Once men sold themselves to each other;
O Mora[1] you would take them to underground caves;
And they are rejected once strength and breath are consumed;
They appear like a leaking bucket no longer drawing water.

In these words, Haj Ahmed, an Amazigh miner residing in France, articulated his understanding of the dynamics and repercussions of exile and labor in France. He drew parallels between contemporary labor conditions and the historical experiences of slavery in his hometown of southern Morocco. Sung by Ammoury Mbarek, the acclaimed founder of the musical group Ousman, this poem voiced the emotions, joys, and struggles of southern Amazigh and Arabic-speaking Moroccan immigrants from the Anti-Atlas, in the coal mines and construction sites in northern France. Ammoury Mbarek, who was Born in 1951 in Irguiten a few kilometers from Taroudant, was a renowned Amazigh composer and musician who also lived in France in a while. His experience of immigration allowed Ammoury to voice the deep emotions that surround the displacement, nostalgia, and dreams of Moroccan immigrants in France after Morocco’s independence in 1965.

The extractive economy depicted in these lines was not new. In fact, Black communities residing in the Anti-Atlas, lower Souss region, and southeastern lower Draa valley, whether they self-defined as Arab or Amazigh, were an object of French colonial exploitation since the Protectorate (1912-1956). These areas supplied soldiers for the French army and cheap labor for its colonial factories and construction projects while others engaged in commerce between Morocco and France (Ray, 1938). The imported labor of southeastern Moroccans were not solely dedicated to excavating war materials and supplying French factories, but also some worked as acrobats, entraining American and European audiences in fairs in London, Paris, New York, and Chicago (El Habbouch, 2011).

Soussis (also known as Swassa) have received the lion share of scholarly attention at the expense of other groups, particularly Black residents of the Anti-Atlas and Souss regions. Starting in the late 1920s an increasing scholarship was authored about the Soussi migrant phenomenon and the Amazigh grocery enterprise throughout Morocco and France (Justinard 1928; Marquez 1935; Alport 1964; Waterbury 1972; Boukous 1975; Benhlal 1980). The deference French colonials showed toward Imazighen can partly explain this silence of other experiences in the Anti-Atlas. While Black and Arab citizens from southeastern Morocco migrated out of their region in search of work during times of drought and famine (Salime, 2023), early colonial researchers opted to give less space to their agency in their texts. Ray attributes the phenomenon of Berber/Amazigh migrants from Souss in the banlieues of Paris and other French cities as early as the 1930s to what he calls “sedentary Amazigh.” He notes that migrants from the regions of Souss, Anti-Atlas, south and southwestern High Atlas, and the region of Oujda and Berkane are “Berbers [who] love traveling. However contradictory it may seem, it is they, the mountaineers, the pedestrians, who travel throughout North Africa, Europe, and even America, while the supposedly nomadic Arabs seldom venture beyond the boundaries of their summer and winter camps” (Ray, 1938:118; Justinard, 1928). This discourse, which is reminiscent of the “Berber myth,” permeates the rest of colonial writings and even many postcolonial publications, though unconsciously.

I take a moment to revisit this research trend despite its recent replacement by super- and hypermarket chains in order to shed light on what this tradition of migration research left out: Black migration from the same region. I use Black here to refer to different groups of indigenous native Arab and Amazigh speakers and dark-skinned inhabitants of the Anti-Atlas. These Black natives could be enslaved people (‘abid) or Haratine who are themselves believed to be descendants of enslaved people from West and sub-Saharan Africa (Aouad-Badoual, 2004; Aidi, 2023; Boum, 2021). For some, Haratine are descendants of the Bafur before they moved south with the advance of Islam and the settlement of Amazigh communities in the Anti-Atlas (Boum and Mendoza-Boum, 2024). As day laborers, Haratine engaged in a range of manual tasks connected to subsistence farming such as irrigation, trimming dead palm-tree leaves, hand-pollinating palm-trees, and harvesting dates (Ilahiane, 2004; El Hamel, 2002). Others served as bricklayers and home builders across Morocco.


My aim in this essay is offer a historical and ethnic reading and socio-economic interpretation of the motives that limited job opportunities for early Black southern migrants living in urban centers in Casablanca and other cities. I argue that unlike Black migrants, including descendants of the enslaved or Haratine, the Swassa have benefited from a set of ethnic and religious conditions that allowed them to emerge as successful merchants and ascend the economic ladder, later gaining access to the financial and political spheres in present Moroccan society today (Oujamaa, 2012). These conditions revolve around social solidarity consolidated by closed kinship networks, religious status, and accumulated capital in a region known for its arid land and reliance on rainfall. The Haratine, on the other hand, were marginalized socially and economically until the first decade of independence when their children began to have access to education.  In fact, while the Swassa climbed the social and political ladder through trade, the descendants of Haratine primarily improved their economic conditions through government jobs, like school teachers, soldiers, and public administrators (Boum, 2008), which require several years of schooling. Compared to Mauritania, where the question of the Haratine has larger national implications, especially given the debate around slavery and abolitionist movements, Moroccan debates about Black people are very local and restricted to the Draa valley and the Anti-Atlas without the global human rights implications it has in Mauritania (Ould Saleck, 2000; McDougall, 2014).

Haratine, especially migrants searching for economic opportunities outside the Anti-Atlas, have been put at a disadvantage by the cultural foundation that links social and economic exchange and spiritual subordination as it is theorized by Abdellah Hammoudi (Hammoudi, 1997). The Chleuhs, on the other hand, benefited from their pioneer role as migrants from the Anti-Atlas to l-gharb (meaning the north), which refers in Amazigh language to the geographic places of Tangier, Fez, Casablanca, and Paris (Benhlal, 1980:348). Only a few Black people from the Anti-Atlas were able to venture north of the walled settlements of the Anti-Atlas when Soussi internal and external migration took place since the late 1890s. At the advent of the Protectorate, Black people were recruited as soldiers in the French colonial army or served as Moghzanis in Glaoui’s security force. However, it was only in the 1960s that many Black people left their homes to go to France.

Recruited by Félix Mora, they supplied labor for coal mining companies in northern France in the 1960s and early 1970s (El Baz, 2009:35; Chemin, 2020). In the same decade when Black people and other Soussis were recruited by Mora to work in Europe’s mines, the ones who were rejected had to exercise subsistence farming or seek work in urban centers. Mohammed, my brother, traveled to the southern city of Goulmim, where he spent years digging wells and inhaling toxic gas and noxious particles from gunpowder and minerals. As Mohammed inhaled smoke inside the wells, all the while causing acute injury to his lungs, my extended family slowly built a financial cushion that allowed him and the rest of the family to afford a relatively comfortable living in later years. Mohammed moved to Casablanca, where he worked as a kassal (cleaner in public baths) during the 1980s and 1990s until he began to suffer from breathing problems caused by years of exposure to toxic smoke (see Fig. 2). For people from our region, working in Casablanca was almost a rite of passage, and the big city was known to attract most of its kassals from the southern desert province of Tata, one of Morocco’s poorest areas. Although the work required a lot of effort in damp and hot hammams, the compensation depended on the generosity of the client. Needless to say, working in humidity over long years exacerbated Mohammed’s respiratory issues. Realizing that this job affected his health, Mohammed moved back to the village in the mid-1990s. From then until his death, he stayed in the village, where he and his family lived with my parents in the same household (Boum and Boum-Mendoza, 2023)

Other than exported labor, Casablanca was the main destination of other types of Black migration in the 1960s. While Soussi Amazigh migrants gradually monopolized the grocery trade throughout the country, native black workers were largely involved in wage labor migration, including public bath (hammam) work, home construction, and the very niche business of grilled snacks, including peanuts and sunflower seeds. These ethnic occupations have often been viewed through stereotypical and hereditary social lenses that turned the Soussi shopkeepers and Black kassals into a topic of jokes. Accordingly, the shopkeeper and the kassal are depicted as working and sleeping in the home-made attic of the shop or in the basement of the hammam, but a deeper analysis rooted in social and historical contexts remains elusive. Moreover, women were not spared the impact of migration. Some Black women were Dadas, meaning enslaved female workers who provided their services to families in Fez and other large urban centers (Goodman, 2009). Dadas were entrusted with household work activities including cooking and raising children (El Guabli, 2022; Salime, 2023).

In 1996, while pursuing my MA in Applied Humanities at Al Akhawayn University, I conducted a three months ethnographic study on the use of Amazigh folkdances in national tourism in the pre-Saharan oasis of Tissint. During the fieldwork, I encountered many temporary migrants who travelled back home and forth between the bled and Tamazirt, meaning one’s native village or place of origin. My fieldwork coincided with the annual short trip back home to attend the yearly local moussem of Sidi Abdallah Ou Mbarak in Mghimima. I was struck by the nature of the temporary returnees’ occupations and how it aligned with their ethnicity. First, it was clear that only one Black informant practiced tabeqqalt (grocery) in Casablanca, the rest of male Black informants were either owners of the seed grilling business or small businesses that dealt in dried fruits and herbs (‘ashaba) throughout the country. A couple of informants worked as masseurs (kassals) in hammams in Casablanca, assisting clients in cleansing and purifying themselves in public baths. At the same time, I observed that few male descendants of Black families were either school principals, teachers, or university students, mostly in liberal and social sciences disciplines.

Figure 1 An example of two cemeteries for Shurfa and Haratine separated by walls, Anti-Atlas. Credit author.

On the other hand, a much lighter-skinned group distinguished itself as Chleuh (Tashalhit speakers) even though Black people I talked to also spoke Tashalhit. These local Chleuhs define themselves as descendants of the Prophet Muhammad through a lineage of saints that settled in the region. Members of these families also claim a sacred spiritual status through a religious knowledge and connection with renowned Muslim scholars. For Larbi Mezzine, this elitist religious status of Arab and Amazigh populations allowed them to control land on which Haratine worked based on a system of servitude (Mezzine, 1987:268-69). Unlike the Shurfa, the Haratine and other Black people lacked a socially cohesive kinship organization and remained dependent on Shurfa landowners for labor and survival. Occasionally called Drawa, meaning from the lower Dra valley, Haratine were defined as outsiders without historical roots in the community and therefore without asl (origin). The fact that they were defined as southern in relation to the bled or Tamazirt highlights this spatial foreignness. These social distinctions were historically translated at the spatial level. Haratine and other Black people were not only denied land ownership but they were also forbidden access to certain spaces in many Anti-Atlas settlements. The local saint and the families associated with it turn the village and its surroundings into a sacred sanctuary. As outsider of the sharifian lineage, Black Haratine people were given an inside status because of the baraka of the Shurfa. Yet to maintain this inclusion, Haratine were required to abide by certain customary regulations. For example, in some communities, Haratine, women, and Jews were not permitted to enter the Agdal (community storage). In some communities, Haratine were buried in separate cemeteries from the Shurfa (see Figure 1). Generally, Haratine rarely married into Shurfa families. Haratine were socialized through religious markers to keep distance from the village sanctuary and abide by the spiritual subordination to the Shurfa. Even though a few Haratine individuals and families claim Shurfa status because of kinship connection to Chleuh, they were generally denied any membership to commonly recognized Shurfa-hood.  


In 1993, a few months after I graduated from Cadi Ayyad University in Marrakesh with a Bachelor of Arts’ degree in English Language and Literature, I started looking for a job with no success. Like the rest of residents of my village and other towns in the Anti-Atlas, my only option became moving to Casablanca and working at least temporarily as a kassal in one of its upscale neighborhoods. At the time my late brother Mohammed was working with a group of local villagers in Hamam Nakhla located in Ḥay al-Faraḥ, Casablanca. Mohammed is an example of the first generation of Black migrants who sacrificed their future by skipping education to support their extended families through internal immigration labor. Before I was admitted to Al Akhawayn University for graduate studies, Mohammed had urged me to apply for graduate studies or search for other jobs in the private sectors instead of working as a kassal. He discouraged me to follow the example of a group of recent graduate students working, like him, in public baths across Casablanca. I returned to Marrakesh where I applied for schools and waited. In 1994, after months of waiting, I received the news of admission to Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane (AUI), an hour or so drive from Fez. Established and inaugurated by King Hassan II in 1995, AUI was conceived as a liberal arts university based on the American model. Although tuition was high for ordinary Moroccans, the university had room for highly skilled students irrespective of their financial background. Despite my limited financial resources, my brothers and a family friend were instrumental in covering my additional needs beyond the almost 100 percent financial assistance I received from the university.

Hassan, Hamid, Ali, and others from villages across the Province of Tata were not lucky to have my opportunity for further schooling. Hassan, for example, completed his history degree in 1994 from Ibn Zohr University a year after I graduated but has since then not been able to find employment where he would use his degree. In the meantime, he has been working as a kassal at a public bath located in Maarif, a middle-class neighborhood in Casablanca (Boum, 2008). During a visit in 2004, when I returned back from Tucson for my doctoral ethnographic research, I found him residing in the basement of the hammam alongside 15 other masseurs, seven of whom were university graduates from southern Morocco. Hassan voiced his anger and frustration about the social, educational, and economic policies of post-independence governments and their unchecked neoliberalism which left him and youth from his region outside the orbit of economic development.

In Casablanca, kassals who predominantly come from the southern region of Morocco, particularly the Tata province worked in shift that cover morning and afternoon hours. The cost of a single massage session varies depending on the client's financial status. As a result, the kassals maintains their wasta (networks) based on regional and tribal affiliations to control access to hammams in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods (Boum, 2008). According to Hassan, the fee in Maarif typically ranges from 20 to 100 dirhams (two to ten dollars). However, since up to 12 masseurs may be working during morning or afternoon sessions, the daily earnings are usually distributed among the participating masseurs. Hassan argues that these alliances determine who gains entry to which hammam in Casablanca. Hence, Black people have now established their networks, although belatedly, compared to their Swassa counterparts.

Figure 2 Advertisement for an exfoliating bath glove called (al-kharqa) used by the kassal.

Unlike these Black migrant workers in Casablanca, Chleuh grocery owners operates through a different wasta that revolves around trust built between the grocery(ies) owner and his associate or helper or paid manager (aguellas). In the case of many tribes in the Anti-Atlas especially Ammeln, Igounan, Ait Mzal, Ida ou Ktir, Ait Abdallah, Ait Souab, and others, most of the owners employed only local native villagers, maintaining connection to the Tamazirt and ensuring connectivity to the place (Alport 1964). Like kassals, store managers lived a frugal life. The shop was also their lodging. With increasing migration and disconnection from the bled/Tamazirt, the Soussi “tribal trust” has weakened or has been questioned because of recurring thefts or other phenomena that did not exist before. Moreover, the accumulation of capital has allowed some successful grocery owners to invest in other businesses. Soussis moved out of the small grocery business and started to compete with Fassis in the retail and wholesale business nationally and internationally (Benhlal, 1980:364). By the end 1960s, Soussi families began to own textile stores in the Kessariya (shopping center) in Casablanca challenging, and in many cases replacing the traditional monopoly of the Fassi. In the meantime, Black immigrants from the Anti-Atlas continue to be excluded from these spheres of venture of capitalism until today.


In the aftermath of Covid-19, public baths closed their doors. More families, especially in poor neighborhoods introduced private showers in their homes. When the association of public baths owners reopened its business after the suspension of strict Covid rules and regulations by the government, a few bathers returned. It took only a few months of Covid-19 restrictions to change social attitudes towards the hammam even though many people continued to use them. In addition, city managers started to put pressure on Hammam owners by claiming that they waste too much water especially as Morocco faces serious drought and shortage of potable water. The association of public baths owners rejected the claim arguing that water used in public baths come mostly from private wells. For many kassals, Covid-19 presented a major economic challenge. Unlike early generations of kassals, the current workers have brought their families with them and rented small rooms throughout Casablanca or its surrounding towns. A few have even bought apartments by getting high interest loans, which family members decade ago would not do.

Recently during a short visit to Casablanca, I conducted a rapid urban appraisal of a number of Hammam across Casablanca to find out how many native residents of Lamhamid, my hometown, continue to work in public baths in Casablanca. Out of ten hammams, scattered in upper-, middle-, and lower-class neighborhoods, I counted 37 male and six female workers. Only four males were not married and all females were married and only one was divorced. The weekly income ranged between 1500 and 1600 dirhams. All of the female and male kassals supported either their own family or members of the extended family in the bled.

The striking change, however, was the absence of holders of university degrees among the kassals. There was only one hammam attendant who had a Bachelor of Arts’ degree in the humanities. I spoken elsewhere of an “elastic migration” with social and economic pressures that have compelled “migrants to make arduous and dangerous relocations” especially after Covid-19 (Boum, 2023:40). The early generation of black kassals, like my brother Mohammed and I, were not concerned with the external social stigma that surround our occupation as attendants who assisted patrons in cleansing and purifying themselves. The main objective was to earn enough money to support the financial needs of our families back in the bled. However, a new educated generation of descendants of former kassals have probably felt that being a kassal stigmatizes and devalues them. Unlike old members of their communities, they refuse to internalize the standard discourse about kassal in broader society, where kassals are made fun of as amphibians who can live in “water and land.” This rebellion against this social stereotype is manifested in the decreasing number of Black kassals from the Anti-Atlas. Many sought jobs in the private sector when they fail to secure job opportunities in the public sector.

Today, it is ironic that both hammam and small-scale agriculture are closing because of global warming.  These were professional activities that allowed many black migrants to earn a living for themselves and their extended families. In the bled or Tamazirt, wells are drying up and the palm oases of the Anti-Atlas are dying. With limited economic options, an increasingly young cohort of Black school drop outs from the Anti-Atlas are now finding other solutions through undocumented immigration across the Mediterranean. The lucky ones have, in the last couple decades, won the Diversity Visa that allowed them to start a new life in the United States. As for the undocumented ones, some made it through to Paris and other European cities, others were sent back to Morocco or died in the forests of Greece and Italy. Unlike previous generations of migrants that left the bled, young migrants from the region have no wives or children to go back to. The traditional cultural meanings of the bled and Tamazirt where the migrant return once a year is disappearing giving way to a new social reality where women, children, and the elderly are left to farm what is left of the oasis and maintain life in the Anti-Atlas.


My appreciation goes to my late brother Mohammed and residents of southern Morocco who shared their opinions and experiences with me. I would like to thank Zakia Salime, Hisham Aïdi, Brahim El Guabli, anonymous reviewer, and Norma Mendoza-Denton for their contributions to earlier versions of this article. I am solely responsible for the ideas and opinions made in this final version.


Aidi, H. (2023).  Gnawa Mirror: Race, Music and the ‘Imperialism of Categories.’ International Journal of Middle East Studies 55(3): 556-577.

Alport, E. A. (1964). The Ammeln. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 94(2):160-171.

Aouad-Badoual, Rita. (2004). Esclavage et situation des “Noirs” au Maroc dans la première moitié du XXe siècle. In Les relations transsahariennes à l'époque contemporaine-un espace en constante mutation. Paris: Karthala.

Benhlal, M. (1980). Migration interne et stratification sociale au Maroc: le cas des Soussis. Centre de Recherche et d’Etudes sur les Sociétés Méditerranéennes 339-368.

Boukous, A. (1975). l’émigration des soussis. Bulletin économique et social du maroc 135 :71-90.

Boum, A. (2023). On coming Home: The Elasticity of Migration. History of the Present 13(1):40-44.

-----------. (2021). The Life of a Tablet. In Islam Through Objects, ed. Anna Bigelow, pp. 143-158. Bloomsbury Academic.

-----------. (2008). The Political Coherence of Educational Incoherence: The Consequences of Educational Specialization in a Southern Moroccan Community. Anthropology and Educational Quarterly 39(2): 205-223.  

----------- & M. Boum-Mendoza. (5 March 2023). The Man at the Heart of Lamhamid. The Markaz Review.

----------- & M, Boum-Mendoza. (2024). The Last Rekkas of Morocco. Casablanca: Langages du Sud.

Chemin, A. (25 juin 2020). “Le tampon vert, tu partais en France. Le rouge, tu retournais au bled” : sur la piste de Félix Mora, l’homme qui a embauché des milliers de Marocains pour les mines françaises. Le Monde.

El Baz, A. (2009). Le combat sans fin des mineurs marocains. Plein Droit 2 (81): 35-38.

El Guabli, B. (2022). Imaginary Testimony: Dada l’Yakout and the Unexplored History of Enslavement through Abduction in Morocco. Expressions Maghrébines 21(2): 73-95.

El Habbouch, L. (2011). Moroccan Acrobats in Britain: Oriental Curiosity and Ethnic Exhibition. Comparative Drama 45(4):381-415.

El Hamel, Chouki. (2002). Race, Slavery and Islam in the Maghribi Mediterranean Thinking: The Question of the Haratin in Morocco. The Journal of North African Studies 7(3): 29-52.

Goodman, D. (2009). The End of Domestic Slavery in Fez, Morocco. Dissertation thesis. Indiana University.

Hammoudi, A. (1997). Master and Disciple: The Cultural Foundations of Moroccan Authoritarianism. Chicago: the University of Chicago Press.

Justinard, L. (1928). Les Chleuhs de la banlieue de Paris. Revues des études islamiques 2(4): 477-480.

Ilahiane, H. (2004). Ethnicities, Community Making and Agrarian Change: The Political Ecology of a Moroccan Oasis. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America.

Marquez, C. (juillet 1935). Les épiciers Chleuhs et leur diffusion dans les villes du maroc. Bulletin économique du Maroc: 230-233.

McDougall, E. A. (2014). Affirming Identity in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania: The ‘Abolition Crisis’ of 1980-1983. Maghreb Review 39(2).

Mezzine, L. (1987). Le Tafilalt: Contribution à l’histoire du Maroc XVII et XVIII siècles. Rabat: Publications de la Faculté des Lettres et des sciences humaines.

Oujamaa, M. (2012). Les Soussis, de petits commerçants devenus grands. Zamane: L’histoire du Maroc 19: 52-55.

Ould Saleck, E. (2000). Le Haratin comme enjeu pour les partis politique en Mauritanie. Journal des Africanistes 70(1-2): 255-263.

Ray, J. (1938). Les marocains en France. Rabat: Publications de la Faculté des Lettres et des Sciences Humaines.

Salime, Z. (2023). Herstory: Racialization and Mediation in Colonial Morocco. Souffles Monde.

Waterbury, J. (1972). North for the Trade: The Life and Times of a Berber Merchant. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[1] A sergeant in the French Army, Félix Mora was known for his recruitment of Moroccan workers for coal mining companies in northern France.