When Americans reflect on Morocco in 2011, the initial image brought to mind will most likely fall on April 28, when 16 people were killed in Marrakech during a bombing at the touristy Argana Café. Reports of Al Qaeda were invoked in this usually stable country, and though having denied any involvement, Islamic terror reigned once again during the American 24-hour news cycle. It's the sad reality of a predatory media environment that covers almost exclusively messages of doom and destruction while generally ignoring great strides forward. One of the main dangers of this mental association game -- Islamic country=terrorism -- is that when amazing displays of humanity emerge, they fall on deaf ears.
Currently celebrating the tenth anniversary of the momentous Mawazine Festival in the capital city of Rabat, in which two million people converge to celebrate indigenous Moroccan music (such as Gnawa, Berber and Sahawari), Arab pop, and a broad swath of sounds from all over Africa, Asia, Europe and America, Morocco has plenty to teach the Muslim world, as well as America and our current relationship with the arts. The small country in North Africa not only avoided the Arab Spring (outside of a few regional protests), but may also prove to be a blueprint for the future of the Islamic world.
Most festival officials and random Moroccans that I met while spending four days covering Mawazine this week referenced the forward thinking policies of King Mohammed VI as an explanation as to why the country remained relatively quiet during this heated season of revolts and unrest. After assuming this role in 1999, following the death of his father, at the young age of 36, Mohammed's tenure has included a series of rewritten laws that promote gender and social equality. He has also ramped up his nation's economy (I was told of 5% annual growth) with a strong emphasis on infrastructure. When protesters peacefully crowded around Parliament in February (an elected body that assumes a good deal of power) and demanded constitutional changes, the king declared he would concede to such amendments, including limitations to his own power. Egyptian and Libyan leaders have much to learn from such an attitude. The changes might not be fast enough for some, but they are being set into motion without bombs or armies.
Of equal importance to social issues is the emphasis Moroccans have placed on promoting and spreading the arts. Festival directors understand the two go hand-in-hand. Spread over ten days and eight stages, Mawazine is a juggernaut of a celebration of diversity and musicality. Abbas Azzouzi, director of the Association of Maroc-Cultures, told me there were at least 50 national festivals held in Morocco every year. Foreigners are familiar with the epic Sacred Music Festival held every June in Fes, as well as the roots-driven Gnawa Festival in Essaouira a few weeks later. Mawazine, as large as (though more spread out than) Fes, which this year featured international artists such as Shakira, Kanye West and Quincy Jones, is not yet name-checked by hip wanderers -- the exact reason for the outreach to journalists to hop across the pond from America. While tourism is the second largest economic driver in Morocco (behind phosphates, in front of remittances and agriculture), most travelers stick to the exotic spa promises of Casablanca and Marrakech, which is like going to Cancun and saying you've been to Mexico.
The general association that some Arabs make between Morocco and California is fitting: it lies on the continent's west coast and has been a destination for backpackers since Paul Bowles invited Beatniks over to smoke powerful hashish and drink thé de menthe in the souk. Muslims sometimes roll their eyes when conversation turns to Moroccans, the way you do when gossiping about that wayward cousin who still lives in his parent's basement playing Xbox and trying to secure patents on machines that reduce the toxicity of marijuana smoke. And then that cousin has a breakthrough that blows your doubting mind wide open, which is why it should not surprise us that Morocco might be in possession of one of the most important keys for both promoting cultural variety within its borders and showing a skeptical America that Islam has plenty to teach about communicating with foreign nations and accepting foreign ideas. It all begins with the emphasis they are placing on music, cinema, painting and photography, displaying local artists and importing international sounds and sights.
In a geographical region dominated by youth movements, Morocco seemed prime for revolution. Flanked by Algeria and close to Tunisia, Libya and Egypt -- areas defined by youthful unrest -- from my perception teenagers in Rabat and Fes seem pretty free being themselves. Azzouzi mentioned that 60% of the population is under the age of 25. He said that having a relatively young leader in a recently changed administration helped stave off serious threats of revolt. Think of the unswerving decades-long reigns of men like Mubarak and Gaddafi and it's easy to understand how frustrations collect and boil over. This line of thinking is unbroken between social policy and artistic integrity. Last year, when Elton John was announced as one of Mawazine's headliners, a minor controversy arose when fundamentalist Muslim voices demanded that an openly homosexual man not be allowed to perform. Mohammed VI stood by John, stating that his sexual orientation had nothing to do with his artistry or importance in spreading diversity.
In fact, 'diversity' was the word I heard most when chatting with festival directors. They assured me that it's the raison d'être of all of Morocco's festivals. They were not lying, a fact that was verified while I watched the tens of thousands of people in each crowd that I witnessed. Teens sang along to (or made up their own versions of) Syrian chants by Mayada Al Hanaoui, clapped in rhythm to Majid Bekkas's Gnawa fusion, pumped fists of appreciation when Malian hero Salif Keita performed his classic tale of agriculture, and climbed over each other's backs in sonic ecstasy when Saharawi divas Saida Charaf and Rachida Talal took stage in front of their orchestras. This itself is an important sign of cultural appreciation. The Saharawi live in Western Sahara, a small southern region that remains one of Earth's few remaining contested lands. The Moroccan government claims a sizable portion as its own, though surrounding countries do not recognize this claim. The indigenous inhabitants, mostly of mixed Arab and Berber blood, can be fierce fighters when their independence is contested, much like the Saharan Tuareg to the east. Borders did not stop an incredible amount of Moroccan youth knowing every word to the Saharawi songs. Despite extra security at this show, there was no sign of violence anywhere.
Attending concerts is one thing, experiencing the city quite another. Journeying through Rabat's souks, I arrived at the ocean to find thousands of teens kicking soccer balls and wrestling on the beach. In one area roughly 40 boys and girls circled a bendir player keeping a simple beat. They clapped their hands and chanted in Arabic, while those in center danced in gyrating, circular motions. It was sexual without being seedy. The ritual performed on a hot afternoon was effectively what teens comfortable with their bodies (and learning how to use them) do around one another. This generational shift has occurred over the past decade, Mawazine press director Marcy DePina informed me. Even just three years ago, while wandering Fes's medina, I noticed a certain distance between boys and girls, staring and flirting with little actual contact. That scene reminded me of those god-awful chaperoned dances in junior high where everyone stood around waiting for one brave soul to break the invisible boundary of the basketball court and ask a girl to dance. Three years later you're bumping and grinding in a dark basement after your friend's parents believed him when he said he wouldn't have a party while they went to Wildwood for a long weekend.
Not to trivialize the matter, but let's face it: being free to be human is of dire importance to social wellbeing. While I personally am stared at in Morocco -- I was told that having tattoos means you either spent time in jail or are in the mafia -- I have never felt threatened. I've had scarier moments in Brooklyn than anywhere abroad. When I pulled out my camera to capture an image of a spice market in Salé's souk, three teens yelled at me to take their picture. After the shot, they asked me to put it on Facebook. This kind of interaction took place daily. I'm not glorifying the role of the tourist, but it is important to note that I rarely if ever see these types of events in New York City. Maybe I'm blind to it being an inhabitant of this city, but then again millions of Americans are blind to the general workings of a Muslim society. And while my experiences are relegated to two trips to Morocco thus far, both have been incredible and inspiring in many senses of those words, with nothing that has to do with the overpriced patterned tiles, expensive leather poofs and "exotic" lemon preserves that I find in Chelsea markets and Soho boutiques.
Sharing and promoting the arts is crucial in societies that express the desire to evolve and flourish. While Mawazine is mostly privately funded, it is heavily promoted by the government. Contrast that to American politicians refusing to end oil subsidies or raise taxes on millionaires while simultaneously casting NPR as the devil and the NEA and NEH as unnecessary expenditures, and you get a clear idea of where we are as a nation. Art is oftentimes a reflection of the culture that creates it. Peel back the layers of gloss and sheen that dominate American pop music and you'll find many levels of frustration in our independent arts. While initiatives like Kickstarter have been a blessing, major media companies rarely support festivals in the way being done throughout Morocco, with minimum intrusiveness and complete faith in the directors. (Azzouzi told me that corporate sponsors have absolutely no say in programming.) America has long been rich in diversity. I only hope that we can celebrate it on the levels that others are actively pursuing today.