Morbid Patriotism: What might it take to conserve Tangier?

Featured Image: A hill of rubble, much of it never used, sullies the watershed’s land.


By: Jordan Cutler-Tietjen


[dropcap]W[/dropcap]alking over a grassy watershed in Tangier, Abdou Benattabou carried a stack of glossy papers. It was mid-May—many flocks of migratory birds had already passed by the continent’s northwestern-most tip, following the East Atlantic Flyway up from Africa, over the Strait of Gibraltar, and into Europe, their summer home.

Still, Benattabou spotted a half-dozen échasse blanche, black-winged stilts, cavorting alongside a raft of ducks in the stream, about 100 yards from the urban coast. Trying to remember their English names, Benattabou called the stilts “circus birds” and gave a few playful quacks to explain the word ‘ducks.’ The wading birds’ long legs help them escape the snakes, he said, as one leapt daintily into the air, as if shot from a polite cannon, and pirouetted into a nearby stream.

The day before, the city of Tangier had packed into Stade Ibn Batouta to celebrate Ittihad Tanger’s first ever nationwide soccer championship, the stadium’s 45,000 seats overflowing with bodies, fireworks, and chants of ¿Estás bien? Sí!

12 hours later, on the first cloudy day of the week, all seemed calm, even paused in the watershed, a green refuge sandwiched between urban construction. But Benattabou wasn’t content to relax and birdwatch. By night, Benattabou works as a professional chef. By day, he practices what he calls his “morbid hobby”: environmental stewardship.

Trawling Tangier’s thronging open-air markets to document and rescue endangered monkeys as an acolyte for the Barbary Macaque Awareness & Conservation, a sizable nonprofit, isn’t light-hearted work. Neither is rehabilitating landscapes and their inhabitants all over his favorite city in the world, which Benattabou has adopted as his life’s purpose.


Benattabou stands in the watershed, carrying photos he’s taken and pamphlets he’s produced to advocate for conservation of the space.


This watershed is one such landscape. Benattabou stepped over litter to point out piles of vague rubble, really more like small hills, scattered across the expanse. The watershed is technically protected land, he explained, but companies deposit their excess concrete and toxic building materials as if it were a dump. He stepped over more litter to get a closer look at how one sidewalk-gray hill had grown since he had last checked.

In his hands, he carried photos he had taken at the watershed over the years. A snake trapped inside a bottle, coiled uncomfortably along the curve of the plastic. A batch of dappled eggs in grass—boys hold unsanctioned motocross competitions here during nesting season, he said. And, at the bottom of his pile, an official booklet about the watershed produced by the Observatory for the Protection of the Environment and the Historical Monuments in Tangier (OPEMH), the largest conservation organization in the city.

As he showed it to Jane, a fellow student reporter, and me, he chuckled, more of a gasp than a laugh. Despite his immense care for the natural world, there were moments when the scope of the problem appeared like a wall before him.

“They do books like this,” Benattabou said. “It takes three years to do a book. Then after this, they put out some pictures, say, Oh, it’s a catastrophe and…and they got no power.”


[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s said that before Hercules got his apple, fooled Atlas, and escaped the duty to keep aloft the sky, he rested. He chose to pause in a system of caves near where the sea meets what is now Tangier. Instead of becoming overwhelmed by the heavens that would come close to cursing him, he found reprieve in the rocky ceiling and its Berber carvings. When he did finally look through the mouth of the cave, poised to depart, he saw the outline of the continent he stood upon. That image, an oceanic silhouette of Africa, has become Tangier’s most popular tourist sight, a symbol of the city, and the centerpiece of OPEMH’s logo.

OPEMH was born in 2012, when housing development threatened to raze parts of Parc Perdicaris, a beloved forest on the outskirts of Tangier. A group of academics, legislators, and engineers rallied to convince Tangier’s governor that the forest deserved protecting, and in the process, inaugurated OPEMH.

Halima, a student secretary, told us in crystal-clear English inside OPEMH’s wood-paneled office that she was worried about the prospect of our article: OPEMH does too much meaningful work to contain in a single piece, she said. According to Mohammed Oulhaj, a lawyer and senior OPEMH employee, the organization has branched out over the past 6 years, working to preserve ecosystems and cultural heritage across the city.

“The kinds of decisions that generally would lead to a forest being built over live in the shadows,” Oulhaj said. He pulled three glossy booklets from office’s bureau shelves, then opened an adjacent closet’s doors to reveal a half-dozen more stacks.

“The role of a civil society organization is to bring shadow operations out into the public sphere so they can be addressed.”


OPEMH’s President, Retired President, and Advisor Mohammed Oulhaj gather with reporters Henry Robinson, Jordan Cutler-Tietjen, and Jane Buckley in OPEMH’s downtown office space for a posed photo.


OPEMH publishes and and disseminate these reports about individual sites, as well as yearly declarations of “The State of the Environment in Tangier” to the public, in print and online.

Oulhaj pointed to a photo on the cover of one such report. This is the Plaza de Toros, he said, a cinematic bullring less than a ten minute walk from OPEMH’s office. It was built in the mid-20th century by the descendants of immigrant Iberian Moors and subsequently abandoned. One of the only stadiums of its kind on the continent, the bullring would have been destroyed if

OPEMH’s dossiers hadn’t convinced city officials to classify it as an official historical monument, according to OPEHM documents. In one of the only Moroccan cities where it’s more common to hear Spanish than French, letting such a relic disappear would have been an outrage, Oulhaj said.

Oulhaj pulled out his Samsung to show us pictures of two more sites OPEMH had tried to protect: the remnants of a sacred Roman chapel unearthed twenty kilometers south of where we sat, and a grand tower that used to preside over an entrance to the medina, the warren-like walled quarter of the city. The latter was demolished, he admitted; OPEMH hasn’t succeeded in saving everything. The former, which was only recently discovered on private land, was still being contested in May.

Although Oulhaj described OPEMH “like a firewall,” set up to hold authorities accountable, he made it clear that the nonprofit collaborates, rather than clashes, with the local and national governments.

Many of the organization’s 51 administrative councilors are current or former elected officials, Oulhaj said. OPEMH claims support from Mohammed VI’s ruling party, labor unions, and human rights organizations—32 signatory bodies in all, per their official charter. Oulhaj said this intricate  network was part of their power.

They orchestrated a 5,000-person march in July 2016 that their brochures referred to as a “solemn call for climate justice.” That same brochure lauded dictatorial “His Majesty King Mohammed VI” for his efficacy and patronage.

For Oulhaj, activism as an extension of the political order seemed to be a necessary, even noble, fact of Moroccan organizing. Deference to King Mohammed VI is important decorum for all Moroccans, but for a public-facing organization like OPEMH, its respect for governmental power must be especially visible.

Midway through our conservation, an older man with shoulders like mountains walked into the office and sat down in an open chair.

This man served in the Moroccan Marines, Oulhaj said. He was OPEMH’s first president.

The former president sat silently until the question of purpose arose. Oulhaj said he and his fellow board members dedicated their time to OPEMH voluntarily, without payment. Why do you do what you do? I wanted to know.

“As citizens of Morocco, the constitution asks us to be active and help the government,” Oulhaj said. “It is an act of patriotism.”

The man sat up in his chair, and agreed. “The most important thing is patriotism.”


[dropcap]B[/dropcap]enattabou approaches preservation differently.

“In places like this, you’re against the state,” he said amidst wasted concrete in the watershed.

It’s not just broken building materials that pollute the ecosystem here. Never-before-used, symmetrical chunks of sidewalk accumulate into eyesores and interrupt paths. The city commissions construction companies to build public works projects, but when they produce excess building materials, they aren’t incentivized to save or repurpose them. It’s a bureaucratic tragedy, Benattabou said. In a country where 19 percent of people live on fewer than 4 dollars each day, the money mismanagement stings.

Benattabou said he appreciates the ideas of organizations like OPEMH, but believes their entrenchment in bureaucracy hamstrings, not empowers them. He estimated that although a hundred-some associations claim to be working on environmental preservation in Morocco, no more than five are actively engaged on the ground.

“I think the only one who really has the power to stop this is the king,” Benattabou said. “When

it’s not him, nothing really happens.” Greenpeace isn’t allowed to officially organize in Morocco because its mission didn’t set right with the administration, he said.

He said he understands why Mohammed VI and his administration might not deem it necessary to focus on one small patch of land in one city.

On the country scale, Morocco has taken concrete steps to address climate change, which are in many ways more progressive than the United States’ recent policies.

By the end of 2018, Mohammed VI expects to have completed a new solar energy farm in the Sahara stretching over 40 square kilometers and costing $9 billion. Called Noor (which means light in Darija, or Moroccan Arabic), the plant will be the world’s biggest. It’s one of a number of bold plays in the Sun King’s (as Mohammed VI is now known) plan to power half of Morocco with renewable energy by 2040.

The drive from Tangier to Chefchaouen passes by massive wind farms peeking above cliffs, and Morocco operates the largest one in Africa farther south. A nonprofit has started converting Moroccan fog into potable, fresh water. And Morocco boasts eleven national parks, whose red-rock crags rival any tract of wilderness anywhere.


[dropcap]B[/dropcap]ut the infrastructure is imperfect. During Ramadan, when we visited, a single bus makes the winding drive to the remote, famed Ifrane National Park, three hours south of Tangier, only once a day. Mohammed VI wants to make Tangier a resort town. That, coupled with ballooning real estate interests, means construction is happening faster than the city seems to be able to control.

“What is special here—it’s like it’s inside the city,” Benattabou said of the watershed.

Elementary schools could visit, universities could study, tourists could appreciate. Urban green spaces are known to improve physical health and mental wellbeing, as Benattabou well knows.

He said he’s tried to recruit lawyers to defend the supposedly-protected watershed with him, take up the issue in court. “Some lawyers care about ecological cases,” he said, “but they don’t want to go against the state, don’t want that reputation.”

So Benattabou’s conservation strategies have had to become guerilla. When he sees people littering as they make tagine on family picnics, he tells them he just saw many snakes in the grass to scare them away. At what he calls “the most horrifying place on Earth,” the illegal animal markets, he swallows his disgust to befriend bird of prey hawkers and monkey sellers and free their ‘goods’ for cheap.


Grass grows around streambed refuse in the watershed, which is supposed to be protected land but according to Benattabou isn’t treated as such.


His most dramatic conceit involves the the rescue of turtles and tortoises. He builds a small ring to house a few of them them in a public space: picture a doll-sized Coliseum with reptiles instead of gladiators. Curious passersby gather, and he tells them that they’re about to witness the famous “turtle circus.” As they wait for the turtles to start pulling stunts, Benattabou speaks to them about the turtles’ plight—they’re treated more like decoration than pets; he’s seen some kept in cages with no space to turn around for years on end, waiting for some ignorant European to purchase them for an inflated price. Only after he has educated them does he admit that the circus is a ruse —“of course the turtles do nothing,” he said with a laugh. After briefly caring for the turtles—they prefer hibiscus flowers to lettuce, he said—Benattabou releases them into nearby woods, where they are native.

He told us this by a stream leading into the woods. At first, he didn’t see any turtles – then he found one, a baby no bigger than his palm. They blended in well, but once we started looking, there were so many of them. 20, at least. This is the only area for these turtles in all of Tangier, Benattabou said. Over the past half-decade, he’s quietly helped to repopulate it.


[dropcap]O[/dropcap]PEMH’s largest, most motivating goal, Oulhaj said, is to win Tangier the title of UNESCOWorld Heritage site. Six Moroccan cities—Rabat, Marrakech, Fez, Meknes, Essaouira, and Tétouan—have already earned the designation. UNESCO representatives visited Tangier in 2016, but paperwork problems ruined OPEMH’s case, Oulhaj said. Maybe this year would be different, he said.

Benattabou too has a goal. From the slope of one the rubble hills, now overgrown with grass and moss, at the watershed, he picked a dandelion. He blew, sending dandelion flecks flying. The sky and the wind held them aloft, then let them down. Perhaps he thought about cursing the heavens, perhaps he saw the outline of his continent. He didn’t tell us what he wished for.

Jane Buckley and Henry Robinson contributed translations and reporting.


Jordan Cutler-Tietjen is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at