"This Morocco that we love and that hurts us"

«Education is the essential element to emancipate a society. This should be our top priority. Unfortunately, this is not the case. So, I keep hammering on the urgency to educate our children. Rather than building mosques, we need to build schools.»

Mahi Binebine  

The previous interview dedicated to the memory of Mher Potoyan, a young Armenian kamancheh player who was killed at the age of only 22 during the war in Nagorno Karabakh, moved our hearts, our bellies and our consciences. The last words of Narek Potoyan, brother of Mher, have been a balm for those who believe that a kind gesture, a smile, a book or the notes of a song, will one day bring sworn enemies together at the same table. It is from this force, from this creed called culture, that today we will leave again to reach a country that stole my heart a few years ago, without ever giving it back to me: Morocco.

On the destinations page, I took you to my Morocco, a Morocco where wisdom is clothed in rags and where there are no keys, neither for doors nor for hearts. Now I would like to take you on a journey inside the Morocco of one of the greatest contemporary Moroccan writers and artists, a man who, as the master Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine said then taken up by Tahar Ben Jelloun, will tell us about ''this Morocco that we love and that we it hurts, this Morocco that lacks audacity and madness, where living by getting by is tradition''. He is Mahi Binebine, a keen and sensitive investigator of reality and the human soul.

After years of living in Paris, Madrid and New York, Mahi Binebine in 2002 returned to his Morocco, a land to which he is strongly linked and in which he still operates. An eclectic artist with a strong social commitment, Mahi Binebine has exhibited his works in Morocco, France, Jordan, Italy, Yemen, UAE, Brazil, England, Holland, Singapore and has obtained a permanent space at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. His novels have been published in over ten languages, winning illustrious international awards, including the Prix Méditerranée 2020 with his latest literary venture Rue du pardon. His novels translated into English are Welcome to Paradise, The King's Fool and Horses of God, the novel from which the homonymous film by Nabil Ayouche was based.

Mahi, in your novels and in your artworks, you lead us by the hand among the lights and shadows of humanity. How did this desire to ‘’tell the humanity’’ born?

I was born and raised among the people described in my books. If they are destitute, abandoned, they are endowed with great human wealth. They support each other, they unite in the face of adversity. They are colorful, talkative. They have a sense of humor and, really, I'm proud to be a part of their world, even though luck smiled at me and I don't need it anymore. Without the tenacity of my mother, a courageous mother who raised seven children on her own with almost nothing, I would have had the fate of the characters I defend in my work. Can we call it a commitment? Maybe. Above all, it is a question of restoring the confiscated dignity to all those left behind. I tell "this Morocco that hurts us" as the poet Kheir-Eddine said, with my words, with my images, with my entrails.

One of the themes that we find in your works is immigration. Welcome to Paradise, whose original title is Cannibals, opens with a night scene by the sea near Tangier, where a group of harragas - this is how clandestine migrants are called for the practice of burning documents before departure - await the passeur’s signal to clandestinely embark for Europe, with the illusion of finding a different, democratic, fair world. Do you believe that the West, more than 20 years after the writing of your book, is still ‘’cannibal’’?

There is a certain hypocrisy of Western governments towards illegal immigration. Their population is aging. They need a young, cheap, docile workforce with no social security coverage for agricultural, construction and restaurant work. But this is not good from an electoral point of view ... so there is a double talk ... However, a man who is hungry, oppressed or simply no longer dreaming at home, will go elsewhere. A sense of isolation has oppressed our young people since the creation of the Schengen area and the drastic reduction in visas that followed. This creates an insane desire to leave. And, you see, we can't put barbed wire around Europe. Because there will always be perfectly organized mafia raptors on both sides of the border sucking blood (blood is, I repeat, an indispensable fuel for Western economies). Yes, these young people will leave because the fight against illegal immigration should not take place at the borders, but in the places and thoughts of illegal immigrants; it must take place within the framework of North-South cooperation based on a balanced dialogue and not on a monologue from the North. We need a policy, not an immigration police. The South shouldn't be forced to beg.

The slum of Sidi Moumen, in Casablanca | Photo La Presse
The slum of Sidi Moumen, in Casablanca | Photo La Presse

Let's go back in time and stop the clock on the morning of May 16, 2003 in a shocked Casablanca. Unexpectedly, on that tragic day, five suicide bombings were carried out simultaneously, causing 45 victims and injuring a hundred people. Those responsible were the young people of the Sidi Moumen slum, the protagonists of your novel Les étoiles de Sidi Moumen and of the film Horses of God by Nabil Ayouch. For more than two years you have conducted analysis and research, working directly at Sidi Moumen. Up to that point, Morocco had been immune from terrorism. What went wrong? What did the "illusion merchants" sell? How long does it take to pack and make a "human bomb" usable?

I was shocked, like all my fellow citizens, by the tragedy of May 16, 2003. Until then, we thought we were immune to terrorism. We are by nature non-violent. And then we wake up one morning in front of a bitter reality: young people who blew themselves up in different places in Casablanca are at home. We pay the price of our resignation in the face of illiteracy, misery, injustice. However, not all the damned-on earth become murderers, so we can no longer legitimize everything and anything with despair, misery, a non-future. But having spent some time in Sidi Moumen, I was certain that if I was born there, surrounded by a 100-hectare landfill and a horizon closed with a lock, I would be easy prey for the first trader. I have worked a lot on this problem. And then I did my job as a writer: enter the mind of a young kamikaze who just died and to whom had been sold heaven with his virgins and all. He finds none of the promised wonders. He then recounts his life and that of his unfortunate companions, as they slipped away into the octopus's tentacles. This is a text that has given me many problems. It was out of the question to justify the unjustifiable, but at the same time I meant that these young people, however despicable their acts, are victims of a religious mafia, of resigning power and of leeches. Above all, I feel relieved to be out of it. During my investigation, I was very surprised to learn that it only takes two years to build a human bomb. And the diagram is puzzlingly simple: they start by picking them up from the landfill. They are taught to become pure. They find them a job, give them dignity, take them away from their loved ones, then form a group that becomes their new family. Religion is at the center. And it is here that the work of weakening, of conditioning, takes place in peace. They show them videos of Palestinian or Chechen Kamikazes, glorifying them...

‘’Maybe Hell is the inability to change things. Instead, faith made us see Heaven’’. Can culture, care of the existence, allow us to change things?

Education is obviously the essential element for emancipating a society. This should be our top priority. Unfortunately, this is not the case. So, I keep hammering on the urgency to educate our children. Rather than building mosques, we need to build schools. Especially in the countryside. In the past, the mosque was synonymous with school. But times have changed. The years of lead in Morocco were a disaster because the regime, distrusting culture, rendered the least service. The enemy at the time was communism. So, this has put a red carpet for Salafists, Ouhabists and other factions that support strict Islam. They are now present and well established in disadvantaged areas. The only way to fight them is to educate young people, to give them intellectual weapons to avoid being embraced by the culture of violence.

We often hear that terrorists are the Arab Spring’s sons. Perhaps for some individuals it could be like that, but I believe that the terrorists are the result of decades of dictatorship. What do you think about it? 

Terrorism existed before the Arab Spring. Our dictatorships have created a vacuum around them, to exclude any alternative to their power. They have eliminated, corrupted, discredited democratic political forces ... with the help of the Islamists. They did not foresee that the so-called Islamists would threaten them one day.

I quote a maxim of the judge Giovanni Falcone, Italian national hero, died in a mafia massacre. He said: ''Mafia is a human phenomenon and like all human phenomena it has a beginning, its evolution and therefore will also have an end.'' You talk about ''religious mafia''. What do you mean? Referring to it, are you as optimistic as Judge Falcone or do you believe that the religious mafia will continue to exist, perhaps disguising itself as something different, but fundamentally similar?

Judge Falcone is not wrong. We are moving towards Turkish Islam. In Morocco, although this is a special case, it is moderate Islamists who "rule". In Tunisia the same!

What do you think is the difference between religion, faith and spirituality? Which of these hides the most pitfalls?

You know, I'm a believer. Islam is a matter between the individual and his/her Lord. We have no intermediaries. It is these intermediaries that we should get rid of. I don't practice religion, but that doesn't stop me from having faith.

Many journalists, reporters and political scientists, including the famous Arabist Gilles Kepel, have testified that prisons are a place of indoctrination. Just think of prisons in Iraq for example... 

As in all mafias, rescue is done in prisons. There they learn the trade, radicalize them, make contacts…

Culture is a great enemy not only of terrorism, but also of the current attempt to de-personalize each individual. It almost seems like George Orwell's vision is getting closer day by day. Together with Fathiya Tahiri, during the 53rd edition of the Venice Biennale, you dealt with the theme of the reaffirmation of the individual in the social system. How did you approach this very topical issue?

With the director Nabil Ayouch, who adapted my novel Les étoiles de Sidi Moumen entitled Horses of God, we opened cultural centers in the slums. We already have five. Each center has a cinema, a music room, a library, a dance hall ... We have a thousand children per center. We settle in the strongholds of the Islamists and fight them from within. We are stealing bread from their mouths, so to speak. We teach children the culture of life. I say it and I repeat it, there is no other way.

Let's go to a new address: Rue du pardon. What is meant by chikhat? Why do some women still suffer from marginalization due to their free morals?

The chikhates are one of the cultural originalities of Morocco that has its origin in the popular art of the aïta, a sort of lament deriving from the fusion between the Arab art brought by the tribes of the east and the Amazigh tradition often with the theme of love, pleasure, beauty, nature. But aïta, which is present in all regions of the country, is also a reminder of the demonstration, a song of revolt and transgression in a country where there are so many prohibitions. Practicing aïta is therefore making voices heard. Unpredictable voices from ordinary people and the slums in the conventional and often hypocrite world of wealthier circles. Because of their freedom of tone and life, chikhatses are loved and maligned, sometimes flattered and at the same time marginalized. Hayat will not escape this fate and above all the family curses, the arid and austere rigidity of his family, the horror of a destructive father, the crushed silence of a mother, the mad jealousy of his adopted sisters ...

Now let's talk about Morocco, to say it in my own way ‘’the address of beauty’’. I do not say this rhetorically, but convinced of the fact that it is one of the ‘’favorite houses’’ of the beauty, not only naturalistic, but above all, human. I remember with great affection everyday expressions such as bsa7a or la shukran a3la wajib, small notes apparently unimportant, but which instead always make us feel welcome and well-liked. Looking at some of your photos, I found that taste of friendliness in your smiles. How much did being born in Morocco influence your artistic personality?

I love this country where I was born. People are welcoming, warm and loving. If you get lost and search your way, ten people will stop immediately to help you. Okay, they give you ten different directions, but hey they're great! The fact that I left Morocco for twenty-three years (Paris, Madrid, New York…) allowed me to see the country better. All my work takes place there ...

Bsa7a, or bsaha, is a term that struggles to find a correspondent in English. It can resemble a '' may this action bring you good health ''. A few concrete examples to illustrate the idea: it is said when you buy a new dress, or have taken a shower, or are about to eat something you want ... in short, for all the things that will surely have a pleasant and desirable effect. The 7 is the phonetic transcription in Darija - Moroccan Arabic - of ﺡ  ḥ (for example the h of محمد Mohammed). La shukran a3la wajib, literally '' no thanks, is duty '', where duty implies pleasure. The 3 is the transcription of the formidable (since it is difficult for a non-Arab to pronounce it, perhaps the only one who has succeeded is Battiato) of the letter 'ayn (for example عائشة, Aisha).

Another aspect that I remember with nostalgia is the color. The blue of Chaouen or Jardin Majorelle, the red of Merzouga or Kelaat M'Gouna, the green of Figuig or Erfoud, the white of Essaouira or of the knights of Fantasia-Tbourida… in short, a color that makes you fall in love at every corner. Can we say that color is inscribed in your DNA? 

I can almost say that I have no credit for becoming a painter since I was born among colors!

Morocco is also ''generous wisdom''. Every occasion, from Friday couscous, to afternoon tea and msemmen based snacks, to picnics in some wadi in search of water, is a moment of discussion and reflection. How sacred is conviviality to you?

I returned to live there in 2002. I wanted my daughters to learn to speak Arabic, to discover the richness of their roots. Yes, the couscous every Friday...

To conclude, Morocco taught me the respect, the sense of family, of community, honesty, tenacity, patience. I believe that culture also includes this, a set of human values that travel and exchange allow us to know, much more than books. What do you think is the value of travel?

You know, the other has been essential in my life. I learned everything from traveling.

I thank Mahi Binebine for accepting my invitation with great generosity and sympathy. For those wishing to stay updated on his works, you can visit the official website of the Moroccan writer and artist.

In the next interview we will leave for a distant land where, despite the inhospitable nature, ancient traditions and rituals have survived practically intact. I won't give you any clues… just remember to dress veeery warm!

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