The Accidental American: Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization

The Accidental American: Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization

by Rinku Sen, Fekkak Mamdouh

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The Accidental American vividly illustrates the challenges and contradictions of U. S. immigration policy, and argues that, just as there is a free flow of capital in the world economy, there should be a free flow of labor. Author Rinku Sen alternates chapters telling the story of one "accidental American"—coauthor Fekkak Mamdouh, a Morrocan-born

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The Accidental American vividly illustrates the challenges and contradictions of U. S. immigration policy, and argues that, just as there is a free flow of capital in the world economy, there should be a free flow of labor. Author Rinku Sen alternates chapters telling the story of one "accidental American"—coauthor Fekkak Mamdouh, a Morrocan-born waiter at a restaurant in the World Trade Center whose life was thrown into turmoil on 9/11—with a thorough critique of current immigration policy. Sen and Mamdouh describe how members of the largely immigrant food industry workforce managed to overcome divisions in the aftermath of 9/11 and form the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY) to fight for jobs and more equitable treatment. This extraordinary story serves to illuminate the racial, cultural, and economic conflicts embedded in the current immigration debate and helps frame the argument for a more humane immigration and global labor system.

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Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Publication date:
BK Currents Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

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Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2008 Rinku Sen and Fekkak Mamdouh
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-57675-892-2

Chapter One


Mamdouh's own migration history was typical for his generation in many ways, from the conditions in which he grew up to the family relations that propelled his moves. Even before he left Morocco, Mamdouh's life took shape in a global context, politically, economically, and culturally. He was born poor in a country that had achieved independence just before his birth. Those were heady times for Moroccans, but a good portion of their optimism turned out to be misplaced. Although independence freed them from French colonial control, it didn't transform Morocco's monarchy and political system, nor did it improve life for most Moroccans.

Mamdouh's circumstances and decisions were closely tied to those of his family. He was actually part of a second generation of migrants; both parents had made the universal trek from the countryside to the city within Morocco. He himself followed his brother, who was the first to leave the country altogether. In each generation, the decision to move was motivated primarily by the need to survive, but also reflected a healthy anticipation of adventure and change, of breaking out from old patterns and expectations.

Desperate as they are, once emigrants decide to leave, they try to choose not only the most geographically accessible place, but also one that seems welcoming or exciting. Like most migrants, Mamdouh came to the United States after an earlier stint in Saudi Arabia—trying life in multiple countries is extremely common. As he traveled, working for very wealthy people, Mamdouh was allowed to see, and sometimes to participate in, luxurious lifestyles based on rampant consumption. Living in proximity to riches he couldn't have imagined as a child didn't make him greedy, but it did show him the vast distance between the poverty in which he'd grown up and the wealth that was possible. It made him more determined to gather at least some of the good things in life for his own family, and made it impossible for him to return voluntarily to his old life in Morocco.

Over the course of his journey, Mamdouh experienced life in all the possible immigrant statuses—as a guest worker, as an undocumented person, as a legal permanent resident, and as a naturalized citizen of his new home. As it does for many, restaurants provided him a gateway to a new country. And like most immigrants of color, he started in the lowest wage jobs the industry had to offer. Unlike most, however, he quickly rose to a position at the front of the house, which put him on the path to what can only be called the top of the profession— waiter in one of the world's most famous restaurants. The timing made a difference. He was fortunate to arrive in the United States in the late 1980s, when the attitude toward undocumented immigrants was far more accepting than it would be fifteen or twenty years later. He was also lucky to work with restaurant managers who recognized his skill, including his multilingualism, and who therefore gave him opportunities to rise.

Mamdouh's family history of migration began with his father, Bouchaib, who left the countryside for the city in 1938. Bouchaib grew up in a poor village 60 kilometers south of Casablanca. By the time he was fourteen, Bochaib had suffered the deaths through illness of two brothers and his father. Most of his neighbors were farmers, but Bouchaib learned commerce by traveling with his uncles to local markets where they sold tea and sugar.

As a young man, Bouchaib joined the independence movement, protesting the "voluntary" arrangement between French presidents and Moroccan kings that made his country a French protectorate. When King Mohammed V refused to renew the agreement in 1931, France brought in its Senegalese colonial troops to force his hand. Bouchaib found himself in the midst of a mass protest that turned to panic as a pro-independence crowd ran from French cannon fire. Bouchaib survived that night by lying down among the dead and pretending to be one of the victims.

As he approached manhood Bouchaib watched his friends leave the countryside to make money in the city. He told his mother that he too wanted to go to Casablanca, where he could do something with his life. He took the bus, arriving with nowhere to stay and no work. But he made do. He always found someone who took him to a friendly café where he could spend the night, or pointed him toward day work in the mornings. Eventually, he got a small job in Mohammedia cutting the grass on a Frenchman's farm; he soon became the farm's foreman and was given a small house on the grounds. He returned to the village a year later at the insistence of his mother, but within four months he returned to Casablanca. There he met Americans for the first time—GIs who had arrived to fight the war in Europe.

Bouchaib finally opened his own little grocery in 1942, a small shop next to the little shack he called home. In 1953 a friend introduced him to Aicha, a young woman who had also come from the countryside. The two married just as the French sent Mohammed V into exile for once again refusing their "protection." Together Aicha and Bouchaib had seven children who grew to adulthood. Within the next fifty years, four of them would continue their parents' migration trajectory, leaving Morocco altogether.

Bouchaib raised his family through the postwar and postcolonial period in a country ruled by monarchs who maintained close ties with the West even after Morocco gained independence in 1956. The family's history illustrates the consequences of postcolonial economic schemes that consisted too much of privatizing state functions to enrich elites and foreigners, and too little of encouraging democracy and real development. As a result of the monarchy's policies, Mamdouh's childhood was marked by both poverty and repression, which together pushed him to search for something better. He wanted the material means to live a dignified life, certainly, but also the freedom to stop looking over his shoulder. Rumors of grand opportunities to find such things outside of Morocco would eventually pull him halfway around the world.

Mamdouh was Bouchaib and Aicha's fourth child, born in June 1961, just months after Morocco celebrated the crowning of a new young king. Hassan II's thirty-eight-year reign would eventually be known as the "period of fire and steel," but at that point the country was still somewhat placidly enjoying the aftermath of a relatively bloodless independence struggle. By then the family was well established in Ben M'sik, a neighborhood of tin shanties and unpaved streets; most of the streets around them were too narrow for even a single car to drive through. They had three shanties—one to live in and two for the grocery store. Bouchaib sold coffee, sugar, tea, flour, and other dry goods, and by Mamdouh's tenth birthday the business had prospered for thirty years. The family shop was located between other neighborhoods and a hugely popular open-air bazaar, so the constant flow of foot traffic guaranteed steady customers. Mamdouh and his brothers got up early every morning to help Bouchaib lift the shop's heavy metal door. His parents had opposite personalities, his father gruff and loud, his mother shy and housebound. The couple regularly fed friends and strangers along with family, sometimes more than a dozen people in a night.

Still, they were poor. Nine people created four bedrooms out of a roughly 10-x-10-meter space. The house froze in the winter and steamed in the summer, and the lack of running water or indoor plumbing meant that the children took shifts getting water and washing up at one of the mosaic-tiled public fountains that dotted Morocco in the tens of thousands, or bathed occasionally at the local hammam.

From an early age, Mamdouh admired his father's independence and entrepreneurial spirit. The family saw Mamdouh as an honest, straightforward child whose siblings didn't torment him excessively. He was especially close to his eldest brother, Mohammed, who taught him how to swim and later how to drive. Mamdouh's early childhood didn't feel deeply deprived, but he was accustomed to making his own toys like soccer balls out of any material that could be made to roll.

Despite the family's poverty, Mamdouh had plenty of typical childhood fun. During the summers, his father sent him to the countryside to stay with his uncle in Ben Hamed, about 70 kilometers south of Casablanca, and Mamdouh traveled to the surrounding towns with his uncle, who had continued the family tradition of selling goods at the market. One of Mamdouh's favorite treats was watching Hindi movies from Bombay, which united Asia and the Middle East culturally, providing a major source of entertainment for a relatively low price. On Sunday mornings, when it was cheapest, he would indulge his obsession with Bollywood actors like Rajesh Khanna, Rishi Kapoor, and Amitabh Bachchan.

Mamdouh learned to make money early on. By the age of fourteen, he was picking through the European and American castoffs at thrift shops, finding items he thought he could resell, taking them home to wash or mend, and then marking them up slightly for sale on the street. His friends knew him as smart, ambitious, and generous, a sharp dresser yet perfectly willing to sell the shirt or jacket off his own back. People regularly asked him about his clothes, "Are you ready to sell that?" and he often was. Once he sold the sneakers he was wearing and walked home in his socks. By the time he was seventeen, Mamdouh had opened the family's first bank account. He talked constantly about his plans to change his life, lecturing his friends about how they needed to make money, go to school, give their parents what they deserved, and never lose hope.

But Mamdouh could not escape the political and social context of his own society. King Hassan II did try to introduce some reforms, expanding the public school system, providing food subsidies, and raising the wages for government workers, but global conditions made hampered these efforts. The French had conducted a friendlier form of colonization in Morocco than they had elsewhere in their empire, but they had still retained economic control of the country. Hassan II wanted both to modernize the nation and keep government control, and these two ambitions marked his tenure. The result of Morocco's large-scale development projects on Mamdouh's family was to aggravate their economic need rather than to bring prosperity. Without democratic rights, however, there was little they could do. The combination of poverty and political repression drove many young Moroccans of Mamdouh's generation to leave the country as soon as they could. The best they could hope for in Morocco was a government job—but the number of those was shrinking and they were in many cases part of a system of corruption.

The Moroccan royal family traced its lineage to the Prophet Mohammed. Although they had created an administrative structure that was formally separate from the monarchy, after independence that structure and the monarchy effectively merged. Suspecting an assassination attempt, Hassan II suspended parliamentary elections in 1971. He also established a secret police force that searched out seditious behavior.

Morocco's economy wasn't strong enough to support Hassan II's ambitions, and Morocco's relationship to the West remained suppliant even after independence. In the end, France had released the protectorate relatively easily, choosing instead to focus on its bitter war against rebels in Algeria, but Europe limited Moroccan imports after independence and kept the country at arm's length economically. In exchange for an International Monetary Fund loan granted while the country's population was growing, Hassan II agreed to reduce public spending on basics like food and education. Throughout the droughts of the 1970s, peasants abandoned the countryside for cities. Food prices shot up in the 1970s: sugar by 37 percent, butter and milk by 45 percent, and flour by an astonishing 76 percent. The cuts prompted food riots, which in turn set the state's repression apparatus in motion.

These events affected Mamdouh's family. In 1971 the family got word that the government planned to build a new airport at the outer edge of Casablanca, then a four-lane highway from Rabat to Casablanca. The neighborhood would eventually be razed, the Mamdouhs were told, but they vowed to stay as long as possible in their home of thirty years. As a white wall went up all the way around their community and highway construction started, the foot traffic that had kept the store so lively over the years slackened, the store's profits shrank by half, and the family entered hard times for real. Their own poverty grew apace with everyone else's—the country's resources were largely going into fighting to control Western Sahara or paying for large infrastructure projects that could attract foreign investment. The police and army kept the populace in line with violence. Seeing state authoritarianism at such close proximity made Mamdouh consider political action courageous—for other people.

Despite government repression, by the 1970s their neighborhood had become the site of radicalization for trade unionists and political activism. The early 1970s were marked by enormous demonstrations and strikes, some lasting a full year. The conditions encouraged protest. The Washington Post reported of Mamdouh's neighborhood that "the problems are easily visible. Only a 10-minute drive from Casablanca's beachfront resort and chic night clubs lie the crowded tenements of Boush N'touf, where street boys were seen playing soccer with a dead rat instead of a ball, or the makeshift huts of Ben M'sik, where thousands of families live without electricity or sewers in what resembles a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon." Mamdouh joined the occasional window-breaking demonstration with his friends, more out of youthful exuberance than moral commitment. He never got caught, though, and his father continued to think of his sons as good boys who worked hard and stayed out of politics.

Soon after Mamdouh graduated from high school, an acquaintance told Bouchaib that he would make a good recruit to the secret police, since he was known to be smart and capable.

"What are you planning to do now?" Bouchaib asked Mamdouh.

"I want to keep studying," he said. "School is good and I'm doing well in it. I want to keep going."

"But you will need to start working sometime." Bouchaib told him about the secret police idea, eliciting an uncomfortable chuckle from his son, who knew the police to be wildly corrupt. "Why are you laughing? Because you think I'm crazy?"

"You know, Baba, you've done a lot and been through so many hard times. You've raised us all well and we are all doing good. But if I go to the police, I will be feeding my family bribes."

In June 1981, two weeks after Mamdouh's twentieth birthday, Morocco's trade unions called for a general strike in Casablanca to demand reinstatement of food subsidies. The strikers called in particular for a gas boycott—no one was to buy gas or move their cars all day—and effectively shut down the city's economy, including airports, train stations, factories, and shops. When the government started running buses along the highway to get around the boycott, Mamdouh watched from the wall as people threw stones. The general strike itself was controlled, but the unions couldn't predict or manage the level of frustration among the city's people, and full-scale riots broke out two days later. The army brought in its tanks, helicopters, and armored cars and ordered a curfew, essentially imposing martial law on the city's poorest neighborhoods. People stood on their balconies and threw rocks at the police.


Excerpted from THE ACCIDENTAL AMERICAN by RINKU SEN FEKKAK MAMDOUH Copyright © 2008 by Rinku Sen and Fekkak Mamdouh. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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