Morocco, the land of bougainvillea, snow-capped mountains, ochre pise’ walls, water sellers in hats with fuzzy red guy-ropes, sticky black soap, pointy shoes and leather trilbies, is perhaps unique in the Muslim world.

Chefchaouen at dusk. Africa pink solitude, lavender like Paris in the snow. Does he remember his birth high in the Atlas with silver bracelets but no chains? The centre of freedom being bevelled.

It was shopping that first inclined me towards an interest in Islam, though it must be said that the lupine line of hassling touts that in the old days awaited the visitor immediately outside the old Tangier dock gates did their best to keep the secret well-springs of their faith well hidden.

When my Moroccan wife of a year needed a visa to enter the United States it seemed simple enough – a trip to the American Consulate in Rabat, then on to visit friends and family. There were a number of good reasons to expect the procedure to go smoothly.

Mauritania is undoubtedly the most overlooked country in the Maghreb. The largely desert Islamic Republic, with an Arab and Berber population in the north and black Africans in the south, is seldom in the news – unless it has something to do with al-Qaida.

Mainstream narratives of the Arab Spring have been both simplistic and influential. The coverage of the uprisings in the Maghreb and the Middle East has been dominated by the notion that the events were as unforeseeable as they were sudden. But for the observer of social change and cultural production in North Africa, the 2011 uprisings were anything but surprising.