Home-Grown Alternatives to Terror and War

A Ben M’sik and Tangier Stories Exchange Project

The Prague-based first round of the Stories Exchange Project (www.stories-exchange.org) was about learning to live with cultural differences. The Project focused primarily on building better relations today among members of the Romani (Gypsy) minority and the Czech majority. Our work with leaders and members of the Czech Jewish community on their first-hand experience of the Holocaust was designed, developed, and explicitly presented as an effort to provide admonitory incentive for all citizens of a new post-Communist democracy to develop respect and tolerance for people of all backgrounds.

From the outset, Stories Exchange Project Morocco has been designed to enable Moroccans of diverse social and cultural backgrounds to learn about making better livings by voicing, celebrating and mobilizing differences: generational as well as cultural. We are beginning by engaging three – and in some cases four—generations of Moroccan men and women in collecting personal memories about relations between Moroccan Arab-Berber Muslims and Jews during World War II. Project participants will then work together to develop public presentations of these stories: adaptations of halqa, the traditional Moroccan form of participatory popular theater, which can engage audiences throughout the country in discussing the stories in terms of their own experience in the present.

Work-in-progress on these performance-discussions will be initially presented during January 2013 commemorations of the 70th anniversary of an influential conversation in Casablanca between Sultan Mohammed ben Youssef, the future Mohammed V, and President Franklin Roosevelt at a dinner on 22 January 1943 hosted by the President at his villa, Dar es Saada. This unofficial interlude in what was otherwise a war-planning conference is particularly noteworthy for us because it was animated by striking anticipations of our young Moroccan participants’ own developing ability to realize the immense, ultimately geopolitical potential of personal and collaborative initiatives: projects which are grounded in mutual respect for inherited differences.

It was on his own initiative and repeated insistence that F.D.R. hosted the Moroccan leader whose political authority at the time was exclusively symbolic, and the President worked out a seating arrangement with his naval aide which would allow him maximum opportunity to speak frankly with his guest of honor. The young Sultan had himself already given far more extensive demonstrations of personal initiative in negotiating the complex political situation of what was then French Morocco. He had made skillful and heroic efforts to ensure that – as his own deeply felt understanding of Islamic tradition demanded – Moroccan Jews would continue to be recognized as full-fledged citizens of Morocco by their fellow Moroccans as well as by the Vichy French government of the Protectorate. The American President knew of these efforts, and his special assistant and close friend Harry Hopkins would tell Grand Vizir el Mokhri on the following day, the Jewish Sabbath, that F.D.R. considered his guest of honor on that Friday evening as “a man of character and force… a great man.”

It was in the context of this respect for his guest that the President had proposed to Mohammed ben Youssef at table on 22 January a mutually beneficial postwar partnership between the United States and Morocco. He proposed engaging American technical experts in training farmers and entrepreneurs to develop the agricultural productivity of Morocco and to improve the lives of all its citizens. This would be done in the spirit of the New Deal with which he and his Administration had led the United States out of massive unemployment, social and political fragmentation, and widespread despair caused by the global Depression. According to Hassan II, who, at fourteen, had also been a guest on that Friday evening at Dar es Saada, this conversation helped galvanize his father’s sustained campaign for Moroccan independence, to be achieved thirteen years later.

During May 2012 in partnership with Ben M’sik Moroccan-American Studies Program and Community Museum at Hassan II University, Mohammedia, and the Tangier American Legation Institute for Moroccan Studies, Stories Exchange Project Morocco begins work on contemporary realizations of the still unfinished business projected on 22 January 1943. OBIE Award-winning playwright Robbie McCauley, Artistic Director of the first Prague round of the Project, will train young men and women in Casablanca and Tangier to collect, analyze, and develop their families’ and neighbors’ stories about interactions among Moroccan Muslims and Jews who were contemporaries of Mohammed V. She will also prepare them to present these stories for public presentation and discussion.

Further developed between May and January 2013, presentations of work- in-progress by the Ben M’sik and Tangier teams during the January commemorations of the crucial 1943 meeting in Casablanca will be documented for television and Internet dissemination. Along with more fully developed performance-discussions of the wartime and postwar experience of Morocco’s Arab-Berber and Jewish communities, these programs will demonstrate the capacity of members of non-privileged communities to improve the quality of their own lives. They will present – to the nation and the world – Morocco’s vibrant cultural diversity as a distinctive resource for community-based economic and social development. And they can serve as inspiring models for further development of home-grown, participatory, neighborhood-based projects: contemporary counterparts to the expert-driven technical partnerships in agriculture discussed 22 January 1943 by two extraordinary, personally motivated spiritual as well as political and social innovators.


13 April 2012


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