The Sceptre and the Pen

A novelist writes on Morocco’s present trials

For his extravagance, King Mohamed VI has earned the nickname His Majetski. ABDELHAK SENNA / AFP / Gety Images
01 December, 2014

TOWARDS THE END OF HIS REIGN, Hassan II of Morocco informed his eldest son and heir that “the throne of the Alaouite monarchs is their horse-saddle.” His point: A king has to be ready for action. Hassan had learnt this early on. In 1958, three years before he succeeded his father, Mohamed V, Hassan crushed a rebellion in the Rif mountains of northern Morocco, turning its green plateaus orange with napalm and killing several thousands. His approach foreshadowed the strategies he would employ throughout his 38-year reign: ruthlessness, repression and fear.

When Hassan died, in 1999, the country breathed a sigh of relief. Abdellatif Laâbi, Morocco’s greatest living poet—who, between 1972 and 1980, was jailed for his peaceful cultural activism and routinely tortured—noted at the time that “the political game had opened up considerably, and it seemed likely that its rules would be decided collectively and no longer, as in the past, by a single man.” A few months after he took the throne, the new monarch, Mohamed VI, addressed his people on national television, promising to be the “king of the poor” and to usher in a new era: of greater freedom, especially for women; better employment; and more transparent governance.

Fifteen years into his rule, Mohamed VI has instead surrounded himself with rapacious cronies, and earned the sobriquet “His Majetski” for his playboy lifestyle—which includes spending millions of dollars on family holidays. His Majetski’s personal fortune is estimated at just over two billion dollars, largely the result of his near monopolies over three key sectors of the economy: phosphate mines, citrus farms and real estate. While he inherited the first two from his father, he fixed his grip over the last himself. As confirmed by leaked cables from the US consulate in Casablanca, dated December 2009, His Majetski owns a piece of every major real-estate project in the country: “While corrupt practices existed during the reign of King Hassan II … they have become much more institutionalized with King Mohammed VI. Institutions such as the royal family’s holding company, Omnium Nord Africaine, which now clears most large development projects, regularly coerce developers into granting beneficial rights to ONA.”

Although he is technically a constitutional monarch, the Moroccan king’s power is unchallengeable. He can overrule his prime minister at any time, and is beyond accountability—perhaps why, though he is the “Leader of the Faithful,” he is also the Muslim country’s chief importer of alcohol. And perhaps also why, as a recent report by the weekly TelQuel noted, most of his public works initiatives have a success rate of between 25 and 40 percent—meaning that when the government identified the need for 373 new primary schools, only 99 were built. The results of such inefficiency are that only 55 percent of Moroccan children attend secondary school, putting the country on a par with Malawi and far behind even Bangladesh, where that figure stands at 70 percent. Poverty is on the rise; the price of food keeps climbing; and while half a million graduates enter the job market each year, only one in ten is likely to get a job, and that too through family connections. Yet, as the leaked cables note, these are problems “of which most Moroccans dare only whisper.”

But Mohamed Nedali refuses to abide by this code of silence. Over the past eleven years, he has published six novels to critical and public acclaim—he has won major awards in Morocco, France and Spain—and established himself as a writer unafraid to excoriate contemporary Moroccan society. Nedali, who writes in French, is especially popular among young Moroccans for dealing openly with social hypocrisy and official corruption. His fifth novel, Sad Youth, has become a defining text for Morocco’s Arab Spring generation. The book tells the story of Houda and Saïd, two poor Marrakechi students who fall in love at university and decide to build a future together. Though earnest and hard-working, they’re unable to find jobs upon graduating, and begin working in a small hotel catering to wealthy Europeans—a fate familiar to many in Marrakech. Under the ensuing pressures of their difficult lives, the relationship eventually falls apart. Though Sad Youth was written over a year before the Arab Spring began, its sentiments are very much attuned to the trials and tribulations of the unhappy millions that filled the squares of West Asia and North Africa, including Morocco, after December 2010.

I met Nedali early on a Tuesday afternoon towards the end of September, in Tahannoute—a quiet Berber town an hour’s drive outside Marrakech, at the foot of the Atlas mountains, where his family has lived for generations. As we drove out of Marrakech, my partner and I saw row upon row of empty villas rising out of the dusty nowhere. These were Morocco’s new ghost towns: the results of an initiative launched by His Majetski in 2004, whereby the state set aside 100 billion dirhams—roughly $11 billion—to house 1.2 million people. The government built no schools or hospitals—just empty houses. I’d seen similar projects before: in southern Italy, where the Mafia and corrupt officials would siphon off public funds to build bridges, which they abandoned halfway so as to pocket the remaining money. Morocco’s housing shortage remains acute, and has spawned shanty towns that are hotbeds of discontent and unrest. The perpetrators of a series of suicide bombings in Casablanca in 2003, and then again in 2007, all famously hailed from Sidi Moumen—ten square miles of hovels to the north-east of the city, with no running water or electricity, where families of five to eight live crammed into spaces barely large enough for half that number. All the bombers were in their early twenties.

We arrived for lunch at a comfortable two-storey house that Nedali shares with his wife, Hanane, and their son and daughter, both of whom are now at university. Although we’d corresponded on numerous occasions (I am currently translating his debut novel, Prime Cuts, for an American publisher), this was the first time Nedali and I met in person. At 52 years of age, he cut a genial but still imposing sight: his blue eyes shone, and his handshake was firm and rough.

Nedali spoke Berber at home until the age of seven, learned Arabic at primary school, and started studying French at the age of ten. There were no books in his house, he said. His father was an illiterate bean farmer, and when an extended drought destroyed most of the family’s crops through the 1970s and 1980s, the young Nedali was forced to start providing for them. As a teenager, he began attending high school in Marrakech. He caught lifts on the backs of cattle trucks, and spent evenings and weekends working in Marrakechi slaughterhouses. After studying literature in France on a scholarship, Nedali qualified as a teacher and returned to Tahannoute in his late twenties to work at the town’s recently opened high school. Nedali’s house is only a five-minute walk from the school, where he still teaches. He was able to buy it, he proudly informed me, partly with the royalties from his novels.

As we ate, the conversation turned to Nedali’s sixth novel, The Garden of Tears, which had just been published. “It’s the second installment of a trilogy that I began with Sad Youth,” Nedali said, “and it doesn’t have a happy end either.” Like its predecessor, The Garden of Tears begins auspiciously: Driss and Souad have just gotten married. Driss is a nurse, and Souad a waitress at one of Marrakech’s finest hotels. They hope to save enough money to buy a home of their own. During one of her evening shifts, Souad is assaulted by a drunken police commissioner. Outraged, the couple file a complaint with the authorities, and are then forced to look on while everyone pretends that nothing happened. The witnesses say they didn’t see anything, the restaurant manager claims Souad provoked the commissioner, and the case is thrown out of court. As the hotel manager blithely informs Souad halfway through the novel, “The servants of the state are never at risk in this country, regardless of the crime of which they’ve been accused. The law isn’t designed to hold them accountable, but rather to protect them and cover their tracks in case of any misconduct.”

The book’s jacket copy mentions that it is “based on a true story.” Nedali chuckled when I brought this up, and ruffled his hair before launching into his tale. Three years ago, his wife, who also works at the high school, was approached by a couple of girls who claimed that one of their classmates kept taking pictures of them with his phone. Hanane confiscated the boy’s phone, and presumed the matter had been laid to rest. The following day, she was summoned to the principal’s office, and found herself confronted by the boy’s parents, who assaulted her while the principal—a Muslim fundamentalist who, Nedali said, had been suspicious of the couple’s liberal politics for years—looked idly on. The boy’s father was a high-ranking policeman, and Nedali and Hanane subsequently endured troubles similar to those faced by their fictional alter egos in The Garden of Tears. Eventually, thanks to Nedali’s fame, the local media picked up the story, and the regional governor removed the policeman from his post.

“My wife’s been asking me to emigrate for years now,” Nedali told us over coffee, “but I refuse to leave my country. This is where I must stay and fight. Literature and education are the only means we have to change people’s mentalities.” He insists on publishing his books with local presses in order to keep them affordable; had he chosen to print them only in France, as many Moroccan writers do, few outside the privileged elite would ever read them. “Things are difficult,” Nedali said, “but I believe they can improve. They have to—and if they don’t, the consequences might be catastrophic.”

Meanwhile, Mohamed VI seems, in his own way, to have taken his father’s advice to heart. Although he prefers the back seat of a limousine to a saddle, he is always on the move, inaugurating a hospital here, an orphanage there. If you look as though you are working, he seems to think, the people might actually believe you.