Moroccan capital’s boatmen row against tides of modernity

A boatman rows while transporting passengers across the Bou Regreg river near the Oudaya Kasbah between the city of Sale and Morocco’s capital Rabat. (AFP)
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Updated 01 October 2020

Moroccan capital’s boatmen row against tides of modernity

  • For decades, the boatmen have used elbow grease to ply their trade, rowing their bright blue boats, decked out with cushions and carpets and shaded by parasols

RABAT: Rowing their wooden boats across an azure river mouth, Moroccan ferrymen battle not just winds and currents but also rapid urban development which is threatening their traditional way of life.

This year the coronavirus and a sharp drop-off in tourism have further conspired against the water taxis across the Bou Regreg river estuary, between the capital Rabat and its twin city of Sale.

For decades, the boatmen have used elbow grease to ply their trade, rowing their bright blue boats, decked out with cushions and carpets and shaded by parasols, across the choppy waters below the medieval Kasbah of the Udayas.

“Our boats have always been part of the history of the two cities and yet we have no support,” sighed Adil El-Karouani, one of the 72 professional boatmen who shuttle back and forth between the river shores from dawn to midnight.

“We feel marginalized and abandoned.”

Karouani, 45, said he was 11 when he started in the business and vowed to “fight so that this profession, inherited from my father, does not disappear.”

But he faces a tide of modern development as the once flood-prone estuary has undergone a 1.5 billion euro development program, launched in 2006 by King Mohamed VI with the help of renowned architects such as Marc Mimram and Zaha Hadid.

Since then swamp areas have been reclaimed, overpasses built and a luxury real estate project with a marina has transformed the Sale riverfront. Since 2011, a tram supplements the bus network, used by the thousands who commute daily from residential Sale to their jobs in the capital.

Some regulars still prefer the gentle bobbing of the small boats driven by muscle power.

“We breathe fresh air ... it’s better than the traffic jams of taxis or the bustle of the tramway,” said Tarek Skaiti, who enthused that he likes to “lose the feeling of gravity” during the short river crossing.

On weekends, the quays of the Bou Regreg still draw crowds of visitors, many of whom take boat tours to the ramparts of the UNESCO-listed medieval fortress where the river empties into the Atlantic Ocean. From the new Marina de Sale, motor yachts now offer faster and more expensive tours. Jet-skis roar across the river “without worrying about the danger,” complained Nouredine Belafiq, who has worked as a boatman for 26 years.

“With the coronavirus, there are almost no tourists,” lamented Driss Boudy, a vigorous 62-year-old man who proudly introduced himself by displaying his professional boatman’s license.

“We do an endurance job: It takes strength and heart to move a one-and-a-half ton boat with 400 kilo of passengers, especially when the tide is high,” said his colleague, Khalid Badkhali.

“I’ve tried other jobs, but I’ve always come back to the river,” said the 50-year-old, who pointed out that his precarious job doesn’t entitle him to any social security cover.

On neighboring piers, trawlers unload their haul of sardines, surrounded by flocks of seagulls — the last vestige of what was, until the beginning of the 20th century, Morocco’s largest river port.

Impoverished by the public health crisis that has paralyzed life in Morocco for many months, the fishermen feel as “marginalized” as the boatmen, said one of them, Adil El-Karouani.

“Many have lost their jobs and some are leaving clandestinely with their boats” in the hope of reaching the Spanish coast, he said, corroborating local media reports of “illegal immigration mafias” operating from Sale.

Desperate migrants hoping for a better life in Europe pay between 2,000 and 4,000 euros for the risky journeys.

The river boat crossing costs just 2.5 dirhams (about 0.2 euros), says a faded sign on the pier. The price, set by the authorities, has not changed for years.


US officials: Iran sent emails intimidating American voters

Updated 22 October 2020

US officials: Iran sent emails intimidating American voters

  • Intelligence director: “These actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries”

WASHINGTON: US officials accused Iran on Wednesday of being behind a flurry of emails sent to Democratic voters in multiple battleground states that appeared to be aimed at intimidating them into voting for President Donald Trump.
The announcement at a rare, hastily called news conference just two weeks before the election underscored the concern within the US government about efforts by foreign countries to spread false information meant to suppress voter turnout and undermine American confidence in the vote.
The activities attributed to Iran would mark a significant escalation for a nation that some cybersecurity experts regard as a second-rate player in online espionage, with the announcement coming as most public discussion surrounding election interference has centered on Russia, which hacked Democratic emails during the 2016 election, and China, a Trump administration adversary.
“These actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries,” said John Ratcliffe, the government’s top intelligence official, who, along with FBI Director Chris Wray, insisted the US would impose costs on any foreign countries that interfere in the 2020 US election and that the integrity of the election is still sound.
“You should be confident that your vote counts,” Wray said. “Early, unverified claims to the contrary should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.”
Wray and Ratcliffe did not describe the emails linked to Iran, but officials familiar with the matter said the US has linked Tehran to messages sent to Democratic voters in at least four battleground states that falsely purported to be from the neo-fascist group Proud Boys and that warned “we will come after you” if the recipients didn’t vote for Trump.
The officials also said Iran and Russia had obtained voter registration data, though such data is considered easily, publicly accessible. Tehran used the information to send out the spoofed emails, which were sent to voters in states including Pennsylvania and Florida.
Ratcliffe said the spoofed emails were intended to hurt Trump, though he did not elaborate on how. An intelligence assessment released in August said: “Iran seeks to undermine US democratic institutions, President Trump, and to divide the country in advance of the 2020 elections. Iran’s efforts along these lines probably will focus on online influence, such as spreading disinformation on social media and recirculating anti-US content.”
Trump, speaking at a rally in North Carolina, made no reference to the press conference but repeated a familiar campaign assertion that Iran is opposed to his reelection. He promised that if he wins another term he will swiftly reach a new accord with Iran over its nuclear program.
“Iran doesn’t want to let me win. China doesn’t want to let me win,” Trump said. “The first call I’ll get after we win, the first call I’ll get will be from Iran saying let’s make a deal.”
Both Russia and Iran also obtained voter registration information, though such data is considered easily, publicly accessible. Tehran used the information to send out the spoofed emails, which were sent to voters in states including Pennsylvania and Florida.
Asked about the emails during an online forum Wednesday, Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said she lacked specific information. “I am aware that they were sent to voters in multiple swing states and we are working closely with the attorney general on these types of things and others,” she said.
While state-backed Russian hackers are known to have infiltrated US election infrastructure in 2016, there is no evidence that Iran has ever done so.
The voter intimidation operation apparently used email addresses obtained from state voter registration lists, which include party affiliation and home addresses and can include email addresses and phone numbers. Those addresses were then used in an apparently widespread targeted spamming operation. The senders claimed they would know which candidate the recipient was voting for in the Nov. 3 election, for which early voting is ongoing.
Federal officials have long warned about the possibility of this type of operation, as such registration lists are not difficult to obtain.
“These emails are meant to intimidate and undermine American voters’ confidence in our elections,” Christopher Krebs, the top election security official at the Department of Homeland Security, tweeted Tuesday night after reports of the emails first surfaced.