Rumor Has it: Neighborhood Revolts And Self-Construction In Morocco




Everything returned to normal, but it happened like a paradigm shift. The Inner City fell apart, its defense against the Margins broken.

Patrick Chamoiseau, Texaco (1992).

The history of cities is rarely told backwards. Usually, the story follows a familiar trajectory in which cities are born to a series of great ideas: robust theories imagined by architects, carried out by planners, and impressively orchestrated by a political mastermind. These histories are full of lies that contort reality to fit into convenient grand-scale narratives. In truth, however, a city’s history, is quite the opposite from these broad abstractions. Inverting the way we tell the history of cities is to acknowledge all that is directly before our eyes but have been deemed insignificant because they are not consistent with prevailing theories. After all, it is all of these seemingly meaningless odds and ends — bricks, barracks, street vendor carts, and open-air markets — that construct the everyday life of our cities. The underside of city spaces, or counter spaces, such as squats, slums, encampments and even street vendors, are not exceptions to or symptoms of disorder, but rather formulate a different order — an order constituted by spaces of resistance which have been excluded from official history.

L'apparition D'un Lointain Si Proche / So Far Away, Yet So Close (Maroc 2009 2016)

In Morocco, like many other places, theories of history prevail. Casablanca, as the story goes, was built by the charming French colonial architect Henri Prost (a man, who, in reality, was a pioneer of segregationist urban planning). Afterwards, King Hassan II controlled Casablanca with his iron fist before King Mohammed VI steered the city down the road to modernity. This well-polished story glosses over the countless struggles of working class neighborhoods that undermined the colonial project and its modernist implementations post-independence as upheld by the national elite. Even though tracing the threads of colonial power always provides great historical perspective, this article does not reach that far into history. Instead, I linger on the post-2011 period and the particularity of its hidden realities and revolutionary potentials. While the invisible revolution of self-construction shook the entire country for an entire year, there remains an enormous silence about it — a willful silence for some and for others, one born of ignorance.

A Rumor as Point of Departure to Self-Construction ///

Any mention of the so-called “Arab Spring” of 2011 might bring to mind the inescapably famous images of thousands upon thousands of protesters chanting “Get Out!” for the removal of people in power. While countries such as Tunisia and Egypt manifested revolutions, other places such as Morocco saw “peaceful transitions.” Setting up a transitional model served to showcase Morocco’s crisis management abilities to international institutions of governance and power. The “democratization” of the country operated from the top down: constitutional changes lead to the first free elections which elected the main opposition party into power — the PJD (The Justice and Development Party). Behind this “democratic” facade, however, a concealed phenomenon remained unnoticed to most observers, despite having profoundly transformed the urban landscape — the explosion of the el ‘achwai, or the surge in urban informality, largely in the form of illegal construction and proliferation of street vendors.

Quartier Informel De Bir Jdid, Casablanca

Early in 2012, a rumor began to circulate. The rumor proclaimed that “el bni tatlak,” which means that all construction had become freely unrestricted. Launched the day after the PJD victory in the legislative elections of November 25, 2011, the rumor alleged that authorization was no longer needed to build or even subdivide pieces of land. Over the next few months, Morocco witnessed such an immense proliferation of bni el ‘achwai (self-construction) that entire neighborhoods were built without respect for urban planning on land that was considered unbuildable on the city outskirts. The rumor, el bni tatlak travelled with palpable effectiveness throughout Morocco. In the South, and especially in the Greater Agadir region, it is estimated that more than 5,000 housing units were self-built during 2012. A taxi driver I met in April 2012 supported this view, stating that the city’s periphery was growing at a vertiginous speed, exclaiming that “a new Agadir is being built.” For him, and everyone else I spoke to, there was no denying that, at that moment in Morocco, anyone who wanted to could defy urban planning standards and build a house.

Building Douar Lota, an Autonomous Neighborhood ///

El bni tatlak spread across the country like wildfire, eventually reaching the small town of Bir Jdid and, in particular, the Douar Lota. Perched and semi-hidden on higher ground, the Douar Lota absorbs the city’s periphery and pours out onto the other side of the hill, which leads to the highway that connects Bir Jdid to two major cities: Casablanca, located 50 kilometers to the north, and El Jadida, located 50 kilometers to the south. Administratively attached to the rural commune of Laghdira, Douar Lota is one of the poorest and most marginalized douars in the commune. Neither formal district nor douar (village), the dwellings of Douar Lota draw a porous border between the urban commune of Bir Jdid and its neighboring countryside. This area is originally the site of an unfinished urban project that consisted of 100 unauthorized buildings and had hardly expanded since the end of the 1990s. But at the end of 2011, the rumor spread word that the King himself authorized self-construction. Over the span of nine months, the Douar Lota grew from roughly 100 to about 1,000 houses.

Quartier Informel De Bir Jdid, Casablanca

The el bni jdid, or new buildings, differed from those before them in approach and structure. Strong with conviction and equipped with the rumor, people constructed these buildings in broad daylight as if they were legally permissible. The more el bni jdid spread, the more the phenomenon concretized. The effect of the rumor became literally materialized in concrete walls. As the old houses were cemented together, bricks piled up around new constructions. Renovations removed the tin roofs, adorned buildings with iron rods, put window frames into the walls and placed wooden doors in the entrances. Concrete, a sign of modernity and the progression towards a city par excellence, appeared more and more. The construction moved quickly, each new settlement attracted the next, as the rumor circulated like the wind. Every day, word reached more people excluded from the city and soon, it was widely known that on the banks of Bir Jdid, Douar Lota, there was room. The inhabitants made it known wherever they could, starting with their relatives and reaching out to those at work and friends over the phone, attracting people with the prospect that they could all better support each other by living in proximity. Those at the Douar Lota felt strong. Newcomers came from all over Morocco, people from the countryside arrived with city dreams in the hopes to find work, and city people came to seek countryside comfort. By and large, however, Douar Lota was set up by a network of family and friends.

Use of Violence to Advance a Cause ///

As soon as the first rumors of bni tatlak permeated the neighborhood, hope surmounted fear. The inhabitants truly believed for a short period of time that the state had taken measures to ensure that “the poorest people could have access to private property,” as the son of the grocer told me. This young man recounted how he had followed the news of the uprisings in Morocco and in the Arab world, and hoped that we were entering a “new era.” The rumor and its broad reach provided hope to inhabitants, instilling the strength to embark on a collective impetus of self-construction: “essentially, we doubted that we actually had the right to build, but it did not matter because we felt strong and unafraid.”

The rumored right to build had taken shape at the same time as their political existence materialized. For four months, the inhabitants built at an uninterrupted pace and out in the open, with nothing to hide and without corruption. During this period, feelings of hope and fear worked in hand with the process of political reconfiguration. These two emotions became the main leitmotifs of a situation where the unexpected became possible. Hope supplied the necessary force for the inhabitants to resist state violence, and was put to use when the police implemented barriers to prevent the transport of building material to the neighborhood one morning in April. As recounted by an inhabitant, “we gathered as soon as we were alerted that the materials had been blocked and, at a moment’s notice, we all gathered anything we had at our disposal — sticks, stones, knives, and picks — to raise the barricades.” First the men, then the women came in. “We were taken by an incredible momentum, I had never experienced that before. At that moment, we were ready for anything.”

Quartier Informel De Bir Jdid, Casablanca

The riotous outbreak against the attempted police invasion of the neighborhood was the first open and explicit collective action the neighborhood directed against those in power. This event marked the initiation of the community’s foundational interests in preparedness to organize itself and defend its rights. Until then, the collective impetus for self-construction had been carried out on an individual scale. But the violent nature and intensity of the action swiftly launched the inhabitants of the Douar Lota to turn to a collective movement, merging each the formation of a new collective social body in protest. It is important to note that the collective consciousness of the inhabitants of the Douar Lota was far from homogeneous. The neighborhood was divided between those who has been original inhabitants of the Douar, including landowners, and the informal buyers. The socio-economic conditions and diverging interests of these two categories contributed to ruptures in the neighborhood, manifesting in the original inhabitants maintaining a predominance over their “buyers” to whom they provided drinking water. In addition, with the increased construction of el bni jdid, an entirely new category of inhabitants entered the neighborhood from both urban and remote rural areas. The former relatively homogeneity of the neighborhood had been broken down, creating a new diversity, both ethnic and social. Despite this heterogeneity, overarching economic and political conditions united the inhabitants against political representation at the local level.

During the first few months of 2012, a “revolutionary mentality” crystallized. The diffusion of revolutionary images of comrades weakening centralized power during the events of 2011 emboldened inhabitants of Douar Lota to defend their self-built community. Even though the inhabitants clearly knew they were breaking state legislation, they continued to use the basis of a rumor as tool of struggle to create the right to housing for all. At the same time, fear accompanied hope: Will the houses be destroyed? Will the right to build be achieved? Is there any guarantee?

In intimate discussions between residents, this revolutionary mentality was palpable. Between locals, conversations often lead to discussions of thawra (revolution) to describe what would happen if the local authorities came to want to destroy the neighborhood: “if they destroy this place, it will be like Libya.” The introduction of the term “revolution” took form throughout 2012, posing a rupture in the relationship to politics. The inhabitants became masters of their political destiny which included the defense of their neighborhood from all destructive threats and to ensure the maintenance of each of the self-built houses during the first months of 2012.

The Impossible Right: Logics of Exclusion and the Mechanisms of Security ///

It was no longer possible to build new settlements in the area by the end of 2012. Following the el bni tatlak, the rumor changed. The replacement, el bni tzayer, literally means “the construction has tightened” and signaled the end of an era of self-construction. In April 2013, construction sites were blocked from those who wanted to build, and those who continued by moonlight were faced with the risk of demolition in the morning. With the new context, came new rules and restrictions became stricter. Only those who had started their construction in early 2012 were allowed to renovate. Even so, the momentum of settled inhabitants and new populations persisted. With residual neighborhood enthusiasm from the preceding year around issues of improving the living conditions, the idea of creating an organization took root — “Jam’ia.”

Quartier Informel Casablanca / Pour Le Monde

In 2013, in Douar Lota, the authorities doubled down on efforts to depoliticize the neighborhood, and residents responded by implementing traditional forms of mobilization. “Jam’ia” (the association) became a magic word, passing between the lips of inhabitants to materialize even the wildest dreams — access to running water and electricity, a dumpster, a drainage system, a football club, literacy courses, cultural activities. While everyone agreed that it was time for the neighborhood to have a jam’ia, many of the ancient inhabitants barely knew what it meant to have an organization. Most had difficulty using the word, and often confused it with “el jama’a” — which means “the commune” — a beautiful metaphor, indeed.

The “democratic advances” of 2011 offered hope that local affairs could be managed by entering into politics by way of an organization. But for people used to taking to the streets by night, rising up in broad daylight was not so simple. Learning to publicly speak about rights proved difficult for the specialists in revolting in the shadows. In the light of day, they were like fish out of water and found themselves without support. By 2013, the overall political context had changed — the central government regained its footing, the protest movement of 2011 went underground, and local government tightened down on the clandestine housing. Authorities and policies of the city of Bir Jdid put in place a series of measures aimed to exclude the inhabitants of the illegal quarters of Douar Lota. They were monitored, punished, and made an example of — actions designed to demonstrate that the state had gained control.

The informal took to its usual place, relegated to the realm of warranting restraint and security. As the state regained control, it took form in ways that were different than the more tolerant pre-2011 environment. The days of the post-democratic transition of the 2000s — a period of loose management and disinterestedness in presiding over clandestine housing — were over.

Authorities no longer consulted with residents or discussed access to basic rights and services Internal memorandums circulate between municipalities. In Bir Jdid, the mayor was ordered to not take steps to improve the conditions of the self-built communities, making renovation impossible. By leaving people in misery, his hope was to dissuade new settlements from being created in the future. All discussion of human rights remained in the realm of major publicity campaigns, evidenced by the fact that the inhabitants of “bni jdid” still did have the right to be registered in their commune in 2013 and therefore they were obstructed from obtaining any administrative papers.

Children whose parents had come from elsewhere and who were preparing for their baccalaureate were deterred from completing because they were not allowed to sit for the exam at the city high school. Many inhabitants resorted to corruption
and begging just to get the local authorities to provide them with housing certificates, which, even then, were systematically refused. Children born in the neighborhood could not register in the municipal registry and parents had request
relatives to provide proof of residence elsewhere just be able to provide a civil status to their kids.

Quartier Informel De Bir Jdid, Casablanca

To punish them for their rebellion, the state has systematically relegated the insurgents of 2012 to the status of people without cities and without citizenship. The disastrous two-classroom neighborhood school became overcrowded and ill-equipped to serve an exploding population. In efforts to provide a better future for their children by escaping the fate of the neighborhood school, many parents tried to enroll their children in school in town. But Bir Jdid’s school refused to enroll children of Douar Lota, forcing all residents of the neighborhood to retreat their neighborhood school. By playing upon the fragility of an already vulnerable population, the authorities continuously divided and removed their most basic rights.

In this way, el jam’ia created its own niche. Like a house in the neighborhood, it is born at night, breaks down by day, is reborn from its ashes, becomes abandoned, and then is born again. The path to improve living conditions, as set out on by the inhabitants, leads the way for future political action. The state, in its strength and weakness, and the inhabitants who make it up, are subjected to the aftermath of the uprisings of 2011.

Tools and Strategies of the Marginalized ///

The emergence of the rumor el bni tataq appeared in a particular political context, during a reconfiguration of the political system defined by the destabilization of central power. History has repeatedly shown that moments of political disturbance are fertile ground for the birth and rampant spread of rumors. Employed by marginalized groups, rumors use the power of language to coerce authorities without recourse to the law. In this context, the use of the rumor el bni tatlaq in Morocco served as a tool to legitimize the formulation of a new political demand on the part of the inhabitants: el haq fi sakan (the right to housing). The formulation of this claim reconfigured a series of political relations within marginalized spaces such as the shift in relations with the police, use of violence, expression of demands, etc. Therefore, taking seriously the use of rumors by marginalized groups allows us to reverse standards of acceptability and bring a fresh look to the underground struggles that shape our cities. Paying particular attention to the underground (or inverted) modalities of urban construction leads to a counter-history, both urban and political, which often contradicts and serves as a possible counterpoise to the unequivocal character of official histories.