- Published on Friday, 03 February 2012 06:43
- Category: Art
The busy streets of Morocco’s capital city are not immune to the common signs of poverty that one would expect in the urban centers of developing nations. Beggars are never far from view in Rabat, whether young children, veiled mothers with babies still too small to walk, or displaced sub-Saharans trying to migrate “elsewhere.”
High rates of unemployment, social problems (such as lack of options for divorced women), and the lack of an organized and stable welfare sector contribute to the prevalence of begging on the streets of Morocco. As a resident of Rabat, I continually recognized familiar faces on the downtown streets. And yet, in the winter of 2011, I first encountered a strange man who captured my attention: he goes by the name of “Si Ahmed.”
You’ll notice Si Ahmed as you sit outside on the terrace of a café. He is quite distinct, and though he doesn’t seem particularly poor, he doesn’t expect to get paid. As you drink your coffee and converse with friends, he approaches you in a suit-jacket, chain-smoking Marlboro reds and wearing dark shades : “Ya ukhti, Salaam Aleykum, hek,” (“Sister, Salaam Aleykum, take this”) he says, dropping a sheet of paper on the table before briskly moving on. A few minutes later, he returns to collect his images.
Si Ahmed distributes these original cartoons, both photocopies and originals, throughout the public space of Rabat’s downtown streets. Though he accepts money in exchange for his artwork, it is clearly not his primary motivation. The cartoons— drawn on low-quality paper that’s been crumpled by repeated viewings—are by no means crude, even if they are cursorily drawn; their damning captions and compelling images tackle a host of social and political problems. Subject matter ranges from gender tension (i.e., sexual harassment) to youth disenchantment with the monarchy’s economic policy.
One particular drawing shows a frazzled demonstrator at the center of the page, his face twisted in a grimace. Above his head is a protest-like placard: no text appears—merely the image of a loaf of bread. Surrounding the single human are disembodied arms, thrusting towards him fat sheaves of paper, each carrying a different title: “Trade Code,” proclaims one. “Family Code,” says another. This cartoon, which Si Ahmed calls Bidun Taaliq 1, (No Comment) speaks for itself: the government’s promised reform measures prove insufficient to quiet angry protestors; after all, people eat bread—not paper.
A second image, also entitled Bidun Taaliq 2 (No Comment 2), illustrates a man, arms spread out and pressed against the clear glass walls of a bottle trapping him inside. The man’s facial expression, consternation clearly written on his features, directly confronts the viewer. A large arrow labels the see-through prison of the bottle as “transparency,” a playfully sarcastic comment on pervasive corruption. The constraints imposed on the populace by governmental mismanagement are more fully rendered through the inclusion of another arrow—this one directing the viewer to the bottle’s cap—and the phrase, “freedom of expression.” In this drawing, Si Ahmed frames the current state of affairs in Morocco as one of frustration, bottled up to the point of explosion—invisible walls and bureaucratic obstacles forestall criticism of dissent and hence, the prospect of any real change.
A final cartoon focuses on state-run television programming as a cynical distraction from the very real problems facing Morocco’s population. At the center of the image is a man’s back; papers labeled “diploma” scatter into the air, blown out of his hand by an unseen breeze. Cameras and microphones invade the lone figure’s space, labeled “Studio 2M” (although privately owned, 2M is widely considered to be a mouthpiece for the King) and “Lalla l-Aroussa” (Ms. Bride, a recent reality television/game, modeled on popular Western programming). The piece is captioned: Production of Triviality. Si Ahmed’s use of “triviality” here is a pun on the Arabic term for “culture,” the cartoon serving as a damning social criticism of state-run media and the mechanisms by which the Moroccan government aims to dissuade young citizens from mobilizing to combat “real” problems.
The content of Si Ahmed’s artwork is witty and critical, but his strategies prove equally as creative and move him from the simple category of “street beggar” to mobile performance artist, cartoonist, and political commentator. Si Ahmed favors a small path of territory, covering the central downtown area of Rabat’s Ville Nouvelle (or new city). Near the Parliament building and the central Rabat train station, the commercial hub of the district makes it an attractive target for the impoverished seeking community assistance.
The captions and commentary on his cartoons clearly evidence his local targets: Darija (Moroccan Colloquial Arabic) appears alongside Fus’ha (Modern Standard Arabic, the language of Arabic media never used for quotidian speech). By marking the specific area of downtown, Si Ahmed reaches out to the meeting places for political watchers of Parliament while also positioning himself as a harmless meskin (a “poor thing,” or an impoverished person who must beg to survive). Moroccan women rarely sit outside to drink coffee; if frequenting a coffee shop, they generally prefer to sit upstairs in a more private location. Haunting the terraces of popular cafes—never inside—Si Ahmed clearly addresses men: literate Moroccan men, the power brokers of local politics.
Can we call Si Ahmed a beggar? Do we call him a performance artist? Is he a social commentator? A political activist? All of the above? His work speaks for itself. Fusing recognizable strategies for the impoverished—seeking out small donations to get by in an economic void, making use of Islamically-charged language to solicit money—he sneaks by possible censorship. He never signs his last name, and goes merely by “Si Ahmed”—a common name in the Kingdom of Morocco. I never saw Ahmed in my previous years in Morocco, and only noticed him from the beginning in 2011, when the Moroccan government responded to regional tides of the Arab Spring by relaxing control over free speech. In the wake of the new reforms and a seeming return to political business-as-usual, I wonder what Si Ahmed thinks—and draws—now.By Amanda Rogers, Aslan Media arts contributor