as orange “scalps” (sorry):
And the fishermen are hard at work, preparing their sun-bronzed boats for the next day or week or month:


À vendre: for sale.  Fishing boat, anyone?  Or shall we settle for supper in a bag on a bike?

At evening, the seafront is full of hidden corners,P1010709

And the sunset heightens the magic of the iles purpuraires:
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Marrakesh: a few architectural landmarks

The Almoravids founded Marrakesh in 1062 (four years before the Normans landed in Hastings, England), but the only architectural remains are this small shrine or Koubba (qubba), half hidden by the streets of the city rising up around it:

The shape of the crenellations can be found throughout the middle east and North Africa; their origins are lost in time.  Along with the keyhole arches, the dome, the decoration over the dome, these architectural details will carry forward into Andalucian architecture.

The Almohads, who succeeded the Almoravids, destroyed most of the city, including the mosque, the foundations of which were not properly aligned with Mecca.  But they rebuilt the Koutoubia mosque, with its fabulous minaret:

Towering above the medina, the Koutoubia minaret glows from dawn to dusk, orienting the entire city.

The Marinids were major builders in Marrakesh, looking back to the Almohads with their Medrasa Ben Youssef, a Quranic school attached to the Ben Youssef mosque.  P1010257
But the Saadians embellished on the Marinid work, both in redoing the Ben Youssef Medrasa and in creating the famous Saadian tombs.

We loved the Ben Youssef Medrasa.  I liked the way the zellij played with slightly different patterns than the ones we had seen in Fez and Meknes.
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The plasterwork also stood out, both for its coloration (reflecting the colors surrounding and defining the “Red City”) and for its more severely geometric patterns (at least in some parts).P1010281

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We wondered about the source of this cedar in Marrakesh:  was it brought all the way down from the cedar forests around Ifrane, or was there a closer source, in the High Atlas?

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The courtyard was peaceful, empty at certain moments, filled with quiet tourists pushing strollers at other moments.

But what we liked best were the student quarters, with all their corridors and quiet nooks.  P1010278 P1010272

The rooms were arranged around a number of separate courtyards, each with its own access to the sky, each with its own collection of resting birds (?) if you look closely enough…
P1010277 P1010263As with the Meknes Bou Inania, you could see that students would have been tightly packed into these rooms.
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But the living quarters were a little less dilapidated than those of the Bou Inania, and James with his public school (boarding school) background, said that he could feel the spirits of the boys who had lived here, looking on in bemusement as we (and thousands of other tourists) wandered through their haunts.

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At the other end of the medina, the Saadian Tombs, built by Ahmed Al-Mansur,  were famously walled up by Moulay Ismail.  Even now the entry is through a narrow corridor that Jeremy found a little spooky.  The gloomy grandeur of the Chamber of the three Niches is hard to capture in a photograph,P1010322

but I could have spent hours gazing at the ceiling alone:

The mausoleum for Al-Mansur’s mother is drenched in light and thus easier to grasp, somehow.
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My favorite detail: the carved wooden khatems high above one side entrance, almost lost in the honeycomb pattern defining the arch…
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It’s as if they’re floating in space.

Jump forward in time several hundred years to 1860, when the grand vizier Si Moussa began the Bahia Palace, further embellished by his son Abu “Bou” Ahmed.  Bou or Ba Ahmed was born to a slave woman, and he himself was dark-skinned, but he rose to become vizier or chamberlain to Hasan I, who succeeded in reunifying much of Morocco after years of disruption.  After Hasan’s death, Ba Ahmed arranged for his younger son Abd el-Aziz to become sultan; Ba Ahmed ruled for six years as regent until his death in 1900 (he’s believed to have been poisoned).  Various stories told in the Djemma el Fna tell of a black slave becoming sultan, presumably with the story of Ba Ahmed in mind.  During the Protectorate, Thamis el Glaoui occupied the Bahia palace.

The zellij at the Bahia palace is still interesting and intricate, as is the plaster…

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but the artwork I found most compelling was the zouaq, or the wood painting.  Some of this remains in older styles and colors, but the influence of European aesthetics begins to be seen in different color palettes:

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The ceilings in particular were mind-boggling in their detail and precision:

But the palace overall was defined by its age: an age of complex negotiations with European powers, as seen in this Europeanized aesthetic:

Centuries of olive oil

We had stopped by La clé de huile the afternoon we arrived in Ourika, but it was closed.  A housekeeper came out to tell us the boss was in Marrakesh but would be back tomorrow, so we said we’d come by about 10 a.m. We arrived to find the gate once again closed, but we banged on the door and eventually a man came out.  “No,” he said, “the museum is closed.” “Dommage,” said James: polite French for “Bummer.”  He points out, gently that we came yesterday and were told it would be open this morning. “Ah, oui,” says the man.  “Elle m’a dit.”  The housekeeper told me.  You can come in. He swung open the gates and let us in, not only to the museum, but to his day, a small slice of his life. We started in the museum, full of informative posters about the history of olive oil production, both in Morocco and around the world: P1010155 P1010159 There was also an old Roman-era grinding stone, P1010186 plus an example of an ancient oil press, with technology even more “beldi” or traditional than what we saw outside Demnate: P1010190 And here you can see a little more clearly the bags that are filled with crushed olives in order to be pressed: P1010187 The metal press (outside Demnate) certainly seemed easier and less dangerous to run! But the museum was just the beginning.  We went out into the olive grove, to see people harvesting the olives with a hydraulic rake: P1010191 The yellow battery pack will run for the best part of a day; the prongs of the rake swing back and forth, shaking olives out of the trees.  People on the ground gather up the fallen olives: P1010192 P1010197 Under trees that have already been harvested, a small group of women gather up individual olives, gleaning in a traditional way. P1010199 The workers are paid 20 dirhams–about $2.50–per container of olives.  This is a little over the odds: our host didn’t want any trouble or argumentation over hours or labor.  (Nancy points out that this is also more than the minimum cash wage for tip employees in the U.S.) Nancy asks about pests and spraying, and indeed the trees are sprayed twice a year, first to prevent the growth of a particular fungus, Verticillium wilt, and then to limit the attacks of the  olive fly. Abdelhaq manages La Clé des Huiles for a French patron: a lawyer who has been involved in politics on a national scale, associated somehow with a prominent lawyer who recently committed suicide.  The patron had originally planned a large retreat center, where everything would be available on-site.  There are separate houses and apartments dotted about the property, a swimming pool, a massive professional kitchen and dining hall.  The place is beautiful: as we walk around the property, we can imagine how fabulous it would be to stay here.  But everything is shut, in limbo.  The aging patron, focused on his own troubles in France, wanted to fire all the workmen in the middle of Ramadan two summers ago.  Abdelhaq told him he could not do that–it would be unethical.  He tried to broker an agreement by which the 18 workmen would each work one-third time for the month of Ramadan so that everyone could have at least enough to support their families, but the workmen refused and all went on strike together.  What a misery, to be attacked on all sides.  The owner has now passed decision-making power to his son, who wants to sell the property.  Our friend was hoping that a friend of this son would help him negotiate a means of taking the property forward. P1010203 After our tour, we pulled up chairs in the courtyard of the living and office space, moved the buckets of olives off the table, and feasted on mint tea, olives, beldi olive oil, and warm fresh bread. We tried to offer Abdelhaq at least the listed admission fee for the museum, but he would have none of it.  We asked to see his store, up on the main road, where we tried to buy enough products to compensate in some small way for the time he had spent with us–and he kept knocking down the price as a gesture of friendship.  He set us on the road again, loaded with special honey, preserves, limited edition olive oil–and a plastic water bottle filled with fresh beldi olive oil.  We think of Abdelhaq every day as we dip our crusty bread in that delicious, warming, filling fare. P1020308

Around Demnate

After our pottery mudslide and olive press visit, we made our way to Demnate, where we wanted to explore the Mellah, the historical Jewish section of the town.

Storks on top of the minaret at the central mosque in Demnate

The first Mellah to be established was in Fez, when a Marinid sultan persuaded the Jews living scattered through the old medina to move close to the royal palace.  (Many a Moroccan sultan saw himself as a protector of the Jews, those handy artisans and financiers.)  The word Mellah evidently came from the word for salt, milha: the Mellah was the place of salt, the place where salt-traders gathered, the place where the salt-trade was financed and organized and run.

Demnate historically had a large Jewish population; we had hoped to take a tour of the Mellah with a guide specializing in this history, but he was in Agadir for the few days of our visit.  We stopped by the veteran’s center, on the edge of the Mellah, to see if anyone there would talk to us a little about history, but everyone was deep into a game of backgammon or cards, so we wandered off on our own, dropping into a courtyard near the entrance.

This was something like a tailor’s souq, with many small shops braiding djellaba trim and sewing it onto djellabas.

One older man here knew a little about the Jewish community.  There was only one well-known Jew remaining–a cantor.  (Nancy was delighted to recognize the Arabic word by its resemblance to Hebrew.)  Everyone else had left for Israel, as Jews across Morocco had emigrated en masse within a brief span of time.

While James and Nancy chatted with the men surrounding this djellaba shop, Jeremy was making friends.  One man in the center of the courtyard let him run the braiding machine for a moment–
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–he didn’t even mind when Jeremy ran it backward by accident.  Another man hunted around in his shop for a present for our boy, finally emerging with an onion!

After a wander around the town, ducking in and out of bright sun, and dodging through dark and chilly corridors, we headed out of town again, looking for the Imni n’Ifri cave or bridge or geological formation.  We didn’t really know what we were looking for, but the guidebook said it was worth a stop.

In the end, it was both a cave and a bridge, with an interesting geological formation taking shape under the natural bridge.  Guides wanted to be paid to lead us through, so (as at the Cascades), they showed us the least appealing, apparently most difficult approach first.  We declined their help, thinking we might just walk down the easy steps on the other side, and look at the passage from the bottom.  One of the guides followed us down and again offered his help.  “We’d rather do it ourselves, thank you.”

In fact, James and I were the ones who really wanted to keep going, so Nancy volunteered to stay behind with the children.  At which point, Zoe, with a maturity beyond her years, noted that while she didn’t want to go, she would be mad at herself later for missing something interesting.  Of course then Jeremy was unwilling to be left behind.  So we all girded our metaphoric loins–prepared for wet feet–and kept going.
P1010118We were so glad we did!  The “map of Africa” is the formation’s claim to fame, P1010128

but we were most taken with the structure of the walls,

the water misting down in a beading curtain, capturing the light.
It was a magical space–these photos don’t really do it justice.



Reflecting on work with migrants: CEI’s exchange students

The Comité d’Entre-aide Internationale (CEI) is one of the organizations on the front-lines of work with migrant communities in Morocco, and in Oujda, there are four young exchange students from sub-Saharan African countries who are doing most of the work for CEI.  In the photo below, you can see Ruben from Angola in the back row, Theophilus from Ghana and Héry from Madagascar in the front row.  I think Héry and Ruben are both doing degrees in engineering; Theophilus is doing a degree in geo-science, hoping to help manage new oil deposits found in Ghana.  Héry plans to return to Madagascar to help build new buildings for the developing civil society there.

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Azariash from Mozambique, working on a degree in international law, is not in the photo, which was taken at the Christian church service Sunday morning; Azariash was absent, trying to arrange care for a migrant who had been knifed in the neck overnight.

After our day of visiting the camps, we took the CEI team out to dinner and asked them about their experiences: what’s difficult for them in this work, what makes them do it.

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Héry, who I think is in charge of the project overall, was pleased that we had had some experience of how complicated and challenging the work can be: the struggle to be equitable in distribution, often displeasing the people you are trying so hard to help.

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Ruben had been involved with the project when he first arrived in Oujda, but he had spent a year or two away from it.  He had been in charge of preparing and delivering food to  migrants.  One day he saw a man looking at the sandwich he had just given him with disgust.  Then the man saw Ruben looking at him: he threw the sandwich in Ruben’s face.  “I was so mad,” Ruben told us.  “I thought, ‘Do you have any idea how long it took to make these sandwiches? Do you know I’m a student? I don’t have the time to be doing this.’  So I quit.  I didn’t need to be treated that way.”
“But you came back,” we said.  “Why?”
“I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” Ruben said. “It’s not right, what these people suffer.  But the work is not easy.”

Azariash was completely focused on the work: the difficulties he named were all focused on the need for more resources to help the migrants.  Azariash thinks CEI should accept any volunteers who want to help, Christian or not.  He has friends who are doctors and he’s persuaded them to provide medical help to the migrants.  He speaks across the table to Héry about broadening the base of support for the migrants, which makes it look as if Héry disagrees.  Azariash also wants to spread the word back in the home countries of these migrants.  He insists that he is learning so much, he receives more than he gives.  At the same time, he too acknowledges the difficulty of the work, especially recently, with the death of El Hajj.

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I didn’t hear much of what Theophilus said, because Jeremy was running back and forth to the bathroom the whole time.  But even before we came, we knew that Theophilus as a Ghanaian felt personally threatened by the murder of his countryman, El Hajj, and that he had been friends with El Hajj and mourned his death intensely.  “Nigerians killed El Hajj; I am not ready to go back into the forest and work with the Nigerians.”  Azariash shared many of these feelings: he and Theophilus intentionally led the group going to the university today, while Héry and Ruben led those of us who went into the forest.

The words that stay with me most strongly from the evening are Héry’s.  When Karen pressed him again to say why he did this work, he replied: “Nous ne sommes pas dignes de nos avantages:  We are not worthy of our advantages.  We didn’t do anything to earn them.  This work makes us ask, ‘Why do we have so much and these people so little? How can this be just?  And what can we do about it?'”

Questions for us all.


El Hajj, migrants at the university, Ghala

We had thought we would only be visiting the two camps, but CEI has decided to take us to a third also, known as Ghala, very close to the border with Algeria.  But there is the man with the broken leg who needs medicine: we wait a while on the road by the first camp, waiting for him or for some proxy for him to come to collect some medicine.  Then we drive to the edge of the university, where we wait for the team who went to distribute blankets at the university to join us.

We are parked across from the place where El Hajj was killed.  According to Ruben’s latest information, El Hajj was indeed in conflict with the Nigerians over a variety of matters, partly associated with the trafficking of migrants and partly associated with drug trafficking. Not a boy scout, El Hajj.  His work here in Oujda was in producing false documentation for people; he may have been in cahoots with people in the Moroccan government to produce these documents.  He himself had false papers that said he was a student, which is why the newspapers at first reported that a student had been killed.

El Hajj had indeed been kidnapped, but back in April, and he had gotten free. He had also gone into Algeria, to Maghnia, where the migrants are organized into groups, to argue with the Nigerians there–he had taken Germans to Maghnia—and the Nigerians in Oujda were angry about that.  Then he came back to the university, and he peed in the wrong place.

Seriously.  He peed in the wrong place.  In the migrant community on the outskirts of the university, there are different nationalities, and the people in charge have specified different areas where members of the different groups can pee: El Hajj peed in the wrong place.  For this insult, they began to beat him—but the beating was also a result of all the other things he had done to anger the Nigerians.  People seem to believe that he died as a result of the beating, but that this was accidental—things got out of hand.  Then, since it was the Eid, and everyone had sacrificed their sheep, there was blood everywhere, and so they dismembered his body to try to disguise his death, and they took the pieces out into the forest and left them.

Migrants at the university

Eric and Michelle Derry, two other members of our group, spent some time talking with Elijah, a 23-year-old Gambian. Elijah is one of 6 children; all the rest are girls.  It took him five months to get to Oujda, and he arrived the day the Ghanaian was killed.  “My dream is dying,” he told the Derry’s.  Elijah had made one attempt to cross the border: he described 15-20 people squeezing into a five-seater car: some went in the trunk.  “These are just the sacrifices you make to follow your dreams. You save your money and they take you to another camp, just before Mellila.  If you have good luck, you get in; if not, you’re beaten.  I got sent back: my luck was bad.  Still, when I see a girl, I forget all my own troubles, because they are the ones who really have it bad.  Thank you for bringing me a blanket, mommy,” Elijah says to Michelle. “Tonight I will sleep, with my blanket.”

Eric also described seeing a man shouting, threatening people.  A small group of men closed in on him.  “People go a little crazy, sometimes,” another man told Eric. “That’s what this life does to you.  We take care of it.”  The man who was shouting ended up on the ground, with his shirt ripped, but quiet.


We drive to Ghala down tracks that skirt the edges of square fields, barren at this moment except for a luxuriant burst of prickly pear near the occasional building.  Ghala is the camp nearest the border; people here occupy a cluster of cement buildings. There are no windows or doors—but someone has draped a blanket over the door to keep the wind out.

We are met by a small group: three men (Mike, Victor, and Siri) and one women (Blessing).  As at the Lambert camp, most people are gone.  Siri tells us the women have taken the children to the city for vaccinations.  Blessing took her baby Destiny the day before, which is why they are here today.
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We ask how things have been at the camp, and Siri tells us they have not had much trouble with police over the past four months—which matches the date of the king’s proclamation.

Still, Siri talks about how the community struggles to live: “We work all day, sunup to sundown, picking olives for 70d. But this is not enough to live on.”

Everyone here comes from the Delta state of Nigeria.  But many many migrants arrive in Morocco at Ghala though they move on to other communities shortly thereafter.

While we are there, a man from another community (Paul) comes up and addresses Victor as the father of the community.  Siri immediately objects: “He’s not the father: I’m the father.”

Paul apologizes: “I’m sorry for the mistake.  The other times I was here, he (Victor) was the only one here and I thought he was the father.”

Siri: “It wasn’t a mistake.  But I am the father.”

Victor remains silent throughout.  There is a sense of deep and troubled waters here.

So too the presence of Blessing is a worrying reminder of a 15-year-old girl with the same name who was rescued from Ghala and brought to a safe house in Rabat after being gang-raped here.

Still, the community gathers for prayers as well as for blankets.  What else is there?

Lambert: a person and a place (migrants near Oujda)

You may have heard enough about migrants already, but we haven’t even scratched the surface.  After leaving Empire camp, we drive to another camp in the Oujda forest.  As we get out of the trucks and load up with packages of blankets, people come running down the hill to help us.  They stop to shake our hands.  One young woman named Helen puts her arms around her body and shakes herself, smiling, to demonstrate: “We are dying from the cold!”  We carry the blankets to the edge of the camp, only to find the only people gathering are those who have helped us carry the blankets.  Everyone else is out finding food for the community.

Lambert is the spokesperson for this community: the camp is named Lambert, after him.  He has been in the forest for 13 years.  When Karen asks, “Is it ok if we pray with you?” Lambert responds, “Prayer is the most important thing.  God comes first.”  The mood seems very different here, and I wonder whether the difference comes from Lambert’s guidance, or simply the fact that the camp is largely empty, so the scurrying to acquire goods is also absent.  Still, Helen is quick to say, “We need food and nylon.” (Nylon is for the tent coverings.)  Food will be coming next week, Héry promises.
Karen asks the people of this camp to tell us their stories.  Helen (in tan) shrugs: “You know our story; we told you last time.  It’s the same story.”

“But I want these people to hear your story, too.”

“You tell them,” says Helen.

“OK,” Karen says, “let me ask you questions.  How long have you been here?”  The answers trickle in: 1 year.  2 years.  8 months.  4 months.

Did you come up through Niger? Yes, everyone comes that way.

Did everyone on your trip survive the desert?  Yes, on our trip, everyone survived.  But sometimes not everyone makes it and that is how it is.

Did you come through Maghnia in Algeria? Yes.

How did you come from Maghnia to here? We walked, says Lambert.  “We trekked,” Helen specifies.  “A 3-4 hour trek.”

Are there any children here?  Not now, but they are coming.  Eight are coming.  Everyone laughs; one young woman ducks over to stand by another as someone bats her on the stomach.  Some of the babies who are coming do not show yet, but there are eight coming.

“Have you heard there are new policies?” Karen asks.

“Yes, we have heard,” Lambert says.  “Now we are just waiting to see if they are true.”

Karen asks all the pregnant women if they will have their babies at the hospital.  “It is very important …  You know there is no problem now with the hospital?”

Lambert talks about the difficulty migrants have getting medicine and medical treatment.

“When Doctors without Borders were here, they gave us medicine for free.  Since they left, it is much harder.  Some people attacked me and cut my hand and I went to the hospital to get a prescription and they gave me a prescription and then I had to go and get the medicine and it cost 50 Euros, 500 dirhams, and I had to get this medicine 4 times, and I am living here, there is no way to earn this money.”
The city of Oujda in the distance. (As Moroccans say of Spain: So near, so far, so impossible.)
James has been talking to a man who made it all the way to Spain in 2006.  He lived there for two years before he was caught one morning, crossing the street to buy cigarettes.  They sent him back—back to Morocco? or Algeria? or all the way back to his home country?—and now he is trying to cross the border again.  He has been in this camp for eight months, waiting for his chance to cross.

Another man comes to talk to us down by the cars.  “I want to go back to my country.  This is no way to live.  My body is sound, my mind is sound, but there is no work.  I go out at 5 a.m. to beg, and this is all I have received.”  He pulls a plastic yogurt drink out of one pocket and scrap of bread out of another.  “It shames me, this life.  I want to go back to my country and begin my life anew.”  He waves to us as we turn to get in the cars.

Suddenly a voice is calling, “Jeremy, Jeremy,” and then another man, wearing a red shirt and a black hat, comes running up to give Jem a farewell hug, his face alight with affection.  This is so mysterious to me—that this man, in the midst of his struggles, has affection to spare; that Jeremy seems to evoke that affection in so many people here; that he can accept a hug and return it so easily.  A multifaceted gift, that hug, in the midst of such hardship.


Migrants in the Oujda forest: God’s Time

A borrowed/rented truck is loaded with blankets, as is Karen and Kevin’s car, almost past capacity.
Héry and Ruben, two student leaders of Comité d’Entre-aide International (CEI) climb into the truck with the driver and lead us on a meandering path through the city before turning onto a trail leading into the “forest”—a mass planting of small trees.

This seems like a forest in the optative case, a space hoping to become a forest.  “Funny place to hide,” says Zoe.
“Maybe not so much hiding as finding a place to stay away from other people,” James replies.

We drive right up to the edge of the encampment, and as we get out the blankets, people gather.  Karen has told us that the migrant community is 80% male overall, but there are lots of women here, and lots of children.  Karen asks to be introduced to the babies, most of whom seem to be named something like God’s Time or God’s Power.  What do you name a baby that comes to you through rape or forced prostitution?  But these babies also seem well-loved.  Their mothers hold them in their arms or tie them on their backs; one father holds his baby in a warm and soft blanket.
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Baby David smiles for the camera:
One man comes up on crutches with a broken leg.  I ask if I can take a picture of the leg, not his face and he replies, or echoes, “Not the face.”  I hear that as permission, but when I take out a camera, he says, “Not so fast.”  He needs medicine for the leg: can we give him money for the medicine?  There’s an implied quid pro quo: picture for money.  “You will have to ask CEI about the medicine,” James replies, and motions to Héry, as Jeremy drags me off to show me a small child tugging at a blanket.

The CEI team announces that we will give one blanket per person; children who are walking get their own blanket, babes in arms share with their mothers.

Ink will be stamped on each person’s right thumb to prevent multiple blankets going to a single person.  James and Jeremy are in charge of the ink pad, which is more complicated than expected: people come up with their thumbs down and press, making it hard or impossible to see whether or not that thumb had already been stamped.
We hand out blankets until everyone has one (or perhaps two), then Héry and Ruben look at the pile and decide that each woman can have another blanket.  This time, their 3rd finger is to be stamped.

Then the clothes are to be distributed, and the chaos begins.  James and Karen hold up the articles of clothing one at a time, and people crowd in to grab whatever they can.  It’s a little overwhelming, trying to keep things reasonably fair.
The West Point boys, James and Brian, try to hold back the tide.
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“You have to give them room.  They can’t work without more space.  Please form a line.  They can’t get the clothes out if you don’t give them space.”  Jackets seem especially prized: one larger woman gets a small woolen jacket which barely covers her, but she puts in on and pulls it closed and strokes it with pleasure.

Brian, accompanied by our teenage girls Zoe and Claire, is sent off with a bag of shoes to distribute, but as soon as the bag touches the ground, migrants are ripping it apart and pulling out the shoes that appeal to them.  Some of the most prized seem totally inappropriate to me: silver strappy sandals are grabbed up, but wool lined boots are left to the side of the distribution area.

After the distribution, everyone separates, heading off to their individual homes/tents.

Around the outskirts of the camp, there’s a burnt-out tent, residue of an accident with a fire.  The fire is recent.  “We have to be more careful,” one man remarks to James.P1000529

Karen looks around a little wistfully, hoping for a group prayer but unwilling to push the issue.  “Shall we pray for the mommas?” she asks, and puts her arms around Joy, with her new baby God’s Time, and around another young woman who must be seven or eight months pregnant.  “We gonna pray for me!” says this young woman, looking both embarrassed and thrilled.  By the time Karen is done, some of the people who had taken their blankets and clothing home have drifted back.
One man with a bandaged leg and crutches says gruffly, “We need to pray?”
“Pastor Success!” Karen greets him with a big smile.  “Yes, please, let us pray.”Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 12.06.47 PM

Success leads our little straggly circle in a few praise songs—“Receive your glory, Lord, Alleluia”—and then leads the group in prayer.  The prayer is composed of brief general instructions (“Let us pray for these people so that when they return, they will bring abundant gifts also”), followed by a brief period in which the migrants quietly but audibly produce those prayers, followed by another general directive, and more prayers.  I am impressed by the energy these people bring to these prayers, by the faith they maintain in such difficult circumstances.

God’s Time must weigh heavily in the arms of Joy, at least some of the time.
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And for many of the children, this life in the forest is all they have ever known.

Migrants in Morocco: background

Today’s trip–joining a group of mostly AUI faculty and students who have come to distribute blankets to migrant communities around the Moroccan city of Oujda–has been preceded by a fair bit of soul-searching.  A member of the migrant community here, a man known as El Adj (say the newspapers, or perhaps El Hajj, the boss) was brutally murdered a few weeks ago, and there were worries that a foreign presence might intensify problematic police attention on the migrant communities.  A few days after the original news of his death, we heard more details: that he was a Ghanaian who had been kidnapped by Nigerians at the university; that he had escaped and reported his abduction to the police; that the police were planning to arrest the Nigerians but the Nigerians had gotten to him first; that they had killed and dismembered him as a warning to others who attempted to escape.

Karen Smith, the university chaplain leading this trip, is confident there is no danger to westerners, but she still worried some about bringing the students.  Two days before we left Ifrane, I was trying to explain to Jeremy what we would be doing in Oujda, but he had heard the word police associated with the trip in some other context and his anxiety-antennae were fully activated.  “No, no,” I told him: if there were any danger, we would whisk you away.”  But the conversation gave me pause.  I had a sudden flashback to the anxiety caused before our departure for Morocco by the news that a French family had been kidnapped in Algeria.  “Really?” I said to James that evening.  “Last year, we worried about coming to Morocco because it’s next to Algeria, but now we’re going to take the children right to the site of an international kidnapping and murder?”  Evidently so.  “What kind of a message does it send if the Westerners are too frightened to come?” both James and Karen asked, rhetorically.  “Neither the migrants nor the students have the option of staying away, and they are the ones truly at risk.”  So here we are, eating our breakfast and listening to Karen give us the background to their story.

This newspaper article from August 9, 2013, may mark the nadir of migrant conditions in Morocco.
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“We knew there was a problem back in the year 2000,” Karen tells us .  “Literally, from one week to the next, the English-speaking congregation in Rabat and Casa jumped from 100 people to 200 people.  Before that year, the major trafficking routes ran through Libya, but then either Libya found new ways to block the traffic or the country became more lawless, and the routes shifted to Morocco.
A Moroccan friend back in Ifrane will later suggest that Algeria intentionally decided to cause trouble for Morocco by sending the migrants west instead of east.  Clearly, as these journal covers of the weekly Maroc Hebdo suggest, the issue of migrants raises many issues in Morocco.  Racism, anyone?
But note too that Morocco is being pressed by the EU to patrol European borders–to be the bad cop for European interests.

Karen tells us the story behind the map of migration routes (above): “You can start out alone, on foot, but eventually you have to pay someone to tell you where to go: you join up with the traffickers.  No one leaves their country lightly.  The people I’ve interviewed from Cameroon, for instance, many of them are orphans.  In urban centers, the social network has collapsed, and there’s no one to care for these orphans.  So you do what you can do: you start walking. Or else people come from the rural communities, and these communities are dying, and they choose one person, a courageous person, to go and find work and send money home.  I wouldn’t have the courage, to take that walk.

“People come from many places, especially where there is violence and upheaval—from the Congo, from Nigeria, from Cameroon, it could be anywhere. From Nigeria, the road lies through Niger and across the Sahara into Algeria.

(At the end of October, 92 migrants–52 children, 33 women, 7 men–died of thirst in Niger when the trucks transporting them broke down.  Their deaths sparked a major investigation into the trafficking of migrants through Niger.)
Associated Press image of mass grave in Niger, published in itv, October 31, 2013

“In Algeria, the migrants find their way to Maghnia, where they are organized by the traffickers into groups.  Those groups are sent across the border into Morocco, knowing at least where they are going and who will be looking out for them in the short term.  They come to camps that are often organized according to place of origin.  So in the forest, there will be one camp that is “Empire State” and another that is “Ito State”—these are two states in Nigeria, and everyone or almost everyone in the camp will be from that state, whether they started out together or not.

“After that, people try to get to Spain, in order to move deeper into the Eurozone to find work.  They have one chance to cross, and if something doesn’t work—if the boat doesn’t leave, or if the police disrupt an attempted crossing—that’s it: they’ve lost their money, and they have to wait until they can save up enough money to pay to cross again.

“Many migrants suffer violence from police or army forces, Moroccan or Spanish, in their efforts to cross the border.
A documentary by Sara Creta (Number 9: Stop violence at the borders!) released in late spring 2013 recorded the testimonies of migrants in the Gourgourou forest (near the Spanish enclave of Nador) who had suffered violence in their attempt to cross the borders.
Screen Shot 2014-01-18 at 10.13.52 PM Screen grab from “Number 9”
The film is named for a migrant who died during the filming–a man known as Clément, who liked to wear a Number 9 football shirt.
Screen Shot 2014-01-18 at 10.23.55 PMScreen grab from “Number 9”

“Still, despite efforts like the Number 9 campaign, the treatment of migrants continued to worsen.  Up to the end of this past summer, policies were more and more draconian.  Migrants have been beaten and left in a pit for dead; when I was here earlier this year we spoke with some Cameroonians who had just come back from an attempted crossing and told us about security forces trying to drown them, and they were shaking from the experience.  One, I think his name was Abdelrachman, was a little crazed: he could barely speak about it.  The idea behind this kind of abuse seems to be to discourage migrants from coming to Morocco, but people don’t realize what they’re getting into when they start down the migration trail—and once they arrive here, they don’t have the resources to make other choices.

“The women are the most vulnerable: they have been forced into prostitution, many of them, or assigned a protector, and basically all of them have been raped.  They’re really not all right.

“But this fall, CEI helped put together a report on the migrant situation, and this was presented to the king, and he said publicly that something must be done.  Almost immediately, it was announced that Morocco would give work permits to people whose refugee status had been recognized by the UN High Commission on Refugees—though that’s only about 8500 people out of the thousands of migrants in the country.”

Morocco has also been angling for a position on the UN High Commission on Refugees and it finally got that position.  On the day  that appointment was announced, Morocco also proclaimed a jubilee year granting amnesty to some of the 25-45,000 illegal migrants in the country.  Trafficking expert Terry Coonan, visiting Ifrane a week after our trip to Oujda, called the pair of announcements a process of  “improving human rights practices by increasing Morocco’s visibility.”

“So,” Karen concludes, gathering us together to leave for the camps, “there is new hope for the migrants—not that they will achieve their dreams of making a new life in Europe, but that their experience in Morocco might be something less of a nightmare.”

Meknes and monuments: the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail

John keeps reminding us of the difference between the visual restraint of Alawite style as opposed to the decorative intensity of the Marinids, embraced and extended by the Saadian dynasty.  Remember that the Alawite dynasty came north out of the Tafilalt, where we saw some of that visual restraint at work.  Basing their power in their descent from Muhammed, the Alawites eschewed exuberant design in order to insist (as Muhammed insisted) on simplicity.

This doorway into the courtyard of Moulay Ismail’s mausoleum certainly reminds me of the Qsar Al-Fidha down in Rissani:

The courtyard itself is similarly restrained, with only a zellij floor and a small strip of zellij along the bottom of the walls.

The calligraphy here is one of the Alawi mottos:
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Al Aali Allah: God is very high (or superior).  The other two include the Baraka Muhammed added to the Bou Inania
and “Al Afia” which means “Pardon” in fusHa, but “fire” in Darija.  (It’s written abundantly within the mausoleum, to ambiguous effect.)

But here in the courtyard, one might say we find functionality in place of decoration: a fountain for ablutions, a sundial for timekeeping:


But let’s face it, you can only take restraint so far, especially when we’re talking about the final resting place of the man who (rather brutally) shaped the Maghreb into a modern nation.
The tomb itself, in a prayer space, is only visible from a distance for non-Muslims, but the antechamber is gloriously wrought:

The details are extravagantly beautiful:

And it’s hard to imagine a more intricately painted ceiling:

Apologies for the very blurry picture of one of the two grandfather clocks sent from Louis XV to Moulay Ismail.
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The story that comes with them goes like this: Louis XV offered his sister to Moulay Ismail as as one of his wives; when the sister was informed, she said there was no way she would go to Morocco.  In her place, Louis XV sent these two clocks, with a note saying that they would be more constant than his sister would have been.


Yet even in the midst of all this grandeur, there are designs that conduce to calm and simplicity:

I love that green!  And I’m not the only one…