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The Politics of Food in Modern Morocco (Review)

Since adequate nourishment is a prerequisite for human existence and social tranquility, control over the process by which food is produced, distributed, and consumed is both required of any responsible authority and a source of power in its hands. In times of social and political upheaval, particularly when augmented by natural disasters and climatic disruption, the attitudes and policies of a centralized government become particularly important lest the selfish interests of individuals and groups in powerful position may become detrimental to the well-being of the community at large. In this groundbreaking and innovative study, Stacy Holden, an associate professor at Purdue University, examines the manner in which the dietary needs of the population of Fez, Morocco were addressed during three distinct phases of modern Moroccan history that span the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. That period was marked by the demise of the pre-colonial Sharifian Empire, after being already heavily impacted by the infiltration of European interests, into a dual Protectorate regime that, while taking over most affairs of state, still maintained a facade of indigenous sovereignty. The intersection of indigenous/“traditional” and foreign/“modern” is well reflected in the titles of the book’s first two parts: “The More Things Change…” and “…the More They Stay the Same.” Part Three, “Continuity and Change,” carries into the decline of colonial rule and the rise of Moroccan nationalism. Each of the first two parts is divided into three mirror-imaged chapters dealing with thematic issues over the course of the last three and a half decades of Moroccan independence (Part I) and the first two decades of the French Protectorate (Part II). Each part begins with a broad survey of policies and strategies and follows with discussions of policies related to two essential food staples: flour and meat. These two “basic foods,” explains Holden, were “sold in urban market, so [water] mills and slaughterhouses offer an ideal prism through which to view relations between state and society. Millers served the poor, but they were influential members of urban society; butchers served the rich, but they were at the bottom rung of Fez’s Social hierarchy” (p. 7). The chronological framework of this book commences with the Great Famine in Morocco which lasted from 1878 through 1884. It concludes with the prolonged crisis of the 1930s during which “drought and global recession caused a severe food shortage in Moroccan cities” (p. 11) such as Fez. In these crises, and others along the years between them, central government and local authorities, Moroccan and French alike, were required to devise strategies and offer solutions that, on the whole, seem to have bore surprising resemblance to each other. Pre-colonial Sultans and the French colonial authorities that followed them tended to prefer traditional modes of processing food “in order to secure the loyalty of workers and the poor, the lynchpin of their authority” (p. 12). Holden’s comparative investigation of Moroccan and colonial food policies enables her to reexamine and challenge some commonly held views about the “despotic” characteristics of Islamic (or “Oriental”) government or the exploitative nature of the colonial state. Thus, when examining the Makhzan’s handling of the great famine during the 1880s, she concludes that while “Moroccan rulers considered the stability of their kingdom’s commercial and political centers as their highest priority,” they were also sensitive to “the lot of the impoverished majority” in an attempt to narrow the “new gap between the rich and the poor” (p. 40). As for the French, they “hoped to eradicate the root cause of popular unrest by implementing policies that fostered full employment among Moroccans [and] implemented policies designed to perpetuate pre-modern trades” (p. 118). Colonial regulation of the butcher’s trade “transformed meat’s social and economic significance, democratizing meet consumption” (p. 140). However, as the combined effects of local drought and global recession of the 1930s “impoverished the even heretofore rich…[many] Moroccans became politicized not in the hope of increasing legal rights but rather in the pursuit of tangible interests.” Consequently, “drought and recession became the paradoxically fertile field for the emergence of a conservative form of nationalist network…