One afternoon in February, a few hours after I arrived in Casablanca from Los Angeles, I learned that my uncle A., a generous man with a troubled soul, had died. I was putting my shoes on with one hand and checking my phone with the other, already running late for a panel discussion at the Casablanca Book Fair, when I saw the message. I was stunned, not just by the news of his death—he was only 73, after all, and although he suffered from diabetes, he was otherwise healthy—but by the realization that I had missed his funeral.
In the Muslim tradition, a body is interred as soon as possible after death. The hospital notified our family of A.’s passing a little after midnight; by morning, he was already washed, shrouded, and prepared for funeral prayers; by lunchtime he was buried at Martyrs’ Cemetery in Rabat, Morocco’s capital city. Because I had silenced my phone, and because I had slept through my jet lag, I had found out about his death only after he had been laid to rest.
To be an immigrant is to live a divided life—a part of you lives in one country, the other part in another. You speak two languages, read two sets of newspapers, hear the conversations of two nations. You learn to dread the moments when the two worlds come together abruptly—like when your phone rings in the middle of the night. Twice already I have had to find out in this way about the death of a loved one. This time, I was in Morocco, but I had somehow managed to be as absent as if I had remained in America.
Forty days of mourning were to follow, and I tried to console myself with the thought that I would at least be there for the first few. In a kind of daze, I took the train 100 kilometers up the coast to Rabat, where most of my family lives. For the past few years, my uncle A. had lived alone, subsisting on small pensions from the police force and the national railway company. His terrible temper had kept him from lasting in either career. He had started a number of businesses, including an automotive body shop and a custom-woodwork company, but he always got bored with them. His final venture had been a farm hours away from Rabat. Everyone in the family, including my father, had been urging him to sell it.
I had never seen my parents’ house so full: relatives, neighbors, friends, acquaintances, all bearing words of comfort and commiseration. They spoke of A.’s generosity, his charm, his sense of repartee. Eventually, however, the conversation drifted from kind mentions of the departed to animated discussions of the political. Perhaps it was my presence that had this effect. Just as an immigrant lives a divided life, so too does the family she has left behind. They imagine the new country, and they inevitably compare it with the old.
My relatives had many questions about America. They wanted to hear about things like Barack Obama’s chances for reelection and the possibility of war against Iran. And I had many questions of my own, mostly about democratic change in Morocco. The subject was especially pertinent: that week marked the one-year anniversary of the pro-democracy coalition known as the February 20 Movement. These young activists, inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, had continued to hold rallies and marches in cities across Morocco to demand a true parliamentary monarchy in which the king would reign but not govern.
King Mohammad had never faced such a challenge since his ascension to the throne in 1999, but he quickly took charge of the situation. Within weeks of the first demonstration, he announced that Morocco’s Constitution would be revised. And he kept that promise—such as it was. The new Constitution is the first in the region to recognize the language of the indigenous Amazigh people. It also entitles the winners in legislative elections to form a government. Nevertheless, the real power remains firmly in the king’s hands. He still makes all major political, military, and religious decisions, and he can still dissolve Parliament at will.
The big question, the question that weighed on my mind throughout my stay, was whether these extremely modest reforms had had any effect on ordinary people—people like my family. But I didn’t hear the long and thorny discussions of democracy I had expected. Democracy was a word used by other people—the king, the protesters, the politicians, the media—and they were using it to mean different things. Instead, the conversations I heard focused on issues that were more mundane and arguably more urgent: the cost of living, the ubiquitous corruption, the shoddy state of hospital care, the appalling state of public education, the waste of government money on flashy projects.
The talk of such problems began with one of the mourners complaining about his utility bills. He blamed the soaring costs on the water and power company, which had been privatized. My uncle M., brushing back what remained of his hair, replied that the problem wasn’t really the fault of the French corporation that had taken over. Morocco doesn’t produce enough energy, my uncle argued, and people are consuming more than ever. The man’s reply was stubbornly factual: “My bills are too high.”
In turn, my father recounted how a police officer had pulled him over on a busy thoroughfare. I can’t recall what my father’s infraction might have been, or if in fact he had broken any law at all. The point of my father’s story was what happened next. The policeman brazenly asked for a bribe, and my father refused. The officer was indignant. “All you retirees—you make more than us!” he said.
For a moment, the discussion turned more upbeat when another relative, a woman I hadn’t seen in years, mentioned that her son had found a job. But she went on to talk about all the young people in her neighborhood who weren’t so lucky. She listed their names, ticking them off on the fingers of her hennaed hands. “And whom do they blame for that?” I asked. “Well,” she said. “You know. Him.” Him was the king.
The next morning I caught a taxi, hoping to go downtown to the post office. The driver declined to take me there. He couldn’t stand the traffic, he explained; it was always hopelessly tied up because of sit-ins by unemployed university graduates or members of the February 20 Movement. I sent my mail from a different post office. Even at the hair salon around the corner from my parents’ house, there was no escape from the dissatisfaction. The radio was tuned to a talk show, and listeners were calling in to unload their frustrations about Eric Gerets, the extravagantly well-paid Belgian coach of Morocco’s national soccer team, which had just failed even to make the quarterfinals in this year’s Africa Cup. (His undisclosed salary is rumored to be in the neighborhood of $300,000 a month.)
There are many reasons for all this popular discontent. Of Morocco’s 32 million people, nearly 5 million are living below the poverty line. The unemployment rate, at 9 percent overall, is 16 percent among university graduates and as high as 30 percent for urban youths. To head off popular protests like those in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and Yemen, the king doubled food subsidies last year and raised salaries of police and other civil servants. Those moves are expected to raise this year’s budget deficit even higher than last year’s figure, which was 7 percent of GDP. Worse yet, a crushing drought seems likely to further hurt the economy, which is heavily reliant on agriculture. (The trade deficit is already at a record high because of the rising cost of wheat and energy imports.)
The economic crisis doesn’t seem to have affected the king. His wealth has doubled over the past five years, making him the world’s seventh-richest monarch, with a fortune estimated at $2.5 billion. As the journalist Ahmed Reda Benchemsi recently put it, King Mohammad is “the No. 1 businessman in the country”—the First Banker, the First Grocer, the First Landowner, and the First Farmer. In the end, the daily purchases made by Moroccans only make their king richer.
I returned to Casablanca for the anniversary of the February 20 Movement. There, a group of founding members had gathered with a few hundred other protesters to celebrate. The sky was bright, but the air was cold. As I struggled to shield my eyes from the sun and keep my hands warm, I couldn’t help noticing all the plainclothes police. They stood around the plaza, scowling at protesters and occasionally taking pictures. The protesters didn’t seem to care. They had broken up into smaller groups to listen to one speaker or another or to chat among themselves. Gone were the moderate demands of a year ago. Now one of the signs put it more bluntly: “Down with M6.” M6 is a nickname for King Mohammad, the sixth by that name.
Back in Rabat, my father and uncles had to complete a mountain of paperwork to settle A.’s affairs, so I offered to accompany two of my uncles to the local administrative district office. We drove past street corners heaped with trash. The city’s garbage collection had also been privatized, in favor of a French corporation that evidently didn’t have enough bins or enough employees to keep the streets clean.
We arrived at the district office and discovered that it was open only two days a week: Mondays and Fridays. The staff routinely spent the rest of the week on strike, protesting their low wages. This, we were told, had been going on for a year. Neither the administration nor the employees seemed amenable to changing their positions. But we were in luck: it was a Monday. We asked whether we could register my uncle’s death there. The answer was no. We were sent to a different district office.
At the second office, we found a line of people stretching all the way down the corridor outside the department in charge of recording deaths. New arrivals had to go inside and ask for a list of required documents before returning to join the line. There were exactly four chairs in the waiting room. The woman next to me was dressed in white, a sign of recent widowhood. The district office had made a mistake in the paperwork for her late husband, she told me, so now she had to redo it all, at her own cost, before his estate could be settled.
Two hours later, our turn in line finally came. One of my uncles stepped up to the civil servant’s desk and sat down, eager to begin the process. But, it turned out, this wasn’t the right district either.
As we made our way from one administrative office to another, I could see the frustration and injustice that ordinary Moroccans face every day. Despite the new Constitution and last November’s elections, the relationship of the ruler to the ruled has not changed. Whether it takes the face of a civil servant, a customs official, or a police officer, the government continues to dictate its will to the citizenry—not, as it ought to be, the other way around.
I left Morocco the following Thursday. I felt, as I always do, the piercing pain of departure. But this time the regret was compounded by grief—for my uncle, for my people, and for my country.
Laila Lalami is the author of Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits and Secret Son. She is currently an associate professor at the University of California, Riverside.