The question of race in Morocco

Racism is still a problem in Morocco.

al-monitor A refugee stages a sit-in in front of the High Commission for Refugees in Rabat, May 23, 2007. Photo by REUTERS/Rafael Marchante.

Topics covered

society, racism, morocco, moroccan society, human trafficking, discrimination

Jan 17, 2014

In the summer 2013, Moroccan newspapers published a sign posted on the wall of a residential building in Casablanca that said, “It is strictly prohibited to rent to Africans and unmarried persons. [Signed]: The general assembly of the building’s residents.”

The declaration sparked a wave of disapproval and condemnation of anti-African racism. The event revealed the country’s well-established racist behavior, a microcosm of which was represented in that building. The most recent example of racism was when Moroccan Muslim Brotherhood MP Al-Muqri Abu Zaid told the Saudis in Jeddah about “well-known traders of an inferior race,” referring to the tribes of Sous, in Agadir, Morocco.

The story spread and triggered a wave of anger. Abu Zaid denied being racist, yet as the campaign by Amazigh groups against him intensified, he issued an apology. The issue apparently ended with the apology. It’s like the story of the young man who collected all the cruel jokes against his father in a book and burned it. But the jokes didn’t die, because they represent real feelings.

There are jokes about the fear of having a black baby, about black smell, and about women using a harmful, cheap face cream that whitens the skin. The lyrics of one song say something along the lines of, “Put the henna [skin dye that is dark] aside, you are white, and that’s better.”

These utterances about race and skin color are very common in sport stadiums during football games between teams from Casablanca, Agadir and the countryside. In those stadiums, nationalism is reduced to repugnant regionalism and reveals that the people can be divided into 20 separate parts. That’s one world, and what’s happening in Moroccan areas near Mauritania is another. Over there, a contagion is hard at work.

On a morning in 2001, in the town of Tata, which lies 1,000 kilometers [621.4 miles] south of Rabat, a teacher expelled a schoolgirl and ordered a black classmate to follow her. The black girl followed her and, strangely, carried both school bags. I was a teacher at that secondary school, so I told one of my students to investigate the matter.

It turned out that the black student was the daughter of a black slave whose owner was the father of the expelled student. Theoretically, the father’s ownership of the slave ended in the mid-20th century. The freed slave gave in return what is known by white Arabs as al-talit, or “voluntary obedience.” It is a right that the former slaveholder has over the freed slave.

In “voluntary obedience,” the freed slave goes into the service of those who freed him and did good to him after he was humiliated. Those who “freed” him are in fact those who last bought him.

Someone once told me, “But, of course, some slaves have changed. Not all of them abided by the covenant. Some of them, because they entered into society, education, the economy and capitalism, have denied their relationship with their master despite the fact that [the slave’s] grandfather did not get the certificate of freedom.” I asked my interlocutor, “How did they become slaves?” He replied, “They were bought from Mauritania or were captured in the desert. The mother of the schoolgirl who carried the two school bags was bought in Mauritania.”

This is about the slaves who descend from the Moroccan Sahara (which the UN calls the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic). Currently, the daughters of Arab maids are married to black Amazigh from Tata. There are several labels for those blacks, such as asemkan, asoukin, al-harratin, and al-khummasin. The first label refers to the color of a certain kind of fish. The second label is derived from “souk,” or the market where they are bought and sold. The third label is about tilling the land, and the fourth label comes from tilling the land in return of keeping a fifth [khums] of the crop.

Moroccan are very sensitive to the term “al-khummasin” because it doesn’t refer to an inheritable status but to the lowest social status. Because of this perception, whites are called honest, and honest people do not marry blacks but may have intercourse with them on the basis of “what your right hand possesses.”

In north and south Morocco, people don’t like to marry their girls to dark-skinned men. Such men must persuade the girl they want to marry to persuade her sisters and brothers to accept him. He is expected not to object if he’s required to pay a higher dowry because of his skin color, and later he should bear with the racist jokes. On the other hand, some black men marry white women because of the man’s wealth.

Three years later, I received a report on field research on racism in ​​Tata. It was presented in the Division of Sociology at the University of Cadi Ayyad in Marrakech. The research found cemeteries and mosques just for blacks in some villages, such as Okjikal, Kasba, al-Jou, Aghadir, and al-Hina. It also found entire villages just for blacks and villages just for whites, which weakens intermixing. The research also found that wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of whites. That impacted social stratification in Tata, whose surface area is ​​25,925 square kilometers [10,010 square miles].

As for why the research was done, my former student Ibrahim Aybork said in the introduction to his research, “[I did it] for personal reasons, being a man with black skin who is not ashamed of it. I experienced racism both inside and outside my family. I had a problem understanding where I belong in the world. The same goes for children who have suffered psychologically and socially because of discrimination. I declare that I am a man with multiple [belongings] and whoever believes otherwise is his own enemy. It’s like trying to separate between the shade and the sun. This situation causes a social imbalance and raises political tension, and that hampers development programs in Tata.” These are facts. Some may say that there is equality in Morocco, but that’s not factually correct.

The above article was translated from As-Safir Al-Arabi, a special supplement of As-Safir newspaper whose content is provided through a joint venture of As-Safir and Al-Monitor.

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