In Other Words

The Maghreb in Black and White

Jeune Afrique l'Intelligent,
Nos. 2266, 2270, 2273–76, June-August 2004, Paris

During its colonial rule, France enlisted West Africans to fight on its behalf in regiments called the Tirailleurs Sénégalais. One of the battlefields was the Maghreb, the Arabic word for the region comprising Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. The French did not create racial enmity in the region -- Moroccan dynasties brought sub-Saharan Africans north as soldiers and slaves centuries earlier -- but they exploited and exacerbated it for their own ends. Today, as fresh waves of migrants make their way to the region, old patterns of mistrust are reemerging.

Thousands of sub-Saharan Africans fleeing poverty and political strife have arrived in the Maghreb in recent years. This influx has garnered much attention in local media, but what receives less attention is Maghrebi hostility toward the new arrivals and the patterns of discrimination toward dark-skinned Maghrebis upon which it builds. Last summer, the Paris-based magazine Jeune Afrique l'Intelligent launched a five-part series titled "Are Maghrebis Racist?" to provoke debate about this taboo subject. The magazine itself is no stranger to controversy. It was founded in Tunisia in 1960 and associated with the nationalist and pan-African projects of that period. The magazine once critiqued Moroccan regimes, but it is now criticized by independent Maghrebi media for being too close to the state.

Maghrebi racism is highly controversial because it contradicts national ideologies of tolerance, as well as constitutional and religious doctrines of equality. The testimonials that make up the bulk of the series focus on this hypocrisy. Staff writer Cherif Ouazani describes the contrast of Algeria's official attempts to reach out to its African brethren with the reality of a society that treats sub-Saharan migrants as second-class citizens. For example, Algeria offers more scholarships to foreign Africans than any other African nation, but sub-Saharan migrants in the Algerian cities of Algiers, Constantine, and Tamanrasset are accused by local residents of bringing the plagues of modernity with them. Other essays relay similar tales of government inclusion and social exclusion in Tunisia, Morocco, and Libya.

The final installment by staff writer Samy Ghorbal calls for immigrants and minorities to resist becoming silent or resigned, echoing the magazine's aim of giving voice to the disenfranchised. Yet this aim, though noble, in practice produces little more than a series of anecdotes, rather than a probing and nuanced discussion of the role race plays in the region. Such a discussion would be particularly relevant in the Maghreb, with its shades of African, European, and Arab ethnicity altered by centuries of history.

Similarly, Ghorbal's hope that black Maghrebis might enjoy economic and social equality with "whites" -- by which he evidently means the Arab majority -- reflects the magazine's indebtedness to pan-Africanism, but he reduces the issue to a simple polarity between black and white. This misrepresentation is reflected in the magazine's passing references to the plight of the indigenous Berber people, a target of discrimination across the Maghreb for decades. Had Ghorbal considered it, the Berbers' experience would have exposed his argument as facile: The French allied with the Berbers on the basis of their "whiteness," yet Berbers still struggle for rights in the postcolonial era. Although Morocco has finally permitted the teaching of the Berber language in some schools, the country's parliament is debating a bill that would restrict the formation of ethnic political parties, ostensibly to prevent Berber representation.

Jeune Afrique l'Intelligent's treatment of Maghrebi racism is a missed opportunity. As globalization facilitates the flow of people across borders, from south to north and from rural areas to urban, many regions are forced to reconcile old concepts of race and identity with new realities. The Maghreb, however, is unique in its complexity -- a reality the magazine fails to explore.

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