No three foot high giraffe
Britons have many geographical misconceptions about North Africa. The first is the ‘horizontal fallacy,’ the blithe assumption that North Africa is an east-west line of states stretching from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, along the Mediterranean coast. Most journalistic commentators on what they would probably call ‘the Middle East’ or ‘the Arab World’ could count off the five coastal states, probably in the right order, but would be hard put to it to enumerate the next layer of states and peoples to the south. This Mediterranean-centred, map-driven perception accounts well enough for the seaborne empires of Rome, Carthage, Byzantium and Istanbul; and for the commercial and naval empires of the Middle Ages and the early modern period. But it doesn’t really represent the dynamic of a culture which looks in both directions, standing as it always has, on the shores of a great sand-sea stretching south into Africa – the Soudan, as the whole belt of land south of the great desert used to be called.
Morocco in particular has always had a tremendously important north-south axis, with much of its history shaped by continuity with al-Andalus to the north, and the well-travelled road southwards into inner West Africa. A cultural and political zone that stretched from Barcelona to Timbuktu surrounded the core lands of the sultanate; and into it from the south spilled wave after wave of vigorous incomers – three imperial dynasties, innumerable slaves, travellers, traders, wives, concubines, soldiers and musicians. Timbuktu was conquered by Al-Mansour in 1591 and ruled tenuously by the Sultan for almost two centuries. What is now Mauritania and much of northern Mali named the Sultan at Friday prayers. The three great, virtually identical eleventh century minarets in Seville, Rabat and Marrakech symbolically tie the northern part of this great cultural hinterland together. From the south Tijani pilgrims travelled from Senegal to Fes and the shrine of Mawlana Ahmed al-Tijani; Moroccan merchant dynasties like the Benjellouns established offshoots in Senegal and elsewhere. The Casablanca Financial City project is designed explicitly to make Casa the financial services and export gateway into Africa.
So it isn’t very surprising that modern Morocco’s foreign policy and commercial activity are deeply implanted in West Africa. Nor is it surprising that migrants and students from West Africa travel north in search of education and employment. Some, to be sure, are on their way further north into Europe; but many, perhaps most, are in search of education. Of all African countries Morocco is the second largest destination (after South Africa) for transnational student movement, generous with student support for Africans at its universities and proud of its record.
But Morocco is no longer as welcoming as it was. There is a hard-edged, discriminatory attitude taking shape which sets Africans apart, and a country which for centuries has been, if not colour-blind at least open, omnivorous and many-hued, is turning its shoulder towards Africans here. As a micro-barometer of official attitudes I have watched with interest the rise and fall of the street-traders in the arcade below our building in Allel ben Abdellah. After February 20 2011, when it was clearly felt that harassment of African vu-compri (as the Italians charmlessly but accurately call them) was imprudent, they started to arrive, moving a few yards each day up into the nouvelle ville from their pitches in Avenue Hassan II. Their cheerful smiles and groundsheets covered in carved giraffes and hippos, necklaces, combs and telephones became pleasantly familiar. Occasionally you’d see them bundle their stuff away in a hurry and leg it back down the street, having caught a glimpse of an approaching uniform, and once or twice I saw them not leg it fast enough, and get some half-hearted stick as a consequence.
But they always came back, until the late spring of this year, when they suddenly disappeared back towards the medina, like a falling tide, and the arcades of Allel bin Abdellah were restored to their more usual, less colourful denizens. These men are probably not students, but for those who are, life is getting more difficult too. An article published during the summer on Grotius.fr gives a dry, uncomfortable account of the predicament of the 8,000 or so African students, mostly from Cameroon, Senegal and the Ivory Coast, at Moroccan universities, on the government bursaries, which are a plank of Moroccan aid to African countries, or in private establishments. On the whole, they don’t have an easy time – and all accounts suggest that it is getting worse.
“In the stories they tell of their lives, the students describe the gap between their expectations before they left home, and the reality, once they have arrived. Culture shock is painful, and incomprehension total. They meet Moroccan society in three places: the university, the street and – for students who live in an apartment – the neighbourhood. At university, relations with Moroccan students are rather distant, the Moroccans rather scornful of their sub-Saharan fellows. It’s difficult to make contact, because they mostly speak Arabic, a language in which the African students haven’t yet mastered. Experience in the street, most of all in the popular quarters, is negative for most African students. They are insulted, called “azzi,” a pejorative dialect word for a coloured person. They are harassed, and even have stones thrown at them by the children of the quarter. As for relations in the neighbourhood where they live, these are often warmer and more polite, and the students feel a little more at home.”
This throws the Africans in on themselves, in their own African communities, sharing flats and expenses. “Faced with Otherness, they try to recreate a familiar and a family atmosphere.” And they forge a shared identity – often calling themselves ‘Blacks,’ regardless of their country of origin, finding solidarity in their foreign-ness and a retreat from an often hostile environment.
And now I feel guilty for not having bought a three foot high giraffe.
This blog was first published on Mercurius Maghrebensis on September 4, 2013.
When the beating of your heart echoes the beating of the drum
Most journalists and commentators digest and regurgitate each other. We know this, but we read them because we don’t have much choice, and it’s not at all easy to break free of the apparently authoritative recycling of constantly repurposed opinion. Much, perhaps most, of what has been written about the Arab Spring in general, and Egypt in particular, falls into this category. We hear and read identikit comment on the Tahrir Revolution of January 2011, its betrayal by the SCAF and the Ikhwan, and the Counter-revolution of July 2013. I suspect that the anglophone press, both British and American, is particularly guilty of trotting out this too comfortable narrative which conflates Tahrir Square with Les Miserables, talks of Arab Spring succeeded by Arab Winter, of Islamists hijacking the Revolution, and of the army saving or hijacking it (selon gout). Most of us are at least occasionally guilty, in conversation or in writing, of using this sloppy intellectual template.
To read a really convincing analysis which flies squarely in the face of this romantic babble is very invigorating, and I strongly recommend Hugh Roberts’s review essay in The London Review of Books (September 12, 2013) called The Revolution That Wasn’t. Roberts does what most journalists can’t, and places the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 and its aftermath in a strongly anchored historical framework. Of the books he reviews it is clear that Hazem Kandil’s Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt is particularly interesting and formative, but Roberts is himelf a distinguished scholar of North Africa who has lived in Cairo for more than a decade, and observes and deconstructs in precisely the way that journalists who flit in for a few frantic days of pieces to camera, do not.
I’m not going to rehearse the review in detail here: it is essential reading, and I recommend it to you. What Roberts does is to suggest very coherently that what we think we know about it is what we are intended to think we know. He poo-poos the absurd figures for signatures on petitions and people at demonstrations; suggests coherently that the whole period, despite the idealism and courage of the demonstrators in the Square and across the country, is one not of revolution at all (at least in the Tunisian sense), but of a rebalancing between the Egyptian ruling institutions – a rebalancing that has seen the army, in constant tension with the presidency since Nasser, regain its upper hand. He shows Tamarod to be largely a glove-puppet of the army, and paints a very convincing picture of the Muslim Brotherhood’s being forced into the trap of government that its wiser heads tried hard to resist, seeing all too clearly the consequences that would follow.
Like a bucket of cold water thrown over one’s head, Roberts’s article leaves one thinking more clearly, and dissipates the fog of easy answers. I tried it out on a serious and respected commentator on the region, based in London, who wrote back to me: “Too many of today’s journalists, myself included, are not close enough and do not know their subject and regurgitate rubbish and confuse the picture. This article was like lifting a veil and being shown some genuine light.”
Hats off to the LRB (and note in passing that it ran a very interesting article by Hazem Kandil on March 21st called Deadlock in Cairo). Its coverage of Egypt in particular is indispensible.
This blog was first published on Mercurius Maghrebensis on September 24, 2013.