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Tradition and change in the Moroccan Sahara.

The Moroccan Sahara once held a position of political and economic pre-eminence in the Maghreb. These days more than 50% of young men leave the area in search of work.

Mohamid Bouzid lives in the town of Zagora, a settlement of several thousand people at the edge of the Moroccan Sahara. Eighteen years old and in his final year of school he is adamant that as soon as his formal education is complete he has no intention of remaining in this part of Morocco.

His friend, Brahim, also plans to leave. Brahim's parents, like many of the inhabitants of Zagora and the other oases settlements further south are relatively recent settlers in the town after exchanging their nomadic existence in the desert for the security of settled life. While his parents honour the traditions that sustained them and their ancestors during that time, the habits of dress, music and dance, the codes of behaviour that enshrined much of their culture, Brahim feels ill at ease with a tradition he feels belongs to another era, which has nothing to do with the modern world he wishes to live in. Life in a shantytown in Casablanca, the city he wants to go to, will be better, he believes, than in a desert community in decline.

Mohamid and Brahim are typical of many of the younger generation of Moroccans who inhabit an area that in geographical terms covers over a quarter of the country. Bordered by the Atlas mountains to the north and west and the empty wastes of the Algerian desert and Mauritania further south, the Moroccan Sahara has long since past its position of economic and political pre-eminence in the life of the Maghreb.

Yet in its heyday the oases communities south of the Atlas mountains were of immense economic and strategic significance. They controlled trade routes that led from Morocco and its Mediterranean coast to the African kingdoms further south and in particular the trade in gold that was the main source of the precious metal for the Middle East and much of Europe. The wealth and the support of desert tribes in this area allowed three of the main dynasties that ruled Morocco to rise to power, including in the 17th century the present royal family of the Alawites.

Decline began for these communities when alternative trade routes between Europe and Africa were developed by the colonial powers, bypassing their positions of strategic importance. In addition, as alternative sources of gold were discovered in other parts of the globe the wealth generated by control of this trade moved elsewhere. The Sahara region of Morocco further declined in economic and political significance with the establishment of the French protectorate in the early 1900s. Its policy of agricultural and industrial development in the northern plans of coastal and central Morocco encouraged a mass migration of people from rural areas in the south towards the jobs and relative prosperity elsewhere. The French labelled the northern part of the country "Maroc Utile", while the rest of its territory further south was regarded as something of an encumbrance with little role to play in the country's march towards progress.

The fierce independence of the desert tribes throughout the Sahara sat uneasily in the modern nation state established by the French. Many nomadic peoples who ranged across vast stretches of desert owed more of an allegiance to their cousins and relatives on the other side of a national border than to a Government and state with which they had little if any relationship. Nomadic communities in both pre and post independence North Africa were seen as a threat, claimed one researcher. "They did not respect national boundaries. They did not respect property rights and private ownership of land. They ignored the legal formalities that were supposed to regulate movements from one country to another." At times of conflict between neighbouring states the divided loyalties of nomadic and semi-nomadic communities in border areas were viewed with suspicion. The result in many Saharan countries including Morocco was the closure of borders to nomadic traffic which deprived them of the basis of their trade as well as pasture for their animals.

The collapse of the Saharan economy has continued. Today over 50% of young men emigrate each year in search of work. Drought for almost a decade has also affected the date harvests, the mainstay of the region's agricultural economy. With reduced pasture for goats and camels and lack of water to irrigate vegetables and other crops the inhabitants of the oases communities have continued to suffer. The region's only growth industry is tourism. As other parts of North Africa such as Algeria and Egypt have lost large numbers of visitors due to their internal troubles, Morocco has witnessed a considerable increase. One of the main attractions for the estimated 3 million foreign visitors per year is the Saharan region of the country.

Yet while tourism has brought money into the south there are concerns that much of this revenue has not benefited the indigenous population as much as it could. The large hotels and tourist complexes that have been constructed throughout the south in recent years are owned by people outside the region. These companies often import labour from elsewhere, especially at senior management level, reserving only the lower paid, menial jobs for local people.

Prices of commodities have increased in many areas due in part to the lucrative tourist market. Building materials and scarce water resources prioritised for hotels are often unavailable or too expensive for local residents.

The cultural impact of the often ostentatious wealth and prosperity displayed by external visitors and witnessed in the facilities they enjoy has also had an impact on a younger generation increasingly disillusioned with the relative poverty of their parents. "We need tourism," claimed one local inhabitant of Zagora, "but it brings some changes we are not entirely happy with." As in many other parts of North Africa the Moroccan Sahara finds itself precariously balanced between past and future, between tradition and change. Its peripheral position in the country's economic development has allowed it to guard traditions and codes of behaviour that have conferred on its people a unique identity that has been lost elsewhere. Several inhabitants of the region I spoke to are aware of this paradox.

The supportive role of the extended family, the strong sense of community and tribe, habits of dress, music, dance and cultural expression have been maintained as part of a living tradition more effectively than in other parts of Morocco partly due to their isolation from outside influences. Yet as the increasing number of television screens in the desert communities bring images of a more comfortable life elsewhere, as a younger generation contemplates the wealth and behaviour of numerous outside visitors, as education proposes a model of development and modernity that sits uneasily in some of these desert communities will the Moroccan Sahara be able to guard its traditions much longer? If Mohamid and Brahim are anything to go by that option for change has already been taken.
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Author:McIvor, Chris
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Feb 1, 1995
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