The Middle East Channel

Nayda: Morocco's Musical Revolution

One of the biggest changes brought by the arrival of King Mohamed VI to power in 1999 has been the development of new visible (or rather, audible) popular music scene in Morocco. In the last 10 years, fusion groups like Hoba Hoba Spirit or Fnaire, and rappers like Bigg or Muslim have been the flagships of a real musical revolution that have given the decades-long deprived Moroccan youth a chance to finally hear independent music that reflects their reality and aspirations.

With the notable exception of Nass el-Ghiwane, Jil Jilala and Lem Chaheb, the last two decades of the late king's reign were characterized by a grim cultural aridity where official representatives of culture, fully homologated by the authorities, were the only ones with access to state subsidies or TV distribution. While most Moroccans enjoy local chaabi (popular) groups or foreign music, the country's official TV channel (and until 1989, the only one), would to almost every Moroccan youth's great displeasure, limit its contribution to culture to the broadcasting of the infamous Sahra Fanniya Koubra (the grand artistic evening) a long and soporific succession of official artists every Saturday evening.

With the death of the late king in 1999, a new generation of young and assertive performers was able to create a new space for musical expression. Despite some initial difficulties (a group of 14 Moroccan heavy metal singers were condemned to jail sentences for playing "satanic" music in 2003), bands such as H-Kayne and Darga were quasi-instantly able to secure a large audience of young Moroccans eager to hear music in tune to their concerns, speaking their language and free from the stifling norms of official art. Singing in colloquial Arabic, Berber, French and English, the different songs reflect the multiple identities of their creators and their public. They tackle issues rarely discussed publicly such as corruption, torture, sexuality and the difficulty of being young in a country of contrasts and inequalities.

The Moroccan francophone press quickly labeled these changes ‘Nayda' (which means ‘up' in Moroccan Arabic) as a reflection of the Movida, Spain's cultural and social revolution which followed Franco's death in 1975. As in Spain, the arrival of a new King created a great deal of hope among a population eager for change. Indeed, immediately after his coming to power, the "young king of the youth" attempted to distance himself from his father's autocratic ways by (somewhat) liberalizing the political sphere, encouraging the emergence of new private radio stations catering to a younger audience and by sponsoring a number of major music festivals across the country. In less than 10 years, state-organized music festivals like Mawazine in Rabat became Morocco's major cultural events while Nayda's inventive groups were given wide access to state television and official events.

However, as underlined by many Moroccan journalists, it quickly became clear that whatever change Morocco was experiencing could hardly be compared to what occurred in Spain in the 1980s. Catering to increasingly conservative voters, Morocco's main Islamic party, the Party of Justice and Development, regularly condemns the organization of music festivals and lumps together the risk of depravation that these festivals are supposed to encourage with homosexuality, drugs use and the westernization of Morocco's youth. Similarly, Rachid Nini, perhaps Morocco's most influential journalist, has also been a stern critique of music festivals which he sees as part of a large conspiracy to corrupt the younger generations of the country.

While authorities were initially hesitant on how to deal with these changes, the terrorist attacks of 2003 made them realize the importance of allowing increasingly frustrated urban youth vent some of their dissatisfaction. The government now directly sponsors multi-million dollars festivals in all major Moroccan cities while at the same time assisting local artists with administrative and logistical support. According to Dr. Mohamed Darif, a political science professor at the University of Hassan II in Mohamedia, Nayda is simply "another effort by the state to co-opt culture and is doomed to fail." For Darif, "Nayda is an attempt to promote the image of Morocco as an open and tolerant society while at the same time trying to contain the appeal of extremism to increasingly conservative youth."

Undeniably, the links between the Nayda movement and the authorities are much closer than they appear at first sight. The lead singer of Hoba Hoba Spirit, Nayda's most iconic band, was the star-columnist of the very influential Telquel, a widely read francophone magazine popular amongst Morocco's décideurs. Similarly, Bigg‘s aunt, Milouda Hazeb, is a prominent politician with the Parti Authenticité et Modernité also close to the authorities. More importantly perhaps, some of Nayda's songs are no better than Morocco's most nationalistic chants of the 1970s. L'fnair patriotic song Yed al-Hanna (Henna Hand) is a blatant example of chauvinism and underlines the increasing trend among Moroccan artists to express themselves in terms of traditional themes such as nationalism, loyalty to the monarchy and the need to defend Moroccan values and identity.

Finally, the striking success of Nayda's artists is due above all to the ability of all these groups, including the staunchly independent ones, to benefit from government sponsored venues and have access to official music distribution channels. Without the government (often self-interested) benevolence, Morocco's fragile musical scene is less ready than ever to emancipate itself.

Merouan Mekouar is a political science doctoral candidate at McGill University.

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Photos by Amine Boubnan

The Middle East Channel

A Saturday night in Sheikh Jarrah

Night descends on Jerusalem and the Sabbath is nearing its end. The city's shops, restaurants and cafes prepare to welcome crowds of tourists and locals who are enjoying the end of summer in the Holy Land. I leave my family strolling through the ritzy Mamilla pedestrian mall and head east, to the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah -- the latest flashpoint in the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Since last November, Israelis and Palestinians have been holding demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah over the eviction of long-time residents of the neighborhood in favor of religious Jewish settlers. The Israeli judiciary recognizes the rights of Jews to sue for ownership of properties that were theirs prior to 1948; Palestinians have no such rights.  If Palestinians begin filing similar claims on properties that belonged to them prior to Israel's creation, Israel will be hard pressed to explain this inequality before the law.  Over the past few months, the protests have grown in size and significance and the movement is now at the forefront of a resurgence of the long-dormant Israeli left. As I headed to Sheikh Jarrah with my guide, Sara Benninga -- a young Israeli leader of the emergent Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement -- I did not know what to expect.

We arrived early so Benninga could show me around the neighborhood before the demonstration was to begin. The marches are usually held on Friday afternoons, but during Ramadan, it was decided to hold them on Saturday nights out of respect for fasting Muslims. When we arrived, Benninga tried to take me down one of the main streets of the neighborhood, but it was blocked off by a sizable Israeli police presence that prevented any non-resident from entering. Benninga tried to explain that I was a visitor from overseas, a member of a progressive Jewish organization called Ameinu ("our people" in Hebrew), but they were unmoved. I hastened to add that I was even a Zionist, but that didn't help much either. The head officer was particularly unfriendly to us and made it clear that we were not welcome around the neighborhood, despite having no legal grounds for preventing us from going wherever we pleased. When Benninga and I did manage to find a street that wasn't closed off, several policemen closely followed us. I didn't want a problem -- I had read about how enthusiastic the police has been in the past about breaking up the demonstrations -- so we made our way back to the square where the rally was to be held.

As the appointed time grew near, more and more people started to join in. They included Palestinians from the neighborhood, Israelis of all stripes -- young, old, secular and religious. Even a few families were there -- as well as more than a few foreign thrill seekers. Across the street stood a few ultra-Orthodox settlers who, for the most part, watched in silence. Soon enough, there were about 200 people milling about, waiting for the events of the evening to begin.

At 8:30, the neighborhood muezzin began the call to prayer. From the square, drummers started playing, protest signs were pulled out and a couple of Palestinian street vendors hastily assembled a portable orange juice stand. Benninga and another man grabbed bullhorns and started to lead the crowd in chants against the seizure of Palestinian property in Sheikh Jarrah in particular, and the Israeli occupation in general. "Fascism stops here," they yelled. Passing cars honked in support.

A few speakers gave updates on the situation on the ground since the previous week but no one spoke of politics. The crowd was remarkably well-behaved; not one person seemed the least bit hostile toward the police or anyone else in the vicinity. There wasn't even one hint of heated anti-government rhetoric. Benninga later explained to me that while the gathering was perfectly legal, any political speech would turn it into a "political rally" -- something the authorities would not tolerate in the neighborhood. After about a half an hour, we marched down the street into another part of the neighborhood -- the only part that wasn't sealed off by police. More chants and another couple of speeches, and before I knew it, the rally drew to a close. 

I watched as the crowd dispersed and wondered if this was truly the beginning of a significant social movement for justice in Israel and the territories or if it was just a bunch of wannabe radicals with nothing better to do on a Saturday night. I'm still not sure, but after meeting the leadership, I'm convinced that they're on the right track. They're in no hurry to co-opt a known figure and become a political party; they'd rather bide their time and grow organically from the ground up. They believe that there are a lot of Israelis who silently support what they're doing and that this support will become more vocal as time goes on. 

It's too soon to tell if the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement will succeed in preventing the evictions of Palestinians from their homes. One thing is certain, however: the movement has brought this issue to the fore and shows no signs of backing down or disappearing any time soon. 

Brad Rothschild is a screenwriter and filmmaker from New York City.

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