The Altas Lions’ historic run at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar may have come to an end, but their victories continue to create sensations off the pitch. For us members of the Moroccan diaspora living in Western Europe, this was a transformative experience.
Throughout the tournament, Moroccans of all generations gathered to watch the games and celebrate the victory of the Moroccan team. We felt an unprecedented surge of pride that gave new impetus to our evolving identity.
Historically, the construction of identity in the Moroccan community in Western Europe has been a challenge. We have long felt a lack of real belonging in our “host countries” and have never had a truly cohesive identity, given the diversity of Morocco’s own population and its Amazigh, Arab and African elements.
But this World Cup changed that. In my conversations with other Moroccans living in Europe, I have seen how the mountainous achievements of the Atlas Lions have inspired them to embrace and take pride in their Moroccanness.
‘I am neither there nor here’
The words of the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish reflecting on displacement and belonging strike a chord with the Moroccan diaspora in Europe: “I am from there, I am from here, but I am neither there nor here”. That’s how many of us feel.
Today there are between three and five million Moroccans and people of Moroccan descent living in Europe. Many of them came to countries like the Netherlands, France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, and Germany as workers during the period of post-World War II economic growth in Western Europe.
In a political climate where migration and diversity are increasingly seen as a problem and Islamophobia is growing, Moroccans in Europe have felt left out. Many first and second generation European Moroccans have felt disconnected from both the country they live in and the country they come from, including me.
My fear of being excluded in Belgium, the country where I was born, is especially exacerbated by routine encounters with racism and the rise and normalization of right-wing rhetoric across Europe amid the “immigrant crisis”. . Instead of inspiring compassion, the images of refugees arriving from the other side of the Mediterranean have justified and amplified the otherness of my community in Europe.
However, many of us have also not found a sense of belonging in the land of our ancestors. When we visit Morocco, we are often identified as “not really Moroccan”. Part of this has to do with the pressure we feel to hide or shed elements of our Moroccan identity.
“It’s almost as if I’m ashamed to show my Moroccanism, because it makes me less Spanish, and also because I’m not purely Moroccan because I didn’t grow up there,” my friend Nouredine, born and raised in Spain, told me.
A Moroccan couple, living in Belgium, also shared with me that they have only spoken French with their young children because they fear racist abuse if they speak Arabic in public. “We regret that decision,” they told me. Their children now feel excluded from the Moroccan culture because they do not speak their mother tongue.
Many Moroccans believe that such “integration” efforts would make the host society accept them. However, this linguistic assimilation has not only not changed their precarious position in society, but has also alienated them from their own community that does not understand, and perhaps even judge, their decision.
Another challenge for Moroccans in the diaspora has been the lack of cohesion within the Moroccan community driven by ethnic, linguistic and cultural divisions. Situated at the intersection of Amazigh, African and Arab cultures and histories, the Moroccan identity is quite complex and fluid. As the World Cup showed, there are debates inside and outside Morocco about which element is dominant or defines the nation.
As a linguist currently researching language as a barrier to healthcare for the Moroccan community in Brussels, I am faced with the challenges of linguistic diversity within my community. We have a total of four languages: Arabic-Moroccan or Darija, Amazigh -the language of the indigenous people of Morocco- has three other varieties: tarifit, tamazight and tachelhit.
Although I can speak Darija and Tachelhit, I face a hurdle with community members who only speak the other two Amazigh varieties. The language barrier extends to the rest of my community, as those who do not speak Darija as a lingua franca tend to stick primarily to the group that speaks the same Amazigh variety as them.
From ‘cubs’ to ‘lions’
I met Racha, a medical student who grew up in France, when we were both watching a public screening of the Morocco-Canada game. Although complete strangers, we instantly connected as Moroccans, cheering and celebrating together.
“I think I have never been so proud to be Moroccan, and for the first time in my life [I saw] a good representation of Morocco: the songs of the fans; their traditional clothing; our values of respecting our parents, especially our mothers; keep praying whether we win or lose,” he told me in a later message.
For many of us, the coverage of the Moroccan team’s winning streak was the first time we saw positive news about the Moroccans. Although tensions with the police escalated in some Western European cities and marred some of the celebrations, the international media enthusiastically welcomed the Moroccan fans and their team.
Laudatory news articles and social media posts about the Moroccan players and fans sparked a display of Moroccanism that had never been seen before in Europe. It opened the door for my fellow community members to show pride in their Moroccan heritage, both on the street and on social media.
It was an experience of feeling represented, accepted, not someone else. During the match between Belgium and Morocco, Nora, an accountant and Belgian citizen, told me that she was proud to support Morocco because, as she said, the Moroccan team “looks like us”.
Seeing ourselves represented in the final stages of the World Cup, a space that until now seemed unattainable, has infused the next generation of Moroccans from the diaspora with the courage to dream big.
Nine-year-old Adam, born and raised in France to Moroccan parents, has been obsessed with the Atlas Lions ever since he saw them on the front page of French newspapers, his parents told me. He wore his Morocco shirt to school on game days and has decided that Hakim Ziyech is his favorite player because he was “born in Europe too”.
His parents said this is the first time he has shown such a strong interest in his Moroccan heritage. Adam spent hours memorizing the Moroccan national anthem and feels proud and connected to Morocco in a way he never felt before.
But beyond inspiring pride in our Moroccan identity, the Atlas Lions have also brought us together. They have shown us that diversity is strength, not an obstacle. More than half of the Moroccan workforce was also born in Europe, and they have the same cultural and linguistic diversity as our communities.
While the national language is considered a key marker of identity and the glue of most national teams, the Moroccan team has shown that cohesion can transcend language and be based on dedication and pride. Watching Moroccan players fight to the last minute to bring success to their country and embody a whole spectrum of “tamghrabiyt”, the cultural term for Moroccanism, has inspired us to proudly call ourselves Moroccan no matter where we were born or what language we speak. .
When asked about representing the Arab world at the World Cup, Walid Regragui, the Moroccan head coach, cemented our intersectional identity by emphasizing that the team plays for Morocco and for Africa. This was a major public affirmation that Morocco is a culturally heterogeneous country that cannot be reduced to the Arab part of its identity.
The Lions of the Atlas reminded us that Moroccan really encompasses linguistic and cultural diversity. They have given us hope that we can identify ourselves as Moroccan and European, and that we do not have to give up one or the other. They have challenged us to dream of a Europe where multiculturalism is not only accepted but embraced.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.
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