Mariam Taidi , Al Jadida shores, Morocco — As in the legendary tales, Malika flapped her long curls backwards as she put on her diving suit and retreated behind a cliff on a rocky beach in the outskirts of the city of El Jadida (south of Casablanca). She then covered her hair and dressed in a long, worn-out gown that stretched over her body.
In her twenties, Malika looks beautiful in spite of the sunburn on her face. She is preparing, along with the rest of her friends, to dive in the North Atlantic Ocean in search of red algae
Nymphs are a fact
Ceasg, Ariel and Mami Wata, the legendary mermaids, have according to folklore, contributed to saving the lives of sailors and to feeding pirates’ obsession with exploring oceans in search of them. In Arabic literature, they are called “daughters of the sea” and “horses”. But the shores of Al Jadida in Morocco are teeming with real mermaids who dig deep into the Atlantic to extract red algae.
On a hot August morning, aljazeera.net accompanied women from the cooperative Nymphs of Sidi El Abed on their daily journey to harvest algae, or what is known in the region as “rabia” (a word for spring or grass).
The women of the sea piled up in a van and set off on their search for algae, facing the miseries of their occupation and the harshness of the climate. They ululated and chanted along the way. Upon arrival, they wore their diving outfits and proceeded to search behind rocks and dive deep into the sea for the red gold.
All at sea
The divers’ boats are scattered along some 150 kilometres, far from the shore, and are swarming with women and children of all ages. Mubarak, a sailor and a member of the Sidi El Abed cooperative, tells Al Jazeera that anyone born is destined to return to the sea.
The coast of El Jadida provides 80 percent of the national production of red algae and its products are of high quality.
Moroccan red algae is used to make bacterial culture farms in medical laboratories because of its features. A multi-use substance called agar-agar is also extracted from this valuable plant.
Source of income
Malika, along with her colleagues, dived into the sea and amassed her daily booty in the skirt of her house dress.
“Rabia is the source of living for all the inhabitants of the region,” said one member of the cooperative. “Thanks to it we can celebrate our feasts and send our children to schools. Our life is tied to the sea and dependent on it.’’
Her colleague interrupted. “Not only educating our children and dressing them, but also living and daily needs.” Another woman added. “If we do not work in the sea, we will not survive. Rabia is our life fuel and its main engine.”
But now, residents of the area have been adversely affected after officials from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries restricted their algae-reaping days, and they are no longer benefitting from the whole season, as they used to. They have also complained that the amount they can harvest no longer meets their daily needs.
The mermaids are upset
The Sidi El Abed cooperative has about 300 members, some of whom have had diving training and others who are qualified sailors. The cooperative also runs a marketing project for sea urchins and mussels, but the production unit has now stalled.
Nour, another algae harvester, explained that the scorching sun and salinity have changed the algae’s colour, and less was growing for harvest. She said phosphate factories nearby had contaminated a cliff, turning it yellow. Sea urchins and mussels from the area were now classified as contaminated products; authorities informed the residents that sea creatures in the area had been poisoned and were not fit for consumption.
Nour, who declined to be photographed or appear on camera, said that complaints to authorities were not being heard and explained that the law of the sea — in which big whales eat smaller fish — applied to the sea occupations.
The anger is not confined to the women of the cooperative of Sidi El Abed. During our tour of the coast we received complaints from other women that large companies were benefitting from the sea bounties, and that the mermaids were now taking crumbs. These women also complained about the tyranny of mediators and their low selling prices.
The women consider the restrictions on the days they can collect the red algae have threatened their livelihoods, exposing them to homelessness and unemployment.
Officials of the sector, however, justify the limits to reaping days on a need to prevent crop depletion and to respect a biological break — an argument which is rejected by the women who consider it a form of complicity with large operators.
“Women were going into the sea, but the monopoly and the powerful ones prevented it,” one said with sorrow. “Women face the sea, they do not face men and society, and they have no power to counteract the influential people and the lobbies.”
Another member added: “They took away our land and exploited our resources, and we are afraid of saying a word.” A third said: “A lot of money is flowing in, they wish for our death to recover our sources of income, and take over the sea.”
It has been reported that Morocco’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries had set a yearly production cap at 6040 tons, of which 20 percent was allocated for raw export. One company, however, monopolises the transformation and extraction of agar-agar and now owns 80 percent of the crop. Morocco’s turnover in it is estimated at 350 million dirhams ($36m).
A Greek myth says that a mermaid’s soul inhabits a monument or a tree, and her life ends when the edifice is destroyed or the tree is cut. Al Jadida’s mermaids’ livelihoods, by analogy, inhabit rabia (spring). If it lives, they live, and when it is harmed, they are harmed.
Source: Aljazeera.net (Original Content -Arabic)