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Why I’m a Moroccan Standing with the Sahrawi People

sexta-feira 4 de outubro de 2013, por Nadir Bouhmouch,

I didn’t discover who was taking away the voice from the voiceless until my voice, my camera, was taken away from me at an airport in Fez on a summer visit to Morocco. It was the Makhzen, the Moroccan regime.

My first encounter with the Sahrawi-Moroccan conflict also happens to be one of the first and most striking memories of my life. Only three years after the ceasefire, I was four years old when my mother, my grandfather and grandmother were on a vacation in Merzouga, a small desert town in south-eastern Morocco just a few kilometers from the Algerian border. During our stay in Merzouga, my mother— a fan of adventure, wanted to go off-roading in the desert. It was that day that we mistakingly drove into Algeria, and where I remember seeing a turbaned man on horseback with a rifle slung over his shoulder. According to my mother, the guide told us that the man on horseback was from the Polisario. I apparently started crying, and we turned the car back.

This memory became more significant as I grew older, because it was an image that harmonized perfectly with what Moroccan state television, textbooks, and society told me. The turbaned man with a rifle on horseback became the embodiment of an enemy of my country and the word “Polisario” became synonymous with “traitor,” “killer,” “spy” and “terrorist.”

On television, there was no debate about the Western Sahara. It was a fact t hat it was ours, it was talked about like we talk about the fact that the Earth rotates around the sun. We were told that it was Algerian instigators who were trying to help a few terrorists get access to this land so that Algeria c an build a road to the Atlantic ocean through the Western Sahara. The televisi on told us it was a conspiracy against the Moroccan people. I believed it.

Green March day, became my favorite holiday. As a child, I liked it as a holiday for two reasons. One, because it was the closest national holiday to my birthday. Two, because of the beautiful, non-violent and patriotic images of the Green March. The thousands of Moroccans who held flags and pictures of the kings and walked across the desert became a romantic image for me as it was for many Moroccans.

As a child, I also loved maps. I wanted to be a cartographer at one point in my childhood, and so my mother bought me a map of Morocco as a gift. It was one of those large detailed road maps, and I studied every bit of it and got excited when I saw one of the many cities and towns that I had visited with my quasi-explorer of a mother, circling it with a pen. The map ran undivided all the way to Lagouira and that’s when I made sense of that famous phrase we hear repeated every night on state television news: “From Tangiers to Lagouira.” It was always a booming narrator who would exclaim it, following it with a statement on how one of the king’s daily activities has made the lives of the Moroccan people “from Tangiers to Lagouira” better.

I became obsessed with the concept of “Tangiers to Lagouira” I wanted to tell people that I had been to every corner of Morocco from “Tangiers to Lagouira.” And so, I made that clear to my mother who decided to take my little sister and I on a road trip through the Western Sahara, to Lagouira. As we passed Tarfaya where a border normally should have been, the drive seemed seamless: no military checks, no police, nothing. There was no doubt in my mind that we were just driving through Morocco. As we approached Laayoune, we started to see military barracks and towers. I didn’t think anything of it.

In Boujdour, we saw more military structures, I even had a Moroccan soldier let me pretend to drive one of the army’s olive green jeeps. When we arrived in Dakhla, I started to see white SUV’s which had the letters “UN” on them. I didn’t fully comprehend what they were but it still seemed normal.

It wasn’t until we drove passed Dakhla, to get to our last stop Lagouira, that the road stopped being seamless, where a restriction was imposed, when something didn’t seem right anymore. The Moroccan army stopped us and told us to turn back, a mine field was all that was left between Dakhla and Lagouira. I couldn’t achieve my “Tangier to Lagouira” dream. Little did I know that it was a dream that could never and should never be achieved because it was based on falsehoods. It took years for me to realize this.

As I grew older and began to read and understand things, I became concerned with those who were less privileged than me. I began to advocate for Palestinian rights first, then I realized that most Moroccans are suffering too from a different type of oppression. Where the suffering came from, was an uncertainty for me at first, all I knew is that it couldn’t possibly be that wonderful king that I saw doing charity work on television every day.

When I went off to college in California to learn to be a filmmaker, I went with the idea that I will make films for those who are voiceless. I didn’t discover who was taking away the voice from the voiceless until my voice, my camera, was taken away from me at an airport in Fez on a summer visit to Morocco. I had no intentions to target the regime at the time. But after my camera was confiscated, it was clear who was behind this. It was the Makhzen, the Moroccan regime. Less than a year later, Morocco was hit with a wave of protests in what is known as the “Arab” spring. I became involved and I saw and heard first hand of the repression, the arrests and the conniving methods of the palace which I slowly began to resent.

This led to more questions: was everything I learned inaccurate? Was my knowledge of Moroccan history knowledge at all? What other propaganda have I been fed? That’s when the question of the Western Sahara arose. I began to look into it and I slowly realized that I was wrong all my life, that I was on the wrong side of history. I realized that the Sahrawis were a repressed and occupied people, almost like the Palestinians. The Moroccan army is the Israeli Defense Force of the Western Sahara, the Green March is the aliyah of Moroccans into the Western Sahara, my mind took the Palestinian flag and stamped it with the Sahrawi star and crescent: it became another flag of resistance in my mind. Sahrawis, Tibetans and Palestinians became similar cases in my opinion.

But that opinion was a dangerous one in that facade democracy that is Morocco. So I stayed quiet. The repercussions of speaking up are big, it is a taboo subject. Self-censorship became a way of life. Every time something would come up about the Western Sahara I stayed quiet. As a human rights activist, it became a flaw, an inconsistency in my beliefs. I became a hypocrite: asking Israelis to speak up for Palestinians while being quiet about the Western Sahara. I itched to talk about it, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

When I was approached by the organizers of the FiSahara film festival, I had an opportunity, an international context in which I can publicly state my real opinions. I felt some sense of security in voicing my opinion publicly because I would be voicing it through this festival which was known and followed by many people around the world. As long as the world is watching me state my opinion, as long as I am maximizing the liability to the democratic image of Morocco that the Makhzen attempts to create, I am safer.

I understand that most Moroccans will despise me for my opinion, but I believe that some one has to start an honest discussion about this issue in Morocco. Standing on the right side of history is always painful for those who do it first, but eventually ideas spread and reason and empathy begins to settle in. Those who stand in the way of justice will increasingly sound like fanatics, like bigots and eventually as criminals.

I have already began to feel the repercussions of my decision as I am attacked for “sympathizing with the enemy” and for being “pro-Polisario.” These unfounded attacks are derived from the idea that I support a specific military and political entity. Yet, I don’t. My presence in the festival is a show of solidarity with the Sahrawi people, not with the Polisario. I can never agree with any entity that has used or uses violence as a mean of resistance. My presence in the festival will give the Sahrawis a face to connect with a side of Morocco they never see, to give them hope, and to encourage them to maintain their miraculous and almost surprising record of not committing acts of terrorism against Moroccan civilians. This alone is an anomaly in the history of oppressed peoples. Palestinians use terrorism, the Irish used terrorism, the Basques used terrorism— the Sahrawis haven’t and Moroccans need to realize how lucky we are to not have fallen victim to this horrid form of resistance. My presence in the festival humanizes us as Moroccans in the eyes of the Sahrawis, making it more difficult to justify violent resistance. It tells the Sahrawis that there are Moroccans like me, who are just unable to speak up.

Let us, as Moroccans, also not forget why we are in the Western Sahara in the first place: because King Hassan II was facing enormous political resistance from the left and needed to gain popularity and support from the Moroccan people. Let us not forget the economic issues that were caused by the war with the Polisario and by the necessary military expenditures to maintain this illegal occupation. Moroccans have suffered more from this occupation than they have gained.

To conclude, I have always loved my country. If you can quantify love, I can say with certainty that I love Morocco just as much as I did before. The only thing that has changed is the quality or the nature of my love which was transformed: I stopped loving the idea of Morocco that was given to me by the state. This idea, created by the Makhzen for the purpose of maintaining a post-colonial and modern nation-state, consisted of a pre-set “package of Moroccaness.” If you reject one thing in that package, you are immediately ostracized, immediately dubbed a “traitor” and an anti-Moroccan. The package’s most basic components are the belief in monarchy, the belief in God, the belief in Arab heritage as the most predominant and superior one, and finally the belief in a Moroccan Sahara. I reject every single one of these. I can be Moroccan while rejecting the monarchy, I can be Moroccan while rejecting Arab heritage and embracing my Amazigh heritage, and I can be Moroccan while rejecting that the Western Sahara belongs to Morocco. By rejecting these things, I am saying that I don’t love the Makhzen’s “package” but instead I love the peoples, the land and the many cultures that make up my country.