Tales from Morocco: on the march


By Elaina Zachos / Staff Writer

“Tales from Morocco” is a reoccurring column on reporter Elaina Zachos’ semester studying culture, tradition and daily life in the North African nation.


Nothing wakes you up faster than the roar of national pride.

From the air, the Centre Ville in Rabat, Morocco, is a sea of red and green, the colors of the Moroccan flag. Red represents hardiness, bravery, strength and valor, with green as the color of Islam. Specks of white pepper he crowd as demonstrators dot the air with posters. Thousands of voices chanting in Darija emanate from the rally, drawing locals, tourists and camera crews to the neighborhood.

The nation’s motto is “Allah, Al Watan, Al Malik.” In English, it’s “God, Homeland, King.” Welcome to Morocco.

At the beginning of March, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited refugee camps in Algeria. While there, he referred to Morocco’s annexation of the Western Sahara as an “occupation.” Offended by the slip-up, Moroccan people threw rocks at Ban’s procession, and the country’s government decided to kick dozens of U.N. staffers out of the disputed territory.

The claim of who owns the Western Sahara, a desert strip of 103,000 square miles bordering the Atlantic Ocean, Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania, is a taboo topic in the Maghreb. Spain decolonized the region in 1975, putting its sovereignty up for grabs. This kick-started a war between Morocco and Mauritania against the Polisario Front, a Saharan rebel group, for control of the region. In 1991, after years of guerilla fighting, the United Nations sponsored a ceasefire between the opposing sides and divided the territory up, giving two-thirds of it to Morocco and the remainder to the Polisario.

Since that shaky treaty, tensions have remained high between Morocco and the Polisario. Each side has been trying to strengthen its claim to the region by bolstering international recognition. But when a U.N. chief lets his position on the debacle slip, this tests Morocco’s claim. The government’s choice to kick U.N. staffers out of the area, antagonized by Ban’s comments, jeopardizes the ceasefire.

By the time the weekend rolled around, the Moroccan people were still fuming over Ban’s statement, prompting the government to host a march in Rabat. Moroccan authorities knocked on thousands of peoples’ doors to convince them to join in a show of patriotism and an attempt to bash the U.N. chief.

On Sunday, I wake up to a text on my Moroccan cellphone. It’s from Wail, a local journalism student I’m working with through my study abroad program.

“Hey, there’s a march today at 10 [a.m.], close to Bab Chellah, about Moroccan Sahara,” the text reads.

A few minutes later, I get another text. This one’s from Kelsey, another student in the program whose journalistic curosity has leared her to Bab Chellah to witness the march.

I roll out of bed and start finger-combing my hair into a braid before getting dressed, chomping an apple and grabbing my backpack as I head out the front door.

As the lock clicks behind me, my phone vibrates with an incoming call from Kelsey.

“I literally just walked out the door,” I say. “What’s up?”

Let me remind you: She’s a blonde American girl, by herself, surrounded by thousands of riled-up demonstrators. Not a good situation to put yourself in. I walk a little faster, my heels clicking on the ground, the sound ricocheting off the walls of the otherwise quiet medina.

After snaking out of the medina, I reach Avenue Laalou. It intersects with Avenue Mohammed V, a main street that leads in the direction of Bab Chellah. When I reach the intersection, I hang a left and begin walking toward the demonstration.

Small shacks selling cheap street food and storefronts cluttered with clothing border the busy avenue. Cars, trucks and people on motorcycles speed by, weaving through and dodging the dozens of pedestrians bustling through the street.

I march between clusters of people headed in the same direction. They’re mostly young men carrying banners emblazoned with Moroccan flags. Others are dressed in light-colored linen tunics, the traditional clothing of the native North African Amazigh, or Berber, people. A few men wear massive Moroccan flags knotted around their necks and trailing behind them like capes, a heroic tribute to the motherland.

When I walk through the arch that marks the end of the medina, the national pride booms.

At the edge of the medina, Mohammed V intersects with another main street called Avenue Hassan II. Crowds of people litter this street. Women and children are scattered throughout the mostly male crowd, each of the demonstrators carrying some symbol stamped with their Moroccan identity. Some brandish signs printed with Arabic script, others include words in English or French or symbols from the Amazigh alphabet. Others hold up posters of King Mohammed VI sitting in a black suit on a red and gold throne, his fingers laced together in front of him.

Among the sea of people, I try to pick out Kelsey’s head of blonde hair. I’m holding my notebook and pen in my right hand, but then I slide them into a mesh pocket on the side of my backpack. People are staring at me — what is this American girl doing alone at a national Moroccan parade?

Eventually, I see Kelsey nod at me through a gap in the crowd. Mackenzie is beside her.

We meet in the middle and touch base about the demonstration. How long have people been gathered for? They started arriving around 9 a.m. How many people do you think are here? Thousands. What’s the point they’re trying to make? Once we’ve thoroughly established that the event is the country’s response to Ban Ki-moon’s comments, we start walking toward the sidelines of the street, the root of the procession, to watch the stream of people marching down Hassan II.

Demonstrators stomp down Hassan II in lines, holding horizontal posters and chanting political rhymes in Darija while onlookers record the scene through iPhones. Students snap selfies and chat with each other on the sidelines of the march.

Farther from the street, men face the medina wall to relieve themselves. Small groups of younger Moroccan people come up to us and ask if they can take pictures with us. They want proof showing they’ve met with someone from the Western world, the birthplace of much of their pop music and cult TV shows.

An older man steps up to Mackenzie and hands her a small Moroccan flag attached to a wooden stick. She takes it as a souvenir, but she doesn’t want to be seen holding it. As a student journalist, she doesn’t want to take sides on the Western Sahara issue.  She steps to the curb and cautiously sets the token down.

Back on Hassan II, one group of demonstrators carry posters emblazoned with Ban’s face, circled in red and slashed with a diagonal line. Their massive plastic poster reads, “Ban Ki-moon is not neutral” in English alongside other slogans in Arabic and French.

As far as criticism goes during national demonstrations, “not neutral” is a relatively tame term.

Morocco embraces its reputation as a relatively stable Arabic country with strong ties to the Western world. The country’s zero-tolerance policy toward terrorist groups makes it a convenient ally to the United States. It projects an image of the peaceful “exception” to the rest of the mysterious Middle East for an international audience.

For example, during the 2011 Arab Spring, Moroccans protested and achieved constitutional reforms while citizens in Egypt and Tunisia ousted presidents and Libya erupted into a civil war.

Miles above the demonstration, a helicopter’s blades keep time in the air. The Moroccan people around us pause their conversations and look up. They cheer at the helicopter, clapping and yelling as it hovers overhead.

Onboard the helicopter, a local media video camera captures the crowd’s reaction, airing it and projecting the image of the Moroccan exception to the rest of the world.

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