I See The Stars At Noon: filming Morocco’s emigration hunger

Saeed Taji Farouky
27 October 2005

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There is a saying in Arabic that translates as “I see the stars at noon”. We use it when everything in life is turned upside-down, when things are not as they should be. I first heard it in the tiny Moroccan village of Sebt Jahjouh, travelling with a man named Abdelfattah, a man whose world was upside-down, a man for whom things were definitely not as they should have been.

Abdelfattah was one of Morocco’s clandestines, the people who cross illegally into Europe, piling on to precarious rafts or stowing away on ships hoping not to drown in the unpredictable waters of the Straits of Gibraltar. They are the men who sit on the balcony overlooking the port of Tangiers and watch the lights of Spain flicker only fourteen kilometres away. They are also the men who end up at the bottom of the Mediterranean, or homeless in Spain, or begging on the streets of Europe when things do not go as planned.

After living and working in Morocco for a year, I decided to make a documentary film about the clandestines, and the journey they make – what the Moroccans call hijra siriyyah (secret emigration). I followed Abdelfattah for three weeks, filming everything he went through as he travelled the country looking for contacts and smugglers and raising money to pay his way on to a boat. Through the documentary, I See The Stars At Noon, I wanted to understand what would make someone risk his life for an utterly uncertain future in Europe, and what he expected to find there.


Abdelfattah, from I See The Stars At Noon

That someone should want to leave Morocco is not surprising. It is, despite being a fashionable destination, an extremely poor north African country, and one ruled by an absolute (albeit benign) monarch. What is surprising is that someone like Abdelfattah would want so desperately to leave. He was not, after all, starving. His family owned a modest house, he was trained as a tailor and had experience as a butcher. What he did not have, however, was hope.

Also in openDemocracy on Morocco and its migrants:

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

Nelcya Delanoe, “Morocco and Spain: united by tragedy?” (March 2004)

Ivan Briscoe, “Dreaming of Spain: migration and Morocco” (May 2004)

“Melilla: bloodbath on the Africa-Europe frontier” (October 2005)

“A life full of holes, the Strait Project, Yto Barrada” (October 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all

Over the course of filming, I came to understand that there was something other than simple greed driving Abdelfattah to reach Europe. He was, of course, interested in what he believed Europe could offer him, but he was motivated as much by a hatred of Morocco as an appreciation for Europe. Like many Moroccans, and in fact many Arabs of this generation, Abdelfattah seemed to love and hate his country in equal measures. He loved the fact that he came from such a rich and proud culture, but hated the fact that in recent years, that culture had spiralled uncontrollably into poverty and dictatorship.

Disillusioned Moroccans refer to their country as al-Mekhrib (the ruined), a play on al-Meghrib, the Arabic name for Morocco. The country, and particularly the country’s new king Mohammad VI, has promised them so much, but with stubbornly low wages, high unemployment and few opportunities for economic empowerment, many have given up on it. Alone, this combination of shame and hopelessness is a perfect recipe for a generation of very pissed-off people, but Moroccans have to contend with something else even more influential: bitterness.

Moroccans in recent years have come to resent the hoards of rich European tourists bounding around like they own the place, looking for the “exotic-lite” experience while avoiding any real, ordinary Moroccan culture. They resent it even more because much of their economy relies on tourism. They are, understandably, fed up with seeing so much money flying around, and at the same time, knowing that it will probably never reach them.

This is not an unusual situation in any industry, but tourism is unique in that it requires the porter or tour-guide or bus-driver to be as polite, subservient and accommodating as possible to the very people he resents. The situation in Morocco is made even more complex by the fact that most of their tourists are from France – the same country that violently occupied and humiliated them until 1956 – and that colonial past is played out psychologically over and over again. Abdelfattah saw tourism as a poisoned chalice: it has the promise of making a lot of money, but at a price that many like him were not willing to pay. You can see, from this perspective, why Abdelfattah once explained to me that Morocco’s colonisation was not, in fact, over – it has merely been transferred from the political to the economic and intellectual arena.

The hijra has become, for many, the only choice left and it is a national obsession. It has entered the cultural lexicon of Morocco, simmering just beneath the surface and ultimately coming to represent the nation’s loss of faith in itself. Visit any of the small villages in the centre of the country – those far from any agriculture or tourist money – and you will find that everyone knows someone who has crossed illegally into Europe. Abdelfattah explained that many of his friends from Agourai, near Fes, had made it to Europe, and every summer they would came back to visit, often with a car and extra money for their parents.

I See The Stars At Noon, a documentary which follows a young Moroccan desperately seeking a new life in Spain, is touring festivals. Its next public viewing will be at the Dubai International Film Festival 11-17 December 2005. If you would like to purchase a copy of the film, contact Saeed Taji Farouky.

The Spanish complex

While you might think this situation would be a disaster for Spain, the controversial truth is that they actually do quite well out of it. If your cheap supermarket oranges or tomatoes are imported from Spain, the chances are high that they were picked by a clandestine. You would never know it, because this convenient arrangement rarely makes the news, but the agricultural economy of Spain, and much of southern Europe in general, relies on illegal immigrants.

The Spanish public occasionally hear about the clandestine when a dead African body washes up on their beaches, or when someone is found soaking and delirious stumbling through the streets of Tarifa, but otherwise they go on exporting their cheap produce and we go on buying it. In February 2005, Spain’s government offered amnesty to around 800,000 illegal immigrants working there, thousands of whom are employed in seasonal agricultural work. Though I would like to believe it was out of concern for their rights and working conditions, I suspect it had more to do with collecting income tax and, even more importantly, bolstering Spain’s agricultural-labour deficit.

The Spanish economy, then, is in the paradoxical position of both benefiting from and trying to deter illegal immigrants. Similarly, while Morocco’s official position is that they are doing everything they can to stop illegal immigration, their economy also benefits immensely from remittances from overseas workers. I suspect the Moroccan government also secretly appreciates that a porous border is a very easy way to get rid of the poorest and most desperate elements of society.

The point is that the issue of illegal immigration often has as much to do with politics as with economics, and it is the most vulnerable people – the migrants and illegal immigrants themselves – who are caught in the middle. The debate about how to deal with illegal immigration so often ignores this fact by concentrating on fortifying Europe’s borders and maintaining a respectable image rather than, as many NGOs have urged, redirecting that money and effort to development aid for African countries.

The film dissolves

This relationship of mutual exploitation that exists between Morocco and Spain is, I realised during the process of filming, oddly similar to the relationship between documentarian and subject, both in journalism and documentary film.

In my case, I needed Abdelfattah as an interesting and willing participant in the film, and he needed me both as emotional, and later, financial support. “I think you might be taking advantage of me,” he once said, adding: “If you pay me, then it benefits both of us.”

This was an overwhelming dilemma I faced in making I See The Stars At Noon, something that I had never anticipated, and something that the editor Gareth Keogh and I eventually chose not to ignore because it was so central to the experience of filming. Not only does it more accurately reflect the atmosphere of illegal immigration than an expose-style documentary would, but it raises an issue that few documentaries touch upon, that is, the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject. Abdelfattah and I often talked about what it was like for him to be followed constantly by a camera, how I could continue filming without influencing his decisions, and ultimately, about whether I would pay him or not.

I was, admittedly, naïve in my initial approach to the film, and all of this came as a surprise. I thought I could record Abdelfattah’s life while remaining entirely disassociated from him, but in the end, it turned out to be impossible simply because we are both humans who understand the value of money, opportunity and information. I found it impossible to be a neutral observer, to pretend that my presence had no influence on the events I was recording, and in the end, that tension became the central theme of the film. In other words, it was no longer a film about the journey of a hopeful illegal immigrant, it became a film about the process of me and my camera recording Abdelfattah’s experiences.

The film is in limbo, in much the same way that Abdelfattah was in limbo, and it is intended to fill in the gaps between daily news, tabloid journalism and reality as I saw it. The situation is far more complex than how it is often presented, and implicates our own demand for cheap labour as much as anything else. Abdelfattah was not looking to live on welfare or in government housing. He had no illusions that everything would be handed to him on a plate when he reached Europe. Instead he talked about the future in terms of opportunity, pointing out that he was willing to work as hard as any European if he was only given the chance. He believed that in Morocco, people like him who were honest, hardworking and intelligent had been abandoned in favour of corruption and nepotism, and he was ready, in return, to abandon Morocco. This is a motivation far more compelling than greed, and to ignore it is to misunderstand entirely the reasons behind and the consequences of illegal immigration.

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