Belonging to and longing for the village: how the earthquake in Morocco reveals the importance of the homeland in shaping diaspora identity

This article was written by Malika Ouacha - Lecturer & Researcher, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University and originally published on the ISS Blog blISS

What happens when a country gets hit by an unexpected, highly damaging earthquake? How does the aid this country receives afterwards look like when it has a diaspora community of more than one million people? And how does a tragic event such as an earthquake affect those million people and their diaspora identity? While diaspora identity is often defined by referring to the country of origin, in this article Malika Ouacha discusses how the earthquake in Morocco affected her and led her to foster a deeper understanding of her identity as member of the Moroccan diaspora. 

Marrakech after the earthquake

 As I was preparing myself for another day of Family Constellation theory, I heard my husband scream from the living room: “What? An earthquake last night in Marrakech on the scale of 6.8 Richter?!” I didn’t really understand what he meant. “An earthquake? This heavy? But that has never happened before in our region,” I was thinking. At the same time, I remembered that there had been one in 1960 in Agadir, a city some 250 kilometres to the south of Marrakech.  

The longer Nicolaas, my husband, continued to read the news article out loud, the more I understood that the news was real, that it really had happened. And that I had to start searching for my phone and call as many people as possible to find out whether they were safe. After trying several times and not being able to reach them, we decided to wait a bit longer. In the following hours, friends and relatives confirmed their safety, but they had a hard time describing what had happened. It was scary, unreal, and immensely tragic. Lives were lost, but initially, no-one knew how many. Thoughts started mulling through my head, and I found myself asking: How do you grieve such an event when you have just recovered from a pandemic which your country [Morocco in my case] barely survived?  

Although I feel like I found my home in both two countries, I was fascinated by the instant feeling I experienced right after the news reached us. I live my life miles away, and so do many other diasporans, yet I felt that the affected people’s need for shelter and protection was my own need for a second or two.  

Does this mean that one of the two countries is more important? Or that I am emotionally more attached to one compared to the other? I don’t think so, but I wouldn’t want to experience a natural disaster to find out. Therefore, I continued trying to go about life as usual that day, and in the days that followed, while also trying to process what had happened and what this could mean for the future. All the while, I kept having a feeling deep down that nothing would be the same after an earthquake like this one. Because although I was born and raised in Europe and only lived in Marrakech and the High Atlas Mountains for a few years, the annual return of my family and myself to the village we hail from each summer during my childhood and early adulthood resulted in a feeling of everlasting belonging to this specific region.  

It made sense to me to respect my parents’ rules to speak only Tachelhiyt, the South-Moroccan language, in our household, even though we lived in the Netherlands, so we could return to the village safely every summer, knowing that my siblings and I spoke the language of the village. I could independently have conversations with my grandparents and cousins, walk to my uncle Mohamed alone, and talk to people on the streets.  

My parents were assured of my safety in the village because I could ask a stranger on the street to assist me if I needed help. I could do this in the Netherlands, too, but I always sensed that my parents felt that my siblings and I were safer in the village in the Atlas Mountains, more protected. It seemed as if, even fifty years after having moved, the Netherlands kept feeling like a temporary place of residence to them. They never called it home like I did, although the two places both always felt like home to me.  

Diaspora identity: how far is too close?  

This lack of a sense of belonging in the Netherlands and the corresponding sense of still belonging in Morocco, which is how many diasporans still feel, is the reason why the earthquake affected more than just properties, workplaces, and human lives that were lost — it also affected diaspora identity despite the distance between those countries we were born and raised in and those countries we originate from. The earthquake made me ask whether we, as Moroccan diaspora, still belong there and whether our roots affect our lives here in Europe.  

This left me to question whether our understanding of diaspora identity has really hit the core of both the phenomenon and the theoretical concept. Or if we still hover above its official definitions in academic and political debates. Is it truly just ethnicity and cultural norms and values? Or is it the combination of these three concepts, and our sentiments, our individual emotional household, and the way we view and experience the homeland? I tend to lean towards the latter conclusion given my reflections and analysis of the recent earthquake in Morocco and Turkey earlier this year.  

Do we need saving from a permanent saviour?  

I’m still reading one after the other request for donations from people who ask for money, food supplies, tents, and other things needed to survive. Yet, a long-term plan from the authorities remained absent until September 14th, when King Mohamed VI, Morocco’s current ruler, according to MAP donated USD 100 million to implement a long-term resettlement plan to rebuild the homes and lives of the victims of the earthquake. Where victims will be relocated to remains unclear, but affected friends and relatives spoke of the king’s act as a “a ray of sunshine during a heavy thunderstorm”.  

In a country where the king has the last word in every decision needing to be made, this gesture signifies the presence of the government in a way that the region has never seen, as South Morocco has been and continues to be one of the least developed regions in its entire kingdom. I sensed an unexpected feeling of relief, although I saw many volunteers and philanthropists devote their time and means to the victims much earlier than the king did.  

So perhaps the king’s ruling superseded the efforts of international NGOs and other non-profit organizations who were helping the affected people with their best intentions but within their own terms. And perhaps he therefore embodies a permanent saviour, as the king remains the king whose moral responsibility it is to look out after its own citizens. Maybe a permanent saviour saves this part of my identity, too, and therefore that of a diaspora as a collective, as the country is left in better hands now that a long-term plan has been demonstrated. Or maybe he saves, the least to say, only the memory of a country we once knew and still hold on to. Even if it is just in our nostalgic minds.   

This could mean that the place my parents call home is left in better hands, and therefore a part of me, too, as it is a place close to my heart where I spent fruitful years in my early twenties and studied anthropology, volunteered at an orphanage, and did my first real ethnographic fieldwork after my graduation. A place where my late parents, grandparents, and ancestors were finally laid to rest, where close friends and relatives have their homes, where they enjoy their workplaces in the (finally post-pandemic) popular touristic medina and the ancient kasbah, and where we continue to meet several times a year. A place where I showed my Dutch husband the forever solid foundation of my Moroccan values and norms, which no lifetime outside of South Morocco could ever suppress. 

Photo of the author Malika Ouacha
Dr. Malika Ouacha