The land known as “the Western Kingdom” has a reputation for anti-black prejudice almost as old as its mosques, and as current as today’s headlines.
When you first look at Morocco, the images are stunning — mountains, deserts, valleys, uninterrupted miles of beaches on the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.
Then you look at the way blacks are treated in Morocco, and the picture changes. Dramatically.
Ethnically, Morocco is 99 percent Arab and Berber. A sizable number of the remaining 1 percent are black.
And from all appearances, many among that 99 percent never let them forget it.
Blacks in Morocco, be they natives, immigrants from elsewhere on the Mother Continent or black Americans, will tell you that many Moroccans use the word “African” as an epithet, ignoring the fact that Morocco is in Africa.
Not an easy trick, ignoring geography, but a lot of Moroccans seem to have mastered it.
Last fall, the French cable news channel France 24 showed a Moroccan newsweekly magazine reporting on the increase of clandestine immigrants to Morocco from sub-Saharan Africa coming into the country. Its title: “Le péril noir.”
The black peril — or, if you will, the black menace.
It also shows the cover of a different Moroccan magazine, written in Arabic, depicting what appears to be African immigrants standing in front of a building. Its cover title: “The black crickets invading Morocco’s north.”
I’ve seen black people referred as varying forms of wildlife over the years, but being likened to a plague of insects is a new one for me.
“DIRTY BLACK MAN, BLOODY NEGRO”
Above that, a young student from Guinea, in Morocco to study computing, describes his life among Moroccan Arabs:
“Often, when I’m just walking down the street, people will call me a “dirty black man” or call me a slave. Young Moroccans have physically assaulted me on several occasions, for no reason, and passers-by who saw this didn’t lift a finger to help me. All my friends are black and they have all had similar experiences. Even the girls get insulted in the street. To avoid getting hurt, I now try to ignore the insults. But if someone starts to hit me, what can I do? I have to defend myself…”
France 24 changed the speaker’s name and obscured his pic for his own safety.
This isn’t the first time or place in North Africa that I’ve heard about this, but Morocco may be the worst.
In a lengthy article for the Afrik-News site, Smahane Bouyahia puts it this way:
“In Morocco, and north Africa, there is a serious problem of racism towards Black people. Called “Black Africans,” they are considered descendants of slaves and labeled “hartani”—literally, “second-rate free men”—or even worse, “aâzi”—which translates to “bloody Negro”.
“Moroccans are known to be racially prejudiced towards people with darker skin shades. In Morocco and the rest of the Maghreb, Black people have long been subject to different forms of discrimination. Constantly persecuted, insulted, abused and even assaulted, black people are subject to humiliating conditions on daily basis.”
You can read the entire Afrik-News article here.
SLAVERY NEVER ENDED
None of this is new. Consider this telling observation from French historian Pierre Vermeren, who has published several books about Morocco:
“Slavery was never officially abolished. The French Protectorate at the beginning of the 20th century, simply (forbade) the act. But the initiative never came from Moroccan society itself.”
One of my readers is a young black woman born and reared in Morocco, now living in central Africa. “I couldn’t wait to get out of there!” she told me.
Here’s what she had to say about growing up in “the Western Kingdom:”
“…as you spend more time there you get to understand what the insults in Arabic mean. You get to understand that they are really calling you the N-word, and not just teasing you. I always tell my friends (black or not) that it’s a great place to go as a visitor, not so much to live there if you’re Black.”
That’s the key to it, appearing to be of African descent.
When blogger Matthew Helmke, a white man, wrote of the abuses of Moroccan blacks he witnessed at an immigration office in the famous city of Fes, a black American woman living in Rabat left this comment in response:
“I can’t tell you how many times I have been spat at on the street and have had the most inappropriate things done to me believing that I am Sub-Saharan African and that I have no recourse…Yes, I am black and so could be Moroccan but they know that I am not Moroccan; I am different. So it is alright to spit. Mind you: They know that Europeans are different, but they would NEVER think to spit.”
Even more telling than her account of racist treatment at the hands of non-black Moroccans is this:
“My Moroccans friends are shocked some even outraged when I tell them that Morocco is the most overtly racist and xenophobic place that I have lived…when we Americans raise this, the Moroccans insist that we are projecting our issues of race unto their society! This, after I cannot get a taxi to take me to the American Embassy and I have to say no constantly to the taxi driver as he goes through the name of all the Embassies of Sub-Saharan Africa.”
Evidently, in the eyes of some Moroccans, you can’t really be an American if you’re black.
Then there was the Moroccan who commented in response to her remarks. He defends his homeland and points out that not all Moroccans act this way. What blogger Helmke witnessed was not racism, he says, but a kind of favoritism catering to whites, based on an inferiority complex.
But then he follows all that with this:
“People of Fes hate us people of the south and they call us ‘Sahrawa’ or black people.”
If you think I’m just cherry-picking comments calculated to cast Morocco in a negative light, just do a Google search on the term “morocco racism” and see what happens — anywhere from 15 to 20 pages of items on the subject.
When the crop is that abundant, the “picking” is easy.
I’m always of two minds when I hear stories like this. One says that if you really want to see and experience Morocco, you should, for all the reasons already mentioned, and not let anyone’s racism stop you from seeing the world.
The other mind says there are too many other places in the world where I can go to enjoy great natural beauty, ancient history and culture, without having blatant bigotry spoil the view.
Which way will I go on Morocco? I’ll cross — or burn — that bridge when I come to it.