A recent video going viral on youtube of a British woman violently berating, even biting, a chicken vendor in Tangier has brought up the question of white privilege and the “white saviour complex” in terms of tourists visiting Morocco.
Rabat – Essaouira’s beautiful 18th century medina is characterized by intricate, winding alleyways, unique and strange door frames, jewel bright colours, stark poverty, and excess. In amongst the disparities in living conditions, education, and culture, lurk hundreds upon hundreds of stray cats. You may wonder why I am bringing cats into the issue, but I promise, it is relevant.
Some Moroccan families in the medina choose to feed the cats, tourists can regularly be seen cooing over kittens with eye infections and compassionately sharing their tagines with the big tom cats that patrol the medina walls. Meanwhile, many of the European permanent residents in the medina and the surrounding area take it upon themselves to become the moral guardians of Essaouira’s stray cat population. Post upon post appears on the Essaouira community facebook pages calling on residents to adopt kittens, pay for sterilization, or to stop the authorities laying down poison on the beaches.
While the cat-lovers of Essaouira are not throwing themselves at or biting locals in the manner of the Tangier-chicken-woman, some of the posts on facebook are a little preachy to say the least. In one post about cats in the port, the group members criticize a local toilet attendant who set up kennels for the cats, calling him “cruel” for shutting the cats in at night. Another post about Moroccan children chasing cats reads, “I saw this a lot in Morocco. Children abusing and terrorizing cats. Are they taught to behave like this?”
Even tripadvisor plays host to comments from worried cat-lovers. “Read some tips on Essaouira on TA and says there’s a problem with stray and injured cats in the city…It really does upset me if I see injured animals , I understand all countries have strays though, so can anyone update me on the situation. Is it really terrible there with stray and injured cats, and dogs ?” The tripadvisor community were quick to assure the upset tourist that several European cat charities already operate in the area.
A friend of mine even cancelled her trip to Essaouira, just weeks before my wedding, partly because she was afraid she would be unable to bear the plight of the stray cats and partly because of worries about food poisoning from the freshly caught fish. I was, I have to say, disappointed and surprised by the squeamish and superior attitude to the country in which I have chosen to live.
What I see here, and recognize sometimes in myself, is privilege. The privilege that comes from growing up in a stable society, with access to a high level of education, and the mobility that comes with financial security. This privilege makes us forget that not all societies follow the norms of those we have grown up in, and that our view on the world and how things should be done is not necessarily the only one.
But can “white privilege” really be anything to do with cats?
It’s definitely a blurred line, but the assumption seems to be that Morocco needs European tourists and residents to deal with their street cats, and that Moroccan people and authorities are not capable of addressing the issue without the input of a “white saviour.”
Moroccan society has a different view of cats and dogs from that of the UK, or France. For example. while I allow my little Jack Russel terrier free reign in my house, my Moroccan parents-in-law see dogs as guard animals, not to be permitted inside. They have two, very well fed, well cared for dogs which are not allowed inside the house due to concerns about cleanliness.
Meanwhile, my neighbors regularly feed local strays and our lane is a hub of activity for kittens and cats of all shapes and sizes. Our dog has a particular rivalry with a large ginger tomcat who seems to rule the neighborhood. However, these cats are not domestic animals and are not permitted inside the houses.
Obviously, my backyard is not representative of Morocco in its entirety but, hopefully this does give an insight into the different, and still valid, attitudes to animals.
Not only do the cat saviours dismiss the validity of a different cat culture, it could be said that they prioritise it over the everyday needs of Moroccan people. Meanwhile, Moroccans themselves may feel they have bigger fish to fry than stray cats. Just in Essaouira medina it is clear that some families struggle to feed themselves. Some might say that the huge social and educational disparities need to be addressed before the perceived cat crisis.
To be clear, I am not disparaging concern for animal welfare, or dismissing it as a non-issue; only questioning the presumption that Morocco and Moroccans are in need of outside input. There is definitely a place for international associations, be they addressing stray cats, poverty, or literacy, but these must be in cooperation with Moroccan authorities, Moroccan people, and with a full, and balanced understanding of the culture and society with which they are dealing.
And, as for my cat-loving friend, who knows whether she will ever bring herself to make the journey to beautiful Essaouira and share a fresh fish tagine with some local felines, but, for my part, I hope that she will be able to come, with an open-mind, and appreciate a culture that is different, but no less valid, than her own.