“If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” -E.B. White
My mental globe has been spinning for the last 17 days and finally my mind has landed, dizzy and discombobulated, with my physical location here in North Africa.
Thus far, I have found myself caught up in the “wow” rather than the “why”. I marvel at Roman ruins and finally being able to navigate the medina, but I don’t stop to think about the implications the Romans may have had on the way in which Morocco developed as a country or the stories behind the faces I see everyday in food stalls and djellabah shops. It had not fully hit me that I am not just a tourist here for a few days, but rather I’ll be living for almost fours months in a place outside the western world, where everyone speaks Arabic and 98 percent of the population is Muslim. At least not until the last week.
I woke up last Tuesday morning feeling no different than any other day. In fact, I didn’t even know what day was. My sense of date and time here in Morocco has been overshadowed by rooftop views, absorbing Arabic lessons and mint tea after every meal.
I walked to school in a good mood, striding through the 11 left-right turns it takes to get from my home to the CCCL without looking at my hand-written directions once.
I arrived at school, sat down for an Arabic lesson and asked my classmates the date: September 11.
This date sends chills down my spine. It always has and always will. 11 years previous I was anxiously waiting to hear from my uncle who worked in the World Trade Center, and trying to make sense of terrorism in my 5th grade mind. My uncle was safe, thank goodness, but over a decade later I am still trying to make sense of what happened and why. And now I’m a journalism student, living in a Muslim country with an opportunity to report on this post 9/11, post Arab Spring world.
Here in Morocco the day passed without incident. Nothing on the news, my host family didn’t say anything and business seemed to go on as usual. On Facebook, everyone I knew in the U.S. posted some memorial to the victims in remembrance of the day.
Tuesday continued with a talk on the Moroccan media landscape from Driss Ksikes, a Moroccan journalist. Ksikes was the editor of Nichane, a news magazine, in 2007 when an article on religious jokes published under his editorial watch sent him and a fellow journalist to court for defaming the Islam. He had to pay an $8,000 fine and was banned from journalism for two months.
Journalism in Morocco, he explained, is largely government-controlled. You must have a license to practice journalism, and under Moroccan law if you defame the king, Islam or the Western Sahara (an controversial border region claimed by Morocco), you can be punished. The media is either controlled by the government or monarchy or they are run people with close ties to the government, and are generally sympathetic to the governments’ perspective.
Part of the problem is education, said Ksikes, who adds that critical thinking isn’t a skill many students leave the Moroccan education system with. He pointed out that while young people are good at protest, they are not as good at governing or at creating institutional change
Monday night we attended a Youth Arab Voices debate at the National Library, which quickly proved “debate” has a different meaning in Morocco. The event was held in a giant tent, complete with a red carpet, flashy graphics and upbeat music that would seem appropriate across the globe at New York Fashion Week. We were given a free notebook and folder with plenty of information about the sponsors and partners (the British Council, Anna Lindh Foundation, the Ministry of Youth and Sports of Morocco, the National Library of the Kingdom of Morocco, and the International Debate Education Association) though nothing specific about the youth who would be speaking.
After 35 minutes of introductions by representatives from the sponsors discussing the importance of the “voice of Arab youth”, six young people (representing Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Algeria, Jordan and Tunisia) were given a few minutes to talk, or ask a question of one of the Moroccan officials present. The official answered, and they moved onto the next question. There were few rebuttals, and the youth were advised to keep questions short due to time constraints.
Though the tent was lined with people and paparazzi when the event began, most of the seats were empty by the time we left after an hour and a half. One woman we talked to afterward said she didn’t feel there was much conversation, but she was glad there was a forum.
“At least someone is talking,” she said.
Our homework for the evening was to watch the movie, The Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi.
A fixer is a local used by foreign correspondents to set up interviews, translate and act as a guide to a region for the journalist. This particular story was about a fixer in Afghanistan, Ajmal Naqshbandi, who regularly worked with top tier media. While working on a story with Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo, Naqshbandi, the journalist and their driver were kidnapped by the Taliban. Mastrogiacomo was released after the Afghanistan government made a trade for Taliban prisoners. Naqshbandi, however, was re-kidnapped in the transition and the Taliban demanded more prisoners for his release. The government ignored the deadlines. Naqshbandi was beheaded.
The film showed press conferences where officials (including the current president Hamid Karzai) explained that they needed to keep a good relationship with the Italians, due to a strategic transportation deal. One official said he hoped if the Taliban kidnapped him, even if he was tortured and was to be killed, the Afghani government would not trade Taliban members for his life. This is superimposed with the joyous red carpet return of the Italian journalist to his home country after being set free.
The journalist behind the film, Christian Parenti, went beyond the basics of this particular case. Parenti used Naqshbandi many times as a fixer, and had quite a bit of footage of them working in the field. It became clear that a lot of the foreign correspondents’ job is often done by the fixer, setting up interviews, interpreting, providing instincts about whether something is fishy or not.
Afterward I just had to go to our school’s terrace, put in headphones and zen for a bit. Watching someone’s head get sawed off in the name of journalism, albeit blurred, is a heavy thing to digest.
On Wednesday we sat in class discussing our conversation with Ksikes and the challenges we may face as journalists in a country without free press, when a classmate raised her hand.
“I don’t mean to change the subject,” she said. “But I just saw on Twitter that the U.S. Ambassador to Libya has been killed.”
We all immediately went online, and read the story of the protests turned violent. In a wave that seems so characteristic of movements in past years, throughout the day we watched as the protests moved from Libya to Egypt to Kuwait to Algeria. Finally, a friend and I were sitting in her house after school and we saw a tweet that hundreds were protesting outside the U.S. Consulate in Casablanca, Morocco. The crowd chanted “Allah! Allah!” An American flag was burned.
Nothing was reported in Moroccan media. The only information we were getting was from Twitpics and YouTube videos. Our first thought was whether this was going to come to Rabat, since the U.S. embassy is here. Our second thought was, how do we cover this protest if we are part of what is being protested against?
The protests continued throughout the week. One on Friday was in Sale, the town across the river from Rabat. These hit close to home, but felt far away. I still walked the streets feeling safe; my western look garnered no more unusual looks than any other day.
We are in a strange place in Morocco. We saw an example of the aftershock of Arab Spring with the Young Arab Voices debate: in Morocco, forums are being provided, but they are still heavily controlled and the discussion is proving more complicated than the revolution. We see the new reverberations of unrest in the Arab world, some of it still against issues of corrupt government and unemployment, but also increasingly against the western world. And we can report these issues in our own country, where the press is free, but not in the country that these issues are actually present.
But we are also seeing daily life in Morocco. The bustling corridors of the medina, the child playing with one of the many stray cats, my host mother doing her prayers at night.
What’s the more important story? Or are they the same one? How can we ensure that these stories make an impact, not just on someone’s Twitter feed in the U.S. but on the ground here?
My head is finally here, and I am ready to listen.