Tea, Sugar, and Rural Consumers in Colonial Morocco

By Graham Cornwell
Submitted to Session P4886 (Colonialism and Culinary Cultures in the Middle East and North Africa, 2017 Annual Meeting
Maghreb; Morocco;
19th-21st Centuries; African Studies; Cultural Studies; Health; Maghreb Studies; Modern; Modernization; Pop Culture;
LCD Projector without Audio;
By the 1930s, after roughly twenty years of colonial rule, most Moroccans relied on imported green tea sweetened with refined sugar as a critical part of their daily sustenance. French capital had collaborated with Protectorate officials to establish a sugar refinery in Casablanca and beetroot and cane fields in several different parts of the country. Private tea companies started business, marketing their product with images of the sultan and the ‘Alawi dynasty. Tea and sugar were more accessible to average Moroccans than they had ever been, but not everyone saw this in a positive light.

In this paper, I examine the critical response to rising tea and sugar consumption during the colonial period. Scholars such as Sahar Bazzaz, Rahma Bourquia, and Etty Terem have recently turned their attention to the resistance to tea and sugar consumption in the late nineteenth century, particularly the movement led by the Kattani brotherhood. This critical attitude towards new consumption practices, particularly with the official establishment of the French Protectorate in 1912, did not disappear. This paper uses a series of poems performed by imyadzen, or traveling poets, that deal specifically with tea, sugar, food supply, and hunger. These poems were recorded by the French officer Arsène Roux in the 1920s and 1930s, mainly in the Middle Atlas region, and they offer a window into the growing culture of atay in rural Morocco.

Although tea and sugar were common in the cities and towns in the late nineteenth century, the population of Morocco remained overwhelmingly rural through the 1930s. For some pockets of the country, tea and sugar had only recently become regularly available. By analyzing this set of sources, I demonstrate how local, rural consumers experienced French colonial alimentation and ravitaillement policies. I show how they made sense of their own sustenance. This paper offers a counter-narrative to the idea of sweetened tea as a symbol of Moroccan national identity and as a staple that Moroccans simply could not live without.