Saturday, July 2, 2011



Image by sincretic via Flickr

As you may have read, Morocco has a new constitution. I’m a little skeptical of it given that 98.94 percent of voters approved it – voter turnout was 72.56 percent – but perhaps I’m being overly cautious. Either way, it represents some progress towards a democracy, although vast power still resides in the king’s hands. The Moroccans haven’t yet absorbed the idea of a European-style constitutional monarchy (virtually powerless, but good for tourism) just yet. They think – or certainly his courtiers think – that a king should have POWER.

The problem lies less with King Mohammed IV than with the largely French educated elite who have controlled the levers of that power for decades, and who have bled the economy for their own personal advantage. As a consequence, the country has been under-developed and the welfare of its people – in terms of education, infrastructure and economic opportunity - decidedly neglected.

It’s a great pity because Morocco is a wonderful country with its own distinctive character. Its particular brand of Islam is tolerant and the character of its population is heavily influenced by the fact that they are largely of Berber descent; and Berbers, as they say, are different. They are a good-looking, fiercely independent bunch with a sense of humor and their own distinctive culture – including food to die for.

Wind_and_the_lion_movie_posterIf you want a quick insight in to the Berbers, go see The Wind & The Lion with Sean Connery and Candice Bergin. It’s a marvelous, and extremely amusing, action movie written and directed  by John Milius and inspired by the Perdicaris kidnapping. And it also contains the best portrait of Teddy Roosevelt that I have ever seen, a brilliant cameo by Brian Keith.

But the film is dominated by the character of Berber brigand Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli (who actually existed and lived on to a ripe old age). He was, of course, played by Sean Connery and the man should have won an Oscar for the role.

The dialog, written by Milius, is a tongue-in-cheek pleasure. ‘Eden’ refers to the character played by Candice Bergen, the kidnapped Mrs. Perdicaris. Three extracts:

Raisuli: This is the Rif. I am Mulay Ahmed Muhamed Raisuli the Magnificent, sherif of the Riffian Berbers. I am the true defender of the faithful and the blood of the prophet runs in me and I am but a servant of his will. You have nothing to say?
Eden: It is not my intention to encourage braggers.
Raisuli: Your shell is strong like a turtle's, but brittle.
Eden: Your tongue is clever and fast. Be careful not to trip over it.
Raisuli: You are a great deal of trouble.

Eden: Why would anyone want to cut out a man's tongue?
Raisuli: Perhaps the previous owner had nothing pleasant to say.

John Hay: Theodore! You are dangerous. You might even shoot somebody - accidentally I mean.
Theodore Roosevelt: John, I'd never shoot anyone accidentally. I need their votes.
John Hay: Madness!

I’ve been to Morocco many times, the first time in 1961, the year that the present king’s father, inherited the throne. Quite by chance I was there when he made his first ceremonial to Tangier as king. There were days of preparation while the city was smartened up and then the streets of the old quarter were covered in sand, and he rode on a donkey wearing traditional dress while the women ululated and everyone waved palm fronds and cheered. It was a scene straight out of the Bible, a feeling one can get quite often in Morocco, particularly outside the major urban areas.

I was staying in the old quarter at the time, an interesting experience since I was just about the only European there, and didn’t speak a word of Arabic. But apart from an encounter that culminated in violence on the first day (the only time in my life I have seen someone thrown through a wall) the locals, all wearing traditional clothes in those days, were wonderful; and I was well looked after. 

When I was in the souk buying bread for the first time, I went to pick up a round loaf from a tall pile when a burly gendarme in full uniform, including holstered automatic pistol, pushed past and took the bread from my. I couldn’t think what I’d done, but it seemed clear that I was in trouble. The gendarme looked at me though his mirrored sun-glasses, and then made it clear, both by gesture and in French, that one never bought the top loaf in an open market, but always selected one from underneath – one that had been projected from the flies and dust. The bread was delicious.

When I ate in a local restaurant I was given similar guidance by the patrons. I would point at some pot other containing something in a green, brown, red or yellow sauce (and shades thereof) and then the locals would either smile and nod approvingly – if they thought my Western taste buds could handle it – or else shake their heads and warn me off. Pretty much all the main meal items were accompanied with rice. It was a good system and I ate enjoyably on almost no money. That was just as well since that is exactly what I had.

It was all exciting stuff made all the more so by the fact that the streets of  the old town are narrow (as the above picture shows) so I was able to see everything close up. In fact, I could virtually have shaken hands with the new king – though I suspect it would have been lopped off if I had tried - and we had to press our backs against the wall to make room for the king on his donkey, and his entourage, to pass. Somehow security wasn’t the issue then that it was to become later; or at least it wasn’t in the old town.

I had thought the visit to the old town was it, but a day or two later, I was sitting at a café in the newer, more European part of Tangier, when Moroccan gendarmerie turned up, and lined the streets, and then suddenly a cavalcade of American cars appeared.

Once again there was much cheering and ululating and palm frond waving; only this time around, King Hassan II wasn’t on a donkey, but standing up in a Cadillac, wearing a Western suit and holding his arms wide like a politician.

King Hassan 210px-DF-SC-83-08526Hassan promised much, and was popular, but somehow the changes he had promised were slow in coming. He was probably distracted by sundry attempts to assassinate him. One involved an attempt to shoot down his aircraft by a couple of his own fighter pilots. His aircraft was riddled, but he got out of that one by announcing over the plane’s radio – to the attacking pilots - that he, the king, was dead; and there was no sense in killing more innocent people. How cool was that!

Will things be different now? I’d like to think so, although there is much in Morocco that is fine just the way it is.




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