Excuse me, that's private. / by George Bajalia

Privacy has many meanings here in Morocco. In the early weeks of my grant, while I was studying Darija, one of the first phrases we learned was essentially “excuse me, that’s private [information].” The exact phrase has long since departed my memory, but other ways to say the same thing have since come up. It’s not a phrase that I often say, and when I do, it doesn’t seem to quite register with my conversant. This past week, I moved into a new house. Asked by a spice seller in the central market what I was paying for my new house, I replied, “Hey man, that’s private, right?” In response, he started listing off prices I could be paying, in French and English, thinking I perhaps hadn’t understood his question. I told him what I was paying.

Living in the Fez medina, private had another meaning. For tourists, or foreigners in general, it often meant something closer to “closed.” Wandering the streets of the medina, I offered heard young men calling out “excuse me, excuse me, fermé, fermé”. This street is closed, this street is closed. Most times, the street was not closed. The schoolchildren following the young men repeating “fermé, fermé” eventually trailed off after it was clear I knew where I was going. In some cases, this was simply an attempt to solicit money from tourists who think that they are heading down a closed street. Other times, it’s meant to inform the pedestrians that this is a residential street, not one of the tourist-ridden throughways. 

In the home, privacy has another meaning. One of the defining features in Moroccan medina architecture, in my opinion, is the construction of the home for ultimate privacy. Windows are aimed outwards, at the street, but inwards, towards the other members of the family. Room doors are a newer insertion into the home, and often the most trafficked rooms of the house are covered simply by a curtain or by nothing at all. From the outside, Medina homes don’t seem like much. Small, slit-like windows pepper the walls, and heavy doors block the interior from view, even when opened. On the inside, however, rooms are located off a central courtyard, traditionally, and roofs are open to the air (though these days they are often covered by tarps and glass). Privacy in the home is a completely different affair.

These days, though, private has taken on a separate, more specifically economic, connotation. As Laila Lalami recently wrote for Newsweek (http://goo.gl/DOu02), Morocco is becoming an increasingly privatized country, from the power company to the garbage collection agency, “a French corporation that evidently didn’t have enough bins or enough employees to keep the streets clean.” In Morocco, the more power you use, the higher rate you pay. That is, it’s a sliding charge scale, all depending on your level of power usage. In its origin, this regulation was perhaps meant to encourage less power usage, and to solicit more money from more well off electricity users, who wouldn’t feel the need to change their habits. It’s a problematic regulation, though. Electricity is not a luxury good. It’s an essential part of daily life.

And the people are feeling the pressure of rising bills. Near the Mediterranean city of Al Hoceima, a man was recently arrested for raising the Israeli flag above his home. His crime was not related to his religious views, though. By all reports, he is a mosque-going Muslim. The flag was an act of protest. The power company had cut off his power due to lingering debt on unpaid bills, and he was likening Morocco’s utility policies to that of Israel towards to the Palestinians. Implicit in his protest, and explicit in the news coverage of it, was the statement that the power company was discriminating against members of the Amazight minority, a majority in the Rif area around Al Hoceima. 

Some weeks ago, Moroccan news agencies started reporting that the national telecom, Maroc Telecom, was limiting bandwidth for VoIP programs, such as Skype or Google Voice. Something funny was clearly going on, and still is. When I arrived in Rabat this past September, none of the Fulbrighters could seem to use Skype, at all. Once I moved to Fez, I was able to use Skype but it was extremely limited. In part, this was due to the nature of the medina. Thick walls and no space for telephone poles or cabling don’t make it easy to have a high-speed connection. Here in Tangier, my service improved but there are still lingering issues. According to the press, Maroc Telecom, owned by the French company Vivendi, has been reducing bandwidth for users of VoIP programs like Skype in order to encourage use of their own softwares (http://goo.gl/i24JX). My own bandwidth seems to have stabilized, but this is a story that has clearly yet to finish.  

In fact, none of these stories have an ending yet. Protests are ongoing in Al Hoceima, and spreading to other cities. Discontent with utility prices is widespread, and just might be what the February 20th movement needs to jumpstart their support. The intricacies of privacy in Morocco make its future hard to forecast, as if it were an easy task with any country. When does an issue stop becoming a private, personal issue and move into the public sphere? Privacy is centered around the home, yes, but as homes are becoming increasingly privatized themselves, perhaps the distinction between the public and private sphere is blurring into an osmotic zone. In this zone, whoever yells the loudest just might win.