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Setting fire to oneself in Morocco achieves nothing

April 6, 2023 at 3:16 pm

Moroccan theatrical performer Ahmad Jawad set himself on fire in March 2023 in protest at being forced into retirement which left him and his family with an insufficient income [@Mohamed38677577 / Twitter]

The Moroccan artist and actor Ahmad Jawad set himself on fire in front of the Moroccan Ministry of Culture building in Rabat on 27 March, World Theatre Day. The act passed unnoticed. Not even the passers-by who were following what happened with indifference and pity paid much attention, nor did it cause a great uproar that shook society and broke the silence of the graves that enveloped it.

The artist died from his burns. Perhaps he thought that his act would awaken some consciences from their deep slumber, and revive the public debate regarding the citizens’ right to live in dignity in a country where they have become mere taxpayers and customers of the real owners of the land.

Jawad’s self-immolation took place in Ramadan, in front of those out and about in the morning; social media shared the news and pictures (and videos) of it happening. The flames had distorted his features and devoured some of his clothes, but he was still able to move, perhaps from the excessive pain. His voice was strong and shocking as he condemned those who pushed him to protest against them in such a tragic way.

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This was not about the extreme despair felt by the artist as a result of a dire economic and social situation, from which large numbers of Moroccans suffer and now live below the poverty line; rather it was about a strong cry of protest that the artist, who found himself unable to express collective despair any other way, wanted to echo around Boulevard Ghandhi, where he set himself on fire. He wanted his cry to reverberate along the corridors of the Ministry of Culture, which was supposed to develop in society a culture of hope and love of life, not turn it into a stage for a tragic theatre that is realistic to a harsh and unbearable degree.

“Believe me, I can no longer bear all this torment, and excuse me for what I will do in the coming days,” the artists wrote in his will, and the last thing he wrote on his Facebook page before he walked confidently towards his tragic fate, not caring that his slender frame would soon be charred in an effort to ignite a spark of hope among the people who refuse to lie down, despite all of the policies to break them. Jawad was never looking to be a hero in life as much as he was looking for a bit of fairness, recognition and a decent life for himself and his small family. His message is that he chose a “heroic death” over the slow death imposed on him at the beginning of his retirement. His choice was a final act of defiance against the government policies that he resisted for over four decades. It was a blatantly political message to all state officials reflective of the government’s extreme injustice, state monopoly and failure to listen to the demands of simple people; people like Ahmad Jawad.

Self-immolation as a form of protest is not new to Morocco; it was witnessed even before the Mohamed Bouazizi incident in Tunisia, which served as a spark for the Arab Spring. The incidents of self-immolation recorded in Morocco in recent years have turned into a “regular” phenomenon among the more fragile groups in society. Mai Fatiha set herself on fire in protest at the confiscation of the bread that she was selling to support her small family. A student at a Rabat school set himself on fire in protest against his school’s refusal to continue his education. Those who do this to highlight a wrong, injustice and unfairness are turned into regular news items to which the public have become desensitised to the degree that they no longer feel sadness or pity towards the victims.

These individuals are not suicidal, desperate or losers, because the decision to burn oneself in protest is not an easy one to make. It is a courageous attempt to preserve one’s dignity and pride in the face of feeling helpless and having no prospects. Far from any glorification of this phenomenon, which cannot be considered as a “heroic act”, it should make us question our inability to protect those who choose this self-destructive path, at the very least by listening to them before they surrender to death by fire.

We also need to question those who have killed the culture of life in society with policies that rob citizens of what they cherish most: their dignity, their self-esteem, their love for life. They are all victims of corruption, favouritism and the stripping of politics of all that is noble. They are victims of policies of impoverishment, intimidation and fear so that everyone is silent when faced with them. If there had been a public condemnation of all the causes of injustice, state monopoly, poverty and corruption, these people would not have sacrificed themselves.

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The tragic self-sacrifice of the artist Ahmad Jawad held within it a cry of condemnation from a brave intellectual at a time when courage is honoured. It is a condemnation of the officials of the country without exception, beginning with the Minister of Culture who closed the doors of his ministry to the intellectual who was treated like a mangy camel whenever he approached it. It is a condemnation of the silence of the intellectuals, led by the artists who celebrated behind the scenes, waiting for the funeral of their colleague to pass so that they could sit at the dining table at his funeral. It is a condemnation of an entire society that has been stamped with a culture of defeat and fear, and that is humiliated every day in their livelihood, dignity, freedom and sovereignty, without expressing their anger out loud in the face of those usurping their rights.

Such silence is the weakest form of faith. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, setting fire to oneself in Morocco achieves nothing.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 5 April 2023

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.