When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.


The Clandestine Slums That Changed The Face Of Modern Morocco

A shantytown in Casablanca
A shantytown in Casablanca
Florence Aubenas

BIR JDID - The family dream was to move to a slum in Casablanca. Shantytowns are no longer as bad as they used to be, says the mother: "Everything there is well-planned nowadays."

She proudly lists out all the advantages of living there: "Electricity, sewage, waste collection, humanitarian organizations and even a mailman." Every big city has slums; they are close to work and transportation. And when a slum is demolished, "there are official relocating programs." She stops and sighs: "We could not afford to live in the slum."

The mother works as a maid. She has three children. Her husband, straightening his moustache with his finger, does odd jobs in the construction industry: "We are like everybody else: we have the right to have a roof above our heads and a fridge."

So they built a house right here, where housing is twice as cheap as in the slums and seven times cheaper than in regular neighborhoods.

Welcome to Bir Jdid, an "illegal block" or clando as they say in Morocco – where a piece of land costs nothing, where there are no construction permits, no urban planning. Overnight, people secretly bring in cinder blocks, which they top with sheet metal. It takes them all night, but they have to be done by sunset, so that authorities can’t stop them.

These past 10 years, clando neighborhoods like these have grown all over the country. Officials call them "the Kingdom's new plague,” adding that "We were almost done with shantytowns but now these new kinds of illegal housing are sprouting elsewhere." Officials have ordered every new shed to be demolished, which has slowed down the phenomenon.

A year ago, an unfounded rumor shook the clandos. People were saying that the Kingdom had announced that it was now legal to build these neighborhoods. At the time, in this particular region of the world, it was the kind of story that could lead to an "Arab Spring."

The clando we're in stands at the very end of a dirt track. Tiny houses are lined up on the rugged hillside. At the very top of the hill, not far from where a local resident sells water in plastic bottles, you can just make out the paved road, and the first buildings of Bir Jdid, a peaceful country village. Fifty kilometers from here, the city of Casablanca seems incredibly far away.

Almost everybody in the clando had done their best to keep away from the Arab Spring – known in Morocco as the "February 20 movement"– when it first started in early 2011. Politics? Here the word is used as cautiously as nitroglycerin. "Anyway, there were no demonstrations in the region and I have never had the honor to be introduced to those people. They have college degrees. We are the underclass," explains a farm laborer, that everybody considers a wise man.

The wise man welcomes us in his home comprised of two rooms, the floor of which is covered in colorful plastic mats, sheepskins and terry-towels decorated with cartoon characters. The lady of the house seats her guests in a way that they won't get wet from the drops of water falling from the ceiling. She said she saw the Feb. 20 protests on TV but did not understand what the protesters' demands were. Sometimes, a neighbor comes in. People are quiet, by force of habit. In the closed world of the clando, everyone knows each other. But in Morocco, can one really know who is a police informant and who is not?

“If I want to burn down your house, I can”

The neighborhood consists of six streets. They are less than two meters wide and in the middle of them runs a drain full of waste water. A middle-aged woman hangs out the washing in the heavy rain. She was one of the first to settle there. One day, a representative of the local authorities came to her front door. He told her: "Between you and me, there is only this lighter. If I want to burn down your house, I can."

She wanted to grab his neck and strangle him. Yet she could not. Head down, she begged: "Have mercy, we have rights." He screamed back at her: "You built here without a permit, what rights are you talking about?" From time to time she has to pay: "Here, you need a special budget for bribes, to avoid your house being demolished."

She sends her son to do the grocery shopping – six olives, nothing more. The grocery store looks like a tiny doll shop where everything is sold separately, by the piece: one diaper, a quarter of soap, a handful of pasta. "People here have odd jobs, they do not starve" says the shop owner. "But once they have finished a meal, they wonder how they'll be able to afford the next one."

In order to appease the Feb. 20 protest movement the government decided to organize a referendum on the constitution and parliamentary elections. On the hill, everybody voted. "We didn’t vote for a party," explains a woman who works in a flour factory, "we voted for electricity."

There was a rumor that the authorities would finally give electricity to the neighborhood if everyone voted. The woman points to the single light bulb dangling from the ceiling, struggling to light the room. "At least we got electricity right after the election results were announced." 

That is precisely when, in Dec. 2011, the rumor of clandos being officially legalized started spreading. Some claimed that they heard Abdelilah Benkirane, who had just been appointed prime minister, say it on television after his Justice and Development Party (PJD, conservative and Islamist) won the elections. Others said it was King Mohamed VI himself.

More likely, nobody said anything. "Was it a way to buy social peace while the Arab world surrounding us was growing restless? We will never know," says a prominent local resident. It does not matter in the end. The rumor spread across Morocco like a tsunami, from Oujda to Agadir, creating much excitement around the illegal clandos. As soon as the news broke out, people went out into the streets and talked of nothing else, totally ignoring the election results.

In Bir Jdid, the first truck arrived at noon, by the main road, loaded with tools and building materials. In front of the bewildered crowd, a group of men started building up walls, very peacefully, out in the open. "These men drew their courage from each other and that’s how things got started," recalls a clerk from a computer store. "This time, the revolution was finally happening, the real one, our revolution. That’s what human rights are about, right?"

At the Bir Jdid market, women started selling their blankets and pots to buy building materials. Families rushed from all over the place in search of the last plots to build on. "Local authorities finally showed up, saying that building was not allowed, asking for ID papers," explains Soraya el-Kalahoui, a young French-Moroccan sociologist writing a thesis about the neighborhood. "People showed their IDs without looking at the authorities and kept digging with their pickaxes. For the first time, fear had changed sides."

Over a four-month period, the neighborhood went from nearly 100 houses to 700. The whole country turned into a gigantic construction site, micro-credit firms were stormed, and the price of construction material boomed. The illegal neighborhoods gave themselves war names: "Resistance," "Chechen," "Built by force" or "Guts."

“We are ready to die for this”

One morning in April 2012, about 20 soldiers showed up at the bottom of the hill, behind Bir Jdid. They built a roadblock near a square of grass that people called the football field. Trucks were stopped one by one. Residents started arriving, running down the hill. They threw stones at the soldiers – everyone did, even women and old people. "This is going to be Libya," screamed one of them. "It cost me everything, I had to take out a loan and now you want to destroy my property?"

He pointed to the yellow wall of a shed with holes he would only be able to fill when he had enough money to buy windows. Another man grabbed his daughter – she must have been two or three years old – and waved a can of petrol. He said he would sacrifice her as a martyr on the spot, like in Tunisia. "We felt strong. We were thinking: We are ready to die for this."

And then, something that no one had expected happened. The soldiers backed down. Similar riots took place near Tangier and Agadir. Some even stored petrol cans and sticks, just in case.

Relations with the authorities have improved since then, says a clerk. "Sometimes, the authorities even look us in the eyes. One even smiled at me once. These are small things but they matter." The other day, when she requested a legal document, she got it "straight away, without paying a bribe." Then, she realized she also wanted running water and waste collection. And a proper sewage system. So her husband created an association. Soon, about 30 people, some wearing Nike baseball caps, others in traditional garb, were meeting by the well. Why not send a delegation to town? First they said they would not appoint an illiterate delegate, but then they gave up. This would eliminate 80% of the candidates.

"We can't go there with a cart pulled by a donkey," said a boy. People started to look for cars and then a representative of the caid (the local Prefect) showed up.

Police informants from the neighborhood had reported that there was something going on. The man was holding a piece of paper in his hands. He was shaking. Since the Arab revolution, the State has weakened, is the most recent common complaint to the interior ministry.

"Especially in these troubled neighborhoods, where a single spark can light a fire. It has become State business," explains a top-rank official. They remind him of France's troubled city outskirts, which blew up in 2005. He just read an article about them where youths attacked the police.

 Facing the crowd, the caid’s representative can hardly talk. Nobody moves in front of him. Should they be afraid? If so, afraid of what? Everyone is shaking. "This is today's Morocco," says a man. It starts to rain again.

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

Deadly Strikes On Kyiv, Nine Killed In Israel West Bank Raid, Trump’s Meta Comeback

Meta has announced that it will allow former U.S. President Donald Trump back on Facebook and Instagram. Trump had been banned from the social media platforms for two years after the 2021 Capitol riots.

Emma Albright & Ginevra Falciani

👋 ආයුබෝවන්*

Welcome to Thursday, where Kyiv is facing a new barrage of Russian missiles, Israel troops kill nine Palestinians in Jenin, and Donald Trump is allowed back on Facebook and Instagram. Meanwhile, Niccolò Zancan and Giuseppe Legato in Italian daily La Stampa take us to Campobello di Mazara, the quiet Sicilian village where Italy's most-wanted fugitive Matteo Messina Denaro was hiding in plain sight.

[*Ayubōvan - Sinhala, Sri Lanka]

Keep reading...Show less

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

The latest