Sunday, August 1, 2010

On moroccan's racism..

I've been mulling this subject for some time now, trying to determine if Moroccans attitude toward black people is or isn't racism. That's obviously a sensitive issue, because you don't get around labelling people racists, that's a serious charge, and because I'm myself unsure how to differentiate between racism, xenophobia, ignorance and simple bigotry. It has also to do with my reluctance to indulge in stereotypes, actually asserting any opinion, when some 30 million people more or less are concerned. But when I read that article, I was literally itching to add my commentary, so here it is:

The article is published on by Smahane Bouyahia, and it's supposed to be a bit of reporting, however it seriously looks like an opinion piece to me.

It goes:

In Morocco, and north Africa, there is a serious problem of racism towards Black people. Called “Black Africans,” they are considered descendants of slaves and labeled “hartani”—literally, “second-rate free men”—or even worse, “aâzi”—which translates to “bloody Negro”. Blacks in Morocco, be they students, migrants, from the South of the Sahara or others, are constant victims of discrimination...

Sorry, that's a concentrate of Bullshit. One can differ as to the existence and the seriousness of a problem, my opinion and personal observation is that it's an exaggeration. In my experience, non moroccan black people are simply called "Africans", denoting, in a related topic, how we don't see ourselves as belonging to the continent, and indeed a large part of the indigenous black-ish people are certainly descendants of slaves, nothing wrong nor problematic with this.

I might be wrong but from the journalist's name and the fact that she works in Morocco indicates that she must be an Arabic speaker, but judging from her farfelue translation of Hartani and Aazzi I wonder what funny thing her Darija must be.. Hartani, to my best knowledge, stems from the Amazigh word for "of dark complexion" Ahardane. For sure, not a polite word referring to someone, but certainly not "second-rate free men". As for Aazzi, it's probably related to "Izzah" an Arabic word which means might, honor, respect, dignity, prestige, fame and glory. Not exactly pejorative, and furthermore, in my experience, no one ever took umbrage for being addressed so. “bloody Negro” indeed.

That ludicrous example of "free" translation apart, people should be weary translating culturally charged words. Usually "Negro” would be translated as "zanji" in MSA, But t"zanji" for an Arabic speaker has a somewhat different meaning than "Negro". Another example is "shaheed" and "martyr". The two concepts overlap, but are noticeably different nonetheless.

Returning to the article, the journalist interviews a scholar:

According to Pierre Vermeren, a historian specialized in North African societies, there is a different degree of racism towards the Black Moroccan as against the Black foreigner.

“There are several categories of Blacks in Morocco. The first includes the endogenous Black populations who are directly descended from slaves and are now mixed with the Moroccan population. The second concerns the Black peoples of the South. They are concentrated in oases entirely populated by Black Africans and are yet to mix with Berbers or Arabs. The third includes Africans, mostly Senegalese, who come on pilgrimage to the Medina of Fez. The last category concerns students and migrants—those most affected by racism.”

For the majority of Moroccans, this anti-Black attitude is reflected in their behavior towards Black foreigners who either haven’t integrated with the general population or who aren’t Muslim. The underlying superiority complex dates back to Antiquity. At that time, there were thousands of Black slaves in Morocco. Some were part of the Moroccan military corps and the Civilian Guard, while others fulfilled various tasks given to them during the reign of Ahmed El-Mansour Eddahbi or even that of Moulay Ismail in the 16th and 17th centuries.

But, "slavery was never officially abolished. The French Protectorate at the beginning of the 20th century, simply forbid the act. But the initiative never came from Moroccan society itself,” says the historian while making reference to a book written by Mohammed Ennaji Soldats, esclaves et concubines which, according to him, perfectly illustrates this period.

Mostly true, however, linking the present attitude of Moroccans to what happened centuries ago is, in my opinion far fetched. Slavery has never been as an intensive trade, save mayhap some short periods to supply the Army, as was the case in other parts of the world. And not necessarily black slavery, some right wing Europeans and Americans are quick to remember. It wasn't necessarily hereditary either, especially in the cities where the freed slaves and their descendants got mixed to the general population. where the "white" Moroccans end and "black" Moroccans start is in my opinion impossible to tell.
But my point is, Moroccans are sadly, including me, in a rupture with the past. Awareness of Morocco's History is usually sketchy and unlike in Europe and US, not hashed and re-hashed in pop culture and academia alike. Even "black" Moroccans don't consider slavery as a component of their heritage and identity, at the exception for Gnawa, and even they don't stress the oppression and hardship of slavery. It's a dim scar long accepted as part of the body and nearly forgotten, only its "visible" existence keep its memory.
Insinuating that because slavery died away of historical and economical reasons, and not "officially" abolished, makes the idea of slavery latent in the Moroccan society, and therefore conductive to racism is simply absurd.

"It is rare for a Moroccan woman to marry a Black man"

For Nadia, a fifty something year old Moroccan, the problem runs deeper than common racism. “It’s even deeper than that. This attitude is passed down from generation to generation. It is extremely unusual, for example, for a Moroccan woman to marry a Black man, even if he is a Muslim. It’s just not done. The only condition under which this might be ‘tolerated’ would be if the man didn’t have too obvious Black features. People worry about what their family or friends would think. The woman in question is likely to hear her mother or a friend tell her that there are ‘enough good Moroccan men for one not to have to go looking for a Black one.’”

According to Nadia, this attitude is commonplace in Morocco, and everywhere else in the Maghreb. “Even for a man who is usually freer for the fact that he is the one who passes down his name and religion to the children, to marry a ‘woman of color’ is not accepted by his family and friends. And this is even more difficult when a non-Muslim is involved. Mixed marriages are already rare in our culture—so marrying a non-Muslim or a Black Moroccan is simply unacceptable. This applies to my father’s generation, my generation, and also my children’s generation.”

I'm not sure taking some anonymous fifty something random person opinion as solid fact is very wise. This is simply largely untrue. Not completely untrue though. Many Moroccans are skin tone obsessed, and lighter skin is supposed to be more attractive and a "blond-ish" wife is a marker of social standing. However it's nothing that money or a visa, sadly or fortunately, can't cure.
I don't know what mixed marriages she's talking about, but rare they aren't. On one hand, one has only to look around to see couples from all Moroccan backgrounds, on the other, Morocco is renowned for exporting wives and grooms, and here again sadly, rumour have it that skin colour or even attractiveness doesn't seem to weight much in the decision.
It's the same logic that makes a "black Moroccan" a less desirable son in law, as former slaves descendants and harsh and poor pre-sahara tribes alike aren't typically the upper strata of the society. Not to mention the strong taboo that prevailed against marrying outside one's tribe or family, be it black, white or polka dotted.
And in the bottom of it all, no one has to explain why he or she is attracted to men or women of an ethnicity or a body type or else.

Black in Morocco: The Nightmare of Students and Immigrants

“The most violent forms of racism are towards Black students. At the Cité international universitaire (international students dorms) in Rabat, it is visible. Students coming from all parts of the African continent to further their studies are regrouped amongst themselves, or even isolated. They do not share the same facilities with the ‘white’ Moroccan students. It’s all very communitarian,” says Hervé Baldagai, former Secretary-General of CESAM (Confederation of African Foreign Students in Morocco). “Black people face difficult conditions and regular abuse. We are called ‘bloody Negroes’ in Arabic, asked to leave the country, called ‘AIDS carriers’. We even have stones thrown at us. It’s unbearable. We face administrative difficulties, especially when go for our student permit or scholarships.”

Mystery solved, the journalist doesn't speak Darija, and the guy has a very bad translator.
Now, anyone who went to a Moroccan university for a semester would tell you, not only sub Saharans huddle together, there are so many subdivisions forming you can hardly tell sometimes.. people who went to the same high school, people who take the same bus to the same neighbourhood, people from a certain city or region, people who speak an Amazigh dialect, hip-hoppers, wannabe-Goth, Taliban and their future harem, separate as befitting , those who speak French, those who speak Arabic, the posh, the poor, the leftists, the activists, you name it... some of these groups form from affinity or convenience, others, like sahrawis, for exclusion, add to that the appalling inability of an average Moroccan student to make intelligible conversation in French and you get why Universities, supposedly a mixing ground, coagulate in this weird fashion.
Not that "Blac Africans" are any better. Just identify one, and 90% of the times you get the nationality of the rest of the group by association.
And no one is worst treated in a moroccan administration than a moroccan citizen. Tomorrow is a new étape in the famous "tour du maroc" and the prize is getting my identity card redone. Sorry, I don't see why a foreigner should be better served than I. Don't even mention scholarships...

Black Students Return Home After Their Studies

“In Morocco, we can’t really talk about it. 2M, a moroccan TV station once organized a debate on the topic. The problem is that certain parts of the interviews were censored, especially those parts where there were complaints. We discuss the cases of assault in the streets among ourselves, but that’s about it. Then again, what do you expect to happen? In general, at the end of their studies, Black students return to their home countries. Except those who come from conflict areas... and who are obliged to remain in Morocco.

What better victim for aggression and theft than a vulnerable foreign young (foolish?) student? Universal truth.
And I dare say, you're actually supposed to go back home when you finish your studies, where is the problem?

A growing awareness

Nowadays, while tongues may be unraveling, the subject remains taboo in Morocco, a country where hospitality is a cultural asset. After an article by Maria Daif appeared in the Moroccan journal Telquel, a few years ago, there has been a greater awareness of the topic. Amel About El Aazm is one of the founders of the young organization Lawnouna (‘our colors’), created in 2004 in Rabat. The goal of the organization is to bridge the gap between Moroccans and Blacks or other people from diverse origins. According to her, “discrimination against Black people, especially from South of the Sahara, is a fact. It is a tough reality for them. No one can deny that racism exists in Morocco, those who do, do so in bad faith. That said, we cannot ignore that in Morocco, there are people from Sub-Saharan Africa who live very well. They have understood that they need to adopt a certain attitude to fit in with the rest of the population. There is an initial step to be taken, to adapt and discover the culture and the society where one lives. While they represent a small number, it proves that this is possible. That is the goal of our organization: to help Black people overcome the obstacles they may encounter. If a student needs four or five years to fit in with Moroccan society, Lawnouna, through its various activities, tries to speed up that integration.

I left out the rest which is the same vein

Sorry but there is a great difference between a taboo subject and a not so interesting subject. I won't shed tears for the plights of these students, that's what it is to be part of a visible minority, a foreigner, not speaking the language, from a different religion, culture, country. If they expected a smooth integration they were young and naive. Of course Muslims will be better accepted, of course a Senegalese who learns some Arabic in school will fare better... Things could be better of course, but these are the complaints of foreign students nearly everywhere.
There are however regularly stories in the media about Sub-Saharan refugee/emigration candidate single mothers , raped, assaulted, living in the utmost poverty in a country they don't even speak the language, and you have only to go near a mosque a Friday to be solicited by beggars. If there are victims of racism they would be among those. I don't begrudge this association their work, but I don't see them denouncing administration for racism, police for ignoring complaints or harassment, students don't seem to have problems with professors because they are black, and has anyone been denied public service, school or medication because of his skin colour? That's serious, could and should be addressed, but how do you propose suppressing rude kids and incompetent parents, scowling sales men or unpleasant neighbours, because save aggression and theft, that's what it boils down to...

I have always had excellent relationships with "African" students and co-workers, sometimes the only "whitish" dot in a group. I had all sorts of stories first hand from the nasty neighbour, the kids acting like stray dogs, the throwing of stones to the nasty lady at the resident card office. I herd the rumours, the nasty comments, the badmouthing and known a specimen of a true racist doubled by a hypocrite. Had I wrote anything about this topc, it would have been probably à charge. But I find this article with it's generalisations, superficial analysis, amalgamation of different topics and its single minded charge too quick to cry wolf when it's only a stray dog.
Had I wrote this I would have mentioned the giant Friday Couscous a neighbour prepares for the students, the Moul hanout (shop keeper) finding a way to tease his customers despite the language barrier, the Moroccan-Senegalese couple bringing their kid to the kindergarten every day and the crowded theatre at the African students festival. The Malian doctor who saw me come to this world (thanks doc)...

Actually I feel wronged and compelled to defend...

The whole article is here:


  1. Gosh this is quite an issue and I really love the passion behind your words. It's a difficult subject to completely understand but I think you get that across all cultures. In Asia, you have stereotyped views of other Asian countries- some not entirely good but others built on truth, for example Filipinos are often considered housekeepers...because across Asia they have predominantely been employed in these roles. Another example is that white foreigners are called 'gwailo' in Cantonese which means ghost-head but it's not meant to be offensive. Some people do get offended but what they don't understand is that it's part of the culture, there isn't another word for it. It's obviously a phrase that has stuck for many centuries. So even though that might not completely relate to what you're saying, I can definitely see the passion from where you're coming from!

    Also, I'm so glad you liked my post on Morocco, I loved it!

  2. Wikipedia has an entry for haratin. Aazzi is apparently a common name for girls in Africa, particularly Rwanda.

  3. Wikipedia has an entry for haratin. Aazzi is apparently a common name for girls in Africa, particularly Rwanda.

  4. Sorry about the multiple posts; my HTML markup for the first one was not accepted. Feel free to delete one.