Backstory: Europe bound - why a Moroccan heads north

'Oh, you're just going to love Fatina, she's the most beautiful woman," Jessica croons as we careen down the wrong lane of a narrow mountain road in eastern Morocco.

Frankly, I'm more concerned with whether we will even reach Fatina's house, than what my friend thinks of the family that has taken her under its wing during her Peace Corps stint.

But a dozen or two blind corners later, our "grand taxi" - a beat-up Mercedes with four people wedged in the fume-filled back seat - finally spews us out in a dusty school yard.

It's my third dizzying day in Morocco, and nothing is making sense to my Western mind. A cross-country train trip relieved me of the clatter of Casablanca - the honks and belches of its run-down cars echoing off the dense housing blocks fringed by arcs of laundry and thickets of satellite dishes - only to confound me more with the rural juxtaposition of bucolic beauty and human poverty. The clicketyclack of rusted wheels on railroad ties became rhythmic, almost soothing, after the first few hours, but the scenes did not: garbage strewn haphazardly; clumps of idle men staring as we passed; lone shepherds wandering with their sheep through rocky, plantless patches.

But this is why I came. And I'm definitely getting my money's worth.

I don't know it yet, but this day will offer me new insight on a topic I'm all too familiar with as the Monitor's European news editor: immigration. The Paris riots this past fall were but the most apparent example of the tensions that exist between North African immigrants and their European hosts; there's a lot more simmering beneath the surface.

Today in this little town, I find answers. Things start to make sense. And for that I can thank Fatina's son, Abdel Aziz Hammouin.

Before I even meet him Aziz's purposeful stride catches my attention in this rural setting where people seem to universally shuffle. Sent to pick us up, he greets us warmly and insists on slinging Jessica's 100-pound duffel over his shoulder as he leads usalong a corn-cob-strewn path toward his family's home.

At 28 and lacking a high school diploma, Aziz still lives with his parents in these hills above Jerada, selling used furniture.

It's not an easy life. The income is negligible and he has few comforts as an American would know them - he has no car, perhaps only a few changes of clothes, and shares his parents' small house with three sisters. Though the Hammouins have a satellite dish tucked behind the goat pen that allows them to flip through more than 600 channels - including MTV, ESPN, and Al Jazeera - they don't have modern plumbing or heating. The bathroom is equipped with a standup Turkish toilet that is "flushed" by washing it down with a bucket of water.

Between his mother's doting encouragement and his society's expectations, Aziz is under considerable pressure to marry - and thus to secure a home and income that could support not only him but a wife, who probably won't bring in an income of her own.

I start to see why, under these circumstances, Aziz would be willing to leave his sweet family and the familiar hills of Jerada for a job - any job - in Spain. But still, now that it is known that a Moroccan Islamic extremist group was responsible for the March 2004 bombings in Madrid, Spain doesn't strike me as the most hospitable spot for a young Moroccan man to head for.

Though I'm not able to ask Aziz about this - Jessica, who was translating the family's Moroccan Arabic for me, didn't want to go near such politically sensitive questions - he certainly must be aware of the tensions between immigrants and Europeans. And yet, he seems to have no qualms about leaving these serene hills for the possibilities - and potentially dangerous uncertainties - of life in Europe.

His father points out that 15 of Aziz's peers in their neighborhood have immigrated to Spain illegally. Some have found work, some haven't.

"I have no choice [but to leave]," he tells us, while Fatina and her daughters prepare a massive plate of couscous with olives from their trees. "There are no jobs in Morocco."

Morocco's unemployment rate is officially estimated at 12 percent - only slightly higher than France. But one key difference is that with the burgeoning population, Morocco's young people shoulder a much greater proportion of that unemployment burden. And though Morocco, with its new modern-minded monarch, is much better off economically than most of its North African and Middle Eastern neighbors, the proximity of Europe and the huge gap in living standards between the two continents make immigration a tantalizing option for Morocco's restless youth.

Indeed, last month Italy announced it has experienced a 15-fold increase in illegal immigrants coming by sea, a third of them Moroccan. Italian officials attribute the rise to a clampdown on immigration in Ceuta and Melilla, Spanish enclaves on the Moroccan coast, after illegal immigrants stormed the razor-wire borders of those autonomous cities last fall.

But Aziz won't be storming any fences or sneaking across any borders, he tells us as we huddle under heavy blankets, our noses red-cold. Over the background buzz of a fierce handball match between Norway and the Netherlands emanating from the TV in the corner, Aziz explains he has thus far been unable to get the necessary paperwork to emigrate legally. But with no other options, he'll just have to try again, he says.

"What does Mama think about the possibility of Aziz leaving for Spain to look for work?" we ask Fatina. Her broad, patient smile communicates her approval. "Baba," the moist-eyed patriarch, is also in favor. He, however, with proficiency in three languages, was fortunate enough to be well-employed for most of his working life.

"Did you see the mine?" he had asked us earlier in the evening, when we returned from a brisk walk in the hills with Aziz. "I used to work there, for the Russians," he explained in accented French, beaming proudly.

From a grassy hilltop overlooking the center of Jerada, Aziz had indeed pointed out the coal mine that was abandoned in the late 1990s when the company discovered better prospects in southern Africa and Poland. The departure definitely left more than one kind of crater in town.

As we headed back toward Aziz's home in the pale post-sunset of a winter night, the call of the muezzin echoed across the cold high desert.

Allahu akbar [God is great], came the muffled voice from the mosque in the distance. Aziz stepped to the side of the trail, and - kicking aside some stones before taking off his shoes - knelt on the ground in prayer.

As a journalist I shouldn't take sides, but I couldn't help hoping that his prayers would be answered.

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