“Your Majetski” (an allusion to King Mohammed VI’s favourite sport at the beginning of his reign) “in Morocco, all is well up to the prison”; “When a minister is appointed, he doesn’t get the palms of power but he does get his palm greased”; In Morocco, there has never been a transition, only transactions”. . . Etc. One damning quip after another, acerbic puns and turns of phrase that have become cult objects. Their author is Ahmed Snoussi, aka Bziz (the rascal), a living icon of committed humour in a country where laughter, the spice of their hard life for millions of Moroccans, can turn sour when it is tempted to cross the red line of politics.
On 6 December 2018, Bziz was summoned to police headquarters in Casablanca and questioned for six hours on end about a piece of writing posted on his Facebook account nearly a year and a half ago (in July 2017) in which he denounced the “arbitrary” arrests of Rif activists, in particular the artists among them, during the Hirak protests of 2016–2017. And to top it off, the complaint was signed by none other than the Minister of Interior Affairs, Abdelouafi Latit. A coalition of more than twenty Moroccan NGOs, including the famous Association marocaine des droits humains (AMDH) immediately denounced the “unacceptable pressures exerted on a comic artist” in a press release dated 27 December.
King Hassan II Gets Enraged
“When they told me why I had been summoned, and being a comedian, I immediately thought it was a practical joke. . . I told the police officer questioning me, ‘I think the minister has got the wrong man, he should have lodged his complaint against Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, who provided us with a forum. You should be questioning him, not me,’‘ Snoussi exclaims, leafing through a pile of international newspapers, from the New York Times to Le Monde and Libération, containing the articles and interviews dealing with his case ever since the Palace decided to ban him in 1994. In his old flat in the Gautier district of Casablanca, where he has been a tenant for three decades, he spends his time between the skits he never tires of writing and the tiny balcony he has made over into a studio where he plies his other “trade”: painting. Standing by a few canvases propped against the wall, he points to one of them: “That’s a commission. I was just finishing it when a dozen plain clothes cops took the building by a storm to serve me with my summons. As if the ban I’ve had to put up with for the last twenty-five years wasn’t enough!”
It was his skit about golf, the favourite pastime of Hassan II (1961–1999) that triggered the whole thing off. A former minister had told him how “Hassan II listened to it and immediately flew into a terrible rage.” In it, Bziz makes fun of the sport and above all of the golf courses that were mushrooming at the time in several of the Kingdom’s cities.
Excerpt: “They’re laying out golf courses when the country is stricken by drought. Behind the barbed wire our poor scrawny cows gaze on those greens with envy. They say the grounds are sprinkled with mineral water and if you pass close by you can hear them belch with satisfaction. . .”
Since then, the face and voice of Bziz have been banished from public radio and TV. In March 1998, a year before the death of Hassan II, a political changeover was negotiated with the Palace and the opposition was put in charge of the government under the leadership of Aberrahmane Youssoufi, once a socialist activist and companion of Mehdi Ben Barka, kidnapped in Paris in 1965 and whose body was never found.
“To my mind, when Youssoufi, whom I knew personally, came to power, I figured the ban on me would be lifted,” Bziz told me. “But when I brought it up with him, he hemmed and hawed and finally told me there was nothing he could do, that he himself had trouble speaking on the public media. And in fact, a few months later, the same Youssoufi banned with a single stroke of the pen three Moroccan weeklies, Le Journal, Assahifa and Demain. So for me, there was no hope.”
No Transition, Transactions
Twelve years later, ironically enough, the Arab Spring in its Moroccan version, February 20 Movement, again brought new oppositional figures into power, the supposedly “moderate” Islamists of the Justice and Development Party (PJD). “And there again,” Bziz recalls, a few months after Abdelilah Benkirane was appointed Prime Minister, in March 2012 I think it was, I asked him if the ban against me was finally going to be lifted. His answer was: “But I’m banned too, what do you imagine?”
In Morocco the humourist concludes, “there has never been a transition, only transactions, and ministers don’t get the palms of power, they only get their palms greased.” Forever wearing his long black coat and astrakhan hat and with his eagle eye, Ahmed Snoussi seems ageless. When asked about his age, he answers: “I’m middle-aged, I live in the Middle Ages.”
He’s a man who has lived through forty years of Moroccan history, since the end of the seventies, and in spite of all the regime’s efforts to cloak him in generational forgetfulness, his presence is still very strong, especially on the social networks where we can view excerpts from his skits, recorded in Europe or in tiny theatres in Morocco. He is regarded as a living icon of bitter-sweet political humour.
At 13, he was already involved in the theatre, later he turned to stand-up comedy (in partnership with another comedian, Houcine Benyaz, aka Baz). Their sarcastic humour did not target the regime but Moroccan society in general. Bziz and Baz formed one of the most popular duets of the eighties until their separation in 1991, when Benyaz refused to “take the plunge” into political themes. But while Baz was soon forgotten, Bziz continued getting on the government’s wick: Morocco is a monarchy in which the King is both a political ruler with absolute power and a sacrosanct religious leader.
Portraits of Executives on Bank Notes
Unable to perform in his own country, Bziz earns a living through the sale of his paintings and an occasional performance in France, Belgium or the Netherlands, where there is a large Moroccan diaspora. One of his latest sketches, “Abou Nahab” (which means looter), performed in 2012, is entirely devoted to the Arab Spring, which Bziz supported from the start by taking part in the earliest street demonstrations on 20 February 2011. In this show, performed in Toulouse in 2014, Bziz makes fun of an Arab dictator, lolling in an armchair spattered with blood, addressing his “subjects” who are demanding more freedom. “Why are you asking for freedom and dignity? Why don’t you take care of poverty instead? Do not neglect poverty. Money is the filth of life, the filth of the here below.” And he adds later, in the same skit:
“Why are the countries of our region the only ones where banknotes show the faces of our rulers. Why is it that in Europe, instead of the faces of their rulers, they have pictures of flowers or animals? One day, a Moroccan came across a 200 dirham note and since he’d never seen such a thing, he thought he’d found the King’s ID. We see him everywhere, on banknotes, on postage stamps, everywhere. He’s Big Brother.”
And in the same skit, he goes on to talk about the death of Gaddhafi, making fun of his favourite pose (ensconced in his armchair, fist in the air): “We always thought those dictators were smart. Gaddhafi didn’t even know enough to run away.”
Since this skit, the pressure on Bziz has never ceased to grow in a country where bans and attacks on freedom of expression are almost daily occurrences. Thus, on 28 December 2018, the cultural association Racines, one of the largest in Morocco, was dissolved by decision of justice at the request of the Ministry of Home Affairs.