Dec 31, 2004

Rabat Demonstration

Rabat Demonstration
Originally uploaded by macnamband.

Originally uploaded by macnamband.

Rabat demonstration

Originally uploaded by macnamband.

Rabat. Late Afternoon. Driving along Avenue Mohammed V, we passed a demonstration in the park opposite the Chambres des Representants. We registered in the hotel and I went off to photograph what I could. As soon as I got to the park I was surrounded by protestors. They identified themselves as members of the Union Des Cadres Superieurs Chomeurs. In effect, the union of unemployed academics. According to a handout there are 491 members of which the majority teach Islamic studies, Arabic literature or Chemistry. Slightly more men than women; most come from Rabat, Fez, or Casa. The great majority under 35. One person told me these demonstrations have become increasingly frequent, almost once a week. Someone else used the word "massacre" to describe what often happens when police arrive but I didn't see any violence. Nevertheless, as the night came on and the soldiers drew a cordon around the demonstration several people asked that so long as journalists stayed the protestors would be safe. There was a local TV film crew as well as a wire reporter, and perhaps others.

The object of the demonstration was to deliver to a government minister a long heavy scroll that included a list of demands for jobs and a few signatures signed in blood. I saw one of those signings myself. The marchers organized and walked south to the Avenue Moulay Hassan, and with the lights of the Sunna Mosque just coming on, they came up against a wall of soldiers, young recruits, with billy clubs held behind their backs.

A government representative appeared, and, looking very relaxed, smiling in all directions, talked briefly with the protestors. But they wanted to deliver their message to a specific minister and when rebuffed pressed against the soldiers. The representative called to plain clothes men behind him who in turn called in a few meatier soldiers, older and buffed, in dark blue uniforms with red patches saying police on their sleeves. They pressed against the back of the soldiers and moved a small group of protestors back across a blocked street to where the mass was sitting down, partly in the street.

Eventually, the government representative seemed to figure out that if he moved around to the east the protestors would follow and unclog the intersection. People trying to get out of centre ville were howling inside their cars in frustration; they seemed to be mostly annoyed with the protestors.

You realize this is a progressive country, but also conservative. Not in a religious sense but in a secular one. The ruling class don't seem to have much interest in changing the status quo. And you see that often in their children. Certainly, that's been my experience.

I spoke to some 10th graders a few weeks ago. All from wealthy families. A girl wanted to go live with the Taliban in Afganistan. Another wanted thought Morocco was too liberal. Still another said that after superman, Osama Bin Laden is his hero. "Why"? Because he took on the Americans. "Do you think Arab countries are better off now than before 911?" Absolutely.

On the other hand, I spoke to some 12th graders. To a person they love their country but they all want to leave. None wnat to go to college here. A few of them cited corruption as the principal reason to leave.

As the protestors faded into the dark to the east I went back to the hotel. A man stopped me. He was black. Speaking in French he said, please record this; you are our only hope for democracy. I smiled, said I would. Of course. But as he said I thought of Iraq. Do it yourself, I thought. It will be better in the end. May take longer but at less cost. Iraq: A war I supported initially, not for the WMDs but for the Kurds if no one else and the Shiites in Basra, but now I've come to think that democracy is not a product to be exported. It may seem like everyone must want it, but that's not true and it's not enough. And this is a culture built on cults of personality. Better to choose a benign dictator in the short run. If you want to support democracy, support the people that want it, no matter their persuasion.

You think of the authors of pre-emption and perhaps they as architects have made the same mistake as the people who misinterpreted Dr. X's notion of containment. K's idea was that communism was more vulnerable to economic pressure than military pressure. And so it was. Now the notion is that more force at a point, early on, will prevent catastrophe. Perhaps. But here in Morocco the winter of discontent is a measure of joblessness and the perception that you need connections to get a good job and move up.

If you want to change things here you might consider a wide spread sense of a king imprisoned by a system of patronage, by a fortress of powerful people who depend on him for their wealth and make him their conduit.

The difficulty with Morocco is that it appears to be one thing but is quite another. And it's very difficult to find the center, to touch the real heart of the country. You have to lose yourself in the narrow alleys of the medina in Fez to appreciate the metaphor.

Meanwhile, the anger is there. It's in the poor kids in Khouribga, in the rich kids in Casablanca and Rabat. It's in the socialists and the Islamacists. But here's the real geology: It's in the culture of despair as the dean told me; or in the culture of mistrust as Yaseen says; or below all that, in the culture of doubt and fear that pervades everything....

Dec 28, 2004

Dialogue With Stone

"I don't trust, Stone. It's got me down."
"This doesn't?"
"I don't think of it."
"But I don't trust. I've fallen into this culture of despair."
"So there you are."
"You can keep talking. It doesn't bother me."
"I don't have faith. I don't believe my instincts. I've hit a wall."
"Just don't let go, we're almost there."
"What do you care?"
No reply.
"It's middle age, isn't it? I'm at that stage they talk about. what does your life amount to? You can't appreciate anything you've done. Everything seems like failure."
"Everything? Not your children."
"Of course."
"Well, then. What else?"
"I can't let go my ego, that's the problem."
"Keep pushing, you're almost there."
"Everything I can think of I have already thought of."
"Too bad you can't go to a library."
"Even if I could."
"A few more steps.... Anyway, why do you need faith, you have me..."
"I'd like to have something bigger."
"I know that. Don't you think I don't know that?"
"We're there. See you at the bottom.

Dec 27, 2004

Tingis piece

(This piece will appear in January in Tingis, a quarterly Moroccan-American literary magazine.)

The “clandestine” immigrants moving through the Maghreb into southern Europe these days are often referred to as harraga. The word, sometimes meaning “adventurers” is Arabic slang thrown on refugees from all over Africa. In that sense, harraga are the bone and blood barometer of economic weather from Darfur to Abidjan and from Cape Town to towns all along the southern lip of the Mediterranean.

The harraga moving through Morocco from the sub-Sahara can be divided into two groups--poorer and poorest. Those with some cash may share a grand taxi up the N1 to hidden refuges in the hills around Tangier, where they wait to make a connection and catch a patera, one of the zodiacs which, depending upon moon and tides, ferry 40 people or more up to Spain. Lately, people have been stopping far to the south in Morocco, around Tarfaya, and catching the pateras that scurry over to the Canary Islands. It’s a highly dangerous trip.

Other “clandestines” riding up the Moroccan coast attach themselves to vehicles however they can find. There are stories of young men riding on top of trains or in the undercarriages of busses, or lying on cardboard strips atop truck engines. The less daring, and with fewer resources, turn east at Bou-lzakarn and follow the N12, riding and walking, getting a hitch from one marché to another, skirting the desert up to the Ziz River, then north through Erfoud and Missour. Or else they cross over into Algeria, going up to Bechar, and then due north to Oujda. Whichever way they come along this inland route, the goal is to reach the camps in the hills around Melilla, where the “clandestines” make periodic attempts to scramble up crude ladders and hop over the high fences around the town.

From time to time these camps are raided. Government police make a show: burn shacks and belongings, round up who they can, truck them to the Algerian border and dump them off. Most return to Morocco, forever unwilling to give up their journey and oblivious to the increasing political pressure Southern Europe is putting on the Maghreb to keep a lid on Africa’s cauldron of unemployed.

Nowhere is the political pressure greater, or more laden with financial rewards, than along the Tunisian and Libyan coastline, where every month thousands of migrants try to jump to Southern Europe. The destination is often Italy’s fingertip, Lampedusa, a nearly treeless, rocky island 200 kilometers south of Sicily and 150 kilometers north of Tunisia . Every few days, boats limp into the harbor at Lampedusa, and repatriation begins. But just as often the boats don’t make it. Last October 5th, for example, 70 Moroccans and five Tunisians were just a few hours off the Tunisian coast, off the town of Chott Meriem, 170 km south-east of Tunis, when their boat broke up. Eleven migrants survived. Twenty-eight bodies were recovered.

According to NGO officials, the bodies, which were not identified, were buried in Tunisia. Approximately 150 Moroccans waiting to follow the first boat were arrested and deported to Morocco where they were jailed. The incident was particularly tragic because the dead included at least 50 young men from a small village 140 kilometers east of Casablanca, on the Plateau des Phosphates, called El Foqra.


To reach El Foqra, you go through Khouribga, a city of 500,000, and best known for a 60-million-year-old phosphate deposit, a geological palace known as Oulad Abdoun. It’s this deposit, run by the government, the Office Chérifien des Phosphates (OCP), which makes Morocco one of the three leading sources of exportable phosphate ore in the world. You drive south through the town, past the Hotel Farah, where mining executives and foreign contractors sip wine by the pool, through downtown and under the railroad tracks carrying 60-car phosphate trains that leave for the coast every half hour, around the clock, year after year; past the Quartier Riad, where young men, eyes blazing, arms flying, insist the local unemployment rate is 80 percent (Government and NGO sources say it’s closer to 30 percent).
“What can we do?” the men say, pointing out they have this degree or that. “There are no options here.”
“What about moving to another city?” you ask.
“It’s like this everywhere,” they say. “The whole country, and the more educated you are, the harder it is to find work, especially if you don’t have connections. Without that, you’re nothing.”

You keep going, through the elegant old neighborhoods built for French bureaucrats during the “French period,” which reached it peak in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, past the ragged outskirts of town, marked by unfinished buildings and in the distance, phosphate pyramids known as “overburdens”; past the sound of blasting, past even the smell of phosphate, which permeates the city on breezy afternoons; past the vast city dump that lines the road for miles, the land dotted with grocery-sized blue, white and black plastic bags, like so many balloons. Keep going past all that and the land becomes neat and clean, and quiet again. The desert resumes and the earth rolls and dips languorously.

After a few more minutes you come to a sign that reads El Foqra, which means the Noble or “the Great”. It’s the name of a local tribe and also the name of a village, although none is in sight. But over the rise, thrown out on the landscape, there’s a house on a ridge to the left and then another and a quarter mile further on, another house on the right. Occasionally, a rectangular-shaped water tower stands jagged and awkward. A tree here, there. Small children fly over the rocks. Keep going and you’ll pass a three-walled building on the side of the road, fruit and vegetables all neatly laid out. But before you get there you come to the center of town--a well and a few buildings close together.

El Foqra has perhaps 5,000 people. The place is neither rich nor poor, relatively speaking, but jobs are rare and nearly every young person who hasn’t left seems to want to leave. One would think that the phosphate mines would provide adequate jobs, but many of the approximately 20,000 people who do the strip mining come from other parts of the country. When the French ran the mines, they mistrusted unions and brought in workers who had no local ties and were more dependent upon the company. That policy stopped when the Moroccan government took over; but in recent years, most of the jobs go to people from other regions because unemployment has become such a problem countrywide.

Late last summer, hope arrived in El Foqra. Someone, although it’s not quite clear who, spread word that the time was right to get to Italy. The plan was to fly to Tunis and catch a boat to Lampedusa. Between September 10 and 25, 100 young men, mostly in their 20s (they have to be old enough to get a passport), left the village in groups and took flights to Tunis. In several families, three, four, even five brothers were lured away.

The government says the recruiters that came to El Foqra are al-muharribun—the mafia or “international operators.” Local people refer to them as harraga lords, but these are not conventional gang lords. They are simply individuals with extensive connections, some of which include smugglers of one thing or another. And so a friend of a friend may find you on the street in Khouribga one day and discreetly inquire whether you might be interested in going to Europe. You are interested, of course, because the only local job prospects are in the black market, which produces knick-knacks and toys for street venders and small stores in the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. These micro economies provide urban subsistence, but not enough to attract a wife and start a family.

If you are undecided about whether to go, the harraga lord could add incentive: “Well, then perhaps your brothers might also be interested and, if they come, you’ll get a commission.” Word spreads. Men pay between 1,000 and 1,500 Euros for the trip. They get the money with difficulty, but perhaps with less and less difficulty as leaving has become more socially accepted. Fathers sell what they have on the promise that their sons will send back the family’s investment and more.


On the second floor of a local trade school and immigrant center, six days after the boat full of local harraga sank, Hicham Racttidi counts still again an envelope full of passport-sized photos. The young men in the photos all have calm, enigmatic expressions, neither smiling nor frowning. Parents and relatives have been bringing the photos to Racttidi ever since news spread of the sinking. The small room is crowded with older men--fathers and uncles. This is not a mother’s work..

Mr. Racttidi is the vice president of Amis & Familles des Victimes de L’Immigration Clandestine. He is an old-looking 33, tall and slender. He answers questions directly. He does not address the issue of hope. He says what he knows: Eleven people have survived, 30 bodies had been recovered and 34 are missing. The identification process has been slow. Government officials in both Tunisia and Morocco have no news.

The looming horror is that most of the dead and missing are all from El Foqra. Part of the evidence that links the men from El Foqra together is that fifty-one of the telephone calls made to relatives in the hours before the boat left all came from Soussa. One other call came from Nobel. These are seaside towns near where the boat left. That the young men have not called back is very unusual because the “Moroccan way” for refugees is that when you get to Europe, the first thing you do is get something to eat. The second is to call home.

Meanwhile, the men are eager to talk about their sons and nephews. One uncle recounts what a good student the boy is--everything is still in the present tense--how he loves mathematics above everything, and doesn’t smoke, doesn’t lie and has no girl friends. He’s very religious and at 24 everything he does is for his family. But then, says the uncle, not referring to his nephew, boys these days; they see the cars and the rich lifestyle of the people that return. They become “disoriented.” He himself has worked in the phosphate mines for 27 years. His vest, his work shirt, his undershirt, everything is browned with phosphate. And probably his lungs, adds Racttidi later.

“He’s very obedient,” says a father about his son. The man has blue eyes and a white baseball cap. The ends of his lips are turned down in a sour expression. “The boy never fights. He’s a pacifist. With two little girls. That’s why he went away to get the money for his family. I told him it was dangerous but he doesn’t see any other way.” And then the father tells the story of how his son, 29, last called at around 4 p.m. on Saturday, and how he talked to his wife and finally his children and when he talked to 4-year-old he cried. Mr. Racttidi explains to relatives that his organization is arranging a trip to Tunis on Sunday to match the photos with the bodies, and then get the bodies back as soon as possible.

But that will never happen. Mr. Racttidi will not go to Tunis; the bodies will not be identified or returned to Morocco. The whole affair will be treated as a delicate government matter and the NGOs that deal with migrants will not be allowed to participate.


While the press sometimes translates harraga to mean “adventurers,” the more precise and illuminating meaning comes from the infinitive form of the verb, harg, which means, “to burn.” In the context of immigration strictly from Morocco, harg has two connotations. Both have become pejorative. One connotation is to “burn bridges.” Harraga arrive in Europe as terrestrial aliens without identity. When they’re caught, or rescued, or their bodies recovered, they have no papers, not even clothing labels, nothing to clarify point of departure or origin. Before Europe shut its doors on legal immigration in the early 1990s, that ambiguity might have lead to political asylum. Now, no matter how heart-rending the tale of economic deprivation or government-sponsored torture, without absolute proof, a political “excuse” has little currency.

The other connotation of harg is “ to escape.” A companion word might also be lahrig, which means, “to avoid.” However, an appropriate English translation of harg might be “to skip” ahead or over. As in to skip out of your community and “make it” somewhere else, according to those who lament the trend. As in to skip the Moroccan credo that promises success if you’ll just work hard and be patient. (shortened sentence because repeated later)

As an aside, a college student from Casablanca told me that the harraga are hated wherever they go. “If you are Moroccan harraga in Southern Europe, they hate you; they treat you like dirt. But they need you because they can’t find their own people to work. People in Spain will tell you that the kids there are totally spoiled. But the way the Spanish look at Moroccans is much the way we look at people from the Sub Sahara coming here for work. Everyone is moving north to find their niche and looking for a higher rung on the ladder to look at others below them.”

In Khouribga, the desire to leave has become epidemic in recent years. Some people describe it as an obsession. The fever reaches its peak in summer when the whole town, especially “Little Italy,” is overrun with returning sons--all the new “winners,” wearing fine suits and driving new cars. Local girls are swept away and see these men as their own ticket out. Last summer there were something like 35 weddings a day in Khouribga.

“It happens like this,” Mr. Racttidi told me as we sat in his office that day after the relatives had left. “A 10-year-old boy sees his older brother having gone to school, but now without a job because the family has no connections. Without connections you have no chance in this society. But then he sees his cousin returning in the summer from Italy. He’s driving a brand new car; he spends money like it’s nothing and the boy thinks, ‘I want to be like my cousin.’ ”

Racttidi shakes his head at the idea. “People are not starving here. But society has become caught up in this cycle that you see in Europe and America. Fifty years ago a boy from a poor family would become a shepherd. There was no choice. ‘It is written,’ he would say to himself. Then it became, ‘I want.’ And now it’s become, ‘I need.’

“(shortened this graph which was repetitive) After three decades in which the message and the promise was to work and to study, the new message, the new Moroccan way of life, is just ‘find your way to Italy or Spain.’ ”

“Of course, this is not an easy process,” acknowledges Mr. Racttidi. “The families have very mixed feelings and often the father or the uncle will say, ‘This is too dangerous.’ But in the end everyone gives into this psychology.”
“What does the Koran say about immigration?” I asked.
“The Koran gives you two ways to look at this (if you are thinking about becoming an clandestine immigrant). It says if you are being persecuted in some way, psychically or mentally, you can leave your family or your village. But it also says you must not put your life at risk. Of course, now these young people aren’t being guided by the Koran. It’s what they see on television. That’s all they can think about. And now this city has become like a huge waiting room.” (graph tightened)


A few days after the tragedy in Tunis, in a café in Khouribga, I met Dr. Mustapha Scadi, a socialist member of Parliament from Khouribga. Dr. Scadi is a cardiologist and spent four years in Europe, himself. He says he well understands the motives of the immigrants, but doesn’t support their “obsession.”
“I came back because I prefer it here. After all, it’s your country; you have your family. But these young people don’t value these things anymore. Their dreams have betrayed them.” (graph tightened)

But then how do you keep young people from leaving, particularly when poverty is not the whole issue, but more this desire to taste materialism first hand? And how do you instill a sense of national loyalty, even obligation?

A prominent Moroccan educator told me privately that this is perhaps the greatest challenge the country faces: to teach the next generation, and from an early age, the value of giving back to the community. This generation, he said, is lost. He went on to say that universities need to impart a spirit of entrepreneurship and focus on empowering students. He added that Morocco’s educated are, in their own way, harraga. He pointed out that among those who have left the country is a project manager for NASA’s Mars program.

Recently, I met with some students at a local high school. Many are from the country’s elite. They were preparing to take SAT tests in Rabat and expect to go to college in the United States next year. I asked why they wanted to go to college. They smiled at such an absurd question.
“I want to help the family business and just live a nice life,” one boy replied.
But what about those that don’t have a nice life?
“The problem is too big; there’s nothing you can do?”
“Well then what about starting a company of your own? Or what about. . .”
The student cut me off.
“You can’t do that here. There’s too much corruption. You need connections to do anything. Why struggle against the system?”

No question that the packaging of American culture, and the Big Mac power of materialism itself, has drained the intellectual resources of developing countries. And for sure that depletes community strength and spirit. But if America’s interest in the world often seems ambiguous, grounded more in profit than progress, it still offers one great export--relentless optimism. It’s that old aw-shucks conviction that if you need to go to say, the moon, for whatever reason, good or bad, you can do it: you can imagine a way, work out the obstacles, sell it to somebody out there, and then get on a schedule, work like a dog, make some luck, pray to baseball, and one day you’ll be there.

Despite the mandate given George Bush for his second term, you could argue that America is becoming more mindful of its size in the world. It’s slowly becoming more aware of itself. But the question is not whether America can accept the truth that democracy is not a product, not the new “new thing” that everybody has to have right now, but whether under the sheer weight of itself, it can still empower other nations, whether it can retain its imagination and drive, its own harraga spirit.

Dec 24, 2004

Dec 23, 2004

The Disquieted Americans

Originally uploaded by macnamband.

Kasbah du Toubkal.

Pastor Brown had mentioned the Kasbah some months ago. Imlil Valley is famous for many reasons, for all kinds of desire. Around Ramadan Morrocans come to a nearby holy site to restore their virility. Celebacy is cured. The kasbah is a top choice for romantic get aways according to Bride Magazine. It was used as a Tibetan Monastery in the film Kundoon.

The night closed in, the sky cleared, and we sat down to dinner. There were about 20 in the room. We sat across from an American couple. I'd seen him just before sundown. A large, middle aged man, with glasses. Walking up the cement path that runs around the ramparts. He wore a brown jalabah with the hood off. You could tell he was probably an American, he had that particular foreigness, and that childlike desire to adopt native dress. Then his wife appeared; slender, pale, dark hair, cut short, neat, controlled, easy to manage, efficient. She followed him up the stairs. He came slowly as though out of breath. They stood on one of the stone terraces looking up at the mountains, those kings with their manteaux hermines. A servent offered to photograph the couple. The man saw I was watching and smiled sheepishly, shook his head as though to say, you have no choice at moments like this. I smiled back.

We are an endearing people, I thought. Forever self-conscious.

At dinner, however, he was the other American. In command; on throne, on message, on top, in demand. He spoke above the others in the room. This was their second Christmas at the kasbah, he explained. We just love it here. God, she said nodding.

But why object to someone whose only crime is to be relentlessly center stage and terminably amicable. What is there not to like?

His proportion, I suppose, his presumption and preeminence. I didn't care about his take on Morocco. His silence would have drawn me. Anyway, I was looking forward to talking to my family, particularly to Marina. But he made his personality, his curiosity our common domaine. He started with Barbara who responded easily, one American to another. The exchange took up the room.

Rudely, I turned my back, to make it clear that his desire to find entertaining strangers was not mine. I had exchanged glances when we came to dinner. I felt no further obligation.

So what do you do here? He wanted to know. Every question he asked, his wife followed up, the cleaning woman, the detail person to flesh out the answer and insure give and take.

But you understand these were very nice people. Pleasant, curious, bred on just this kind of conversation.

Barbara was straight up and asked where they were from. Washington D.C. said his wife. And then Marina pinned them down to Dupont Circle. Well, where are you from? he said. San Francisco. Where I grew up, he said. Where in San Francisco? In the Mission District. Oh, I love that part of town. I'm from Presidio Heights, grew up, born and bred, went to Lowell High School.

And then I think, he said, Berkeley. Go Bears.

So now there was the matter of what do you do?

"We're teachers," said Barbara.

How interesting, they agreed.

And you?

I was with the previous administration.

Barbara assumed he meant the last democratic administration and said so in a clever way that always puts her in the game. If you want repartee, if you want clever conversation, she's your girl. Yes, in the previous administration, he went on, an undersecretary of good works. He listed the organizations, the connections, the contexts. Nothing like meeting good liberals outside America.

It is perhaps an exclusively American idea, what do you do? Not who are you? But what have you done with yourself. That's a sore subject for me just at the moment, and so perhaps one reason his inquiry seemed more like a chess game than a conversation. But truth be told, good liberals, progressives, don't do well together. I saw that often enough with TH. Cock size is nothing against the measure of good works, the sanctimony of making the world a better place, in a big way.

What do you do? It's also something I'm always searching for in other people, myself, but I hadn't heard the implication quite so clearly before. It was an interesting lesson I will never forget.

Then, eating his way through the field, he got to Marina.

I'm a student, she said.

Yes. Where?

New Haven, Marina replied, ever graciously. Although she knows these lines very well herself.

I thought, how many times have I heard that kind of exchange in my life. School as trump card. Place as multiplier. Occupation as mate. In this case, her knightess takes bishop. After all, how many colleges are there in New Haven?

This was the one square he couldn't capture directly so then he asked, 'oh do you know so and so?'

Marina shook her head.

And he mentioned other people as though in that quaint old way of Fitzgerald, isn't the world just the tiny little group of people and places we know and if you're anywhere in that world you must certainly know so and so.

It is a small world. I agree, stone. It's all true, but don't push it.


Outside, from a balcony, the moon in full bloom. My weaknesses all exposed. In the background, Dash in the dock talking about Kezar stadium, the Seahawks and Joe Montana.

Wow, could he throw a ball, couldn't he? said the American. How do you know about Joe Montana, you're too young, aren't you?

Dash can play. Not really, he said.

Dec 19, 2004

Meeting Mr. Kombo

Marina and I arrived at the French protestant church in Casablanca about 9:30. A mass was starting. Many clandestines and of course, David Brown, pastor and protector, was there. There were two clandestines as well. He introduced us to two Congolese (Brazzaville) journalists and advocates, Mr. Kombo and his associate, Mr. Bouithy. David's notion was that as journalists we might help each other.

We sat down. Mr. Kombo layed out the problem, which is that as Southern Europe is the object of desire for many Moroccans, Morocco is the object of desire for many Congolese. Particularly students.

According to Mr. Kombo there are more than 500 students and refugees in Casablanca and 35 more in Marrakech. And others in Tanger and Fez. Some number of these are clandestines, which is to say they came to the country illegally, to escape abuses real or imagined and end up in the hills around Tanger or Mellila. Or else they came legally, these are students, but have been unable to secure their cartes de sejours. Then there are the students at the end of their education who can't pay their tuition and so can't take their exams or receive their diplomas. And fnally, the students who come to do graduate work and again because they don't have enough money, fall into local ruin.

Some of these students get Congolese government money to study here, but bureaucratic systems at both ends have made the situation increasingly desperate. They can't open bank accounts or receive checks. They are endlessly threatened with expulsion, even if in school, and can't get regular jobs. They end up in tiny apartments, living as best they can on the black market economy that supports so many Moroccans.

Mr. Kombo patiently explained it all, Mr. Bouithy filled in the blanks. But what do you want? I asked.

How can we get American help? How can we get the attention of the American public?

You can't, I thought. You can't, you're dead. You'll have to find another way.

I suggested they skip trying to get the attention of the American public and approach the private sector. George Soros... Who knows?

But the most interesting part of the conversation came when they suggested their real motive, or dream is perhaps the better word: to establish a university in the Congo. What a dream they have. A large technical university where students could learn the IT trade. They have it clearly in mind.

How could you do it, we asked.

They outlined it how it would work and explained that you could not build it in Brazzaville because of the people who support such a project live in the north. They suggested it could be built near Pointe Noire. Near where the petrol companies are. They would certainly support it, wouldn't they?

And as we talked it seemed like such a small thing to do. Why Bill Gates could probably finance it at the drop of a hat, say a $2 million hat to start. Why not? It could serve people from all over the region, from Angola and Gaban and even the RDC. It could be an engine like Stanford and around it could grow a Silicon Valley. Why not? Everyone wants it, Mr. Kombo said, except perhaps certain ethnic and politcal groups, and actually it might be a trick to get the land and of course you would need to build an infrastructure as well....

He stopped. These are not big problems. Pas de problem.

After nearly two hours Marina and I disappeared into the streets of Casa. And later the more we talked about building the university, the more it occurred to us that it was anything but simple, that in the end, this is why no one wants to touch Africa, even though everyone agrees that the real solution is investment. If you want to keep the clandestines out of Europe, the French should be building factories in the Congo. And sure, someone, should build a university so students wouldn't have to leave... And it could all be done, if only there were the will and if only people would let it happen, would open the way.

But that doesn't happen easily in Africa, whether in Casa or in Brazzaville and so you are stuck with your stone.

Nov 30, 2004

To Burn

(To Burn)
A two-act play.
Khaldun of the Atlas, a griot
Hassan Al Khittabi
Hicham, his son
Miriam, Hicham’s step mother
Claudia, Hicham’s fiancée
Laila, Hicham’s Moroccan girl friend
Lehan, Hicham’s sister
Yassine, Harragah lord
Loubna, Laila’s best friend
Zineb and Samye, two cousins
In the house of Hassan Al Khittabi and in the streets outside.

Act 1, SCENE 1

Griot: (He appears wearing a water seller’s hat, a snake around his neck, a drum on his back, a banjo on his hip, and various goods, trinkets and a leather water bag. He stops, all the while beating a tambourine on his thigh.

Well? Did you hear what I said? Yes? No? (In disgust) You have no idea. As soon as I tell you something, you forget…. But then, if you didn’t forget, how could you stand it? And if you didn’t forget, where would I be? Who would I tell stories to?

(Pause. Looking at someone in the audience. Pointing.)

Hey, I know you. Last year. Lap dancing in Marrakech?
You’re probably thirsty from all the debauchery…. There’s water in here somewhere. (Takes a drink out of his leather pouch) I’ll drink for the both of us. After all, I’m doing all the work.

(Drinks. Looks at someone else.)

You remember me. Khaldun of the Atlas, first cousin of the mad Sultan twice removed, (standing one leg making the face of a madman) I am myself at 11:59 p.m. At my darkest hour, but my fortunes are always good. I never lie to you. You can trust me. Everything is fine; otherwise, you’re dead. Right? Good fortune is always true. Sit a bit, I’ll tell you what matters.


You have time to kill, right? Sure, you have your whole life…. And what a life it will be… (Considering someone in the audience for a moment) You’ll win the visa lottery. For sure. Or what do you want? You can have anything….

(Pointing at someone in the audience)

I know what you want… A villa in Casa, and you know where I mean, close to the Mosque of Saud, near Aindiab. It’s yours. Tennis court, guards, fabulous parties. Next year, I promise. It will happen; I never lie. Tell all your friends I said so.


Don’t I know your dreams? But forget all that. All stories have the same end.

(Drifting off for another moment)…

Remember what Rumi said… ‘Out there, beyond right or wrong, there is a field… I will meet you there.’

(He stops. Plays on his drum.)

I know the way there; follow me.

(Bangs on his tambourine. Then, silence. He starts to gather his stuff to leave.)

But wait; let’s not go yet. It’s hot in here. I’ll tell you another story.

(Pause. Arranges himself.) You’ve heard of rags to riches; what about rags to rags? A story without riches, but a lot of sex. Just as good, no?
Here is where the story takes place, on a dirty little back street in a misbegotten town sur Le Plateau des Phosphates. Not a neighborhood you would ever know.

(Pause, the loud sound of trains)

Can you hear that? Phosphate trains. The country’s heart beating. (Slaps his chest fast to make the sound of a heart beating. Pause)
Can you smell it? A little sour, and sooner or later you’ll die of it, but people here don’t care, it pays enough to die in poverty and disease. Why not? Someone has to do it.

(Curtain slowly opens, but not all the way, the music of Nass El Ghiwane.)

The house of Al Khittabi, built in 1910. Now, a stop over for ghosts without work. (He plays something on his drum.)

Look at his picture. Good looking, wasn’t he? A real movie star. But you wonder, with all the pain he suffered, 30 years breathing phosphates. And then to prison. Why? Because he was a socialist. What could have possessed the man, you say? What bug of humanity must have bit him? Well, when he got out of prison he didn’t look like a movie star, I can tell you that. “We’ll teach you the meaning of history,” the rascals said. “You want to be Sisyphus? Ok then, here’s your stone.” And they made him ‘sit on the bottle.’ You know what that is, right? And that wasn’t’ the worst of it. And when he got out his wife bought him dark glasses so you couldn’t see his face. (Pause) But that’s another story….

(Plays a tune). Here is what I wanted to tell you: He had a son, who became a harraq…. You know, an adventurer. The ones who would rather work 3 shirts in an Italian condom factory than stay here and talk on a street corner all days. Harraq. To Burn. Right? To b urn I call it unfulfilled desire. They call it freedom.

(The griot is interrupted; there’s a commotion. curtains open wider: In the alcove light you notice a man about to light a cigarette. He wears a gray suit and tie, and large dark impenetrable glasses. He looks sinister. Two women appear, arguing but no sound. A tableau. The griot unwinds the snake around his neck: Audio up)

Nov 28, 2004

Je suis desole mais...

Barbara needed to see the doctor; he wrote out a prespcription. We went to the pharmacie. They didn't have the exact medicine, but close. It was expensive. I pulled out a credit card.
"Je suis desole," the pharmacist began, 'mais nous n'acceptons pas les cartes."
Why is that?
The pharmacist shook her head and smiled.
But this card is from the bank that's just around the corner. Banque Populaire...
The pharmacist would not stop smiling.
Well then a check...
She shook her head and threw up her hands like a magician, as though to say, you see I made it disappear.
I don't understand, I said.
She explained that the bank won't take a bad check.
Of course, I thought, but when you take the check you don't know if it's good or bad.
I said, How many bad checks have you had?
She shrugged.
I pressed. Many?
A few, she said.
In the last year, she said. And she smiled, that endlessly shielding smile.
But this is such a small town, all the bad check writers must be well known.
Je suis desole, she said.
We are not like that, I insisted, stupidly. I went on about how ridiculous this was. And the distance between the bank and any local store is less than 100 yards. Don't you see, I said with a Billy Budd stutter. Don't you understand?
Then suddenly, for no apparent reason, like the rabbit out of the hat, she changed.
Of course, she said, well just come in next week. It doesn't matter. Pay next week. Pas de problem. It doesn't matter. Pas de problem.
And with that we left.

Nov 25, 2004

Insurgents behead Hassan; American shoots to death wounded insurgent

On the same day, Margaret Hassan was found decapitated and a U.S. Marine shot to death a wounded insurgent in Falluja.

The GI claimed it was a mercy killing. The insurgents claim self defense again the juggernaut. That was certainly the argument in my literature class. “I’m not justifying it,” said Yassine, whose father is this country’s foremost psychiatrist. “But all the same she is a symbol of occupation, of the colonial period. And if she was partly Iraqi, it doesn’t matter. She was working for them.”

Sometimes I call the students ignorant, to their face. I have no compunction. Eventually, they’ll get rid of me for that, but in the mealtime when the students tell me these things — or that women under the Taliban have it much better — I tell them, “you’re ignorant. You’re like what we call people in America, in the south, when they talk that way about niggers.”

“I’m not saying I agree with it,” Yassine replied. And he might have added that I’ve begged them to disagree. I’ve tried to encourage anarchy as much as I can. Ah because they all want to go into business, to make money, why not what else is there?

“You are ignorant,” I repeated.

Nov 22, 2004

dash on train 2

dash on train 2
Originally uploaded by macnamband.
On the train to Tanger

Nov 13, 2004

Pas de Problem

His name is not important and if I mentionned it, perhaps his job would be in jeapordy. So now you see I have the illness myself: the bacterial arc from doubt to despair.
Here's how it began. I wanted to pay for something at the school store. They wouldn't take cash, only the cash wallet, a credit card for students and faculty. They knew me; they'd seen me around. We can't take any cash, they said. All I want are some laundary tokens, I said. They shook their head. Surely, you can take a few dihramms. They looked at the next person in line...
Later, I asked my friend why that was, "well," he said. "they don't trust the people that work in those kinds of jobs."
Who doesn't?
He waved his hand, the people at the top. By which he meant the administrators, the people who handle the budgets.
Why don't they trust them?
Because you see this is a culture of mistrust. Nobody trusts anybody. Underneath the smile, there is doubt. You only trust your family, your, how do you say, immediate family. Not your cousins necessarily....
And so we began a long conversation. Suffice to say my friend is learned, and a student of Moroccan mores and history.
It's the nature of this socieity, he went on. It's who we are or who we've become.
He leaned closer: Don't you think it occurs to people that when they look at Spain they see prosperity and they look here and they see the distance we have to go to get to that prosperity. Spain, which we ruled through the 12th Century. How could that be? How could they be doing so well and we once ruled them and we are not doing well? How can that be? They are a few miles away. Look at the geology, very similar. Look at the weather. It's the same in the south. The people? Are they so different?
He shook his head. Why?
We are Europe's Latin America and the sub Sahara is our Latin America. And don't you see how they have derogatory names for us in Europe and we have the same names for the people coming up from Niger and Congo.
I pressed him on this culture of mistrust.
All I can tell you is it's how we are. You and I have just met. We've been talking for what, an hour. I would trust you more than I trust someone here. How can that be?
I wondered if this was true and later I wondered if I trusted him as much as he trusted me.
You see everyone here wants to make it, to make money. Everyone needs a job and they will do anything to get it. So everyone is clawing their way up, holding on to anything they can. The imam in the mosque here. He is not a true imam. He is a servant of the powers that be. He needs his job just like everyone else, but he is not a free spiritual leader. You would not go to him for real advice. Because you don't know if he would keep it a secret. Or would he use the information against you? You don't know. You doubt so you cannot trust.
Well so where does it end? I asked. How could change such a system?
Couldn't, he said. It will take a long time. Look at the king. He's probably a good person. I think he is a good person. He's trying his best but look at who surrounds him. They need him for their petty empires, their contracts and so they keep him safe. This whole thing starts at the top....
And so everyone wants to leave, I said. Top and bottom. Morocco is a wating room, as Hicham once put it. Everyone wants out.
Exactly, said my friend. There is no future except if you know someone. If you have connections.
He paused. I have to go now. I'll tell you more later.

Nov 3, 2004

Crash sight

A bus coming through the Rainbow tunnel, as it always does, I remember ths route, the buss accelerating, and now this time, crashing through the barrier and hurtling over a huge cliff, a dream cliff, landing on its face as it were. Head on. No fire. But the driver survives. A tall, thin man in a red baseball cap, who picks up the remains, which are suddenly Lilliputian in size, stuffs them in a sack and throws the sack into a garbage bin and begins walking up a narrow path, out of the valley, to where I am, in a truck perched on a high place. I drove to this place but now I’m stuck. And the man, the culprit, is coming up the path. I’ve seen him do this act. This was on purpose. He doesn’t know there has been a witness. I’m trying to figure out how to deal with this. To confront him, to hide. He passes by….


And right on the heels of that, another dream involving cars. How many times have I been through this dream, I’m thinking in the dream. I’m with a group of cons. (Which makes perfect sense). We’re on the lam. There’s another group of cons. Killers. I’m separated from the group. I have to get away. I finally get in a car as the man is pursuing me. It’s a GTO 442. It rises up, like cars do in bad neighborhoods. For a moment my adversary stops. I gun the engine, back out and speed away. He’s aiming at me with a high-powered rifle. Now he’s a cop. I can see myself as though his scope, as though I am now him. Instead of going the way I did, the way I did before in this dream, I swerve out on to the main road, which is concrete, and speed away. Still, I am in his sights, but his shot is blocked from view for an instant, and I think I get away. I say, “I think” because in these dreams I play out the different scenarios while dreaming…

And then one more, later, closer to morning. Los Angeles. Santa Monica Blvd. Perhaps, near Century City. Walking down the street. Thinking of Russian movies. How they’ve changed. The end of the dictatorship. New films. I get to a gas station. Go round the corner, suddenly in a movie and two people, two women, a man and a woman, I don’t know. Below a very tall building. The couple is sunning. Now, the camera is rolling. There’s some kind of plot, maybe it’s an ad for something. I’m with the camera, suddenly at the top of the building looking down. Then down looking up. Something is going to fall on the couple. I presume that. Not necessarily something destructive, but something. Some dramatic thing will happen. Then all of a sudden, a huge gate attached to the side of the building swings. A two story high gate, with a Jag car logo in the gate. The gate swings, but doesn’t come as far as where the couple is. I notice two cops in the intersection. One throws a football to a homeless man, who catches the ball, surprisingly. The cop congratulates him. Two cops in the intersection. Motorcycle cops.

The scene shifts to a few blocks away. To a house where Barbara and I are living. There’s a garden in the back. With interesting pattern of angular shaped pools. I’m laying out what I can do with this garden. There’s a bed of plants, including a rose bush, which for a moment I forget and then with scissors in my hand, I cut. I cut this rose bush and now I’m thinking how stupid was that, I have to get a new one. I cut it right down to the ground; it will take years to grow back. I have to get another. I plan that. Where I’ll go. But then it occurs to me, this is November, not spring. What roses will grow now? None; it’s autumn. But then I ‘m going to get my car at the gas station. I forgot all about it. I see a pink rose in a window and I think, well maybe there are fall roses after all. But more important, where’s my car. I’ve left it here, not thinking, I had thought it would still be here, but now it’s not. I don’t think. I can’t see it. It was a gray color, not the '65 Mustang over there. I had one like that, but it was Navy blue and then I painted it white. Or a firebird, another rememberance, or maybe the Olds from the other dream. I can’t quite find the car; I can’t quite remember it. Fade to black… there was more, but now lost….

Oct 28, 2004

Dialogue With Stone

Can we stop here? I said to stone.
You're the one who has to push, the thing replied.
I know, but we're not on a schedule. The contract just says 'Eternity'.
I took a look around: to the west, bald hills once hairy with forests. To the east, flat headed mesas, and beyond that the Izz River valley.
Do you trust me? I said.
My destiny is to be pushed.
But what if I stopped, what if I just let destiny go?
I would be at rest.
Good for you then, if I stopped.
It's your judgment.
Push, that's all there is.
Thank you I read my Camus.
Get moving.
I like to think about it. You know, contemplate.
That's not your job.
Still, I like to do it.
Not your nature.
Our natures are linked then. I never thought of it that way.
Let others do that. You're not required.
I don't believe in requirements.
That's the problem.
It is the problem.
Anyway, you can do that next time.
Next eternity, you mean.
There's always more eternity.
But if I move you without thinking...
Moving is enough.
For you.
Why do you want to be something you're not?
I don't know what I am.
Point made.


Oct 21, 2004

Sep 8, 2004

Dialogue With Stone

“What now, stone?”
Stone was silent.
“Let’s wait a minute before we do this again,” I said, because of course impossibility, no matter how grand, becomes not only tiring but also boring. And stressful. People often don’t realize that.
“Your choice,” stone replied.
“Not really, is it?”
Stone was silent. You bastard, I thought.
“You realize I didn’t choose this.” I said.
“Neither of us,” said stone.
“But I’ve always wanted to ask you, do you mind rolling down over and over?”
No reply.
“I mean, you lose a little each time, don’t you? I’d like to believe that anyway.”
Still implacable.
“You don’t get any lighter.”
And of course not even a smile.
“Can you imagine doing anything else? Have you ever thought of a life where you did absolutely nothing; you just lay there..."
“We all have our destinies.”
Oh god, not one of those I thought and I looked up the hill for what, the millionth time?