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Morocco Week in Review 
March 19, 2016

Growing Trees to Mend Old Wounds
THE HANS INDIA Mar 19,2016 By:Emma Tobin 

 “You could tell when the Jewish boys came into town because they always looked scared.”I choked on my tea as these words were uttered by my Moroccan host father. I couldn’t understand how as a child he could have thrown stones at the Moroccan Jewish boys as they came into town. He laughed as he told me the story as if it was a favorite childhood memory of his while I stared dumbfounded at the well educated businessman who I had come to know as a teacher and father. He was quick to mention that it was a different world when he was a child and that things have changed with time. However, it struck a chord within me about the deep rooted prejudice between the two cultures and religions.

I had studied the conflict between the Muslims and Jews in school but I didn’t realize how much it impacted the people across nations. When you think of the conflict between Israel and Palestine you don’t think about the ripple of discord that goes across the entire world.

Morocco is a gateway between Europe and Africa and as a result, different ideas, cultures, and languages have influenced the country greatly. The discord that echoes throughout North Africa as a result of extremist groups and governments has so far passed by Morocco, where it remains relatively peaceful.  

Historically, there was a Jewish population in Morocco but it has dwindled over the years. As a result, ancient Jewish cemeteries are spread out across the country. Recently, initiatives have been started to recall and advance the unity of the Jewish and Muslim Moroccans.

For example, the Marrakech Jewish community has started to work with local Muslim communities to plant trees in the unused arable land connected to these cemeteries. It is as if the past and present are combining to create a better future for Moroccan farming families. An unlikely and unusual project is uniting two religions that are in other places supposed to be at war. Instead of destruction, they are creating life and prosperity.

Right outside of the small village of Akrich, lies the burial site of the 700 year old Hebrew Saint Raphael Hacohen. His burial site is surrounded by graves of other members of the Moroccan Jewish community and around these graves new life grows. Raphael Hacohen became a saint as a result of his healing miracles and his grave continues to be a place of healing to this day.

This sacred site brings Jewish pilgrims from around the world to Akrich and it fosters the growth of good relations through the High Atlas Foundation’s interfaith community tree project. The High Atlas Foundation (HAF) is a non-profit organization based in Marrakech whose main focus is to create sustainable prosperity throughout Morocco. HAF has projects in tree nurseries, community planning workshops, clean water initiatives, school infrastructure, and youth and women’s empowerment.

It is unusual to hear of projects that are attempting to bridge this tumultuous gap through tree planting, let alone planting trees beside Jewish cemeteries. However, the High Atlas Foundation saw the importance of bringing these two communities together. It is a rare situation where a nonprofit is led by an American Jew, Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir, who speaks fluent Moroccan Arabic and is committed to the betterment of Morocco and its peoples no matter their religion.

I was raised a Catholic, but while working with the High Atlas Foundation, I’ve been able to have interfaith discussions with both Muslims and Jews inside and outside of work. The opportunity to bridge these gaps myself and then to see this replicated on a larger and more global scale is impressive and revolutionary. This initiative is addressing real religious tensions in a country that has long tradition and history of Muslim and Jewish inhabitants and solidarity. Even as the population of Jews decreases in Morocco, there will always be a mark left by a people who lived here for 1,000 years through their texts and their left behind loved ones.

As the tree saplings grow, so does the trust and respect between the rural Muslims and the urbanized Jews. Morocco is attempting to overcome a deep rooted prejudice that has, and still does, impact people all over the world. Instead of rocks being thrown at each other, trees can be planted together to improve the environment and heal old wounds. Morocco is an example for other areas of the world where Muslims and Jews have lived side by side but in situations can become disparate and where hope, in more forms than one, awaits to be planted.

Morocco's Cautious Steps Toward Spring: The country has maintained stability, but observers worry about a regression on civil rights.
By Teresa Welsh | Staff Writer March 16, 2016

Tunisia has been heralded as the success story of the Arab Spring, but a different kind of cautious progress can be found in Morocco. The North African nation has seen slow but steady human rights reforms under its monarchy, escaping the destabilizing revolutions that have destroyed the likes of Libya and Syria.
The Arab Spring movements – a wave of protests and revolutions across the Arab world that began in December 2010 and had primarily faded in 2012 – were crushed violently in many countries. But Morocco responded differently.

The country has staked out a regional reputation for its stability and security, says Mbarka Bouadia, Morocco's deputy foreign minister. Inside the country, she says, "We used to say, 'it has been more an evolution rather than a revolution,' because we started reforms years ago."

Five years after the protests rocked the Middle East, many of Morocco's neighbors remain in chaos. Libya is ungoverned as warring militias vie for power. Protesters in Egypt succeeded in deposing President Hosni Mubarak, but are now under the repressive regime of Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, a former military officer. Yemen is home to a bitter proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain's Sunni monarchy continues to suppress protests by the Shiite majority. The most tragic aftermath of the Arab Spring is Syria, a country marking its fifth year of civil war Tuesday. The violence there – a tangle between government forces, opposition groups and terrorist organizations like the Islamic State group -- has led to an outflow of refugees to Europe in such great numbers it threatens the unity of the continent.

Morocco's evolution has not been without flaw: Some international organizations say the government's human-rights record is, at best, uneven. But unlike many of the countries that sought to depose decades-long dictators with demonstrations during the Arab Spring, Morocco's public widely supports the monarchy even as they call for a more open society. Bouadia says King Mohammed VI, who has been in power since 1999, reacted quickly after the first demonstrations took place in Morocco in 2011 by making a public speech announcing constitutional reform.
The king's speech came two weeks after the first demonstrations in 2011, Bouaida says, adding that public protests aren't unusual in Morocco. "It's very French. It's almost cultural."
Part of Morocco's "evolution" that came before the Arab Spring and the country's new constitution was the reform of the family code, which took place in 2004 at Mohammed's request. The new code was written "taking into consideration the spirit of our modern era and the imperatives of development, in accordance with the Kingdom's commitment to internationally recognized human rights," and improved the status of Moroccan women by making them equal to men in the eyes of the law, all but outlawing polygamy, raising the marriage age to 18 and allowing women the right to divorce.

But in the years since the Arab Spring, Bouaida admits, protests are perhaps fewer "... because we try to fix the problems and to be very direct with the population when it comes to tell them the reality, even if they don't like it."

Eric Goldstein, deputy director of Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch, notes that the public push for reform in Morocco has quieted in the years since the movement swept the region. "The king got out in front of that movement by saying, 'I hear you. We're going to revise the constitution,' and immediately there was a committee tasked with revising the constitution and the constitution was adopted in July of that year," he​​​ says of the Arab Spring aftermath in 2011.

But, like Bouaida, Goldstein says, "Over time, the pro-reform movement lost its force and it's now still there, but it's not a vibrant movement anymore."
Goldstein says the post-Arab Spring environment in some ways emboldened the government to be less tolerant of dissent.​

"The authorities proffer the sound bite that we have achieved the right mix of reform and stability," he says. "In other words, 'We have the formula for going forward without going out of control,'" Goldstein says. "It's true that Morocco looks stable compared to the other countries, but the reform process has very much stagnated and it's not a country where we're seeing increasing tolerance for dissent, increasing diversity on public, national media. There's less tolerance right now."

Goldstein also says Morocco has "real concerns" about terrorism that influence the way the government reacts to threats of instability. Many suspects in the 2004 Madrid bombings were of Moroccan origin, and the country has seen an increase in Islamic State group radicalization as the extremist organization's influence spreads across the Middle East. The government is also concerned by the adverse impact a terrorist attack could have on tourism, a key industry that has taken a hit in both Tunisia and Egypt in the wake of terrorist attacks in those countries.

Bouaida says Morocco has had a free press and media since 1997, but Freedom House, an independent watchdog that monitors freedom around the world, ranks the country's press as not free. The organization's 2015 report on Morocco ​says the 2011 constitution guarantees freedom of the press, but "vague language enables great latitude for interpretation and hinders enforcement of media protections."

Human Right Watch's 2015 report on Morocco found that it "regressed" in human rights while "advance[ing] in few." Although marches and rallies for political reform were allowed to take place, Moroccan authorities dispersed ​some of the peaceful gatherings, according to the report. Acts that are considered harmful to the king, the monarchy, Islam or Morocco's claim over the contested Western Sahara "limited the rights to peaceful expression, assembly, and association" the organization said.

Morocco annexed Western Sahara following Spain's withdrawal in 1975 and the territory has been in limbo since. Moroccans, who view Western Sahara as rightfully theirs, took to the streets Sunday to protest comments from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon earlier this month that Morocco's assertion over the area constituted "occupation." The U.N. previously supported a referendum for independence from the kingdom, but its resolution now advocates for "a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution."

In September, the government demanded that Human Rights Watch suspend its activities in Morocco until it could meet with the organization to discuss its "bias." Earlier last year, it expelled Amnesty International and in February, a researcher from the Brussels-based human-rights organization Avocats sans Frontières, or Lawyers Without Borders. ​Just last week, the government contacted Human Rights Watch to schedule a meeting, which is set to take place March 17.

In additional to external observers such as Human Rights Watch, Morocco has its own internal human rights monitoring mechanism. Under the new constitution, the National Council on Human Rights was created as a check on the monarchy. Driss El Yazami, who lived in exile in France for 25 years after facing charges for being a leftist, was appointed by Mohammad to lead the body in 2011.

He says that unlike many other countries participating in the Arab Spring movement, Moroccans weren't focused on regime change.
"The main slogan was against corruption and calling for more integrity and more social justice, which you can understand because in these countries the majority of your population is youth," El Yazami says.​ "Fifty percent of Moroccans are under 25 years old, 70 percent under 30 and they are looking for jobs, for a decent life which we can't offer to all our population."

The National Council on Human Rights is independent from the government, responsible for monitoring human rights violations and helping the government implement the constitution. It produces reports on the status of human rights on various issues like the rights of women, the disabled and the LGBT communities.

El Yazami ​says his organization has been responsible for spurring conversation on issues like inheritance, where according to law men inherit twice as much as women, and on abortion, which is illegal. Morocco is an Islamic country with its law based on Sharia, which El Yazami ​says restricts the pace and depth of reform in the country, and is partially responsible for inequalities that remain. But he says the country is better off than others in the Middle East because they are able to have an open conversation about human rights.

“The debate on abortion and the debate on these issues shows that the society is in turmoil. The discussion about values is going on. The fact is that we have to maintain our national capacity to discuss about these sensitive issues in a peaceful way,” El Yazami ​says. “When you look at this region, you look at other countries which are quite near from us, people are killing each other to have this freedom of discussion.”

In Morocco, a Struggle Over Sexuality: The North African Country is wrestling with how it treats the gay community.
By Kamilia Lahrichi | Contributor March 3, 2016, CASABLANCA, Morocco

Walid, a 30-year old devout Muslim, says he realized he was gay when he was 13. Growing up in Morocco, however, where homosexuality is reprimanded, finding acceptance for his sexuality was difficult, says Walid as he recounts his thinking as a young male. "I would like to follow the 'normal' path, but then I tell myself that I'm not 'abnormal' so my head is a real mess at the end of the day," says the waiter who lives in boisterous Casablanca, the country's commercial hub. Walid says despair led him to try to take his life 10 years ago. Today, he says he feels isolated and in contradiction with the precepts of his religion, Islam. "I'm always afraid because I know that the society will never accept me as I am," he says.

Yet, times may be changing in Morocco, a country with its own contradictions in how it treats sexuality. Last November, the country's tourism minister, Lahcen Haddad, called for the decriminalization of homosexuality. That declaration broke a widespread taboo and deepened divides between political parties and the Islamic-dominated government, which had planned to toughen sanctions against gays. At the same time, Morocco has long been known for attracting Western tourists and being a sexual tourism destination.

The kingdom's strict laws reflect a common tension in relatively progressive Arab societies: projecting the image to the world of being a liberal Arab nation that respects human rights and the push by Islamic groups to regulate sexuality. Sexual activity by gays is treated as a crime in many Arab countries, from Algeria to Iraq. In Libya, the criminal code can punish homosexual acts between consenting adults by death.

In Morocco, homosexuality is a crime. Article 489 of the country's penal code punishes homosexuality by imprisonment from six months to three years and imposes a fine of at least $20 to $100. In January, two men were arrested after kissing at a college campus on Inezgane, a city in the country's south.
The rise of Islamist parties, the influence of conservative TV channels from Gulf countries and the development of the Internet has contributed to radicalizing stances against gays across the Arab world, explains Soumaya Naamane Guessous, a sociology professor at Hassan II University in Casablanca.

Today, eight out of 10 Moroccans reject gays, according to a November 2014 poll conducted by the monthly magazine Telquel and the market research institute TNS. It surveyed 1,000 people 18 years of age and older.

Before the rise of Islamist parties, "there used to be some degree of tolerance as Moroccans would not incriminate, condemn or judge homosexuals," says sociologist Naamane Guessous. Before Morocco's independence in 1956, the country, especially the northern port of Tangiers, was a haven for gay Americans and Britons.

Across the region today, "More youngsters go to the mosque and feel invested in the mission to defend Islam against disbelievers who want to destroy it and push Muslims towards fornication and deprivation," Naamane Guessous says.

The public discourse over decriminalizing homosexuality in Morocco has also put a focus on privacy, a key aspect in Arab societies. Nouzha Skalli, a politician from the left-wing Party of Progress and Socialism, is skeptical about a possible decriminalization of homosexuality in the kingdom. "Conservatism is shared among political actors and there is a lack of political courage not to lose votes," she said in a phone interview from Rabat.

In practice, tolerance of homosexuality in conservative societies may come through considering it a medical condition. ​In Iran – where homosexuality is punishable by death – the government offers financial assistance for sex changes to "diagnosed transsexuals." In 2008, that country carried out more sex-change operations than any other country except for Thailand, according to the BBC.

“My mother never accepted the fact that I'm gay: for her it’s a curable disease,” says Zineb, a 31-year old Moroccan entrepreneur who lives in Montreal. Zineb recalls how, when she was 19, she told her mother she liked girls. He mother, Zineb says, thought her daughter had wasted her parents' advice. ​

61.1% of Moroccan Students in Favor of Sex Education in High Schools.
Tuesday 15 March 2016 - Larbi Arbaoui Rabat

A socio-educational survey conducted in partnership with the Ministry of Education revealed that 61.1% of Moroccan students are in favor of sex education in high schools. The second socio-educational survey was conducted by the Forum of Moroccan Students, in partnership with the Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training, as well as HEM Business School in Casablanca, and it has revealed surprising results.

The survey focused on “youth identity,” and the relation to sexuality. The  survey revealed that one of two students in Morocco think sexuality issues remain a taboo in Morocco. It showed that 66.8% have never discussed topics related to sexuality with one of their family members. Although 61.1% of the polled students expressed their support for sex education in high schools, 70% of Moroccan students agree that sexual intercourse before marriage is “immoral.” Another issue addressed by the survey, in terms of identity, is sexuality and practice of religion. The survey found that 75% believe that religion is a personal relationship with God, while only 4.5% believe it should guide politics, and 15.6% believe that religion can help us behave better.  The rest of the polled students had no opinion on the subject.

According to Hakim Hdidou, consultant and director of The Survey Project, the survey polls have lasted 10 months, and have targeted 5,236 students in private and public high schools, in urban and rural areas of all the regions of Morocco.

In 2014, the Moroccan Ministry of National Education and Moroccan Modern Industries (IMM) signed an agreement in Rabat for the implementation of a new program to teach sex education in Moroccan schools, but it hasn’t found its way to the classroom. The parties who signed the agreement said that it aimed to raise students’ awareness on healthy hygienic practices and the importance of sex education. This set of lessons has helped equip young students learn the essentials of puberty, sexuality and sexually transmitted diseases.

Berbers live on in Morocco's Atlas range
By Mosa'ab Elshamy, AP March 6, 2016 IMILCHIL, Morocco

Deep in Morocco's Atlas Mountains, the ancient Berbers live on, defying a harsh environment and loyal to their traditions and way of life in some of the most hard-to-reach parts of the African continent. Indomitable and proud, they call themselves the Amazigh, which is believed to mean "free people" or "noble men," and trace their origins as an indigenous people in western North Africa to at least 10,000 B.C.

They dislike the term Berbers, which stems from Latin and which they find insulting. They are among the many peoples the Romans called Barbarians but they became the stuff of legends, giving the world famous names such as the medieval explorer Ibn Battuta, who traveled further in distance than Marco Polo.
Their home is the majestic Atlas, the largest mountain range in Africa. Amazigh villages are scattered across arid desert landscapes with burnt-orange rock, occasionally dotted with lush green slopes and surrounded by snow-capped peaks.

Across North Africa, the Berbers number about 50 million. At least 15 million Moroccans are Amazigh, divided into different groups according to their dialects. While they speak the native Amazigh language of Tamazight, which has a large number of dialects and recently gained recognition as an official language in Morocco, many have adopted Arabic as part of a long process of Arabization and Islamization.

Today they rely on cattle and agriculture as their main sources of income and maintain a nomadic lifestyle closely resembling that of their ancestors. Some live in clay houses with no electricity or running water while a few still dwell with their sheep and goats in remote mountain caves. Others live closer to the towns at the Atlas foothills, benefiting from modern amenities.

For much of the year, they face extreme weather conditions. The mountains are covered in snow in winter, and in summer, the sun scorches what little crops they grow. When the streams empty out during the dry season, the community bands together to dig underground water wells for irrigation.
Many Amazigh own mountain donkeys, often the only mode of transport across the rocky, unpaved roads that connect Berber villages.
That isolation has dashed 26-year-old Mohammed Tamejout's hopes of finding a job away from home. He studied geography at the university in the Atlas city of Ouarzazate, expecting the degree would lead to a job. But three years after graduating, he remains unemployed and works on his family's farm in Imilchil, surrounded by almond trees.

At What Costs the New Language Policy Will Be Delivered in Morocco?
Thursday 17 March 2016 - Abdellatif Zaki Rabat

Rumors had it that French would be reintegrated in primary education as well as a language of instruction both for the hard sciences and the humanities.  Rumors had it also that the place of English was to be scaled up and promoted to a language of instruction. In the press conference, Rachid Belmokhtar, the Minister of National Education held on Tuesday, he dissipated doubts and confirmed the decision to rehabilitate the status of French and to upgrade that of English. The introduction of the latter in the lower classes, he announced, will be gradual depending on the availability of teachers until it covers all grades starting the fourth and it becomes a language of instruction. For many, this was also the confirmation of the downward indicators of the status of Arabic in Moroccan education, the argument being that the language had its shot, a precious one, and managed to miss it lamentably driving the whole system into a wall. A challenge for the minister will certainly be how to still tongues and tame ideologies that have for over half a century been mesmerizing the population with discourse hoisting the Arabic language on top of all pedestals and making of it the only possible way out of a fatal course education had been taking ever since independence.

In his presentation of the strategy, it was, in fact, clear that the concern of His Excellency, was, on the one hand, how to maintain a balance between the two major competing foreign languages both of which one could tell must have been applying a lot of heat on him and, on the other hand, how to convince of the compromise that can but result in affecting the current dominating status of the Arabic language and jeopardize the place which the Amazigh language has been aspiring to since the constitution has granted it official status.

The plight of the man and of his team must not have been pleasant. Whatever the case, with the political decision now made and announced, the load is off the Minister’s back and he must be feeling relieved and safe on the other side of the tight rope. Discussing the relevance of the decision would serve much less purpose for the time being than discussing how it will be implemented. We will leave that exercise to the Head of the Government who a few weeks ago made a scene in the parliament because the Minister of Education had announced very timidly that that the French language could be used in the future to reach some scientific subjects in dine technical schools. The Head of the Government had disowned his Minister in public and in a manner many had judged as humiliating. The Minister of education had remained placid and did not react. Now we understand why, he was working out his K,O. blow. Now, it is he who disowns the boss who seems to have swallowed his tongue.

One fear I have expressed several times is to see foreign agencies and organizations taking over the process and pushing solutions they would not envisage in their own countries. In fact, I have been part of discussions in which it was suggested to entrust baccalaureate level students with teaching English after having provided them with a few weeks training. The suggestion was rejected at the time but I am neither sure the current propositions are much brighter nor that those at the helm are apt to resist the pressures of such temptations.

To make sure the political decision achieves its objectives, and that is all one can talk about now, is to make sure the professional profiles of those who will implement the project are appropriate and that the overall setup for its unfolding is adequate. One simple but sure way to define profiles would be to borrow those of the home countries of the consultants and experts of the foreign agencies advising the Minister. If they hire teachers with high school diplomas and deliver them their own kids after two or three week training programs, that would be a decent benchmark. If, however, an agency whose country requires academic, training and certification conditions which they do not recommend for Morocco, we would know they are neither earnest nor honest and are operating with agendas whose objectives would be hard for them to admit.

It would seem that the minimum conditions for one to be candidate to a teaching position in any pre-college level is a Bachelors degree and a one year training in a teachers’ college and to complete a certification process successfully. These conditions would ensure that the teachers will have an appropriate mastery of the language both at the fluency and accuracy levels, a good knowledge of the culture, history and civilization of the foreign language and the professional qualifications to teach it. This would be the first initiation steps to the profession. For a functional integration into the system, the novice fully qualified teacher would need to be in a supporting environment that would ensure them personal growth and professional development.

The actual support is provided by senior teachers in every school, teacher supervisors and a systematic in-service teacher development program. Other than this minimum, the reform will precipitate the educational system in a darker abyss and at an uncontrollable increasing speed. Other than this, Morocco will end up with a generation of speakers of foreign languages who can hardly be understood before it will have to make new decisions and reforms, Furthermore, the efforts that would have been made to shift to teaching subject areas in these newly introduced foreign languages would end driving the nail of functional illiteracy deeper and draw the country faster into incompetence and disqualify it from the economic competition it was initially planning to reach with this reform.

The issue of teaching materials in the newly adopted foreign languages is also a matter of critical importance. I remember from personal experience that every proposition to introduce a change in the foreign languages taught and in their functions and objectives, the propositions have been twinned with offers of packages of course books, textbooks, pedagogical materials, training expertise. There were times in which the packages were part of more general offers including loans and political conditions. The Minister did not talk about who is to design, write, edit, publish and print the teaching materials, We are not talking peanuts but billions of dirhams over decades. He did not talk either about the political, economic and ideological cost of the operation.
While the idea may be beautiful, the force of its attraction may be blinding to the risks it entails. The flower may look beautiful, but how sure are we there is no serpent underneath ….. would have warned good old William

Is this the real model for Othello? The Moroccan ambassador to Elizabethan London who has striking similarities to Shakespeare’s noble Moor
Jerry Brotton Saturday 19 March 2016

Abd al-Wahid bin Masoud bin Muhammad al-Annuri isn’t the kind of name usually associated with Elizabethan portraiture, better known for its pallid, blank-faced English aristocrats. But in the autumn of 1600, Al‑Annuri, recently arrived in London as the ambassador of the Sa’adian ruler of Morocco Mulay Ahmed al-Mansur, sat for his portrait, the earliest surviving picture of a Muslim painted from life in England.

The painting is an enigma. Its painter and provenance are unknown prior to its appearance at a Christie’s sale in 1955, when it was bought, then sold to its current owner, the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute. It shows Al-Annuri dressed in a long black robe (or thawb) and white linen turban, with a richly decorated steel scimitar, a Maghreb nimcha (sword), hanging from his waist. His piercing gaze meets ours, challenging, confident, perhaps slightly amused. This is no humble black servant, but an ambassador – possibly a warrior – of stature on significant diplomatic business. The inscriptions on the portrait reveal as much. It is dated 1600, and shows his anglicised name and age (42) and his title (Legate of the King of Barbary to England).
Al-Annuri had landed in England in August leading a 16-man Moroccan delegation of merchants, translators and holy men to conclude a military alliance between the Protestant Tudors and Muslim Morocco against their common enemy, Catholic Spain. It was the culmination of 50 years of amicable Anglo-Moroccan relations that saw a thriving trade in Moroccan saltpetre (used to make gunpowder) and sugar (that played havoc with Queen Elizabeth’s teeth), in exchange for English cloth and munitions. It led to a cordial correspondence between Elizabeth and Al‑Mansur and the creation of London’s Barbary Company in 1585, which was soon shipping hundreds of tonnes of merchandise back and forth.

When Al-Annuri’s retinue rode into London in August 1600 he was accompanied by the city’s Barbary merchants, who gave them a house on the Strand where they stayed for nearly six months, to the fear and amazement of many Londoners. One wrote that they “are strangely attired and behavioured”. The city’s chronicler John Stow observed that they “killed all their own meat within their house” and “turn their faces eastward when they kill any thing; they use beads, and pray to Saints”. The gossipy diarist John Chamberlain thought it was “no small honour to us that nations so far remote, and every way different, should meet here to admire the glory and magnificence of our Queen”. Within weeks, Al‑Annuri was given audiences with the same queen, first at Nonsuch Palace and then Oatlands. There, he put forward a remarkable proposal: a military alliance between Muslim Morocco and Protestant England, in which they would “join forces against the King of Spain, their common foe and enemy” and reconquer Spain for Islam. Even more audaciously he proposed “they could also wrest the East and West Indies from the Spanish”, the first and last time that a Protestant–Muslim confederation was proposed to rule Latin America.

As Al-Annuri awaited the outcome of these negotiations in the final weeks of 1600, his portrait was painted to commemorate the imminent ratification of an Anglo-Moroccan alliance that would transform the balance of power in Europe. But it was not to be. Elizabeth discovered that Al-Annuri was a Morisco, a Spanish-born Muslim forcibly converted to Christianity who had found his way to Morocco and reverted. She tried to “turn” Al-Annuri by proposing he and his fellow Moriscos join the Protestant struggle against Spain. The offer seems to have caused a rebellion among the Moroccan delegation. Stow reported that Al-Annuri remained loyal to Al‑Mansur, but “poisoned their interpreter being born in Granada”, another Morisco, “because he commended the estate and bounty of England”. Talks broke down, and by February 1601 Al‑Annuri was back in Morocco. Two years later Elizabeth and Al-Mansur were dead, with England’s new king, James I, negotiating a peace deal with Spain that would end the need for an Anglo-Islamic alliance, consigning Al-Annuri’s embassy into an embarrassing historical footnote.

But Al-Annuri was not the only person with whom Elizabeth was fostering relations. In the 1560s she wrote to the Persian Shi’a ruler, Shah Tahmasp, offering a commercial alliance between him and her newly formed Muscovy Company. Once Pope Pius V formally excommunicated her in 1570, Elizabeth was free to ignore the papal edicts forbidding Christian trade with Muslims, and by 1581 she had lodged an English ambassador in Constantinople, signed formal commercial treaties with the Ottomans and founded the Turkey Company (the forerunner of the Levant Company). She pursued extensive correspondence with Sultan Murad III and his mother over three decades, exchanging diplomatic gifts that included cloth, cosmetics, horse-drawn carriages and a clockwork organ. In one poignant act of religious retribution Elizabeth allowed lead stripped from deconsecrated Catholic churches to be shipped to Constantinople to make munitions, much to the indignation of the watching Spanish and Venetian ambassadors.

Both Sunni and Protestant authorities saw the benefits of pushing a strategic anti-Catholic alliance. Elizabeth addressed herself in letters to Murad as the “defender of the Christian faith against all kind of idolatries, of all that live among the Christians, and falsely profess the name of Christ”. In response the Turks wrote letters to the “Lutheran sect” in the Low Countries, encouraging them to rebel against the Spanish, suggesting they shared Islam’s rejection of idolatry and belief in the unmediated power of their holy books.

Elizabethan dramatists were quick to exploit the ambiguities and contradictions of such alliances. From the late 1580s, beginning with Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, more than 60 plays were performed with Islamic characters, themes or settings. As the theological terms “Islam” and “Muslim” only appeared in English in the 17th century, characters defined by terms such as “Moors”, “Saracens”, “Turks” and “Persians” predominated in more than 40 plays performed in the 1590s. Shakespeare followed fashion by rehearsing one Moor, the evil Aaron in Titus Andronicus (c1594), followed by another, The Merchant of Venice’s noble suitor to Portia, the Prince of Morocco (1596).

Four years later, within just months of Al-Annuri’s public departure, Shakespeare began another play, this time with the Moor as its central character. The similarities to Al-Annuri are striking. Othello is a mercenary, invited into the heart of a Christian community to fight the infidel but who is eventually unceremoniously expelled. As with Al‑Annuri, his ethnicity and religion are obscure. Asked his story, he speaks: “Of being taken by the insolent foe / And sold to slavery; of my redemption thence / And portance in my traveller’s history.”

Shakespeare deliberately poses more problems here than he answers. Is Othello born a Muslim or a polytheistic Berber? Are the “insolent foe” the Turks? And does his slavery lead to a religious conversion prior to his Christian “redemption”? If Othello has converted from one religion to another, might he “turn” again? Al-Annuri’s slippery identity is a problem for diplomacy, enables Shakespeare to manipulate an audience’s ambivalent feelings towards a generation of Anglo-Islamic amity. It is neither horror nor admiration, but both simultaneously. As the play ends with Desdemona dead, Othello reminds the horrified Venetians: “… that in Aleppo once, / Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk / Beat a Venetian and traduced the state, / I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog / And smote him – thus!”

Othello is both the Moorish convert protecting the Venetian state, and the fearsome Turk, killing the “heresy” within him. The profound ambiguity towards Islam that Shakespeare exploits in Othello remains with us, and nowhere more graphically than in the play’s final reference to Moroccans, Turks and Christians meeting in today’s tragic symbol of the destruction of cosmopolitan multiculturalism, Aleppo.
Jerry Brotton’s This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World is published by Allen Lane.

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