Wednesday, 21 August 2013


(Originally on 7 June, 2011: introductory post for a series from a trip to Morocco.)

In May [2011] I travelled to Morocco, where I took part in a remarkable biological expedition. The main target areas where in the mountains of the Middle and High Atlas, but as side trips we also visited the Anti-Atlas and the Draa Valley. Our flights were both through Spain, so we also came to spend nights both in Madrid, the capital of Castile and the entire Spain, and in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia.

My previous trip to Morocco took place in December 2003, and at that time I travelled quite extensively on the country's coastal rim, including the northwestern wetlands, as well as in the Middle Atlas and in the Draa Valley. Therefore some of the places we visited this summer were familiar to me. Already back then Morocco was a nice country to travel around: tourist infrastructure was well developed, roads were good, access to places good and traffic relatively safe.

The upheavals of this year's Arab Spring were much less visible in Morocco than in many of the other countries in the region, because the Kingdom of Morocco wisely started reforms well in advance and therefore Moroccans already enjoyed many such liberties and rights that the Libyans and Syrians could only dream about. The Moroccan government, from the beginning of the Arab Spring, allowed demonstrations and abstained from beating up the crowds of youth. As a result, demonstrations in Morocco have remained mostly peaceful. Only in one industrial city in northern Morocco there were casualties; the riots there seem to have been organized by the radical left.

Shortly before our trip, terrorists blew up a bomb at Café Argan, popular among tourists and locals alike at the most famous square in old Marrakesh. It is believed that the culprits were local radical Islamists, but their motive was more opposition against the government than international jihadism. As a result of the attack, however, we saw more policemen and gendarme during our trip than my companion had seen the previous year on a similar expedition. Otherwise no insecurity was visible in Morocco, although in several minor towns we saw small and peaceful demonstrations focusing on employment and other local issues.

The Arabic name for Morocco, Maghreb, means the Land of Sunset - in an other word, the West. In its general English use the term has been expanded to mean all of the western parts of North Africa in addition to Morocco. Usually it covers Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, sometimes also Morocco's southern neighbour Mauritania, which can be counted as an Arab country. The Arab reached the Atlantic coast in Morocco and Mauritania as early as in the seventh century, overthrowing the Berber kingdom that had previously ruled the area. The Arab rule led to wide assimilation and Arabianization of the Berbers. In spite of this, a significant part of the population in Maghreb, especially in mountain and desert areas, considers themselves as Berbers, and many also speak the various Berber languages as their mother tongue. In addition, there are many Tuaregs living in the southern desert areas.

During the Idrisid, Almoravid and Almohad dynasties, Morocco was a regional great power, dominating the western parts of North Africa as well as the Iberian Peninsula, which was ruled by the Muslim Moors until the Reconquista. Arab Andalusia, with its capital shifting between Córdoba and Granada, was an impressive cradle of civilization up until 1492, when the last Muslim state in Iberia, the Emirate of Granada, was destroyed. (Even before that, Granada had been for nearly 250 years subjected as a vassal of the Kingdom of Castile.) The Reconquista and later the Inquisition led to genocide, persecution and expulsions of Muslims, Jews, and later also of Moriscos, the former Muslims who had converted into Christianity. The roots of a large segment of the modern Arabs of Morocco and Mauritania are in Iberia.

In addition to the diversity already mentioned, the Arabic dialect spoken in Morocco is quite far from Middle Eastern Arabic. It contains many influences from Berber languages as well as more recent influences from French and Spanish as remainders of the colonial period during which France and Spain ruled their zones in Morocco. The modern Kingdom of Morocco gained independence from French colonial power in the 1950s and some of the Spanish-controlled areas were annexed at the same time, whereas Ifni was annexed only in 1969 and Western Sahara in the seventies. Spain still rules two towns in northern Morocco: Ceuta and Melilla.

In Western Sahara, Morocco's rule has been contested by Polisario, a radical leftist militant organization backed by Algeria, but nowadays mainly operates in Algeria and abroad, and Western Sahara is relatively calm and safe area to travel. The Western Saharans consider themselves as Arabs belonging to the Sahrawi tribe, although they, like other Moroccans, are mixed a lot with Berbers and the descendants of African former slaves.

Since the current King Muhammad VI came to power, Morocco has actively sought democratic reforms, and besides Jordan, it has been an exemplary country for developing Arab democracy. Morocco has traditionally maintained close relationship with France, and through, to the European Union, while the quarrel over Western Sahara has strained its relations with Spain. Morocco's main security threat has come from the larger eastern neighbour Algeria, which has for long aspired for regional dominance and used Polisario as a tool to reach the Atlantic and to isolate Morocco. The Moroccan-Algerian land border is still closed and one can only travel between the two countries through a third country or by flight.

Recently the antagonism within the Arab World - especially the authoritarian governments of Syria, Libya and Algeria versus the reformist and/or Western-oriented countries - has pushed the kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco to seek closer relations with the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula. One can easily understand Jordan's membership in the Gulf Cooperation Council, but now membership is also sought by Morocco, which is located far from the Gulf, in the other end of the Arab World. It seems as if the GCC is becoming a club for monarchies, sharing little more in common but a common foe: Iran.

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