The border: a two-metre-wide stream
It was a strange feeling traveling in Morocco last summer. I drove my family on the new motorway linking the west of Morocco to the far north-east for the first time. Nature changed from green to arid along the way and from mountainous landscapes to vast plains and uninhabited terrains. The big surprise was reaching Saidia, a tourist resort and Morocco’s promising la Côte d’Azur. It was almost Maghreb time (the sunset prayer). Soon, I heard the Al-Moazin calling for the prayer from a reddish mosque. I thought: What good timing to pray and have a rest! But a voice shouted “You cannot go there. That is Algeria!”
I follow the news so I am aware of the so called “conflict” between the two neighboring countries. I know the borders have been closed for almost 20 years, but it still came as a surprise, seeing the reality on the ground. Never before had I seen that stream, only two metres wide, that is the border not be crossed.
I remained transfixed, only to hear the other mosque with its white minaret on the Moroccan side calling for the same prayer a few seconds after the reddish one. It seemed to me a continuation of the first. They were one. It even crossed my mind that the two Al-Moazins could be friends. They probably know how the other feels from the tone of their voices and calling for prayer five times a day. Yet ironically, they have never met!
At night, Saidia came to life. After a day on the beach, families were ready for an evening dinner out and a stroll along the corniche. On one side, there was a fair that attracted children; on the other, there were restaurants that attracted couples and families. It was a relaxing atmosphere common to many places around the Mediterranean on a hot summer night. I kept thinking how strange that a few meters away there were Algerian families who would have liked to stretch their feet walking the long Saidia corniche. There would be children who would have wanted to play together in the fair. There would be women who would have wanted to sit together and enjoy a chat. There would be men who would have enjoyed mint tea in the many cafés stretching along the coast. That night I walked the corniche, which stretched for miles, only to be stopped by a notice stating “Military Zone. Keep Away.” I thought, “What do people on the other side think?”
The next day was Friday. I decided to drive to a point between two mountains where the Moroccan road comes very close to the Algerian one. Several families were parked in this spot to take pictures of each other’s flags. There were Moroccans gazing at Algerians and Algerians gazing at Moroccans. Although I am not allowed to cross, I felt I ought to make contact. I remembered Kant’s words,“Ought implies can.” I shouted: _“Merhba Bikoum l Couscous”_—welcome to the couscous. A family waved back. Another voice came back: _“Eidek Mbrouk”_—Happy Eid. Someone nearby replied _“Allah Ybark fik”_— May Allah bless you. Two young Algerian men shouted: “_La Coupe d’Afrique sera au Maroc bientôt”_—The African Cup will be in Morocco soon. A Moroccan child with her family shouted back: _“Bienvenue”_—welcome. I sat thinking of Morocco’s greatest traveller Ibn Battuta and how he travelled for 29 years from one place to another in a borderless world. How he was well-received and hosted by the different nations and tribes he visited and lived with and married into. How he was trusted to become a judge and ambassador for nations far away from his native Tangier. How his world in so many ways was a freer one than ours. My thoughts were brought back to reality by a military vehicle that drove next to the stream, and a flock of birds taking to the skies.
As the calls for the Friday prayer were being chanted from the Reddish and White mosques, I thought how ironic that only the previous Friday in England, Bashir (an Algerian friend) and I had walked together to the same mosque in Nottingham. We prayed together, and afterwards he invited me to his house, where his newly wedded wife treated us to a delicious Moroccan couscous. They were excited, telling me about their wedding and how the Moroccan community in Montpelier, France, helped them to make it a memorable Alge-Moroccan wedding.
After the Friday prayer, I walked the peaceful streets of Saidia on my own. I remembered an Algerian lady who worked as receptionist in a Paris hotel, and how she had shed tears when I checked in once. Later I learned that I reminded her of her late young brother who was killed in the civil war in Algiers in the 1990s. My thoughts were interrupted when a car drove by, playing Zahir’s famous song “Lala Fatima.” I smiled, thinking: I must get that for Bashir as a gift, since his wife’s name is Fatima.
Before writing this article I thought that the problem is too complicated, and indeed it may be so. But then I thought: We have to start somewhere! I am not getting into who is wrong and who is right. Indeed, my point is that we have to transcend that.
I always remember when an International Relations lecturer asked “Could you imagine Great Britain going to war against Italy tomorrow?” The students replied with a sharp “No!” The professor then said: “And yet 50 years ago we were in a war against them all over Europe and in North Africa!” What a contrast! Nowadays one can travel by train from Paris Gare de Lyon to Rome’s Stazione Termini, get out and enjoy an Italian cappuccino: two different countries, two different languages, two different cultures, two different geographies…no borders. On the other hand, one is not allowed to cross a two metre-wide stream between Algeria and Morocco: same geography, same language, same ethnic groups, same religion…borders!
It is time to call on our Berber, African, and Arab shared culture to promote peace, respect, stability, brotherhood, and reconciliation. It is time to remember our shared history, realize our present reality and look forward positively to our future. It is time to allow Bashir and me, his family and my family, an afternoon mint tea under an olive tree, gazing at the Mediterranean sea.
Tarik Oumazzane is completing a PhD at Nottingham-Trent University in the UK.