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The blind protesters of the Moroccan boulevard

In Morocco, highly educated blind men and women struggle to find work. About 30 of them camp in a small park in downtown Rabat to protest
Blind protesters stand at their camp in the centre of Rabat to raise awareness of their situation (MEE/Rik Goverde)

RABAT – On 26 March 2014, Abderahim Motaqui and 12 of his friends went to the parliament in Rabat, chained to one another. They poured liquid on their clothes and threatened to set themselves on fire, right there on the pavement of Morocco’s political epicentre.

The 13 were all blind or had very poor vision, were highly educated and yet were unemployed. All were desperate.

They saw a symbolic collective suicide as the ultimate cry for help, says Motaqui, who is now 27 and the father of a six-month-old baby.

“If you are hungry and have nothing, if you feel naked and excluded from society, you do harsh things,” he tells Middle East Eye in a cafe in downtown Rabat.

That day, the police acted swiftly and hosed the men down with water. That was not necessary, Motaqui now claims: “We wouldn’t have torched ourselves, our religion forbids suicide. The fuel wasn’t real. We just wanted to shake people up, get attention.”

In the last days of August 2015 Motaqui had camped out in a small park on Boulevard Mohamed V in the centre of Rabat, along with some 30 other blind or partially blind activists.

The sand is covered with thin mattresses and carton sheets in the shades of the trees, and during the nights the camp is visited by rats and insects. The protesters keep their things in big plastic bags and take turns in protesting, just a few hundred metres from parliament. “We want to raise awareness,” says Motaqui, who says his brother has the same genetic visual problem as him, "due to cousins marrying each other". 

Blind protesters stay at their camp in the centre of Rabat, to raise awareness for their situation. (MEE/Rik Goverde)

Highly educated

Despite their efforts, little has changed for the blind in Morocco, the highly educated protesters claim. “We are graduates in Arabic or English literature, I’m a physiotherapist,” says Jamal Azerwal from Beni Mellal, who is 30 years old and has very weak vision. “But it’s almost impossible to find a job. We want our right to work, our right to integrate in society. The governement should help us.”

It seems no one knows exactly how many disabled people Morocco has. The World Health Organisation estimates that worldwide around 15 percent of the population suffers from some sort of disability. Moroccan institutions contradict each other: the High Commission for Planning (HCP) says that a study from 2004 revealed that there were 680,000 disabled people in the country - at that time just over 2 percent of the population.

Another study though, also from 2004, estimated the number of Moroccans with disabilities as 1.53mn, around 5 percent of the population. Some 28 percent of those were visually disabled.

“The blind have it extra hard,” says Nabila Benomar, an MP for the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM). Morocco has special regional centres for the blind, but means are lacking. “There are some books in Braille, but no cards for topography, or drawings of the human body. Exams are the same for everybody and involve questions on colours and shapes. How could the visually impaired answer those?”

Blind men selling paper napkins on the Boulevard Mohamed V in Rabat. (MEE/Rik Goverde)

Since mid-2014, Morocco has been working on a draft law which should enhance the position of disabled people, but it was widely critised as being too vague. Benomar agrees. She wants benefits for families who have disabled children and for disabled people who can’t work. “I plead for mandatory health insurance, and encouraging companies to hire the handicapped through tax-benefits.”

Mohamed el-Khadiri, president of the Collective for the Promotion of Rights of Disabled People, laughs when he hears these words. It's election time, he says dryly. “But it’s good that politicians speak out. That’s important.”

The fact is, he says, that Morocco already has several laws that guarantee some basic rights for the disabled. A law was ratified in 1982 for the visually disabled, which grants them the right to work, education, and free transportation. El-Khadiri adds: “Later, in '93, there was a law according further rights to all disabled people and in '98 there was a decree that said that seven percent of the jobs in the public sector should go to the disabled.”

But they don’t. The big problem isn't the laws, El Khadiri adds, although they could be better. “In 2003 a law was ratified. The problem is that [laws] are not actively applied. That’s what’s important.”

One of the protesters in front of the camp in the centre of Rabat, to raise awareness for the situation of the blind. (MEE/Rik Goverde)

Paper napkins

That is why the blind boys and girls of the boulevard come to downtown Rabat every day. Sometimes they hold each other's shoulders, cracking jokes, while taking their place on the pavement. Some hold up beggar-boxes behind which they hide their faces; others sell paper napkins. One tells MEE with a big smile how he has an actual taxi-license to his name, which he rents out to a taxi driver.

“It is all we can do to make money,” says Ahmed Khalid, 30, who left Beni Mellal in central Morocco about four years ago. “I sell paper napkins. Sometimes I make 100 dirhams a day ($10), sometimes I make nothing. My room is 600 dirhams ($60) a month. Times are very difficult.”

Itto Outini is taking notes in Braille in Rabat, while studiyng for her TOEFL. (MEE/Rik Goverde)

A few miles away, on the university campus, Itto Outini, 26, has been preparing for her Teach English as a Foreign Language test. She is a third-year English major and as she has no familiy to fall back on, she fought to get where she is now.

Outini has been blind in both eyes ever since a female relative threw a fork at her one Thursday in 2007. Until that day, she had been living as a maid with various uncles and aunts after her mother died and her father left his kids. She always dreamed of going to school.

“They wouldn’t let me," she told MEE. "When I was 17 I had given up on my dreams. I had accepted that I would marry and get about 10 kids who also would be uneducated.”

But then the woman threw the fork and hit Outini in the eyes, she recalls: “I didn’t go to the police, I wouldn’t have known how. I had never been to school, couldn’t read or write. But at that moment, I decided that I had to be educated.”

Blindness as liberation

So in a way, Outini says smiling, she should thank her attacker. It was a push to escape her life. In one day she learned Braille. She prepared for secondary school in a month, and now she is going into her last year at Moulay Ismail University in Meknes.

“During secondary and high school, which were for the blind, I stayed in a school dormitory," she tells MEE. "That closed during the holidays. Most pupils went home, but I lived on the streets, sleeping near mosques or shops. All I did was study.”

That is still her rhythm - she studies, sleeps, eats, in that order. When she doesn’t have enough money, she doesn’t eat. Three times a year she gets some money from the governement, which just about covers her rent. “Apart from that I get by on what friends give me.”

There are no structural monthly benefits for disabled people in Morocco, says El Khadiri. Since 2013 the kingdom has had a Fund for Social Cohesion which amounted to $200mn in the first year. In 2014 and 2015, the amount rose. “But the money is also used for social measures taken by other ministeries, health insurance for the underprivileged and the education of poor children,” says El Khadiri. “Good, of course, but in 2015 only one-eighth of the money was used for programmes targeting the disabled. According to us, that should be a third.”

Jamal Azerwal, one of the protesters who has very low vision, in the camp in the centre of Raba. (MEE/Rik Goverde)

Used to it

Back in the centre of Rabat, close to the camp, Jamal Azerwal sits in a cafe. On his way to the cafe with Motaqui, he had to zigzag past cars, iron pins sticking out of the ground and garbage containers. “We’re used to it,” he smiles. “We find our way.”

His smile turns into as sigh, though. Many get free transportation, but they are dependent on the pity the taxi drivers feel for them, Azerwal says. “People who can see can do all sorts of stuff, like sell flowers. We can’t, that’s why we went to university. Yet we are selling handkerchiefs in the streets. Which to me is just a hidden way of begging.”