Little by little the camel goes into the couscous...

09 April 2012

Do you miss me? Follow my new blog: the armchair arabist

Hello readers! I know it's been awhile, but I still love you. Since my last update, I've spent a wonderful 8 months in Morocco, living, learning and most of all having fun. My focus has shifted a bit, and I've launched a new blog project called the armchair arabist.

Much like Matt in the Maghrib, the purpose of my new blog is to shed light on the realities of life in this region, but unlike this blog, I'm not limiting myself to commentary on Morocco. The focus is more general, more focused on Arabic as a language and Arab culture, particularly literature and intellectual thought.

So I won't be updating Matt in the Maghrib anymore. If you're still interested in following my thoughts and explorations, I encourage you to follow me at the armchair arabist.

Thank you for your support and interest in Matt in the Maghrib and I hope I see you soon at the armchair arabist!

25 September 2011

Morocco: Unchanged by the Arab Spring?

Photo by Magharebia

Morocco is supposed to be in a historic time. In two months Moroccans will vote in early parliamentary elections to create the government that will shape the future of their country. This new parliament will have the responsibility of implementing the historic changes brought about by the July 1 Constitutional Referendum. These representatives will be the guardians the Moroccan people's will and its guides towards a true constitutional monarchy.

Despite the historic nature of these times, life in Morocco seems quite normal. Other than some increased construction and public works, nothing seems to have changed since my departure in late July. Daily life is unchanged. The air is calm, absent of the tension caused by a collective hope for a brighter future. Is it possible that Morocco was untouched by February 20 and the Arab Spring?

In her book Policy Paradox, Deborah Stone discusses how communities act collectively to provide for the "recognized needs of their members." She goes on to say that we can see this in what she terms "mob actions", or spontaneous popular action against the status quo. Mob actions are expressions of how a community's needs are not met by current socioeconomic or political realities. Beyond this, Stone states that such actions "may be the vital force in community formation." In other words, the expression of needs through mob actions may lead to the creation of a new community or communities within a society whose collective needs are at variance with the current status quo of said society.

We can view the Arab Spring as a series of 'mob actions' that redefined the collective needs of many Arab nations. The people who participated in these uprisings sought to provide new needs for their communities, namely democracy and democratic values. By doing so, they created a new democratic community. The size of these movements indicates the degree of 'community formation' around of these movements' stated ideas and goals. The popular support gained by many of the Arab Spring movements shows the creation of new 'democratic communities.' These communities' defense of their needs (i.e. democratic ideals) will be crucial to the successful establishment of popular democracy in the region.

To this end, we can argue that nations like Libya, Tunisia and Egypt experienced tremendous change. Their popular revolutions indicated a shift in community needs. Ideas like social justice, economic opportunity and democratic government transformed from mere hopes into necessities the community went to great risks to attain. While it remains to be seen whether these community needs are successfully translated into democratic government, we can say, at least, that change has come.

What, then, can we say about Morocco?

February 20, Morocco's popular democracy movement, never gained the popular support achieved by similar groups elsewhere in the Arab world. As I've written, we can view the new constitution as monarchy's and political mainstream's successful co-option of February 20's revolutionary energy, a move that, by and large, Moroccans accepted. July's referendum was the community's opportunity to voice its opinions. Rather than refuse the status quo, Moroccans, in droves, participated in the corrupt practices the political mainstream employed to coerce support for its 'constitutional project.' When the political parties looked to buy votes, Moroccans were there to sell them.

When the opportunity presented itself, when the Moroccan community was asked to acknowledge its collective needs, it said, 'our needs are the same as they've always been.'

I'm reminded of a conversation I witnessed between a Moroccan friend and an American ex-pat this Spring. My friend suggested that Morocco could solve political corruption by electing new, more trustworthy politicians. The American disagreed, stating that until Moroccan society changes on a popular level, the political environment would remain the same. He argued that you can't expect someone who grows up in a society in which people regularly cut corners and break 'rules' to perform favors for friends and family to not do the same if they achieve political office.

In this sense, we can say that Morocco remains unchanged after the Arab Spring. Despite a very vocal minority's call, Moroccans refused to label transparency, social justice and democracy as communal needs. Until this changes, as long as Moroccans value stability over other social values, business will continue as usual in the Maghrib.

19 August 2011

Just how organic is Morocco's agriculture?

By The World Bank
Perhaps the greatest symbol of Morocco's traditions is the souk, or market. Whether you're in Rabat's medina, steps away from the tramway, or deep in the heart of Old Fes, shopping in the souk transports you back in time, far away from modernity. For tourists, a visit to the souk is, at the least, a unique and unforgettable experience. The sights, smells and sounds are dazzling and mesmerizing. And for some, these have a deeper meaning.

To the legions of Western eco-tourists who descend on Morocco every year, the souk symbolizes a way of life distant from the ills of the modern food economy. If the supermarket, with its packaged goods and processed foods symbolizes the evils of the 'food-industrial complex', the souk epitomizes 'organic': produce is piled in haphazard pyramids, as if thrown there by the farmhands who picked it. Many fruits and vegetables are speckled with clods of dirt, too 'organic' to be cleaned before sale. However, these appearances are deceiving. Despite the quaintness and charm of the souk, Morocco is far from an 'eco-gastronomy' paradise.

In his paper presented at the 2009 International Symposium on Sustainable Agricultural in Mediterranean Region, S. B. Alaoui wrote that Morocco has done little to take advantage of the country's organic farming potential. Morocco's climate is ideal for organic agriculture; its long growing season can support almost any type of crop, provided there is sufficient water. Moroccan farmers already use few chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. And manual labor is very cheap. Yet, organic farming has grown feebly and sporadically.

According to the most recent data from the World Resources Institute, the area of Morocco's cropland totals around 9,445,000 hectares, slightly less than that of California. In 2006, only 5,955 hectares were devoted to certified organic farming. More than half of these are devoted to Argan oil production which, unlike other agriculture, occurs spontaneously. Compare this with California which devoted nearly 175,000 hectares of cropland to organic farming in 2007

What has prevented Morocco from taking advantage of this potential economic growth?

Alaoui writes that organic farming not high on the government's economic agenda. Though agricultural development is a national priority, such efforts focus on increasing crop yields and water conservation. The former can encourage decidedly un-organic practices, like increased fertilizer use, and while expanding organic farming could reduce overall water consumption, there are other less resource and labor intense ways of doing so.

Additionally, Morocco has neither national standards for organic farming nor any means to certify its organic farms. Setting up a national certification system would take time and money. Guaranteeing its veracity would require significant oversight. Yet these costs are necessary if Morocco hopes to profit from its organic potential. It is the lack of such a certification system that makes it impossible for Morocco's already fledgling organic farms to export their produce to Europe.

Simply put, the Moroccan government and Moroccan farmers don't care about organic farming, and it's easy to understand why. Unlike many Western countries, Morocco is still trying to modernize its agricultural sector. The focus is on increasing efficiency, crop yield and, subsequently, profits.

While some Westerners decry the industrial food economy, Moroccans dismay not having such an infrastructure. Western tourists may view Morocco as untouched by many of the problems of a modern economy, but many Moroccans see this as a lack of economic development preventing their nation from reaching its potential.

Turning Morocco into an organic farming power may appeal to certain groups with certain ideologies. But ultimately, Morocco will pursue the actions that best serve its national interest.

- Data on organic farming in Morocco come from Mr. Alaoui's paper: "Organic Farming in the World and a case study of Morocco"
-Data on organic farming in California comes from the USDA
-General data on Morocco's Agriculture from the World Resource Institute

16 August 2011

Into a Traditional Islamic Education

By Maymona
Since my arrival in Fes I've imagined what it would be like to enter al-Qarawiyine university. Al-Qarawiyine is why Fes is called medinat l-'ilm: 'the city of knowledge'.  Constructed 1200 years ago, it was, for centuries, a great center of learning for scholars, mainly Muslim but also Jewish, from Islamic Spain, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. Its prominence has declined in the past 100 years, but it is still home to a vibrant community of Islamic scholars.

Al-Qarawiyine has an imposing presence in the Old Fes. Physically it is huge. It is one of the city's largest landmarks, something you notice most when forced to navigate around its perimeter, dodging donkeys and hustlers along the way. Culturally, you notice its impact in how Fessis speak. Unlike most Moroccans, native Fessis, and especially those who live in the old Medina, converse readily in Classical Arabic, the language of Islam. Their speech emphasizes the already prominent sense of religiosity that permeates the medina's alleyways. All of this emanates from Al-Qarawiyine and its centuries of religious tradition.

As a student of Islam, I couldn't help but be drawn to such a place. The image of me sitting at the foot of some great Islamic scholar, in a halqa or study circle, frequently entered my mind this year. The experience of a traditional Islamic education appealed to me, knowing that it was something I couldn't get in America. Additionally, it would give me a new and very rich understanding of Islam, the study of which I hope to make a lifelong pursuit. So I ask a friend of mine with experience studying at al-Qarawiyine to explain exactly what a traditional Islamic education would entail.

Niaz, now living in Turkey, was an English teacher at the American center in Fes and had lived in the Old Medina for a little over 5 years. Along with teaching English, Niaz pursued studies in the classical Islamic tradition with Sheikhs in and around Fes.

One day I met with him to talk about his studies. He explained to my that in Morocco, Islamic scholars follow a particular curriculum that starts with Arabic language study and moves along to different areas of specialization, just as religious law or speculative theology. As he said, "the first step is Arabic, which is the miftah u'lum ad-din, or the key to the religious sciences. Without Arabic you have nothing."

Working within the Islamic tradition requires absolute mastery of Arabic. As a religious scholar you interpret the Qu'ran, Islam's holy text, which is written in Arabic and believed to be the word of God. In order to understand this word to the extent they are able, scholars first study books on grammar, syntax, rhetoric and logic.

Mastery of these subjects prepare yourself to understand all of the more specialized subjects. Quranic commentary and Islamic law are based on linguistics and logic. Without a solid foundation in Arabic, you can't engage with the Islamic intellectual tradition. How do you ensure mastery? Memorization.

"Your time with the sheikh is spent listening to him explain the parts the text you're working on," Niaz explained, "and then you go home and memorize it. Once you memorize a complete text you move on to its commentary, and you follow that progression: learning, understanding and then memorizing."

Memorization is looked down upon in America's education system. We try to create 'independent thinkers' and 'critical thinkers' and the we perceive 'rote memorization' as impeding these goals. If you memorize, you're not thinking and you end up merely reproducing the information you've learned rather than synthesizing it into new, fresh ideas. I witnessed this firsthand in my classroom this year. My students could repeat the previous week's lecture word for word. But when asked a critical thinking question or given a task that required them to synthesize information, they struggled immensely. The Islamic ideal falls somewhere in between.

Notice how Niaz described the learning process: "learning, understanding and then memorizing." An Islamic scholar is not expect to merely reproduce what he's learned, he's expected to apply that knowledge to new and unique intellectual situations. Memorization only comes after you understand what you're learning and how to use it. That information is then internalized so that it can be more quickly synthesized with other information, external or internal, to respond to a given intellectual situation.  The Islamic scholar has the potential to be a synthesizer and critical thinker because of, not despite, his reliance on memorized information.

There's something romantic about becoming this kind of intellectual: an unmediated world of information available to you at all times. No dependence on books or computers; information and ideas fused to your very being.

Technology has made an indelible impression on our relationship with information. Are the changes it has wrought necessarily good? Am I the only person who feels ashamed by my dependence on a calculator or on Google to give me the text of the Gettysburg Address? Can I truly participate in an intellectual culture if I have to look up its fundamental and most influential ideas online or in a reference book? Does that make me an independent thinker?

Needless to say, Niaz had me hooked.

Muslims believe that certain people have the gift of light from God, a certain special charisma that not only enraptures ordinary people but also guides them towards or along the straight path. Of everyone I know, Niaz has that light. It was he who helped a friend of mine convert to Islam, and it was he who helped me decide to stay in Morocc to pursue a traditional Islamic education.

14 August 2011

Sunday Morning Political Theater

By Gage Skidmore
One thing I've missed while living in Morocco is television. I don't have a television there (much to the consternation of some of my Moroccan friends), and my Arabic isn't good enough for me to keep up with the soap operas and news programs broadcast in the cafes I frequent. Now back in states I've rekindled my relationship with television, only, as with all old flames, to be disappointed with the results.

This morning my Dad and I watched Meet the Press and This Week which were all about Michelle Bachmann's victory in the Iowa Straw Poll and Tim Pawlenty's decision to drop out of the Republican primary race. Both politicians sat for interviews and I was really shocked by how poorly both they and their interviewers performed.

I'm used to politicians speaking in talking points, but Bachman, in particular, took that to a new level dropping "Obamacare" as well as her birth town of Waterloo, IA in the most logically incongruous places. Pawlenty was laughable with his use of euphemism and childish metaphor; I felt like a little kid when he explained how his lack of success fundraising caused him to consider dropping out of the race: "You know, we just needed a little more fuel to make sure the car could get down the road..."

David Gregory and Matthew Dowd (filling in for Christine Amanpour) aided and abetted both politicians by allowing them to not answer their questions. To his credit, Gregory did get tough on whether Bachmann would allow an atheist/gay to participate in her hypothetical presidential administration. But Dowd was laughable.

I wonder about the rules of television journalism and why it seems that people, especially politicians, are able to avoid their interviewers' questions. The film Frost/Nixon made it seem all about preparation on the part of the interviewer. Through diligent research the interviewer crafts the questions that expose the dirty details that make his subject squirm. This also makes attempts to avoid answering a direct question appear obvious. Maybe reporters don't work as hard as they used to. But what do you do when someone like Bachmann attempts to explain away her description of homosexuality as 'personal bondage' by saying she has 'great respect' for homosexuals? Is it too far to say, 'that answer doesn't make any sense'?

There is also the viewer's responsibility to uncover a speaker's logical fallacies and determine for his or herself whether someone is trustworthy. But, as Neil Postmann argues, oftentimes our emotions overwhelm our logical faculties, and images communicate a great deal of emotion. Make them move and give them music, and you realize just how emotionally manipulative television can be. This is why The Onion and the Daily Show are so funny. They purport seriousness through the visual and aural tropes used by regular news programs and use that 'credibility' to make great satire. If by such meager means they're able to create the verisimilitude of seriousness, then how serious can the rest of the television news media really be? Based on today's performances, not very.

Beyond the interviews, it was shocking to see how superficial our political culture has become. Both programs featured roundtables which spent most of their time talking about who are the 'winners' and 'losers' of the straw poll and what it means for President Obama. While it seemed that the participants wanted to talk about the 'serious issues' surrounding this phase of the presidential election process, the talk boiled down to a discussion of appearances: an important factor for Governor Rick Perry was his 'Texas swagger' and how he will 'appear' to voters; both Republicans and Democrats 'look bad' as a result of the debt ceiling debate; Republicans are concerned that the primary with draw the party to the far right, forcing their nominee to 'lurch back to the middle' to 'appear' more mainstream for the general election. It might as well be a beauty pageant. As a politician in a television dominated society, how you look matters as much as or more than who you are. This is why we spend time discussing whether a candidate 'looks presidential'.

As we drank our coffee, my Dad looked at me and said, "What do you think about all of this now that your home?" After explaining the frustration I felt, I added, "It's all crazy and ridiculous. That's why Moroccans have a King."

02 August 2011

What will become of February 20? by Magharebia
Today, the Angry Arab asked why the Western media are ignoring continued protests against the King Muhammad VI's reforms. He cites news (also here) that thousands of Moroccans protested on Sunday against the newly adopted constitutional reforms. The protests were potent in their symbolism, taking place the day after Throne Day, the anniversay of the King's coronation, and the same day Morocco's government officials renew their allegiance to the Monarch.

One reason why the West may be 'ignoring' these protests is because they are not very surprising. The February 20 movement, and other opposition groups, boycotted the constitutional referendum. It's natural they would continue to protest as the King and Morocco's political mainstream move forward with the reforms they don't approve of. 

I think the bigger question in all of this is what will become of the February 20 movement?

Earlier, I wrote that the youth protesters' boycott of the constitutional referendum left them in a decidedly weaker political position. It appears that this position is only getting worse. The King's recent announcement to hold "prompt" parliamentary elections puts February 20 at a severe disadvantage. While the movement has been effective at organizing rallies, I doubt it will be able to organize itself as an effective political party in time for these new elections; the movement is unaffiliated with a political party and, moreover, is at odds with the political establishment. It stands to lose nearly everything if it is excluded from the new House of Representatives, which will ostensibly work to implement Morocco's new constitutional reforms.

Since March, Morocco's monarchy and political mainstream have orchestrated a brilliant political and social campaign aimed at marginalizing the country's true political opposition and co-opting Moroccans' revolutionary energy for their own means. With King announcing reforms, and the political mainstream standing by him, February 20 was left in an impossible situation. By accepting the reforms, they would have aligned themselves with the political status quo they oppose so fervently. By opposing them, they aligned themselves with Morocco's political fringe and also bordered on transgressing one of the country's biggest social taboos: questioning the legitimacy of the Crown. The decision to boycott allowed the group to retain it's legitimacy with its supporters, which is why it's been able to continue to protest. But it is losing its broader support.

Speaking with my Moroccan friends, it appears that the government's efforts have succeeded. One friend, a student at Al-Akhawayne University who voted 'No' in the constitutional referendum, questioned the group's objectives, stating that they "are not clear" and are difficult to stand by. She also said that the group needs to appear "more reliable" and that "they are not the only ones who want change, we all want it ... [but] they want revolutionary change, which is not easy, especially when not everyone agree[s] with them." Regardless if these opinions are true and reasonable, this is exactly what the monarchy wants Moroccans to think. With February 20 perceived in such a way, the only path to certain and stable reform is through the new constitution, which, of course, keeps political power in the same place it's always been.

It's hard to think of what February 20 could have done differently. If they had participated in the referendum, it's unlikely their voice would have been represented accurately. I doubt the government would have given 'No' voters more than 5% of the vote, thus making them look just as fringe-y as they do now. But maybe not.

If February 20 had demonstrated a willingness to work within the status quo, then charges of being 'revolutionary' would appear fanciful rather than realistic. If they had come out to vote in force, mobilizing as many supporters as possible to be as vocal as possible in the referendum, then, based on the results, they would have had an opportunity to legitimately disparage the corruption of Morocco's existing 'democratic' institutions. More so, it would have given them practice for mobilizing in the all-so-important parliamentary elections. But what's done is done.

It is easy for me to sit behind my computer and say what could have or should have been. It's not fair to the brave young Moroccans who risked their lives and livelihoods protesting on the streets for me to do so. And for that I apologize. It just saddens me to think that what may have been Morocco's 'Youth Revolution' has become the 'King's Revolution' and that weak constitutional reforms will be the only reforms Moroccans see for some time to come.

29 July 2011

Morocco's Universities: Money Laundering 101

This article from caught my eye today. It details some of the problems that have stifled higher education reform in Morocco. Here are some key points from the article:
  • Morocco has 15 public universities. The total number of students enrolled in 2009-2010 was 306,595. (That's 0.95% of Morocco's 32 million people. The United States has approximately 14.2 million university students or about 4.75% of the total population.)
  • King Hassan II enacted sweeping education reform in 1999, the year of his death, that was continued by his son and successor Mohammed VI. A major piece of this reform was granting financial and administrative autonomy to the university administrations. Another aspect of the reform was the adoption of a modular system, diving the academic year into semesters and the semesters into modules. The reforms also created Masters Degrees for the first time. 
  • Sources quoted in the article complained about the backwardness of Morocco's teaching standards and practices. They stated how they desire "training" for the work force, not "teaching", which is all students receive now.
Not much in the article surprised me. I can vouch for bad teaching conditions, poor pedagogy, and an overall dysfunctional system. What did surprise me was that each university has control over its finances. To me this just seems like a terrible idea.

The article cites a "statement of accounts" from the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of Ben-Msik in Casablanca. It spent over $800,000 in 2010, so, as the article says, it has plenty of money. But $60,000 of this went to "catering and accommodation" which is funny because Ben-Msik "has no restaurant and no residence halls for students." At least they spent $633 on books for the library.

I understand the logic behind making your universities autonomous. It's an 'enlightened' thing to do. Having all of your universities under a large, centralized administration can be inefficient and ineffective, that's obvious. Also, the idea of having a single curriculum for the whole country (which still exists more or less) runs contrary to a 'liberal' concept of higher education. But at the same time, I can't imagine trying to enact major reforms in a country as corrupt as Morocco by reducing the accountability on the actors you depend on to enact said reforms. No wonder the situation hasn't improved in 12 years.

I always wondered why the situation seemed so stagnant at my university. Regular strikes against the poor conditions never achieved substantial changes. I had thought maybe it was a sinister plot by the Ministry of Education to keep Moroccans poorly educated so that they were easier to manipulate. That may still be true, but the simpler and more probable answer is that there's a lot of money to be made in running a dysfunctional public university in Morocco. An average professor's annual salary is about $13,500. If the Ministry of Education gives each university $800,000 every year, then the Dean probably takes $50,000, the Vice-Dean $25,000, and so on down the line until everyone gets a cut. Whatever is left goes to books.

Clearly, more accountability is the solution. I'm not an expert in education reform, but I imagine that if each university were held responsible for such things the number of books in its library, the student to faculty ratio, test scores, etc., it would bring about many positive changes. But this is hard to achieve in a place where people can be easily persuaded to overlook certain things everywhere, not just in the higher education system. Without a doubt, the biggest obstacle to Morocco's economic and social development its culture of corruption

And I always found it so strange why my department never wanted me to make copies.