Nottingham, UK – It was a strange feeling traveling to the northeast of Morocco last summer.
I drove my family on the new motorway linking the west of Morocco to the far northeast for the first time. Nature changed from green to arid along the way and from mountainous landscapes to vast plains and non-inhabited terrains. The big surprise was reaching Saidia: a tourist resort and Morocco’s promising la Côte d’Azur. It was almost Maghreb time (the sunset prayer). Soon, I heard the Al-Moazin calling for the prayer from a reddish looking mosque. I thought what good timing to pray and have a rest. A voice shouted, “You CANNOT go there…that is Algeria!”
I have been following the news and I am aware of the so-called ‘conflict’ between the two neighbouring countries. I know the borders have been closed for almost 20 years…but I must admit it still came as a big surprise seeing the reality on the ground. Never before had I seen that stream that is only two meters wide that is the border not be crossed.
I remained in my place transfixed, only to hear the other mosque with its white minaret on the Moroccan side calling for the same prayer a few seconds after the reddish one. It seemed to me a continuation of the first. They were one. It even crossed my mind that the two Al-Moazins could be friends. They probably know how the other feels from the tone of their voices and calling for prayer five times a day. The irony is that they have never met!
At night, Saidia came to life. After a day on the beach, families were ready for an evening dinner out and a stroll along the corniche. On one side, there was a fair, which attracted children: on the other, there were restaurants, which attracted couples and families. It was a relaxing atmosphere similar to several places around the Mediterranean on a hot summer night. I kept thinking how strange that a few meters away there were Algerian families who would have liked to stretch their feet walking the long Saidia corniche. There would be children who would have wanted to play together in the fair. There would be women who would have wanted to sit together and enjoy a chat. There would be men who would have enjoyed mint tea in the many cafés stretching along the coast. That night I walked the corniche, which stretched for miles only to be stopped by a notice stating “Military Zone. Keep Away”. I thought, ‘What do people on the other side think?’
The next day was Friday. I decided to drive to a point between two mountains where the Moroccan road comes very close to the Algerian one. Several families were parked in this spot to take pictures of each other’s flags. There were Moroccans gazing at Algerians and there were Algerians gazing at Moroccans. Although I am not allowed to cross, I felt I ought to make contact. I remembered Kant’s words “Ought implies can”. I shouted: “Merhba Bikoum l Couscous” – welcome to the Couscous. A family waved back. Another voice came back: “Eidek Mbrouk” – Happy Eid. Someone nearby replied “Allah Ybark fik”- May Allah bless you. Two young Algerian men shouted: “la Coupe d’Afrique sera au Maroc bientôt”- The African cup will be in Morocco soon. A Moroccan child with her family shouted back: “Bienvenue”- welcome. I sat there thinking of Morocco’s greatest traveller Ibn Battuta and how he travelled for 29 years from one place to another in a borderless world. How he was well received and hosted by the different nations and tribes he visited and lived with and married into. How he was trusted to become a judge and ambassador for nations far away from his native Tangier. How his world in so many ways was a freer one than ours. My thoughts were brought back to the reality of the present by a military vehicle that drove next to the stream, followed by a flock of birds taking to the skies.
As the calls for the Friday prayer were being chanted from the Reddish and White mosques, I thought how ironic that only the previous Friday in England, Bashir (an Algerian friend) and I had walked together to the same mosque in Nottingham. We prayed together, and afterwards he invited me to his house, where his newly wedded wife treated us to a delicious Moroccan Couscous. They were excited telling me about their wedding and how the Moroccan community in Montpelier, France, helped them to make it a memorable Alge-Moroccan wedding.
After the Friday prayer, I walked the peaceful streets of Saidia on my own. I remembered Safia, an Algerian lady who worked as receptionist in one of the Paris hotels, and how she shed tears when I checked in once. Only later did I learn how much I reminded her of her late young brother who was sadly killed in the civil war in Algiers in the 1990s. My thoughts were shattered when a car drove by playing Zahir’s famous song ‘Lala Fatima’. I thought I must get that for Bashir as a gift since his wife’s name is Fatima. I smiled.
I had a good time during my stay in Saidia. One thing that gave me hope was that – when marching in a pro-Palestinian demonstration in London last August – two young girls marching together caught my attention: one was wearing the Algerian flag – the other the Moroccan flag. They marched in defiance not only against the wall of shame Israel built in the occupied territories but also – it is clear to me now walking the corniche of Saidia – in defiance of the border that separates their respected countries.
Before writing this article, I thought that the problem is too complicated – and indeed, it might be so; but then I thought that we have to start somewhere. I am not getting into who is wrong and who is right. Indeed, the point I am trying to convey is that we have to transcend that. We ought to go beyond blaming each other. I always remember when an International Relations lecturer asked, “Could you imagine Great Britain going to war against Italy tomorrow?” The students replied with a sharp “NO”. The professor then said: “and yet 50 years ago we were in a war against them all over Europe and in North Africa!” What a contrast! Nowadays one can travel by train from Paris Gare de Lyon to Rome’s Stazione Termini, get out and enjoy an Italian cappuccino: two different countries, two different languages, two different cultures, and two different geographies…no borders. On the other hand, one is not allowed to cross a two meters stream between Algeria and Morocco: same geography, same language, same ethnic groups, and same religion…borders!
It is time to call on our Berber, African and Arab shared culture to promote peace, respect, stability, brotherhood and reconciliation. It is time to remember our shared history, realise our present reality and look forward positively to our future. Not least, it is time to allow Bashir and me, his family and my family an afternoon mint tea under an olive oil tree gazing, relaxed, at the Mediterranean Sea.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial policy
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