Poor governance and the pressure of globalisation mean the Maghreb runs the risk of losing its unique character. Yet only a small minority seems to be aware that this development is destroying an irretrievable part of the Maghreb identity. An essay by Beat Stauffer
For many years, the countries of the Maghreb had an image as a dream destination for European travellers, with artists such as Paul Klee and Eugène Delacroix inspired beneath the scorching sun of northern Africa. "Maghreb! This word has an indescribable magical sound for me," wrote the French author Pierre Loti in the late 19th century.
On seeing the Tunisian village Sidi Bou Said, Paul Klee felt he had experienced "a fairy tale turned real". He wrote in his diary: "What an aroma, how penetrating, how intoxicating, how clarifying at the same time."
What remains of this "fairytale land" beyond the clichés of modern tourism? What have the countries of the Maghreb managed to retain of their unique character, their rich cultural heritage? And what has been lost without trace in the stormy developments of the past few decades?
In a narrow cul-de-sac in the middle of the labyrinthine old heart of Fez, an Iraqi-born architect has found a new home and an exciting field to work in. Just a stone's throw from the famous Qarawiyyn Mosque, Alaa Said and his partner Kate Kvalvik have lovingly restored a six hundred-year-old building, transforming it into a guest house.
Following his architecture training and a twelve-year period in Norway, Alaa decided to return to an Arab country. He bought a magnificent palace in Fez's old quarter, spending several years restoring it. One of Alaa's main concerns was to preserve the unique architectural quality and all the existing original elements. He succeeded in peeling back the dust and decay to reveal the building's ancient beauty – with a purism that sets the project apart from the overloaded style of many contemporary Arab architects.
Some 1500 kilometres further east, not far from the harbour in the centre of Tunis, is a small cultural centre by the name of Etoile du Nord. The project was initiated by Noureddine El Ati, a Tunisian director and actor who returned home after many years in France and Belgium. El Ati found the perfect place to put his ambitious plans into action – a former garage now converted into a multi-purpose venue for various cultural activities, especially theatre performances, and a cafeteria as a meeting place.
The Etoile du Nord opened its doors nearly 13 years ago. It is a success story – although the centre operates with little or no state subsidies, it has kept itself above water to this day, with visitor figures that speak for themselves. El Ati stages European classics, often translated into dialect Arabic, along with contemporary plays from both sides of the Mediterranean. There are also regular concerts and readings.
Bureaucracy and mediocrity
The spacious cafeteria is always buzzing, with users working on their own laptops or using the centre's computers. The fairly young crowd communicates in loud and carefree voices, women with and without headscarves talking to female colleagues or men of the same age group. Without a doubt, the Etoile du Nord is a welcome cultural niche within a still very traditional society.
These young people, one gets the impression, are absolutely au fait with today's communication media and are conscious inhabitants of the 21st century. Yet they also see themselves as people of the Maghreb: proud, confident and free from complexes towards the West.
Two examples spreading a little hope, even a trace of optimism in a region that badly needs it. All too often, the otherwise sunny Maghreb seems submerged in an air of resignation and lack of perspectives. The main reasons are to be found in the entrenched structures, in social blockades, in authoritarian regimes – all factors that hardly prompt euphoric enterprising.
There are innovative projects in Libya and Mauritania too. Yet they are lonely guiding stars in a huge firmament marked by narrow-mindedness, strong traditionalism, the omnipresence of religion and increasingly also by cultural dislocation. The region's cultural activities seem dominated by mediocrity, bureaucratic mentalities and a drastic shortage of funding.
In view of the political and social conditions across the whole of the Maghreb, this situation is hardly surprising. Since gaining independence, the five Maghreb states have not placed any great value on culture and education. Above all, however, the countries still cannot offer the majority of their people lives in security and dignity to this day. Millions of people in the Maghreb spend their lives fighting for mere physical survival, making cultural activities a barely conceivable luxury.
Obviously, the specific living conditions of the region's 90 million inhabitants vary hugely according to social class and from country to country, with Tunisia providing the best conditions in relative terms. The situation in Libya is a huge scandal, which many people are aware of. In a country with oil income so high that it ought to fund conditions comparable to the Gulf states, the Libyans have to put up with a meagre and decaying infrastructure.
Inestimable value of cultural assets
It is clear that the protection of cultural assets in the broadest sense and the promotion of a lively contemporary culture are far from a priority, both for most individuals in the Maghreb and for the region's official bodies. On the other hand, it is now at least generally recognised that certain cultural assets hold an inestimable value and must be protected at all cost.
Following decades of laissez-faire in the Fez medina, for example, a UNESCO world heritage site, steps have now been taken to rescue at least the most valuable old buildings. The same goes for the most important pre-Islamic excavation sites – from Leptis Magna in Libya to Volubilis in Morocco. There has also been a change of heart on how to deal with the architectural heritage of the colonial period, often neo-Moorish buildings.
Whereas until recently these structures were torn down or disfigured without a thought, the authorities are now taking a more cautious approach. And buildings from the era are even being painstakingly restored on occasion, such as the Tunis Théâtre Municipal.
Destruction of unique cultural landscapes
Nevertheless, the entire Maghreb region loses a shocking amount of cultural assets and unique cultural landscapes as every year goes by –thus sacrificing a considerable part of what once made up its character. Three additional factors play a role here.
Firstly, the still strong population growth leads to a huge need for new living space. Secondly, the existing cities, towns and villages are generally spreading in a completely chaotic manner, without an overall concept or concern for the environment. In the previous few decades, ugly suburban belts have sprung up around almost all towns. The most serious factor, however, is the destruction of the once so harmonious country villages and hamlets with their gardens and green spaces.
Everywhere, modern urban architecture is penetrating rural areas, mercilessly displacing the generally very well evolved traditional construction methods – partly archaic, partly highly aesthetic in nature.
Disrespect for rural culture
This widespread destruction can only be explained on the basis of a deep-seated contempt for rural culture and an extremely strong wish to benefit from the "blessings" of modern life.
Another contributing factor is that until recently, rural areas lived according to their own ancient rhythm and have now been catapulted into the modern age without warning. It comes as no surprise that many people are struggling to cope with this process. Yet only a small minority seems to be aware that this development is destroying an irretrievable part of the Maghreb identity.
This is tragic, in more than one respect. Firstly, millions of people are now living in ugly, generally unplastered concrete or industrially produced brick buildings, which are absolutely unsuitable for the region's climate. This entails an enormous loss of quality of life, particularly in the hot summer months.
And secondly, the traditional clay construction style – if adapted to today's needs – would be absolutely predestined to reconcile traditional and modern architecture. Unfortunately, however, clay has only become an established building material in a handful of places in northern Africa.
Authorities' lack of interest in education
Contemporary culture too lives a shadowy life in the Maghreb. Regarded by the authorities as marginal or disruptive elements, most creative individuals have to live under extremely precarious circumstances, with little or no chance of public funding. The education sector is no better off.
Insiders in all five Maghreb states complain of a dramatic loss of quality at state schools and insufficient budgets across the entire sector. The same even applies to Tunisia, once very proud of its good educational system.
The authorities' lack of interest in education and culture is not the only cause. Over many years, obsessions with security policy and domestic and foreign conflicts have siphoned off so much funding that culture and education only received extremely low budgets. A lack of freedom of speech, political repression and widespread corruption have ultimately prompted large swathes of the region's intellectual elites to move abroad – a serious drain on their home countries.
Making up for deficits at any cost
Alongside the consequences of decades of poor governance, for which the Maghreb states themselves are solely responsible, the entire northern Africa region is also exposed to influences beyond its control. Firstly, all the Maghreb countries are trying to make up for their technical and industrial deficits as fast as possible, no matter what the cost – an impossible undertaking without massive intervention in existing structures and mentalities.
And secondly, globalisation and closer links to Europe have seen the borders opened wide for imported industrial products and foreign investors. The result is huge pressure on industry and commerce across the entire Maghreb. For many, it is a question of mere survival, with experts fearing mass dismissals and social unrest in the future.
These changes have mainly affected the world of work. Previously unknown forms of stress, for example, have compounded the practically pre-industrial exploitation with which people had long been familiar. Conditions in the many call centres – outsourced to northern Africa by European companies to cut costs – seem very poor, as in the case of textiles and leather factories. Under these circumstances, there are few signs of the relaxed Oriental lifestyle for which the Maghreb was once known.
Many people in the Maghreb find it hard to cope with all these changes, fearing a loss of their identity. Their instincts tell them that their everyday lives have changed hugely over the past years and decades, even that northern Africa itself runs the risk of losing its "soul".
There are repeated warnings – for example in the case of Marrakech and Djerba – of the development of unbounded tourism, which threatens to destroy the identity of the places in question with no return. Yet these individual warnings fall on deaf ears – the economic interests are too large and powerful.
One-dimensional view of Maghreb identity
One diffuse malaise is widespread across the Maghreb. Many people are seeking sanctuary in Islamism, which promises to defend the "identity" under threat from the "West" by all means.
The tragic aspect of this development is that the Islamists have an extremely narrow-minded, one-dimensional view of Maghreb identity, one that is also reduced to the religious dimension. What they forget is that northern Africa, as the French-Tunisian writer Abdelwahab Meddeb has convincingly proved, possessed its own multiple, multi-layered identity, in which the cultures of the various invaders, the Jewish and the Berber components always played an important role.
The Islam practiced in the Maghreb was also strongly influenced by the mystical traditions of the brotherhoods and permeated by pre-Islamic elements. This heritage of tolerance is now at risk, with fanatical Salafis aiming to introduce a "pure" Islam with a sole claim to religious truth – using violent means if need be.
For all these reasons, the entire northern African region runs the risk of becoming a poor counterfeit of Europe, losing its still existing cultural and rural qualities, but also part of its human potential. This is manifested, for instance, in the still close-knit family and neighbourhood communities, which support individuals and protect them from loneliness, and in a tradition of oral communication now all but lost in Europe.
Yet only if the elites of the Maghreb are aware of their own values and traditions and the fact that they need defending, is there a chance that they may survive in our globalised world. To really influence the matter, powerful organisations would be necessary – organisations to take care of protecting cultural assets and landscapes, and organisations to help people master the transformation to a globalised world, without sacrificing everything they once held dear.
© Qantara.de 2009
The Maghreb specialist Beat Stauffer is a freelance journalist in Basel, Switzerland.
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire