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World Heritage in the Medina in Fez, Morocco: Blessing or Curse?

World Heritage in the Medina in Fez, Morocco: Blessing or Curse?

The Medina in Fez, Morocco is a labyrinth of alleyways that intersect Moroccan culture, religion, and economy. It is a place like no other in the world, and indeed being inside the Medina walls is to be in an entirely different realm. To visitors, who are often left astounded at its sheer mass and intricacies, it may come as no surprise that the Medina is under UNESCO protection as a World Heritage site; it is truly unique. However, while the title of being a World Heritage site sounds beneficial, the Medina and its inhabitants may be suffering for it. Indeed, while some cultural buildings within the Medina have benefitted from rehabilitation, its inhabitants are suffering from a fresh wave of colonial prejudice. The original plans for the Medina’s rehabilitation relied heavily on French colonial literature about the Medina. Today, colonialism is coming back to life using UNESCO and other contributors’ money. Manifestations of these harmful policies include forcibly removing Medina inhabitants, moving traditional craft activities to outside the Medina walls, and proposing mandatory standards of hygiene. These policies inordinately affect the current Medina residents, primarily rural migrants from Morocco’s countryside seeking low-income housing. Thus, while the Ministry of Culture, which lays claim to the Medina, may enjoy UNESCO support and protection in its  rehabilitation efforts, it is doing little for the Medina’s inhabitants. This paper will investigate the initial need for UNESCO protection, the proposal submitted, and how the program has affected the Medina to measure the consequences and benefits of the program.

History of the Medina

The Medina has historically been a cultural institution of the Fessi people, and a neighborhood bursting at the seams with craftspeople, religious centers, and buildings that seem to defy earth’s gravitational pull. Yet, the Medina is not considered to be a desirable residence, and just outside the Medina walls, lay cleaner and wealthier neighborhoods, which once belonged to the French protectorate. Following the French withdrawal from Morocco in 1956, there was a mass exodus of wealthier Fessi to Ville Nouvelle (the French quarter). The Fessi who moved did so to improve their quality of life, and their economic status as the French quarter was much closer to economic opportunities not accessible from the Medina. In the spaces that the wealthy Fessi left in the Medina, rural migrants from the countryside soon entered. Many large medina homes were divided into apartments and the population of the Medina began to spike. From 1957-1982 the average yearly increase of residents was 8,000. As the numbers rose, so did the social tensions: the Fessi people had long prided themselves on their ‘city’ lifestyles and crafts, and consequently looked down on Moroccans from the countryside. A narrative of crisis in regards to artisanal crafts appeared in the 20th century, whereas it does not appear in pro-colonial texts which praised the Fessi crafts and craftspeople.  Much of this discourse is a thinly veiled commentary on the new social actors in the Medina and mimics discourse of the French, who delegated the Fessi as superior to all other Moroccans.  Therefore, discourse of pride for Medina crafts disappeared and, in its place, narratives of a crisis and anti- rural Moroccan emerged. The shift in discourse corresponds with the French departure from Morocco, a power vacuum that  allowed the Fessi to take control of the hierarchical narrative and used it to their advantage. However, the narrative of crisis that was employed to continue the set hierarchy became the public narrative and prompted outside intervention.  

Proposal

In the 1970s the Moroccan Department of Urbanism proposed building an access road through the middle of the Medina. This road would have fundamentally changed the structure of the Medina and a proposal to protect the Medina was quickly constructed. In 1976 Medina actors petitioned UNESCO to include the Medina as a World Heritage site. This plan included the “continuation and blossoming of the ensemble of the social, economic, cultural, and religious life that made the particular genius of the Medina”. Thus, the plan included rehabilitation, economic aid, and the continuation of a way of life provided by the Medina’s ecosystem. In this vain, the Medina’s residents were explicitly included in the proposal. Indeed, one such project called for action by the residents in facilitating its success. The “Fez Medina Rehabilitation Project” funded by the World Bank, aimed at restoring heritage and improving the quality of life in the Medina, through participation and collaboration with locals. Yet, while the projects and proposals asked for local participation and directly affected the population, many projects seemed to undercut their way of life. The UNESCO and the United Nations Development Program jointly created a ‘master plan’ for Morocco. This plan recommended a decrease in the Medina’s population through building new housing outside the Medina walls and moving residents. In addition, this plan supported removing merchandised crafts from the Medina and introducing standards of hygiene. At face value, these recommendations may not seem of mal intent, yet, behind the eloquence of the plan a lay proposal for a forced mass exodus, the removal of the essential economy of crafts from the Medina, and the forced imposing hygiene codes. These programs were approved because the background information provided to aid organizations portrayed the Medina in a colonialist manner and relied solely on French writing about the Medina. Such writing reflected the aforementioned narrative of crisis, helping to prompt intervention. The source texts also reflected the unfavorable attitude of the Fessi people towards rural Morrocans (an extension of colonial implemented higherarchies). The consideration and later implementation of these texts in UNESCO action in the Media thus created a resurgence of colonial policies based on discriminatory racism.

Direct colonial policy is evident in the Atlas of the Medina in Fez (1990). The Atlas was created at the request of UNESCO, by academics at the University of Fez. The Atlas described the population density changes in the Medina as well as what the authors called ‘ruralization’ or “the impregnation of the city with semi-rural modes of life marked by deplorable hygiene and lack of urban traditions”. Furthermore, this ‘ruralization’ was described as directly causing the decline of traditional social relations in the Medina. This information, provided to UNESCO and other programs, scapegoated the rural migrants for deteriorating Medina conditions and the resulting programs acted as punishments. In this manner, 50,000 inhabitants were relocated outside of the Medina, and more found new restrictions on their crafts and lifestyles. Thus, through the façade of aid and preservation, colonial era hierarchies have been revitalized and are directly impacting the Medina and its residents today.

Conclusion

UNESCO World Heritage sites have the purpose of aiding places under its protection through the rehabilitation of cultural sites and through economic benefits. However, in the case of the Medina in Fez, intervention has caused more harm than good. Medina residents are being placed, once again, under colonial age policies as various programs and plans orchestrated to help, actually support a harmful social hierarchy first established under French rule. For effective and truly beneficial change to occur in the Medina it will be necessary for air organizations and UNESCO itself to base aid on recommendations by Medina inhabitants. Until such collaboration is met, however, the title of World Heritage will bring severe consequences to Fez.


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