Waiting and Working: Shared Difference and Labors of Belonging in Immigrant Tangier

Waiting and Working: Shared Difference and Labors of Belonging in Immigrant Tangier

George Bajalia, Wesleyan University


Even as the numbers of migrants waiting in North Africa to continue their journeys to Europe continue to grow, the social and political consequences of this time spent “en route” remains marginal to conversations around migration across the Mediterranean. There is a focus on migrants’ movement through space, with a focus on origin and destination, presumed to be Europe, but not much attention paid to the time in between. Rather than centering on how borders regulate, impede, and allow or not, migratory flow, and what happens when European borders are crossed, this intervention builds from another of the predominant phenomena to which borders give rise: waiting.

In Morocco, this time spent waiting fosters new claims to belonging and political identity as would-be migrants to Europe become immigrants to Morocco. Languages are learned in ways that speak to sedimented histories of labor migration across North and West Africa. Religions are adopted, and abandoned, and emergent forms of community transcend political, religious, and ethnic boundaries. As these socio-cultural consequences of waiting accumulate over time, they also lead to political shifts such as Morocco’s “open regularization” residency program in the latter years of the last decade, as well as the recent debate over opening voting in the 2021 national general elections to all registered foreign residents of the Kingdom.[1] These phenomena exist parallel to the growing racialized and xenophobic violence directed at immigrants, which also has transformed as West and Central Africans in Morocco are seen less as passers-by and more as potential residents. When seen through the lens of waiting, understanding the growth and transformations of migratory dynamics and border politics in the region means paying more attention to this time spent “en route” and its consequences beyond just the regulation of access to spatial territories.

Often immigrant or “migrant” labor in North Africa and Middle East is rightly understood in the context of the racialized and gendered domestic work,[2] agricultural labor;[3] and contractual and ostensibly temporary work is unequally structured through privileges of certain passports.[4] While this is also the case in Morocco, it nonetheless worth paying attention to the ways in which some of the categories around which this labor is organized change over time spent waiting. In the account above, while language and religion are markers of exclusion, they are also mutable categories that can change both in form and in relative importance in circumstances where neighborliness or perhaps even nascent class solidarities drives the division and organization of labor. Without romanticizing such communal sentiments as the grounds for a restructuring of the labor market, we can also see how what marks exclusion in some instances is the grounds for inclusions in another.

In some ways, this work forms a complement to Amélie Le Renard and Neha Vora’s piece in this collection. As they react to how scholars have mobilized analytics such as “ethnocracy” to move beyond conceptualizations of migrants and nationals in the Gulf region, they also point to how such terms collapse “nationality with ethnicity, religion, language, class, phenotype, and a range of other factors that impact how people experience life in Gulf cities.” In their work, such factors become embodied racial categories. Here, similarly, nationality is a category of belonging, and difference, that falls to the background when superseded by other communal sentiments that emerge along the lines of religion, language, and class in a community of immigrants already racialized as marginal to Moroccan socio-cultural imaginary. However, in the ethnographic accounts below, markers of religion, language, and class as icons of difference that can – and in some instances do – change over time spent waiting.

Scholars have struggled with the conceptualization of waiting in the active present tense. Anthropologist Ghassan Hage, for instance, proposes to see waiting as a type of “active passivity” which is revelatory of broader dimensions of seemingly isolated socio-cultural practices and processes.[5] More specifically, migration studies has begun to evoke the social effects of liminal waiting to discuss migrant life asylum and detention centers.[6] However, these invocations of waiting time tend to focus on waiting as parenthetical of a broader journey, a sort of time out of time that is stuck in space. Victor Turner notably discussed this sort of “betwixt and between” of liminality in association with the production of communal sensibilities, which he called communitas.[7]  Even so, very often the conceptual usages of liminality in discussions of borders and migration focus on this spatial in-between without much regard for the lasting social, subjective, and communal transformation that occur during this time.

This paper draws on long-term ethnographic research in order to query the ways in which difference and belonging, and their markers, shift over time as migrants and immigrants “wait” in Tangier, Morocco. The scene of this waiting is in the suburban Tangier neighborhood of Msnana, where immigrants from different backgrounds, religious, ethnic, linguistic, and including recent Moroccan immigrants from the countryside to the city, gather and find a form of shared difference and thus, belonging. This waiting is not empty or passive, or even just liminal, but active, ongoing, and eventful. Three forms of difference will appear in these scenes below, which describe the events surrounding a 2018 Eid al-Adha celebration in the Tangier neighborhood of Msnana. Forms of ethno-national, linguistic, and religious difference come to the fore throughout these events, but also refract into other idioms of belonging in a “shared difference” forged during this time spent waiting and working; and working while waiting.

The discussion of difference in this paper also sits within the context of racialized difference. This is not to say that it is background material, but rather that it is a precondition for the other idioms of belonging and “shared difference” that I discuss below. Across Morocco, Black immigrants to the country encounter racialized forms of violence and exclusion enacted by the State as well as everyday citizens. Other scholars of migration in Morocco have outlined the racialization of the country’s border and migration regulations, especially with regard to how (potential) illegality is marked, policed, and tied into local class politics.[8] What I outline here, however, queries the interplay of various dynamics of difference once racialized exclusion has already produced the figure of the “Black African migrant” as a category outside of normative belonging in Morocco. This category reduces the heterogenous types of belonging and difference at work among immigrants to Morocco into one racialized subjectivity. Rather than constructing an argument grounded in that category, instead I will examine the interplay of three forms of difference – ethno-national, linguistic, and religious difference – as they come into constellation among immigrants to Tangier from both other parts of Morocco as well as West and Central Africa.


Labors of the Eid in Msnana

The suburban Tangier neighborhood of Msnana has become one of the most popular neighborhoods for immigrants to Tangier, both from other African countries as well as from the Moroccan countryside. It is close to several industrial zones, and to the public Abdelmalek Essaadi University. Initially, it was popular among young people who had moved to Tangier for university or to work in factories of the industrial zones, both from Morocco as well as from other parts of West and Central Africa. Today, the neighborhood still includes these workers and students, as well as other recent arrivals who came to Tangier for work, school, and often with intentions of continuing on to Europe.

One example can be found in the ground floor unit of a building owned and self-constructed by an Italian-Moroccan family, where Maria and her daughter Sara live and operate a small dry goods store. Leaving her abusive husband in Ivory Coast, Maria brought her daughter Sara to Morocco in 2014 with the intention of going on to Europe. Through the Spanish church in Tangier, she found part-time work cooking for Moroccan families and working in café kitchens, although she eventually started spending more time running her shop in her Msnana home. Tangier’s Spanish cathedral dates back to the city’s international days in the early 1900s but has now become home to the Catholic charity Caritas. Religious charities such as Caritas have come to be key forces in both mediating between migrants and immigrants in Morocco, and the Moroccan government in its various local and national iterations. While the church shelters migrants within its confines when police conduct raids in Msnana and Boukhalef, they also work to find temporary employment for migrants who chose to stay, at least for the time being. However, their mission, both religious and social, is not without its opponents in the migrant community. Some migrant leaders take issue with how Caritas and the Spanish church administration seems to selectively maintain care for some and set others up with illegal apartments and rent-plans that are impossible to pay with the job opportunities they furnish. Individuals such as Maria then turn back toward the migrant community in order to find other formal and informal labor opportunities.

A few days before Eid al-Adha in 2018, I was invited to Maria’s house by members of an informal immigrant and migrant run association that was planning an all-day Eid celebration for residents of Msnana. In Morocco, as in other countries, it is common to celebrate the feast with an animal sacrifice, communal meals, and distribution of food to neighbors and to those in need. The neighborhood mosque is frequented by both immigrant and Moroccan Muslim residents of the neighborhood. The mosque, around the corner from Maria’s home, is led by a Senegalese imam, who performed the sacrifice of the two sheep bought with donations from bourgeois Moroccan, French, and American residents of Tangier. Maria’s place had two stove top burners and a refrigerator in a small nook, and a sitting room with shelves with cushions on the floor and dry goods for sale along the wall closest to the front door. On the morning of the Eid, the entire space had been transformed by Maria and her 11-year-old daughter to serve as kitchen that would accommodate 10 people working. The association sponsoring the event, Voie des Migrants, had previously dropped off more small gas cannisters connected to individual burners to cook on, as well as bins for washing, plastic cutting boards, knives, and piles of rice, tomatoes, garlic, peppers, and onions for gumbo. Several other women from Ivory Coast, around Maria’s age, in their mid-thirties, sat on the cushions and were already peeling garlic and onions when the Voie des Migrants team, myself included, made it to the house with the sheep from the mosque around 9:00 in the morning.

Although my own ability to help was considered rather meager, I was invited inside to help peel garlic. After debating with young Sara the best way of peeling garlic, I was eventually given permission to peel in the way I knew best, or at least I felt most comfortable. Having been denuded of any pretense of how helpful I was going to be in this whole process, I settled into the rhythm of chatting with Sara and tackling some 200 heads of garlic that remained to be peeled. Although we started speaking in French, Sara quickly picked up on the Arabic inflection of my French pronunciation and started speaking to me in the Tangier dialect of Moroccan Arabic, or Darija. She seemed just as comfortable speaking in Tanjawi Darija as French, telling me that most of her friends in the neighborhoods are Moroccans, and they all speak Moroccan Arabic together. “Ana tanjawia daba,” she said, as her mother laughed in the corner. “I have no idea what she is saying to me half the time now,” Maria said to me. “She said, I’m from Tangier now,” I replied. I asked Maria if she felt the same sort of belonging in Tangier that her daughter did, and she scoffed. Her response, that maybe she felt like she belonged in the neighborhood, but not in the rest of the city, was echoed by her friends. The reason why? Maria felt that in the neighborhood, no one cared that she practiced Christianity.

Indeed, the majority of the people doing the work of cooking for over 300 people in the neighborhood on a major Muslim holiday were Christian. There is a typical manner of celebrating Eid in Morocco. It is not monolithic, but many who choose to celebrate the feast do so with a specific set of dishes, elaborately prepared and cooked over the course of a week, after the customary distribution of a third of the meat to neighbors, and a third to those in need. This was different. Here, neighbors, some without the means or occasion for this sort of feast otherwise, came together to celebrate in a way that emerged from the diverse practices and needs of that neighborhood, and to distribute food throughout the community. Some volunteered to do the work of cooking for the Eid, and others were able to be paid for their labor through the Voie des Migrants association. It was a celebration, and it was also a job, done by neighbors for neighbors, performed with the recognition of a sense of belonging in that place.

As we finished cooking, we started packaging the stew into tinfoil to-go containers and handing them out to the men and women who began to line up outside of Maria’s house. This home was already well-known in the neighborhood as the best place to buy highly caffeinated cola nuts and West African spice packages anyway, and it didn’t take long for everyone around the block to see, hear, and smell, what was cooking there. Moroccans, Cameroonians, Senegalese, and Ivorians in the neighborhood all waited in line, together to get a helping of stew and, by mid-afternoon, over 300 meals had been given out and everyone was sitting around in a post-gumbo daze. 


Conversions in the Labor Market

Some weeks later, when I returned to Maria’s house and picked up the conversation with her about how she practiced her faith in the neighborhood, she went outside and called out to an older Cameroonian man sitting on a stoop down the street. The pastor, as she introduced him, leads the local Protestant church out of an apartment he has rented next to his own. The pastor, in his 50s, came to Morocco in 2010 with his wife and 3 children, planning to continue on to Spain. Eventually his wife, a son, and a daughter left without him on a smuggler’s boat, and he stayed behind with his oldest daughter who had enrolled in Tangier’s nearby Abdelmalek Essaadi University. I asked the pastor if he would leave if he had the chance. The pastor replied that he did have the chance, and he chose to stay. He stayed, he continued, because he saw that many young people arrived in Morocco having seen horrors. In his estimation, these young people, especially Christians, had no guidance in Morocco; no spiritual, social, or community leader to keep them from losing themselves in the midst of what they had seen and done, and what they were planning to do. Thus, he chose to stay, eventually receiving some support from a Protestant group in Ivory Coast who sent him money to rent a new apartment and two young men as acolytes to help him run the new church out of the unit next door. While relations with Moroccan neighbors started out a bit tough, the seeming permanence of the church and the community smoothed out these relations over time. The biggest concern of Moroccan residents of Msnana, it seemed, was that the church members would try to convert young Moroccans to Christianity. In reality, the pastor shared, conversion most often goes the other way.

This reflected other stories of conversion about which I had long heard. Most commonly, these conversions from Christianity to Islam seemed to happen with young men looking for temporary work in Tangier before continuing on to Spain. While much is made of the shared religious heritage between Muslim West and Central Africans and Muslim North Africans, in reality it does not often seem to make much of a difference among immigrant and migrant residents of Morocco. Shared religious beliefs do not eliminate racism, and racist stereotypes about these new residents of Morocco are pervasive. However, in the case of conversions, the newly Muslim immigrant seemed to be more readily accepted, especially with conversions done at the request of a Moroccan employer. Most specifically, this seemed to happen at the request of Moroccan men who run the affairs of funerals, burials, and cemeteries. Washing and preparing bodies for funerals and digging graves, especially in the Tangier suburbs, has become an economic market run by Salafi Moroccan men. This is to say, the enterprises themselves are run by Moroccan men who adhere to a certain traditionalist interpretation of Islam. Much of the daily labor grave digging and body washing is being done by young migrant men who are looking to accumulate money quickly to buy passage on a smuggler boat heading across the Strait of Gibraltar. Many of the converts that I have met are quick to admit their initial reasons for conversion may have included economic motivations, but also quick to emphasize the seriousness of their commitment to Islam.

Parallel to this however, we see the experiences of Maria and even the construction working “squatters” of Boukhalef, migrant men from West and Central Africa who construct suburban apartment buildings even as they live in them. Such persons found their inclusion in a micro-communitarian level because of their labor and shared class position, and not because of shared religious practices. The inclusion is nonetheless a precarious one, and it should be noted that inclusion and integration may not even be a goal of all migrants and immigrants in Morocco. Waiting time, after all, was often still oriented toward movement to Europe for both Maria and for the construction-site dwellers of Boukhalef. Within this reluctant immigrant community, however, persons such as this found themselves inhabiting neighborhood roles reactive to their religions, but not determined by them. As seen above, Maria’s Christianity became a determining factor in her temporary position as coordinator and head chef of the Eid meal. The pastor’s role as religious guide for the young Christians of Msnana is a position demanding of constant spiritual and social attention from him, but nonetheless he waited in line to receive an Eid meal like all of Maria’s other neighbors. Maria’s doubts about integration were directed toward the broader context of Tangier and Morocco. At the level of the neighborhood, as the events surrounding the Eid demonstrated, integration was not a major concern. In Msnana, varying types of difference became the grounds for inclusion.



The gathering of the Msnana community for the Eid would not have looked the ways it did without the waiting work that takes place in homes and in schools. For Sara, her participation in a Moroccan public school led to her confidence and comfort in Moroccan Arabic, setting her apart from many of the immigrant adults she knew in the neighborhood. Her knowledge of Arabic and her claims of being “from Tangier now” show another side of how the social tense of waiting can mark belonging and difference. This waiting time worked differently for Sara than for her mother, and their accesses to forms of community in Msnana, and Tangier more broadly, fell along different angles as a result. Maria’s preparatory waiting-work meant accumulating capital, through mobilizing the social relations she made while waiting, with advocates, and with community leaders. That meant working with Voie des Migrants to prepare for the Eid, as well as maintaining a shop at her home. However, for Sara, regardless of whether or not it was her choice to stay in Tangier with her mother, her relationship to her neighborhood was marked by a sense of belonging and the right to speak the language associated with that belonging. This right gives another dimension to her claim, that “I’m from Tangier now.” It is not only that she claims she has become Tanjawi, through her time there and her knowledge of Moroccan Arabic. It could also be an aspiration that Tangier could look and sound like her: “I’m from Tangier now.”

This paper has argued, perhaps aspirationally, that fruits of these ongoing labors of belonging are more than parenthetical to the main event of migration. Rather than simply seeing them as temporary by-products of a time in between origin and destination, this intervention asks how the communal sensibilities that form during this waiting time, these ways of being in common through shared difference, may endure beyond the event of waiting to cross a border into Europe. More broadly, we may also ask, what are their consequences for the marking of belonging and difference in Morocco, religious, linguistic, ethnic, or otherwise? As pointed out by both Abdourahmane Seck and Wendell Marsh in this collection, certain socio-cultural and religious bridges between West and North Africa – what Marsh calls Northwest Africa – span the historical record and the contemporary period. They are also, as both point out in different ways, increasingly racialized. Today, the category of “migrant” in Morocco has become a racial category. However, when considering the category of “immigrant” to Morocco, language, religion, and class all appear as salient factors in forging belonging and difference as well. This process speaks to what Mezzadra and Neilson call “the multiplication of labor.”[9] As they see it, through the enactment of international border and migration regulations, labor is no longer divided solely by skill, but by various other categories such as those outlined above. This intervention modifies this notion of “multiplication” in order to suggest that these factors are also mutable and subject to change during time spent waiting in Morocco. The growing presence of West and Central African immigrant workers in North African countries such as Morocco demands that we make sense of the labors and languages of belonging and difference emergent in these communities. These languages and labors draw on such socio-cultural bridges, but also exceed it in ways that speak to the reality of a changing Moroccan social fabric. Whether or not these communal sentiments speak to the emergence of what may be called a diaspora remains to be seen. Nonetheless, the ongoing work of staying put in Tangier, and making do in Msnana, necessitates ways of being in common. Here, waiting and working at the border means accumulating habits and idioms of shared difference across regional and national borders stretching from the Sahel to Mediterranean, composing an ongoing event much greater than the sum of each individual border crossed.




[1] “Les étrangers résidant au Maroc «pourront voter aux prochaines élections»,” Yabiladi.com (blog), December 21, 2020, https://www.yabiladi.com/articles/details/103320/etrangers-residant-maroc-pourront-voter.html.

[2] Kassamali, this volume

[3] Duruz, this volume

[4] (Mathews; Le Renard and Vora; this volume).

[5] Ghassan Hage, ed., Waiting (Melbourne: Melbourne Univ. Publishing, 2009).

[6] Melanie B. E. Griffiths, “Out of Time: The Temporal Uncertainties of Refused Asylum Seekers and Immigration Detainees,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 40, no. 12 (December 2, 2014): 1991–2009, https://doi.org/10.1080/1369183X.2014.907737; Rebecca Rotter, “Waiting in the Asylum Determination Process: Just an Empty Interlude?,” Time & Society 25, no. 1 (March 1, 2016): 80–101, https://doi.org/10.1177/0961463X15613654; Sarah Turnbull, “‘Stuck in the Middle’: Waiting and Uncertainty in Immigration Detention,” Time & Society 25, no. 1 (March 1, 2016): 61–79, https://doi.org/10.1177/0961463X15604518; Jan Beek, “Waiting, Relationships and Money in a Ponzi Scheme in Northern Ghana,” Critical African Studies 12, no. 1 (January 2, 2020): 107–20, https://doi.org/10.1080/21681392.2019.1697315; Serawit Debele, “Waiting as a Site of Subject Formation: Examining Collective Prayers by Ethiopian Asylum Seekers in Germany,” Critical African Studies12, no. 1 (January 2, 2020): 52–64, https://doi.org/10.1080/21681392.2019.1697311.

[7] Victor W. Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago: Aldine Pub. Co, 1969).

[8] Lorena Gazzotti, “(Un)Making Illegality: Border Control, Racialized Bodies and Differential Regimes of Illegality in Morocco,” The Sociological Review 69, no. 2 (March 1, 2021): 277–95, https://doi.org/10.1177/0038026120982273; Leslie Gross-Wyrtzen, “Contained and Abandoned in the ‘Humane’ Border: Black Migrants’ Immobility and Survival in Moroccan Urban Space,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 38, no. 5 (October 1, 2020): 887–904, https://doi.org/10.1177/0263775820922243.

[9] Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, Border As Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor (Duke University Press, 2013).