From oranges to riches: The saga of Rachid Niny

Rachid Niny, Morocco's most widely read newspaper columnist, has come a long way from picking oranges in Southern Spain. His recently launched newspaper, Al-Massa, went from zero copies to 100,000 copies sold in the space of a few months.
By Ali Lmrabet, Correspondent
SUCCESS STORY: Rachid Niny in his office at Al-Massae headquarters. (Ali Lmrabet)
Success story: Rachid Niny in his office (r.) and his popular column in Al-Massae (l.). © Ali Lmrabet

CASABLANCA - In his vast office with a view of the Avenue des Forces Armées Royales, Rachid Niny, the managing director of the daily newspaper Al-Massae ("The Evening"), stares pointedly at a framed picture on the wall.

It is, in fact, a collage of photos of an old mountain cabin.

Niny, Morocco's most widely read editorialist, can't explain exactly why the picture came to hang in his office.

Was it because Niny, himself a man of the plains, has always held a fascination for the mountains?

Or perhaps he has subconsciously associated the mountain cabin with the ruins of the old Arab fortresses that stood guard over the plains of Spain, where he spent years picking oranges as a day laborer.

At 37-years old, Rachid Niny is in charge of a daily newspaper that went from 20,000 to more than 100,000 copies sold in the space of just a few months.

"Our weekend edition even sells more than 150,000 copies", Al-Massae's young managing director proudly adds.

Al-Massae's commercial success has a lot to do with a little ritual Niny performs every morning when he closes the door to his office and sits down to write his daily editorial.

The Moroccans love Niny's editorials for their humorous tackling of the country's political and social life.

They eagerly seek out Niny's unadulterated opinion on the issue of the day.

In Morocco, everyone, friend or foe, reads Niny's editorials.

But Al-Massae's success is due to more than Niny's editorials alone.

The newspaper has gained a reputation for scooping the competition on a number of sensational stories.

It was Al-Massae that exposed the story of Rkia Abouali, a high-priced call girl who became the sexual slave of several Moroccan magistrates.

It was also Al-Massae that told the story of a poor Moroccan family reduced to living in one of Casablanca's public toilets - a story that raised such public outcry that the Islamist party brought it before the legislature.

Success of this kind does not come without a downside, and Rachid Niny knows he has many enemies.

Morocco's Justice minister himself has sworn Al-Massae's downfall after the paper implicated his sister in a huge real estate scandal.

Al-Massae was not deterred.

Without blinking, it followed up with a story about how the same minister's father has been using his son's name to get out of paying his medical bills at one of Morocco's public hospitals.
Down and out in Benidorm

Niny has not always been "Morocco's most widely read editorialist".

In fact, not so long ago, Rachid Niny was an illegal immigrant in Spain, and his fate, like that of many thousands of Moroccans, was to live in daily fear of the sight of the ubiquitous triangular hat of the Guardia Civil, or the sound of an approaching police siren.

It was in the early nineties, shortly after he got his degree in Arab literature, and after he was hit over the head a couple of times for demanding the right to work in street demonstrations in Casablanca, that Niny decided to get on a boat to Algeciras in Spain.

It was the first time he had ever left Morocco, and like so many before him, he fully expected Spanish employers to fall over themselves to offer him a job.

Reality set in as soon as he got off the Algeciras to Benidorm bus.

The taxi ride from the bus station to the neighborhood where a friend had offered to put him up reduced Niny's fortune to half.

His new home turned out to be a narrow room where two people took turns sleeping because there was only enough room for one bed.

A diet of tuna sandwiches and coke would soon give him an ulcer.

And the legions of eager employers somehow failed to materialize.

Not speaking a word of Spanish, in constant fear of being arrested and deported, Niny barricaded himself in his tiny room where he spent his days trying to read old newspapers and attempting to make sense of the gibberish coming from an old television set.

One day, an Algerian neighbor offered to take him from Benidorm to Oliva, a village in the southeastern corner of Valencia province, for the orange harvest.

Niny was overjoyed. Surely, with a steady job, getting his work and residency papers in order was simply a matter of time.

At Oliva, Niny was introduced to a small and chubby Spanish woman named Merce.

Every morning, Merce would pick up a number of day laborers from the village square and drive them to the orange orchards a hundred kilometers away.

Merce, Niny remembers, had dubbed his small group "the gang of the Moors and the Christians" because it was composed of North Africans, Germans and Argentineans.

But it soon became clear that even though the "Moors" and the "Christians" performed the same hard labor, the similarities ended there.

In fact, the "Moors" were being paid an average of 6 to 12 euros per day less then their Christian co-workers.

The "Moors" also had to pay for their transportation from Oliva whereas the "Christians" were not.

More often than not, Merce would refuse payment altogether, claiming that a particular batch of oranges was too badly bruised.

Revolted by the sight of this modern form of slavery, Niny decided to return to Benidorm.

It was summertime and the nightclubs in the "English quarter" of the resort city were packed solid with vacationers.

The clubs were always looking for cheap bouncers, bartenders and dishwashers.

It was in one of these places that Niny met an English girl who told him she made 150 euros every time she got on one of the dancing platforms to show off her best attributes.

When Niny told this story to a Moroccan friend, Abdelouaheb, he went over to the club right away, offering "to show everything for half the price."

Niny went on to work at a pizza parlor run by a Moroccan Jew who not only thaught him how to make pizza but also how to make himself invisible to the police.

In Benidorm, he told Niny, one should always walk around in a bathing suit and a t-shirt in order to blend in with the holiday crowd.

Back to Morocco

Down and out once more, Niny resorted to going to local supermarkets, grabbing bread and sardines off the shelves, and hiding in corners to eat.

For several months, he survived like this.

And then one day, after several years in Spain, Niny suddenly decided he wanted to go back home to Morocco.

"Everybody tried to talk me out of it", Niny says as he leans back comfortably in his office chair, his baseball cap a permanent fixture on his head.

"For them, being miserable in Spain was still a thousand times better than being miserable in Morocco."

Only one person supported Niny's decision: Abdelouaheb, the one from the night club striptease.

Abdelouaheb had come to the conclusion that the Moroccans would never blend into Spanish society because, as he said, "flies and bees cannot coexist in the same garden."

On the bus taking him back to Morocco, staring out at the landscape, Niny reflected on his friend's words.

During a service stop, he noticed the ruins of an old Arab fortress in the distance, and wrote in his notebook: "We, the Arabs, were once the masters of these parts. Today, we are the slaves."

Back in Morocco, Niny moved into a small studio.

He started writing poetry, and sending in articles to several Moroccan newspapers.

He was just surviving, until one day someone noticed Niny's writing style.

Before long, Niny was offered his own program on the second Moroccan TV station, 2M, and a new daily newspaper, Assabah, gave him a regular column which very quickly became the most widely read newspaper column in the country.

It has been said that Niny's column - incisive, funny and no-holds barred - was in and by itself responsible for saving the ailing Assabah from certain bankruptcy, and turning it instead into the number one selling daily in Morocco.

At the same time, Niny's Diary of An Illegal Immigrant, an account of his Valencia years, became a nation-wide bestseller.

But success demands its toll.

Morocco's Culture minister, Mohamed Achaari, has ordered Niny's book withdrawn from shops on the pretext that certain passages were embarrassing to some of his allies in the government.

One of the King's advisors, Mohamed Kabbai, has been putting pressure on the management at 2M to get rid of Niny.

In the end, even Niny's column in Assabah was censored by management.

For Niny, it was the proverbial drop.

He quit Assabah and launched Al-Massae.

The rest is history.

In the space of only a few months, Al-Massae was selling twice as many copies as Assabah.

Sweet revenge for a man who only recently was picking oranges for a living.

Ali Lmrabet is a Moroccan journalist and the founder of the satirical magazine Demain (Douman). In 2003, he was sentenced to four years in prison for "insult to the King". Mohamed VI pardoned him in January 2004 but he is forbidden to publish Demain/Doumane for a period of ten years. This article was first published in El Mundo on July 22, 2007.