Monday, March 17, 2014

Rock the Kasbah

Morocco – Class is in Session!

Marrakesh, the party town, is supposedly the top tourist site in Africa.  Rabat is the old imperial capital of the country, and is still the quieter seat of government.  Fes has a large ancient medina that you could get lost in for days.  Casablanca is the Moroccan version of Marseille – all business and work.  And Ricks’ Café still exists there!  What is not to like? 

Going to another country is an immersive education, and Morocco is no different.  Of course, what you learn might not be on the curriculum.  A colony of the French for many years, a benevolent capitalist monarchy at present, a Muslim country not suffering from inter-Islamic warfare or the worst of intolerance.  The Turks never got there, which is why there is no crescent on their flag, just a green star on a red background, changed by the French. Before that it was plain red.  It was relayed to us that Sultan Mohammed V, the first king of the newly independent nation, greeted the Nazis with a yellow star on his jilaba.  Sephardic Jews have a long history in this nation, but they were attacked after the 1948 war, and the overwhelming majority left for Israel after the Israeli wars.   Some allege that the Mossad organized the attacks to herd Jewish people into Israel.   There are now almost 1 million Moroccan Jews living in Israel.  Their old quarters, the ‘mellah,’ still remain in the older parts of Marrakesh and Fes. 

Because the Turks never got there, because Jews were numerous for many years, because there was and still is a strong European influence (being so close to Spain) and because the indigenous Amazigh people (Berbers to you) are now 40% of the population, Morocco never became a typical Islamic nation.  Women wear hijabs – or they don’t, if they don’t want to.  French is the country’s second language, and the primary language in many newspapers, politics and in education.  Food is Moroccan – tangine stews, fresh fruits, vegetables and fish, couscous, meze salads, avocado smoothies – and also French - patisseries, breads and other culinary influences.  Kif (a form of hashish) is one of their illegal yet profitable major exports, directly through Tangiers to Spain and the rest of Europe.  It is an overwhelmingly agricultural country, whose northern quarter is like the Imperial Valley of California – not desert at all.  The people are for the most part laid-back.  What is not to like? 

I’m not a tour director, so I’ll put on my Marxist X-Ray specs and see.  Tour directors are not allowed to actually tell you the whole story, but I will.  Journey into the labyrinth of the northern souks of Marrakesh, just above the famous rock and roll of the Djemaa-el-Fna square.  Look at all the young men sitting in front of their endless stalls – selling very little.  Look at all the young men sitting in the endless cafes of every city, sipping mint tea and strong coffees, chatting with their friends.  Look at the all the young and old men standing around their rural towns, or any town, with nothing to do.  Look at all the young men doing marginal selling jobs, as touts, dealers, stall minders, salesmen, haphazard cabbies and guides – or nothing at all.  Unemployment is supposedly 9.5% but that figure is as unreliable as our own jiggered unemployment rates.  The precariat is certainly visible.  The bazaar-based peti-bourgeois ‘businessman’ is everywhere.  Where is the proletariat?  To the tourist, they are mostly hidden.  Yet who makes all this stuff?  They are many times female. 

Take the blowhard selling rugs.  “Men sell and women work,” is his slogan.  She smiles behind the loom.  She has no choice.  The mosque has separations between the women and the men, with the women relegated to the upstairs or the back, so as not to ‘tempt’ the men before god.  And what about the women?   Are they not tempted, looking down on so many men and their imam?  Perhaps not.

There are few women in the cafes.  They are mostly hidden at tourist hotels drinking tea with a friend, where they wear no hijab.  Yet there are almost none in the public cafes.  They are in the grocery stores and at home, cooking, taking care of the children, cleaning the home while Mohammad smokes and drinks tea.  I saw women on scooters, going somewhere.  But not hanging out.  Perhaps the cafes need to be integrated? 

The pushy rug man has too many rugs, which he never sells, yet he does not come down in price.  The quiet wholesaler admits he has too many rugs –stacks to the ceiling.  Overproduction is the term.  The stalls are full of crap that never gets sold, that sits for years.  Chinese, Moroccan, from anywhere.  Not that this is that different from so many small businesses all over the world, even in the U.S.  Too many rugs, not enough money.  Traditional designs that no one wants.  Too much stuff, in an economy that only has one point - to turn out more and more commodities, to commodify everything in sight.  It is wasting the talents of millions of unemployed Moroccans. 

The term ‘Islamic Art’ is an oxymoron – a contradiction that screams static.  Traditional ‘Islamic” designs on pottery and rugs are made up of mathematical designs, completely symmetrical floral patterns, absent any human face or figure, or representation of reality – except the ‘hand of Fatima.’ Fatima was Muhammed’s favorite wife. He had several wives, just like the Mormons and the Christian prophets too, and she alone seems to have made the grade because she first … bore him a son.  Right on, Fatima, a son.  Static design sends a message that the world does not change.  It is circular.  It repeats.  It is not dialectical.  It cannot vary.  Nor is it human even.  It can be done with a protractor, by machine.  Yet it is mostly done by hand.

The Amazigh, by contrast, have some freedom in their designs, in their arts.  They are a darker people from the desert and mountains who used to rule Morocco, and then adopted Allah.  They are poorer as a strata, do much of the manual and hand agricultural labor, and were called “Berbers.” The term is a derivative of the word ‘barbarian’ – i.e. Berber is an insult.   Amazigh are oppressed in most nations in North Africa, but in Morocco they are treated better than most, perhaps due to their numbers.  However, their language and autonomy are still at issue, and the Moroccan left makes that a cause. 

Muhammed was a businessman.  The religion of Islam seems to be based on the rule of a pre-capitalist trading / merchant strata that united tribes and seized power in what became Saudi Arabia.  He was not a carpenter.  Nor did he get crucified – he destroyed pagan idols instead.  To this day, Islam is not a proletarian ideology but one of the medinas – the shop areas – the small businessman.  Yet as the 5 calls to prayer a day (!!!) are sung out by the muezzin, very few head to the omnipresent minarets or plopp on clean rugs to pray.  Minarets are scattered around the city and in Marrakesh no building is allowed to be higher than the tallest mosque's minaret.  At one pottery factory where about 20 worked only two workers headed to the prayer room.  Just like the U.S., the number that actually show up at church is a minority of the ‘god’ believing.  I heard muezzin at 4 in the morning, which should give you an indication of why any working person trying to get a good nights sleep might question this practice. 

Morocco is ruled by a paternalistic king – Mohammed VI - who has palaces in 4 ‘royal’ cities.  He’s married to an educated woman.  He is installing a massive solar array in the desert that will provide much electricity to the country.  The government is banning plastic bags as a curse.  Morocco borrowed some ‘mixed economy’ ideas from the French and their own history.  Phosphates – which are the most valuable export – are owned by the government, not private individuals or corporations.  The largest cell-phone company is a third-owned by the government.  People cannot be evicted easily if they cannot pay for new lodgings – it can take years to remove them.  Oil is public property if discovered, as are other minerals and ground substances. 

Yet privatization is also proceeding apace.  The main freeways are toll roads owned by private companies, which got help building them with public funds.  Morocco advertises itself as a great ‘off-shoring’ destination for European corporations – a sweatshop at their doorstep so to speak.  Capital rules the country through the king. 

The king is the ultimate ruler over the constituent assembly, the military, foreign policy, and also a ‘commander of the faithful’ – which means he is a direct descendent of the ‘prophet Muhammed.’  Right.  A socialist coalition was influential from 1998 until 2002, but still the King held ultimate power.  Communists were heavily repressed in the 1970s – under King Hassan II thousands of militants were given 10-year sentences, while others were disappeared.  People pretend that all present arrests are of fundamentalist Islamic terrorists, but the government also arrests leftists demanding real democracy.  Morocco still rules over their very own colonial possession – the Southwest Sahara and the Sahrawi people.  The Moroccan Army defeated the Polasario Liberation Front in the Southwest Sahara many years ago and continue their military presence there.  Morocco is not a democracy, as much as the King wants tourists and his best friends Clinton and Obama to believe it.  Many radicals in the kingdom make that point.  The apologists say that Moroccans are ‘not ready’ for democracy. King George might have said the same about the American rabble.  Yet they have many parties and a parliament.  I think it is the King that is not ‘ready' for democracy.

Pardon Americans for being stunned, but the U.S. got rid of kings 250 years ago.  Very few nations have them anymore – they are sort of like the crazy uncle in the closet. 

Down with Kings and Money!
Salaam Alaikum!

Red Frog
March 17, 2014

1 comment:

spiraldance said...

Nice overview - I went to Morocco in 1997 to visit my Peace Corps girlfriend and she took me to her Peace Corps colleague stationed in the most traditional Berber (sic.) village in Morocco. The language was a rhyming verse from hundreds of years ago that required a University specialist to decipher. The government had just put in a gravel road and some electricity, otherwise the village was based on the lifestyle from thousands of years ago, relying on humanure compost to transform the desert into crops of potatoes, wheat and vegetables. The wild sheep were herded for meat. The houses were wild asymmetric adobe design - big steps and small steps of wild design to slow down Arab intruders, the females all tattooed on the chins, again to keep off Arab slave traders who stole the young females and tattooed them when finished with them. Yep - it was like going back in time a thousand years - black pails hung off the houses - stink bomb pails to scare off the evil spirits. Trance dance music. A truck drove by while I was there and all the women in the village raised their fist in the air and yelled at the truck. No tolerance for pollution or intruders. The clothing was all made by the women from the sheep. Very self-reliant village, very cool.