Whether out of concern for animal rights or our own health, many of us have considered going vegetarian at one point or another. In Morocco, however, that choice presents unique challenges. Some of the kingdom’s most famous dishes, from couscous to the tagine, tend to feature beef, chicken, or lamb. Vegetarianism and veganism remain far more widespread in Europe and the United States than in many corners of the Global South. Imagine my surprise, then, when I learned earlier this year that Morocco hosted a well-organized vegan association.
As Ramadan was coming to a close this May, the owner of the apartment that I was renting in Rabat invited me to join her family for iftar, the meal eaten by Muslims at sundown to break their Ramadan fast. I went to her house in the Rabat suburb of Harhoura. There, I met her niece, the proud vegan Meryem Makhon.
While I lack the self-discipline to become a vegetarian or vegan myself, I admired Meryem’s ideals. She embraced veganism to avoid participating in the exploitation of animals, who must endure horrifying conditions in farms and slaughterhouses across the world. The growing adoption of vegetarianism and veganism is assisting efforts to address the global climate crisis as well: the meat industry emits a dangerous amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming and exacerbating the environmental issues that affect Morocco and other countries worldwide.
“I’ve always been an animal lover, but I was so blinded by our meat culture that it took me quite a while to put a link between the animals I love and the ones on my plate,” said Meryem, who began practicing veganism four years ago, after several family members went vegetarian. “All sentient creatures have the right to live. Compassion requires being kind to every living thing,” she added.
Veg’Morocco had accumulated over 100 members in Morocco and overseas, along with “hundreds of sympathizers.”
Curious about Veg’Morocco and the wider community of vegans and vegetarians in Morocco, I decided to speak to one of the key players in this budding social movement. Meryem referred me to Simohamed Bouhakkaoui, the head of Veg’Morocco. He, in turn, explained how the association had grown since its 2019 establishment in Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city. According to Bouhakkaoui, Veg’Morocco now has members in most Moroccan cities.
“The goal is to gather Moroccan vegans and foreigners living in Morocco in a recognized association and to exchange experiences between vegans all over Morocco,” Bouhakkaoui told me.
He added that Veg’Morocco had accumulated over 100 members in Morocco and overseas, along with “hundreds of sympathizers” through outreach, which has included a partnership with the nonprofit Million Dollar Vegan. In early March and late April, Million Dollar Vegan funded a Veg’Morocco project to distribute vegan meals to poor families in Casablanca, Fes, and Rabat.
Bouhakkaoui argued that “vegans in Morocco are on the rise,” and the numbers do point to a sizable community. In addition to Veg’Morocco’s 1,400 followers on Facebook, the social networking service’s “Moroccan Vegans” group boasts 2,500 members; the group welcomes vegans, vegetarians, and intrigued non-vegetarians alike. I contacted several “Moroccan Vegans” members to hear more about the benefits and challenges of veganism in Morocco.
Million Dollar Vegan funded a Veg’Morocco project to distribute vegan meals to poor families in Casablanca, Fes, and Rabat.
Like many of my interviewees, Riham El Haji, a 24-year-old recent graduate in the eastern city of Oujda, said that she became a vegan over a decade ago “for the sake of animals’ lives.” She told me, “What bothers me, and I find it really devastating, is the butchers everywhere and the chicken sellers. I can’t pass by the streets where they are.” Oumayma Houssaini, a 22-year-old student who went vegan in 2017 and who also lives in Oujda, said of animal rights in Morocco: “Almost everyone sees animals as just food. So the idea of veganism is kinda unheard of.”
Houssaini observed that finding vegan meals in Morocco can sometimes prove difficult. “Eating out is a lot harder because there are no vegan options at the majority of restaurants,” she said. “Even salads contain animal products sometimes.”
Nada Naji, a 26-year-old doctoral candidate from Fes, lamented “not being able to share meals at Moroccan occasions,” and Aisha Mavroeidis Kadaoui, a professor in Casablanca, cited Morocco’s “lack of vegan-friendly places.”
A number of my non-Moroccan vegan and vegetarian classmates at the Qalam wa Lawh Center for Arabic Studies in Rabat, where I have been taking a course in Modern Standard Arabic since September, encountered similar problems with finding appropriate ingredients and restaurants.
Alyona Fedulova, my vegan classmate from Ukraine, told me: “Most places here only serve coffee with real milk, even Starbucks. I’ve started carrying oat milk with me wherever I go.”
On a wider level, cultural barriers to the adoption of veganism remain.
“When people find out that I’m vegan, they either laugh or feel sorry for me.”
“Veganism isn’t every Moroccan’s cup of tea,” said Meryem, my former landlord’s niece. “When people find out that I’m vegan, they either laugh or feel sorry for me. In fact, it’s something that the vast majority of Moroccans have never heard of, which is totally understandable.”
Despite these obstacles, veganism in Morocco continues to gain momentum. This very weekend, November 6 and 7, Veg’Morocco is hosting the third iteration of Veg’Fest Morocco, an online event featuring the world-famous primatologist Jane Goodall and speakers from nine African countries, including Egypt and Tunisia.
“We hope that the next edition will be in person, and not digital like the previous edition during the COVID period,” said Bouhakkaoui, who pointed to the recent availability of vegan cheese and mayonnaise in Morocco as another positive trend (my friend Alyona, for her part, mentioned her euphoria at finding tofu for sale in Marjane).
Moroccan vegans’ influence may expand alongside the environmental movement as the meat industry worsens the climate crisis.
November 6 and 7, Veg’Morocco is hosting the third iteration of Veg’Fest Morocco, an online event.
“I’d been researching and learning about veganism and how it could make the world a better place, not only for animals but for us too since it’s healthier and more sustainable,” said Maria Alami, a 23-year-old student in Rabat and a vegan since 2016. “I started it as a challenge with my sister, who was vegan at the time, and I never stopped.”
Salim, a 34-year-old web developer in Salé who declined to give his last name, serves as an example of how climate change may hasten the spread of veganism in Morocco. He became a pescatarian after learning that “cutting back on meat means reducing the impact on the environment.” Salim is working his way toward “strict veganism” and now feels that he can “finally do something to contribute to improving the state of the environment and the world.” On a more general level, he described veganism as “a healthy, long-term choice.”
Across the Middle East and North Africa, veganism is growing in popularity. Harper’s Bazaar prepared a list of “the 16 best vegan restaurants in Dubai,” and the “Vegetarian/Vegan Society of Egypt” Facebook group has 33,000 members. The Saudi prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal, chief executive of the investment company KBW Ventures, may represent the region’s wealthiest vegan. He too has spoken of the relationship between meat and climate change.
Today, veganism no longer remains the province of the Western world. As veganism gains currency across the Middle East and North Africa, associations and events such as Veg’Morocco and Veg’Fest will likely ensure that Moroccan vegans rise to the top of this regional social movement.