Morocco: la culture est la solution
I recently had the privilege to tour around cultural initiatives in Tangier together with Dominique Kok, a cultural attaché at the Dutch embassy in Rabat, and embassy intern Feline Visser. The purpose of our tour: initiating contact between institutions and the embassy to support cultural activities and projects in the north of Morocco. In its international culture policy, the Netherlands has determined that cultural organisations in Morocco should receive more attention, with a focus on social themes, talent development, and young people.
After years of difficult negotiations between Morocco and Spain, a small piece of cultural heritage has been returned to the Moroccan government. Le Teatro Cervantes, with beautiful mosaics on its facade, is a remnant of colonial history situated in the centre of Tangier. Every Tangaoui is familiar with it. The Spanish authorities did impose a condition on the transfer: that the now-dilapidated theatre is restored to its former glory. I truly hope that this will be realised but am trying to keep my expectations in check. The elderly concierge, who spends his days on an old theatre seat near the cast iron gate, welcomes me in. I am saddened by the sight of the astonishing theatre hall that has nearly fallen into ruin. Unfortunately, the city is a place that lacks any care or deference for beautiful heritage. How long will the theatre still be here?
I grew up in Tangier in the 1970s and 80s, in the suburb of Charf, which today has become part of the centre due to the explosive growth of the city. The new port of Tangier Med generates a lot of economic activity which goes hand in hand with a profusion of newly built hypermodern shopping malls. And with the construction of cheap flats, which are often vacant as they are owned by Moroccan Europeans who only visit in the summertime. The city is driven by economic interests and culture is not a priority.
Yet, they do exist: the heroes and warriors of art and culture in Tangier. People who, despite the lack of support, go against the current and fight for the world of imagination. Who create incredible initiatives and artworks in the city using their own resources or with the support of patrons or a foreign fund. We want to get to know them and support them, and that is why we are here.
We start our tour at the multidisciplinary centre Tabadoul, which is the Arabic word for ‘exchange’. The French-Italian founder Silvia Coarelli refurbished this old paint factory and turned it into a trendy industrial space with bare walls, a large stage and a ballet floor. The aim is to develop multidisciplinary talents, and they are succeeding very well. The casual centre is frequently visited by talented youngsters who have finally found a place where they can freely express themselves. However, Tabadoul is struggling financially, and the news of a possible grant from the Dutch embassy was welcomed with open arms.
After visiting Tabadoul, one of the youth coaches named Hassan takes us to Darna, a wonderful initiative that has been located across from the central fish market for several years. Darna means ‘our home’, and it is literally a home for many people, as it offers sheltered accommodation to women and children while simultaneously serving as a cultural centre. It has a small, multifunctional theatre hall, suitable for all kinds of performances. The centre used to work extensively with the many street children that hang around in this medina neighbourhood, but the focus has shifted to young people in general. We understand in passing that street children are not an easy target group as they often have a lot of difficult personal issues. Besides: many young people here are struggling and are rarely exposed to culture.
Next, we come to what I personally feel is Tanga’s hippest hotspot: the Cinémathèque de Tanger, also known as the Cinéma Rif. The monumental art deco cinema was rescued from falling into ruin by Yto Barrada, artist and daughter of a wealthy Moroccan family. Not only did she have the building renovated, she also turned it into a cultural venue of (inter)national allure. The interior was tastefully restored in the art deco style. Aside from interesting programming like the Arabic film programme Arabiyat about women in the Arab world, the centre offers numerous educational activities such as school programmes about visual culture.
Studio Kissaria and Think Tanger are managed by the passionate creatives Hicham Bouzid and Amina Mourid. This is a place where young artists initiate and execute visual art projects relating to their environment and the city. Think Tanger is even in the process of setting up a residential programme. If you fancy spending some time staying and working in Tangier, this is a very special place.
I asked artist Adam Belarouchia, a recent graduate from the Beaux Arts in Tetuan and former artist in residence at the Thami Mnyele Foundation in Amsterdam, to meet us here. He is currently working on a series about youth gang culture in Morocco and he explains how hard it is these days to exhibit your work as an independent artist. I am happy to introduce him to Kissaria.
The day after we meet Hamza Boulaiz at Spectacle pour Tous, and it is a meeting that I will cherish for a long time. Hamza’s theatre bus is parked in the inner courtyard of a secondary school, but he first brings us to a small building which he recently opened as a permanent theatre and rehearsal space. The school shows the poor state of many Moroccan public schools. Spectacle pour Tous produces theatre for young people at secondary schools and travels all across the country by bus to play in city squares and towns for anyone who is interested. Hamza is passionate and full of energy; his creed is to never give up. Ten years ago he had nothing, now he owns a fully equipped bus and a small theatre in this school where young people do not get many opportunities in life.
Afterwards we take a taxi to the working-class neighbourhood of Beni Makada, where we visit the new annex of social-cultural centre Les Étoiles de Sidi Moumen in Casablanca. The Moroccan winter sun shines through the clouds and our taxi driver turns up the volume when he hears reggae legend Alpha Blondie, which really brings back memories of my teenage years in Tangier. Sofia, a cheerful and assertive lady, welcomes us at the youth centre. This is a place where young people are introduced to disciplines such as dance and visual art, and where Moroccan hip hop culture is embraced and can flourish.
One of the projects at Les Étoiles is in fact the Positive School of Hip Hop, started by the Ali Zaoua foundation and the well-known Moroccan film director Nabil Ayouch, who is currently making a film about the Moroccan hip hop scene. The film will be released in the spring of 2019 and is definitely a go-see: as always, the actors are genuine locals, and Ayouch is unafraid to address contemporary societal issues in Morocco. It’s great that Les Étoiles now also has a location in Tangier.
On our way home, we meet the extraordinary Maho Sano, the half Moroccan, half Japanese founder of Marocopedia, an online heritage project about Morocco. It is a unique platform that aims to document both material and immaterial heritage through personal stories. But Maho is also the writer of the controversial Moroccan version of The Vagina Monologues, Diali, which means ‘mine’. A performance that has however been staged more often abroad than in Morocco.
On my way home, I stumble upon the hashtag #LaCultureEstLaSolution. It is a petition circulated by the cultural network organisation Racines, which had to close its doors last December after it allowed the critical Moroccan YouTube-programme 1 Diner 2 Cons to record material inside its building. Thankfully, such restrictions on free artistic expression raise a lot of protest, and many people inside and outside the Moroccan culture scene have signed the petition.
There is (still) much to do in Morocco.