- The Politics of Food in Modern Morocco
What can explain the rise and resilience of authoritarian states in the Arab-Islamic world? This is the overarching question informing Stacy E. Holden's The Politics of Food in Modern Morocco. Breaking with interpretations that locate the roots of authoritarianism in ethnicity or religion, Holden argues that the largely authoritarian political systems in the Arab-Islamic world have evolved within the context of "the unique shortcomings of geography and climate" (p. 5). Holden turns to the case of Morocco, which, compared to its regional neighbors, has been defined by political stability and the continuation of the ruling dynasty (albeit a modernized version) throughout the period of the country's transition to modernity from the late 19th century. Focusing on the city of Fez between 1878 and 1937 —a pivotal period in the Moroccan transition to modernity and a time of almost perpetual drought or famine in Morocco —Holden traces the "construction of the modern state via urban food provisioning" (p. 9) before the establishment of the French Protectorate in 1912 and through critical years between the First and Second World Wars, when Moroccan nationalism emerged and spread among the masses. Yet, she cautions her reader against simplistic or mono-causal explanations [End Page 141] for the existence of authoritarianism (such as those she challenges), arguing instead that the impact of climate and geography offer a new prism through which to view the development of political systems in the region.
Holden also is concerned with showing how within authoritarian regimes of power, there is room for politics and social action on the part of the masses; moreover, that the state must take into consideration and accommodate the demands of the population even in the absence of institutions of representative government. In Morocco during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this involved the makhzan's (and later the colonial administration's) ensuring the availability of food stuffs in a situation in which drought, famine, and food shortage were endemic. Holden attempts to show that the Moroccan Sultanate "perpetuated a conservative ideology that shaped state institutions and the wielding of power" (p. 6). By "conservative ideology," she refers to "a social and political outlook premised on the preservation of benefits associated with prior institutions and patterns of social life" (p. 6). She concludes that through their "social networks, commercial innovations, and technological choices" butchers and millers —members of Fez's working majority (society) —"ensured that their government recognized and acknowledged" (p. 12) their interests within the context of social and economic transformations associated with the rise of the modern Moroccan state and society. This meant, namely, the integration of the Moroccan economy into the expanding global capitalist system; the advent of the French Protectorate; and the emergence of the Moroccan nationalist movement, Istiqlal.
The strength of Holden's book lies in its source base. The author has meticulously mined pre-Protectorate Moroccan state archives (known as "al-wathiq") in order to analyze the state's logic regarding price controls of food staples, import and export policies, and food provisioning in times of famine or drought. She supplements her analysis of such policies during the Protectorate period by drawing on a remarkable set of testimonies and oral histories of 25 "octogenarian" artisans and workers who experienced the social and economic transformations she describes in the book. Holden's reliance on indigenous Moroccan sources represents an important step forward in Anglophone Moroccan historiography since —with some notable recent exceptions —much of what has been written has relied primarily on European diplomatic and enthnographic primary sources. Moreover, Holden's interest in understanding Moroccan state/society relations is bolstered by her efforts to give voice to the Moroccan "subaltern" (i.e., urban workers), whose story is often overlooked or lacks nuance. On one hand, by focusing on the urban workers of Fez, she seeks to reintroduces notions of "class" into the story...