Friday, April 04, 2008

Moroccan beauty as seen by Khalid Diab .

Moroccan women in 3-D

My recent visit to Morocco helped to flesh out, in three dimensions, what it means to be a Moroccan and Arab woman today
by Khaled Diab

April 3, 2008 2:00 PM | Printable version

The Hollywood Casablanca is an enigmatic place of wartime intrigue peopled by a multinational cast of gin-swigging refugees and fraudsters, shady Nazis and heroic members of the resistance. The real Casablanca, Morocco's frenetic commercial hub, is quite a different place - for a start, it's inhabited by Moroccans, who are notable by their absence in the celluloid version of the city, excepting perhaps the doorman who lets people into Rick's Café Américain.

That said, the Moroccan Casablanca has been - given its size, cosmopolitan population and commercial status - a major ideological battlefield with its fair share of political tragedies and conflicts, particularly in the so-called Years of Lead under the late heavy-handed king, Hassan II.

Fatna el-Bouih, a quietly commanding woman with a solemn and earnest face, was, as a student and young activist, one of the many who fell foul of the regime in the 1960s and 1970s. As she drove us through Casablanca's broad and congested boulevards, el-Bouih recounted what happened to her during those dark years.

Born in 1955 in a small village about 60km from Casablanca, el-Bouih showed promise from an early age, earning herself a scholarship to the Lycée Chawqi, a prestigious girls' high school in Casa. Soon after joining the school, she discovered political activism and became a member of the Syndicat National des Elèves, Morocco's national union of high school students.

Her first serious run-in with the authorities was as a leader of a 1974 students' strike. "By a strange coincidence, the holding centre where I spent the night was next door to my school," she told me as we drove past the Lycée Chawqi.

She went on to tell me about the five years she spent in prison and how they changed her outlook on life. "Prison is a school you don't wish upon your loved ones but it is also a school where you learn a lot about life," she reflected. "In prison, my determination and understanding deepened and sparked my interest in women's issues."

However, it would be several years after her release before she recovered enough from the lead poisoning she got in jail to become politically active once again. Since then, she hasn't looked back. She has been involved in the campaign to force the government to face up to the legacy of the Years of Lead, which led to the establishment of an Equity and Reconciliation Commission, and she set up an NGO to help prisoners reintegrate into society. She was a leading voice in the successful campaign to make Morocco's family laws more friendly to women and she is in the process of writing her third book.

We continued through Casablanca's more affluent neighbourhoods and past the walls of the small historic medina - the fact that Moroccan towns still retain their original city walls adds a touch of beauty and timelessness to modern metropolises. Our destination was the crumbling masonry of decaying industrial buildings and the narrow alleyways that make up the working class Mohammadi neighbourhood, which was one of the half dozen or so areas in the country hit worst by government repression during the Years of Lead. Today, el-Bouih is coordinating a major initiative - funded by the EU's European Neighbourhood Policy - to rejuvenate this neglected district.

According to el-Bouih, Mohammadi - built originally to serve as the city's industrial hub by the French on confiscated farmland - was once a veritable talent production line churning out some of Morocco's greatest writers, artists, musicians and sportspeople. Today, the deprived neighbourhood is suffering the consequences of decades of neglect by the former regime as punishment for its obstinacy.

Our first stop was a place of painful personal association for el-Bouih. We parked in the courtyard of a nondescript concrete block with laundry hanging on the balconies. In the basement of this mundane-looking building was the infamous Derb Moulay Chérif "secret" torture centre where el-Bouih spent seven months in 1977 enduring psychological and physical abuse.

When I asked her how it felt to revisit the source of so much personal anguish, she went quiet for several moments, caught in her own thoughts. "Visiting this place affects me in a way that words fail to express," she confessed, struggling to maintain the customary calm of her voice as she gazed up at the freshly washed clothes fluttering on the balconies, concealing the dirty human laundry hidden in the bowels of the building and locked away in the vaults of time.

"So, people live here now," I remarked casually.

"People have always lived here," she responded with a hint of bitterness. "They just pretended that nothing was going on under their noses. Some of our torturers lived in those apartments up there."

I told her that I wasn't sure whether I would be able to endure what she had. "When people are faced with dire situations, they discover capacities they didn't know they possessed," was her response.

After taking the photographer, Mohammed Chamali, and me on a tour of the local youth centre - a rare space crammed full of local kids keen to express themselves in sports, music and culture - she drove us to the station.

On the way, we picked up her husband, Yusuf, from his office, who stepped into the car and gave her a gentle kiss on the cheek. When I was doing some background reading before my visit, I learned that Yusuf, despite his busy life as an IT professional, found time to support his wife in her numerous activities by taking care of her correspondence and typing up her manuscripts.

When he found out I was Egyptian, he told me about how much he enjoyed visiting Cairo and that he felt that it was his spiritual home. We chatted about his favourite haunts in the city of a thousand minarets, a million contradictions and 20 million restless souls.

Not only is Egypt the spiritual home of Imane Masbahi, a young Moroccan film director and distributor, but she can also speak Arabic with a distinct Cairene lilt. This took me a little by surprise when she greeted me in the Casablanca office of her film distribution company, giving me an eerie sense that I had somehow stepped through a portal and fetched up in another town.

Masbahi studied filmmaking, with a particular focus on screenwriting, which she describes as the orphan art in Morocco, at Cairo's prestigious Higher Institute for Cinema. Although she has focused mainly on television films during her career, she released her debut film for the big screen in 2002, after some eight years of on-off production. The Paradise of the Poor (Paradis des pauvres) explores a theme familiar to many young Moroccans: the allure of emigrating and the tough reality of life on the margins in Europe.

Masbahi's love of Egyptian cinema and culture has sparked in her a steely determination to carve out a niche for Egyptian films in Morocco. Almost a decade ago, she set up a distribution company for Egyptian films and now she shuttles back and forth between Cairo, where she has an Egyptian boyfriend, and Casablanca.

This surprised me somewhat, since I had assumed that Egyptian films, produced in the "Hollywood" of the Middle East, would not need someone to champion them single-handedly. After all, it is easy, as a visitor, to come away with the impression that Moroccans are passionate about all things Egyptian and are well-versed in Egyptian popular culture.

As in Egypt, traditional teahouses in Morocco still resonate with the legendary vocal chords of Umm Kulthoum, the undisputed grand diva of the Arab world. People's televisions are as often as not tuned in to Egyptian satellite channels or channels showing Egyptian productions. Sometimes, with the sounds of Egypt all around, one could almost be lulled into thinking they were a few thousand kilometres east.

People also tend to become warmer and friendlier when they find out you're an Egyptian, particularly now that Egypt has been crowned African football champion for the second time running. This proved particularly useful at a checkpoint, when a bored gendarme started being difficult with Umar, who was driving us to the Rif Mountains. When Umar identified me as Egyptian, the gendarme called over his mates, all of whom started congratulating me on Egypt's victory and telling me that all Moroccans had rooted for Egypt and that the national side had done all of North Africa proud.

Masbahi was surprised that all Moroccans seemed so friendly with me. "Surely the women are friendlier than the men?" she asked. "Moroccan men are often jealous of Egyptian men because Moroccan women are so infatuated by them." I though to myself that perhaps Moroccan women would be somewhat less enthusiastic if they actually lived in Egypt!

Masbahi explained that this love for Egypt did not actually translate into bums on seats in cinemas. "In Morocco, most people go to see Hollywood, Bollywood or Moroccan productions," she said. "Another big problem for Egyptian films is widespread piracy. You can get knocked-off DVDs and videos everywhere in the market."

In addition, she explained, most Egyptian films that make it to Moroccan cinemas are lightweight and incredibly commercial. "The reputation of serious Egyptian films among Moroccan filmgoers was hurt by the so-called 'contract' films of the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, when businessmen who had no idea about the industry financed highly formulaic films in search of a profit," Masbahi says. "In recent years, there have been lots of high-quality Egyptian films which Moroccans are not really aware of."

Being a small fish in a very large distribution ocean, Masbahi struggled to draw audiences to her first releases, many of which were highly political or focused on very Egyptian issues. But she puts much of the trouble down to her shorter reach compared with the distributors of American and Indian films. "Not only do they have a larger distribution budget, but they benefit from all the press hype and publicity prior to the film's release," she points out.

This led her to seek sponsors to finance the promotion of films, but she soon abandoned this because it was too commercial for her liking. Then she managed to get hold of some EU funding aimed at helping distribute films across the Euro-Med area. With better promotional campaigns, she soon discovered that there was a latent appetite for Egyptian cinema.

The veteran Egyptian comedian Adel Imam has proven to be a good investment for her. His latest satire, Morgan Ahmed Morgan, has been at the top of the box office takings for Morocco's main cinema chain for the entire first quarter of 2008.

The film, which she invited me to see, is about a billionaire of modest roots who believes he can bribe his way through anything. When his children express their shame at his uncultured and uneducated ways, he buys his way into parliament, and they join the opposition against him. He then decides to go back to school and joins the same exclusive university they go to and goes about trying to buy himself an education. When his son and daughter more or less disown him, he begins to reform.

This unexpected success has been uplifting for her small company. Masbahi is now considering setting her sights on the trickier challenge of promoting Moroccan films in Egypt. One major barrier is language, since most Egyptians cannot understand fully the Moroccan dialect. Another is the Egypt-centrism of the Egyptian cultural landscape, which often ignores the creative output of other Arab countries, particularly those to the west.

Masbahi is proud of the fact that Egyptian films are, thanks to her efforts, gaining in profile across Morocco. She is doubly proud of this achievement given the fact that she is the only woman boss in the Moroccan film distribution industry.

But it is not just women from Morocco's educated urban elite who are entering traditionally male domains.

Chefchaouen is a breathtakingly beautiful town of blue and white buildings perched in the luscious green of the Rif Mountains. In its hinterland, Chamali, the photographer, pointed out to me that up here in the north it was the women who did a large share of the work out on the fields, unlike in the south. "A lot of men in the rif are too lazy to work their land," he maintained. I hoped, but very much doubted, that these absent men compensated by doing more domestic chores.

Nevertheless, even in this traditional and very conservative environment, there are young women who are taking their first bold steps towards emancipation. For instance, I was surprised at a small co-operative goat's cheese factory I visited that the most technical job there, that of lab technicians, was being performed by two young female graduates.

One of them, Zeinab, was quite pleased that this place had opened up in the area. "It gives me the chance to practise my specialty, which is very fulfilling," she told me. "As a first job, the income also isn't bad." Betraying a healthy spirit of ambition, she remarked: "This is only a first step. I hope to develop my skills and find more challenging work in the future."

And the ambition to move onwards and upwards is one that is doubtless shared by many Moroccan women.

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