Joujouka comes into the 21st Century

By Frank Rynne


In my first Paris report for The Handstand I commented on the nightly police harassment of black and French North Africans on the street outside my building. Since then there has been the "Revolution" in the suburbs. During the "burnings", the city centre at night was slowly deserted by both the police and the suburbs kids. I have been away in Ireland and Morocco for nearly five weeks but it is striking that what used to be daily occurrences, constant I.D. checks on the streets, seem to have been curtailed in this area. I am not sure what the state of emergency means for the suburban youth but the cops seem to have been ordered to "cool down their pace".


Morocco has experienced changes too. In Tangier there is a new army of parking wardens supervising the streets. Traditionally cars were guided into parking spaces and watched over by licensed guardians who worked for tips. They are still there wearing their little brass license badges with pride but ticket dispensing machines and wardens in blue coats are also guarding the streets and clamping cars. Police in jeeps tow away vehicles and motor bikes with vigor.


One day I took a photo of the Grand Socco and almost wiped it from my camera as I thought I can get that shot anytime. The next day the whole square had been torn up. Gangs of workers were busy digging and repaving. They wore construction site helmets and had contractor's logos on their jackets. This is all new stuff for Morocco. It is little things like these that indicate there are rapid changes happening in the corner of Africa closest to Europe .


The city is still experiencing a huge building boom. High rise apartment blocks seem to be racing towards the hills. These new suburbs are desperate-looking areas without soul. In Tangiers I spent most of my time with Boualem, the late Mohamed Hamri's brother. Boualem spends his days in a cafe watching the Socco Grande and avoiding the mad hustle of the Tangier medina. Al Jezzera broadcasts the latest from the Saddam trial and US casualties to a gang of rapt old kif smokers. One day the channel was covering the secret prisons in Eastern Europe and U.S. "rendition" of prisoners when they cut to a map of sites used by the C.I.A. As they listed the sites used for this human trafficking they mentioned Shannon Airport in Ireland. It is very sad to see the loss of our neutrality as global news.


After a few days in Tangier I headed south to Ksar El Kebir. This is the nearest town to the village of Joujouka. Tangier's brand new train station is situated in a very inconvenient part of the city. The old station was beside the ferry port. This allowed people to walk from ship to train, escaping Tangier without spending any money or being assailed too much by the city's notorious hustlers. The new station is devoid of hustlers but needs to be reached by taxi. Ksar El Kebir has changed very little. It is like a Wild West frontier town. In the market called Souk Sebta, I buy two kilos of prime lamb, mint for the musician's tea, and milk for my own. I took a small taxi to the Barrio where Mohamed a taxi controller puts me into a Tatoft bound Mercedes.


Tuesday is the day of the Tatoft souk. Tatoft is a tiny administrative outpost about five kilometres from Joujouka. It has a series of buildings for the police and local administrators, a secondary school and a huge open square where the weekly market is held. This market allows the mountain people to buy and sell their goods as well as pick up essentials from further afield.  Sardines are sold by the ton. Oranges, plastic floor mats from China, beans, chickens, sheep, goats, and clothes are all traded. I had called Abdullah, one of the Joujouka musicians, and asked him to meet me at one o'clock. However, on arrival at the souk there was no sign of him or any of the musicians. I sat on the terrace of the only cafe and drank coffee, observing the bustle of the souk while looking out for familiar faces. At the next table six local gendarmes were taking endless statements and sorting out people's documents and paperwork.


After coffee I hoisted my bags onto my shoulder and walked around the stalls until a huge boy of about eighteen approached me. It turned out he was a cousin of Hamri's who I knew when he was only a child. He wanted to take me directly to the village but I wanted to check in with the local Caid. The Caid is both a judge and the local administrator. He is very supportive of the musicians of Joujouka. On this Tuesday he was being visited by the Caid from the next district. The two Caids joked that Joujouka needs a gte (hotel). In the past month the village had been visited by two Japanese, an American and an Englishman.


The road to Joujouka used to be pitted with huge holes and was often impassable to vehicles. Now the worst sections have been paved. However the most striking change is the electricity poles and wires that snake up the mountain. At the top of the hill outside the mosque I spot Ahmed Attar and get the taxi to stop. Soon other musicians join us. Abdullah said he hadn't waited for me as he knew I would be coming in any case.

Up the hill just beyond the sanctuary of Sidi Achmed Sheich; the ninth century Sufi missionary who brought Islam to Joujouka, stands the most shocking of changes. A 50 metre high mobile phone mast now dominates the top end of the village.


I decide to stay with Mohamed El Attar just behind the sanctuary. Soon the front room fills up with musicians. The meat is being cooked and we discuss what has happened since my last visit. The conversation often turns to electricity and mobile phones. The electrification of the village was a by-product of Maroc Telecom's building the mobile phone mast. Nearly every family now has a mobile phone and all the houses have electric lighting. Some people have stereos, TVs and DVD players.   However, soon instruments are produced and the musicians play until the early hours of the morning.


Every night I visited a different   house and the musicians gathered there for a meal and to play their Sufi trance music. The younger generation wants to watch DVDs of Moroccan pop music. In one home everyone was watching The Godfather Part II on TV. Joujouka has come from the nineteenth century into the twenty-first in about three years. The music is still being played and some families still weave wool.   Plowing is still done using ploughs whose design is unchanged since medieval times. However, a technological revolution has also hit the mountains. It is hard to know how this will affect the ancient traditions that still survive, such as the annual festival of Boujeloud which is reminiscent of the ancient Rites of Pan.

In the daytime, trucks drive up and down the mountain carrying road workers and cement. Passable roads are being built deep into the range. For the first time in history these inaccessible hills are being opened up. Kif (marijuana) is no longer being grown in the area. The hashish business that spread in these hills in the 198Os is being reined in. The trade always had a corrupting influence. Whereas its passing may be no bad thing, there seems to be no alternative employment for the people who depended on it.


It remains to be seen how long some of these changes will last, mud slides and floods might destroy the new roads as they previously destroyed the old paths. However the mobile mast and electricity are there to stay. The mountain culture of artisan crafts and music is dependant on the resilience of the people and their ability to make a living from their traditional way of life.


In Joujouka the musicians still play everyday.


Frank Rynne works for The Master Musicians of Joujouka and is a post-graduate research student in history at Trinity College, Dublin. History Ireland has just published an article by him on Fenian source material for the mid-1860s.