Mint tea, kittens and the Arab Spring

The room I was in was small with a narrow construction that gave it the feeling of being wedged into the only space leftover in the rest of the building. At the far end was a fireplace and a rising chimney breast of exposed brick. Instead of a raging fire, the small dark space contained a tangled bundle of fairy lights, which though may not have provided any heat, offered the minor illusion of adding a few extra degrees of warmth to an otherwise cold space.

A few months ago, a heavily pregnant cat found its way into the house and decided to move in. Close to the fairy lights, was a small basket and a litter of tiny kittens lay nestled amongst their mother.

On either side of the room were two small firm single beds, that doubled in use as sofas. I sat on one of them with my back pressed against the hard wall behind me.

In the far corner, sat a tall Moroccan man, with curly hair and a slim build. Perched on a cushion next to the fireplace, his eyes were glued to the screen of a laptop beside him. Opposite me, sat another man with short hair and deep lines around his eyes that revealed he had several years on his friend.

One of the kittens had ventured out of the basket and taken an interest in me. It spent a while tugging at the laces of my shoe before becoming much more adventurous and clambering up onto my lap.

I poured a glass of mint tea from the ornate brass teapot in front of me, spilling a little as the kitten squirmed to get involved in the process. The second man instantly disappeared returning a few moments later with a cloth. He retired back to the sofa and the first man skipped between tracks on the YouTube playlist he was carefully curating.

“Were you both here in Marrakesh during the protests?” I enquired.

“Protests?” The second man shot back a slightly confused look.

“During the Arab Spring” I offered as casually as I could, but I could tell I’d stuck a nerve with the pertinence of my question.

“I think we don’t want to talk about politics now” said the second man, with a slight laugh.

“Of course”. I laughed uncomfortably and took a long sip of my mint tea. I tried to steer the conversation onto lighter ground and asked about kittens but the second man seemed to be interested In my question.

“We were all here” he said, with a little hesitation. “Here in Maroc, there were 3 million people in the streets. I wondered how true that figure was, in truth I didn’t know how many people had actually been directly involved in the protests here but I nodded in understanding.

“Maroc is a very rich country” he went on, “but the money is not here for everyone”

We have the King, and then the ministers, but the ministers take from us the money”

“They steal it?” I asked

“Yes” he said with a firm emphasis, “they have this corruption, fraud, these kinds of things”

“And that’s why you protested?”

“For this and other things. Here in Maroc, is different you understand”. I nodded. “We do not have the power”.

“You mean because you can’t vote?”

“Exactly”. He paused to take a sip of tea. The first man had turned up the volume slightly on the YouTube playlist. He hadn’t said anything so far and I got the impression that he was much less comfortable talking about this than the second man. I tried not to ask too many questions of my own, instead opting to do little more than listen to whatever conversation was volunteered.

There is a culture of us and them.

“I heard though that the King has made some changes, you know, are things better now?” I asked him leaning slightly forwards on the bed-come-sofa.

“Everyone is asking me if the King is good — I don’t know him personally”

We both laugh, but I read between the lines to a broader sense of disconnect between the monarch and his subjects. This sense of being so far removed was surely one of the causes of the protests in the first place, and regardless of what other changes have been made, this will remain the case for the foreseeable future. There is a culture of us and them.

“Is difficult for people to talk. In the protests, I was beaten by the police and the military”.

I feel bad for extracting this detail — but there is an importance in bringing reality to the surface in this way. He went on to tell me that his great uncle worked for the King directly and had helped him avoid a fate worse than the beatings after he was arrested during the protests.

“Do you think there will ever be more protests?”. He shrugs in response, but stops short of a vocal indication either way. Contained in that single shrug was an exhaustion which manifested itself as physically as it did metaphorically. Beyond that though, was a glint in the eyes that stared back at me. I don’t know if it came from the reflection of the lamp which dimly lit the room, or emanated deep from within his retinas themselves, but it was undeniably gave the impression of hope.

This is a country where wounds have still not healed and scars are still fresh.

Bored of my company, the kitten who had made itself quite at home in the folds of my wool jumper scurried back across the room and made a leap into the basket. For a moment or two, there was much meowing as he fought for his place back amongst the litter.

This is a country where wounds have still not healed and scars are still fresh. As Morocco stretches itself and desperately seeks the approval of the West — most clearly visible in the show it put on during the recent Climate Change Conference in Marrakesh, it is undoubtedly being careful not to tear itself apart at the seams.

Despite the concessions made by the King in an effort to put unrest to bed, the problems here have never truly been solved, and anyone who assumes they can draw a line and relegate the protest movement in Morocco should find a quiet corner, a pot of traditional mint tea and work on their understanding of the real mood hidden deep within the winding souks of the city.