The Marrakesh Earthquake: Western Privilege in a Natural Disaster

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This September, I met up with the four girls I had lived with for the last year in Barcelona during my study abroad year in Morocco for a summer reunion. I had been missing them immensely and was so excited to see them again in a country that had topped my bucket list for years. We had been in Morocco for under an hour when the largest earthquake to hit the region in over 120 years struck south of Marrakesh.

The ground began to tremble, followed by cries, screams, and the sound of people running. The restaurant staff cried, “Get out! Get out!” and guided customers to safety before they escaped themselves.

As the violent tremors subsided and the immediate threat passed, we gathered outside, dazed and confused.

Some people wept, some wailed, some sat, and some did nothing.  It felt unreal. So, we waited. We waited for the aftershocks. But no structures came down around us and there was no second tremble. We were in buildings with sound foundations and were uninjured. That was not the case however for some three thousand Moroccans who, we learned later, lost their lives. We looked online and quickly discovered that the earthquake had reached a devasting magnitude of 6.8 and a depth of 11.5 miles.

It felt unreal. So, we waited. We waited for the aftershocks

At this point, we were all treated as one — tourists and Moroccan civilians alike. We sat on the street, scared to enter the building like everyone else.  I felt a warming sense of unity and equality among the people surrounding me that I had never felt before. We might have a different language, religion, family and life, but we all felt the same. Old Moroccan men walked around handing out dates; people sat in circles holding hands to pray; others wiped the tears of a stranger they had never met.

I felt a warming sense of unity and equality among the people surrounding me that I had never felt before

As soon as we stepped out of our gated area, the panic quickened my breath and my heart began to pound. The cries were louder, the dust thicker, and the injuries more severe. I quickly learned that my feeling of equality with those around me was naive and, frankly, misplaced.

I called my parents to let them know we were okay. That’s when my first-world privilege really kicked in. They proceeded to exhaust all their connections to find us safety. Within half an hour of that phone call, through a friend of a friend, we were hurried away in a black SUV to a safe hotel with earthquake-proof foundations. It felt so wrong. As we drove away through dust clouds from tumbling buildings, and witnessed children sleeping in their mother’s laps, and men fighting through the rubble in search of their loved ones as sirens blared, I felt profound guilt. This natural disaster amplified the gulf between our worlds.

As the dust settled, I was acutely aware of my privilege-  still so piercing even in the face of a natural disaster. Why could my family find connections to a wealthy expat that would usher us to safety? Why did we have any greater right than Moroccans to go and stay in a safe place where we knew the roof wouldn’t come crashing down on us? Why did children sleep on the streets for weeks after the earthquake, fearing their bedroom crumbling down? Within an hour, we were under a safe roof in a country none of us had ever been to before. It felt so wrong.

What was most perturbing was how our holiday just continued. We bought some supplies for the relief effort and shared links to donate on our social media. Only five of my 2,500 followers responded. The conversation became dominated by whether it was weird to post an Instagram story whilst others desperately scrambled to save those trapped under rubble.

What was most perturbing was how our holiday just continued

On our trip to the desert, I asked one of the tour guides: “Are all your family safe? Did you know anyone in Marrakesh hurt?”

 “Yes, my friend died”, he replied. And then, without missing a beat, he continued:  “Can I get you a bottle of water for your journey?”

He spoke as if disaster was just a part of their lives, not something I should seek to burden myself with. He felt I should be more concerned with whether I would get thirsty on the next half-hour bus ride. Is that the image we convey as Western tourists amid a tragic natural disaster?  

Is that the image we convey as Western tourists amid a tragic natural disaster?

Should we have stayed back and slept in the streets with everyone else? Could we have done more? These are questions I ask myself most days. A month on and the privilege we experienced as Westerners has stuck with me. My experience graphically illustrates how life chances are determined by where you are born. This is no longer an abstract concept for me.

Since 11 pm on September 7 2023, I viscerally understand now it can be a matter of life or death.

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