Educational path leads to fascination with use of urban space
Outbakat (center-left, back row) and street vendors in Agadir, Morocco, where he recently conducted fieldwork. (Photo courtesy of M. Outbakat.)

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

Educational path leads to fascination with use of urban space

UCLA doctoral student Mustapha Outbakat returned to Morocco last summer to conduct initial fieldwork and archival research for his dissertation, aided by a fellowship from the UCLA African Studies Center.

UCLA International Institute, October 17, 2023 — Mustapha Outbakat is passionate about education. A member of the indigenous Amazigh community of Morocco, the warm and friendly UCLA graduate student grew up speaking Tamazight in a very small village in the Souss-Mass region. He encountered Arabic, in which the Moroccan school curriculum is taught, for the first time in primary school.

“Many in my community face the same problem: it is challenging to start school in a language you didn’t speak at home,” he said. The Amazigh community has been historically marginalized and under-represented in academia and graduate education in Morocco, he explained. It wasn’t until 2001 that the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture was created in the country to conduct research on the community, and that the first dictionaries in Tamazight began to be published.

While pursuing his higher education in Morocco, Outbakat began teaching Arabic to preschool and primary school children of Amazigh agricultural workers, basic education subjects at the primary level and philosophy at the high school level. In addition, he founded and worked in a development association that assisted farmers in developing agricultural products.

“For me, teaching and education help me show others the way and give them hope for a better life,” he remarked. “I began teaching Arabic to underprivileged young students because I realized it is important for them not to experience the same problems that I did.

“[Disadvantaged children] don’t often get support from people from their same community, who can actually see themselves in the children and understand the torture of suddenly learning a new language.”

The only person in his immediate family to go beyond middle school, Outbakat has already acquired an impressive higher education. He earned a B.A. at Ibn Zohr University in Agadir, where he majored in sociology and anthropology, while simultaneously completing a professional diploma in philosophy at Mohammed V University in Rabat.

He then completed an M.A. in political science at Mohammed V University and an M.A. in sociology and anthropology at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies in Qatar. He joined the Ph.D. program in anthropology at UCLA in fall 2022. And although he now speaks four languages, he stresses that his roots remain in his village, where two of his uncles continue to live a semi-nomadic life.

After traveling halfway across the world to Los Angeles, Outbakat has a fellow Moroccan as one of his academic advisors: the celebrated scholar of Moroccan-Jewish relations, anthropologist and Maurice Amado Endowed Professor in Sephardic Studies Aomar Boum. In fact, Boum conducted his dissertation research in the region near the Atlas mountains not far from where Outbakat grew up.

The start of doctoral research

Outbakat’s research interests span postcolonial studies, critical urban anthropology, late nomadic societies, and state and identity formation in the Middle East and North Africa. His initial doctoral research focuses on how the colonial administration of Moroccan cities, designed to serve the needs of an extractive economy, continues to affect the political economy of space in the country today.

This past summer, Outbakat returned to Morocco to conduct preliminary fieldwork in Agadir and archival research in the country’s capital, Rabat. His research focused on the marginalized southern region of Morocco and was supported by a Judith Boyajian Travel Fellowship from the UCLA African Studies Center.

He spent about six weeks living and doing ethnographic fieldwork in a working-class neighborhood of Agadir, which is bordered by agricultural and industrial zones. Residents of the district work in either agricultural or industrial jobs during the day; many also work as street vendors in the evening.

Outbakat spent unstructured time getting to know the vendors, hearing about their lives, their views on youth in Morocco, their sales strategies and how they understand economic space. Because his fieldwork is in Agadir, he is able to conduct interviews speaking his regional dialect of Tamazight.

“Everyone who is a street vendor has their specific space, no one takes it,” he explained. Individuals’ spots are agreed on and respected within the vendor group. “They see the pavement as a very important space where ‘informal’ economic practices occur. And because they are a group and they know each other, they help each other.

“I should also note that several (but not all) of the street vendors I spoke to are college educated, but the state has failed to meet the needs of Moroccan youth and they are forced to find employment alternatives.”

Political economy of space

Outbakat (right) with a member of the street vendor community. (Photo courtesy of M. Outbakat.) The young scholar traces his interest in the political economy of space to his experiences of city life. “When I came to Agadir for university, it was the first big city I had seen. It actually changed my understanding of life,” recounted Outbakat. “It changed even more when I went to Rabat.

“Since Rabat is the capital, it is central not only for the government but also for students, state administrators and others from generally more privileged backgrounds.”

In contrast to Agadir, where Moroccan architecture predominates, Rabat is characterized by a mixture of Moroccan, French and Islamic architecture.

“When you walk on the part of Mohammed V Avenue that is close to the parliament, all you see is French architecture,” shared Outbakat.

“You see a very important organization of space along that avenue. You have the old medina, which is ‘Moroccan Islamic’ architecture, but at the same time, you have the new medina, or Mohammed V Avenue. The French colonial administration created the new medina, or nouvelle ville, so the city historically was split between the Moroccan population and the French administration. At the top of the avenue is the As-Sunna Mosque.

“If you go to Morocco, you will see a mix of all these things. You have a modern state, which is the parliament, but at the same time, you still have traditional Moroccan architecture. And alongside those, you have the mosque and the Islamic architecture that is disseminated throughout the county. Architecturally, it is also inevitable to see remnants of French and Spanish colonization throughout many Moroccan cities.”

When Outbakat moved to Qatar to pursue his second M.A. degree, his interest in urban space became more pronounced. “Doha was totally different: all the skyscrapers, the need for English if you want to go anywhere and the fact that the daily language of the city is English.” All of these aspects, he notes, are part of the city’s design and management. After a year of life in L.A., he finds that it shares key attributes with Doha: it isn’t built for workers and forces you to have a car to get around.

Outbakat’s observations of urban space and functionality reflect both his intellectual training and his lived experience, an enviable combination for someone at the start of the dissertation research process.


Published: Tuesday, October 17, 2023