The Moorish Wanderer

Bleeding Marrakesh and The Rise Of Authoritarianism

Posted in Flash News, Moroccan ‘Current’ News, Moroccan Politics & Economics, Morocco by Zouhair ABH on April 28, 2011

These are trying moments. Truly horrifying, not only for the immediate victims, but for coming days and weeks.

According to official sources and newspapers, the explosion in Arghana Café (Marrakesh)  that occurred today at noon (local time) was the result of a criminal bombing. My thoughts and prayers are with the families of victims (about 14 dead and 20 wounded following the latest reports at 0308 local time) may they find comfort for their losses.

If indeed the hypothesis of criminal bombing is verified, this smaller-scale May 16th bombing is going to be a roadblock for the ongoing democracy debate, and might even turn out to be a good argument to actually shut down pro-democracy dissidence. And even though it is too early to say one way or the other, it is too much of a coincidence such operation (in a well-guarded tourist city like Marrakesh) should occur amid the ongoing debate on democracy, the constitution and its balance of powers, and finally the latest release of Islamist prisoners. I wish I did not indulge in conspiracy theory frenzy, but this ring of coincidences is too better to contemplate.

Café Argana, after the explosion (Picture Le Journal Du Dimanche)

These are trying times because out of experience (whether in Morocco or elsewhere) the voices of democracy, the proponents of open society concepts are immediately shut down in favour of a behaviour I like to describe as ‘rally behind the flag’, a behaviour that could sometimes lead to crypto-fascism. I don’t know if the regime has what it takes to be plucky and carry on with the constitutional debate, but I think all pro-democracy protesters can kiss goodbye to this flourishing freedom of speech we have been enjoying these last couple of months. The trade-off between security and liberty -though a fallacious one- becomes more attractive to the many, and more worrying, to the decision-makers.

As a matter of fact, the trade-off is redundant, the choice is already made, and to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin we have already chosen security and we are about to lose both (if not already). We know only too well the security apparatus: they try to make up for their incompetence and start rounding up the usual suspects; Whatever guarantees that ‘everything will be done by the book’ mistakes will be made, and the infamous Temara torture complex will be back to business in no time.

Can I indulge in some fancy conspiracy theory nonetheless? What if a rogue security element in the Makhzen apparatus was behind this? I mean, it’s not like security services have a virgin history of covert operations. It could very well be some manipulated individual who detonated his bombing device. Didn’t the services manipulate the group behind the 1994 Marrakesh bombings? or the assassination of left-wing and trade-union activist Omar Bendjelloun in 1975? Wasn’t a prominent Human Rights lawyer sued for gainsaying the official version of May 16th?

To whom does all this benefit? How is it possible that Marrakesh, perhaps the most secured city in Morocco (both because of its tourism activity and the large residing foreign national community) could be subject to a terrorist attack? Where are the police and security forces?

An official communique asserts that all police and court investigation will be carried out within the law. These signs of good faith could go further and lead to the resignations of Marrakesh Police Chief Mohamed Badda, that of Charki Draiss (head of Police Forces DGSN) and the Interior Minister Taib Cherkaoui; They are after all, the top echelon responsible for security, and that bombing, if it turns out to be what they claim it to be, is a rebuttal to their competence. Times like these could be turned around and actually strengthen democracy, and not weaken it.

Glimpses of Morocco’s History Vol. 4

Posted in Moroccan History & Sociology, Morocco, Read & Heard, The Wanderer by Zouhair ABH on April 11, 2011

My first request, and on the 1727-1757 period! (Thank you Maroqui; The post might be a bit off-topic, though…)

As it happens, one of the latest issues of ‘Wijhat Nadar‘ (45-44, Summer 2010) dealt with the very interesting issue of killing in Morocco. Killing is a very approximate translation of the following: “التقتيل في المغرب عبر التاريخ” so perhaps it would be closer to the truth to denote it as a policy of killing, mainly because of its systematic, and more importantly, official features.

The violent nature of the Imperial regime cannot be stressed enough, as it represents an inextricable part of pre-1912 Moroccan political sociology: indeed, the modern state tries, whenever possible, to assert itself as the monopoly of symbolic and real violence. The Makhzen however, for all its modernist features (as A. Laroui defined them) did not hesitate in using extreme violence to assert its power.

Smail Ibn Ali Cherif (1672 - 1727)

The mid 18th century in Morocco was relatively stable compared to earlier rambles, not because there were fewer riots and insurrections, but because these -usually numerous in bad times as well as in good times- have been almost systematically put down by the imperial Harkas; In the Eastern desert Oasis region alone, cradle of the Alaouite dynasty, number of rebellions against Sultan Moulay Ismaïl counted, on a period from 1676 to 1692 average one every two years, and subsequent riots led to a waltz of local governors (or Caïds) two of which were related to the Imperial dynasty; Beforehand, we need the historical background prior to 1727: Moulay Smaïl took over from his brother, Moulay Mohammed after a successful uprising against him in 1665 (and eventually kills him).

Not only does his rebellion succeed, but he manages to bring back the pieces together: From his native Tafilelt, he manages to conquer Marrakesh, the High Atlas and the Touat region. He then moved westward and annexed the fertile Gharb plains, then conquered the northern regions of Rif. Morocco was for the first time since a long time ago, unified under one Sultan and one imperial authority. This unity however, came at a terrible human price: to force the Moroccan nations into submission, Moulay Smaïl had used a great deal of violence, much more than the standard levels to which denizens of the Imperial Maghrib grew accustomed to, which were already too barbaric even by these days’ standards (beheading, burying alive, whatever comes to mind when mediaeval torture and executions are concerned) and managed to exact heavy taxes compared to what previous Sultans extracted from the local tribes.

A colonial officer, A.G.P Martin reports an example of the taxes; in “Quatre Siècles d’Histoire Marocaine“, he reports in 1688 the following taxes on the Oasis regions, 4,583.5 Metkals, mainly paid for by Taçabit, Oudjlane, Oulad Sidi Hammou Belhaj, Mekkid, Titaouine Inzegmir and the Reggane region. Knowing that one Metkal-or was valued at 144 Francs (Martin computes on 1908 parity) revenues were about 660.000 francs, plus a personal ‘present’ to the Sultan from the local governor, Caïd Ahmed Roussi of about 30,000 francs. Such taxes were high enough for the governor to forgo collecting the “عاشور” (Aachoor) and taxes on water rights. The joint effect of high taxation and bloody repression did prompt the locals (in the Oasis regions and elsewhere) into rioting against the local Caïd or even directly against the Imperial emissaries too:

“[…] En 1690, un Caïd du nom d’Abdelaziz qui pressura les Ksour sans mesure et provoqua un mécontentement général; les gens de Timmimoun se révoltèrent et l’assiégèrent dans la Kasba […] [Les Caïds Messaoud et Mohamed Saffar] vinrent ensuite séjourner un mois à Telalet; ils attaquèrent aussi le Ksar de Ghyat qui avait suivi Timmimoun dans sa révolte. […] Les gens de Timmimoun s’étant enfermés dans leur Ksar, le Caïd […] Saffar vint les assiéger et les força à capituler; il détruisit les Ksour de l’Est (sic) et rasa leurs palmeraies” (Martin, Ed. 1923 p.68)

Indeed, as it was pointed out, a Jewish Demmi could walk across from Oujda to Oued-Noun virtually unharmed, and symbols of Imperial authority were uphold, but to an excessive price, and the constant pressure on the Moroccan people too high to bear, so, when the despotic Sultan died in 1727, his Sons rose and soon got into a civil war to seize the Imperial throne, unleashing yet another of these periodic civil wars in Morocco, exacerbated further by Smail’s sadistic tastes. To insure stability (and avoid any palace coup) the late Sultan divided up the Kingdom into command regions and appointed his sons. Though it made sense when reigning, it proved to be a deadly policy for the hard-earned unity: each son had a base with its resources, whether natural or military, and that made the ensuing civil war even more vicious.

As soon as the news of his death reached Touat, denizens rioted against the Makhzen (a Siba dissidence, in short) and dispersed the remaining local authority by killing Caïd Hamdoun (though version differ on his fate). The ensuing anarchy was not due to the fact that Moulay Smaïl did not nominate his Heir, but because, as A. Laroui rightfully pointed out, the late Sultan’s wishes are not scrupulously executed when they do not suit the Court’s own preferences. For all absolutist a monarch, the Moroccan Sultan didn’t have that much power: in the imperial court, his will was subordinated to the Court’s; And when it is time for power transmission, the consensus fades away with the Sultan’s death, and any relative with (real or faked)  Chorfa ascent can claim the throne and muster local support. The novelty Moulay Smaïl introduced was his attempt to modernise the Makhzen by introducing the idea of a regular army, his very own Black Guard, the Bokhari guards.

Morocco and its borders, by Jackson. 18th Century.

When the conquest of Morocco was (almost) completed, they turned into a Praetorian Guard, and inevitably meddle with Court politics. In this case, and even though the theoretical successor, Moulay Ahmed, was confirmed, another of Smaïl’s numerous offspring, Moulay Abdelmalek, Souss governor, was proclaimed a Sultan too. The ambitious pretender started to march off on Fès in 1728, and as early as 1729, other pretenders rose to claim the throne as well. For Abdelmalek to insure good support from the South (the one region that contributes ‘generous’ and stable receipts to the Makhzenian vaults) Abdelmalek first diverts forces to secure Caravan convoys (that has been under attack from the Tuareg) and, thanks to their support, Timmimoun oasis region was exempted from taxes and the local Caïds bribed to join the pretenders’ causes. The nominal Sultan, Moulay Abdellah, resided in a nominal Capital, controlling a nominal empire with no real armed forces to submit the rebellious tribes or suppress his Brothers’ uprising, though he would have done so (and tried in a couple of times)

The expedition’s aim -and that was not the first, or the only one- was simple enough: most of the constant receipts Makhzen authorities normally cash in do not come from local output, i.e. agriculture, but from desert caravans, and these resources were going to be much needed for the pretender to pay and arm conscripts (and bribe some local officials) for any serious pretender to seize the throne outright. Abdelmalek eventually disappeared, as he had quickly lost Bokharis‘ support. Though over the period one of Smaïl’s sons, Moulay Abdellah managed to maintain some sort of Makhzen order, his death in 1757 did close another stable reign: He had to wage a constant war against many of his brothers, and during the whole period, Morocco was closed to foreign influence, what came to be called “سياسة الإحتراز”, a state of vegetative diplomacy and virtually total autarky.

A peculiar observation though, it has been noted that when the Imperial authority is shaken, that of Zawyas‘ increases in wealth, power and influence: Zawya Darqawiya thrived during Abdellah’s reign: The Zawya provided shelter, food, education, knowledge and even for many, a fatherly figure in the person of the Master, all of which is non-existent in these troubled times.

[Credits to Dianabuja’s]

Glimpses of Morocco’s History Vol. 1

We need to go back to basics. No, I haven’t turn John Major yet (it’s only a matter of time before one can turn to a vegetable, right ?) but it seems, in the evils of wicked education policy pursued by some powerful lobbies for some three decades now- even well-educated internet-users are shockingly unaware of Morocco’s history.

And what makes matters worse, many that boast their undying patriotism can be put to shame for ignoring large scores of our history. It is usually understood that true patriots, so keen on loving their country, just like a lover, do their best to know their idol’s past history. It seems not.

I don’t claim to be historian. In fact I don’t claim to know that much about Morocco’s history too: some of High-school history lessons were so boring that I just skipped the teacher’s soliloquies on Moulay Ali Sherif, or the sub-Saharan expeditions Sultan Mansur Dâhbi sent raiding for gold and slaves. (I did however, rely on well-prepared notes, but, sadly, only for exam preparation. Some facts and dates managed to stick to mind, though) And as I grew older, with the hot political involvement of post-high school, I also discovered post-1956 history (the one that is strangely not taught at school, private or public)

So let me make it up to all of us: the agora around Morocco, patriotism, our ’12 centuries of History’, and other features of ill-informed doxa prompted me into changing course:  I’d like to leave politics aside for the time being, and start posting about history from time to time. I had this ambition many years ago, but time, and perhaps laziness prevented me from carrying out such a project. I shall now, to the best of my abilities, present some relatively unknown parts of our glorious history. I don’t claim to cover all of it from the Phoenicians up to the February 20th demonstrations, but rest assured, the random posts I’ll be tossing around will try to cover the widest possible chronological span.

I shall start with the High Atlas. I have developed a romantic streak for this place since I last visited it about 4 years ago; but still, the place has its history too. And instead of going for the all-too-celebrated imperial cities, let’s have a look at the rural areas, shall we? My accounts are usually drawn from books like ‘Saints Of the Atlas‘ (E. Gellner), ‘Lords Of the Atlas‘ (G. Maxwell) ‘Les Origines Sociales et Culturelles du Nationalisme Marocain‘ (A. Laroui) and other articles I’ll be citing along (with possible weblinks whenever available)

More specifically, I’ll be discussing the state (Makhzen) apparatus in the region: for all its fierce autonomy, local tribal democracy, and frequent clashes with the central power, the High Atlas, as the second-line border to the grand Sahara, has had some of the most ruthless governors (Caïds قيّاد), whose descendants had the unfortunate demise to be durably labelled as ‘collaborators’.

Consider the High Atlas: the plains and immediate surroundings of Marrakesh, one of the oldest Imperial cities (along Fès, Rabat and Meknès) are relatively safe, whether in times of asserted central authority or when the Makhzen has little grip over its territories. The mountains, on the other hand, are rebellious. contentious and frequently prone to challenge authority. A word of semantics here: Blad Siba does not mean anarchy. It does mean however that central power (which is going to be referred to as ‘Makhzen’ from now on) is non-existent, or rather, does not have the legitimate means of violence to coerce the rebellious subjects and force them into submission. These rebels are quite curious: they do not intend to break away from the Sultan’s authority; quite frequently, Friday prayers are established in His good name, and whenever possible, all kinds of respectful tribute are paid to the Imperial Sultan; the explanation is quite simple and resides in the Islamic obligation to be under a Ruler’s authority. What Blad Siba refuses is quite simply to pay the taxes. Not because of greed, but certainly, as we shall see later on, because of the way these taxes are literally extracted from the locals.

The plains are indeed usually docile (or, to put it more euphemistically, are less prone to riot and rebel against the local and central power) than their brethren in the mountains. The late Interior Minister, and Hassan II‘s factotum, Driss Basri, described it most emphatically: ‘we are [referring to Settat] plain and medowlands tribes, farmers. We always needed the Makhzen protection from mountain tribes’. When taxes were collected, plain tribes could afford -when harvest was good- to pay the Caïd and the Sultan. Tribes localized in mountainous and hostile regions, less so.

Let us take a leaf from Gavin Maxwell‘s account: “The […] rough geographical division […] covered the terms Blad Makhzen – the country under government control- and Blad Siba, Lawless Country, where force [for the Makhzen to prevail] was the only criterion- of the infinitely greater territories of un-subdued tribes. [Throughout the history of Morocco] it was from Blad Siba, and more especially the land of desert and palm oasis lying to the east of the Atlas, that almost every new dynasty of Sultans rose to conquer and replace the last […]” (p. 29-30)

handsome, […] and a most dignified bearing (G. Maxwell) “] […] In 1893, the reigning Alaouite Sultan, Mouley Hassan [1st], decided upon a tax-collecting expedition to the desert oases beyond the High Atlas, with its ultimate aim as the restoration of law and order at Tafilelt, the great palm oasis that had been the cradle of his dynasty, and which was now, as so often before, in a state of anarchy. […] It had always been the custom of the Alaouites to send home to Tafilelt unwanted members of their families […] as he majority [of these Alaouites] were unwamted, the descendants of the Prophet in Tafilelt were legion, it was an unusual state of affairs if there were not a few stirring up trouble“. (p. 33)


Here we are then: collecting taxes is not the main goal for these Harkas, far from it (and as it turns out, these expeditions cost way more than the effective collected tax receipts) but it is a bold symbol, of tribal submission and imperial authority. A Sultan like Hassan 1st, barely spent more than 6 months in one palace. For a Sultan to assert his power over his contentious subjects, He must be one whose “Imperial tents are never stored”.

Maxwell also describes the tax collecting: When the harka meets a tribe, no matter how obedient or rebellious it was, whether in peace or in a state of self-defence, they had to provide the food for the Imperial Juggernaut. The Sultan hardly travels alone, or only with a military outfit: The imperial retinue gathers numerous wives from the Harem, viziers and their families, courtesans, merchants looking for some fair bargains, and the usual rabble following a campaigning army: harlots, small trades, and any marginal seeking a meagre reward in sticking with the grasshopper army. Even when passing through a deserted and poor countryside, the Caïd and the tribe chiefs have, in addition to provide food and shelter, to stand before the Sultan, pay their respect and pledge allegiance (bey’a) and fill to their best, the Imperial Coffers. ‘Every Sultan, since the empire of Morocco first came under the dominion of the Arabs, had travelled in exactly the same manner…‘ Incidentally, the whole journey to Tafilelt, through the impregnable and dangerous mountain passes,  through the numerous skirmishes with rebellious mountain tribes, the frequent punishments (we shall describe in great details what it entailed) and then, the inevitable diseases and losses due to scarce water and food, bad if not non-existent field hygiene. Late 1893, Moulay Hassan arrived a dying man to Tafilelt. He was to die soon (summer 1894).

The Kasbah Of Telouet, A cardinal fortified strongpoint in the High Atlas (Picture. Virtual Tourist)

There was something very specific to the High Atlas tribes, far more complex than what have been recorded in Europe, and certainly with no similarities with Arab and plain-established tribes. Their leaders -usually elected, and seldom selected by central government to serve the Caidat position- lived in high-pitched castles (the formidable Kasbahs like Telouat) contumacious and very rebellious toward the Makhzen, against whom swords were crossed and muskets were fired only too frequently. Although fiercely Muslim, pageant rituals survived, with animist worship mixing into a very local Islam.

These feuds are not specific to the High Atlas, but they do provide, by the stalwart autonomy these tribes earned, a vivid illustration of the reprisals and punishments pro-Makhzen caids and Harkas exacted against the rebels and dissidents: Any captured prisoner, after horrendous torture, was beheaded, and the local Jews were paid to salt “literally thousands of heads” for public display on the nearest city’s wall (hence the ghetto the Moroccan Jewish community members were living in, The Mellah) The ringleaders, when captured, fared no better fate: they were stripped of their clothes, imprisoned in tiny cages, and at best, kept there until they die of starvation.

Next piece is going to be random. However, if anyone is interested in a particular history period, and to the best of my abilities and references, I shall post on it. Just send an email to tmkadet(at)gmail(dot)com