Museum records ups and downs of Morrocan life

Student researchers gather residents' stories about their personal experiences to produce an oral history of a Casablanca suburb.

December 12, 2009-Morocco
 Student researcher Wafaa Afkir interviews Nourdine Daif, a Ben M'sik telephone kiosk owner, to document his experiences for the Ben M'sik Community Museum. John Thorne/The National *** Local Caption ***  JT - Casa Museum - 12.JPG
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BEN M'SIK, MOROCCO // It is a bright cold day in Ben M'sik, a ragged Casablancan suburb, and Nourdine Daif is late for his neighbour's funeral. A station wagon is idling beside his telephone kiosk, but Mr Daif, 53, is deep in conversation with Wafaa Afkir, a student researcher from the university across the road. "I want future generations to know what happened to my forefathers," he says. "And to me."

Ms Afkir's pen flies across her notepad. Soon, Mr Daif's memories of life in Ben M'sik will join those of other residents in an oral history project for the Ben M'sik Community Museum, part of the local campus of the Université Hassan II Mohammedia. The museum is the first in Morocco to examine the ups and downs of contemporary life, a tricky undertaking in a society with a strong taboo against airing one's problems in public.

"We're not interested only in artefacts displayed behind glass," said Samir el Azhar, an English and American Studies professor at the university who is heading the project. "We want people's stories of their own experiences in Ben M'sik." In most cases, that experience is migration. For decades, waves of rural poor have landed in Ben M'sik and other Casablanca suburbs, seeking a better life. "Ben M'sik represents the dream of Casablanca," said Youssef el Dafali, 29, a student researcher whose parents came to the neighbourhood from the crumbled red hills of the Draa Valley, hundreds of kilometres to the south. "Come here and make money."

A century ago Casablanca was a modest collection of white houses inside brick ramparts beside the Atlantic. But the city's destiny changed overnight when France took control of Morocco in 1912 and chose Casablanca as the country's main port. The harbour was enlarged and a modern city of long, straight boulevards and piecrust facades soon dwarfed the old medina. As migrants streamed in from the countryside, Casablanca gave the French language the word bidonville - "slum" - coined from the labourers' shanties made from flattened tin drums, or bidons.

Most workers never intended to stay in Casablanca, but the bidonvilles evolved into the scruffy working-class neighbourhoods that ring the city today. Since Morocco gained independence in 1956, Casablanca has ballooned to about four million inhabitants as the country has sought to become a business and commercial hub for North Africa. By the 1980s, overpopulation, unemployment and the rising cost of living turned Casablanca into a pressure cooker. In 1981, the city exploded in riots that human rights groups say ended in clashes with security forces that killed hundreds.

Since then, the state has graced Ben M'sik with apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, a cultural centre and the university campus. But the neighbourhood remains a grey zone between city and country. The larger boulevards are flanked by anonymous housing blocks. Elsewhere, the bloody hides of sheep slaughtered for Eid are piled for sale in carts beside a woodlot and horse-carriages clatter down the streets. Old men hawk meagre collections of junk and trinkets: watches, rings, shoes.

For Mr el Azhar and his researchers, these scenes show strands of rural culture twining together. "Anyone coming to Ben M'sik brought with him the songs, proverbs and customs of his region," he said. "The museum is meant to make people aware of that heritage, to make them proud of it." With help from Kennesaw State University in the United States and a grant from the US state department, Mr el Azhar's researchers collected about 80 folk stories and have begun conducting interviews.

The idea is to combine the findings in a multimedia exhibit, planned to go public by next September. The project will incorporate sound and video, using recording gear due to arrive from the United States. Meanwhile, a new wing of the university is going up that will house the museum, giving it direct access outside the campus walls. "Sometimes there's a social barrier," said Youssef el Fadali, the student researcher. "We have to reach out to people and make them understand that this is their museum, their stories."

Mr Daif has absorbed that message already. Ignoring the waiting station wagon, he continues recounting his life to Ms Afkir. He is a large bearded man who grew up in the neighbourhood. She is a slight girl in a headscarf whose fair skin and high, rounded cheeks suggest her Amazigh, or Berber, roots. "Relations between people are pretty good, although sometimes kids get into drugs, which causes friction," Mr Daif says. "But now mentalities are changing, more people are working better jobs."

Ms Akfir concludes her questions, but Mr Daif has more stories he wants presented in the museum. "In 1981, the army fired on demonstrators," he says in response to a question from The National. "They buried the bodies together in a pit near the fire brigade station." Afterwards, he was scooped up by police and jailed until 1992, he said, a case reviewed by a truth commission set up by King Mohamed VI in 2004 to look into human rights abuses during the reign of his father, Hassan II.

Suddenly, voices beckon from the station wagon. "I really must go," says Mr Daif, grasping the crutch he has used since a car crash in 1993. "Even if I hadn't known him, I'd still go to the funeral. He was my neighbour."