Press Freedom, Politics & Economics in Morocco

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Over the past couple weeks, my Arabic school, the Qalam Center, hosted a series of fascinating lectures – in Arabic, of course.

First, journalist Mohamed Laghrouss spoke to students about press freedom in Morocco in light of the new constitution. Mr. Laghrouss presented Freedom House rankings to demonstrate a rollback in freedom of expression in the country in the past few years. On the other hand, he noted, the new constitution is a step forward because it expresses support for this freedom, compared to the old one which included 20 punishments for “crimes” of journalists, including for nebulous “bad intentions.” Mr. Laghrousse stated that while there is a degree of optimism amongst journalists about the recent legal changes, they are still waiting to see how these will be applied in practice. He highlighted the case of Rachid Niny who has been languishing in Moroccan prison for several months for publishing an article that dared to criticize high officials. Niny had been the author of a column called, “Shuf Shuf (Look, Look)” for the “Al-Masa (The Evening)” newspaper, focused on exposing corruption in Moroccan politics.

Journalist Mohamed Laghrouss speaking to students at my Arabic school about press freedom in Morocco.

Second, Professor and MP of the leading Justice and Development Party Dr. Idriss Makly Adawi, spoke about the relationship between politics and economics in Morocco. He praised Morocco’s economic progress in recent years, pointing to statistics which showed sizable declines in the poverty rate and unemployment over the past decade, as well as a steady growth rate of above 4% between 2007 and 2010. At the same time, he noted the country’s main challenges, such as an illiteracy rate of 30%, substantial trade deficit, youth unemployment, and concentration of production in a limited number of sectors.  He suggested that economic improvement in Morocco coincides with and depends on the country’s political liberalization.  In this regard, he saluted the new constitution and the recent elections. At the end of his presentation, he gave a couple suggestions for economic improvement in Morocco, including enhancing civil society participation in decision-making, furthering good governance, investing in riches/ resources, and enhancing competitiveness in the economy. In the question and answer session, I asked whether there is real economic competition in Morocco or whether privilege and monopolization distort the situation. Dr. Adawi responded by noting that it was only over the past couple decades that Morocco began a process of privatization of state-owned monopolies, and that since then there has been increasing movement towards opening up a variety of sectors to economic competition.

Professor and PJD MP delivering speech about politics and economics in Morocco.

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The Andalusian Experience: Malaga and Grenada

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Last week I undertook an enchanting voyage to the Andalusian cities of Malaga and Grenada (in the South of Spain). It’s one thing to be told that the area used to be ruled by the Moors, and quite another to actually see the Moorish sites and realize how similar they are in style to the ones you find in Morocco with fountains, courtyards, arches, ornate woodwork, calligraphy, geometric patterns, and tile mosaics in green, black, yellow, and blue – all the trappings of Islamic art and architecture.  The highlight was of course the Alhambra in Grenada, which I heard is now the most visited tourist attraction in Spain. In Malaga, I also visited its magnificent Cathedral. Apparently, the site where it was built was first a Basillica and then a Mosque, before being converted into a Cathedral (over centuries of construction and never finished). Other highlights I saw in Malaga included the the Alcazaba, a Moorish fortress built over Roman ruins, and the Picasso Museum. Interestingly, though Picasso was born in Malaga and the museum boasts an impressive collection, the artist never actually returned to the city after he left at 19 years old.

Inside the Nasarid Palace of the Alhambra. Looks like Marrakesh!

In the Alcazaba, Malaga

Malaga by night, as seen from the marina. Cathedral and Alcazaba in background.

A while ago I wrote in a post about the Morocco travel adds I spotted in all the Paris metro stations. Now, I found the same add in Malaga in Spanish! It says "Morocco: The Country that Travels with You."

Northern Excursion

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Last weekend I participated in a school trip to Chefchaouen and Tangiers in the North of Morocco. I had heard people gushing about the beauty of Chefchaouen, and it was the last place on my list of top spots in Morocco I had yet to check off. I’m glad I went. Indeed, as a sea of blue, white, and violet houses built along a mountain, it was perhaps the most picturesque city in Morocco I’ve seen so far. The only problem for me was that we only spent one day there. I might have to go back, especially to do some hiking in the nature parks on the city’s outskirts. Some people do complain about the city being too “touristy.” This is kind of true, but wasn’t a big deal to me (actually, it probably makes the city more secure). Though I might have to add another destination to my list of places to see in Morocco: Tetouan, which I’ve been told is like a less-touristy version of Chefchaouen, though a bit run-down. I also got to go back to Tangiers for a day with the group. I hadn’t seen its Medina, Casbah museum, or Hercules Cave the first time around, so it was well worth a second stop.

Overlooking Gorgeous Chefchaoen

The colors of Chefaoen

Posing with Andalusian band at restaurant in Tangiers

Not too long ago I looked out to Tangiers from Gibraltar. Now I got to do it the other way around: Eye Gibraltar from Tangiers.

Hercules Cave, Tangiers

Meeting Rabat New Generation

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A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting Rotary Rabat New Generation. This is a new group in the final stages of becoming an official Rotary Club.

When I mention I have a Rotary Scholarship, sometimes people say things like, “Oh yeah, that group of retirees.” It is often assumed that younger people, still building their careers or with small children, don’t have the time to devote to Rotary. But Rabat’s New Generation Club — if the title didn’t give it away — defies these stereotypes.

I was very impressed by the energetic dynamic of the group and the action-oriented approach. They have a variety of great ideas already in the works.

Best of luck to you, New Generation, and hope to see you again!

Some of the New Generation group.

Me with the group.

A Heart-Warming Gift: Orphan Girls Singing “Happy Birthday” to Me in Four Languages

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It’s been a while since I’ve written an update about the orphanage, even though I’ve been teaching there twice a week for the past few months, I guess it’s like my Arabic school: I go there everyday, but not much new to share. And to be honest, I was a bit disheartened when kids started skipping my class. At first I was teaching all the boys 16-19, but sometimes only one or two of them would show up. Well, there was the one student who kept coming to every session and made a lot of progress. I guess that’s what kept me going. The French volunteer also complained about students not showing up to his class. So it wasn’t just me. The hardest part is to convince the kids about the importance of their education in general, and foreign language skills specifically.

To be fair, some of the students told me that they were too busy studying for their exams, and sometimes they had review sessions for other subjects on evenings when I came to teach. The communication from the orphanage officials to me about all this was not the greatest. They never informed me about changes to the schedule, even after I complained about the issue a couple times. On one occasion, I came to the orphanage only to find no students to be taught. Taking a taxi to a tram to get there is not the easiest or cheapest for me. So it’s pretty frustrating to make the trek only to find it was in vain. The officials did express to me their deepest apologies, and every time I meet them in person they are always very nice. I suppose the lack of communication by phone or email is not atypical in Morocco. I’ve been discovering that the best is just to show up at the orphanage and talk to the people directly and not try too hard to arrange too many things in advance.

But along with the weather here, the situation at the orphanage is starting to change for the better. I informed the director that I would also like to teach girls. I just had my second class with the girls today, and it was great. Whereas I had to keep reminding the boys to take notes and pay attention in class, most of the girls have been carefully recording everything I put on the blackboard. More boys have also returned to class the last couple times I’ve been there.

Plus, I recruited two other American girls to help me teach once a week. (They are high school students on a scholarship exchange program) . This is great for a few reasons, especially because the classes should really be split up into a couple different levels. For example, among the girls, there is at least one who has already studied some English. And among the boys, there are two who are more advanced than the others. Today, the two Americans mostly observed as I first taught the girls for a couple hours and then the boys. But hopefully next time, they will be ready to start teaching one level and I will teach the other.

And, today is my birthday 🙂 I mentioned it in class after the girls asked me, “how old are you?” They subsequently broke out into singing of “happy birthday” — four times: First in English, then in Arabic, then in French, then in Berber. What an amazing treat. They truly made it a special day!

UPDATE (4/4): This is not such an important point, but actually the students at the school where I teach are not full orphans, but more like foster children. They live at the school during the week, usually becuase their families lack the means to provide for them. It took me a while to understand why a number of the students mentioned their families (sometimes positively, sometimes negatively), but it has now been clarified.

Rotary Race for Peace & Friendship

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Today I had a lovely stroll through Rabat with Rotarians and many smiling children, when I participated in the Rotary Race for Peace and Friendship. Organized by Rabat’s Rotary Clubs, it was part of “The Week for Hope and the Future,” announced by North Africa’s Rotary District 9010. The weather was beautiful too! It was a first time in a few months that I left the house without my winter jacket. I definitely wasn’t expecting that I’d be suffering from the cold coming to Morocco from Chicago, but I didn’t consider the lack of heating, nor could I have foreseen that it would be an exceptionally cold year. Hopefully, the pleasant weather of today is here to stay.

Ready, Set, Go!

The Awards Ceremony

The Awards Ceremony

Visit to the National Library — Biggest in Africa and the Arab World

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On Tuesday I participated in a school trip to the National Library in Rabat. Opened in 2008, it is the biggest library in all of Africa and the Arab World, and it is also aesthetically pleasing with an air of luxury and modernization (in contrast to most of what you see in this country). According to our guide, the library was financed primarily with money from privatization of state-owned industries, including the sale of Maroc Telecom. Strolling through the stacks, it was clear that there are abundant books to be found on all subjects in Arabic and French, as well as sizable collections of materials in other languages, such as Spanish, Amazigh (Berber), Japanese, and Hebrew, to name a few. I was also told that there are listening stations with pedagogical recordings in a variety of languages. Registration for a year-long library card just costs 50 dirhams (about $6), so I will have to go back to check out what they have for learning Darija (Moroccan Arabic), and maybe I will try to learn some Spanish too. I guess being in Morocco is convincing me to become quite the polyglot!

Library Entrance

Inside the library, looking out

Mural across from library

The Port City of Essaouira

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The following shots are from the end of my journey through Morocco with my parents. We spent New Year’s eve in Essaouira, a charming port city.

Interesting article about the city’s culture, history, and Jewish heritage.

Entrance to the Medina, Essaouira

The Port

Me in the Essaouira Medina

Goats in Argon tree along road outside of Essaouira. This pic was expensive, because when we stopped the car to take it, guys jumped out at us and in front of the camera, demanding payment before letting us take a shot.

Tagut (”Fog” in Tashelhit)

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My friend Melanie recently shared with me information about a highly interesting  film she produced in Morocco, called Tagut, which means Fog in Tashelhit (one of the Amazigh dialects). It traces the work of a Non-Profit Organization, focused on development, education, and culture.

Watch the trailer.

Still from the film Tagut (MeljRey.com)

Summary: “Ifni is a region in the southwest of Morocco. The climate is arid to semi-arid. It rarely rains. The women living in the Anti-Atlas mountains fetch water an average of 3.5 hours per day from wells that are unreliable.
Interestingly, this region is particularly humid. From December through June, the meteorological conditions create thick and long-lasting fog.

The film follows the non-profit organization Dar Si-Hmad (a husband-wife team, with collaborators from Canada, the U.S., Chile, and Tenerife, Spain) as they launch a fog-collecting project in June 2011 in order to provide drinking water to Amazigh communities living in the Anti-Atlas mountains.”