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.

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