Morocco Stories: Part 3

Morocco Stories: Part 3 July 25, 2019

Morocco has a very intense colonial history, and its specter lingers in both obvious and subtle ways, such as at border crossings. I also learned more about the struggle for indigenous rights, which had not previously been on my radar.

A view of Ceuta, the Spanish protectorate in Morocco.

What happens when you send a bunch of professors to Morocco and Spain? We pay attention to the minutiae of daily life as well as the larger workings of power. We asked questions about politics and the government, the dominant languages, the educational system, and more. And we got some hands-on experiences with borders that were…interesting.

The Encyclopedia Britannica has a good brief history of Morocco here, but in short, it had an indigenous population called the Berbers (they self-identify as the Amazigh) prior to the Arab invasion of the 7th century. Various dynasties fought and ruled and expanded, with some of them taking over Spain and then being kicked out during the Reconquista. France imposed colonial rule in 1912, which ended in 1956, and Morocco is currently the only constitutional monarchy in North Africa.

Before this trip, I was woefully ignorant about the Berber/Amazigh indigenous rights movement. I’ve since found some useful sources with which to educate myself, such as this Algeria-specific page on the World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples site, this (also-Algeria-focused) story on the indigenous-rights website Intercontintental Cry, this English-language background page on an otherwise mostly French and Arabic site called Amazigh World, and this Washington Institute post on the Amazigh Cultural Renaissance.

In short, for the last few decades, Berber groups in North Africa have been agitating for rights: to preserve their culture, to have their language(s) taught in schools, and so on. Speaking as a U.S. citizen, this is very reminiscent of the ways in which Native American tribes have been trying to secure their own cultural and linguistic heritage in the wake of the genocide and oppression perpetuated by the U.S. government over the last few centuries.

There is a gender component, too; I don’t know if the Berbers have faced as much reproductive oppression as indigenous people on other continents, but according to this article, Amazigh women experience intersectional oppression as their concerns are ignored by fellow (Arab) feminists, even as they are impacted by patriarchy and poverty in daily ways. They’re organizing to try to agitate for change, but it seems difficult in a country where Berber/Amazigh people are classified as a “minority” even though by most numbers I saw, they make up 60% of the population or so (one estimate was as high as 70%).

Given that Berbers make up maybe 3/5 of the population of Morocco, I find it really interesting that Morocco just this year adopted Berber as an official national language, alongside Arabic (this Al-Jazeera article goes into a bit more detail on the history of this struggle). French is informally spoken in many places thanks to colonialism, and I get the sense that English and Spanish are also quite common. For instance, I was able to barter in both English and Spanish in various marketplaces.

The informal economy was interesting too; in Marrakech we went to a marketplace that was dead during the daytime, probably due to a combination of 100 degree temperatures and it being Ramadan, but burst into life during the night. Vendors accepted dollars as well as dirhams (the local currency) and I think some accepted euros too. Here are some pics from that adventure.

The illuminated market.
Lamps for sale at the market.
Food stalls at the market.

Before I leave the language topic, fun fact: the written language of Wakanda in Black Panther was based in part on Tifinagh, the script that accompanies the Berber/Amazigh language Tamazight. I thought that was pretty neat.

So… colonialism and border crossings. Entering Morocco felt very sanitized since we went through customs in the Marrakech airport. Leaving was a very different story.

We’d spent our 10ish days in Morocco with the same tour guide, bus driver, porter, and bus. Our bus was going to take us as far as Septa (the Moroccan name for the Spanish city nestled on the northern coast of Morocco; its Spanish name is Ceuta) and ideally we were going to be able to drive through customs before the bus would offload us and turn around to cross the border again. That’s not what happened.

Due to concerns about children hanging onto the underside of the bus, or somehow getting on the bus, in order to illegally cross the border, we had to quickly and unexpectedly get off the bus on the Moroccan side of the border, load up our stuff (most of us were traveling pretty light, but we still weren’t expecting to schlep all our things across the border by foot), and then cross the border. A guard directed us to walk down the outgoing car lanes for some reason, so there was some confusion as we hauled our things this way and that, trying to figure out what was going on.

We did not have to wait in the long lines that most people on foot did, which is a mark of our Western privilege, I’d imagine. Plus if there was a “confused hapless tourist card” to play, I’m pretty sure we played it. I feel weird about how that went down, but I’m not sure what the better way would have been. Most of us had American passports, and so I’m sure that conferred some kind of status on us.

Still, it was an intense experience. There were armed guards, long lines of people, and children clamoring for a ride or a way in. It was clear that there was a disjuncture between who had money and status and who didn’t, that many of the people trying to enter Septa from the Moroccan side were looking for work or some way to better their situation.

(I didn’t take pictures at the border, other than snapping this one picture of a cat I saw… it seemed like a bad idea given all the armed guards)

Cat at the border, because when could walls ever keep cats in or out?

The juxtaposition between the desperate bustle of the border and the beautiful, clean beaches of Ceuta once we were inside was jarring. Originally a Portuguese fortress town, Septa/Ceuta was taken by the Spanish and remains in their keeping. By crossing the border while still technically in North Africa, we entered the EU and thus did not have to go through customs again upon taking a ferry to the rest of Spain. Ceuta, and the remainder of Spain, was lovely, as expected. But I had trouble getting that bordered crossing out of my head. Here are some Ceuta pics.

The medieval fortress walls of Ceuta.
A monument in Ceuta, next to the town’s main cathedral.
The view from my hotel’s balcony.

The legacy of power and politics was also evident in Granada, where we visited the Alhambra. I was blown away by the magnificence of it, and I’m glad I got to go (I’ve been all over Spain in the past, but hadn’t yet made it to the Alhambra). Here are some of my favorite pics from that excursion.

This last one is interesting because it’s a pictorial history, commissioned by a Muslim king, on a ceiling in the Alhambra which in theory is forbidden but here it is anyway.

Anyway, that wraps up my Morocco series. If you like my photos and want to see more, I’ve got many of them up on Instagram under the tag #GHSTrip19 (I thought my colleagues were using the hashtag too but looks like it was just me being the diligent nerd, ah well).

Here’s hoping I get to return some day, whether for pleasure, research, advocacy, or maybe some combination of the above…


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