Archive for the ‘all things moroccan’ Category

Hurston/Wright Award

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015


I’m thrilled to report that The Moor’s Account has won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in fiction. I was not expecting the novel to take the prize—there were so many great books in consideration—but it was a special treat to see it being recognized at the Washington, DC gala. The other two finalists were Tiphanie Yanique (picture above, left) and Roxane Gay.

In other news, I had a new essay on the theme of ‘unforgettable meals’ in The New York Times Magazine this week. Here’s how it starts:

Moha, who wanted to be our guide, said it was an easy hike to the Bridge of God. But he looked about 15 and spoke in a timid voice that made me doubt how easy it would really be. We were at the trailhead in Akchour, a small village nestled in the Rif Mountains in northern Morocco. ‘‘How long will it take?’’ my daughter asked.

I translated her question into Arabic for Moha. ‘‘It depends how fast we walk,’’ he replied. ‘‘With small children, three or four hours.’’ The adults in our party were eager to do the hike; the children, not so much. Something is always lost in translation, but as Salman Rushdie once put it, something can also be gained. ‘‘Only a couple of hours,’’ I said in English.

You can read the rest here.

I’ll be closing my fall tour with an event in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I’ll be in conversation with the novelist Aminatta Forna for the Lannan Foundation. Tickets for the event are available here.

(Photo credit: Don Baker / Hurston Wright Foundation.)


Estebanico in Visual Art

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

While writing The Moor’s Account, I became curious about visual representations of Estebanico (a.k.a. Mustafa al-Zamori). As it turned out, the incredible story of the Narváez expedition inspired quite a few painters. Below, for instance, is the depiction of the Narváez castaways that Penguin Classics used for its cover of Cabeza de Vaca’s Chronicle. You will notice that Estebanico appears nowhere in it.

But as time passed and scholarship evolved, interest in Estebanico also grew. Here is a painting by José Cisneros, where Estebanico appears alongside the other three survivors, Andrés Dorantes, Alonso del Castillo, and Cabeza de Vaca. (Estebanico is second from right.)


It’s interesting to note the differences between artist depictions when it comes to style and dress. In the one below, for example, Estebanico appears shirtless and carrying a halberd, leading the way for the Coronado expedition, which took place many years after the Narváez expedition.


In his hometown of Azemmur, there are a few murals dedicated to the explorer. Here is one where Estebanico is portrayed in the dress and style of a pirate. (Of course, he was no pirate; he was a slave turned scout turned faith healer.)


Adjacent to that mural in Azemmur is another one, also depicting Estebanico. Here, the explorer is shown wearing a turban and a loincloth, and carrying a wooden lance.


What I find fascinating about all these images is what they tell us not about Estebanico, but about the artists themselves. Each one had a different view of the explorer, shaped by his or her culture and experience of history.

Image credits:
1. Alfred Russell, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and His Companions Lost on the Shore of the Gulf of Mexico, 1528. The Granger Collection. New York.
2. José Cisneros, Cabeza de Vaca and His Three companions on the Texas Coast. Museum of South Texas History.
3. Artist unknown, Estevanico. The Granger Collection. New York.
4. Artist name illegible, Estevanico/Estebanico El Azemmouri. MonMaroc Guide.
5. Koukou. Estebanico. Azemmur.


Event: Chicago

Saturday, April 14th, 2012

Hello, readers! I’ll be taking part in a panel discussion at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago on Monday. I’ll be talking about protest movements in Morocco. Details are pasted below:

6:00 PM
Arab Spring: Unfoldings, Refoldings
Panel discussion with Laila Lalami and Ahmed El Shamsy
Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago
Chicago, Illinois

This will be my first time doing an event in Chicago. If you’re in the area, please come by and say hello!


Quotable: Driss Chraïbi

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

Five years ago this week, Moroccan literature lost one of its greats, the novelist Driss Chraïbi. I wanted to post a short excerpt from Le Passé Simple, his first novel and perhaps the most widely studied of his works. It tells the story of a young man who violently rebels against the edicts of his father, a tea merchant from Mazagan. When it was published in 1954, Le Passé Simple created a huge controversy in Morocco. The country was still in the midst of its struggle for independence. Many Moroccan intellectuals didn’t look kindly on a book that virulently criticizes traditional Moroccan modes of living and ends with the main character leaving for France, and, as a final act of goodbye, uses the bathroom on the airplane, in the hope that “every drop falls on the heads of those I know well, who know me well, and whom I despise.” In France, the reaction was quite the opposite; the book was quite well reviewed, perhaps serving as “proof” that Morocco needed France’s civilizing influence.

But Le Passé Simple is much more than a simple cry of revolt. Yes, it is full of anger at the father character (referred to throughout as “Le Seigneur,” that is, “The Lord”); at the treatment of women; at the teaching in Quranic schools; at the hypocrisy of Moroccan society; and so on. But there are also moments of tenderness for both the father and the mother, for books, for the joys of teenage life. There is a strong emphasis on the powerlessness of silence and fear–the mother is silent, the children are silent–and so, necessarily, on the power of the word. It’s a beautifully written novel, with moments of great lyricism.

Un après midi, j’ai fait l’école buissonnière sans m’en rendre compte. J’ai erré dans les rues , siffloté avec les oiseaux, suivi le vol des nuages. Finalement, je me suis perdu. Une vieille femme m’a rencontré, m’a embrassé, m’a donné deux sous. J’ai mis la pièce dans une boîte d’allumettes vide ramassée quelque part.

Vers le soir, je vis une silhouette connue qui venait à ma rencontre à grandes enjambées. Ce n’était autre que mon digne et respecté père. Le règlement de compte, entre lui et moi, se fit, à mes dépens, en trois actes.

ACTE Ier: Nous passâmes rassurer le maître d’école. Afin de profiter d’une si bonne occasion de se démontrer le dévouement qu’il s’acharnaient à avoir l’un pour l’autre (selon les traités verbaux jurés bilatéralement le jour de mon inscription) mon père me bascula en l’air et le maître cingla la plante de mes pieds une bonne centaine de fois. Nous prîmes Camel au passage et allâmes tous trois a la maison.

ACTE II: Rentrés chez nous, après maintes explications, les salamalecs et pleurs de soulagement de ma mère, la même scène que tout à l’heure recommença, mais avec un léger correctif. Ce fut maman, trop heureuse de voir, qui maintint mes jambes et mon père qui fit tournoyer le bâton. Une demi-heure durant.

ACTE III: Les pieds en sang, je me jette dans les bras de ma mère, largement ouverts et consolateurs. Mon père n’admet pas de faiblesse, nous corrige tous en conséquence, et sort en claquant les portes. Nous restons, là, Camel, ma mère et moi, à nous lamenter comme des pleureuses juives.

EPILOGUE: Plus tard, je me souviens, je souris, je pêche dans ma poche la boîte d’allumettes, l’ouvre et montre ce qu’elle contient. J’ai quand même gagné deux sous dans ma journée.Maman les serre précieusement dans sa ceinture et m’embrasse.

I don’t own an English translation of the book (and I believe the one that was published some years ago by Counterpoint is out of print.) But here is my translation of the passage, for your enjoyment:

One afternoon, I skipped school, without realizing it. I wandered in the streets, whistled away with the birds, followed the flight of the clouds. Eventually, I got lost. An old woman saw me, kissed me, gave me two cents. I put the coin in a matchbox I picked up somewhere.

Toward evening, I saw a familiar figure coming toward me in large strides. It was none other than my dignified and respected father. The settling of accounts, between us, was done at my expense in three acts:

ACT I: We stopped by to reassure the schoolteacher. My father and the teacher used this opportunity to demonstrate the devotion they continued to have for one another (according to the verbal treaties sworn bilaterally on the day of my registration). My father tipped me up and the teacher whipped the soles of my feet a good hundred times. Then we picked up Kamal and went all three of us to the house.

ACT II: Once at home, after many salams, explanations, and cries of relief from my mother, the same scene unfolded anew, but with a slight change. It was my mother, too happy to see me, who held my legs and my father who used the stick. For half an hour.

ACT III: My feet bloody, I throw my self in my mother’s arms, open and consoling. My father does not admit a weakness, and therefore corrects all of us by leaving, slamming the doors behind him. We remain there, Kamal, my mother and me, moaning like Jewish funeral criers.

EPILOGUE: Later, I remember, I smile, I fish out of my pocket the matchbox, open it and show what it contains. I have, after all, earned two cents that day. Maman carefully ties them inside her belt and kisses me.

Chraibi lived in France and didn’t return to Morocco for many, many years. But he wrote other novels; Morocco got its independence; life went on. When he returned in early 1985, attitudes, too, had changed. University and high school students, many of whom were engaged in organizations that opposed the regime, had a completely different attitude to his work. (The influential magazine Souffles defended his work in a long article, too. ) In the end, he became the prodigal son.

Photo credit: MarocCulture


Morocco: The Story of a Return

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

The latest issue of Newsweek magazine includes an essay I wrote about returning to Morocco in February, one year after the protests began. Here is how the piece opens:

One afternoon in February, a few hours after I arrived in Casablanca from Los Angeles, I learned that my uncle A., a generous man with a troubled soul, had died. I was putting my shoes on with one hand and checking my phone with the other, already running late for a panel discussion at the Casablanca Book Fair, when I saw the message. I was stunned, not just by the news of his death—he was only 73, after all, and although he suffered from diabetes, he was otherwise healthy—but by the realization that I had missed his funeral.

In the Muslim tradition, a body is interred as soon as possible after death. The hospital notified our family of A.’s passing a little after midnight; by morning, he was already washed, shrouded, and prepared for funeral prayers; by lunchtime he was buried at Martyrs’ Cemetery in Rabat, Morocco’s capital city. Because I had silenced my phone, and because I had slept through my jet lag, I had found out about his death only after he had been laid to rest.

To be an immigrant is to live a divided life—a part of you lives in one country, the other part in another. You speak two languages, read two sets of newspapers, hear the conversations of two nations. You learn to dread the moments when the two worlds come together abruptly—like when your phone rings in the middle of the night. Twice already I have had to find out in this way about the death of a loved one. This time, I was in Morocco, but I had somehow managed to be as absent as if I had remained in America.

You can read the essay in full on the website of Newsweek.


Breaking the Silence

Friday, March 16th, 2012

On Tuesday, Moroccans tweeters began expressing their outrage at a tragic fait divers that was published in the newspaper Al Massae: a Moroccan teenager killed herself after being forced to marry her rapist. I joined the discussion on Twitter, but I soon noticed that, though well-intentioned, some of the tweets, comments and articles that followed contained inaccuracies and contradictions about the case. I was also enraged at those who preferred for the news to disappear because it’s “shameful.” So I’ve written about the case for the Daily Beast; here is how the piece opens:

“Moroccan Girl Kills Herself After Judge Forces Her To Marry Her Rapist.” This horrific headline, or some version of it, spread from Twitter to traditional news outlets around the world earlier this week. Using the hashtag #RIPAmina, people voiced their outrage and disbelief, and called for a reform of Article 475 of the Moroccan penal code, which was said to enable rapists. But preventing this tragedy from happening again isn’t simply a matter of legal reform. It’s a matter of how cases of rape are handled by Moroccan society at large.

You can read the rest of the piece at the Daily Beast.


Return from the Enchanted Kingdom

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Thank you to all those who came to my panel discussion at the Casablanca Book Fair last week. (Or has it already been two weeks? I’m so tired I can’t think straight.) As usual, the fair was absolutely packed with publishers from all over Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, as well as readers of all ages, including grade-school children. But, again as usual, the signage was poor, so it took me a little while to find the right booth. The event itself was a success, though, and I had a wonderful time.

I spent the rest of the week in Rabat, visiting family and catching up on news from the past year. Several friends have written me to ask what I think about the “political situation,” as the euphemism goes. I have to say I’m not very optimistic, given the economic downturn in Morocco and the continuing social discontent. But I’ll write in greater detail about all this very soon.


Event: Casablanca

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

A quick post to let you know that I will be at the Casablanca Book Fair this Thursday. Here are the details:

February 16, 2012
5:40 PM
Ecrits d’Amérique
Stand du CCME
Salon du Livre
Rue Tiznit, Face à la Mosquée Hassan II
Casblanca, Morocco

If you are in the area, do stop by and say hello! (I am told the event will be in French.) I should also be at the Dar America booth at 3:30 pm, if you’d like to meet me and get your book signed.


Once In A Fortnight…

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been writing guest posts for The Notion, which is The Nation magazine’s group blog. I’ve written on the recent Frankfurt shootings, Arab uprisings and American intervention, the blame game that Arab dictators have been playing, and I’ve followed up my posts on the February 20 movement with a short piece on the self-immolation of Fadoua Laroui. In short, it was a busy fortnight! But now I am back to my regular pace, working on my novel, teaching at UC—and yes, of course, pondering what else to write about.


Morocco’s Moderate Revolution

Monday, February 21st, 2011

In a new piece for Foreign Policy, I write about why the February 20 movement’s demands in Morocco have so far been restricted to constitutional reforms. Here is an excerpt:

When I was living in Morocco in 2007, I often noticed that foreign journalists were completely confounded by the country. And understandably so, because, depending on whom they talked to, the country was either on the verge of full democratization or about to have a Russian-style revolution. Elections were going to bring about an Islamist tsunami or the leftist coalition would surprise everyone by its strong showing. The recent family law reforms had brought in real change for women or it did not matter because the judges were not applying the new law anyway. The Equity and Reconciliation commission was proof that the infamous Years of Lead — a period during the 1960s to 1980s characterized by widespread extralegal detentions and torture — were being reckoned with or that the victims of abuse had been unwittingly co-opted by a wily government. The francophone elite was fleecing the country or it was the country’s only chance of moving forward in an era of globalization. The king’s right-hand man had quit his post and run for a parliamentary seat because he had fallen out of favor in the palace or he had quit because he was going to be appointed prime minister.

The truth was, nobody knew.

You can read the rest here.

(Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images)


Morocco’s Day of Dignity

Monday, February 21st, 2011

In a follow-up post for The Nation, I write about the protests that have taken place throughout Morocco on February 20.

In spite of the Moroccan government’s campaign—through its official media, its ministers and its allies—to discredit the February 20 movement, peaceful protests took place today throughout the country. Thousands of protesters gathered simultaneously in Rabat, Casablanca, Tangier, Tetuan, Beni Mellal, Kenitra, Agadir, Marrakech, Essaouira and in other, smaller cities such as Bouarfa, Sefrou, Bejaad and Jerada.

As I explained in an earlier post, the campaign against the movement included accusations that it was led by agents of the Polisario Front; by atheists and other assorted non-Muslims; by republican revolutionaries; by Moroccans living comfortably abroad; or by people who are disorganized, unclear about their demands and leaderless. But even before the democracy protests got underway today, it was clear that the tide was turning and that the virulent government campaign had only served to bring about support from a wide cross-section of Moroccan society.

You can read the rest here.

(Photo credit: AP)


On Morocco’s February 20 Protests: The Status Quo Cannot Go On

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

In a new post for The Nation, I write about the protests that are planned for February 20 in Morocco.

With the ouster of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, the Arab world has erupted in popular protests in favor of democracy and dignity. Morocco, long considered one of the most stable Arab countries, is not immune to this regional trend. Inspired by the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, a group of young activists are using social media to spread the word about a protest in Casablanca on February 20. A video they have made to promote the protests has already gone viral. It features thirteen young Moroccan men and women, speaking in their native Arabic or Berber. “I am Moroccan and I will take part in the protest on February 20,” they all say, and then go on to explain their reasons for marching: freedom, equality, better living standards, education, labor rights, minority rights, and so on. (You can view the video, with English subtitles, here.)

The February 20 movement was started by a group calling itself Democracy and Freedom Now. Their demands include constitutional reforms, the dissolution of the present parliament, the creation of a temporary transitional government, an independent judiciary, accountability for elected officials, language rights for Berber speakers, and the release of all political prisoners. Democracy and Freedom Now was soon joined by a loose coalition of cyber-activists, traditional lefties, Islamists, and 20 human rights organizations, including the Moroccan Association of Human Rights and Amnesty Morocco.

You can read the rest of the piece here.


I Am Fodail Aberkane

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

Fodail Aberkane is a name you will not have read much about in the press. He was a Moroccan construction worker, a man of very modest means, who spent the last week of his life fighting for the return of his motorcycle. It seems like such a trivial thing to lose your life over, a motorcycle, but when you have nothing, even an old moped, little more than a bicycle with a low-speed motor, can make a difference.

One reason you haven’t heard about Fodail Aberkane is that the facts about him are few and slim, and come mostly from an account given by his brother to newspapers in Morocco. Aged thirty-seven, Fodail Aberkane lived in Hay Inbi’at, a working-class neighborhood in Salé, the town that sits across the river from the capital, famed for its fortress walls, its medina, and its pirates. On September 9, which was the eve of Eid in Morocco, Aberkane was riding his moped when he was stopped by police, on suspicion of being under the influence of cannabis. The officers took him to the Hay Salam station, where he was held for two days, before being released on judge’s orders.

On September 13, Aberkane returned to the police station to collect his moped and his mobile phone. The police told him they could not release the vehicle without proof of insurance, which he did not have in his possession. Instead, he showed them a document attesting that he had declared the loss of his insurance papers to the relevant authorities. The police refused to accept the document. On September 15, Aberkane returned to the station yet again, this time bringing with him a new insurance contract, but the officers still refused to release his moped.

Here an argument broke out, which resulted in his arrest for insulting police officers. When his brother Mustapha visited him at the Hay Salam station, he says, he saw agents beating Fodail in full view of everyone. The police then threw Mustapha out of the station and warned him, “Don’t ever come back.” Two days later, on September 17, Fodail Aberkane was turned over to Ibn Sina Hospital in Rabat, where he was pronounced dead. The district attorney has opened an investigation, and everyone connected with the case is waiting to see whether charges will indeed be brought against the agents responsible for his murder. Until then, it’s the usual Wait and See.

The other reason you will not have heard about Fodail Aberkane is that he is the kind of victim who does not attract the attention of the English-language press. He is not a famous journalist, he does not run a political party, he has not run afoul of the Islamists, and he does not have any connection to terrorism. This particular victim is an easy one to ignore and to forget. When stories about Morocco are written, who will remember his name? Who, aside from his family, will mourn him? Who will hold his alleged murderers to account? Who will make sure that no other man or woman is beaten to death?

In 2004, Morocco established an Equity and Reconciliation Commission to document cases of torture during the Years of Lead. Since then, however, the country has once again started down the old, familiar road. Fodail Aberkane is not an exception. Over the last few years, allegations of torture have been made against the police in Morocco on many occasions. Two years ago, Zahra Boudkour, a 21-year-old university student from Marrakech, was arrested for taking part in a student demonstration. She was stripped naked and beaten, but no one was brought to account for the violence that was visited upon her. In his encounter with the Marrakech police, another university student, Abdelkebir El Bahi, found himself thrown from the 3rd floor window of a dorm. He is now in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Boudkour and El Bahi were abused and tortured because of their ideas and their ideals. Fodail Aberkane was trying to get his moped back.

Torture has become one of Morocco’s most popular exports. According to the New York Times, the kingdom has provided its services to CIA investigators in the case of Binyam Mohammed, the Ethiopian citizen who was detained for five years at Guantánamo Bay, and later released after all charges against him were dropped. Morocco was also the site where Ramzi bin al Shibh, one of the 9/11 conspirators, was allegedly questioned. Videotapes of the interrogations were discovered under a desk at the CIA last year, the Associated Press recently revealed.

At a plenary meeting of the United Nations last week, Morocco’s king Muhammad VI spoke about the National Initiative for Human Development he has committed himself to for the last five years: education, job creation, poverty alleviation, environmental protection. These are all wonderful goals. But even an educated, employed, middle-class citizen with a low-carbon footprint cannot enjoy her full rights if her human life, that most precious of gifts, is not itself respected. Morocco cannot—indeed, it will not—progress as a nation, if the rule of law is not obeyed. Until then, the names may change, but the story will remain the same.


Applebaum on Morocco

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

It almost never fails. When a Western reporter goes to Morocco to write about the process of democratization, the resulting article will inevitably mention sartorial choices and give them positive or negative values. Jeans = good. Jellabas = bad. At Slate, Anne Applebaum visits Morocco and finds that many women “would not look out of place in New York or Paris.”

So what? What does Moroccan women’s fashions have anything to do with human rights and democracy? Under King Hassan, Moroccan women used to dress much less conservatively, but that didn’t mean that the country was a haven of human rights. Just look at what happened to women activists during the Years of Lead.

Her contention that protesters outside Parliament were “politely” waving signs is bizarre. If she had spent any kind of time, day after day, watching what happened to them, she wouldn’t be praising their politeness or the police’s restraint. The elections themselves are really nothing to write home about: turn-out was low and the results were, as usual, entirely unsurprising. If this is what she qualifies as “transformation from authoritarianism to democracy” then Lord help us all.


Occupational Hazard

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

The Committee to Protect Journalists is reporting that Ali Anouzla and Jamal Boudouma, managing editor and publishing director of the Moroccan newspaper Al-Jarida Al-Oula, have received suspended jail sentences and large fines for “defamation” and “insulting the judiciary.” Specifically:

The lawsuit, the second in less than three months in regard to the same article, was filed by Khalil Hachemi Idrissi, publishing director of the daily French-language newspaper Aujourd’hui Le Maroc in January. Idrissi filed a previous lawsuit against Anouzla in September 2008, after the newspaper reported on an incident in which Hassan al-Yaqoubi, the spouse of King Muhammad VI’s aunt had shot and injured a traffic policeman who had stopped him.

“We urge the court of appeals to overturn this unjust ruling,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayam, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “This fine and another that was issued in January smack of political score-settling and are likely to bring down the newspaper if upheld by the court of appeals.”

So let me see if I get this straight: One prominent journalist sues another for defamation and wins. (And it just so happens that the latter was critical of the regime’s handling of the al-Yacoubi case.) The censorship machine is so well-oiled nowadays that the Moroccan government doesn’t need to do anything.


Watch Out, Barça Fans

Monday, October 27th, 2008

Moroccan judges seem to be in a competition to find out who will issue the most excessive, most ridiculous, and most embarrassing ruling for the country. The latest example comes from the town of Ait Ourir in the province of Marrakech, where a high school student named Yassine Belassal was arrested, tried, and promptly sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment for insult to the king because he allegedly wrote “God, Nation, Barça” on the blackboard.

Morocco’s motto is ‘God, Nation, King’; Barça is the Spanish soccer team FC Barcelona.

Belassal is in his senior year and also a national champion in karate.  He may or may not have had legal representation at his speedy trial; he may have written the motto on a wall outside or on the blackboard in class; he may have acted alone, or with a group of three friends; his last name might be Belassal or Ait Ben-Lassal—the facts of the case are somewhat unclear. What is clear, however, is that he is now in prison, serving a sentence at the Boulmharez jail, for what seems like a harmless case of football hyperbole.

You can find out more about the case from Al Massae (in Arabic) or El Mundo and El Pais (in Spanish.) For some legal background, check out the blog of Ibn Kafka. There is also a Facebook group.


Erraji Free

Thursday, September 18th, 2008

Good news in Agadir: As has been widely reported, the charges against Mohammed Erraji have been dropped, and he is now free.


Blame The Victim

Tuesday, September 16th, 2008

I have been reading comments on a few Moroccan blogs about the Mohammed Erraji affair, and while the majority of people support Erraji’s right to free expression, I have to say I’m appalled at the way in which some of the commenters excuse the government and blame the victim. The angry responses range from attacks on the blogger for breaking the law (by, apparently, expressing his opinion) to attacks on his website for being trashy (it’s true it’s a tabloid, but if you want to read lies and omissions any day of the week, you could do no worse than the government rag).  It’s disheartening.


Blogger Arrested in Morocco

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

Last Wednesday, the Moroccan blogger Mohamed Erraji penned a column for the website Hespress, in which he criticized King Mohammed for what he called “policies of charity” that are “destroying the country.” On Thursday, Erraji was reportedly questioned over the column. On Friday, he was arrested in Agadir for “lack of respect due to the king.” And, on Monday, he was brought to court for trial, fined 5,000 dirhams, and sentenced to two years in prison.

The column itself is available in Arabic here, in English here, and in French here. It starts with an anecdote about the king giving a policeman a transportation license (such licenses guarantee some income for life), then questions whether such practices encourage the creation of an independent society.

The arrest marks the first time anyone has been arrested for a blog post in Morocco, and, given the Moroccan government’s touchiness, I can guarantee it is not the last time. But I would like to make one small point: Erraji’s criticism is quite mild compared with what one can read in such French-language Moroccan magazines as Tel Quel or Le Journal. But these publications enjoy the support of many international groups (such as Reporters Without Borders) and so the government often has to think twice before arresting one of their journalists or editors. But because Erraji writes in Arabic, and because he writes for Hespress, a website whose quality is quite questionable (it’s very populist and sometimes inaccurate), and because he is not part of the connected elite, his right to freedom of expression has simply been denied and his case has been even more bungled than usual.

A website has been set up to defend Erraji: Help Erraji. I wish there was also a website to help Morocco get a clue on press freedom.


A Piece of Their Mind

Tuesday, June 10th, 2008

I doubt if Ahmed Herzenni, the president of the Advisory Council on Human Rights (CCDH), who was visiting the United States to speak to the Moroccan community about his organization’s work, expected the reception he ended up getting in Washington, DC. The Moroccans in attendance asked him pointed questions about the kingdom’s appalling record on human rights, the lack of independence of the judiciary, the elections, and so on. A couple of the attendees got very upset. You can watch video segments from the meeting here. (Scroll on the right hand side to see all five videos.)


Poetry and Palmolive

Tuesday, May 27th, 2008

Priceless! A 1971 Moroccan commercial that uses the classic tale of Qais wa Laila to hawk Palmolive shampoo:



Casa Fires

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

Last Saturday, a fire blazed through a mattress factory in Casablanca, killing 55 people and injuring dozens of others. The exit doors had been locked by the owner, who stated he did so in order to prevent theft of materials. He is now under arrest. Today comes news that another fire broke out in a different part of the city, in a carpet factory, killing 3 people. Inna lillah, wa inna ilayhi raji’oun.

Everyone knows that the law is regularly and spectacularly flouted in industrial outfits in the city. It remains to be seen whether measures will be taken or whether bribes will change hands. I’d say the latter, wouldn’t you?


What Freedom of Speech?

Thursday, April 3rd, 2008

I have not seen much attention in the English-language press to the trouble that Rachid Niny, one of Morocco’s most popular columnists, finds himself in at the moment. The facts of the case, as far as I can tell, are that Niny alleged in one of his articles that a prosecutor in Qsar el Kebir attended a gay wedding held in the house of a trafficker (there was no wedding, but a video purporting to show one landed on YouTube and created quite a ruckus.) The town’s four prosecutors took Niny to court in the capital of Rabat and the judge found Niny guilty of slander, fining him 6 million Dirhams (approximately $850,000.)

All right. Time to pick your jaw off the floor.

This the largest fine ever in the history of libel judgments in Morocco. Undoubtedly, Niny ought not to have printed something for which he did not have proof. But let’s face it: newspapers in Morocco indulge in rumors and blind items on a daily basis. This was a blind item, not a direct claim. What makes this affair murkier is that Niny was recently mugged at the train station in Rabat, and robbed of his cell phone and laptop. Coincidence? Of course not. In addition, Judge Alaoui, who presided over this case, is the same judge who found against Boubker Jamai last year, against the magazine Nichane, and several other journalists. The judgment is clearly meant to crush Niny’s newspaper, Al Massae, which has become the largest in Morocco.

(Oh, and don’t even get me started on why these prosecutors think it an insult to be called gay.)

I am baffled as to the thinking here: What is the point of it? Niny will simply leave the country, and go write for a magazine that is bigger and more powerful than Al Massae. I myself don’t like his columns, except the satirical ones, and I think he is be a bit too cavalier with personal freedoms. The irony now is that he will need the help of all those freedom of expression activists he wasn’t always so keen on. I hope they prevail, and that he will be able to continue to write and work in his own country.


Fouad Mourtada is Free

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

Rumor has it that Fouad Mourtada, the young engineer who created a fake Facebook profile of the crown prince of Morocco, and as a result was sent to jail for three years for “identity theft,” has been pardoned. He is a free man tonight. (I have not seen confirmation of this news in the mainstream media yet.)

I don’t think this is a a victory for human rights, because, as usual, the courts have not done their job, but the pressure on the part of bloggers and human rights activists in Morocco and around the world seems to have worked. It is an immense relief to know that Fouad has been freed. Happy Eid el Mawlid, everyone.

For background, see this, this, this, and this.


Protest @ The Moroccan Embassy

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

Regular readers of this blog will likely remember the name of Fouad Mourtada, the young engineer who was arrested and allegedly tortured by the Moroccan government because he created a fake profile of the crown prince. The charges are not under question; what is under question, however, is the legal process by which this young man was arrested, tried, and sentenced for a youthful prank. If you live in D.C., here is a chance to make your voice heard. A protest will be taking place in front of the Embassy of Morocco this coming Saturday, March 1st:

Location: Embassy of the Kingdom of Morocco
Time: Saturday, March 1st. 2:00pm – 5:00pm
Address : 1601 21st Street, NW, Washington DC 20009
Directions: Yahoo Maps

There is also a Facebook link. (I bet the irony will go unnoticed by Mourtada’s jailers.)


Aboubakr Jamaï @ UCR

Monday, February 25th, 2008

As a reminder: Tomorrow, I will be hosting Moroccan journalist Boubker Jamaï at the University of California, Riverside (HMNSS 1500, 11:00 am) for a talk on democratization. The talk is free and open to the public, so if you’re in the Southern California area, please come.


‘The Fake Prince of Facebook’

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

I have an opinion piece up at The Nation website about the imprisonment of Fouad Mourtada in Casablanca two weeks ago. Here is how it begins:

On the morning of February 5, plainclothes officers in Morocco picked up Fouad Mourtada in Casablanca, blindfolded him, and took him to the police station, where they reportedly tortured him until he lost consciousness. His crime: He had created a Facebook profile of Crown Prince Moulay Rachid, the King’s brother.

Mourtada is 26. He did what millions of other people his age do every day–create profiles, real or fake, on social networking websites. There are fake profiles on Facebook for everyone from Brad Pitt to Mother Teresa, from King Abdullah to Osama bin Laden. There are 500 profiles for George W. Bush. Mourtada did not appear to think he was committing any crime. Indeed, despite being a computer engineer, with a degree from the prestigious École Mohammedia des Ingénieurs, he did not use a proxy server to protect his identity. Nor did he derive any profit, monetary or otherwise, from the Facebook profile. It may have been a youthful prank or a twenty-first-century homage, but either way it landed him in jail.

You can read the entire piece over at The Nation. The court is due to reconvene today, and I can only hope that cooler heads will prevail.

Updated to say that Fouad Mourtada has been sentenced to three years in prison.


Aboubakr Jamaï @ Riverside

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

Next Tuesday, I will be hosting Moroccan journalist Boubker Jamaï at the University of California, Riverside, for a talk on democratization. Here are the details:


The talk is free and open to the public, so if you’re in the Southern California area, please join us for a lively discussion. Those of you who are unfamiliar with Jamai can read this (poorly titled) article by Jane Kramer in the New Yorker.


Free Mourtada

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

Two weeks ago, a computer engineer by the name of Fouad Mourtada was arrested by Moroccan police in Casablanca for creating a fake Facebook profile of Prince Moulay Rachid, the king’s brother. Mourtada’s family found out about his arrest through the news, and had to wait a week to be allowed to see him. Mourtada says he was tortured when he was taken into custody. There are thousands of fake profiles for politicians, royals, and celebrities, but Mourtada has been charged with identity theft and risks up to five years in prison. Several Moroccan bloggers, including this one, are maintaining radio silence today. You can visit the Mourtada family website here.


Cyber ‘Crime’

Monday, February 11th, 2008

A Moroccan man by the name of Fouad Mourtada has been arrested and put in jail because he created a fake Facebook profile for the king’s brother, crown prince Moulay Rachid. The official Moroccan news agency MAP did not even bother with the presumption of innocence:

Les services de sécurité marocains ont procédé à l’arrestation, mercredi à Casablanca, pour pratiques crapuleuses d’un individu qui a usurpé l’identité de Son Altesse Royale le Prince Moulay Rachid sur le site Internet, a-t-on appris de source policière.

The accused is referred to as having “villainous practices.” The release has since been taken down from the site, but you can read its Google cache. It’s unclear how the police found the man, and whether Facebook released his IP address.

Just the other day, a New York Times reporter called to ask me about blogging in Morocco, and the relationship between new media and traditional media. The Moroccan government has so far–and wisely–left bloggers alone, but if someone can get put in jail for something as silly as a fake Facebook profile, then bloggers should be worried.

For your amusement: Facebook profiles for George W. Bush, Tony Blair, King Juan Carlos, and King Abdullah.

(Via Larbi.)

  • Twitter

  • Category Archives

  • Monthly Archives