The Greening of Morocco?

In the opening of The Graduate, Mr. McGuire has one word for the young Benjamin Braddock: “Plastics — there’s a great future in plastics.” The future appears to be less bright for plastics in Morocco, where the government is vigorously pursuing its campaign against the formerly ubiquitous plastic bag or “mika,” which has long littered the Moroccan landscape. In the past year, the government has reportedly seized 420 tons of plastic bags since passing a ban. The initiative follows the opening last year of Morocco’s massive solar power plant in the Sahara.

This is not to say that Morocco does not continue to face significant environmental challenges, particularly in the areas of desertification, water pollution, and destruction of river systems from projects such as dam construction.

Death of a “Mule Woman”

The ugly side of the Spanish enclaves in Morocco has surfaced once again. The two enclaves — Ceuta and Melilla — are the focus of a host of social ills, notable among them the cross-border duty-free manual portage of goods by desperate and impoverished women. The women — colloquially known as porteadoras or “Melilla mules” — carry hundred pound packs on their backs into Morocco for a few euros a day. So long as the woman are able to carry the goods on their backs, they are classified as “personal items” and therefore are not subject to customs. The authorities justify this barbaric arrangement as an economic benefit to the community. The trade is hugely profitable; the BBC estimates that it brings in at least $300 million euros a year to Melilla alone, and perhaps double that.

The issue received a flicker of attention yesterday when the Middle East Monitor reported
that the crowd crossing the border crushed a woman to death, another anonymous casualty of the cross-border trade. Michael Kinsley once said that the scandal is not what is illegal, it is what is legal. He might have been thinking of Ceuta and Melilla.

Mohammed V remembered

Casablanca is a great movie, and it has long been my favorite. I saw it first well before I ever dreamed that I would end up in Morocco, which is perhaps just as well, since this movie’s relationship to the city in which it supposedly takes place is tangential at best. It is basically an American movie about European problems, particularly noteworthy for the complete absence of Moroccan characters.

Marking the 75th anniversary of the movie, however, today’s Los Angeles Times also makes a more sobering observation. “Civilized” Europe was engulfed in the second cataclysmic war of the century, creating mass death and destruction unimaginable were it not for the catastrophe of the First World War little more than twenty years earlier. Germany was shipping six million Jews — and millions of others — to be gassed and burned in the Eastern death camps, with the complicity of most of conquered Europe.

One bright ray in the vast darkness was the refusal of the Moroccan Sultan, later King Mohammed V, to allow the Nazis and their puppets, the Vichy French, to ship Morocco’s Jews out of the country to be exterminated. The Times quotes his famous dictum:

“I absolutely do not approve of the new anti-Semitic laws and I refuse to associate myself with a measure I disagree with,” he told the French officials. “I reiterate as I did in the past that the Jews are under my protection and I reject any distinction that should be made amongst my people.”

This is not to say that Morocco’s relationship with the Jews is uncomplicated. Most of them departed in the 50’s, to the regret of at least some portion of the people they left behind. Even today, many return from Israel to visit and observe holy days, despite the tensions resulting from the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To say that Europe had much to be ashamed of would be to grossly understate the case, but in this dark moment in history, Morocco had reason to be proud.

Recommended Reading

A couple of months ago a friend of mine — a poet and a broadcaster — asked about novels set in Morocco, since her work was taking her there for a roughly two-week working tour of the country. She’d read Paul Bowles and excluded Hideous Kinky. I did have a couple of suggestions, but my friends had many more. Here’s a rough list, in no particular order:

  • Mohamed Choukri, For Bread Alone
  • Tahir Shah, The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca
  • James Michener, the Drifters
  • Jeffrey Tayler, Glory in a Camel’s Eye (nonfiction/travel)
  • Linda Holeman, The Saffron Gate
  • Laila Lalami, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits
  • Laila Lalami, Secret Son
  • Gavin Maxwell, Lords of the Atlas (nonfiction, formerly banned in Morocco)
  • Elizabeth Fernea, A Street in Marrakech (nonfiction)
  • Peter Mayne, A Year in Marrakech (nonfiction)
  • Abdellah Taia, Salvation Army
  • Abdellah Taia, An Arab Melancholoy
  • Abellah Taia, Infidels
  • Tahar Ben Jelloun, The Sand Child
  • Tahar Ben Jelloun, Leaving Tangier
  • Lawrence Osborne, The Forgiven
  • Fatima Mernissi, Dreams of Trespass (nonfiction)

Without mentioning specific titles, people also recommended books by Driss Chraibi, Walter Burton Harris, Leila Abouzeid, Mohamed Zefzaf, Abdallah Laraoui, Bensalem Himmich, and Abdelhak Serhane,and Mohammed Mrabet’s collaborations with Paul Bowles and Mohamed Choukri. It looks as though I have my reading cut out for me.

New work by Laila Lalami, author of the Moor’s Account

Acclaimed Moroccan-American author Laila Lalami has announced the completion of two new books, a new novel entitled The Other Americans and a work of nonfiction entitled Conditional Citizens.

Although best known for her Pulitzer Prize shortlisted novel the Moor’s Account, Lalami is also the author of Secret Son and Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, in addition to her wide-ranging commentary in such publications as the Nation and the New York Times. (I had a short take on Secret Son and the Moor’s Account when they came out.)