Morocco outside in

KA Dilday
14 June 2007

No one is sure how many migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, documented and undocumented, live in Morocco but most every Moroccan is sure that it's too many. In 2005, the government estimated that about 20,000 undocumented migrants from sub-Saharan Africa were in and around cities near the coast of Morocco. And the Agence marocaine de cooperation internationale estimates that about 10,000 students from southern African are enrolled in public and private universities in Morocco.

Moroccans come in all hues, from the pale skin that many of the Berbers, Morocco's aboriginal residents have, to beige Arabs, to darker-skinned people from the southern part of the country. But to native Moroccans in the large cities and the northern parts of Morocco, dark skin says sub-Sahara and it says interloper or low-cost worker in a country that already has trouble employing its natives.

Also in openDemocracy on Morocco, migration and Europe:

Nelcya Delanoe, "Morocco: a journey in the space between monarchy and Islamism" (5 February 2003)

Nelcya Delanoe, "Morocco and Spain: united by tragedy?"
(25 March 2003)

Ivan Briscoe, "Dreaming of Spain: migration and Morocco" (27 May 2004)

Rashi Khilnani, "How Morocco's free media is silenced" (19 April 2006)

Yto Barrada, "Morocco unbound: an interview" (17 May 2006)

Gregor Noll, "The Euro-African migration conference: Africa sells out to Europe"
(14 July 2006)Not what you think

For most of the latter two centuries Morocco has considered itself an African exception, the most European of African countries, having more in common with the continent that it can easily see on clear days, just nineteen kilometers away across the strait of Gibraltar, than with the vast expanse of southern countries sharing the same landmass. Morocco's long and not so distant history of enslaving sub-Saharan Africans also contributes to the perception that they are not equals.

"I don't like the people from sub-Saharan Africa", a cabdriver, told me after establishing that I wasn't one. "Senegalese, Cameroonians, they act badly."

While Morocco has many transitory migrants from southern Africa - people who are waiting until they can sneak into Europe on a boat or by foot into the Spanish territory on the continent of Africa, Ceuta and Mellila - it also has students and economic migrants who want to work in the country because there is more opportunity or because the situation is more stable than the one in their own country. When I travelled to Morocco in mid-May 2007, TelQuel, one of two extremely fine newsweeklies in Morocco (the other is Le Journal Hebdonaire) featured an article about the new residents, L'auberge africaine. The featured description of the article read: "Harassed, insulted, the sub-Saharans rely strongly on their community."

One Ivoirian student explained to the TelQuel reporter why he had moved there: "It's too hard to get a visa to Europe. The cost of living in Tunisia is too expensive, and Algeria has too many problems with security. Morocco is a stable country with an important African community compared to the other Maghrebi countries."

As I walked around Casablanca and other parts of Morocco, I began to wonder if people reacted to me differently because of the colour of my skin. I knew the children did. In Tangier in summer 2006 I first began to realise that child beggars who beseech most westerners left me alone for the most part. And a Moroccan man came up to me and asked if I was American. He said he had guessed by the way I wore my hair, but I soon realised that it was my freedom of movement during the day. Most of the sub-Saharan Africans in Tangier move about nocturnally as they are illegal residents waiting to cross to Spain.

In Casablanca I was staying in a relatively expensive hotel by Moroccan standards. The receptionist had been warm on the phone but the welcome was starkly chilly when I arrived. In the nine days I stayed there between intermittent travels, I noticed that I was the only dark-skinned person save two people from Cameroon.

Although I had paid my entire bill in advance through the internet, I stopped at the desk on the way out simply to ensure that all was in order. When I checked out the receptionist seemed surprised that I had been permitted to keep my passport for the duration of my stay. No one ever mentioned keeping it and I am inclined to believe that mine had been returned because I was American, something the cashier would not have known. I don't know if I can attribute these responses to the colour of my skin, but some Moroccans think that is the reason.

My Arabic teacher in Morocco, a native with skin almost as dark as mine, sent me to a bustling market in the middle of Casablanca to buy Gnawan music, the popular soulful music that came up from southern Morocco. "Will they speak French?" I asked as I still couldn't say much more than "hello" and "My name is Kay. What's yours?" in the Moroccan Arabic dialect. "Yes" he said.

I wasn't able to buy anything at the market. When I asked the price of things the sellers ignored me. I came back and told him about my foray. "People were mean", I said. "I don't think they like foreigners going there. It seems like a private market for Moroccans." No that's not it", he said, "I have a Canadian friend who goes there almost every day." "It's that in the last ten years..."

I filled in the rest: "They thought I was from sub-Saharan Africa." "Next time speak to them in English", he said.

KA Dilday worked on the New York Times opinion page until autumn 2005, when she began a writing fellowship with the Institute of Current World Affairs. During the period of the fellowship, she is travelling between north Africa and France.

Also by KA Dilday on openDemocracy:

"The freedom trail"
(4 August 2005)

"France seeks a world voice"
(8 December 2005)

"Europe's forked tongues"
(16 February 2006)

"Zidane and France: the rules of the game"
(19 July 2006)

"Barack Obama, Moroccan Ali, and me"
(5 February 2007)

"Sister in spirit: Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel"
(6 March 2007)

"The discomfort of strangers"
(24 April 2007)

"France's two worlds"
(8 May 2007)

"A girl, a knife, and Hawa Gréou"
(30 May 2005)Part of the reaction stems from Morocco's history of slavery, another friend told me. In Morocco the sale of slaves was outlawed several years after the country became a French protectorate in 1912. However, as Mohammed Ennaji emphasises in Serving the Master: Slavery and Society in 19th-century Morocco, while the public sale of slaves was made illegal, owning of slaves was not. Until the mid-20th century, Morocco was a slave-owning country and the institution died out not, Ennaji writes, by edict but by force of circumstances. In the middle ages, the invading Arabs in the region owned slaves of all ethnicity. For the last two centuries, slaves in Morocco were almost entirely dark-skinned people from sub-Saharan Africa. The palace slaves, Marvine Howe reports, were only officially freed when King Hassan II died in 1999.

Morocco eludes itself

Morocco still has a social hierarchy that borrows from the master-slave relationship and disdains dark skin. A Moroccan friend told me about a woman of sub-Saharan African descent in his neighborhood in the town of Sale just across the lagoon from Morocco's capital Rabat. "She was very beautiful and she married a white man and everyone wondered what was wrong with him. They thought she must have put a spell on him."

"We are perceived as dirty people who create problems, who make too much noise, most landlords refuse us as tenants and when they accept us, you feel that you aren't truly welcome", a Cameroonian student told TelQuel. I was only in Morocco for three weeks yet in addition to the TelQuel, I read another article about protesting sub-Saharan Africans. They marched in front of a government building with signs written in broken English demanding their protections under laws protecting refugees.

When faced with a choice between embracing its Africanness, Morocco retains the colonialist affection for European culture. Yet annually, as many Moroccans are caught trying to emigrate to Europe by boat as sub-Saharan Africans. Morocco suffers from 50% illiteracy and chronic unemployment. It ranks 123rd in the human-development index, lower than any other north African country and just above Gabon and Namibia. It is Africa.

Travelling around Morocco, I began to feel like a spy in the house of trans-African migration. The shift in treatment when I revealed my American nationality or when I was in the company of someone white was stark as I vaulted ahead in their social hierarchy.

Yet as "fortress Europe" becomes ever more protected Morocco will have to ally politically with the rest of Africa as a lobby regardless of disputed territories or notions of Moroccan exceptionalism, and the people will have to accept their link to the migrants they so disdain. There is no other choice.

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