Self-harming in Morocco

by Emanuele Confortin

M. J. was 15 when he ran a blade on his body for the first time. “It happened by chance, I had drained a bottle of gin with a friend. We were in an alley in the Medina of Fès, when I took a razor blade and after lifting a sleeve I cut myself on the arm” he explains, showing the scar placed sidelong between the shoulder and the left bicep. At the time he did not yet have the experience to measure speed and strength, so the blade went “deep enough to allow me to lift the main vein with a finger. Fortunately, I didn’t cut it off”. Today M.J. is 34 years old but the first cut is still very evident. As often happens among young people in Morocco, the wound was never sutured by a doctor and the scaring was bad.

It’s only one of the countless cases of self-inflicted scarification, a form of language very common among marginalised young Moroccans. A characteristic that has reached such a degree in the relational dynamics, to be an intelligible code, such as to transform the body and the skin into the manifest of a profound existential unease. A totem on which to reclaim with the edge of a blade the refusal to the contradictions of the society that is changing, where the social gap is widening day after day, in the impotence of those, young males in the first place, who understand that they have not a future.

Fès is the symbol of the bother of Moroccan adolescents. Here, among the alleys of the medina arise the strong tensions inside the society in which they are forced to live. Here was born and raised M.J., sharing frustrations and excesses together with friends F.M, A.A., Y.A. and F.J, all aged between 20 and 30, photographed in the project “ScarFès” by Giuseppe Andretta. For these boys, self-harming by the incision of their skin is a form of voluntary ghettoisation within their metropolitan tribe, ruled by a precise machist hierarchy. It is a mandatory passage in the search for a role, for an identity otherwise impalpable. In the ancient heart of Fès, the cultural capital of Morocco, you can see the boundaries of an entire country, where the common social unease, the lack of perspectives and the desire for emulation are the building blocks of the wall beyond which to vent anger and frustration.

Feelings fuelled by the privations imposed by the Moroccan society, never as now passive watcher on the wrong side of the Strait of Gibraltar, from where Europe remains a long distance blurred postcard. Symbol of this division are fences and barbwire around Ceuta and Melilla, Spanish enclaves in the land of Africa, able to curb the energy of migrants arriving close to the Mediterranean see via Fès or through the heights of the Rif mountains, chasing their own European dream. We are close to the Triangle of Tangier, the main origin of the Moroccan diaspora, endemically poor, historically ignored by any incentive for development, and also politically and culturally isolated. Rif mountains are also the most important center of production of hashish, but unfortunately it is also a crossroads of heavy drugs that find in Fez a logistic place and, as a consequence, a drug dealing center. In this context, surviving means associating with criminal groups or leaving. For many, the third way is jihad.

In few years the practice of self-inflicted scarification has so much spread across the country through social media networks that the government prohibits the publication, on social profiles, of explicit photos showing knives and wounds, under penalty of imprisonment. Engraving one’s own body is an iconoclastic practice able to bring the young people of the capital together with their peers shut in anonymous rural villages, all equally invisible. The absence of a culprit in the flesh for this condition leads the Moroccan boys to self-inflict the blows intended for their persecutors. In so doing the pain exorcises the malaise and the blood somehow sanctifies a passage of state, from boy to man. By self-harming one becomes part of a group with a clear identity, washed away by malaise through the edge of the blade. The self-inflicted cuts are a way out, allowing one to avoid the prison of one’s own body, as happens in jail, where in some cases the prisoners wound themselves in a voluntary way.

This is the case of A.A., a thirty year old friend of M.J. Although he has a wife, a daughter and owns coffee bar, he is the one with the most evident injuries, “designed” with a certain method. The group sees an example in him, he is a leader with stripes incised indelibly on the skin. A.A. has been in and out of jail for a long time. Many of his cuts come from the detention periods. They were inflicted behind bars, where the practice of self-harming follows the same logic of the medina. Forced confinement is transferred to the skin which becomes a wall to be violated, the only resistance from which it’s possible to escape. The injuries inflicted in prison are voluntary, they happen in a lucid and conscious way, without the effect of drugs or alcohol. Outside the prison, in Fès, the ritual changes. Before grabbing the cutting weapon, the “ritualist” is typically doped with psychotropic substances. Particularly widespread are the Témesta cocktails, a psychopharmacological drug based on Lorazepam which, when combined with alcohol, causes strong states of unconsciousness. Boys in the Medina do not plan their scarification, everything happens suddenly, under the effect of alcohol, Témesta or other drugs, when fear and courage are blowed away. Almost none of the guys can talk about their cuts. F.M. just speak about the ‘high’ he reached in the moment he found the courage to challenge the blade, as if it were an involuntary choice, imposed by drugs and alcohol. “I did it because I was out of my mind” is the reply received promptly in return, asking for explanations. As a teenager F.M. he had only one cut, in the chest. From season to season, self-inflicted wounds have increased in number and depth, and today, at the age of 22, he proudly bears profound marks on his arms, neck and left cheek.

Self-injury is not exclusive to Moroccan cities but is also widespread in richer and more developed countries, including Europe and the United States. Self-harming using  blades and daggers is considered a “risky behavior” and typically involves teenagers, as their expression of the pain of modern living. Same thing happens in Fès, Casablanca, Rabat, Marrakech with the only exception of being an exclusively male attitude, exasperated to the point that people also cut their faces and necks. An extreme choice, rejected by Western peers since the face represents the inviolable social identity. The common thread among the initiates of self-harming in Morocco is a deviated psychological condition, together with a marginal existence and the absence of working chances.

However, they are not pathological behaviours or even suicide attempts. During the period spent by Giuseppe Andretta in the heart of the Fès ghetto, the will to live of self-harming young guys has emerged clearly, so much to “make the wounds real requests for help”. The use of blades, in this sense, reflects a common attitude in contemporary Morocco, where most of the family men own a sword and keep it in the house to defend the family from direct threats and offences of honour, it represents the only accessible weapon. The Moroccan government strongly prohibits the sale of firearms, because, as M.J. says: “If guns could be bought freely, in Morocco there would be a massacre in few hours”.

Therefore the sword is both the instrument and the symbol of revenge. It is hand-made and used to obtain justice, settling of scores and to avenge outrages. Different reasons united by the same method of use: a slash on the enemy’s face. The same treatment is also reserved to girls as a punishment for wrong behaviours, or the refusal of a suitor. When M.J. was 16, he slashed his neighbour’s face just because he had beaten his younger brother F.M., aged 12, guilty of having broken a window of the aggressor playing football. M.J. did not act suddenly, the same day, he planned his revenge, got a sword and settled the bill later.

Those habits explain why recently in Morocco the attacks with cutting weapons (ijram) have increased, even for robbery purposes. This concerns mainly gangs in the poorer suburbs, formed by groups of teenagers who identify themselves in the Hispanic gangs, or by taking Tony Montana of Scarface as a model. These gangs are called Thcarmil and, in Fès, they are groups of boys and girls aged from 13 to 25. In Morocco, a lot of demonstrations have been organised in the last years against the spread of violence and this has led the Moroccan government to ‘zero tolerance’ towards tcharmil gangs.

Thcarmil gangs live isolated in poor areas. They are teenagers or slightly older, spending their time taking selfies in virile poses, brandishing swords or knives. These guys’ social profiles respond to a precise iconography. They have their hair cut like football champions, they wear expensive sneakers and t-shirts of famous brands, they wear striking watches and proudly flaunt the loot recovered during the daily raids. The Thcarmil phenomenon and self-inflicted cuts has increased with the reduction of migratory flows to Spain and Europe. The emigration block has condemned thousands of young people to ineptness in their suburbs, where for many, alcohol and drugs seem the only escape, and voluntary scarification is the way to fill the gap.