Author silhouetted in mosque.

Prof. George Joffé inside Casablanca's Mosque Hassan II.

Author silhouetted in mosque.

Professor George Joffé, research fellow at the University of Cambridge, blogs about his visit to three Moroccan universities as part of our exchange programme ‘Cambridge in Morocco: Perspectives on Islamic and North African Studies.’

Earlier this year the British Council’s director in Morocco, Martin Rose, brought a group of academics from the University of Cambridge to Fez, Rabat and Casablanca to tour some Moroccan universities with the aim of fostering academic links with Britain. I was one of the eight-member delegation.  I have been to Morocco many times before, but this was the first time I had gone as part of such a formal delegation, and this gave me time to reflect on how extensively the country has changed since I first went there in 1969.

My first impression, however, was not so new; Morocco has often been called ‘a hot country with a cold climate’ and the freezing temperatures that greeted us in Fez certainly justified that description!  Indeed, as we arrived just at the end of an extended rainy season, I should have been prepared for this.  On the other hand, the consequent lush green of the countryside – soon to be baked into a desiccated summer brown – meant that we were there when it was in its most beautiful season.

The other immediate impression of change was the modernised road network.  Compared with the late 1960s, when the only dual carriageway in the country was a short stretch outside the country’s economic capital, Casablanca, the motorway network between major urban centres is impressive.  Indeed, it reflects the immense efforts that have been made to update the national infrastructure, although behind these there still lie massive poverty and economic inequality. Despite the monarchy’s astute handling of the economic and political crisis last year, those problems have not gone away but have merely been postponed, to the irritation of the country’s activist February 20 movement, now marginalised – if not for long – by prompt government action.

Yet the government itself is new, now dominated by the Islamist movement, the Parti de Justice et du Développement (PJD), long marginalised itself by the Royal Palace. And that has produced visible change. The hijab, even the niqab, is more prominent than it was, replacing the traditional veil and haik, even though it is still the chosen apparel of the minority.  Modern standard Arabic, Fusha, the universal language of the Arab world, is more common in daily discourse than it used to be, although Darija, the North African dialect of Arabic, and French are still widely used, whilst Berber is now an official language, too.

That evolution showed up in our academic debates, as well; more so, perhaps, in Rabat, the country’s political capital, than in Fez or Casablanca.  It was striking that academic discussions in Fez and Casablanca tended to be in English or French, whilst in Rabat they were in Arabic.  In Fez, in particular, the evidence of an interest in academic study related to the Anglophone world was considerable whilst in Kenitra, too, there was a real desire to build bridges with British universities. And, of course, Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane is a Moroccan English-language university. Beyond this, there was also a sense of satisfaction that British academics had actually come to visit the Moroccan academic world in order to discover and explore it.

Indeed, perhaps the most striking impression was the eagerness with which our visit was greeted, as a sign of interest and engagement from the Anglophone world with which the Moroccan academy – and indeed the wider professional world in Morocco– has long been anxious to establish contact as a final liberation from its Francophone past.  It is a sentiment that reflects an older history, for Britain, up to 1904, was the dominant European power in Morocco until it abandoned its interests there as part of the Entente Cordiale.  It reflects, too, the role of the British school of anthropology, which engaged with rural Morocco in the 1960s and 1970s before giving way to French structuralism.  It’s a tradition that, after our visit, we now seek to revive!