A week in Morocco

Carpet shops in Morocco"..there walked before the procession a young man who had made an incision in his abdomen, and drawn out a large portion of his intestines, which he carried before him on a silver tray. After the procession he restored them to their proper place, and remained in bed many days before he recovered from the effects of this foolish and disgusting act"

I'm starting this entry of the flight back from Agadir in southern Morocco. Together with some friends I've just spent a week in the seaside town of Essaouira, a picturesque fortified port constructed in the 18th century and still a significant base for small fishing boats and trawlers.
Fishermen in Morocco
I last visited southern Morocco some 15 years ago, my Facebook friends will have seen pictures I posted from that trip just before I departed on this one - I've now uploaded additional pictures of this trip there (see author profile for link). In the years since Agadir has increased massively in size, just as the population of Morocco has soared to over 30 million. The last time the flight down was a package holiday full of Irish tourists, this time it was part of a scheduled service with a good percentage of the passengers being Moroccans who have probably migrated to Ireland for work and were taking a trip home.

The opening quote is from one of the three books I took along on the trip, 'Orientalism' by Edward Saad. Its one of a number of quotes he provides which reveal the bizarre claims that were made about the Orient by popular writers, diplomats and supposed scholars alike. That quote is from Edward William Lane's 'An account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians'. Saad also cites Lord Cromer, the British ruler in Egypt 1882-1907 who wrote in Modern Egypt that 'The oriental generally acts, thinks and speaks in a manner exactly opposite to the Europeans.' These descriptions of the 'Orient' he argues provided the justification for imperialist rule on the basis that this was best for the population even if they lacked the wisdom to recognise this. Central to this is the creation and maintenance of a division between the way 'we' (Europeans) think and 'they' (Orientals) do. As he points out in his 2003 forword many of these concepts are re-cycled by 'middle-east experts' who have seldom been outside the Washington DC Beltway (ring road).

At the time of the American Revolution Morocco was an independent county and indeed the first to recognise the new American republic. The process of carving up Morocco by the European powers had however been underway since the 15th century when Portugal had seized control of sections of the Atlantic coast. In the period from 1905 to 1911 European treaties turned Morocco into a protectorate with the bulk of the country going to France and sections of what was left to Spain. The trigger for the 1911 treaty had been the arrival of a German gunboat off Agadir. Spanish control was later to result in Franco using Morocco as his base to invade republican Spain in 1936 and the deployment of large numbers of Moroccan Regulares in his army, The Regulares had already been brought to Spain by the republican government when they were used to suppress the 1934 Asturian miners rising.

Spanish rule was not uncontested and in the early 1920's Spain used chemical weapons, including Mustard gas, to conquer the Rif mountains after their army (including the Regulares) had suffered a major defeat in the Battle of Annual. Dozen's of planes dropped large numbers of chemical bombs on population centers and markets. There was also opposition to Spanish imperialism at home, in 1909 at the start of the second Rid war the anarchists organised a general strike against the call up of reservists for the war. This turned into a general workers take over of Barcelona with troop trains being halted and the local troops refusing to fire on the workers. After a few days troops were brought in from other cities who killed dozens in putting down the insurrection.

At the time of the Spanish Revolution some meetings were held with rebel Moroccan nationalists but the anarchist proposal to undermine Franco's army through declaring Moroccan independence was opposed by the other republican parties. In October of 1936 Berneri argued that " We must intensify our propaganda in favour of Moroccan autonomy .. we need urgently to send agitators and organisers as emissaries to all the centres of Arab migration, into all the frontier zones of French Morocco." - http://struggle.ws/berneri/must_do_win.html

A Moroccan independence declaration was released in 1944 and by the 1950's armed resistance was underway. French imperialism was also in trouble in its colonies of Algeria and Tunisia and so Paris decided not to put any major effort into holding Morocco. The French government negotiated independence with the king they had previously sent into exile. Morocco remains a kingdom where the king has the power to dissolve parliament and to issue orders to the army – it was noticeable that every restaurant we visited had a prominent picture of the new king on display, as did the banks. One trendy spot tried to counteract the stuffy image the picture creates by using a photo of him on a Jet Ski!

Butcher stall in Morocco

Morocco is the fifth biggest African economy but remains visibly very poor and reliant on globalisation. The largest source of GDP is phosphate mining followed by money sent back by migrant Moroccans in other countries and in third place the income generated by the 7 million tourists who visit each year. Essaouira would be a relatively prosperous town but you didn't have to travel far from the small tourist quarter to encounter very visible poverty and squalid housing.

Moroccans migrate for work all over Europe, including to Ireland. The Moroccans I talked to in the port area included a couple who had been in Ireland, one had worked in a pig factory in Roscommon and said the experience had been bad for him as he spent most of the time in the pub. An older fisherman had spent three days in Belfast at a wedding. A guy working one of the market shops had returned from Germany, his boss that day was the 12-year-old son of the owner of the place; child labor remains common in Morocco.

The most politically visible issue during the week was the Israeli assault on Gaza. One of our number who had spent time in Lebanon and Israel/Palestine was wearing a Keffiyeh (Palestinian scarf) and was regularly congratulated on the streets for what was perceived as an display of solidarity. We heard there was doing to be protests in Marrakech, a major city three hours by bus from Essaouira. A couple of the group visited Marrakech and said the McDonald's there had a large sign in the window saying that despite SMS rumors to the contrary they were locally owned and had no connection with Israel so please don't smash our windows! Essaouira itself had a sizeable Jewish population up to the creation of the state of Israel, they migrated soon after and the Jewish quarter of the old city is now the most run down section of the old city with the area of the abandoned synagogue a hangout for street alcoholics.

Being mostly Irish one of our parties main concern was finding alcohol. Morocco is no Saudi so alcohol is legal and there were at least two off licenses outside the city wall that sold alcohol. They mostly catered for local drinkers rather than tourists. However visiting them obviously had something of the social stigma of being seen entering a sex shop in Dublin. When I was there one customer dashed in with the hood of his traditional Djellaba pulled up and wrapped around his face and a large pair of sunglasses covering much of what remained visible to make a hasty purchase before fleeing. Morocco is of course also famous for its hash production but hash is illegal – still, particularly after dark, it was standard to be offered it for sale and on a few occasions a more complex menu of hash, opium and even cocaine was proffered.

Essaouira isn't only a destination for international tourists but also for the Marrakech middle class youth which means that its a much more westernised town that most others. Most of the young men dress in western style and so do a significant proportion of the young women. Unmarried and unaccompanied Moroccan couples can be seen hanging out although it remains illegal for a hotel to take a booking from a Moroccan women and 'international' man unless they are married.

I had two other pieces of holiday reading. The first was 'The Making of the English Working Class' a substantial (900 pages) but very readable history of the development of working class radicalism in Britain by EP Thompson. The other was Kitty O'Shea's biography. I had no idea this even existed until just before Christmas I spotted it in a bargain bookstore. Kitty O'Shea was the lover of the Irish nationalist leader Charles Parnell. When her husband sued for divorce the ensuing scandal was used to bring down Parnell and to split the Irish Nationalist Party.

I've been switching between reading sections of all three books and the overlap between them is interesting. All describe or include descriptions of life in the 18th century but the lives described are very different. Obviously from the opening quote the descriptions of life in the Orient are bizarre and unbelievable. But while Thompson is describing life for the British working class Kitty O'Shea came from a wealthy family and in writing about her childhood in a similar period describes a very different life indeed. At the time of writing I've not got onto the sections about Parnell yet but they promise to be interesting as apart from being his lover Kitty was also his major line of informal communication with the British Prime Minister Gladstone. She knew 'where the bodies were buried' and in the introduction includes what is obvious reference to Gladstone's hypocrisy about the whole scandal given his own private life. I'm reading it as part of an article I'm preparing on the Land League so I'm sure I'll return to the topic to blog on it more.

Regular visitors to the blog may have noticed that the site had crashed during the week I was away. I discovered this in a restaurant that served awful coffee but where we had discovered we could pick up a wi-fi signal from a hotel. I later observed a couple of Moroccans with a laptop on a step down a lane way behind the building making use of the same signal. I'm traveling with an iPod touch and on checking my gmail I discovered an email sent the previous day by Anarcho informing me the site was down. I doubted I could do the repair work with nothing but the iPod touch and the borrowed wi-fi but in fact I managed to do just that in the time it took the others to get the Nescafe down.

I continue to be overwhelmed by the speed technology is not only advancing but also spreading. I'm typing this blog entry on another bit of mind blowing tech, a 200 euro linux notebook that weighs less than a bag of sugar yet contains not only all the standard office tools but also a photo editor, music player, built in video camera and connections for USB, external monitors and a multi-card slot I can stick my camera memory into for instant viewing / backups. The last thing I'll mention in this vein is that because I wanted to spend time writing when away I purchased the download of Wikipedia on my last day in Ireland so I'd have a general reference for anything I, wanted to check at my finger tips.

Part of the reason for all the electronics is that I spent the afternoons editing the blogs of my US speaking tour while looking out over the battlements at the sea smashing off the rocks. I'll be posting these over the original enteries as I get time over the next week or so.

The major technological change visible in the 'Orient' since my last visit (Tunisia in 2002) is the complete replacement of tapes in the street music stalls with CD's. I suspect almost all the copies sold continue to be pirates (the photo copied covers remain) but the transition to digital means the quality has greatly improved. I'm no longer a music buyer but a couple of the others bought CD's of Moroccan music and we heard a good bit more on the radio and in the street and some by live performers busking restaurant tables (that tended to be traditional). There is a lot of hip-hop and also 1990's style rave including remixes of classics like Das Boot! I wonder if there are underground Moroccan raves similar to the one I stumbled across in Cairo in 2000? Given the huge young and migrant workforce it would seem there has to be.
Traditional musicians in Morocco
Essaouira is something of a radical youth destination in the back packing world. There are various legends connecting Jimmy Hendrix to the town (he did visit briefly) and whether for this reason or others many of the groups of younger tourists you see on the streets have a certain leftist look to them (black hoodys for instance are not unusual). On our first real night in the town (we arrived at 11.30pm the previous night) we ran into a German whom twigged us as radicals after 20 or so minutes of general 'where are you from' conversation. It turned out he was a former autonom turned trade union organiser and that his partner (we puzzled over the correct translation) was sympatheic to anarchism. Even more co-incidentally it turned out that both of them had been in the same section as part of the Heiligendamm G8 blockades of a couple of years back.

One of the claimed Hendrix's connections is that he wrote 'Castles on the Sand' after seeing the collapsed castle on the sand that is about 3km south along the beach that runs from Essaouira port. This one isn't true, the song dates from the year before he visited but it certainly looks like it should be. I walked down there one sunny morning, refusing the offers of camel and horse rides en route. At one point you have to cross the route of a river, this is only possible at low tide where the river meets the sea as higher up it has carved deep pools in the sand. The crossing point was marked by the presence of a lone hash salesman who had identified an obvious bottleneck which brought tourists to him and when I reached it a camel rider who had followed me down the beach. One of the things that put Europeans off visiting North Africa is a fear of the 'hustlers', people like these two guys for whom tourists represent the most hopeful source of income but who lack the capital to profit in a conventional way. The income disparities between local wages and visiting tourists are vast enough that hustling tourists into making a purchase or visiting a carpet shop or even just tipping you for acting as a spontaneous guide can be a profitable activity.

It's a common enough situation across North Africa although there is a huge variation in intensity of approach between somewhere like Cairo on the one hand and southern Morocco on the other. Essaouira is actually remarkable for the lack of hustle in comparison with anywhere else I've been in North Africa. Still this experience is the thing that often freaks out most western tourists the most. The hustling doesn't bother me anymore, at least when it's direct although I still dislike the method of first of all pretending friendship followed by the sales pitch. I think my dislike of this is because it tends to make you suspicious of any local who tries to strike up a conversation and so ruins things for those who are just trying to improve their language skills or just being friendly. From the tourist point of view it also means that over reacting cuts you off from all the interesting exchanges that can otherwise happen and seeing the locals as 'us' rather than 'them'. Still as long as there is such an enormous disparity in wealth between western tourists and most locals the hustle will continue, the minimum wage in Morocco is around 165 Euro a month which is 80% of one weeks dole for a single person in Ireland and 1/8 the Irish minimum wage. High unemployment and underemployment ensure many do not even make this.

The other thing many tourists including myself find difficult is the preference for bargaining rather than fixed prices when it comes to many goods. Again this is related to both the wage differentials and the low levels of employment which means that their is an economic sense to spending ten minutes arguing about the price of the good rather than simply taking the money and moving on to the next sale. Retail in the tourist area of the old town consists of lots and lots of tiny outlets selling identical goods with at least half a dozen others (and often much more) on the same street. Each salesperson has to develop the right level of skill to lure a tourist into their premises and then get a good price without coming on so strongly so as to scare them off. Again this has a distorting effect on relationships with in some cases tourists getting obsessed with driving a 'good deal' even through the sums of money involved in the difference in price can amount to very little. And in other cases people paying several times the 'normal' price of the items.

While we in Essaouira we had two days of torrential rain and some of the locals told us the weather was much colder than it had been in the past. Of course coming from Dublin two days of raid was hardly an issue and it seemed a good bit warmer than home and better yet the day was a few hours lighter and a good deal brighter. Nevertheless the rain caused as much trouble as a few inches of snow would in Dublin with roads becoming blocked, streets in the Medina being flooded and some houses also been flooded. A random fluctuation or yet another indication of the different form climate change is taking in different locations?
Torrential rain in Morocco


Interesting article, i think

Interesting article, i think it was a real experience for you.

I've been thinking a lot

I've been thinking a lot about abolishing capitalism lately and I think that it would help oh so much with our nation. We need a new system where we all exist to help each other, which is what economics is truly about, right? I mean, if we could downsize the economy to a bare bones type of condition and help out with the industries that we all agree upon for ourselves, then we could all help each other to thrive and coexist peacefully. What I'm talking about, of course, would hopefully be the eradication of stupid businesses like fast food and the creation of community centers instead of a corporate entities lining every street. This would eliminate a lot of the need for people to have more long distance relationships and eliminate a large portion of oil consumption. It would also free up a massive amount of man power to be available for use building public transportation and such. Also, if we could find a way to downsize our economy and make it more efficient, we would have more free time and less stress and more enjoyment overall in life. My main motivation for this personally is the supreme joy of learning, but even learning costs money. What I'm saying though is that I would work in many different fields simply for the enjoyment. I sort of doubt everyone could grasp that concept, but I have a hope for the future. Everything is becoming more efficient, meaning that many people will be displaced by more availability of mass production and machines to do our work. Even long distance transportation, done with the use of actual people doing the driving, could be displaced by automated vehicles. Communities could also exist in a much simpler condition without the need of such sophisticated fluctuations in the flow of money with the eventual development of abundant and cheap energy, thus allowing more communities to exist in the as of yet undeveloped land areas of the US. Everyone should ultimately have a home that is not to be payed for, but perhaps built by community effort and even very large in size, not to be dictated by rampant capitalism trying to make a buck by throwing up cookie cutter small houses and stealing the money from others just to exist under a corrupt system of capitalism. Like I mentioned, it was a devastating mistake to allow for capitalism to be developed in order to make more money for certain people, while forcing the common people to run around all the time, wondering how they will make ends meet and providing useless goods just to make a buck. For what? We need communities to thrive again and a certain portion of empty housing needs to be obliterated to allow for community centers, hydrogen fueling stations should be made available in every neighborhood and birth control needs to be available for everyone with no strings attached. Things along these lines should also help to alleviate social problems, like parentless or single parent children and the stability of the family could help to bring our nation together, after having prevented the possibilities of broken families under the stress of money problems, the likes of which rich people don't have. People would stop trying to appear to be successful by acquiring material possessions and social stratification would start to erode to a more manageable level. Ultimately, with the availability of the internet and a digital economy, all of our needs should be able to be better coordinated and agreed upon in a true democracy where everyone does their own part to have a piece of pie. We could be such a great nation, but it likely will not happen until after a major collapse and true devastation. In the meantime, I'll still advocate for a different kind of economy, do what I can to change it and wait. It truly is time for a revolution!

Sorry if I'm being a bit

Sorry if I'm being a bit dense but I find it very hypocritical that you are complaining about the effects of climate change while flying all over the world just for pleasure. You go on about the plight of the poor in developing countries yet see no irony in drinking Nescafe.

While you seem aware of others impact on the world you don't seem to be aware of your own.

 Actually in Climate Change

 Actually in Climate Change and the ethics of winter holidays in Lanzarote I blogged on the flying issue so I'm not unaware.  It's more that I don't see any solution to climate change in the promotion of individual consumer choices.  Nor do I see a solution to poverty as lying in such choices.  Beyond this I think the focus on consumer choice is massively counter productive as not only is it no path to change but it actually turns off people who might otherwise be won over.  With that as my point of view it would be rather silly to radically impact my own life under a set of moral rules I find counter productive.


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