[This article is the third in a Jadaliyya series that addresses the present sociopolitical landscape of migration in Morocco. Read the previous installments in the series by Sébastien Bachelet: "Cynical and Macabre `Politics of Migration` at Morocco’s Borders." and by Anna Jacobs: "Creation and Cooptation: The Story of Morocco’s Migration Reform."]
In the desert, Reuben Y Odoi had visions. Abandoned, robbed, separated from those he had come to know in their sharing of silent peril, Odoi was dying of thirst. He collapsed. As he contemplated the prospect of joining the thousands of others who disappear into the merciless Sahara during the notorious crossing, a column of sand rose up from the earth. Incredibly, Odoi found himself face to face with American boxing legend Mike Tyson. A boxer by profession in Senegal, Odoi took his encounter with Iron Mike’s fighting spirit as a sign; he fought his way to Algeria, and then Morocco. In the face of imminent violence from police forces, desert mafia, or bands of thieves, Odoi would often tear off his shirt and shadow box to intimidate his aggressors. Channeling Tyson, he embodied a vision of lunacy: at times he could not be certain himself that he was still sane.
However, in the interview presented in the accompanying video, conducted in the Yacoub el-Mansour (in the area popularly known as J5) neighborhood of Rabat, Morocco, Odoi was not interested in talking about his experiences on the desert. An artist and human rights activist now living in Casablanca, Odoi was anxious to move beyond this story, one which he said he repeats so often to the press. This time Odoi wanted to talk about his music career and the work of his band The Minority Globe, based in Morocco but comprised of members from all over Africa.
This essay, the accompanying video compilation of Odoi’s interview and music, and the other articles in this series are meant to be a starting point for a discussion of migration and its productive elements. It is our hope that this conversation continues and inspires further critical research on the new social formations that are emerging at North Africa’s physical, political, and cultural borders.
Sub-Saharan migration into and through North Africa is a subject matter that has recently received increasing media attention. The death of over three hundred migrants traveling from Libya to Italy, mostly Eritrean, cast the border security policies of Europe and North Africa into the international spotlight. As usual, it was only an absolute catastrophe that demanded such attention, the everyday successes and struggles not sensational enough for the evening news. In the aftermath of the requisite apologia, attention turned to justice–in the form of blaming shadowy figures like nefarious “traffickers.”
While these disasters may bring the issue–literally, almost callously, speaking–to the shores of Europe, the topic has been treated in Moroccan media for years, albeit in a different light. The now infamous cover of Maroc Hebdo, declaring “Le Péril Noir” (“The Black Peril”), offers a chilling representation of Moroccan public attitudes towards sub-Saharan migrants, painting them as prostitutes and traffickers.
On the other hand, the incredibly hard work of civil society—both international and local NGOs and migrant associations—demonstrate that such narrow depictions of migrants as criminals obscures the horrendous environment in which migrants find themselves in host or transit countries (labels which, given the nature of contemporary flows of human migration, are difficult to apply). Many NGOs publish regular reports on human rights abuses and daily indignities suffered by those who seek a better life for themselves far away from home.
But, though the accurate reporting involved with raising awareness about these rights violations is crucial in informing public debate and just policy, often even the well-meaning accounts fall into a similar trap as the racist propaganda. These accounts can also remain trapped in a single dimension; representations of migrants travel a line between “criminal” and “victim.” Rarely are migrants themselves granted any agency in these portrayals, rather, others are called on to address these “problems” in a fashion eerily reminiscent to the civilizing mission.
Odoi addresses this paradigm in his song “Philanthropy.” “Philanthropy” sounds like a joyous ode to charitable assistance, but in his lyrics the sarcastic nature of the cheerful music is evident:
We’ve been attacked physically, mentally, emotionally,
We’ve been corrupted environmentally, socially, spiritually
No more battle against the flesh, but many more will have to go
Contaminated agent among the race, redeeming powers of justice
Ouuuuh ouh ouuuuuuuuh ouh Philanthropy
We feel pain living on and on Philanthropy…suppressing us on philanthropy.
Having worked at the frontier of the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta with Doctors Without Borders, Odoi explained that this song stemmed from frustration. Not to discount their contributions, he stressed that he appreciated the work that the organization was doing to draw attention to the difficult situation that migrants faced there. But he felt the presence of aid organizations was indicative of a flawed approach to development more broadly: “…somebody is making a living on the back of the poor. And so we have had enough of philanthropy…We have had enough crying, ‘oh, there is war in Africa, or there is this, oh there is hunger in Africa!’ You know what? We have had enough of this…Give us the opportunity for independence.”
Odoi’s pleas are well heeded by many in Moroccan civil society who are working on migration issues. Many INGOs are partnering with local organizations and local activists to support them in the work they are already doing. (Odoi himself works at the Tamkine-Migrants Center, a joint collaboration between the INGO Terre des Hommes and the Moroccan NGO Oum el Banine, providing support for pregnant migrants and new mothers.) Many migrants organize into solidarity associations, like the Council of Sub-Saharan Migrants (CMSM) or the Sub-Saharan Migrants’ Communities Collective, which have been very active and effective in advocating for migrants’ rights.
However, these success stories and the productive engagement of migrants in their host societies rarely permeate global public debate on migration. The failure to recognize agency is also tied to a lack of sound contextualization of the social environment in which migrants find themselves; very few analysts are publishing on the issues of, on the one hand, racism, gendered violence, police repression, or on the other, activism, solidarity networks, and cultural production. Most analyses use a lens of human rights, focusing on the legal protections or lack thereof, without a consideration of their social embeddedness.
This may be why a newly-proposed reform intended to regularize migrants is so lauded by some: if the root cause of rights abuses were their lack of legal status, then this problem could merely be solved by granting migrants more rights on paper. In this case (and despite its problematic nature of conception and announcement) the government’s regularization plan would be a large first step to addressing the abuse of migrants’ human rights.
But those who have been working tirelessly on migrants’ rights issues in Morocco and who understand the social context are aware that the reality is painfully more complicated. Social barriers to integration include an entrenched history of racism, which extends beyond that of citizen/noncitizen (for more see Chouki El Hamal’s Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race, and Islam) and a public discourse which deceivingly casts security as a citizen national’s right to scarce resources. This discourse (also very prevalent in the developed world) blames the victim by pointing to marginalized groups as the reason for failed security and economic policies.
Thus, the presence of the migrant in Morocco, and particularly his or her social and cultural production, challenges the very foundation of Moroccan-ness. This identity is, according to official statistics, ninety-eight percent Muslim and ninety-nine percent Arab/Berber. Any indigenous Amazigh or Sahrawi knows well that this identity legitimizes the authority of the ruling Arab dynasty; particularly after being recognized as a sovereign state in 1952, the government enacted a comprehensive process of Arabization. The identity of the “Moroccan” is an integral chapter in the narrative of national (and territorial) integrity. (For more see Samia Errazzouki’s recent analysis on the relationship between racism and state legitimization.)
Odoi himself remarked on what he perceived to be the irony of Moroccan identity as he has experienced feelings of being a “stranger” (the title of one of his songs) despite not having left the African continent:
… in Ghana we learn about what the Egyptians eat, what the Moroccans eat–everything, culture, everything. But [in Morocco] you have the culture, the system where they only learn from the West. The black continent is not something they really know, or something they care to know…
They make this mistake in international forums, in international conferences by referring black to be African. To them, African is black. And so if you think African means black, and you are living on the African continent, then you have to think…
I cannot say–‘what are you doing here’ when I am not even on my land. Because we keep on turning round–the land belongs to nobody. Your grandfather where is he coming from? And your great-grandfather where is he coming from?…Nobody just came out from the ground, out of the ground like a seed, like the seed of maize…
This is ‘Stranger.’ This is ‘Stranger.’
In his song, “Now You See,” Odoi expresses how this marginalization of the black community directly causes a marginalization of their security. He sings, “Our security and nationality is minority in the community: discrimination, distinction, reporting without resorting…” referring to the lack of critical attention given to the issue.
Odoi’s grapplings with questions of identity, strangeness, and marginalization are not necessarily unique to his experiences. Similar themes permeate the work of other migrants’ art and discussions in North Africa (see the upcoming work in this series by Houdou). And such motifs are well known to have characterized the work of many other postcolonial artists and authors, as a great deal of research and writing explored cultural production that came from North African communities in France in the 1980s. Perhaps the nature of many sub-Saharan migrants’ lived experiences, often focused on the day-to-day realities of survival, renders expectations of a similar amplitude of production premature. But to deny or ignore its existence altogether overlooks an opportunity to examine these lived realities in a way that respects the voices of the migrants themselves.
While the cultural and social productions featured in this series tackle notions of identity that have certainly been shaped by a colonial experience shared by all of Africa, they equally come to terms with new identities that have been formed in a climate that rejects this shared experience.
Odoi’s statements point to a weakness of postcolonial theory; as postcolonial subject his experiences destabilize a singular notion of postcoloniality in a contemporary, global realm. Here, the “Moroccan native” has in fact become the new hegemon; the “invader” is the subaltern. This reformulation of cultural hegemony begs the question whether the presence of sub-Saharan migrant populations in Morocco has cast two divergent postcolonial experiences at odds. Or, perhaps, do the experiences represented in this series suggest a new experience? What comes after the postcolonial?
Whether it is via a new framework to analyze this social and cultural production or in revisiting post-colonial theory (perhaps considering new theories of globalization and geopolitics), these questions invite further research.
In the meantime, scholars and activists must look beyond a single dimension of migrants’ experiences. Indeed, the works and actions of Odoi and other migrants in North Africa demand that the audience listen and understand. While it may go without saying, this is especially crucial as many barriers exist for the amplification of subaltern voices. Odoi has struggled to promote his music due to his own financial constraints—saying he often has to choose between sending money to his family and investing in his band—and obstacles to accessing the necessary resources in Morocco.
Nevertheless, when asked for parting wisdom, he said:
“Be focused, and be courageous and never give up. Like I never gave up. Because if I had given up, I would not be able to be giving an interview. So never give up whatever you are doing, because you can get there. You can do it, we can do it, so do it!”