Turning the pages of the menu, I looked for something cheap that would fill me up. There was an omelette that came with coffee and orange juice, but that was 28 dirhams, and I had been going to cafes nearly every day. It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t have wifi in my homestay, and the 10 gigabytes my study abroad program provided me wasn’t nearly enough. Grilled cheese, 18 dirhams. That worked. “Is it big or small?” I asked the waiter, in Arabic. “Big.” Great, I was willing to spend $1.80ish on a big grilled cheese sandwich, though in the United States I easily could’ve spent $5 on one, $6 if it had tomatoes. But Morocco was different.
Before coming here, I didn’t completely realize how poor Morocco would be. Maybe the word “poor” is a bit of a generalization, but the average Moroccan does have significantly less wealth than the average American, and this didn’t completely hit me until I landed. Until I saw the buildings falling apart throughout the city, the unrealistically low prices in the souk, and I felt rich—comparatively. I had read the book Factfulness by Hans Rosling the October before, which divided the world into four income categories, with most of the United States being level four. To me, Rabat felt like level three, though I didn’t know the per capita income of Rabat residents. It was poorer than the United States, but not enormously. People had running water and mattresses and many even had cars. Except for certain places, like Le Dhow, which felt like they could’ve been in America if the French was replaced with English. $6 for the cheapest glass of wine, I was a student! But fortunately, this was Morocco, and not all alcohol was that expensive, with bottles of wine right outside the walls of the medina for $3. Coincidentally, half the price of a mere glass at Le Dhow, though Le Dhow was a boat and perhaps we were also paying for the experience.
As I wrote in my last essay, Morocco feels very much at the crossroads, politically and culturally, between tradition and modernity. To me, Morocco is at the crossroads economically, as well. On the one hand, we have a thriving market economy, with numerous orange stores and data recharge stores and practically-whatever-you-want stores within fifteen minutes of my homestay. But on the other hand, a lot of these aren’t high-quality products, with knock-off Gucci and $5 headphones that sounded good but broke a few days after I bought them. My house, too, served its function, despite it being a mere three rooms, with my brothers sleeping in the living room that was also our dining room. Despite falling apart in a variety of places, when in the United States, my family would have paid a visit to Bed, Bath, and Beyond long ago. Despite having a Turkish toilet and a bucket shower. However, the fact that Morocco is at a crossroads economically is almost certainly linked with it being at the crossroads politically. Going back to the piece we read on protests in small Moroccan towns, Bogaert writes, “The understanding of socioeconomic protest as separate from ‘political’ protest and the assumption that these seemingly distinct aspects of the struggle might be ranked are, according to [Abdelrahman], historically and theoretically without base and attest to a very narrow understanding of the political” (126). Everything economic is political, as the economy is ultimately about what resources each member of society has or doesn’t have the power to access, with Morocco’s transition from a traditional to a more modern economy being but one manifestation of a larger political advancement toward full equality and liberation.
Similarly, people’s roles in the economy were oftentimes traditional, despite slowly becoming more progressive. For example, my host dad was a mechanic while my host mom stayed at home, cooking and cleaning and caring for children. At first, I felt bad for her, confined to stereotypes based on her gender, and part of me still does. Was she ever even given a genuine option to be something more than a stay-at-home mom? As written in the Moudawana, fathers are legally expected to provide for their families, with mothers assumed to occupy a more domestic role (Articles 194, 198). Article 198 portrays some women―but never men―as dependents moving between one man (their fathers) to another (their husbands): “In any case, maintenance paid to the daughter shall not cease until she can earn a living on her own or until her maintenance becomes incumbent upon her husband.” I thought my host mom fit this mould. But my perceptions began to change, first when my Arabic professor introduced the idea that our homestay mothers all do work, even if it’s just caring for us. They literally get paid from our study abroad program, even if they don’t have to leave the house to work. And they also do work caring for their real children, even if this job doesn’t pay them. And second, my host mom did have a role in the outside economy, if only a small one. When she told me one day she would be returning home late, because she was helping out her sister with her pastry shop, I felt proud. My mom was a liberated woman, if only for a day, in line with the ISP my group read: “[W]orking mothers tend to work unskilled and self scheduled jobs that allow them flexible hours and give them the ability to look after their children while on the job” (Knauss 145). Although I thought this was quite a generalization to make, given that Knauss only observed several working mothers in limited contexts, I do agree that women disproportionately occupy these informal positions, and that these can often be a source of social empowerment.
Though most of the cities I visited in Morocco were approximately the same income level, the village was even poorer, or at least I thought so it at first. There was no running water, no cars, and the mattresses were overall a lot less comfortable. At first, I thought the village might be something like a level two, but then my host brother showed me his family’s olive orchard. It stretched as far as the eye could see, to the hills and beyond. They also had a plot of farmland in another area of the village, with enough crops to both support themselves and make some extra money at the nearby city’s souk. My family might not have had as high-quality possessions as in Rabat, and certainly not as in the United States, but they had enough to get by, and they seemed relatively happy overall. They too seemed to have a thriving economy, including the two programs of foreign students that descended on their village in consecutive weeks. My host mom even tried to sell me an entire Ain Atlas bottle of olive oil, and my host dad had enough extra money to buy hashish for daily consumption.
With all that said, the economic situation in Morocco doesn’t feel 100% great to me. I have savings from jobs in America where I was paid over $10 an hour, while some people only make $2 a day here. I can buy a $1.80 grilled cheese and be happy and then leave this country, while people here are trapped in an economy that’s relatively underdeveloped and profoundly unequal. My Moroccan friend Gabe told me that the King here is richer than the Queen of England, even though the country is poorer, but only later did I realize, when researching for an Arabic project, that the King is at least 18 times richer. He has billions of dollars, millions of which go to his staff and animals, while there are numerous beggars, many of them children, on the streets. Then again, it’s not like we don’t have this problem in America. My host mom wants my brothers to go study in the United States, where there are more opportunities, if only marginally, and become a government official and a doctor. I hope the situation improves for them, I really do, but I also hope the situation improves for Morocco. And a lot of the people I’ve met here, especially college-age Moroccans, are in the same boat as me, even if some are ostensibly satisfied with the economic system. As my Moroccan friend Mehdi told me, the economy here is “not the best but good enough,” and that there are “resources but most of their revenues are stolen.” And on a similar note, according to my friend Kamal, the Moroccan economy is “not good but it develops for the better.” But it will only develop in a comprehensive and equitable way if we launch a grassroots movement advocating for an economy―for a society―that serves the people, not the powerful.
To conclude, I have a significant degree of economic rights and privileges in Morocco. As an American white male whose family has enough money to pay for a college education, I don’t have to worry that the $2 I’m making today might not be enough to survive. I don’t even have to worry about what I order from a menu, no matter how much I do. But despite this, I am not a member of the wealthy and powerful. I may feel rich in Morocco, but my family has been concerned about having enough money to pay our bills, to pay our medical expenses, to pay my tuition. I live in a society stacked against me, stacked against most people, and because of this, I identify with a lot of the Moroccans I’ve met. We can be members of the 99 percent and still have meaningful lives, but that doesn’t mean our lives will be easy. Moving forward, I have several questions about this theme and my relation to it. To what extent do cultures of various socioeconomic classes contribute to Moroccan culture, recognizing the high degree of variability within what these terms encapture? How do we imagine a Morocco where all people are fully equal and liberated―culturally, politically, economically? Is monarchy compatible with class justice, or must Morocco one day move beyond the current system? Does my high degree of social and economic privilege have a positive or negative impact on the culture that I’m merely passing through? Or is it more complicated than that? And most importantly of all, is the grilled cheese sandwich big or small?