Monthly Archives: November 2013

Winter in Ifrane: construction and heating

We arrived back from our Oujda trip to find the first snow of the Ifrani year melting in our garden and a flood in our salon, or main living area.
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Maybe it’s time to think a little bit about heating and construction as we try for the first time to get our coal furnace to heat the house.  Why, in a place that is reliably cold in winter, does no one build houses designed to stay warm as well as cold?

Housing construction in Ifrane is both fascinating and baffling on many levels.  First of all, there are hundreds of empty houses; the town population expands ten-fold during the summer holidays.  Many of these empty houses are second or third homes, but some just seem abandoned, used primarily for slingshot practice by teenaged boys:

Does Ifrane really need more housing?  And why are so many houses left half-finished?  Part of the problem, I’m told, is the difficulty of obtaining credit, so people start to build a house, but when they run out of money, the project is put on hold until they can save up enough for the next stage of construction.

The props used to stabilize each layer of building are so different from what one would find in the United States:

The use of stone for foundations makes sense to me…

but cement blocks, or chipped brick blocks, are not going to help with the winter’s chill:

When buildings are effectively wrapped in tinfoil as an attempt at insulation, you know you’re in trouble… [photo coming]

People will say that there’s not enough wood nearby for that to be an affordable building material, but there’s certainly a lot of wood consumed in heating these uninsulated chilly cement blocks.  October brought the first major deliveries of wood, mostly cedar from the surrounding mountains:
Sometimes the delivery blocks off a whole section of the street, but before long the whine of chainsaws lets you know the obstacle is about to be cleared:
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Chopped wood is carefully stacked, to be burned in stoves with pipes, leaking from right-angle turns, serving as chimneys.  (It was the stove hole in our wall that led to the flood in our salon.)

But people who don’t have money for this kind of wood take other steps to heat their homes, gathering smaller sticks in great quantities.  Below, a group of women head out to the forest with their handcarts for a day of gleaning firewood, and  a man carries a stack of wood home on his bike.

The result is a haze of smoke that hangs over the village every chilly evening:  SONY DSC SONY DSCSONY DSC

Our home is heated with coal, though the furnace is first lit with wood, so our garage is full of 1) a ton of coal and 2) some five or six bags of sweet-smelling cedar.  Every time I open the door to get out my bike, I’m bowled over by the sweet fragrance, masking the dirty reality of the coal.

But with the exception of one room with extra radiators and a party wall (shared with another house), our house is very cold: the heat added by the radiators is roughly equal to the heat lost through the walls and windows.  (The combination of a low furnace chimney and leaky windows also meant that we were breathing coal fumes day and night, so in fact we will be moving to house-sit for some absent friends with a gas-fired furnace until the spring arrives.  Their house is also cold.) For the most part, our Moroccan friends also have one warm room they live in all winter, scuttling off to bed, then coming back to the fire as quickly as possible.

Bjorn Lomborg wrote an op-ed piece in the NYTimes on December 3rd insisting on the critical necessity of fossil fuels for the developing world.  Many of his points are well-taken: “More than 1.2 billion people around the world have no access to electricity…. Most of them live in sub-Saharan Africa and in Asia. That is nearly four times the number of people who live in the United States…. [A]n estimated three billion … still cook and heat their homes using open fires and leaky stoves” and as a result, “about 3.5 million of them die prematurely each year as a result of breathing the polluted air inside their homes.”

I’m not living in sub-Saharan Africa, but my experience of North Africa leads me to disagree with at least one of Lomborg’s conclusions: “let’s face it. What those living in energy poverty need are reliable, low-cost fossil fuels, at least until we can make a global transition to a greener energy future.”  It’s possible to purchase coal here in Ifrane (we did), and heating oil is still subsidized, much to the displeasure of the World Bank and the IMF.  But our neighbors and friends aren’t busy purchasing coal and gas.  They’re pretty firmly committed to wood stoves.  I’d say they need an affordable green (and healthy) alternative to heating fuel–they also need insulation and energy conservation–but I’m not sure they’d agree.

Meanwhile, both in the desert and on the mountains, I’ve seen Imazighen people deriving electricity from solar panels (for instance) in contexts where it’s hard to see how coal or gas would offer any benefit. Urging support for coal-burning power plants (and implicitly financing an entire delivery structure based on older energy assumptions) is to ignore, for example, the way mobile phone service in Africa leapfrogged over the absence of landline infrastructure.

So rather than arguing about the benefits of fossil fuels, let’s all push for a major leap forward on green methods for energy conservation, generation, and distribution.  Soon, please.

Gouffre de Friouata

On the way back to Ifrane, we spent a night in the National Park of Tazekka, near Taza, northeast of Fez.  In the morning, we drove up and down the mountain in slippery snow (turning to rain) in order to reach the mouth of the Friouata cave.

The cave extends for about 3 kilometers underground: here is a map from the National Park’s website.

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We straggled through the rain into the welcome center, donned hard hats with head lamps, and followed our guide into the cave.  (I’m going to call the guide Abdelrachman for his kindness until I can remember his real name.) My favorite part was the opening, the massive sinkhole of this karst topography.


At the bottom of the sinkhole, we squeeze through a smaller opening into the cave itself:
Tempting to pet the bat as we go by:

The hike was like a dark, underground muddy rock scramble, with the occasional bridge over streams or standing water, and ladders to simplify the climb to higher or lower levels.
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There was an abundance of stalactites, stalagmites, and interesting formations of all kinds.  These formations grow at a rate of roughly 100 years per centimeter.  The cave counsels patience.
And impermanence: some of the stalactites have been broken by earthquakes and tremors.
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At the end of the cave system, Abdelrachman played the rock formation like a cross between a drum and an organ.  I’ll try to post a link to the video on vimeo.P1000669

But, as is often the case here, the most amazing display (in my eyes) was the kindness and care Jeremy received.  He was carried bodily through most of the cave by Abdelrachman and by our West Point friend, James.
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For my part, I was happy to have faced down my claustrophobia, and to have received this muddy badge of honor from Abdelrachman:
Indeed, a good time was had by all:

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.”

An engagement party

Our neighbor Lahcen threw an engagement party for his daughter on November 9th.  The first we knew of it was the convoy of cars pulling up to park along the street as the fiancé’s family arrived.  Actually, we’d had some earlier clues: music playing in the house and the occasional burst of ululation.  I really want to learn how to ululate: I’m so impressed by that high, vibrato-on-steroids female cry that defines celebration here.P1000438

The family, bearing many platters of sweets and a beautiful array of flowers, is greeted with another set of ululations, and music at the gate.

Inside, the two families sit together and share some sweets, each family on a side of the traditional salon.

The family has some professional help in serving drinks.  There are many people to serve.P1000444

The men and women separate into two separate groups.  James has gone with the men, who are nibbling on pastilla, a flaky pastry filled with chicken or occasionally pigeon.

Lahcen, the proud papa.  He’s a good neighbor and a kind man.  Whenever he sees us looking intrigued by something happening in his house, he invites us in.  We miss him and his family now that we’ve shifted homes again.  But we’ll be back!


An Amazigh family in the sands

As we ride up on our tourist camels, an old woman is pulling dates off their orange stems in the shadow cast by a square Berber tent.
Young Lahcen, our guide, leads us near the encampment.  As the camels fold themselves down onto the sand, he pulls off the blankets that have served as saddles and hauls the food bag toward a separate tent that is clearly reserved for visitors.

Khalid, the father of the family, comes to greet us with a warm hand and a warm smile.  Two of his sons head off with a loaded mule, one riding, one leading.
There’s another smaller boy sitting beside the old woman, eating dates while pretending to help pull them off the stalks.  We approach the date pile, asking tentatively whether we can help.  The old woman gestures: feel free.  Zoe, Jeremy, and I sit down and start to work, while James wanders around the camp.

Khalid returns and we go through the introductions: our names, their names.  The boy is Hassan.  He insists he’s ten.  He’s smaller than Jeremy and he’s missing a lower front tooth, so I would guess five or six.  (His brother Mohamed later confirms that Hassan is 5; he himself is 6.)  The old woman is “Hajja” says Khalid, which is a term of respect.  Zoe and I are fascinated by the deep red of her fingernails and the base of her feet.  She grabs a stalk of the date and runs her hand down it so the dates fly off in all directions: much more efficient than pulling off a date at a time.  “Oh, and there’s Omar,” they say, gesturing at a small green scarf bundled on a rug in the shade of the next tent over.
Oh! we say, surprised.  We would never have known that was a baby.

James comes to tell us that there’s a woman baking bread and he feels intrusive as a single foreign man, so I go with him up the side of the dune to see a small oven built out of mud or cement in the windbreak of a small shrub and a kind of lean-to made of a rug and a stick.  Fatima, the mother of the family, pulls out a third loaf, wraps it in cloth with the other loaves of bread, feeds the fire, banks it, and heads down the slope into one of the family tents.

We wander back to the date work and a few minutes later, Fatima appears with a couple of bowls and a handful of vegetables.  She picks up the green bundle, wraps herself and the baby in the folds of her black scarf and proceeds to feed him.  A few minutes later, she reemerges, with the baby draped across her lap, at which point she begins scraping and chopping vegetables.
Moroccan women rarely bother with cutting boards and the good sense of this is forcibly born in on me in this context: with a cutting board, you’d inevitably get loads of sand in your food.  I go to sit near her and practice my little Darija.  A month old? I ask.  Aren’t you tired?  I was tired the first months after my kids were born.  Fatima and Hajja laugh at this, quite emphatically.

Fatima pulls back the green scarf—green for Islam?—to give me a better look at Omar’s face.  He has eyebrows drawn on in a thick black paste.
“Zween,” I say admiringly.  Handsome.  She hands him to me and I dandle him.  He’s tied up in a small package: white wrapping inside the green cloth.  His feet are tied together with a soft rope.  His hands are inside the white swaddling: also tied?.  Around his neck there’s a string with beads and a small square of folded paper taped up or wrapped in plastic.  It makes me think of an amulet, but when I ask, Fatima says it’s just decoration.
The swaddling seems to work: he’s a remarkably quiet and placid baby.  With his head uncovered, he peers dimly at me.  When I remember to take off my sunglasses, he smiles.

Khalid and his mother pick through the huge pile of dates, though I have a hard time telling whether they’re trying to sort out the half-eaten and rotten ones, or pick out the ripe ones.
I try handing Khalid bunches of each sort and he sets them aside together. Oh, for better language skills!  I ask where the dates come from and Khalid gestures over a dune: they’re from a nearby palm, shared with another Berber family. Khalid brings two large empty bags and we fill them with the dates we’ve plucked.  Half will be sold; half eaten by the family.
I think back to Aki or Karim telling us that his dates are premium dates—the best to be found.  They certainly seem more appealing than these—but I’m probably biased by the flies everywhere.  Why does no one talk about flies in the desert?  I point to what looks like mold covering the surface of many of the dates.  No problem, Lahcen says, and Khalid clarifies: a little cold will take care of that.  So first the dates are ripened with heat, then they’re cooled and cleaned to remove the mold.

Slowly, we see a little of the rhythm of the day.  The two older boys, Hamid and Mohamed, have taken a load of dates off to a little hut to ripen.  Hajja and Khalid are preparing another load of dates.  Khadija, the oldest of the children and the only girl, has been doing laundry: she lays the clothes out on the sand to dry.
Fatima has been baking bread and working on lunch and possibly dinner for her family.  Along with piles of finely grated carrot, onion, potato, there’s also a large joint—by which I mean a two gray bones attached by a tendon or ligament—which joins some more coarsely chopped vegetables in the ubiquitous and efficient pressure-cooker. There’s a cooking hut with a small solar panel on the sand outside.  Inside, there are multiple gas-fired burners.  I imagine that donkey earns his keep carrying gas canisters back and forth to Merzouga.
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Lahcen in the cooking hut, working on a veggie lunch for us.

Khadija comes to check on the baby and corrects me when I remark with wonder at his being only a month old.  Not yet! she insists.  Only twenty-six days.  As I’ve been holding him, he’s definitely done a poop, but no one seems very interested in changing him.  Still, there seems to be a pile of disposable diapers bagged and waiting for disposal near the dead tree.

We eat lunch in the guest tent.  Khalid has propped up the side wall, opposite the door, with a stick, to allow for some breeze, but it’s still oppressively hot.  There’s a nice cold salad assortment and “Berber pizza” or “sand pizza”—a traditional dish more conventionally known as medfouna (a word that means buried).  A tomato-onion mixture is “buried” in ours.  Hassan sits with us and plays at feeding Jeremy sections of hard-boiled egg; Jeremy reciprocates with medfouna, cucumber, and other sections of egg.  After lunch, we head back to the shady wall of the main tent, where the heat is a touch less oppressive.

James does card tricks to delight Khalid, Lahcen, and the boys.
The women have retreated with Omar to one of the straw-walled huts: cooler in this heat.
Hassan and Mohammed play Connect 4 with Jeremy, though it takes a while to get the concept of the game across.
Likewise with logic puzzles.

Khadija comes and draws patterns in henna on my hands and on Zoe’s.  In the morning, she had asked me if I’d like some henna, but she only starts on Zoe after I request it, confirming our assumption that no one in Morocco can quite tell whether Zoe is male or female.
Jeremy shows Mohamed how to fold a secret letter; the two communicate very well with no common language beside gesture.  Both Mohamed and Hassan use the crayons to draw on paper, but they look oddly at Jeremy’s (admittedly idiosyncratic) drawing of a camel and the accompanying narrative he spells out alongside.

The donkey comes back, driven by Hamid perhaps, and has had a feed before wandering off.  The camels, hobbled lightly, have disappeared over the dunes.  The boys head off to retrieve them.  Brought back to the blanket depot, the camels collapse onto the sand, rolling occasionally with high comic effect.
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A group of four sheep come scampering in for a meal, chased by one of the boys, before heading back to the slim shade of their scrubby bush.

By about 3:30, it’s time to head back to base camp.  There’s a lovely breeze.  Mohamed and Hassan claim a couple of half-empty water bottles as loot; given the rest of the family’s water supply, I’d snag fresh water, too.
The boys are playing on their swing set
and waving to us as we pass the four sheep huddled under a shrub.

Three minutes later, they are all hidden behind a dune; we might never know they were there.

A great big sandbox

It’s hard to say what’s so compelling about the Erg Chebbi dunes, other than the obvious.  The sand is so sensuous, the light and lines so abstract and evocative…IMG_1583 - Version 2

the invitation to play so irresistible.
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So we had to go back, this time to camp a couple of nights in the desert itself…
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and maybe catch another sunrise.

Unfortunately, James had such a bad cold that he, like Zoe’s beleagured camel, barely made it to the camp before collapsing and crawling into bed.
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but the rest of us climbed the massive dune behind the camp to watch the stars rise.  I haven’t seen the Milky Way since I was a child in the Adirondacks–or perhaps a college student in Vermont.  It’s a humbling, overwhelming sight.  No camera on hand–nor would any camera we had do it any justice.

We were cold, waiting for supper, but the food was good and the candlelight atmospheric.

Similarly, the beds were a little lumpy and sandy, but we enjoyed yet another attempt to catch that elusive sunrise…
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even if we knew were were being a little goofy about it.IMG_1199

We stopped by to see the camels, hobbled in a way that was new to us, before getting changed.
One hour past sunrise, and we’ve already shed about four layers.  We’re ready to demolish some breakfast!

And after a day of visiting an Amazigh family in the dunes (see next post), we had to do it all over again.

The view from the dune down over the camp (looking like a small bush below Jeremy) is close to vertiginous.

It’s an amazing thing, to run straight down that incline, sinking into sand half-way up your calf with every step.

And though the Erg Chebbi dunes are pretty small–only 22 km north to south and 5-10 km east to west–you wouldn’t know it when you’re out there.

Like the ocean, the dunes (and their visitors) have many colors and many moods…
IMG_1313 IMG_1315and we liked all of them.