The website of Morocco’s National Tourist Office, a government organization, advertises the North African country as a land of cultural festivals and moussems (traditional fairs honoring a saint). According to the Ministry of Information, about 150 such festivals take place each year. The Ministry of Tourism describes these gatherings as occasions for Moroccans to celebrate the diverse cultural identities of the country as expressed in all artistic fields.

The festivalization of arts and culture in Morocco began early after independence from France in 1956. Three years later, King Mohammed V launched the National Festival of Popular Arts, which focused on traditional Berber folk dances and music, highlighting regional diversity in costume, instrumentation and oral tradition. The National Festival was first staged in the medieval ruins of Chellah, on the outskirts of Rabat, the capital. Meriem Aherdan, wife of poet and former minister Mahjoubi Aherdan, reprised the initial event in exotic terms:

We still remember with emotion those first evenings being prolonged to dawn, the public mixing with the groups of men and women come, for the first time, from all the areas of the country to celebrate with rediscovered independence, in a historical encounter, the return to authenticity. And the feast continued in the camps, after leaving Chellah, under the tents, behind the ramparts, because it was necessary to perpetuate this unique moment that allowed the North and the South to unite, the Ksourian and the nomad having crossed the mountains to meet the plains and the sea. [1]

Later, the festival was moved to the courtyard of the Badia Palace in Marrakesh, built between 1758 and 1794 as the diplomatic residence of the sultan Ahmad al-Mansour. Like the ruins before it, the palace courtyard became a national space where fixed ethnic identities and nationalist ideology mixed each year to embody Moroccan diversity. The festival proceeded according to a multi-cultural model, whereby ethnic and cultural groups were each consigned to their own regional space in the cultural map of Morocco. The Arab-identified state would recognize difference, but only in non-political terms: Berbers, for instance, were seen not as people with historical grievances against the state, but as people with striking dance steps, attractive clothes and jewelry, and beautiful casbahs. In this project, the monarchy relied on national Berber (Amazigh) figures such as Mahjoubi Aherdan.

After two failed coups against King Hassan II (1961-1999), in which Berber figures played a key role, the state moved to consolidate the perception of Berberness as apolitical. The Marrakesh festival provided an occasion for the state to construct Berberness as a colorful subculture that could lure tourists to the country. At the same time, the staged dances and exhibits were moments for the state to highlight its message of tolerance of all groups in Morocco — a message aimed at both Moroccans and foreign guests.

State of Celebration

The state-sponsored cultural festival in Morocco is built upon the moussem, the country’s version of the saint day. The number of moussems has fallen dramatically, but in many locales both Jewish and Muslim saints are still honored. Traditionally, different tribal groups would meet on moussems to converse and exchange goods, as well as partake in religious ritual. As in Egypt and elsewhere, many Moroccan religious scholars have criticized this form of popular Islam as akin to “saint worship.” After independence, however, the state turned the moussem into a national event, one intended to strengthen the political bonds between the population and the monarchy. King Hassan II linked the moussem’s religious dimension to the institution of the monarchy through annual donations to the Sufi orders associated with saints. In 1975, Hassan II sent a ministerial delegation to the moussem of Moulay Idris al-Akbar, founder of the Idrissid dynasty, historical rivals for the throne held by the king’s Alawite line. The king later attended the moussem in person and was photographed praying for its patron saint. But the festivities are no longer simply occasions for veneration of various holy men: They begin and end with prayer in the name of the king. The moussem, in fact, has become a place for the internalization of state symbols, festooned with Moroccan flags and royal portraits and conspicuously attended by state security and government delegations. French scholar Lucette Valensi describes this transformation as a manifestation of the state’s conscious attempt to create an official and institutional memory. [2] Moussems became one of several official celebrations of the imagined Moroccan nation, such as Throne Day, the yearly commemoration of the royal succession.

So it was that the state tried to make popular arts and culture into carriers of a single, centralized vision of national authenticity — who and what was Moroccan. At the same time, because the National Festival of Popular Arts focused so heavily on Berber folk dances and music that were cast as ancient and unchanging, the state turned these cultural forms into something exotic, folklore to be consumed by foreign tourists and more “modern” Moroccan citizens.

This vision was modified in the late 1980s, as more and more Moroccans moved to cities. With the population concentrated in several cultural hubs, rather than just one, the state opted to market a model of ethnic and cultural diversity. The logic was to contain Berber movements while improving local economies through domestic and international tourism. In addition to the National Festival of Popular Arts, the state launched a number of fêtes in various regions, each aimed at highlighting the cultural heritage particular to the locale. Each festival also hosts guest performers from other areas of the country. The Ministries of Tourism and Culture subsidize the performers’ travel and living expenses, including when the state sends them abroad, as with the “dagger dancers” of Tissint. The new model places less emphasis on Berber tradition in favor of a picture of Morocco as an ethnic and cultural mosaic: Berber, Sahrawi, Jewish, Arab, African and Andalusian folk music, dance and crafts now appear on stage and in exhibit halls. The major events include the Gnawa World Music Festival in Essaouira, the Amazigh Theater Festival in Casablanca, the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music and the Traditional Arts Festival, also in Fez.

Many of the state’s modern celebrations started out as moussems, and the exotic remains the core feature of several, in keeping with the Tourism Ministry’s mission to promote Morocco as a cheery but idyllic place. As one website puts it: “When it is time for pleasure, when it is just the right moment to enjoy life and a unique, unforgettable experience, Morocco is just the right setting.” Key in this respect are the rural-themed events that are marketed to world travelers, among them the Date Festival (Erfoud), the Rose Festival (Kelaa Megouna), the Cherry Harvest Festival (Sefrou) and the Camel Fair (Goulmim). These and other fairs have definitely succeeded at increasing the numbers of local and international tourists. And they have improved, though only seasonally, the lives of many people in the country, who often eagerly await the opening of each year’s moussem or festival to earn a substantial portion of their annual income.

All this festivalization of arts and culture, however, is not without its critics.

Rappers For and Against the State

Each May since 2001, the Association Maroc Cultures has put on a festival of world music in Rabat and Salé. The series of concerts, called Mawazine (Rhythms), features global stars like Lionel Richie, Alicia Keys, Shakira and the late Whitney Houston, as well as local performers, and attracts over 1 million fans from across the country. In its latest iterations, the big party has showcased prominent Moroccan rappers, such as Bigg and Fnaire, as well. The government pitches Mawazine as an occasion for spreading an image of Morocco as an open, tolerant society. Though Association Maroc Cultures is nominally a private foundation, independent of the Ministry of Culture, Mawazine is perceived as the “king’s festival” because the Association is headed by Mounir Majidi, a close confidant of Mohammed VI. The royal imprimatur lends the festival management the political and financial clout needed to bring in musical icons for what NPR has called the “granddaddy” of official music festivals.

Not every Moroccan rapper is pleased with the state’s appropriation of hip-hop. [3] Chekhsar, for instance, decries the festival as a waste of public funds. Originally from Errachidia, a southern city, Chekhsar upholds pious Muslim views that align him with the Justice and Development Party (PJD), which won the parliamentary elections of November 2011. His songs are largely about the social and economic struggles of the Moroccan majority. In “Morocco, Absurdities,” he contrasts the realities of poor neighborhoods with the wealth of Mawazine’s foreign guests:

Listen to me carefully
This is not the time
For dancing
This is the time for reform
This is the time for infrastructure building
This is not the time for entertainment
This is the time for serious public debates
How do we dance
When half of us are hungry
What will the people do
With Shakira’s butt
Morocco, absurdities
My country is in decline
You are distracting people
To keep their silence

Thus far, the PJD government of Abdelilah Benkirane has been silent about Mawazine. But a few members of the party have voiced criticisms of the festival. Habib Choubani, the PJD minister in charge of relations with Parliament and civil society, who also represents Chekhsar’s hometown, denounced Mawazine as a waste of resources, arguing that allocated subsidies would be better used to benefit the poor and unemployed. PJD figures have also raised moral objections. In 2010, Mustapha Ramid, who became minister of justice and liberties in January, wanted to ban the appearance of Elton John at Mawazine on the basis that his performance would encourage homosexuality in Morocco.

In 2011, the protesting dissidents took aim at Mawazine, mounting a Facebook drive to cancel the shows that enlisted more than 30,000 supporters. Rachid El-Belghiti, a leading voice of the February 20 movement, which coincided in time with the Arab revolts, squared off with Aziz Daki, the festival’s artistic director, in a debate televised by BBC Arabic. El-Belghiti contended that Morocco does not need an international festival to show off its open and diverse society. He noted that, for centuries, men and women have been dancing side by side in the Atlas Mountains and Jews and Muslims have been living next door to one another. Moroccan youth took to Facebook, YouTube and other social media platforms to register similar critiques of Mawazine and other festivals, along with the view that they squander state funds. Some argued that festivals should not be held in cities, but in marginal towns and remote hamlets such as Imilchil, which are in dire need of economic development. Others questioned the ethics of holding such celebrations amidst uprisings for democratic rights and shootings of peaceful demonstrators by Arab security forces. Chekhsar and two of his fellow rappers, Muslim and El Haqed, became the faces of the anti-Mawazine effort. El Haqed was arrested and jailed in March for insulting government officials with tracks like “Dogs of the State.” (Chekhsar distances himself from El Haqed’s more strident positions.)

Mawazine has never been canceled, the dissent notwithstanding. In 2011, the state was able to counter the dissident rappers with others who have wider fan bases. This move had roots in a long-term strategy by the state to coopt the hip-hop genre. In the early 1990s, hip-hop emerged as a means for disenfranchised youth in popular neighborhoods to challenge the state’s hegemony and ridicule its failed economic, social and educational policies. As young rappers gained notoriety, particularly after Internet use spread, the government dropped its stance of coercion and shifted to one of soft surveillance, not only allowing the organization of street parties for rappers but also sponsoring them.

L’Boulevard in Casablanca is one such festival, bringing together world-famous hip-hop artists with young Moroccan rappers and giving the latter an opportunity to display their skills. (Rock, goth, fusion and other artists also perform at L’Boulevard.) In 2008, the king donated some $250,000 to the festival organizers, who set up a recording studio and produced award-winning tracks. [4] Such moves fragmented the Moroccan hip-hop movement, with Bigg and Fnaire mocked as state rappers by the likes of Muslim and El Haqed. Thus did the state succeed, if only partly, in turning protest music disseminated primarily through YouTube into a profitable industry and weakening rappers as a political force amidst the Arab uprisings.

Festivals of Tolerance

The Moroccan state has always argued through its media outlets that its cultural festivals symbolize a commitment to tolerance, openness and diversity — including dialogue between Islam and other faiths. The history of Muslim Spain is invoked at these gatherings to situate Moroccan culture as an extension of the Andalusian culture of toleration and remind the world that Morocco was an important refuge for Jews fleeing the Reconquista and Spanish Inquisition. The Festival of the Atlantic Andalusias, the World Sacred Music Festival and the Melhoun Festival are three musical extravaganzas that have promoted Morocco as a land of religious toleration. In 2010, André Azoulay, a royal adviser who is himself Jewish, argued that these festivals are meant “to say to the world that we in Morocco have an ancient heritage in the field of tolerance and coexistence. We also want to preserve that heritage and to protect it against oblivion and marginalization, and against the negative impact and pollution of political turmoil.” [5]

Morocco prides itself upon celebration of its Jewish heritage. Thousands of Moroccan Jews living in Israel, Europe and the Americas travel to Morocco each year to honor Jewish sages known as hiloula. Officials representing the king are high-profile attendees of these ceremonies, as is reported assiduously by state-run television and radio. The official discourse of respect for human rights and openness to other peoples and religions is belied, however, by the lack of daily interaction between Muslims and Morocco’s remaining Jews. There is also an orchestrated silence in Moroccan schools about the history and culture of Jews in the country.

The state-backed festivals are thus better described as performances of tolerance rather than instances of a consistent policy to celebrate Moroccan diversity and openness. [6] As social engineering, they will remain ineffective as long as young unemployed graduates see millions spent to lure Shakira to Rabat while they cannot secure a bank loan to open a business. As an economic development strategy, the festivals have had little sustained impact, because they are seasonal and overly dependent on the health of the European economy to create an influx of tourists. For the Moroccan state, however, the festivalization of arts and culture has been a key method of managing dissent, blunting the force of social movements and sanding the political edges off of new forms of cultural expression — all while polishing an image of Morocco as liberal and fun-loving for outside consumption.


[1] Meriem Aherdan, “Les Arts Populaires,” Memorial du Maroc, vol. 8 (1983-1985).
[2] Lucette Valensi, “Le roi chronophage: la construction d’une conscience historique dans le Maroc post-colonial,” Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines 30/3 (1990).
[3] See Aomar Boum, “Moroccan Rappers and Political Descent in the Age of the ‘Arab Spring’,” IPRIS Maghreb Bulletin 13 (Spring 2012).
[4] Aomar Boum, “Youth, Political Activism and the Festivalization of Hip-Hop Music in Morocco,” in Bruce Maddy-Weitzman and Daniel Zisenwine, eds., Contemporary Morocco: State, Politics and Society Under Mohammed VI (forthcoming).
[5] Aomar Boum, “‘Sacred Week’: Re-Experiencing Jewish-Muslim Coexistence in Urban Moroccan Space,” in Glenn Bowman, ed., Sharing the Sacra: The Politics and Pragmatics of Intercommunal Relations Around Holy Places (forthcoming).
[6] Aomar Boum, “The Performance of Convivencia: Communities of Tolerance and the Reification of Toleration,” Religion Compass 6/3 (2012).

How to cite this article:

Aomar Boum "Festivalizing Dissent in Morocco," Middle East Report 263 (Summer 2012).

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