Open and easy-going, with a large and active university, OUJDA has that rare quality in Moroccan cities – nobody makes demands on your instinct for self-preservation. Coming from the Rif, it is a surprise to see women in public again, and to re-enter a Gallic atmosphere, as you move out of what used to be Spanish Morocco into the old French Protectorate zone. Morocco’s easternmost town, Oujda was the capital of French Maroc Orient and an important trading centre.
With its strategic location at the crossroads of eastern and southern routes across Morocco and Algeria, Oujda, like Taza, was always vulnerable to invasion and has frequently been the focus of territorial claims. Founded in the tenth century by Berber chieftain Ziri Ben Attia, it was occupied for parts of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by the Ziyanids, whose capital at Tlemcen is today just across the Algerian border. From 1727 until the early nineteenth century Oujda was under Turkish rule – the only town in present-day Morocco to have been part of the Ottoman Empire. Following the French defeat of the Ottomans in Algeria, France twice occupied the town prior to its incorporation within the Moroccan Protectorate in 1912, an early and prolonged association that remains tangible in the city’s streets and the locals’ attitudes.
In more recent years, Oujda’s proximity to the Algerian border and distance from the government in Rabat led to a reputation for dissidence and unrest. This was particularly evident during the Algerian border war in the early 1960s, and again, in the 1980s, in a series of student strikes. Following the restoration of Moroccan–Algerian relations in 1988 the city became truly pan-Maghrebi, with Algerians coming in to shop, and Moroccans sharing in some of the cultural dynamism of western Algeria, particularly Oran, the home of raï music. Alas, this is all in the past since the closure of the border in 1994 (see A note on Algeria), after which Oujda lost most of its passing trade, including a steady flow of tourists. However, Oujda still holds a big raï festival each July and this is the time to see the city at its best.