Sunday, December 13, 2009

moroccan memories in britain

Britain’s Moroccans share their memories with 'Masaraat'
Susannah Tarbush

The strong Moroccan presence in the North Kensington area of West London is revealed by a stroll along Golborne Road, which runs at right angles to the famous Portobello Road. Among the businesses lining the street are the Moroccan Tagine restaurant, Le Marrakech butcher, Le Maroc grocery, the Moroccan Fish fishmonger, a shop named Fez selling Moroccan artifacts, and a street stall laden with Moroccan foods.

The Trellick Tower block is home to the Al-Hasaniya Moroccan Women’s Project – the only center of its kind in Britain, catering for the needs of Moroccan and other Arabic-speaking women. The street also hosts the Kensington Mosque Trust, while the Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre is located in a nearby street.

A few minutes’ walk from Golborne Road, along Portobello Road, is a street stall where young Moroccan entrepreneur Saida Boukabchaba [pictured top] sells bottles of Moroccan argan oil and other natural beauty products. Boukabchaba is the director and owner of the Argan Oil Tree Company which markets the oil as a natural anti-ager.

Some estimates put the number of Moroccans in Britain as high as 70,000. They have settled not only in London, but in places such as Trowbridge in the south west of England, the town of St Albans some 35 kilometers north of London and the Scottish capital of Edinburgh.

As a tribute to North Kensington’s Moroccan community, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea included several Moroccan-related events in its current three-month ‘Across the Street, Around the World’ festival.

The events included a recent screening at Kensington Town Hall Library of the touching and engrossing 47-minute documentary film “Masaraat: Life Journeys”. The film is an oral history of Britain’s Moroccan migrants. It was directed and produced by Saeed Taji Farouky [pictured below], a filmmaker of Palestinian and Egyptian parentage. He shared the camerawork with Gareth Keogh, cofounder with him of the prizewinning documentary production company Tourist with a Typewriter .

The film focuses on a wide spectrum of first and second generation Moroccans, mostly Arab or Berber, who tell of how they or their parents migrated to Britain, and describe their personal experiences.

The London-based Migrants and Refugee Communities Forum commissioned the film as part of its project ‘Moroccan Memories in Britain: an Oral and Visual History’. The festival screening was presented jointly by Farouky and by the coordinator of the Moroccan Memories project, Myriam Cherti [pictured], who has a PhD in migration studies from Sussex University.

The two-year project started in January 2007, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. There were six partners: Centre de la Culture Judeo-Marocaine, the British Library Sound Archives, Oral History Society, the Living Memory Association, History Talk and the Mass Observation Archive.

The project aimed to bridge the gap between past and post 1960 Moroccan migration to Britain through creating an oral and visual history archive collection. The presence of the Moroccan community goes back to at least to the 19th century. But the experiences of those arriving within the past 40 to 50 years had not previously been documented or recorded.

One of the project’s goals was to build an archive for the Moroccan community, and to make it accessible to the wider public. Another was to build and strengthen ties between the generations of Moroccans, and to provide a forum where the three generations could discuss their experiences.

Farouky says he wanted to make “Masaraat” for two reasons. The first was curiosity; given his background he is very familiar with Britain’s Palestinian and Egyptian communities, but he knew little about the Moroccans. “The Moroccan communities in the UK are very underrepresented.”

The second reason was that the questions he directed to the interviewees in the film were questions, as an Arab migrant himself, “I ask myself all the time”. When, for example, he asked a Moroccan whether he would go back to his ancestral country, he was in a way asking himself the same question.

The project included the collection by trained fieldworkers of some 120 interviews and life story recordings. The recordings were made in London, Crawley (near the south coast of England), St Albans, Trowbridge and Edinburgh.

The project material has been placed in the Sound Archives of the British Library and certain other locations. The attractive and user-friendly Moroccan Memories website is rich with information on the project, and includes excerpts from some of the life story recordings.

Cherti says the project found that Moroccans in Britain still have close links with their places of origin. For example the Moroccans of Trowbridge maintain close links with the city of Oujda, while the Moroccans of St Albans retain ties to Meknes. Such connections are “vibrant, even among the second generation.”

She notes that the third generation of migrants typically “tries to remember what the second generation was trying to forget”. It has a renewed interest in its forebears’ language and heritage and is in search of its identity.

The Moroccans interviewed in “Masaraat” include chef Mohammad Tadimi who arrived in Britain 20 years ago. He established a catering business, Exotic Tagine, in the Kingston upon Thames in south-west London. A Moroccan Jewish migrant, Sydney Assor, explains in the film the place of Jews in Moroccan society.

Mustapha Akoub, who has degrees in law from Morocco and from Glasgow University in Scotland, is an interpreter and teacher of Arabic. His lively young children speak English with a broad Scottish accent.
Also interviewed in Scotland were members of the Oussellam family, whose father Abdellatif and his wife migrated to Britain as teenagers. (One of their children, Bilal, has achieved fame as a prizewinning breakdancer in Scotland, performing under the name Ma’Roc in recognition of his origins.)

The Moroccan Memories project has a touring exhibition, which includes screenings of “Masaraat”. The exhibition travelled around the UK early this year, and went to Tangier, Rabat and Essaouira in September-November. “Masaraat” was also shown in Tangier in October as part of the city’s ‘Tanger Sans Frontieres’ festival.

Myriam said the project tries to create a space for dialogue, and “Masaraat” is very helpful in this. “We’ve screened this film across the UK and in Morocco and the debate has always been very interesting and fascinating, because everyone reads something different in it.”

The film is also of educational value. It has been screened at universities as part of modules on migration, and Cherti says “we would like to continue with this in secondary schools”. In addition, the project has produced a 94-page educational resource pack for schools, suitable as part of citizenship studies.
Saudi Gazette 7 December 2009

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