Racism and abuse in Morocco

I couldn’t post this while I was still living in the country. Now that I have moved elsewhere, I can finally say something about a problem that bothered me immensely in Morocco, a nation of 33 million wonderful people, and a few thousand evil overlords operating in the police forces and elsewhere.

Racism. It’s a dirty word and an even dirtier practice. I have no patience for people who judge others solely on the basis of something as trivial as skin color. In Morocco, I witnessed it first hand many times. One of my final and most enduring images of this country was during my last week there.

I went in to the local immigration office, the department within the police which oversees resident foreigners, to get a paper I needed to export my personal belongings as I was exiting the country. I arrived at the office and noticed a long line of people waiting, so I took my place in the queue. One of the bureaucrats in charge of the office met me in the hallway and asked me why I was waiting out there with all “these” people (who all had dark skin, in contrast to my light skin), and took me in the office. I told him what I needed, he joked with me and said it would just take a moment, and he got to work, inviting me to sit in the best seat in the office.

After a few minutes, he needed to leave the office to get a signature upstairs. He left me with his assistant. It was then that I looked around the office. The assistant made a joke with me about my previous book and we both laughed. For the first time, I realized that there was still another person in the room, a young man in his early 20s sitting on the floor behind a desk. He had a gentle smile and was chuckling softly at the joke. He also had dark skin. The assistant rose from his seat and screamed at the young man, telling him to shut up and threatening to beat him senseless with a very large stick, which the assistant was now wielding and using to poke the young man in the face.

The seated youth fell silent. The bureaucrat returned with my paper. I left with a sense of powerlessness as I realized that there was little to nothing I could do to help the young man other than make his case public after leaving the country. So that is what I am doing today.

The office was in the Wilaya of Fes, in the department des etrangers. The habit of preferring white foreigners over darker skinned foreigners is endemic and can be confirmed by talking to any foreigner resident in the city. The abusive behavior I witnessed was obviously habitual and the person (the grumpy guy who sits in the far corner from the door) thought and acted as if it was totally appropriate, natural, and normal. He moved from joking with me, to abusing the young man angrily, and back to a new joke seamlessly.

I am embarrassed by my reaction. I froze into silence, intimidated by the circumstances and a fear of not being able to leave the country or being persecuted alongside others. Instead of letting that be the end, I’ve decided to do something, even if it is small, by bringing the story to light today.

21 thoughts on “Racism and abuse in Morocco

  1. Hello:

    Don’t feel bad. I am originally from Syria but have been living in Canada for the past 20+ years.

    Racism is nothing new to the Middle East and N.Africa. People do tolerate it a lot there because of the sense of hopelessness. The same feeling you felt when you where their watching what the government worker did to the your dark-skinned man. Many Arabs suffer at their own government’s hands and after a little while, they don’t care. They want to get on with their lives and they accept the abuse as part of life.

    Don’t get me wrong, not all government employees are that nasty. I’ve seen disrespect from some of them but not as vicious as the one you witnessed. Don’t forget their point of view. Most government employees in the Arab speaking world make very little money so they are under constant stress to provide. All that stress will have to be offloaded onto somebody. The weak gets it all the time unfortunately.

    I wish I can tell you how you can fix it. Personally I think through proper education, people will be empowered giving them the sense of worth and prosperity they need to demand fairness from their governments. Until that happens, I doubt anything will change.

    I mentioned sense of worth because people in the Arab world have an inferiority complex. They think westerners are smarter than them and that they will never amount of anything. That is why they treat westerners with golden gloves. It makes them feel better inside.

    Thanks for sharing this experience with the world.

  2. anmar: what a great comment! Thank you. That was encouraging and enlightening at the same time. I appreciate it greatly.

    I have witnessed dozens of the good civil servants, such as you mention, so I can confirm their existence, as I can also confirm that there are others in the society who also display racist attitudes without being a part of the government.

    Thanks again!!

  3. Thank you matthew for coming forward with this.
    I can’t believe that some of people complaining about racism(towards moroccans) in europe end up doing the same thing.
    I’m from Rabat and I believe that it has more to do with the nationality of immigrants(sub-saharan africans vs western) than skin colour.
    As you said most moroccans are kind people but you know every family has a retard cousin(I know it’s a very nasty thing to say :)).
    Good luck to you where ever you are now.

  4. Matthew, you have wrote and interesting account of what you experienced, which is to be applauded.

    However, i am surprised that you chose to not even attempt to either find out why the young man was being placed in a situation like that or, even, in your priviliged position as a white foreigner to try to assist him in any way. The first thing that you could have done, as soon as you realised that you had the privilige of “Queue jumping” was to have asked or even just stated “Oh, i hope that i am not pushing in ahead of this young gentleman?”

    Sometimes, showing respect to a person when others around are clearly not doing so can diffuse a situation for that person.

    I believe that you were in a priviliged position, yet you chose to take the course of and appreciate the “white man comes first” attitude of the official.

    There are several reasons why i say this:

    1. To not take any course of action only compounds the officials actions as being correct and encourages it in the future.

    2. To not visibly show concern for this young man leads to a harbouring of hatred towards “tourists who come along and are treated better because they have more money”.

    Regardless of this young mans nationality or skin colour, i agree that he should be treated the same as anyone else, if not better, because he is perhaps a minority.

    On another point there may have been a perfectly acceptable cause behind the officials behaviour….perhaps the young man had been rude and very disrespectful….perhaps he himself had played the race card?

    However, i will say that, as a british person myself, Racism from the locals towards Western tourists does also exist….indeed i have experienced it first hand, many times, and many times, indeed, it is because the tourist is a non Muslim, a non believer, an infidel.

    Thanks for sharing the experience with us, that is most valuable.

  5. Hey Paul,

    I can answer some of your comments. First, I didn’t try to help the young man because I knew that any aid I attempted to give him at that moment would only serve to his detriment as soon as I was gone, and my leaving was imminent. There is an aspect of honest fear of/for my own situation as well. My family had already left the country. I had no one to help me if I had been forced to join him, and I already know what my government would have done on my behalf if I had interfered in the internal workings of my host government (nothing).

    As to the queue jumping, this was not the first time it had happened (to me). I knew what was going on. The first time, I did speak up, and my situation was made significantly worse for a very long time–think years, not hours. I had to get a document from that office that day in order to leave the country. Self-serving? Ashamedly, yes.

    I doubt the young man played a “race card.” He spoke good dialectal Arabic, but not like a native, so he wasn’t Moroccan. I should know, as this is the language that all of my interaction with this office has been in. There is no “race card” to play in this country. The idea of racism doesn’t raise an emotional response on anyone’s behalf and being a minority is never something that the society considers worthy of respect, protection or special treatment. In fact, being part of anything but the majority group in a given situation can, but does not have to, lead to repression.

    My guess is that he was a sub-Saharan African come to Morocco to study who had possibly overstayed his visa or failed out of school. I am not doubting that he had a reason to be in the office and in a bit of trouble, just his treatment.

    Whether he was rude or disrespectful prior to my arrival in the office, I can’t say. While I was there, he was submissive, soft spoken, and looked utterly humiliated.

  6. I think you ought to add that being anything but a majority-race MALE is unfavorable. I was treated like crap for two years by local police while my foreign male counterparts received preferential treatment. But still the Sub-Saharans received worse.

  7. Matthew,
    …………….
    I had a long comment but I decided not to hit the button.

    Anyway, I’m here just to congratulate you on getting your freedom to post whatever you want.

    Mabrookulations 🙂

  8. Should have kept it to yourself.

    Your as big a racist as those you seek to placate. Queue jumping for self serving reason is the very basis of racism – the belief that you are better (by even participating in the racism) and/or cannot help those with such a small display of correctness (refusing to accept and participate in the racism).

    Writing words in a blog, hoping that someone else will either have the courage to do what you couldn’t, or even better – does not and should not absolve your active participation in the very racism you claim to dislike.

  9. @Jason: ‘Queue jumping for self serving reason is the very basis of racism”

    Oh, right, so it was queue jumping that started all that slavery and stuff. Good to know.
    Don’t overreact. The worst accusation you could make is that he helped sustain racism.

    @Matthew: Kudos for sharing this. Interfering might have worsened your situation, the other persons situation and the people in the office probably wouldn’t have learned. That said, it might have helped to just let him know that you see no reason to treat others that way, but it’s easy to say that from behind a desk at home in a safe country :). I probably would have done the same.

  10. What an incredible story. I can honestly say that I would have done the exact same thing. Even if I would have chosen to do something else, your intents were pure. You didn’t want to see any harm done to anyone. I applaud the fact that you’re doing something (even though you think it’s small) because it makes an impact on everyone who reads it. Thank you.

  11. Hi Matthew,

    Having lived in this Country for quite a while, I would agree with Nabil that the point is not so much the color of the skin but the fact of not being a Moroccan, of „not being like us, not being part of the crowd” (the pressure to be or at least to behave like a member of the herd is enormous: now in Ramadan people who do not fast on the clear advice of their doctor would not say so, even to their friends).

    As you know, there are Moroccans that are really black. I never heard any remark neither in the professional nor in the private life when such a person got a promotion or married a white (Moroccan) girl. But I did hear our little niece, 5, making racist jokes about people from Senegal – we had to remind her seriously that her own (Moroccan) father is totally black! Truth, as you know, comes out of children’s mouths.

    I believe queue jumping and other privileges are the rule rather than the exception. As a European woman of a certain age I know what you are talking about. When I witness this form of discrimination I try to show my solidarity with the normal or underprivileged people around me by gestures. I also speak up knowing that I do not risk much. It does not change things, I just try to apply Kant’s categorical imperative and I think it makes the victims of discrimination feel better. What you need in order to live in the country is a genuine humility- what a pity that you left!

    Heidemarie

  12. Hi:

    I wanted to applaud you for this brilliant “article.”

    I am an African-American spending a year in Morocco and presently living in Rabat. I cant 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.

    I too have had the awful experience of dealing with a certain Loubna and her cohort at the Perfecture of Police in Rabat as I tried to get a Carte de Sejour. They thought that I was NOT American despite my passport and time and time again I was sent to the “Black room” which is where all the Sub-Saharans are sent who are there to register as students and what not. The treatment between the white Americans and myself as an obvious African American is palpable.

    But what is most frustrating for me of this entire experience is the response of almost all the Moroccans I meet in saying there is no racism in Morocco. They quote from the Koran and I look at them askance before I ask them if they follow all that the Koran tells them to do. That is when they look away. 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. They find that really hard to believe, what with me coming from America.

    In deed, as I often say, this year in Morocco has been a revaluation of the way in which I see my country of America vis a vis Morocco. It pains me to have to say this, but all the white Americans I know are stunned with the overt racism in Morocco while all the Moroccans insist that racism is not part of their makeup. What is even more telling and troubling is that 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.

    And that is another aspect to this as an African American, is that no Moroccans believe that you are American because, after all, as one taxi driver said to me, “You are not the photocopy of an American.” “Says who?” I asked me and then he could not answer.

    So I have been thinking long and hard about this subject and realize that there are more things than racism going on in the society. Dare I say it? There is a kind of overt xenophobia. A fear of difference in general. Oh, I foresee Moroccans writing back and cursing me about saying this, but that is what I have come to. 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.

    So what have I decided to do? I spit back and that is when you see that these spitters are in general cowards. They do not know what to make of a Black person, who at that, spitting back at them and you can see the fear that actually comes over them.

    Of course I could go on endlessly about the racism that I as an African American continues to encounter in Rabat and other areas in Morocco, but I will close with this: My impression is that Moroccans in general find it very hard to look at and critique themselves. You bring up racism they bring up how they are victimized by racism in France and other places in Europe. I say to them, racism is bad all around, including when it happens here in Morocco. They look at me like I am crazy.

    Unfortunately, I think it will take something tragic and terrible, short of a powerful film or book about the subject, that forces Moroccans to confront the issue. Tensions are simmering. Especially in some of the working-class neighbourhoods where many Sub-Saharan students make their home. These issues, I predict, will come to a bloody heading and then, maybe then, most Moroccans will be forced to deal with the issue. But then again, given the answers that have been posited so far by leading intellectuals and others that I have spoken about this issue. It wont be racism at all, that is at the root of all the hate and xenophobia. It will be something else al together. For “The Koran says …” and we are after all still in Morocco.

  13. Hello,
    I am Moroccan living in the USA. I really do appreciate your article about racism in Morocco in the region of Fes. I can not but say that you are RIGHT unfortunately but I only want to point out that racism is not all over Morocco. Not all people are racist and not all Moroccans have racist tendencies or that racism is institutionalized in the country. I am sure that there are a lot of officials who do not realize that their favoritism is a sort of discrimination against others either based on color, religion, social class, gender….
    The reason I am writing you this comment is first of all to point out these remarks in order to be fair to these nice lovely Moroccans who respect others, love them ans do their best to serve them in the best way they could. The second reason is because I am actually working on thesis on racism in Morocco because I have found out that a lot of my countrymen/women are racist tacitly without knowing that and I am trying to analyze it in a very deep way.
    I also would like to say that what happened to you cannot be classified as racism and the best way to describe it would be ‘favoritism’. An official abusing his power to serve a white person despite the facty that they do not deserve the priority or there is no uregence for them to be served before others. This goes back to a very important thing called ‘inferiority complex’ that a lot of our officials have vis-a-vis Europeans or Americans and women too. Favoritism is a currency in Morocco unfortunately.
    People of Fes hate us people of the south and they call us ‘Sahrawa’ or black people. They always have problems of superiority and they treat us as if we did not know anything about Morocco. You can see the composition of the Morocco government, television stations and all the public personalities and you will find out that NO BLACK person has EVER been prime minister, a famous journalist or presenting the news on television. The only RARE moments in which you could see black people in my country’s tv is when they serve tea or serve as servants for others.
    Countries of the Gulf are worse.
    Have a nice day and I hope to get some feedback from you.

  14. Thanks for your comments. I agree with the point that this does not describe all Moroccan people. I know hundreds and many, perhaps most, do not judge people based on skin color or origin, at least not intentionally. This is true in Fes as well as other places I have been in the country (all the major cities and most of the secondary and many of the tertiary).

    I would say defining racism more narrowly than I did would be useful for research, but would not fit the popular and more standard definition. What occurred in my example was preferential treatment based on skin color (and point of origin), which would fit the common use of the term.

    Thanks for your comments!

  15. Hi Matthew thanks for this interesting but rather unfortunate experience you shared.

    I have been very interested with the Peace Corps lately and I’ve been looking to teach in Morocco.

    But unfortunately your story and other comments regarding this topic is sort of scaring me out of it. I am a black American and female and I’m starting to realize that maybe this would not be a good choice.

    I understand racism is everywhere, even in the U.S. no doubt, but I don’t want to put myself in that sort of situation. I do not fully know the extent of the racism but I’m hoping that it is not too serious.

    I would very much like to go to Morocco and experience its culture but I fear that the racism would hold me back…

    My God! Jacqueline’s comment scares me to death and its pretty sad because I was really looking forward to this. I don’t think I could handle that…

    ~Christina

  16. If you go with the PC, they will place you in an area where you will be able to forge good relationships with people and work as safely as you could stateside. Please don’t let this discussion convince you to stay as there are a large number of fabulous Moroccan people who will welcome you with open arms. Just like anywhere, you have to watch out for the bad eggs.

  17. Dear Mathew,
    Thank you very much for your answer. I will again say that racism is a human thing that we find in all cultures and countries. What happens in Morocco, my country, is very hard for me to digest as Moroccan but it should not be a reason for a person to go live there, meet people, forge relations and experience the country in their own way and not in the way someone experience it.
    I again say that what police people do is more an abuse of power than a real racism.
    Moroccans experience racism among themselves at the very high levels of authority. I just feel that all of us are discriminated against as Moroccans by a very little minority of white, rich and powerful people who have the power.
    This is the issue. An African-American or an African person going through a ‘sad’ ‘hard’ experience is possible anywhere in the world but the worst is the systematic humiliation of whole chunks of society by the very few who have power and they abuse its use.

  18. wow,im socked dude,im an american of moroccan origins,in fact both my parents were from morocco,and i cant believe that blacks get treated like this in morocco,it makes me feel sad to know that such things take place in morocco,and for the black dude who got spat at,i applaude you for spitting back at those cowards,i have a black wife and my family never made her feel any less,in fact she loves hanging out with my family as she always says,she feels right at home,we have never gone there yet,but when we do(God willing),if anyone dares spitting at my wife,i would gladly rip his heart out.

  19. I am a black Moroccan woman, spent most of my life in Morocco and now living in the United States. Growing up in Fes, Moroco as a Black woman was really hard. No matter how beautiful you are, people stereotype you as ugly and not worthy of marriage. As someone has stated in one of the posts, Moroccans are tacitly very racist, and they deny it all. They always quote from the Koran anyway, and nothing in the Koran is really followed or practised to the core. I was called “Aziya” in the streets many times, harassed as a child and called names even by members of my own family. I suffered from favoritism in classrooms, and even was once called “Anthiza” by a Moroccan teacher while in my 6th grade. And you cannot talk or raise the issue of racism; you are instantly silenced and reminded that we are all equal in the eyes of “Allah” anyway. People are such hypocrites!!

Comments are closed.