Acting Against Racism and Xenophobia in Morocco

The scores of sub-Saharan African immigrants who have settled in Morocco in recent decades have been treated with both hospitality and hostility. One group of activists is trying to use theater to bring their struggles to light and lessen the racism and xenophobia they face.
Actors in “Le Coupable d’Ignorance.” in a scene suggesting social divisions. All photos by Sebastian Bouknight

One recent evening in Tangier, a young woman from Guinea gets into a heated argument with her brusque Moroccan landlord. Desperate, she pleads with him to give her a lease, in order to apply for a Moroccan residency card.

He is unsympathetic. “I have no obligation to give you that,” he shouts. “I’m too busy. It’s my house and if you keep asking me for a lease, you can go and live on the street!”

The woman tries to reason with him, but the landlord refuses to budge. Then they fall silent. The lights in the audience come on and a facilitator steps out in front of the actors. “Any volunteers to take her role?” she asks.

Theater of the Oppressed

The scene is part of “Le Coupable d’Ignorance”—the English title of which is “We Are All Guilty of Ignorance.” The project turns the struggles of sub-Saharan immigrants in Morocco into interactive theater. Using techniques borrowed from the “Theater of the Oppressed,” actors perform scripted scenes, each involving a conflict. The scene then repeats, with a volunteer from the audience taking the place of one of the actors, free to experiment and search for a solution. Each new volunteer brings a new perspective.

Artistic Director Reuben Odoi introduces the project in Tabadoul, an arts space in Tangier.

“Our aim is to open a dialogue,” Reuben Odoi, the project’s artistic director, explained to Inside Arabia. “We pretend not to have solutions; we want people to find their own.” Odoi created “Le Coupable d’Ignorance” with six actors—a Guinean, an Ivorian, two Cameroonians, and two Moroccans—who are now touring it around Morocco.

The performance was developed in collaboration with the non-profit Collectif des Communautés Subsahariennes au Maroc (CCSM). The goal, he said, is for Moroccans to “understand what migrants go through here,” and change how they live with them.

Making a New Home

Seeking employment, safety, and education, tens of thousands of people from sub-Saharan African countries have passed through Morocco to Europe in recent decades, and many have come to stay in the North African kingdom.

New migration policy allowed over 24,000 immigrants to gain residency permits, and state sponsorships fund thousands of sub-Saharan students every year to study in Morocco.

Moroccan society generally considers itself as separate from and superior to sub-Saharan Africa. Not all Moroccans are active perpetrators, and not all immigrants are affected equally, but black immigrants have suffered serious abuses by security forces and experience widespread discrimination, racial slurs, and even violence because of their race.

Sub-Saharans are often lumped together under a “single story,” meaning that all suffer for the crimes of a few. Stereotypes cast them as dangerous criminals, prostitutes, drug dealers, and disease-ridden. A Moroccan comedian’s grotesque mockery of black immigrants on a recent TV show made the audience roar with laughter, but also sparked backlash.

Starting the Conversation

Odoi, who immigrated from Ghana 15 years ago, said that immigrants need to adapt to their new homes, but integration is a two-way street. A 2008 study on migration found that 40 percent of Moroccans surveyed “did not relate to sub-Saharan peoples as their neighbors” and 70 percent would refuse to share a home with them.

To chip away at racism and xenophobia, Odoi said, people must share experiences. Even if immigrants live next door to Moroccans, they will never be welcome if they don’t “do things together,” he explained.

People often reject each other because of ignorance and misunderstanding others’ lives.

Morocco’s 2011 constitution outlaws “all forms of discrimination,” but no law specifically criminalizes racial discrimination. Furthermore, legislation may help protect immigrants, but will not likely change minds. “Cultural education” can start conversations where politics cannot, CCSM coordinator Mamadou Diallo told Inside Arabia.

Diallo explained that these projects cannot reach everyone at once, but they try to plant seeds of change in the right places. In the interactive play, the audience actors quickly become invested, feeling the struggle as their own.

Le Coupable d’Ignorance

Informed by his experiences working with Doctors Without Borders in Morocco and nearly dying crossing the Sahara, Odoi started The Minority Globe, a band and NGO that sheds light on the immigrants’ struggle through music. Art is a means of resilience and empowerment, he said.

The performers in “Le Coupable d’Ignorance” begin by acting out a group of migrants trying to cross the sea in a dinghy.

Le Coupable d’Ignorance is his latest creation. Its scenes recreate real life. Every immigrant struggles with housing, Odoi explained. Knowing the state will not protect the renter, landlords often refuse to give them leases because it would raise their property taxes. Without a lease, immigrants cannot get an official residency card. Some apartment buildings explicitly forbid rental to sub-Saharan Africans.

At the performance in Tangier, a European teenager steps into the role of the immigrant renter. Quickly frustrated, she threatens the landlord with her “powerful mafia family.” The audience laughs, but, as Odoi pointed out, one kind of oppression cannot fix another. The problem will persist until mutual understanding is reached.

Making Progress Despite Dangers

In another scene, a government employee refuses to help an immigrant apply for residency: “It’s not my problem,” she snaps. An audience actor tries asking her about her life and learns she was mistreated and underpaid. Sometimes the oppressor can also be the oppressed, Odoi explained.

A young audience actor takes the role of an immigrant applying for residency.

The next scene shows the complex, mostly unseen, reality of sex trafficking–often the “Madames” themselves were once traded, and debt trapped them into a life of prostitution. Though the audience does not find lasting solutions, they make progress.

“We are not expecting immediate answers,” Odoi said. If spectators share what they learn and engage with their immigrant neighbors, the performance was a success. “The more you get people involved, they take time to learn, and the more their mentality changes,” Odoi said.

The audience in Tangier was made up of no more than 15 people—performing in a small arts center limits the show’s reach. The original intent was to take the conversation onto the street to involve Moroccan passersby, Odoi said, but doing so was risky.

Two hours before the performance, two cast members, carrying only their UN-issued refugee papers, were nearly detained by police. If he had not talked them down, Odoi asserted, they might have shipped the actors to remote desert towns near the Algerian border. “We later learned that there had been a roundup [of immigrants] that day,” Odoi said. Only if everybody has their documents can they safely perform in public.

Getting to the Root

To tackle pervasive racism, Morocco’s activists are experimenting with other strategies. The Anti-Racist Group for the Support and Defense of Foreigners and Migrants (GADEM) has developed a kit of games and teaching tools to encourage young students to question stereotypes and prejudice and learn about immigration. Starting these conversations at a young age helps Morocco’s next generation build a more inclusive society, GADEM hopes.

Likewise, CCSM is running a campaign to better integrate immigrant children into Moroccan schools. There have been obstacles, but the education ministry is listening, Diallo said.

The media also bears responsibility for changing the narrative. The magazine Maroc Hebdo’s 2012 issue about immigration, entitled “The Black Danger,” perpetuated dangerous stereotypes, and triggered an outpouring of anti-racist solidarity in opposition.

“Le Coupable d’Ignorance” is playing just one small part in the national effort to make Morocco’s newest residents truly welcome in their new home. If all goes well, Odoi and his cast intend to take their interactive play to Casablanca, Salé, Marrakech, and Dakhla.