Where in the Muslim world would one come across this headline? La Vie Éco, one of Morocco major’s financial dailies, is reporting that wine sales have fallen by half in 2014. Sales have been affected by the decision of Marjane, Morocco’s largest supermarket chain, to stop selling alcoholic beverages and increased taxation on the consumption of alcohol. As a result, home made liquor is on the rise and the state is taking less in tax revenues. Prohibition is always a double edged sword.
If there is anyone who knows I am in town, it is this man, Tangier’s walking newsstand, who never tires of promoting reading. Like a seasoned librarian, he has a good sense of what I like and knows exactly when to show me the latest issue of a magazine. Today, he sold me La Vie Éco, a financial daily, and the weeklies Tel Quel and Le Temps. He usually finds me having lunch someplace, but he also runs into me in the boulevard of the city. He never seems to go beyond this area, and if you stay long enough at the lunch table, he most likely will come back for a second visit. Then he leaves again, calling out the names of newspapers and periodicals, oblivious to the glittering images of well-coiffed anchors on television screens everywhere.
The Spanish newspaper El País is taking note of Tangier’s transformation from a laid back and politically abandoned city to one that is emerging as a powerhouse in the region. The Spanish port of Algeciras across the sea still holds the top status in the Mediterranean, but Tangier’s new port, Tanger Med, is fast inching up to a place of dominance. The whole city is being lifted to the skies. One hundred projects are underway, notes the paper. “A new high-speed train, the first in Africa, will connect the north of Morocco to Casablanca in 2015.” In addition, “15 parks, 25 schools, a conference center, more than a dozen hotels, a dozen mosques, a hospital, a stadium, are being built.” The ultimate “goal is to convert Tangier, a city of nearly one million inhabitants , into the main port of the continent and the Mediterranean.”
This is no small praise. Spain and Morocco have always had a tense relationship, with Spain being the older and more modern sibling. But Morocco is making so much progress that Spain’s most important newspaper can’t fail to notice.
Life is getting interesting around here.
Standing in my office at the UNE campus in Tangier, Georges and Olivier Conin (father & son) display the poster of the first edition of Etre [Ici], a French concept for the digital age that facilitates encounters through art. The event is organized by SSILATE, an organization dedicated to bringing together people around artistic creativity. Tangerians are invited to take a tour of their city, including buildings often closed to the public, and discover various art forms and expressions in each stop. This is what the itinerary looks like:
And here is a trailer of what’s expected to happen:
The Moroccan daily, Aujourd’hui le Maroc, published a portrait of me as a bridge between two shores. It shows that I am a proud American with an unmistakable Moroccan soul. The opening paragraph, however, captures the dilemma of definition: “Professor, writer, essayist, journalist, blogger, thinker or general manager of the University of New England’s new site in Tangier—to name a few of his hats—Anouar Majid is a world unto himself.”
I have long known that identities are not self-creations, but complex, fluid, and even unstable processes shaped by social norms and different readings. We are many things at once, but the important thing is to be in the world, not merely of it. Being alive is, in the end, a gamble on the good.
The Saturday session of the Tangier Jazz Festival lavished audiences with a series of enchanting musical events, including an electrifying performance by Lillian Boutte, the official musical ambassador of New Orleans. Like a genuine saint, the lady in white walked among the people of Tangier with grace and beauty, bringing America’s spiritual pain-joy to Morocco’s new-old traditions. I had missed a much-anticipated show by the Afro-Spanish sensation, Buika, but the scenes I captured from Boutte’s concert more than compensated for anything else I couldn’t see in the last five days of endless jazz. During all this time, cosmopolitanism and openness to world cultures were the featured talk of town, even though music of every kind resounded throughout a tired city that never sleeps.
The scat singer David Costa Coelho and his band, Smoky Joe Combo, drawing on America’s swing repertoire from the 1930s and 40s, entertained a chic audience at a private lunch reception in Tangier’s Moulay Hafid Palace. The band’s music turned out to be irresistible to die-hard aficionados of jazz and swing, and so, they, too, jumped to their feet and danced their calories away. It was as splendid as a lunch in a hot Mediterranean day could be.
Last Wednesday (September 10), I attended the opening of the Tangier jazz festival, known as TanJazz, but spent little time listening to the music, performed simultaneously in three or four venues, all within the grand Palais des Institutions Italiennes, a sprawling architectural jewel known locally as the Palais Moulay Hafid. I was too enchanted by the setting to sit down and listen. (Besides, I am not a great fan of jazz.) A bright moon lit the gardens and stages, as if it had been commissioned by the intrepid organizers of the festival. Several dining options appealed to all palates. One could definitely get a taste of how it must have felt to be in a heavenly place like Alhambra in its golden age. Designed by a Spanish architect, the Palais Moulay Hafid fits squarely into the Andalusian legacy that shapes much of the destiny of Tangier and Morocco.
In 1984, George Orwell’s year of doom, the enigmatic American novelist Thomas Pynchon wrote an essay for the New York Times reflecting on the brave new age of modernity and the people who questioned its benefits at the risk of being associated with the equally mysterious Ned Ludd (lionized by the poet Lord Byran as “King Ludd”), believed to have smashed knitting machines in 1779 to protest the power of technology to undermine human labor and communities. The machine, Pynchon seems to be saying, continues to promise a utopia that remains slightly out of grasp. What he said then is often promoted today by our geniuses at MIT or Silicon Valley as disruptive innovation. “With the proper deployment of budget and computer time, we will cure cancer, save ourselves from nuclear extinction, grow food for everybody, detoxify the results of industrial greed gone berserk.” Or: “If our world survives, the next great challenge to watch out for will come—you heard it here first—when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge.” What separates literary Pynchon from hi-tech preachers is credulity. The latter types see a rosy future of automation, whereas Pynchon has only this to say: “Oboy.”
What, then, do we live for? Bigger economies leave massive collateral damage in their wake. Better technologies turn people into slaves to smart devices. People work out in gyms because they lost the physical agility of hunter gatherers, whose world was destroyed by the invention of agriculture. Drudgery, knee problems and social discrimination followed. One only has to read Yuval Noah Harari’s essay, based on his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, to sense the futility of chasing what Pynchon called in 1984 “all the wistful pipe dreams of our days.” It is true that we live in a golden age right now, but a few decades of relative calm are no ironclad guarantee of a less turbulent future. The problem is our “hedonic treadmills.” No matter how fast we run on them, we must keep running—to go nowhere. People are driven by impossible expectations—that is the problem.
If only we could activate our imaginations.
It is hard to imagine the city of Casablanca as anything but the setting for the iconic film by the same name, featuring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Until very recently, it didn’t matter that the city was the main economic center of Morocco since colonial times or that it is home to some five million inhabitants. Were it not for the Mosque Hassan II, built by the late Hassan II on the Atlantic Ocean, or Rick’s Cafe, a business started by an enterprising American woman to capitalize on the myth of the film, Casablanca would have remained a bustling cultural backwater, which is something of a huge paradox. Not anymore, though. CNN is reporting that the city, according to a survey, is ranked # 1 as most likely to be a finance hub in the future. The city I used to know as Little Paris when I was a kid is, in many ways, the gateway to sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb. It has benefited greatly from Morocco’s rock-solid stability and the country’s determined efforts to foster meaningful economic and cultural partnerships. Good luck.