The cold rain and low clouds that arrived in the late afternoon of March 20 in Rabat were perhaps an omen of the tough times that lie ahead for cities and nations worldwide as the coronavirus pandemic spreads. Morocco’s government announced a national emergency requiring all citizens to shelter at home effective March 20 beginning at 6:00 PM. The only exceptions are critical public safety workers and those who are required to shop for groceries or refill pharmacy prescriptions — provided they have a government-issued authorization paper. Life in Rabat’s medina has largely gone from see-and-be-seen to shop-and-go-home.
A City Within
Across North Africa and the Middle East, a medina (the modern Arabic word for city) represents the original section, or quarter, of a city or urban center. Often surrounded by protective walls and filled with winding intimate alleys, medinas have generally maintained their distinct design and character as most modern cities in the Arab world have sprawled outward mostly unchecked. They offer a unique window into a particular nation’s past while creating an allure for Westerners not accustomed to such closeness in both physical design and social interaction.
Like all medinas in the Middle East and North Africa, they are largely self-contained neighborhoods.
Like all medinas in the Middle East and North Africa, they are largely self-contained neighborhoods where tailors and woodworkers share alley space with bakers, hammams (public baths), and mobile phone repair shops. It is both efficient and informal. So when an external shock like the coronavirus pandemic arrives, it has a significant disorienting effect on a population that is well known for gritty self-reliance.
One month into the nationwide state of emergency, nearly all clothing, jewelry, and portable electronics stores have shuttered, as well as dozens of tourism-related stores, a slow-motion retail shut down that in fact began several days before the March 20 state of emergency began. For most of the medina’s roughly 24,000 residents the grocery shops (called hanuts), meat markets, date, and bread shops are still open. And it’s still possible to find a few bakery women making msemen, the ever-popular fried flatbread served in the morning and late afternoon.
The casual intimacy of Rabat’s medina, a relatively compact city within a city, has given way to a forced formality.
Mosques, too, are closed, several of which have undergone extensive restoration in the past two years. Importantly, there is no current coronavirus health crisis in the medina, while the overall Rabat-Sale administrative region (home to more than 4.8 million people) has fewer than 300 confirmed cases according to the official health ministry statistics. But the casual intimacy of Rabat’s medina, a relatively compact city within a city that is slightly smaller than one square kilometre in size, has given way to a forced formality. The leisurely late-afternoon stroll taken by groups of women is gone for now. Men no longer gather by mobile phone shops or in medina cafes.
The once wide-open gates (called “bab” or “biban” plural), as well as several access roads that dot the perimeter of the medina are now either closed or watched over by police, auxiliary public safety officers and neighborhood association members, insuring that residents, delivery vehicles and others that are allowed in follow social distancing regulations.
A recent photo of the king, Mohammed VI, wearing a protective mask made the rounds on social media across Morocco. Protective masks are now mandatory nationwide when outside, a particularly important preventative measure in the medina where much of the population is older than Morocco’s median age of 29. Along with medical staff at the medina’s two main government-run health centers, pharmacies are an important front-line public health outreach and information resource in a nation that is getting a crash course (like much of the world) in infectious disease mitigation.
The story of Rabat’s medina begins eight hundred years ago, as part of a military post during the Almohad Dynasty (a 12th century Berber Muslim empire). For decades, and certainly since Morocco won its independence in 1956, the medina of Morocco’s capital — declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012 — has lived in the shadow of its more famous cousins. Fes’ world-famous labyrinthine medina dates to the 8th century, Tangier’s storied medina is home to the American Legation, the United States’ first foreign diplomatic property that dates back to 1797, and Marrakech’s sprawling, lively and often raucous medina is the kingdom’s single most visited tourist destination.
Rabat’s understated historical quarter, on the other hand, serves as a modest cultural touchstone to Morocco’s past in a growing capital city that just opened a large shopping mall a mile from the city center, extended its popular city tram system, and is fast redeveloping its riverfront area that it shares with its twin city Sale.
Rabat’s understated historical quarter serves as a modest cultural touchstone to Morocco’s past in a growing capital city.
Along with the nearby Kasbah of the Oudayas, a compact former citadel city that is now a trendy neighborhood, the medina area held a strategic location where the Bou Regreg River flows into the Atlantic Ocean. Over the past two decades, the medina’s population has declined modestly (about five percent) and its per hectare population density is one-third that of Casablanca’s medina. Automobiles are found only on a few principal alleys that are wide enough to accommodate them. In the medina, the pedestrian, the motorbike, and the three-wheeled triporteur rule.
Deep into a multi-year restoration and rehabilitation, from resurfaced stone alleys to restored mosques to new wood awnings on shops lining main commercial thoroughfares, the state of emergency has hit the medina just as its physical infrastructure is being modernized. The Rue des Consuls, popular with tourists, and the adjoining Jewish quarter (mellah) are the focus of current restoration efforts. Overall, the Moroccan government has committed $200 million during the past several years to rehabilitate and restore Morocco’s most prominent ancient medinas, most notably the medina of Fes.
Informal Economy Meets Global Threat
Jobs and businesses in Rabat’s medina are generally self-owned and are part of the informal sector that dominates many parts of the Moroccan economy. Tourism, for example, accounts for 15 percent or more of national GDP and nearly 40 percent of the nation’s workforce is employed regularly or intermittently in the agriculture sector.
The king announced a special coronavirus emergency relief fund worth more than $1 billion USD.
The king announced several weeks ago a special coronavirus emergency relief fund worth more than $1 billion USD that will bolster the nation’s public health infrastructure as well as provide financial support to workers in the informal economy who are now idle. The fund has been augmented by ongoing contributions from some of the kingdom’s largest private employers and philanthropists as well as a number of ministers and government officials pledging their salaries.
Informal sector workers comprise the vast majority of medina workers, from grocery hanut workers to bakery workers to pizza shop servers. They will be eligible for financial support ranging between 800 and 1,200 dirhams per month (about $80 to $120 USD) as well as other support mechanisms such as rent forgiveness.
As the beginning of Ramadan fast approaches (April 25 in Morocco), medina families like most Moroccans will have to economize and improvise during a spiritual season that normally would feature late-night dinners with extended family and prayers at crowded mosques. The kingdom’s Supreme Ulema Council just issued guidance asking Moroccans to conduct Taraweeh prayers in the safety of their own homes during the state of emergency. Ramadan in 2020 will be an extra-intimate affair that will likely feature the standard iftar meal (harira, eggs, juice, cookies, and milk) followed by the rotation of popular Ramadan television programming.
The disruption so far to everyday life in the medina is as much psychological as economic.
The disruption so far to everyday life in the medina is as much psychological as economic. A certain rhythm has been broken, such as the late-afternoon tea in a smoke-filled café, the mid-morning walk to catch up on the latest gossip, or family members sharing a quick slice of cake and avocado juice at a snack counter in the evening. An informal but cozy bonding that is a hallmark of medina life and Moroccan culture in general is now on hold. The accompanying frugality of the state of emergency (now extended until May 20) may perhaps reaffirm a Moroccan proverb that finds new meaning inside the medina walls: Little and lasting is better than much and passing.