Monthly Archives: October 2016



Rabat – Following our most recent and final excursion, this time to a town in Southeastern Morocco called Beni Mlal, we are preparing for finals. This entails both a written and oral examination in Arabic, and the culmination of our preparation for the research assignment.

SIT is largely defined by the final third of the program in which we spend a month living alone or with other students and conducting independent research. Our research needs to be related to migration, but in a country like Morocco, migration touches everything.

My research will focus on Morocco’s version of the Arab Spring, the February 20th Movement (M20F). M20F was sparked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, but the Movement functioned very differently from other North African equivalents.

Research on this subject is difficult because of the political nature of the movement. Though the Moroccan monarchy responded receptively and even instituted constitutional reform, there has been a lot of censorship. Nearly 2,000 activists have been detained for varying lengths of time since 2011, and activists are often hesitant to acknowledge their participation in the movement.

The first step in my research involved a conversation on one of the busiest streets in the city, Mohamed V at 4:00 last Wednesday. I agreed to meet a Moroccan activist named Zakarie near the edge of Rabat’s Old City. We planned to go from there to his office, where we would talk more.

Come 4:00, I could not find Zakarie. I searched a sea of faces looking for some form of recognition, finding none. The only information that I had about him was that he was an activist and a man, which didn’t give me very much to go on.

After a confusing 10 minutes that saw me approach a number of Moroccan men who looked like they could be named Zakarie, a tall man with a thick beard called me over, chuckling. He told me that he had been watching me since I arrived, and it seemed that I had passed whatever test he had assigned me.

We didn’t go to his office, instead we walked down the street in search of another man who evidently spoke more English. After another 10 minutes of awkward searching, I met M. M will remain nameless, as he was and still is involved with M20F.

I asked M to tell me about his experience protesting in 2011. Our conversation moved slowly and in bursts. M would periodically walk away from me and furtively scan the street, looking for police officers I assume. He wouldn’t tell me very much, but assured me that he had been integral to the movement in Rabat.

I explained my research to M and he asked me to write up a questionnaire and bring it back to him. He told me that he would take my questionnaire (which I would have to write in French) and distribute it to other activists. I would not be able to know their names, their faces, or their whereabouts. The questionnaires would be distributed, filled in, and returned.

Just a Note

Rabat – just writing to tell three quick stories about perceptions of the Middle East and how they are often misguided.

When I first arrived in Morocco my fellow students and I were treated to a guided bus tour through the city. We got to see all of the big landmarks in Rabat: the Mausoleum, the Royal Palace, the Cemetery, Mohammed V University, and many more all with commentary from a  native of the city. Towards the end of the tour we drove across the river that separates Rabat from its neighbor to the North, Salè. As we looked at Rabat’s looming Kasbah and the booming housing developments that line Salè’s southern shore, our guide told us that Black Hawk Down had been filmed not 500 feet from our bus. Salè is much poorer than Rabat, and we have been advised to stay out of the Medina. Many of the buildings are dilapidated and the streets are crammed with garbage.

Black Hawk Down tells the story of an American operation to kill a fundamentalist faction leader named Mohamed Farrah Aidad in Mogadishu. The operation goes horribly wrong, hence the name. Obviously filming a movie in Somalia was infeasible in 2001. The decision to relocate the set to Salè is only fair. But it still seems odd.

Today as I was walking to Arabic class I noticed that the medina was unusually busy. I began to notice men wearing traditional Saudi Arabian clothing, not the Moroccan Jellabas that I have grown used to seeing. I also began to notice TV crews. I initially assumed that some foreign head of state or dignitary was visiting the country, and continued on my way.

Leaving class in the afternoon, the crowds had grown enormously. The number of men wearing Saudi Arabian clothes had quadrupled, and I noticed about of rough-around the edges white people walking determinedly through the crowd. I stopped a red haired man in his forties who carried a heavy camera around his neck and asked him what was going on.

“Were filming an episode of Homeland.”

I’m not familiar with the show. I know very broadly that it is about the CIA, and the Middle East, and terrorists.

“So, is there an episode based in Rabat?”

Morocco has recently made headlines for a series of allegedly foiled terrorist attempts. The country’s biggest attack was in 2003 in Casablanca when 44 people were killed. Though Moroccan’s were implicated in the Paris attacks of 2015, Islamic fundamentalism isn’t really a huge problem in the Kingdom of Morocco.

“Oh, no. It’s sort of like a Saudi-Palestinian-Israeli episode.”

There are a lot of things about what I saw that make my problematic-o-meter go off the charts. The generalized “other” is so unspecific that it doesn’t matter where the fictitious American heroes go to fight Islam. Morocco is Saudi Arabia in the mind of many American consumers. All of the Middle East is a bloodbath, yada yada yada. What I saw definitely made me uncomfortable, but upon further reflection I think it is more complex than that.

This isn’t a practice that is isolated to the Middle East. Shots of the Hollywood Hills are faked all of the time. Filming in California is difficult because of the smog, the crowds, and the cost. No one gets upset about falsifying Hollywood’s identity.

That is also far too simple.

I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. What I saw wasn’t quite right, but it also wasn’t quite wrong.

Another brief anecdote may help to illustrate what I mean.

I spent Monday night shoe shopping. I walked from stall to stall in Rabat’s Souq searching for a pair of fake Converse All-Stars, as mine were destroyed by an overflowing sewage system (long story).

I eventually found the shoes I wanted, and successfully bargained the merchant down from 200 Dhs to 100 Dhs (roughly $10). After we completed the transaction we got to talking. He was impressed by my Arabic initially. I have absolutely mastered the beginning of every conversation.

“Hello, how are you? My name is Chris. I am American, but I live in the medina. I study politics. Nice to meet you.”

But after that, I run out of words. We continued to talk in a mixture of Arabic and French.

We began to talk politics. I gave a thumbs up when the merchant said Hillary Clinton, and a big thumbs down when The Donald came up.

The man was talking quickly, clearly agitated about the topic. I only caught a few phrases.

“America, your dad, your mom.”

“It rains. Dead. So many.”

Upon hearing this I immediately assumed that the man was referring to the amorphous and often arbitrary campaign of foreign aggression that American has carried out through the greater MENA region for the past century. I began to apologize profusely, saying that I didn’t support any of that, saying that I hoped he and his family were ok.

The United States has never attacked Morocco. Morocco was actually the first country to recognize the U.S. as an independent nation. The two countries are on very good terms. And yet, this interpretation of the conversation made sense.

After another few minutes of awkward misunderstanding, the man pulled out his phone. He opened his New York Times app, and pointed to a story about the Hurricane in Florida that has been making headlines in American papers. He wanted to know if my family was ok.

Casablanca 911


Casablanca – The classroom based portion of the program is quickly drawing to a close. In a few short weeks I will be moving into an apartment in a new city with a few other students from the SIT program to conduct field based independent research.

Our topics range from studying Migrants expression through theater to the impact of Morocco’s soft power on European security policy. They are all broadly based in migration, but in a country like Morocco, Migration touches every subject.

I am planning on spending my independent month in Casablanca, one of Morocco’s biggest and most modern cities. I spent the weekend here trying to get a feel for the different neighborhoods.

At around 10pm on Friday night, I found myself walking to a restaurant with three other students from my program. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a shadowy figure dart in front of me and snatch the phone out of my friend’s hand. My friend took off sprinting after the criminal, running in front of traffic at full speed.

I took off the other direction, hoping to head the criminal off. At no point did either of us consider what we would do if we actually managed to overtake our prey. By the time I turned the corner a mob had formed around the petty criminal. He was being slapped and pushed, tears sliding down his face. It seemed that the whole neighborhood had come out to make this criminal face justice. They patted me on the back and offered heart felt apologies on behalf of their entire country.

The phone was eventually recovered, but not before a less than pleasant interaction with Moroccan law enforcement. Upon arrival, the police officer seized my friends phone as “evidence.” We waited around for half an hour, me trying my best to make heads or tails of the fast paced french/darija conversation taking place between a Moroccan police officer and my french-speaking friend.

In an effort to protect the identities of the two friends involved, I will call them Sarah and Mary; which incidentally are the names that they provided to the Moroccan police. Sarah was the initial victim of the crime, and Mary was our translator.

The police officers asked Sarah and Mary to come with them to the police station to testify. This initially meant putting them in the back of the police van, alone, with the criminal that they were en route to convict. After Mary protested, the police officers allowed them to ride in the front seat.

The rest of the story is secondhand, as I was not in the car or police station.

The police officers then began to unsubtly and even aggressively flirt with Mary. “What is your phone number? Do you have a boyfriend? You’re pretty.” So much for the right to remain silent.

Mary and Sarah then had to spend an hour in a Moroccan police precinct, forging signatures on legal documents because they didn’t want their real names anywhere near the strange events of the night.

I don’t have any succinct or snappy lesson from the night. Its too bad that some guy stole a phone. Its too bad that some guy felt the need to steal a phone. Its too bad that some guy will spend time in jail. Its too bad that police abuse their power. Its great that the community cares so much about protecting tourists.

People get robbed in the U.S.

I don’t think a whole city block would come out to catch a criminal in New York. It’s not as though America doesn’t have issues with police abusing their power.

But that also seems too simple. I have definitely seen more petty crime in Morocco than I do in the states. Moroccan police definitely request bribes, or in this case sexual exchange, more freely than their American counterparts.

Some people are good, and some are bad.