Dispatch from Figuig / by George Bajalia

Recently, I received a grant from the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events to pursue research and begin the writing of the new play I’m working on with F7ali F7alek producer Tom Casserly. Tom and I have started a new project, Borderline Theatre Project, to produce and develop new work through transnational artistic collaboration.

Borderline Theatre Project adapts classic stories from traditions across the world to speak to new cultural contexts, from canonical American tales to North African oral histories. By seeking out and spreading the seeds of these stories in a contemporary context, we move beyond existing cultural stereotypes to engage in meaningful conversation. By promoting genuine transnational collaboration, BTP re-imagines the traditional borders that form our nations and shares the new stories of our peoples.

Currently, we are developing The Magic Carpet, a story of a closed bored, open smuggling routes, and magic carpet. The carpet is not magic because it flies, or because it holds the key to an Arabian nights style fantasy, however, it’s magic because of the story it tells; a story of forbidden love. When bombs exploded in Marrakech, in April 1994 the Kingdom of Morocco closed the border with neighboring Algeria. The long-standing issue of Sahara territories, a conflict that dates back to the Spanish decolonization project of the 1970s, and Algeria’s alleged support of the “Polisario Independence Movement” culminated in the rapid militarization of the Moroccan-Algerian border. The border town of Oujda, the economic hub of north-west Morocco, went from being a well-to-do border town where Algerians came to purchase goods not available at home to a notorious smugglers’ den of cheap smuggled gasoline, human trafficking, and cut-rate Algerian cigarettes.

Our story begins deep in the heart of this den, where petrol fumes mix with burning rubbage and spicy Algerian harissa is poured over french fries like ketchup. It’s 2012 and the border between Morocco and Algeria has been closed for nearly 20 years. Khadija is leaning over a handloom when her niece, Yasmine, arrives and announces her intention to join a cross-country cycling trip that hopes to defy the closure. She wants to see her father’s country, though she harbors a secret ambition that she will find her father on the other side. Khadija asks the teenager to sit down and begins to tell her a story. It’s the story of love, and of tragic loss; it’s the story of her family…

We will be launching our project website very soon. Until then, I’ll be posting photos, videos, and thoughts about the piece. Right now, Tom and I are in Figuig, Morocco, right on the Algerian border. Tom flew into Casablanca on Saturday, and together we drove down to Errachidia, where we spent the night. Some 1000km after we started, we finally arrived in the desert oasis of Figuig. Along the way we met with weavers in Talsint, a village in the High Atlas Mountains. We took a couple of off-road turns, and after crossing a dried up oasis river dam, we found the highway to Figuig again. After some somewhat innocuous attempts to set up a grill near the border, we finally settled outside of the date palm oasis, on the edge of the Sahara.

Our goal this trip is to learn about the weaving process, and also about the cultural resonance between residents on either side of the Moroccan-Algerian border. The border was drawn up in the early 20th century by European colonialists, though it was rather porous until the wars of independence that followed World War II. In the 1990s, following a bomb explosion in Marrakech, the Moroccan government imposed visa restrictions and the Algerian government responded in kind. Today, the only way to cross is by plane from Casablanca to Oran, though on the ground it seems different. Military outposts are manned, but only few of them are actually patrolled.

Though our political concern the border, our cultural interest lies in the rug weavings in the region; an practice crucial the livlihood of many families here and an interesting confluence of global market pressures and local heritage. Today, for instance, many woman are using recycled materials from plastic packaging and linens from old coats to create new pieces with age old weaving techniques. Over the next week, we will be working with weavers all along the border, from Figuig to Oujda, to learn as much as we can about how these carpets are made, and the delicate balance of patrimony and economic persistence. Stay tuned for more updates!