Part 1: Notes from the Western Saharan Refugee Camps

The view from the plane flying into Tindouf.
The view from the plane flying into Tindouf.

Thanks to the support of the FiSahara Film Festival and the Arab Studies Institute, I spent about a week in the Dakhla Sahrawi refugee camp, about 170 kilometers outside of Tindouf in southern Algeria. I went in my capacity as a freelance writer, graduate student, and activist. During my time there, I stayed with a Sahrawi refugee family and met a number of Sahrawi refugees, international filmmakers, journalists, and members of the Polisario and Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic government.

Going into this trip, I carried with me a series of baggages that weren’t the kind you could measure on a scale. My privilege was the biggest baggage. As a Moroccan-American, I came from two countries who have being powerful actors in the Western Saharan conflict: Morocco, the country that invaded the Western Saharan territory in 1975, and the United States, the country that largely supplies the military and financial aid that allows Morocco to sustain its (violent) presence in the territory. The other baggage I carried with me was my ignorance. Having largely been informed of the conflict through the Moroccan side, I held severe misconceptions that colored my understanding of the conflict and the Sahrawi population in general. Among these misconceptions were that mobility within the refugee camps was severely restricted, that the area surrounding the camp was a hotbed of insecurity and violence, and that my presence in the camps as a Moroccan would trigger negative responses and reactions among the Sahrawi population. I also went into this trip with the overarching anxiety about what the consequences would be for me during my next visit to Morocco and the issues my family living in Morocco would face. Without even having visited the camps, members of my family and neighbors have already been subjected to unannounced visits from Moroccan intelligence services and their incessant questions about me and my work. While I have plenty to recount about the political atmosphere, the conditions under which Sahrawis live in the refugee camps, the role of the Polisario, the socioeconomic realities Sahrawis face, and questions of women’s rights and gender, among others–which I will discuss in forthcoming articles–this post, along with future posts on this blog are meant to focus on my personal experiences. Continue reading Part 1: Notes from the Western Saharan Refugee Camps


The Illegal Kiss

teenage-moroccan-couple-arrested-for-kissing-in-facebook-photoDuring the beginning of October 2013, two teenagers from the northern city of Nador were arrested for uploading an image of them kissing one another. The two teenagers and a male friend who took the picture, faced charges of “public indecency.” After they were held in a juvenile detention center, the teenagers’ trial was postponed from 12 October 2013 to 22 November. The defense attorney cited the pursuit of “an inquiry into the social circumstances of the teenagers” as the reason for the trial’s delay. In reaction to the arrest of these teenagers, netizens launched a solidarity campaign entitled #FreeBoussa on social media. The campaign included images of couples kissing one another and calls for a sit-in, which ended up taking place in Rabat on 12 October 2013. Following the widespread media coverage of the case, the judge acquitted the teenagers, who would have otherwise faced jail sentences of up to five years.

The multiple layers of political authority, morality, and gendered norms of public decency embedded within this case and the reaction that followed merit a deeper reading. Firstly, the arrest of these teenagers was, first and foremost, a grave violation of their right of expression. With the public prosecution citing laws relating to “public indecency,” the case demonstrates the role of the state in policing social norms and defining morals along conservative lines. Secondly, the state’s moral arm in its role as the “social” police is bolstered by its socioeconomic policies that have marginalized the northern Rif region, where the arrest of these teenagers took place (specifically the city of Nador). Moreover, the selective enforcement of rigid moral codes fits into a broader pattern of the Moroccan regime’s ongoing repression and marginalization of politically contentious actors. While the teenagers targeted in this case did not explicitly engage in political expression, the fact that they come from a region that has been the site of broader dissent directed at the palace raises questions about the political implications of this case.

Thirdly, the solidarity campaign that grew in response to the arrest of these teenagers has succeeded in gaining wider media attention and drawing more scrutiny to the case. To the extent that the #FreeBoussa campaign acted as a societal disruption, such as the public kiss-in that took place in Rabat, aspects of the campaign uncritically embrace liberal views on individual freedoms. Such an approach, which fails to address the fact that the arrest of these teenagers is beyond the simple act of kissing, opens the window for more state oppression. Continue reading The Illegal Kiss

The perks of being a white-passing, undergraduate, study abroad student in Morocco

**Update Feb. 3: This post is sort of irrelevant now since, as of the evening of February 3rd, the original article in question has been deleted from Morocco World News. Click here for a link to the Google cached page (courtesy of @Karim_EH).**

[The following is a satirical post based on the article initially entitled “The perks of dating a Moroccan man while living in Morocco,” which was been changed to “On dating a Moroccan man while living in Morocco.” The article initially listed Morocco World News‘ assistant editor, Katrina Bushko, as the author–but her name has since been dropped from the article’s byline without any explanation.]

Not in a million years did I think I would get to exude my privilege while studying abroad! Not being able to stand out at my Ivy League university, I had no expectations that going to Morocco would reveal the deeply embedded hierarchy I would later find myself situated in. But life has a funny way of handing you surprises, and this was definitely one of them.

[Image of Talitha Getty on a rooftop in Marrakech, Morocco. Image via Jezebel.]
[Image of Talitha Getty on a rooftop in Marrakech, Morocco. Image via Jezebel.]

Being a child of a multi-cultural marriage has instilled within me an appreciation for flat multiculturalism and to know what to expect when I interact with people who are less privileged. Of course that only got me so far. I have a great appreciation for Moroccan people: the Orientalist tropes about hospitality were totally on point and because Brazilians are close enough to Moroccans, and I love Brazilians, it makes sense that I absolutely adore Moroccans…broadly speaking though. (This obviously excludes the disenfranchised and marginalized classes of Moroccans who scare me with their poverty). So I guess that puts me one step closer to being involved with a Moroccan.

However, what really intrigued me about my exotic and (now ex) boyfriend was the fact that he recognized how my white-passing skin resonates with dominant representations of beauty inherited from a colonial era and sustained through the socioeconomic and political expansion of Western hegemony. On any given day, I could walk through the souq in Fez or in the streets of El Jadida and be stared at, called to, and generally harassed–I understood this as being a manifestation of how Moroccan society defines beauty through common images in media and advertising until I realized that this treatment toward women is not exceptional and that sexual harassment on the streets of Morocco is a serious endemic that merits more than a sentence indicating self-worth. I had written off most Moroccan men as being in either one of two categories: they are sexually deprived animals who prey at the closest thing to a vagina or they want to exploit my position as a white-passing non-Moroccan who is visiting from a country associated with the proliferation of neoliberal policies that have essentially reduced Morocco’s economy into a market dependent upon IMF and World Bank loans and has made Morocco reliant upon tourism as a major source of capital, as such, I must deal with various Moroccans trying to sell me things. But, I luckily found one (I choose to say “one” as a benign expression of my privilege because I see this Moroccan man as a continued manifestation of my objectifying gaze that engenders the way in which I see brown men from a non-Western country). This gives me hope that there is, in fact, a third category of genuinely good Moroccan men who are willing to build a relationship with me based on the power imbalance I have illustrated above without questioning why is it that I have reduced the entire Moroccan male race into 3 mere categories that mirror the ways in which colonial powers created categories to reduce the populations they dominated over  and blur over any nuance that could have broken down the premises on which their exertion of power was based upon. So that was definitely a pro of dating this “third category” Moroccan: submission. Continue reading The perks of being a white-passing, undergraduate, study abroad student in Morocco