Khalid Madhi, Urban Restructuring, Power and Capitalism in the Tourist City: Contested Terrains of Marrakesh (Routledge, 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Khalid Madhi (KM): Growing up in a small Moroccan town with less touristic “appeal,” I often imagined Marrakesh in contradictory terms: a modern and cosmopolitan city, a place of authentic Moroccan lifestyles, tradition, and an international tourist destination. My interest in Marrakesh began in 2004 when my spouse and I visited the city, eager to immerse ourselves in the “tourist experience”. Having then lived and worked in the United States for five years, I felt I had earned the “right” to travel to my country of origin and show my foreign partner its wonders. During our stay, however, we had a first-hand encounter with money and power, as well as their opposites—pauperization and marginalization. On one occasion, a five-star hotel guard denied us entry on the pretext of our “improper” casual attire. And on another, a restaurant waiter warned me, rather in solidarity, that the tourism police were rounding up les faux-guides (unauthorized tour guides), because I was in the company of a white tourist.

As a result of the touristification of their city, the subaltern in Marrakesh endure all forms of class-based Hogra (contempt) from high living costs to precarious housing and job markets. Yet, Marrakeshis console each other, in jest, that Hogra is due not to their inadequacy but rather to the incongruities inherent to touristic rituals when they intersect with longstanding relations of power and money. It was during this visit that I began to appreciate the subversive nature of Marrakeshi satire and the “tiny revolutions,” as George Orwell aptly put it, that Marrakeshi jokes evoke.

Years later, I found myself back in Marrakesh (as a doctoral researcher) to further understand those power dynamics. I found that Hogra still persists and so does satire, but most importantly, Marrakesh continues to be a site of various forms of exclusionary practices resulting from attempts to reorient the city toward the global market. Hence, my book about power and capitalism in the tourist city.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

KM: The book focuses on the processes of urban restructuring, power relations, and the political economy of touristic authenticity. Conceptually, the book proposes a comprehensive analytical framework, highlighting the issues of (post-)coloniality, ideology, heritage-commodification, subjectivity, and counter-conduct in the shadow of global capitalism.

The book is structured around two coterminous modalities of power: control and resistance. In the first section of this book, I argue that the state and corporate spatial practices, legitimized by hegemonic discourses, instantiate a range of shifting subjectivities. The second section concerns itself with the ways in which the city’s residents interpret, and resist, those urban processes.

With regard to the second part of the question, the book relies on Marxist critiques of political economy, Foucault’s works on biopolitics, governmentality, and counter-conduct, as well as Bourdieu’s analyses of non-financial capital and of the social structures of the economy. I also acknowledge the unique contributions made in contemporary Moroccan studies investigating questions of spatiality and subjectivities, along with local identities, as products of globalization. For instance, David McMurray’s work titled In and Out of Morocco: Smuggling and Migration in a Frontier Boomtown (2001) addresses the ways in which global processes are intricately interwoven with local practices. Emily Gottreich’s study of Marrakesh in The Mellah of Marrakesh: Jewish and Muslim Space in Morocco’s Red City (2007) provides insights on how Sultanic rule and European encroachment shaped Marrakesh’s urban space, particularly its Jewish quarters. Through the same lens of global and local processes, David Crawford’s Moroccan Households in the World Economy (2008) on the root causes of global capitalism’s expansion and appeal, is indeed useful. I should also mention that Rachel Newcomb’s Women of Fes Ambiguities of Urban Life in Morocco (2010) and my book share two common themes. First, the paradox of women’s non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as both spaces for “women’s rights” and an outlet through which the central state shirks its responsibility to mitigate the deleterious effects of neoliberal capitalism. And, second, the deployment of rumor as a way for urbanites to express solidarity.

Finally, Koenraad Bogaert’s most recent monograph, Globalized Authoritarianism: Megaprojects, Slums, and Class Relations in Urban Morocco (2018), is a welcome addition to the field of Moroccan and urban studies. In his book, Bogaert focuses on the “deeply political” nature of the most recent installation of mega-projects across Morocco’s major cities.

The connection between Bogaert’s Globalized Authoritarianism and my book can hardly be overemphasized, and it is refreshing to see that a book of Bogaert’s caliber is treating a related topic, utilizing comparable methodological and theoretical instruments. However, while Bogaert focuses on the ways in which mega-projects in two large sized cities serve as dispositifs of authoritarian control and domination, my book concerns itself with a wider spectrum of (superordinate) spatial practices in a medium-sized city, as well as a whole range of (subordinate) struggles and positions. Put simply, readers who are interested in understanding Moroccan urbanism in the shadow of twenty-first-century neoliberalism will find it useful to learn about how mega-projects transform Casablanca and Rabat—but also how large- and small-scale projects shape Marrakesh and its residents, and, most importantly, how these residents contest power.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your academic discipline?

KM: I am a political scientist by training, and—while urban studies is a dynamic subfield in the discipline—not too many political scientists approach the urban question in the way I do in this book. For the most part, the questions that I raise in the book, and the ways in which I address these questions, are typically left to (urban) sociologists and anthropologists. I, however, like to think of my book as an exploration of political theoretic questions, as well as qualitative methodologies in ways that are of interest to political scientists—particularly those interested in cities of the Arab world currently experiencing significant political transitions.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

KM: The book’s intended audience includes students and scholars interested in the MENA region, critical urban studies, and qualitative methodologies. Many of the men and women with whom I interacted in Marrakesh showed an eagerness to read about their city from a compatriot’s perspective. These were graduate students and faculty at Cadi Ayyad University in Marrakesh, and urban activists and journalists with whom I made a commitment to share my work—in its original version or in translation. Hence, this book has a definite international appeal. In short, this book will be valuable to academics and practitioners across disciplines, including geography, political science, urban planning, and architecture.

The book attempts to shed some light on a host of micro-technologies of power that operate at the granular (city) level and that can be overlooked when one adopts a state-centric analysis. That is to say, the central state—or, better yet, the monarchy—is far from being the sole shaper of Morocco’s social and political life. To be sure, the local government, private actors, NGOs, and the media (among others) all contribute, often in conflicting terms, to the shaping of the city’s social relations, local values, social markers, and boundaries. The example of Morocco helps us understand a phenomenon affecting many other cities of the global South.


Excerpt from the Book

From the introduction:


Since the mid-1990s, Marrakesh has evolved as a “world class destination” by attracting flows of capital devoted to building a tourism sector and creating a diverse real estate market. In addition to the construction of tourist and entertainment facilities, large-scale housing projects and gated communities, the marketization of a large area of gentrifiable houses in the historic quarters of the city, have become the modus operandi for the state and its private partners to respond to the “economic imperative” of growth.

The economic imperative, alone, is hard to attend to if not invigorated by a political logic and an institutional and ideological practice. For instance, in order to meet the expectations of a world-class clientele, Marrakesh’s elite prioritize “modernization” as a strategy.


Marrakesh [we are told] is a microcosm of the country, by virtue of its status in history, and hence the best possible site for government policies to create a space for modernity and tradition to “cohabit”. Ultimately, this rhetoric relegates the marginal “Other” and the space they occupy to the status of “traditional” against which a “modern” vision for the city emerges. On the ground, the modernization strategy, a reoccurring theme in Moroccan politics, creates an urban spatial structure that is highly segmented between areas of development and ‘islands’ of marginality. As a result, the Marrakeshi communities who prize the “use value” of their space experience further marginalization in the process.


The medina is not the only urban space that is transformed by capital, other residential and industrial areas are also subjected to such transformations. Those extended families who sell their riads are scattered in government-subsidized apartments in new suburbs such as Tamansourt, Azzouzia and M’hamid. Under the monarch’s command and with governmental collaboration providing land, the private sector built and marketed 200,000 social housing units in Tamansourt located 10 miles northwest of the city. Halfway between the Medina and Tamansourt, a two-mile strip of workshops, showrooms, garages and art galleries, Quartier Industriel Sidi Ghanem, is where the local government seeks to attract offshoring investments by foreign expatriates. Already saturated in 2008, an extension project was initiated by al-Omrane Group, the powerful semi-public land development and construction holding, annexing an additional 185 acres (45 land parcels) to the already-existing 432 acres (500 parcels).

These urban transformations are not without serious implications at the social level. In the absence of government regulations to organize the market, and determine its long-term objectives within a vision of sustainable development for the city, the economic gains are concentrated in the hands of the few. Further, the socio-economic gap between the locals and the newcomers exacerbates the sense of powerlessness of the former group and the presumed “superiority” of the latter, thereby recreating and refashioning colonial hierarchies. Meanwhile, Marrakeshis are bombarded with messages stressing on the necessity of maintaining their image as “tolerant, hospitable and friendly” and the image of Marrakesh as a city where “modernity and authenticity” live side by side and where “the senses feast.” One of the earliest media campaigns targeting the local population in mid-1990s, was a TV advertisement which aimed to ‘raise awareness’ about the harms of informal services on the tourism-based economy. The TV advertisement teaches that such practices as non-authorized guided tours, pick-pocketing, overcharging tourists are bad for the economy – since they would drive the tourists, and their hard-currencies, away.


When I returned to Marrakesh in the spring of 2014, my research goal was to learn more about the spatial practices and the discursive formations shaping this assemblage of proximities and the, potentially, troublesome voisinage between subordinate and superordinate, locals and newcomers, state and citizenry, capital and working class. I knew well that narrowing the physical distance among socially-distant communities does not go unnoticed or unexamined. Certainly, the subaltern cast their gaze, observe, interpret, and most importantly, speak about the changes underway in their city. What I learned was the degree to which these spatial practices were imbued with historically and ideologically motivated power structures.


Governing Marrakesh in the Global Era

In Moroccan vernacular, it is often said that the world in the global era has become a “small village”. Whether this analogy has any serious analytic import, the uncanny use of “village” rather than “city” instructs us to think of globalization’s central paradox: those very urbanites who make globalization happen in the South are the ones who render the city irrelevant, if not, “village-like”.  The urban elites live in one city (e.g., Marrakesh) and shop, celebrate New Year’s Eve, educate their children and seek medical treatment in Paris, Barcelona, London or Milan. Globalization, however one might choose to define it, is one of the processes affecting the economic, political and social life in all cities of the globe.  Marrakesh’s Urban Agency, in its policy papers, envisions the city’s future as one that is “at the crossroads of urbanization and globalization”.

Globalization is an historical trend of growing and deepening interconnectedness among people and societies worldwide. To some, globalization also means the “homogenizing impact of global capital”. Since capitalism is essentially an expansionary and polarizing system, its “globality” has touched all aspects of contemporary urban (and certainly rural) life, from the economic to the political, the financial to the sociocultural. The growing transnational financial nodes have intensified inter-urban networks, while the intra-national distances and linkages became weaker. This is also true for the major cities in the global South; they have become increasingly connected to the major nodes of global capital, while the periphery (be it the shantytowns or the ‘economically dormant’ villages) are increasingly alienated.

Against the “homogenizing” account about, and of, globalization, Ananya Roy and Aihwa Ong (2011) argue that the reliance on a “singular causality” such as global capitalism, is an unwarranted generalization that smacks of “economistic […] reductionism”. Roy and Ong suggest that we look beyond the lens of the growing transnational financial nodes that have intensified inter-urban networks and, instead, think of cities as “sites for launching world-conjuring projects”. Cities, Roy and Ong tell us, are “[c]aught in the vectors of particular histories, national aspirations, and flows of cultures”. Since urbanites in the Global South “like to think of their hometown as having some degree of global significance,” is useful to consider the multiple ways those residents act in order to “symbolically re-situate” their city beyond the “mega-projects supported by politicians, planners, and boosters”. It is in this backdrop that cities like Marrakesh become contested terrains where residents resist policies and practices that favor attractiveness over local priorities.


Method, Justification and Structure

Designed in terms of encounters, interactions and confrontations among the various (extra)urban actors, this book is divided into seven chapters. In Chapter 2, I explore these encounters, interactions and confrontations among institutional actors exercising what I term “the institutional control” over the city. These encounters take place, first, between the colonial and national state; between the local and central state and; finally, between the state and global capital.


Chapter 3 explores the processes by which a “Marrakesh identity” is being constructed and branded.


Chapters 4 though 6 delve into this process of normalization by way of media, advertising and policy discourses. In Chapter 4, the analysis rests on the understanding that individual media articles cannot be studied in isolation from their wider contexts: media content is therefore a pastiche of references, quotations and allusions from other “texts”.


Chapter 5 undertakes a thorough analysis of the legal texts, government-issued reports as well as reports by non-governmental and international institutions in order to trace, on the one hand, the legal and juridical foundations of Marrakesh’s territorial restructuring, land-use policy and, on the other hand, the challenges to governing.


In chapter 6, I attempt to disclose the “social structures” of the housing market by focusing on the large-scale housing projects as well as the “niche” housing market of riads.


Chapter 7 is based on extensive ethnographic field work to “dig out” the various subjectivities resulting from the narrowing of the “physical distance” among “socially-distant” communities… [it] also focuses on fragmented, non-confrontational forms of resistance (counter-conduct). The chapter is divided into three spatially and topically-specific sections: each section focuses on a distinct territory in/adjacent to Marrakesh as well as a distinct form of counter-conduct.