Laila Lalami: ‘Whoever tells the story controls the world’

aila Lalami is never in a hurry to finish writing a book. A disciplined author, she spends months, sometimes years, developing carefully crafted narratives and finding joy in the company of the characters occupying her imagination.

She has won many awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. But instead of enjoying the prestige, she just works harder in the solitude of her Southern California office, writing fiction and non-fiction alike.

Much of the latter sheds light on her adopted country’s struggles with Islamophobia and racism – including attitudes toward another Muslim woman in America, the congresswoman Ilhan Omar.
Some days ago, Lalami was in Omar's home state, Minnesota, talking to a literary-minded audience in Minneapolis at the Wordplay book festival.

Inside the Guthrie Theater, on the banks of the Mississippi River, she talked about the work that went into producing her latest novel, The Other Americans, a captivating murder mystery centred around a family of Moroccan immigrants.

Sharing the stage in Minneapolis with recent Pulitzer Prize nominee Tommy Orange, the Moroccan-American novelist read from her novel.

“When we moved to America 35 years ago, many things took me by surprise, like gun shops next to barbershops, freeways that tangled like yarn, people who knocked on your door to talk about Jesus, 20 different kinds of milk at the grocery store, signs that say don’t even think about parking here.”
In America, Lalami is one of the best-known and most-acclaimed North African authors of her generation. Her essays regularly appear in major publications and she is the author of Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits (2005) and Secret Son (2009).

In 2014, she drew much praise for The Moor’s Account, a fictional memoir of a Moroccan slave and the first black explorer of America. The book won several awards and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2015.

A journey home

Incidentally, just as she finished the book and took a much needed break in the western state of Wyoming, her father fell ill in Morocco. She experienced what many immigrants go through, having to find a seat on a plane and scrambling to arrive before it was too late.
Her father recovered, but she went back to California with a fear she couldn’t shake – the fear of losing a parent, the fear of being too far away and helpless. So she used the experience, embedding all her complex and uncomfortable feelings into her fourth novel, The Other Americans.

Read the rest of the story here.

Pope Francis’ Visit to Morocco Raises Hopes for Its Christians


MEKNES, Morocco — On a Monday evening in a ground-floor apartment shielded from the street by heavy yellow curtains, five people stood around a table in the living room as a woman read from a pink leather-bound Bible in Arabic.

Holding hands, they prayed and read psalms, as a mandolin player accompanied their chants and a 2-year-old girl hit a ball playfully against the pink walls.

They would prefer to worship in a church, but as Moroccans and former Muslims who converted to Christianity, they are compelled to hide their activities from public sight.
Morocco, where Pope Francis will arrive on Saturday for a visit, is widely perceived to be an unusually tolerant Muslim country. And to a certain extent, it is.

It is the only Arab country that constitutionally guarantees recognition of its Jewish population, granting it separate laws and courts to regulate matters related to family law. It also regularly organizes events to promote interfaith dialogue and has ratified international treaties guaranteeing religious freedom. The foreign-born, largely Westerners and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, can worship openly.

Moroccans, 99 percent of them Sunni Muslims, cannot freely express atheistic beliefs or conversion to another faith. Criticizing Islam remains extremely sensitive, and worship for indigenous Christians, who number somewhere between 2,000 and 50,000, is problematic, particularly for those who converted from Islam.

Moroccan Christians have long been ostracized, sometimes rejected by society and closely scrutinized by the state. They are not officially banned from churches. But to practice their faith openly is to invite harassment and threats, even — or especially — from relatives.

While almost no one is being arrested because of their beliefs these days, most feel constrained from freely attending churches and publicly performing rituals like baptisms, weddings and funerals in accordance with their beliefs. But priests and pastors face possible accusations of proselytizing, a crime in Morocco, simply by having Moroccans attend Mass.

Voluntary conversion, while stigmatized, is not technically illegal. Evangelism is. Morocco has expelled dozens of foreigners suspected of proselytizing, or “shaking the faith of a Muslim.” In 2010, the Village of Hope orphanage in the Middle Atlas Mountains was shut down on suspicion that it was teaching Christianity to the children.

Attention to the plight of Morocco’s Christian converts is getting some traction ahead of Pope Francis’ arrival, as they seize the opportunity to advocate greater freedom to worship.

You can read the rest of the story on the New York Times' website

The Impact of #MeToo in France: An Interview with Lénaïg Bredoux



In 2011, when Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, was arrested in a Manhattan hotel on rape charges, Lénaïg Bredoux, a Paris-based reporter, watched the reporting in dismay. At the time, the French media largely devoted itself to criticizing the American judicial system instead of investigating allegations that had dogged Strauss-Kahn for years. Moved to action, she contacted the French journalist Tristane Banon, who, in 2007, publicly accused him of sexually assaulting her in 2003 and that is how Bredoux uncovered a culture of silence inside the French Socialist Party.

Since then, Bredoux, who is now the chief political correspondent for the independent news organization Mediapart, has covered sexual misconduct allegations against politicians and other prominent figures, including the director and screenwriter Luc Besson. (Besson, who has been accused of sexual assault or harassment by nine women, has denied the allegations.) Bredoux has thus become the French equivalent of The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow for her work uncovering MeToo offenders—except that in the US, alongside Farrow, there are legions of women journalists who have pursued stories about sexual harassment and men’s abuse of their professional status and power, whereas, in France, Bredoux is almost a unique figure.

Last month, Bredoux was forced to defend the accuracy of her reporting in court. In 2016, she wrote a series of stories describing several women politicians’ accounts of being sexually harassed or sexually assaulted by the then deputy speaker of the National Assembly, Denis Baupin. The politician denied the allegations, which ranged from lewd text messages to groping, but nonetheless resigned from his position. He then filed a defamation lawsuit, which led to the prosecution of six accusers and two news outlets, Mediapart and the radio station France Inter.

On the stand in a Paris courtroom, the six accusers each in turn explained how they were afraid to report Baupin’s behavior because they thought it would hurt their careers. Cécile Duflot, a prominent member of the Green Party (known in French as Europe Écologie Les Verts), shed tears as she related how she had been assaulted by Baupin years earlier but had never reported it. She had even advised another woman not to report her harassment by another man, she confessed, because she felt she should protect the party concerned.

The trial has split French society along now-familiar lines, as one side defended sexual liberty and the other called for the condemnation of behavior that has harmed so many women and their careers. On the final day of the hearings, Bredoux and her colleagues wept as Baupin’s accusers told the judge that they had submitted their lives to the glare of the media because they hoped, finally, to be believed. “We must remain vigilant,” Geneviève Zdrojewski, a retired civil servant who had worked as an aide to a senior political leader, said. “There is always a risk of going backwards. It’s the media’s role to protect us.”

In her closing arguments, the prosecutor pleaded for the acquittal of the journalists and the six women. She believed that the reporting was thorough and that the women “sincerely related what they have subjectively experienced.” A verdict will be delivered in a few weeks. In the meantime, it is clear that something has changed in France. The media no longer dismisses the words of women who speak out. It also seems that the country is experiencing a delayed, but very necessary, national reckoning with the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

As the trial ended, Bredoux and I met for coffee to discuss her work, her feelings about having to defend it in court, and what motivates her to investigate powerful men accused of sexual misconduct. The following interview was translated from French and edited for concision.

Click here to read the interview.

The Soccer Politics of Morocco

Casablanca, Morocco—On that glorious night, they stood on their seats for almost the entire game, arms aloft, shouting, cheering, booing and, most of all, singing. Lyrical chants filled the air that chilly November evening. There was a sea of green—their team’s color—on their shirts and on the flags they waved. Artistic graffiti decorated the stadium.

The fans shared an immense love for and loyalty to the Raja Athletic Club of Casablanca (RCA). They sang and sang until the final whistle, savoring every word of songs that expressed the passion in their hearts. Raja was facing AS Vita Club of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the first leg of the CAF Confederation Cup final, one of Africa’s major soccer tournaments. 

It was hard to focus on the action on the field because the supporters captured most of our attention in the stadium. The most engaged ones filled Curva Sud, an area in the bleachers where the hardcore fans known as “ultras” traditionally watch the games. The seats are cheaper, the view isn’t great, but it’s where every diehard fan wants to be. Even the Moroccan players, as they warmed up before kick-off, filmed the crowd with their smartphones, seemingly in awe of the enthusiasm.

One man in a green cap had driven from Marrakech, a journey of 150 miles. Another took the one-hour bus ride from a neighboring city. Some kids walked to the stadium. Two women who haven’t missed a single game this year brought their young cousin along. Families filled the stadium hours before the game started. A space that was once almost the sole property of men is seeing more women. Recently, there has been an online campaign against sexual harassment—in which the Raja ultras themselves participated, vowing to make the stadiums safe for women. 

During the second half of the game, the tension mounted. Raja finally scored. The air smelled of smoke bombs set off in celebration. Then a revolutionary chant exploded in the stadium. In unison, they sang in Moroccan Arabic “Fbladi Dalmouni,” or “In my country, I suffered from injustice.” The lyrics are astonishingly controversial for a country where jails are filled with hundreds of prisoners of conscience. This defiance spoke of economic hardship, a lack of freedom, and an ardent desire for change.

You can read the rest of the story here

Men Held in Tourist Killings in Morocco; Denmark Suggests an ‘Act of Terror’

COPENHAGEN — The authorities in Morocco said on Thursday that three more suspects had been arrested in the killings of two Scandinavian tourists in the Atlas Mountains, in what Danish officials suggested was an act of terror linked to the Islamic State.

The Central Office of Judicial Research in Morocco said in a statement that the three suspects had been detained in Marrakesh. Another suspect arrested on Tuesday was thought to have extremist ties, Moroccan prosecutors told local news outlets without providing further details. The names of those arrested were not immediately released.

The authorities said that the bodies of the victims, Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, 24, of Denmark and Maren Ueland, 28, of Norway, were found on Monday by other tourists in an isolated area of the High Atlas Mountains, an area popular with hikers and six miles from the village of Imlil. Both women had been studying at the same school in Norway to become tour guides.

you can read the rest of the story here

Morocco’s Deadly Train Accident


RABAT, Morocco -- Despite the Moroccan government’s eager solicitation of press coverage of its TGV, the high-speed train scheduled to be launched this year after more than seven years in the works, it is not so eager for coverage of another train story: On Tuesday, journalists were reportedly barred from entering the courtroom in the city of Salé, where the conductor of the train in a recent, deadly accident, was on trial.
Earlier this month, on the morning of October 16, Moroccan commuters between the cities of Kenitra and Rabat posted on social media that they felt unusual vibrations on the train tracks.
Employees of the state-run train company, the Office National des Chemins de Fer, or ONCF, ignored the complaints, according to several accounts on Facebook. That same morning, shortly after some of the concerns were raised, a train derailed near Bouknadel, a small coastal town, just north of Rabat, killing seven and injuring dozens.
The accident was the deadliest since 1993, when two commuter trains collided on the outskirts of Rabat, killing 14 and wounding more than 100.

As reports about this recent accident went public and disturbing photos were shared online, people were shocked and saddened but not really surprised. Many felt that grim precursors had indicated for a long time that a train tragedy would occur.
After Moroccans buried their dead and showed solidarity with the wounded, giving their blood and helping with the rescue efforts, the debate that followed the horror wasn’t only about the train company’s responsibility: People are demanding some sort of accountability and they’re not getting answers.
The TGV is reputed to be the first high-speed train in Africa and the government has been proudly showing off the prototype to foreign journalists for several years. But this recent accident has put Moroccan trains in the headlines again, and the TGV at the center of debate.

You can read the rest of the article on The Atlantic's City Lab's site.


Morocco Unleashes a Harsh Crackdown on Sub-Saharan Migrants

RABAT, Morocco — In a widespread crackdown, sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco are facing arbitrary arrest, banishment to remote sections of the country and, lately, outright expulsion, analysts and rights advocates say.

Rights advocates contend that the raids, which government officials acknowledge, began in the summer and were coordinated with Spain and the European Union to stem the tide of migrants to the Continent. The Moroccan government says they were aimed at only undocumented migrants and human trafficking.

The crackdown began in June and intensified in late July, after at least 600 migrants successfully crossed to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in northern Morocco, rights groups say. Sub-Saharan migrants, even some with valid residency permits, described wholesale roundups in which they were herded onto buses with little more than the clothes they were wearing and taken to cities hundreds of miles to the south.

Abdoulaye N., 31, a Senegalese immigrant who, like other migrants interviewed for this article, asked that only his given name be used for fear of reprisals, was one of those swept up in the raids.

Four years ago, he had settled in the city of Tetuan on the Mediterranean Sea, where he obtained a residency card and slowly integrated into Moroccan society. He sold cheap jewelry in the market, sent money home to his family and generally kept a low profile.


Yet, one morning early last month, five plainclothes police officers burst into the apartment he shared with two other migrants and arrested them. Told the raid was part of a simple document check, they found themselves hours later on a bus that took an overnight trip 600 miles south to the desert city of Tiznit.

Far from an isolated incident, their banishment is consistent with hundreds of other accounts, human rights advocates say, leaving many sub-Saharans living in fear of arrest and displacement, often afraid even to stay in their homes. Gadem, a human rights group based in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, estimates that about 6,500 migrants have been arrested and displaced since the crackdown began.

Finish reading the story on the New York Times' website.

Between Hate, Hope, and Help: Haitians in the Dominican Republic | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books

Women and men press against the barbed-wire gate, waiting for the guards to let them in. Twice a week, the border crossing opens so that Haitians can get access without a visa to a market located on Dominican land in the northern city of Dajabón, just a short walk from the crossing point.

Behind the crowd at the gate, a loud procession is making its way along the Massacre River (so named for the 1728 killing of a group of French buccaneers by Spanish settlers) that separates Haiti and the Dominican Republic before crossing a short bridge that connects the two countries. Many of those making this trek have come from Ouanaminthe, the nearby Haitian town, while others’ journeys started much deeper inside Haiti. Some are carrying heavy loads and most are commuting by foot, though there are some on motorcycles and a few, privileged ones ride cars or small trucks.

It’s 8 AM on a hot and sultry Friday. The guards, holding their weapons tightly, finally open the gate, letting the travelers—mostly buyers—onto Dominican soil. Under the watchful eyes of border agents, the sellers rush to the space allocated to them, carrying food, clothes, and other goods. The two-story cement building that houses the market cannot hold all the merchants, so many settle outside, as buyers find their way through the crowded arena, undeterred by the suffocating heat. A woman carrying a large bucket containing shampoo, deodorant, and socks walks around the market yelling out prices. Two other women lay a sheet on the floor, selling shoes that they purchased in Cap Haitien. The vendors generally aren’t picky about currencies; they will take anything—Haitian gourdes, Dominican pesos, or US dollars.

The two towns, Dajabón and Ouanaminthe, only a bridge away, nevertheless exist worlds apart, with vast differences in language, culture, religion—and most of all, development. Dirt roads and poverty stand on the Haitian side to the west, while supermarkets, shops, and visible prosperity occupy the Dominican side on the east.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the island of Hispaniola, the largest in the Caribbean after Cuba, but the peoples on either side of the island rarely mix thanks to decades of political tensions and mutual fears fed by a history of wars, massacres, and other atrocities. Some are hopeful that the Dajabón market is a testament to these neighbors’ capacity to get along. But as politicians have manipulated racialized anxieties and fears that defy economic logic and business interests, the strain between the two countries has only intensified.

Read the rest of the story here

Violences sexuelles: comment enquêter? [MediaPart]

World Cup 2018: Morocco’s Glimpse of the Possible


For Morocco, this World Cup began with defeat. We were favored to win our first match, against Iran, but in a turn of fate, with the game tied nil-all and minutes before the end, one of the Moroccan players scored an own-goal. That 1-0 loss crushed our slim hopes to shine and to advance from a challenging group. Sure enough, in our second game, against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, we proceeded to lose—despite dominating the match. On Monday, against Spain, we had little left to play for—except, perhaps, some honor. But in an amazing game that twice saw Morocco go ahead against one of the world’s top teams, we earned a 2-2 draw that left Moroccans proud of the national team despite its not making it to the next round. 
This was the first time in twenty years that Morocco—a country where soccer is hugely popular—has competed on the game’s biggest stage. A good many Moroccans traveled to Russia to cheer on the team. What they’ve seen there—a pair of defeats and a tie that have again deferred our dream of becoming a great soccer nation—has, despite that upbeat final match, been a disappointment.
The downcast feeling of this World Cup for Moroccans has much to do with circumstances beyond the pitch. Political and economic difficulties back home have cast a pall on the campaign of a national team that mainly comprises players drawn from the Moroccan diaspora in Europe. Since October 2016, political unrest has shaken northern parts of the kingdom, with protesters demanding more jobs and less corruption. The Moroccan authorities met these demonstrations with repression and mass jailings. Citizen groups recently organized an economic boycott of gas, milk, and water companies in an effort to force them to lower their prices. Popular resentment is palpable. The cost of living is too high and people are fed up with a government that has been preoccupied with promoting Morocco’s bid to host the World Cup in 2026. 
The day before this year’s tournament kicked off in Moscow, FIFA chose a rival bid for 2026 from the United States, Mexico, and Canada. This was Morocco’s fifth attempt to win the right to host the tournament. But many of us Moroccans were relieved at the news of this loss since it prevented what would surely have been an economic catastrophe for this nation of 35 million that suffers from endemic unemployment and poverty. Although its backers pointed to FIFA’s promises, if the bid were successful, to provide assistance in building new roads and hospitals, the main expenditure on a World Cup would probably have gone to erecting nine new stadiums the country doesn’t need.
What the country does need, certainly, is a positive event—and that’s what lay behind the government’s efforts in recent years to persuade Morocco’s rising bi-national soccer stars living in Europe to play for their parents’ homeland. Of the twenty-three players who represented us in Russia, seventeen were born outside Morocco. The captain, Medhi Benatia, was born in France and plays for Juventus in Italy. Soccer is hugely popular in the working-class, immigrant-dominated neighborhoods on the peripheries of European capitals where many Moroccans live—and from where many talented football players have emerged. 
Back in the 1980s, as the country was going through the “bread protests” prompted by hikes in food prices, King Hassan II pushed for the development of sports. Moroccan stars emerged on the field, rallying the country behind a strong sense of patriotic pride. Through the 1990s, sportsmen and sportswomen representing Morocco won gold medals in Olympic games, competed in international tennis tournaments, and qualified for top soccer championships. But that has changed. King Mohammed VI, in power since his father Hassan’s death in 1999, seems less interested in sports.
Efforts to produce winning teams have often prioritized recruiting Moroccans from the diaspora over supporting sports at home. This approach helped us qualify for Russia, but now that we’re there, it has also predictably been blamed for the struggles of a team on which many players don’t speak Arabic. Communication among them was said to be complicated, with a degree of confusion about whether the coach, the Frenchman Hervé Renard, should address his players in French or English.
Many people back home today shared the sentiments of fans like Amine Lahbabi, who lives in Casablanca. “I don’t feel represented by this team,” he told me before the Cup began. “To me, this World Cup will be a chance to see beautiful games and incidentally support this squad, but nothing further.” The artist Réda Allali, one of the most committed Moroccan soccer fans I know, felt similarly. “Back in the day, the players used to live in our neighborhoods,” he said. “Sometimes, we’d run into them in cafés. Some were students, others had a day job at the bank, they felt accessible. Now, with globalization, much of this has changed.”
Much also hasn’t. Throughout Morocco, men fill cafés to watch games—local and international—while exchanging strong opinions about the teams and coaches’ strategies. Boys and young men, often dressed in knock-off jerseys of their favorite players, play soccer in the streets or on the beach. The screams of ecstatic fans fill the air when a favorite star like Lionel Messi scores a goal.
I myself grew up in a household where we watched every one of the national team’s games that we could. My father once served as the treasurer of the main club in his hometown, Fes, and my brother Mehdi—who has an excellent memory—can talk for hours about the players he idolizes, his favorite goals, and classic soccer moments over the years.
After the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, people raved for years about how Morocco was the first African squad ever to make it to the second round. Although the team then lost to Germany, it received a hero’s welcome when it returned to Morocco. And in 1998, even if we didn’t pass the tournament’s first round, the national team was celebrated and welcomed with cheers and love from their fans for an honorable performance. There was some magic in watching our Moroccan boys sharing the field with huge stars like Ronaldo of Brazil. 
Before this World Cup, though, we were jaded, and Morocco’s fans were apathetic. Even so, I was surprised when Mehdi told me he had no plans to go to Russia. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been. These days, Moroccans are more excited about the Egyptian striker Mohamed Salah than they are about their own players. I am currently in the Dominican Republic on assignment—a country where people love baseball, but soccer not so much. I tried to watch the first Moroccan game in a bar, but the bartender couldn’t find a network that broadcast it. So I watched a poorly-streamed version on my iPad. I wanted to be with other Moroccans, and when we lost, I didn’t think about any larger issues, I just felt sad. 
No matter how disillusioned you are with your country’s team or how frustrated with your country’s government, it still hurts to see a squad of players, dressed in the national colors, not succeed. But as that strong final game reminded me, it’s hard not to feel proud when they do. Between that opening loss to Iran and the second half against Spain, something changed. Maybe it happened sixteen minutes into the Portugal game, when our ebullient winger Nordin Amrabat, who had received a head injury in the game against Iran, tossed away his protective headgear and urged the team on. That won Moroccans’ hearts. 

You can read the story on the New York Review of Books' website.

The College Student Who Has France’s Secularists Fulminating

PARIS — The French interior minister, Gérard Collomb, called her appearance “shocking.” Marlène Schiappa, the minister of gender equality, said she exhibited a “manifestation of political Islam.” The satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo put her on its cover with a drawing that many considered racist.
Her offense: wearing a head scarf during a television interview.

Elected last December as the leader of the Sorbonne chapter of the French National Students’ Union, Maryam Pougetoux, 19, is used to hearing from those who disagree with her progressive views. But she was entirely unprepared for what happened last month after she criticized recent changes in educational policy in the interview.

Ms. Pougetoux, a practicing Muslim who wears a head scarf that covers her hair and neck, had been asked to comment on one of the main television channels, M6, about proposed changes that would make admission to universities more selective. She and the hordes of students who took to the streets recently in protest consider the measure discriminatory and elitist.

But the debate that followed had nothing to do with education and everything to do with her appearance. It was set off in large part by Laurent Bouvet, a secularist and member of a group called Le Printemps Républicain, or Republican Spring. The group was created in 2016 to defend the French republican ideal of “laïcité,” which emerged during the revolution as a way to keep the Roman Catholic Church out of the affairs of state. But in recent years, critics say, some groups have used it to suppress the growing influence of Islam in France.

In a Twitter post, Mr. Bouvet said, “we aren’t hunting anyone but merely pointing to the inconsistency” of a leader of the student group wearing a head scarf. “How can one defend values like abortion and feminist principles while displaying conspicuously their religious beliefs,” he asked.
Pretty soon, it seemed that almost everyone had something to say about this unapologetically religious student.

Ms. Pougetoux herself was baffled by the outburst, saying she had to research “political Islam” online to understand the accusation. She also was not particularly outraged by the caricature of her on the profanity-laced cover of Charlie Hebdo, which many said made her look like a monkey.
“I first laughed. Charlie Hebdo mocks everyone, I didn’t take it personally,” she said in a recent interview. What she liked, she says, is that, “they were the only ones who actually emphasized my message.”

Still, she realized not everyone shared her sense of humor. “I was extremely hurt when I realized that it caused a lot of pain for my family and friends,” she said.
Not surprisingly, she has received plenty of support from her peers.

“In five years I have never seen this level of mistreatment of a student leader,” one student from Denmark said to Ms. Pougetoux in the offices of the student group. “You are super amazing. Don’t let the racists win.”

A sparkle came to Ms. Pougetoux’ blue eyes as she thanked the young man. She has been receiving similar demonstrations of support over the past two weeks on her university’s campus, on the streets of the French capital, and online.

But the entire experience has been quite an ordeal for the 19-year-old, who is studying literature and communications.

Ms. Pougetoux did not break any law. While head scarves and other religious symbols are banned in public service and in primary and secondary public schools in France, they are permitted on college campuses. Moreover, one expert said, the concept of laïcité should not be used to stigmatize minorities but instead to ensure freedom for everyone.

You can finish reading the story on the New York Times' website

Morocco’s D.I.Y. Dance Crews

MARRAKESH, Morocco — Under the yellow domed ceiling of the Theater Royal of Marrakesh, a small crowd cheered and watched in awe as champion break dancers from around the world battled, with head slides, freezes and kicks, in a competition streamed globally online.

“Make some noise!” the host of the event screamed into a microphone. “Show enthusiasm. People don’t know anything about Morocco.”

The spectators grew louder. 

They were especially excited about the performance of Fouad Ambelj, a 24-year-old Moroccan prodigy who dances as Lil Zoo and who has become a worldwide sensation.

“It’s a great outlet for negative energy,” Mr. Ambelj said. “I love that there are no rules. I can express anything I want. It makes me feel free.”

In Morocco, where state funding and institutions for the arts is scarce, break dancing has empowered young people to make their own entertainment since its arrival in the 1980s. The dance form, born a decade earlier in the Bronx, was ostensibly free; all it required were able bodies and open space.

“As a young guy in Casablanca, if you don’t have money or you don’t want to sit in a cafe every day talking about football, one fun thing is to go to a space and conquer it,” said Cristina Moreno Almeida, a postdoctoral fellow at King’s College in London who has studied hip-hop culture in Morocco. “It’s a global language that they all speak and they all know.”

For years, these B-boys practiced in public outdoor spaces. They fashioned makeshift dance floors out of cardboard to practice head spins when they couldn’t find grass fields. 

You can read the rest of the stories and check out the stunning photos by Yassine Alaoui Ismaili on the New York Times' website here

 

[RADIO] This Haitian comedian revealed her trauma and became a voice for #MeToo



From Prison's Horrors, a Work of Art


Haunted by the suffocating horror and hopelessness he witnessed in Haiti’s national prison, this artist finds solace in his work.

Accused of arson, Paul Junior Casimir spent a year there, awaiting a trial that never was scheduled. He is one of the lucky ones; others have died waiting. Freed only because aid workers recognized his talent and a non-profit organization was willing to work on his case, upon release, Casimir began frantically building an art installation that recreates the hell he experienced.

Casimir, 35, hopes the project, a traveling installation called “Enfermé, Libéré” [Locked Up, Freed] will draw public attention and help build momentum for change.

 The exhibition, which also includes photographs by Seyi Rhodes, was first displayed at the French Institute a few months ago. It is supported by the Haiti Bureau of Human Rights (BDHH), a non-profit organization made up of lawyers who provide legal aid to prisoners. Representatives of BDHH say the country’s main prison was never rebuilt after the magnitude 7.0 earthquake destroyed large parts of the city in 2010, but nonetheless it holds more than 4,000 prisoners, about six times its capacity of 700, even though some walls and ceilings are only half there. The vast majority—80 percent—are awaiting trial, according to the 2016 Survey of the Incarcerated Population of the Prison, a report commissioned by the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti.

Some prisoners already have been exonerated, but their files were lost, so they remain, said lawyers from BDHH. Most prisoners cannot afford a lawyer. If found guilty, many would probably be sentenced to a fraction of the time they already have spent in prison waiting to appear before a judge. Inmates die daily of diseases like tuberculosis and cholera, or malnutrition, according to the United Nations’ report.

In Casimir’s installation, currently showing at Haiti’s national library located near the penitentiary in downtown Port-au-Prince, human-sized papier-mâché figures hold onto thin bars as they lay on tiny wooden beds. Pencil portraits and photos of real detainees hang on the walls; handwritten letters are pinned next to the puppets. They contain cries of despair of men and women, lost in the system and forgotten by the outside world.
On Sept. 21, 2015, in a letter now publicized on the BDHH’s website, prisoner Labonté Marcel wrote:
“Dear Mr. Superintendent, I am writing you because I am suffering a lot in prison. I have been here since the eighth month of 2008. I have nobody, and I am asking you for help because I am very sick. Please help.”
A year and a half later, on Feb. 8, 2017, Marcel died in prison—more than eight years after he was confined. He never got a trial, said Pauline Lecarpentier, the secretary general of the BDHH. He was buried anonymously in a collective funeral with other prisoners.

You can read the rest of the story on the Atlantic's Citylab here 

In Haiti, Golden Hopes in a Yellow Grain

GONAIVES, Haiti – As the sun starts to set on Haiti's most fertile valley, a silent group of women sweeps grains of newly harvested rice into large, yellow mounds, unfazed by the acrid smoke of nearby wood fires.

From there, the rice is placed in barrels, where it will be cleaned over those fires. Then, in a small back room on a winter afternoon, it will be packed in bags and shipped from this mill in west-central Haiti's Artibonite Valley, ending up in the kitchens of Haitian expatriates and other discriminating cooks across the United States.

This was once a common scene in Haiti. Now it's a rarity. A few decades ago, Haiti was self-sufficient in rice, a crop so important here that the U.N. estimates it makes up about a quarter of people's daily diet. It even grew enough to export. But production collapsed after the U.S. and international lenders forced the country to dramatically lower tariffs that protected local farmers, from 50 percent to 3 percent in the last three decades.

A quarter-century later, about 80 percent of Haiti's rice is imported, and the country is a major market for U.S. exporters. Faced with cheap imports, the country's dire poverty, natural disasters, lack of investment and collapsing infrastructure, production is still dropping in Haiti despite government efforts to halt the slide. Last year, the government reported a rise and a subsequent drop because of bad weather.

Some Haitian entrepreneurs say there is money to be made growing rice. Skeptics, however, say hopes to resurrect the rice industry are misplaced and, with too few resources and little international support, represent the challenges that many poor, underdeveloped countries face in turning their economies around.

Fabias Voltaire, 37, one Haitian trying to boost rice production, was able to reach an agreement to process his rice at a cooperative that is funded by the aid group Oxfam. He said there is a strong foreign demand for high-quality organic rice. It may cost more, but many regard it as healthier and better-tasting than American varieties. Plus, Haitian émigrés in the States love it, he says: "Haitians are … very sentimental about eating rice from home."

In 2015, Voltaire and two cousins launched Caribbean Grains LLC. Three years later, they are shipping to Florida, Alabama and other U.S. states.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. About three-quarters of its 11 million people live on less than $2 a day and about half the population lives in rural settings. In 2010, following a magnitude 7.0 earthquake that devastated the country, former U.S. President Bill Clinton publicly apologized for forcing Haiti to drop its import tariffs and damaging the economy.
"It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked," said Clinton at the time, according to news reports. "It was a mistake."

Since then, hurricanes Sandy in 2012 and Matthew in 2016 cost Haiti hundreds of millions in agricultural losses, making it even harder to recover.

Jovenel Moise, who became Haiti's president in February 2017, has an agricultural background and pledged to relaunch the industry by fixing irrigation canals, financing infrastructure projects and other initiatives. By May 2017, the government had unveiled its program "La Caravane du Changement" – The Caravan of Change – to fund such infrastructure repairs. Although government estimates of the program's cost are difficult to obtain, Haitian news media reports say $55 million was spent in 2017 to repair the country's agriculture infrastructure.

Still, the challenges to boosting the country's rice industry are great. Production costs are high, and farmers have almost no access to loans or insurance to protect them from the ravages of insects and plant diseases.

The facts on the ground keep skepticism high that the initiatives will substantially boost rice production. Thousands of acres in the Artibonite Valley are waterlogged, making them prone to disease, especially around the time of harvests. Other parts of the valley aren't getting enough water.
Travis J. Lybbert, an economist and professor at the University of California-Davis who has done extensive research in the region, says the government's focus on better irrigation could make a big impact on rice production.

"It is relatively easy to make this happen," he says, adding that it would be much harder to provide access to inputs such as seed and fertilizer or create a better market for farm products.

The government can prioritize spending on agriculture without a lot of scrutiny, shortchanging other sectors of the economy in a country that is in desperate need of just about everything.
"These are very important and heavy costs that are easy to sweep under the rug as many other projects get delayed," Lybbert adds. "That could be a real drag on development in other parts of the country."

Looking out over a nearly dry river and irrigation canals that need to be cleaned and rebuilt, Agriculture Ministry representative Renaud Gene says Haiti has the political will to fix the problem, but not the means.

"There is a serious problem of water management, and it requires a lot of investments," he says.
The government has been fixing roads and canals but doesn't have the resources to make dramatic improvements. Instead of feeding Haitians in need with their own excess production, Gene says rich countries could assist Haiti more by helping develop its infrastructure, and then buying the rice from Haitian farmers to distribute.

In contrast with Voltaire, many in the region say a long history of failure leaves them pessimistic that anything will change. They regard the government initiative as at best populist and naïve. While not questioning the president's intentions, many simply aren't optimistic about the feasibility of breaking through the obstacles that exist.

"Jovenel is struggling like a poor devil but I am not sure where he's going," says Franklin Benjamin, an engineer and rice producer who has dedicated his career to finding ways to supply Haitians with locally produced rice.

For decades, attempts to develop the sector have failed, he says, because farmers never get the incentives and solid support system they need.

"Haiti doesn't interest Haitians. They are all looking to get a visa to go somewhere where they are despised," he adds. "There is still a hope, but we will be disappointed like always."
In the midst of such pessimism, Voltaire hopes that his success might inspire the next entrepreneur. And he has even bigger dreams.

"I want to create an agricultural bank for farmers," he says. "The objective is to make Haiti the economic capital of the Caribbean."

He splits his time between West Palm Beach, Florida, and Haiti and still plans to continue growing his business despite the challenges. He says he spent $10,000 to fix the irrigation canals he needed for his own production.

On his farm, Voltaire's workers take a pause to laugh and joke a bit around a broken-down tractor. The fact that the rice mill exists at all is a small miracle.

Additional reporting by Jean Pharès Jérôme. Photo by Jean Marc Hervé Abelard. This story was produced in collaboration with Round Earth Media.

You can read the story here




A book chronicling Leila Alaoui's last days


Leila was a very talented photographer who died in 2016 tragically killed during a terrorist attack in Ouagadougou. Here is Leila's obit in the New York Times.

Her father wrote a beautiful book that you can order here. The title, "Off to Ouaga," is a reference to Leila's final words to her father before she got on the plane that took her to Burkina Faso.


Reporter's notebook: Haiti


 “I think Haiti is a place that suffers so much from neglect that people only want to hear about it when it’s at its extreme. And that’s what they end up knowing about it.”  ― Edwidge Danticat

I am writing these lines from a Parisian coffee shop - gazing at the rain outside and wishing I could be as far from the french capital as possible.

I just returned from a lengthy reporting trip in Haiti and as I am listening to hours of recorded interviews and reading dozens of pages of scribbled notes - I can’t help but feel a pang of nostalgia.

I initially was scared to go to Haiti. Maybe not scared per se but mostly hesitant about going to a country where I had never worked before, that was so far off my beat. I didn’t speak the language and this year being particularly full of other projects, I wasn’t sure I could reasonably make this big professional commitment.

Still, I decided to take on the challenge despite not speaking creole or virtually not knowing anything about this place that has made grim headlines for as long as I could remember.

So a few months ago, I started studying.  I read “Haiti, The Aftershocks of History," by Laurent Dubois, “Bury the Chains,” by Adam Hochschild, “The Rainy Season,” by Amy Wilentz, and “Haiti Will Not Perish,” by Michael Deibert. These books along dozens of articles definitely facilitated my arrival in the edgy and bustling Port-au-Prince one afternoon in late January. But as I happily got off the plane, traded my winter boots for sandals - not only did I not feel any kind of culture shock but instead, I just let myself get transported by the warmth and the incredible energy of a place that I then spent a few weeks learning to love and get attached to.

There are so many memories, so many moments that fill my mind. I decide to forget about the hours spent in traffic, the sometimes hard reporting journeys, and the difficulties encountered trying to complete the stories for the “Haiti Uncovered" project.  

Instead, I decide to keep with me the moments of pure magic, the Haitians that I have encountered who took me by the hand and made me feel at home thousands of miles away from my actual home. The encounters and the moments are too numerous to all share here. But every time I lift my head up and find myself daydreaming of Haiti, I think of how much I have learned and grew in a short amount of time. I haven’t met a single Haitian who didn’t try to help me feel comfortable and more importantly who didn’t teach me something new. Their resilience to tragedy was most humbling. The way they relate to life, love and death was one of the greatest lessons - especially returning to Paris where people have so much and yet still have such a hard time finding peace and happiness.

On my third day, I met a hotel owner who had spent 45 years in Brooklyn and decided to move back to the seaside city of Jacmel in southern Haiti. I sat with him after a long day reporting, as he smoked his cigar on the porch and listened to Jazz music as we had long talks - discussing Haiti and New York and everything else.  I think with nostalgia about the young couple that took me inside the parade the week before Mardi Gras and protected me as we marched in the middle of a pretty wild procession of dancers and people carrying artistic creations made by local artisans. The countless moments after a hard work day, drinking the local beer Prestige and just feeling an overwhelming sense of content. I still listen to Elton John and cheesy French songs from the 90’s that blasted out from small radio posts in the middle of nowhere that remind me of my time in Haiti.

As I have throughout my career chronicled the struggles and accomplishments of women throughout the Arab World, I was mostly happy to see that in Haiti as well there were women who were changing things. You will read about these women in my upcoming stories but the world has a lot to learn from their courage and strength. And their task isn't small. The place was definitely a complicated one for a female reporter. I met artists, businesswomen, mothers, wives, sisters, who despite all the harshness in their lives, of the pains they have endured, still stand strong and more determined than ever.

As I get back to work and try to channel all these feelings into my writing, I am thinking about how we shouldn't give up on Haiti, about how we should encourage Haitians, visit their country, get to know it and maybe others can fall in love with it the way I did.

HAITI UNCOVERED is a production of Round Earth Media. Photo by Jean Paul Saint Fleur.

Haitian artists give everything to Jacmel carnival


Under the warm midday sun that lit the city of Jacmel on Sunday, a colorful procession of spectacular masks and costumes took over the streets of the Haiti's arts capital.
The coastal city turned into a giant 24-hour party, which started at noon and ended the next day, setting the stage for a parade of strange and elaborate artwork.
But the event was more than just a street party. Under the theme “Change,” it sought to send a message to the world about the will of people in Haiti to develop the country. The artistic creations expressed the joys, frustrations and hopes of the population.
“It is one of a kind it’s like not any other carnival people will see in the world,” said Lee Rainboth, 33, who runs the newly renovated art centre of Jacmel, a space that stopped functioning for a few years after the 2010 earthquake killed its former manager and damaged the building itself. It is now slowly being renovated and expanded, and has become the vibrant hub for artists who go there to exchange ideas, support and inspire each other.
“The costumes that are created and the kind of art that you will see in the Jacmel carnival is wild and out of this world,” Rainboth added. “The papier-mâché creations alone are the best that you will see anywhere, they are what makes the Jacmel carnival what it is.”

You can read the rest of the story on the Euronews website

Haunted by Memories of Syrian Torture, Saved by Art

FONTENAY-LE-COMTE, France — Najah al-Bukai cannot forget.

As an accomplished artist in Syria before the war, Mr. Bukai had long thought his photographic memory was his greatest asset, allowing him to recreate scenes on his sketch pads and canvases days, months and even years after he witnessed them. But now, after he has survived two stretches in the Syrian government’s notorious detention centers, his sharp memories only serve to haunt him.
One day recently, home with his family in Fontenay-le-Comte, a sleepy city in the Loire valley, he methodically opened boxes containing dozens of drawings he has made of the images burned into his brain. It is the only way he knows of coping with the traumas he witnessed, and suffered, in Syria’s torture chambers.

In one, men wearing only their underwear carry a corpse in what looks like a sheet or blanket, for eventual disposal, Mr. Bukai says, in the back of a truck in a pile of other bodies. He recalls a number, 5535, on the young man’s chest. They had been ordered to strip to their underwear, Mr. Bukai explained, so they could be easily spotted if they tried to escape.

“Art saved me,” he said, while laying the drawings out on a tabletop.

His art reminds many critics of the work of the Slovenian artist and Holocaust survivor Zoran Music — haunting, dark and extremely realistic. In his drawings, some prisoners hang by their hands and others undergo other forms of torture, all while their cellmates eat their meals calmly, desensitized to the displays of inhumanity around them.

“I was observing everything and making art in my head,” he said about his time in a crammed cell, where prisoners had to take off their clothes because of the unbearable heat.
He still remembers the smell of rotten flesh, the screams of other prisoners and how, horrifically, he and others grew accustomed to it all.

You can read the rest of the story on the New York Times' website here

She Accused a Moroccan Pop Star of Rape. Online, She Was Vilified.


MARRAKESH, Morocco — Many women who have spoken out against sexual aggression by celebrities have received sympathy, and the men they have accused have often turned contrite in the face of public scorn.

Not so for Laura Prioul, a 21-year-old Frenchwoman, who says she was beaten and raped last year in a Paris hotel, where a housekeeper found her partially naked and bruised in a hallway.
The man she accuses — a 32-year-old Moroccan pop star, Saad Lamjarred — has a music video with a half-billion YouTube views, a zealous fan base, a prominent family and fame enough that King Mohammed VI helped hire a top-shelf legal team to defend him, according to the Moroccan state news agency.

Since Ms. Prioul pressed charges last year, she had been so threatened by his fans that she has gone into virtual hiding. The case has reverberated through the Arab world and North Africa, where it has illuminated the risks women may face when they speak up against sexual violence in countries where rape is often excused and women are more likely to face condemnation, and even prosecution, than the men accused of aggression.

Mr. Lamjarred has publicly maintained his innocence in this case, as well as in two others where he was also accused of assault and the women later withdrew their complaints.

Ms. Prioul says she is determined to seek justice. This month, she released an internet video from an undisclosed location, describing it as a desperate attempt to air her story, clear her name and protect her family.

“I finally felt ready, although it was particularly difficult, to publish my story,” Ms. Prioul wrote in an email. She and her mother had not granted any interviews since the episode but spoke by telephone to The New York Times. “Finally we are giving a voice to victims of sexual violence around the world.”
After Ms. Prioul pressed charges, Mr. Lamjarred was arrested and spent several months in detention in France before being freed on bail in April. Upon his release, he published a video showing himself dancing and singing in the streets of Paris. He is now awaiting a potential trial and cannot leave France.

For her part, Ms. Prioul, who works in the hotel and restaurant industry, has removed herself from social media and doesn’t go out much for fear of being recognized.

“You will pay for this, you will die,” reads one of the messages she received and showed to The Times. “We are going to kill your mother in front of you.”

Ms. Prioul, then 20, was visiting Paris with friends when the assault occurred, she said. Since then, she has returned only when the court or the police summon her. She says that many websites have smeared her, saying that she was a professional escort.

“The purpose of my video is to give my testimony in all sincerity and to stop the rumors about me for a time, to get a little break,” she said.

Continue reading on the New York Times' website.

ANALYSIS: Deadly food stampede exposes Morocco's hidden poverty


MARRAKESH, Morocco – They began gathering at 2am on Sunday to wait in line for cooking oil, sugar and flour that a local imam and his association were distributing at the market in Sidi Boulaalam, a village near the coastal city of Essaouira.

Later that morning, when the group began handing out the free food, the crowd that had gathered quickly became violent and turned into a stampede. Fifteen women died as the imam and others stood by and watched.

“The main concern of the distribution managers was to film the distribution,” a woman cited by the local media said. “People were asking the organisers to intervene to help the victims, but they did not pay attention to these calls and continued to film."

Police are still investigating what exactly provoked the stampede in this tourist city known for Argan oil production, a widely-used ingredient in beauty products.

They have since summoned and subsequently released the imam, Abdelkbir El Hadidi, a well-known figure with a significant internet following.

Still, many observers believe focusing on the food distributors ignored the desperate conditions of the people that led to the deaths.

“They’re looking for culprits to satisfy public opinion,” said Fouad Abdelmoumni, an economist and activist who was jailed under Hassan II, the current king's father.

Some have linked the deaths to wider dissatisfaction with poverty, human rights abuses and the grand infrastructure projects the government has embarked on since the Arab Spring.

According to the World Bank, Morocco has eradicated the extreme poverty that many of its citizens have known for generations.

While the official poverty rate fell to less than 5 percent in 2014 - the most recent data available - almost 16 percent of the country’s 35 million inhabitants live on just $3 a day, according to the World Bank. Unemployment stands at 10 percent, according to government statistics and is much higher among young people. A third of the population still cannot read or write.

Read on the rest here

Morocco Food Stampede Leaves 15 Dead and a Country Shaken

MARRAKESH, Morocco — At least 15 women died and five were wounded in a stampede during a food distribution operation on Sunday morning in rural Morocco, government officials said.
The victims were crushed as hundreds of people, mostly women, gathered to collect baskets of food at the market of a small town, Sidi Boulaalam, according to news accounts. The town is about 40 miles from the coastal city of Essaouira.

In the aftermath of the stampede, clothes and other personal items were left scattered across the ground.

It is unclear what led to the stampede. The Moroccan Interior Ministry, which reported the death toll, said it had opened an investigation. The donor who organized the food distribution has not been publicly identified.

Morocco, with a population of 35 million, is generally regarded as much healthier economically than neighboring countries. According to the World Bank, its poverty rate fell to 4.2 percent in 2014, and tourism remains a robust part of the economy.

But that can mask the conditions in rural areas like Sidi Boulaalam, where things are far more dire. Nearly 19 percent of the rural population lives in poverty, and about 15.5 percent of Moroccans live on about $3 a day.

Continue reading on the New York Times' website.

Proud to be a part of this amazing project




From my dear friend Zahra Hankir (Lebanese/British writer and editor based in London): So pleased to share that I'm working with Penguin Books on a book of essays by some incredible Arab women journalists who will reflect on their personal experiences covering the region.

This is a project that's very dear to my heart, mostly because I'm a massive fan of strong, Arab women who tirelessly work to raise awareness on the region and who dispel the many myths swirling around it. The book is long overdue and will hopefully help shape the narrative on the Arab world, one that's often dominated by men or non-Arabs.

The anthology will feature the works (personal essays and photography) of women who I've admired for years, including Hwaida Saad, Zaina Erhaim, Nour Malas, Rawan W Shaif, Maria Abi-Habib, Lina Attalah, Natacha Yazbeck, Eman Helal, Aida Alami and several others. I'm thrilled I'm going to be working with so many creative minds, and can't wait to hear their stories.

Click here to read Zahra's original post