The Moorish Wanderer

Course 4 : Communities in Morocco

Posted in American Minority Voices by Zouhair ABH on February 10, 2009

As a non-French, non-American citizen, I would rather discuss communities relations in Morocco, a situation that is, if I may say so, unique throughout the world, or shall we say, the north African region.

Moroccan communities (or Tribes that is their primitive shape) are a part of a complex and an ancient political system know as ‘Makhzen‘. The French word ‘Magasin‘ comes from Makhzen: مخزن (warehouse). Indeed, the main goal of the ruling institution was to gather taxes -that were paid in kind, usually crop and wheat. The Makhzen is actually a weak authority, in the sense that it got no real centralized or even federal power, but the one to attract different communities, based on religious ground : most if all the ruling dynasties used Islam as a way to claim power, whether these dynasties were Sharifian (i.e with blood ties to the prophet Muhammad) or presenting themselves as the rightful refomers (sort of Cromwells). Theses dynasties used the Makhzen machine bureaucracy to establish their authority over Morocco and other territories.

How could one link the Makhzen to the communities, and how could theses links interfere with the kind of ties the various communities established between themselves ?

There is a first division between rural and urban areas : Urban people -i.e, those with deep and ancient urban history that is- feel that since their are the guardians of a certain civilization (ways of behaviour, manners, a certain spoken language), they are superior to the people belonging to the  rural areas. In a sense, it is true urban people are more ‘western-like’ civilized, but then, they play a small part in the economic process : the wealthy of them do have farms and stuff outside the city (usually Rabat, Fès and Marrakesh and now Casablanca). Historically, during famine periods, they were the first to suffer -not all of them of course, but only those who did not prevent it by stockpiling or by owning a piece of land, but then again, only the wealthier ones could afford it-. the small part they played in the home economic process was though important : the urban elite had the monopoly of foreign trade, and controlled imports of rare goods. As Marxists and Structuralists would say, economic power was to determine social structures.
Same should apply to the rural elite : they were usually warriors, or/and civil servant. Civil service in Morocco -that was also a matter of constabulary and military- had three major purposes : to raise taxes, to ensure internal peace and levy soldier when wartime comes. The sultan would have to appoint warlords usually members of his family -one is less suspicious towards their own people-. These warlords though, are not 100% reliable; Whenever they feel that central authorities are weakening, they start a rebellion, mostly by refusing to pay the taxes. The sultan has then a variety of courses of actions, ranging from peaceful negotiation to the Harka (الحركة), a brutal punitive expedition that ends often into a bloodbath. pre-Protectorate Moroccan politics lies in a delicate balance of repressions and negotiations the sultan had to lead with a bunch of sporadic forces in order to keep the country more or less united.
Warlords might come from urban areas, but because of the omnipresent shadow of ‘Siba‘ or anarchy, though things are actually far from turning into anarchy : usually, dissidence in Morocco means that a certain region, a loose federation of warring tribes would still recognize the sultan as Allah’s representative, but would refuse to pay taxes.

Another way to look at communities in Morocco could be done through ethnographic studies : native Amazigh-speaking tribes, Arab-long established tribes, Jewish minorities, Turks, Europeans and Andalusians, and mixed relations between all of them.


Soussi dressed in local outfit and sporting a dagger

* Native Amazighs : considered as the native Moroccans, established a long ago. Some historians considered they came from Yemen and Arabic peninsula. It is true for some Amazighs, but not for all of them; indeed, there are three general linguistic and geographical gatherings : Ch’leuhs, Soussis and Riffis. Ch’leuhs and Riffis are believed to be a part of Indo-European lineage (strong genetic traces of Nordic characteristics)
* Arab tribes : the Muslim conquerors of the 7th century established in the area and started mixing with local population. Arab lineage could have

religious ties (“شريف” Sharif, that is a descent of the Prophet) or ‘normal’ Arab lineage.
* Jewish communities : an integrated part of the Moroccan society. protected by the Sultan (but not always, since little bloodless pogroms were organized once a while) Jewish Moroccans were mostly specialized in commerce, foreign or local trade, as well as in charge of the Sultan’s private finances.
* Andalusians : they came from Spain after the Reconquista kicked out the last moor kingdom in Granada. it is difficult to state whether they were Arabs, amazighs or spanish. It is though sure they have mixed roots and enriched considerably Moroccan culture. There was also an important Jewish community that escapes the Catholic inquisition.
* Other races : Turks, because of the shared borders with Algeria (that was a Ottoman stronghold till 1830). Europeans that were captured ans slaves during the 15th and 16th centuries (The famous Sale Pirates attacked European ships)


Gharnati-Andalusian orchestra

There is no denying that all those tribes or communities that claim to be ‘pure breed’ are actually more mixed than they think or expected, but strong core identity separate them in many issues, especially for the power struggling. This way of making politics is however in contradiction with the pursing of democracy, which implies a radical change in people’s minds, in order to promote meritocratic criterion in choosing national political leaders, rather than tribal schemes.


Fes, one of the 4 Imperial cities

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