Letter to the Editor: Pirates, Peace Treaties, and Prejudice

Thursday, June 25, 2009 | Ar-Ribat, Morocco

"I ♥ Islam": spotted on the streets of Temara, Morocco
Last week I noticed an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun called "Rewriting the History of America and Islam" (Viewpoint; June 18, 2009). Written by a local academic, the piece outlined some of the sordid history behind America's early relations with Morocco—cited by President Obama in his Cairo speech as "the first nation to recognize my country."

The author's efforts to educate were well-intentioned, but part of me worried that local readers in Baltimore (admittedly not a hub of knowledge on the Islamic world) might misinterpret his message. The other part of me just wanted my name in the paper. Perhaps that second part shown through more strongly, or perhaps when I submitted my letter to the editor, he or she merely determined that the Sun's readership would be more interested in reading a series of typo-laden letters about pit bulls, drag racing, or the constitutional right to tax-free plastic shopping bags.

Something like Jazz, au Chellah

Friday, June 19, 2009 | Ar-Ribat, Morocco

The Chellah's gardens are a relaxing destination by day, and a pleasant backdrop for some jazz.
Rabat's annual "Jazz au Chellah" festival tends to be a fairly sedate affair, as one might imagine. Assigned seating, a crowd of stiff European expats, and mellow tunes lend it a refined garden party atmosphere.

The backdrop helps, too; the concert stage is tucked among the overgrown ruins of the Chellah (الشالة). One of only a few sites of historical importance in the Moroccan capital, the Chellah is a jungle-like complex of deteriorating Roman and medieval Islamic structures, all surrounded by high, crenellated walls. On a balmy Monday evening, the storks whose cackling normally dominates the site's treetops gave way to the sounds of jazz.

At least, it was supposed to be jazz. I was soon glad, however, that I had picked the one night of the festival which was open to more experimental sounds.

El Jadida, Just Five Short Centuries After Its Prime

Wednesday, June 17, 2009 | El Jadida, Morocco

Lousy camera phone pics definitely do not do the cistern justice.
Enough of politics—time to hit the road.

Jacqueline and her cousin Carolyn (visiting from New York) were leaving Saturday for a southern Morocco surfing odyssey. Unfortunately, chained to my desk as I am these days, I couldn't go for the full trip, but our friend Chris and I managed to tag along as far as El Jadida (الجديدة). The ladies dropped us at the entrance to the town's old Portuguese medina, leaving us to our own devices for the day.

Five centuries ago, El Jadida was the site of a seaside Portuguese fortress named Mazagão, at the time the largest port along Morocco's Atlantic coast. The Portuguese influence remains in the now-decrepit architecture of their fortified medina (very reminiscent of other crumbling outposts I saw in Mozambique), but its Moroccan inheritors have clearly left their mark. A synagogue—testament

Local Elections: Room for Improvement

Saturday, June 13, 2009 | Ar-Ribat, Morocco

In every Moroccan city, numbered rectangles are spray-painted on walls to indicate where candidates may post campaign materials.
For days, the excitement was building up. First, symbols and posters began to appear in the numbered boxes spray-painted on walls around the country. Then, swarms of youths in matching t-shirts began parading the streets in ever-larger numbers, blocking traffic and leaving a stream of leaflets in their wake.

Here in Morocco, Friday was local election day. At stake? Some 28,000 municipal council seats across the country. Don't worry though, you can be forgiven for not knowing about the vote—most Moroccans themselves hardly seemed to notice.

On Friday, I asked several colleagues at work if they had plans to cast their ballot, and received a wide variety of "no"s—mumbled excuses, outright laughs at the mere suggestion of voting, and—this from several who had lived abroad—sheepish embarrassment. This last group, at least, knew

After Cairo, a New Era Begins?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

"خطاب أوباما.. الرسالة وصلت." The headline of Friday morning's Asharq al-Awsat newspaper reads "Obama's Speech.. The Message Arrived." The lead photo shows Palestinian militants watching Obama's speech live the previous morning.
The speech came, the speech went. Here in Morocco, some watched, but many didn't. (It was 10:00am on a work day here when Obama began his address at Cairo University.) The few Moroccans I've asked about it haven't had much to say, and none have raised the topic on their own. Even in Egypt, (likely inflated) government figures indicate that only 55 percent of Egyptians watched or read about the speech.

Were it not for Obama's mention of Morocco, press coverage here might have been non-existent. Even after the President's reference, two of the three local newspapers I picked up the following morning made no mention of the speech. Those local press outlets that swooned at Obama's specific mention of early US-Moroccan relations seemed to miss the larger point of the speech in the process. ("Morocco first nation to have recognized US independence" was the lead headline from the

Tough Crowds Await Obama in Cairo and Beyond

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Has Obama been judged before he even reaches the podium?  I'm hoping not, but I expect that many in the Arab world will be skeptical of Obama's ability to offer them much of substance.  (Illustration by Arab Leftist.)
Finally, the event we've all been waiting for has nearly arrived! That's right, it's Obama's much-hyped "address to the Muslim world", to be delivered at noon tomorrow at Cairo University in the heart of the Egyptian capital.

What's that, you say? The Muslim world isn't interested in yet more rhetoric and false promises from yet another American president?

No matter; the Egyptians (never known for being a quiet bunch) have plenty to say about the visit, though Obama isn't likely to find much of it favorable.

In one of seven op-eds from around the Muslim world published in today's New York Times, Egyptian journalist Hossam el Hamalawy equates Obama's choice of venue with support for Hosni Mubarak's far-from-democratic regime:

Devolutionary Biology

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Burnt hillsides and makeshift huts overlook Lake Kivu at Goma, in eastern DRC.
In my previous travels, I have offered separate observations on both the turmoil in eastern DR Congo and the ecosystem collapse threatening Lake Victoria.

Delphine Schrank's brief report, "As Go the Hippos...", in the latest issue of The Atlantic highlights the intersection of these two phenomena beside another of Africa's Great Lakes. The resulting disaster, on the shores of Lac Edouard, is proving much greater than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, the convergence of economic, environmental, political, and population pressures is likely to make such multi-faceted disasters even more common in coming decades.