Here and now and long ago

“…I suddenly saw the breaking news on CNN about the El Paso and Dayton shootings, which raises in my mind this question: What’s happening to the America That I learnt so many good things about from Gaylord, you and other PCVs? What happened  to the great American values upheld by the ideals of John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Reagan? Surely, something is wrong in the state of Denmark. What is the difference between white supremacists and ISIS terrorists? In my younger days, my wish was to migrate to America. Now I say to myself “I’m glad my wish did not come true.”

Not long ago, an old Moroccan friend, well educated, who had lived abroad in England as well as in the States, and who speaks English fluently, wrote me the message part of which I have quoted above. I tried to answer it as best I could, but the state of the world baffles me, too.

After further reflection, however, I began to ponder the question itself. In the year I went to Morocco, the entire world lived under the threat of a nuclear holocaust. The States was involved in disastrous and deadly wars in Southeast Asia. The president and the military were lying to the public. The soon to be president campaigned on a “secret plan” to end the war, a plan that didn’t exist. Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces crushed Czechoslovakia’s “democracy with a human face.” Political assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy shocked America. Street protests and race riots rocked were common.

I had written to a friend in early 1968, from an agricultural station outside Meknes, that the weather was getting hot. He wrote back from the University of Chicago, where he was a grad student studying south Slavic languages, “You think it’s getting hot there? They are setting up a machine gun emplacement outside my window.” It was a time of race riots and rage.

When I picked up a Newsweek magazine in Fes in 1970, the cover photo portrayed a young college girl at Kent State, reacting with grief to the shooting of a fellow student by Ohio National Guards. I was horrified.

Kent State, 1970. Newsweek.

In France, student protests forced the French president Charles De Gaulle to step down. Across the straits in Spain, Franco continued to rule a country, still suffering deeply from civil war that had taken place decades earlier. Northern Ireland was torn by civil strife, and Great Britain lived with car bombings. The White Rhodesian government had broken with Britain, and South Africa lived under apartheid. China was in the throws of its “Cultural Revolution.” Nigeria was in civil war. Within the next few years millions would die in the Cambodian genocide. Even unrest beset Morocco, where the king, Hassan II would survive two coup attempts in the span of two short years, both while I lived there.

I have read Hans Rowling’s book, Factfulness, and I acknowledge its earnestness and veracity. Negativity comes easily. Just the same, I am far too much of a skeptic to be very optimistic about the world’s future in the face of pollution, resource exhaustion, overpopulation, growing economic inequality, and climate change. Only God knows the fate of the humanity and the earth. Or, put in a more humanistic framework, whether men shape history or it shapes them, there is assuredly a destiny awaiting humanity.

My correspondent knew America primarily through Peace Corps volunteers and popular culture. Did we misrepresent it, or did his young mind perceive the States as something that it wasn’t? We certainly knew that America was not perfect. The civil rights movement of the 1960s had brought a new consciousness to America, and forced many, my young naive self among them, to begin to confront the many ugly facts in American history, glossed over by traditional texts. And environmental issues began to take on a new importance following the publication of Rachel Carlson’s book, The Silent Spring.

We were all deeply concerned with the state of our own country. I remember listing eagerly every week to Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America on the BBC World Service, always hoping to be entertained and enlightened, but also always fearing what next great tragedy might be his subject matter.

The world today seems to be on a reactionary bent. I could speak about current events in the States in terms of racism and fear of loss of white privilege, the problems of American government and its electoral system, the proliferation of guns and mass shootings, the hyper partisanship that puts political gain above the national interest, the ability of the very rich to inordinately influence government, widespread climate change denial, the lack of internationalism, foreign influence on American elections, willingness to violate norms that have developed over thousands of years, and so on and so forth. However, I am not sure whether there is not a certain amount of hypocrisy in looking back at a “golden age” when much nasty stuff was done behind the scenes, out of the eyes of the public. And Georges Brassens is always in my mind:

Si j’connus un temps de chien, certes

C’est bien le temps de mes vingt ans

Cependant, je pleure sa perte

Il est mort, c’était le bon temps

Il est toujours joli, le temps passé.

Roughly translated, the extract from the song goes “If there ever was a bad time in my life, it was certainly when I was in my twenties. Now that it’s long gone, And I so regret its loss. The past is always golden.”

Today, I am unhappy to live in a divided country, I do not like racism, which those of the white majority find difficult to acknowledge. I find extremism abhorrent in any form. There is no difference between Islamic terrorism and domestic terrorism: nothing justifies the taking of innocent lives.

In France in 1995, waiting to leave France, my wife and I watched TV reports of the Oklahoma City bombing where 168 people died including 19 children, most of who were in a daycare center while their parents worked. The bombing was carried out by someone who was born and raised in Niagara County, where I was born and now live. He was able to do this because he lived in a free society where it is relatively easy to acquire guns and buy substances to make bombs. He did it because he hated the government and the building was a Federal government office building. Some mistrust of government is healthy, but hatred of it can be pathological.

The Murra Office Building, Oklahoma City, take by Staff Sergeant Preston Chasteen.

What gives me hope at home is our American legal system. English common law and its embodiment in democracies across the world have provided those who are fortunate to live in them with the rule of law, and the American and French revolutions provided universal ideals about human dignity, rights, and freedom that could be enshrined in constitutions. Yes, implementation is often imperfect, and law inforcement needs improvement, but, though perfection may be a goal, we should usually just content ourselves with what we have, and resolve to continue working to improve it.

Winston Churchill was astute when he said:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

We all now live in a dangerous world, and I think that we must confront it together. To reprise another famous quote, attributed to Benjamin Franklin, though possibly apocryphal. He made it during the American Revolution, but the observation is applicable to almost any crisis: “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

The world is in a crisis of unprecedented scale. We ought to recognize that and hang together. I feel fortunate that I was born on the States and I certainly recognize how much I have benefitted living here, but the scale of problems that now threaten the individual is no longer national, but global. Yes, I worry about where my country is headed, but I worry as well about the world we live in. The question my Moroccan friend might have also asked is: What has happened to the world? His answer would be as good as mine.

In the 1940s, the democracies of the world fought for their very existence, but after the war, many people turned their thoughts to problems of a different scale. To enjoy democracy, the world needs a stable world order, where participation in society benefits everyone, and, above all, where the rule of law governs society.

When I left Morocco, I wondered how that country would evolve. The coup attempts had been a shock. I was concerned, too, about Morocco’s growing population in a part of the world short of water and land. Morocco today continues to be plagued by serious problems, yet it seems to have made remarkable progress in many areas, and I am happy for that. If I were Moroccan, I would be proud of the great strides my country had made. Still, no one in the world today should be complacent. As for the States, we are certainly going through a bad patch, but I remain confident that the foundations of American democracy are deep and solidly built, and American society resilient.

As for me, I am growing older every day, and I try to console myself in part with the ironic lyrics of the old Woodie Guthrie song Worried Man Blues:

It takes a worried man

To sing a worried song

I’m worried now,

But I won’t be worried long.

La conservation du patrimoine

La médina de Fès, 1968. Sur la droite, Sefrou se trouve tout juste au-delà des collines dans le lointain.

Il y a quelque semaines le New York Times a publié un article sur la conservation, ou mieux dit, sur la non-conservation de la Casbah d’Alger. J’ai fait une vérification rapide pour découvrir que le Times avait publié un article très semblable en 2006. Malheureusement, il paraît que les efforts pour sauvegarder le quartier le plus ancien d’Alger n’ont pas beaucoup progressé dans l’intervalle. Les Français et le gouvernement postcolonial algérien semblent tous les deux avoir négligé la casbah qui est maintenant devenue un bidonville, un terrain fertile pour les fondamentalistes et un casse-tête majeur. Cependant, ce cas n’a rien d’unique.

Que ce soit au Moyen-Orient ou en Afrique du Nord, la conservation du patrimoine est partout un problème, et ce depuis fort longtemps. Au Maroc, les principaux monuments et sites archéologiques ont commencé à faire l’objet d’un souci particulier lorsque les Français, sous la guise d’un protectorat, ont transformé le Maroc en colonie. Désireux de promouvoir une image du Maroc plus pan-méditerranéenne et plus attachée à la France, des sites archéologiques comme Volubilis ont été excavés et restaurés.

Arc de triomphe à Volubilis en mars 1968. À noter l’absence de visiteurs. Rien ne donne un meilleur sens des ruines que le fait de les avoir à nous tout seuls.

Les derniers sultans indépendants du Maroc avaient des préoccupations bien plus importantes que la conservation de vieilles ruines. Quand le Maroc a obtenu son indépendance en 1956, son nouveau gouvernement s’est rendu compte de la valeur de son patrimoine national, tant pour ses citoyens que pour l’industrie du tourisme qui constituait une source de revenus importante pour l’économie.

On attribue au maréchal Hubert Lyautey, résident général du nouveau protectorat français, l’établissement de l’autorité française et les débuts de son administration. L’une de ses premières décisions, et parmi les plus importantes, était celle de planifier de nouvelles agglomérations, les villes nouvelles, à côté des villes existantes qu’on appelait désormais des médinas, ville en langue arabe.

La ville nouvelle de Fès en 1970. Le Zanzi Bar, mon café préféré, se trouvait quelques pas plus loin sur la gauche.
Le bureau de poste principal à Fès en 1970.
Fès en 1970. Dans la plupart des villes nouvelles, on aménageait de grands boulevards qui créaient d’agréables promenades et facilitaient le déplacement de troupes.

Cette politique offrait plusieurs avantages à la nouvelle population européenne et à l’administration française, mais avait comme résultat la conservation intacte des vieilles villes marocaines au prix, à long terme, de leur abandon et de leur effritement. Même si les Français ont doté les médinas d’eau courante, de systèmes sanitaires et d’électricité, les élites marocaines et, bien sûr, les Européens préféraient les villes nouvelles. Quant aux médinas, sous le poids d’une population croissante et de la migration des campagnes, elles sont devenues progressivement des bidonvilles.

Fès en 1970.Tôt le matin à la porte Bab Boujloud, d’où descendent au cœur de la ville deux grandes artères.
Fès en 1970. Une vue moins touristique des terrasses de la médina.

Mon patron, Si Abdullah Jaï, qui dirigeait les bureaux provinciaux du ministère de l’Agriculture dans les années 1960, m’a demandé de prendre des photos de sa vieille maison située profondément dans la médina de Fès. Comme personne n’y restait plus à ce moment-là, il voulait la vendre. Il croyait que sa grande maison traditionnelle pourrait avoir une bonne valeur dans l’industrie touristique. Il avait bien raison.

Les médinas du Maroc ont toujours constitué une attraction touristique de premier plan permettant un aperçu de la vie traditionnelle en milieu urbain. Aucune ne surpasse Fès à cet égard, considérée par le géographe urbain Gideon Sjoberg comme l’archétype de la forme urbaine préindustrielle. Encore fortifiées de nos jours, Fès et d’autres médinas sont de véritables labyrinthes.

Fès aujourd’hui. À noter les rues sinueuses. La grande artère qui mène à la médina permet la circulation d’autocars de tourisme et de camions. Elle n’existait pas dans les années 1960. Photo gracieuseté de Google Earth.
La medina de Sefrou, quoique bien plus petite que celle de Fès, montre la même configuration de culs-de-sac et de rue sinueuses. Le droit islamique traditionnel n’empêchait pas que l’on empiète sur les voies publiques. Avec le temps, les rues devenaient de plus en plus étroites, plus irrégulières et parfois on bâtissait des structures au-dessus des rues.

Après avoir traversé les portes, les rues étroites descendant en serpentant la vallée qu’elles occupent avant d’en sortir en remontant de nouveau. Le long du chemin, beaucoup de rues deviennent des culs-de-sac et des empiétements sur la voie publique, pratique courante dans les vieilles villes musulmanes, donnent parfois comme résultat des rues si étroites qu’un âne chargé ne peut à peine passer.

Fès en 1971. La rue principale qui descend de la porte Bab Boujloud à un secteur commercial très fréquenté.
Fès en 1970. À noter la rue en forme de canyon et les constructions qui la surplombent.

La médina de Fès, fermée aux véhicules motorisés durant mon séjour au Maroc, a enfin été ouverte par un chemin qui passe à travers la muraille du sud et permet le passage de voitures et d’autocars, en particulier ceux du tourisme, jusqu’au fond de la vallée à la nouvelle Place R’cif. Ce chemin épargne aux touristes la randonnée aussi ardue que déroutante qu’il fallait faire auparavant pour visiter la médina.

Fès, 1971. Les tanneries, une importante attraction touristique, sont au beau milieu de la médina.

Pour promouvoir le tourisme, une industrie hôtelière s’est développée à Fès et dans d’autres médinas marocaines, fondée sur le concept du riad. Le riad, d’habitude un vieux bâtiment de la médina rénové à l’intention de touristes étrangers, offre un hébergement supposément traditionnel comportant des éléments destinés à charmer les touristes. Sis dans les médinas, les riads se trouvent près des attraits touristiques, sont à prix modiques par rapport aux grands hôtels de luxe, et on y accède par des rues qui donnent une ambiance traditionnelle.

Les riads, dont le nom provient d’un mot arabe signifiant « jardin », existaient au Maroc précolonial en tant que maisons des quelques Marocains très fortunés, et avaient effectivement, quand l’espace le permettait, de grands jardins. De nos jours, les riads font écho à la maison urbaine à cour centrale traditionnelle que l’on a adaptée au tourisme. La maison de Si Jaï avait d’immenses chambres et une grande cour, mais pas de jardin. Que sa maison soit aujourd’hui un établissement touristique ne me surprendrait pas.

Il est peu probable que vous trouviez un Marocain se loger dans un riad. Aux yeux des Marocains, un riad est l’équivalent d’un taudis. Le bâtiment dont on a aménagé un riad pourrait tout aussi bien se subdiviser et se louer chambre par chambre à des Marocains pauvres, sans les coûts de rénovation. C’est effectivement de cette manière que beaucoup de bâtiments de la médina sont devenus des immeubles collectifs.

À l’époque où je restais au Maroc, les médinas représentaient le mieux la vie urbaine traditionnelle et, comme d’autres volontaires, j’étais content de pouvoir y vivre. Nous voyions la médina comme authentique et romantique, faisant opportunément abstraction des contradictions inhérentes. Ma maison, décrite ailleurs dans ce blog, était située sur une rue majeure, pas dans un cul-de-sac, et des boutiquiers occupaient le rez-de-chaussée de la maison, comme cela se faisait ailleurs sur les rue principales.

La boutique en face de la porte de ma maison à Sefrou; on y voit les fils d’un couple de boutiquiers. Les magasins sont intégrés au rez-de-chaussée des maisons.

Au début de l’époque coloniale, Sefrou reflétait encore sa forme la plus traditionnelle. De nos jours, tous les terrains à l’intérieur des murailles, qui autrefois auraient été des jardins, ont été développés. Ma maison avait été construite adossée à la muraille de la ville, ce qui aurait constitué un réel danger à l’époque où les murailles servaient à empêcher les gens d’entrer.

Au milieu du 20e siècle, une inondation désastreuse de l’oued Aggaî, qui coule à travers la ville, a occasionné des dommages importants, de sorte que l’on a dû approfondir le lit de la rivière pour éviter toute nouvelle occurrence. La vue pittoresque de femmes juives et musulmanes en train de laver leur linge a disparu du jour au lendemain, et le grand quartier juif, le mellah, n’est plus habité par des Juifs qui étaient nombreux à l’époque précoloniale.

Mes arrivées et mes départs de la maison se faisaient presque toujours par un échange de salutations avec mes voisins et, dans la mesure du possible, j’achetais mes denrées des commerçants locaux. À partir de mon salon je voyais et entendais l’animation de la rue en bas, mais la cour et les autres pièces de la maison assuraient la vie privée et la tranquillité.

Les résidents, dont moi-même, vivaient au premier étage, au-dessus des boutiques. Le seul mur avec fenêtres donnait sur la rue et ce jour-là, une procession passait sous la fenêtre.

La terrasse servait à faire des corvées, à admirer le paysage, surtout celui de Bouiblane au sud-est, ou simplement à se détendre en toute tranquillité et à prendre du soleil. En été, en milieu de journée, la terrasse était chaude, mais toujours fraîche la nuit. En hiver, on pouvait se sauver de la moiteur de l’intérieur et se bronzer quand il faisait soleil. Paradoxalement, malgré le fait qu’il avait écrit un important livre d’anthropologie urbaine sur le Maroc, ni Clifford Geertz et sa femme, ni ses étudiants, n’ont pas choisi de vivre dans la médina de Sefrou. Avec de jeunes enfants, une maison plus confortable convenait mieux pour la famille Geertz, tout comme cela aurait été le cas pour une famille marocaine nantie.

Le surpeuplement et la pauvreté touchaient la médina, et de nombreux Séfréouis, et pas nécessairement les mieux fortunés, fuyaient les médinas pour les nouveaux quartiers à l’extérieurs des murailles, tels Habouna, Derb el Miter et Seti Messaouda, où les maisons étaient plus récentes, plus accessibles en voiture et moins imprévisibles. Les nouveaux quartiers avaient également des terrains à vendre.

Sefrou en 1973. Vue d’une nouvelle section du quartier Messaouda, à l’éxtérieur de la muraille (en arrière-plan). Les maisons sont plus grandes et plus régulières. Le long des rues principales, comme celle-ci, le rez-de-chaussée est réservé aux activités commerciales.

Aujourd’hui la superficie de Sefrou a plus que doublé. La croissance urbaine a englouti une bonne partie des terres agricoles environnantes et de nouveaux quartiers se sont développés sur les flancs des collines autour de la ville. Cette expansion rapide me rappelle celle du comté d’Orange, en Californie, où des routes et des maisons ont remplacé les vergers qui auparavant avaient donné au comté son nom.

Au fur et à mesure que les locaux partent, des campagnards et les pauvres continuent de s’installer dans la médina. Le surpeuplement, la pauvreté, le manque de services et d’investissement, que ce soit public ou privé, transforment rapidement la médina séfréouise en bidonville. Ce phénomène n’est pas nouveau. Pendant les années 1960, on le voyait clairement à Fès et dans d’autres grandes villes, ainsi qu’à Sefrou, mais l’explosion démographique et l’urbanisation grandissante en ont accéléré la tendance.

Dans de grandes villes modernes du Maroc, comme Casablanca, il n’y avait pas de véritable médina. Avant le protectorat, Casablanca, en l’absence d’un port naturel, était une ville négligeable. En construisant un port artificiel, les Français ont changé la donne, et Casablanca est devenue le colosse commercial du pays.

Le centre de Casablanca en 1968.

Sans médina pour offrir des logements bon marché, les migrants urbains arrivent comme squatters et vivent dans des installations de fortune non réglementées, appelées bidonvilles, ainsi nommés à cause des boîtes métalliques utilisées dans leur construction. Ailleurs dans le monde, ce genre d’agglomération est désignée par d’autres termes tels que favela ou shantytown.

Les médinas des centres traditionnels, une fois abandonnés, ont donné aux propriétaires la possibilité de diviser les anciennes structure en unités multiples où l’on partage des toilettes communes et des cours, ce qui s’apparente à l’idée du riad qui offre aux exploitants d’entreprises touristiques un moyen bon marché et attrayant de loger des étrangers fortunés qui cherchent une expérience plus « authentique ». Le logement a évolué à la fois vers des riads tendance et des taudis, la gentrification et la dégrégation urbaine côte à côte.

Fès en 1969, un exemple de familles multiples partageant une vieille maison.

Le problème pour le gouvernement marocain, et il en est tout un, c’est celui de s’occuper de la dégradation urbaine et de conserver le caractère de la médina à une époque où une bonne partie de la vitalité urbaine s’en va vers les villes nouvelles en expansion ou vers les nouveaux quartiers. Au moment de l’arrivée des Français, tout Sefrou n’était qu’une médina et une petite agglomération qui s’appellait Qelaa. Aujourd’hui, englouties par de nouveaux développements, on peine à les trouver sur un plan de la ville.

Il est relativement facile de conserver un monument comme la tour Hassan à Rabat. S’occuper d’une vieille ville centenaire qui devient un taudis est une tâche autrement plus herculéenne, surtout qu’il y a quatre médinas majeures dans les villes royales de Marrakech, Rabat, Meknès et Fès, sans mentionner celles dans des villes de taille moyenne comme Salé, Tétouan-Oujda, ou des petites villes comme Sefrou ou Chauen.

Une rue principale dans la médina de Rabat, en 1973. Construites en terrain plat, les rues sont plus régulières.
La médina de Salé, vue qui donne sur le sud vers la tour Hassan et le fleuve Bouregreg.
Cette porte monumentale à Meknès en 1968 est l’une des entrées de la médina aujourd’hui.
À Meknès, peinture du sultan au 19e siècle par l’artiste français Eugène Delacroix.
Vue des terrasses de la médina de Meknès qui donne sur la ville nouvelle, séparée de la médina par une vallée. À noter la construction moderne. 1973.
La rue des teinturiers à Marrakech en 1969.
Construit sur le flanc d’une montagne, Chaouen a des rues qui montent et serpentent. 1976.

Le gouvernement du Maroc a fait des études sur les différentes médinas. Même la Banque mondiale a effectué une étude sur la façon de conserver et développer la médina de Fès, longtemps un des repaires préférés du banquier David Rockefeller.

Une chose semble certaine au Maroc : Des maisons de luxe étrangères et des riads ne peuvent pas coexister avec des taudis. Les médinas qui, encore aujourd’hui fascinent les étrangers, risquent de devenir des ghettos d’une classe marginale de Marocains pauvres avant de tomber en ruines.

De nombreux pays font face aux mêmes défis. À Djeddah en Arabie saoudite, les Saoudiens semblent fiers de tous les progrès réalisés dans la vieille ville, mais je me demande pourquoi, étant donné l’immensité de leurs capitaux, la réhabilitation n’est pas encore achevée. Je soupçonne qu’il y a moins de Saoudiens dans la vieille Djeddah que d’étrangers.

Les Saoudiens aiment présenter cette maison dans le vieux quartier de Djeddah. Dans un épisode de No Reservations, feu Anthony Bourdain a dégusté des recettes saoudiennes sur cette terrasse.
Vues de la vieille Djedda, décembre 2009.

Dans l’Iran moderne, Reza Shah a transpercé les vieilles villes par des chemins étroits à la manière de Haussmann à Paris. Lorsque le pouvoir de l’État est concentré, tout est possible, et pour les gouvernements autoritaires, où le pouvoir de l’État est assuré par l’armée, la répression de révoltes urbaines est une priorité.

Reza Shah a fait construire de longues avenues qui percent les villes traditionnelles iraniennes. Photo prise à Yazd ou à Kerman, Iran, 1974.
Vue de Kernan, Iran, par Google Earth. À noter les nouvelles avenues qui encadrent des rues traditionnelles.

Après le 16e siècle en Europe, les gouvernements ont commencé à raser des murailles qui ne servaient plus de défense et les remplaçaient par des routes, ne laissant que des toponymes qui rappelaient l’ancien emplacement des portes. Les stations de métro à Paris dont les noms contiennent le mot Porte témoignent des anciennes portes de la ville.

Quel sera l’avenir de ces anciennes villes? Il se peut que les tendances actuelles se poursuivent sans relâche jusqu’au jour où, Dieu nous en préserve, un tremblement de terre comme celui d’Agadir les rase en quelques secondes, détournant tout investissement vers les nouvelles villes adjacentes et laissant de vastes cimetières. Comme nous l’a démontré l’incendie récent de Notre-Dame de Paris, un monument qui perdure depuis des siècles peut disparaître en quelques minutes.

Quand nous visiterons les médinas du Maroc, gardons à l’esprit que ce qui nous charme, nous, Occidentaux, n’est pas juste un vestige du passé, mais également un artefact d’une politique moderne. Derrière le mur de notre riad peut se trouver une famille de huit personnes, dans une seule pièce qui partage une toilette avec huit ou neuf autres familles.

Traduction de Jim Erickson.

Le Maroc : pays entre deux mondes

Au cours de l’année passée, le travail a amené mon beau-frère au Maroc. Il n’a visité que la ville de Rabat et serait le premier à admettre qu’il avait vu bien peu du pays durant les quelques jours de son séjour. Il y a quelques semaines, lorsque nous causions autour d’un verre dans sa cour, il m’a dit que certains de ses collègues marocains lui avaient expliqué que le caractère unique du Maroc résidait dans le fait que le territoire avait été un État-nation depuis le Moyen Âge. Il semblait prêt à accepter cette opinion comme étant raisonnable et, en me la répétant, croyait qu’elle pourrait avoir une certaine valeur explicative.

Rabat, 1968. La cimetière face à l’Atlantique, frontière infranchissable à l’ouest.

Bien sûr, cette caractérisation est très inexacte, et quiconque est familier avec l’histoire européenne moderne sait que l’idée même de l’État-nation date plus ou moins de l’époque de la Révolution française, tout comme son corrélat le nationalisme. L’idée d’un peuple uni par l’histoire et la culture constituant une nation sur un territoire particulier était radicale au 19e siècle. Cette idée mènera à la création de nouveaux pays ainsi qu’à la désintégration de vieux empires et, bien entendu, a culminé au 20e siècle avec deux des pires guerres que l’humanité ait jamais connues, même s’il reste, comme l’a bien écrit George Brassens, encore du temps pour une autre : Du fond de son sac à malices / Mars va sans doute, à l’occasion / En sortir une, un vrai délice…

Ceci étant dit, isolé à l’extrémité occidentale du monde arabe, le statut du Maroc comme pays entre deux mondes est incontestable et il en est ainsi depuis très longtemps.

Dans l’antiquité, après avoir été un site de postes de commerce punique, le Maroc a fini par être incorporé dans l’Empire romain. La région de l’ancien site de Volubilis a connu une telle prospérité qu’une ville importante y a vu le jour. Cependant, avec la fin de la Pax romana, l’empire a perdu la maîtrise du territoire connu alors sous le nom de Maurétanie Tingitane. Se trouvant à l’extrémité de l’empire, il n’y avait pas moyen de défendre Volubilis des groupes tribaux qui l’environnaient. À la chute de l’Empire d’occident, la puissance byzantine n’atteignait que les zones côtières du Maroc, de sorte que Volubilis est tombée rapidement aux mains des Vandales et plus tard aux envahisseurs arabes. Il s’écoulerait 1 500 ans avant que les Marocains redeviennent des citoyens.

Volubilis, 1968. Ce jour-là, des troupeaux de moutons paissaient l’herbe dans la rue principale d’une ville qui comptait 20 000 habitants à l’ère romaine.

Selon un conte qui est sans doute apocryphe, l’un des premiers généraux musulmans, Oqba Ibn Nafi, est entré à cheval dans les houles de l’océan Atlantique, prenant Dieu à témoin qu’il avait apporté l’islam aux extrémités de la terre. Ensuite les armées arabes se sont dirigées vers le nord, peut-être accueillies en Espagne par une population opprimée par les Visigoths. Aux limites extrêmes de l’Empire arabe, le Maroc est devenu un coin négligeable face aux royaumes ibériques d’Al-Andalus, où le dernier calife des Omeyyades avait survécu au massacre des siens par les Abbasides, pour ensuite continuer comme califat rival; de ce califat a surgi une civilisation riche et culturellement diverse. Quant au Maroc, il est resté un cul-de-sac, limité par l’immensité de l’Atlantique à l’ouest et du Sahara au sud. Au cours des 11e et 12e siècles, des dynasties berbères ont apparu pour intervenir en Al-Andalus, mais après 1492, le Maroc s’est retrouvé à l’extrémité du monde arabe, bien loin du Moyen-Orient.

L’essor des Ottomans a eu une profonde influence sur les autres parties du Maghreb, mais le Maroc n’a jamais succombé à l’hégémonie ottomane. Dans le territoire du Maroc, le Maghreb al-Aqsa, les dynasties ont continué de se succéder conformément au rythme des cycles dynastiques d’Ibn Khaldoun. La dernière de ces dynasties, celle des Alaouites, a paru au 17e siècle. Face aux ambitions expansionnistes de l’Espagne et du Portugal, ainsi qu’à celles des Ottomans, les sultans alaouites devaient également composer avec un arrière-pays contrôlé par de puissantes tribus berbères qui leur posaient une menace perpétuelle. Quand le sultan était puissant, son royaume prenait de l’expansion et quand sa puissance déclinait, les tribus devenaient une menace existentielle. La puissance du sultan étant centrée sur les villes, sa légitimité provenait du prétendu lien de parenté de sa dynastie avec Ali, le gendre du prophète Mahomet, ainsi que de la croyance populaire que le sultan possédait la baraka, sorte de bénédiction spirituelle transmise par héritage du prophète lui-même. Il n’existait pas d’État dans le sens moderne. Il y avait un royaume, ayant à sa tête un dirigeant itinérant, semblable aux royaumes de l’Europe médiévale. Les habitants n’étaient pas des citoyens mais des sujets et s’identifiaient principalement à leur famille, à leur tribu, à leur village ou à leur ville. Au Maroc pré-moderne, personne ne se qualifiait de marocain. À vrai dire, le mot Maroc est d’origine européenne, dérivé du nom d’une ville, Marrakech, l’une des quatre capitales traditionnelles. Les Marocains, quant à eux se qualifiaient d’occidentaux pour se différencier des autres Maghrébins.

En 1832, Eugène Delacroix passe six mois au Maroc, accompagnant une mission diplomatique française auprès du sultan Abd Al-Rahman qui reçoit les Français à Meknès dans ce tableau célèbre.

À l’aube du 19e siècle, le pouvoir des sultans s’étant affaibli, le territoire marocain était devenu une cible des impérialistes européens. Profondément endetté, le royaume est tombé aux mains des Français qui gouvernaient déjà l’Algérie depuis un demi-siècle. La France a également pris le contrôle de la Tunisie. Théoriquement le Maroc était un protectorat, mais en réalité il était une colonie en tout sauf le nom. Les Français ne l’avaient pas arraché aux mains des Ottomans ou de leurs héritiers comme c’était le cas pour l’Algérie ou la Tunisie. L’intervention française au Maroc visait à sécuriser l’empire du sultan — pour le bénéfice des Français, mais ultimement elle allait bénéficier à la dynastie alaouite et aux élites marocaines.

La création du protectorat a jeté les bases d’un État-nation et a fourni aux élites marocaines un appareil administratif qui dans les faits a crée un pays lors de son indépendance en 1956. Les Français avaient détruit la vieille dualité de la terre d’insolence (es-siba) et la terre du gouvernement (al-makhzen) et avaient réussi à établir leur autorité sur tout le territoire du sultan et, par ricochet, en dernier lieu à consolider l’autorité du sultan. Les efforts éhontés des Français d’exploiter les différences culturelles entre les Berbères et les Arabes ont échoué en raison de la religion et de la légitimité du sultan.

Le nationalisme marocain moderne a pris naissance en opposition à l’impérialisme français et espagnol, et c’est le sultan qui lui a donné un élan unificateur. Le roi, Mohamed V, a mené le Maroc à l’indépendance, et malgré le fait qu’il avait été déposé et exilé, il s’est assuré, tant pour l’État que pour lui-même, une légitimité importante. Dans des conversations que j’ai eues avec des Marocains, ils ont généralement parlé de lui avec révérence, ce qui parfois différait sensiblement de leur opinion de son fils et successeur, Hassan II.

Une violence considérable, déguisée sous l’euphémisme pacification¸ a accompagné le début du protectorat, mais principalement dans les régions tribales où les Français ont connu un succès qui avait toujours échappé aux sultans. Le mouvement pour l’indépendance, par contre, a été relativement pacifique, à la différence de celui de l’Algérie voisine.

Alors que les Marocains n’ont jamais été coupés de leurs frères arabes de l’Est, les élites dirigeantes avaient vu le jour sous la tutelle française et s’inspiraient autant, sinon plus, de Paris que du Caire, de Beyrouth ou de Damas. À cet égard, les Marocains n’étaient pas différents du reste du Maghreb et n’avaient aucun des liens anciens, réels ou imaginaires, des Syriens ou des Libanais. L’Algérie, qui faisait partie intégrante de la France, se tenait entre eux et l’est.

Le Maroc indépendant a aussi échappé, du moins jusqu’à présent, à la violence et au chaos du Moyen-Orient contemporain. La dynastie actuelle a survécu à deux graves attentats en 1970 et en 1971, et gouverne encore aujourd’hui le royaume. Seul le Royaume hachémite de Jordanie peut se vanter d’une telle bonne fortune, et le Maroc connaît une stabilité presque unique dans une région déchirée par des conflits. Même si le Maroc se déclare solidaire avec les Palestiniens, le conflit arabo-israélien s’est toujours trouvé bien loin. Son impact principal a été celui de compliquer la vie de la population juive du Maroc, qui n’est plus que l’ombre de ce qu’elle a déjà été.

Les milliers de migrants et d’émigrants vers l’Europe renforcent les liens entre le Maroc et le vieux continent. Cette migration du travail, commencée durant la Première Guerre mondiale à un moment où la France connaissait de graves pénuries de main-d’œuvre, a continué tout au long du 20e siècle. Au début, il s’agissait d’hommes célibataires qui vivaient frugalement et renvoyaient de l’argent à leurs familles pour ensuite les visiter durant leurs vacances d’été. Au cours des années 1960, on était souvent pris dans des embouteillages à la frontière de Ceuta occasionnés par les migrants qui arrivaient d’Europe ou y retournaient. L’importance de ces vagues migratoires n’avait pas d’équivalent au Moyen Orient, à l’exception de la Turquie, et ses racines étaient plus anciennes et plus profondes. Le Maroc est situé aux portes mêmes de l’Europe, à un petit saut de car-ferry de l’Espagne. Plus tard au 20e siècle, l’émigration jouera un rôle plus important au Maroc. Selon un sondage récent paru dans The Guardian, 70 % des Marocains âgés de moins de 30 ans songent à émigrer.

La position du Maroc est analogue à celle de la Sicile, située à l’extrémité d’un long et divers continuum dialectal et culturel, et dont le caractère unique doit beaucoup à sa position géographique. Les plaines fertiles du Maroc longent l’Atlantique et les montagnes du Rif constituent une barrière passablement inhospitalière le long de la Méditerranée. Au Sud, le Sahara présente une autre barrière formidable. Le Maroc est un pays relié à l’Est par la religion et la culture, mais ayant d’autres intérêts qui l’orientent vers le Nord et l’Ouest.

Enfin, les musulmans marocains sont tous sunnites, disciples du même code légal. Même l’Algérie et la Tunisie ne manifestent pas une telle homogénéité religieuse. En effet, peu de pays du Moyen Orient sont aussi homogènes. Les Marocains pensent en termes de musulmans, de juifs et de chrétiens et un pays comme le Liban est hors de leur expérience. Même l’Arabie saoudite, avec son importante composante chiite, ne montre pas une telle uniformité.

Pour le meilleur ou pour le pire, la géographie et l’histoire ont fait du Maroc ce qu’il est, et ce qui le distingue de ses voisins depuis l’époque romaine. Deux millénaires d’histoire ont abouti à la création d’un État-nation au milieu du 20e siècle, un État créé par les Français et dont les élites marocaines sont les héritiers.


Traduction : Jim Erickson.

Tourism in gentler (and perhaps more naive) times

In a conversation with my nephew Alex, he told me that he wanted to travel more. Famous places did not interest him, where long lines await you at monuments and ski lifts. He mentioned skiing in South America, and, in that vein, I suggested the Caucasus range in Georgia.

Tourism has certainly changed over the course of my lifetime. As volunteers in Morocco in the sixties, we knew that there were famous and wealthy Americans who had homes in Morocco, particularly in Tangier, and we occasionally crossed paths with the international stream of flower children visiting for exotic experiences and abundant kif. French tourists were common, of course, but tourism there had not yet taken off.

Today 11 or 12 million tourists visit Morocco a year. Americans only make up three percent with the large majority being Europeans, but tourism has become an important economic sector contributing to the national economy. Yes, it’s a far cry from Spain, where over 80 million tourists visit each year, and tourism, the third most important Spanish economic sector, accounts for over 11 percent of the country’s GDP, but Morocco still has the largest number of tourists of any African country, and that number is growing.

Returning to the sixties, when Spain already had more foreign visitors than citizens, newly independent Morocco had just begun to build a tourism infrastructure. Most hotels dated from the Protectorate, and lacked the amenities tourists were coming to expect. There was a room atop the Royal, in Rabat, which had no heat and was priced 7 DH per night, about $1.50 DH. Grand hotels like the Balima had become a bit shabby, and most of the smaller hotels had clearly seen better days. They didn’t bother Peace Corps volunteers, who lived on small monthly allowances, but those places only attracted budget travelers trying to stretch their dirhams.

In the sixties, the world was divided into Cold War blocs, including China, which was closed to Westerners, but it was a world of relative peace, if one can speak of peace when the threat of nuclear war hung over our heads. Africa was torn by post-colonial wars and independence movements, but one could still travel relatively freely. With another volunteer, I crossed the Sahara by truck, and traveled by local conveyances about West Africa. We never felt any real insecurity.

Market place, Agadez, Niger. 1971. Now a major transit point for migrants going north through Libya to Europe.

The worst experience that I remember was arriving in Niamey, having traveled hundreds of miles across unpaved washboard roads from Zinder in central Niger. Emerging from a packed Peugeot utility truck, we stumbled to the local Peace Corps office, where the Peace Corps director told us that sure we could stay in the Peace Corps hostel, there being a real dearth of hotels in all of the countries of the Sahel in those days, but first we would have to join an ongoing volleyball game. Exhausted, dusty, thirsty and hungry it seemed that we had no choice. I still cannot understand what was in that guy’s mind.

Somewhere on that trip we met a young motorcyclist who had crossed the Congo from East Africa, and anything seemed possible. Today, of course, the Sahel is aflame with sectarian violence and Islamicist armies. A few years ago my daughter, a photojournalist who cut her journalistic teeth in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the aftermath of the Iraq War of 2003, and the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006, thought of doing a story based on retracing my trip, only to decide it was far too dangerous!

Sadly, with travel easier and cheaper than ever, many places are literally overrun with tourists. In Venice, a small city, a couple of cruise ships can disgorge an army of sightseers far greater than any enemy Venice ever faced in her days of glory. Mount Everest has lines of climbers waiting to summit. Cruise ships carry tourists to Antarctica and the Northwest Passage.

Yet, wars rack Africa and the Middle East and terrorism adds to the insecurity. Even in the U.S., people seldom hitchhike the way they used to. In the summer of 1964, 18 years old, I hitched, with a high school buddy, from New Hampshire to Montreal, across Canada, down the west coast to southern California, and back home to the East, arriving safe and sound. So I recently sent Alex a couple of old pics of places that he is not going to visit any time soon. I am truly saddened by the fact that the world has not become a more peaceful place. Humanity may perhaps be paying the price of becoming more populous and richer, at the expense of greater economic inequality and democracy.

A market square on Queshem Island, in the Strait of Hormuz, August, 1974.

The outlier

The mole in Rabat, and its twin in Salé, protect the Bou Regreg from Atlantic swells and shifting sandbars. Atlantic Morocco lacks good natural harbors, like much of Africa.

In the past year, my brother-in-law went to Morocco for his work. He only visited Rabat, and he is the first to admit that he saw very little of the country in the few days he was there. A few weeks or so ago we were chatting over a drink in his backyard, and he told me that some of his Moroccan colleagues had explained to him that Morocco’s unique character lay in the fact that the place had been a nation-state since the Middle Ages, and he seemed ready to accept that as reasonable and repeat it to me as having some kind of explanatory value.

Of course, that characterization is quite inaccurate, and anyone familiar with modern European history knows that the very idea of the nation-state dates from about the time of the French Revolution, as does its correlate nationalism. The idea of a people, united by history and culture, constituting a nation on specific territory was a radical one in the nineteenth century. It spawned the creation of new countries as well as the breakup of old empires, and, of course, it culminated during the twentieth century in two of the worst wars mankind has experienced, though there is still time, as George’s Brassens has written, for another: Du fond de son sac à malices/Mars va sans doute, à l’occasion/En sortir une, un vrai délice…

That said, Morocco’s status as an outlier is beyond question, and it has been one for a very long time, indeed.

Dionysus and the four seasons (detail). The mosaics of Volubilis are not great art. You wouldn’t find them on the walls of the Bardo Museum. On the other hand, you could contemplate them in peace and solitude.

In antiquity, after being a site for Punic trading posts, it was eventually incorporated into the Roman Empire. The area around the ancient city of Volubilis prospered to the extent that a sizeable city grew up there. With the end of the Pax Romana, however, the Empire lost control of the territory that was then known as Mauritania Tingitana. On the Empire’s edge, Volubilis simply could not be defended from the tribal groups around it. When the western empire fell, Byzantine power only extended to coastal areas of Morocco and Volubilis was quickly lost to the Vandals and Arab invaders. It would be 1500 years before Moroccans could become citizens again.

Sheep graze in the streets of Volubilis, once a prosperous city of 20,000. Visitors often had the ruins to themselves in the 1960s. In several visits, I never encountered other tourists.

In a story, probably apocryphal, the early Muslim general Oqba bin Nafi rode his horse into the swells of the Atlantic, calling on God to witness that he had brought Islam to the farthest ends of the earth. The Arab armies then turned northward, perhaps welcomed into Spain by a population oppressed by the Visigoths. On the far western limits of the Arab empire, Morocco became a backwater to the Iberian kingdoms of Al-Andalus, where the last of the Umayyads survived the Abbasid massacres of their kinsmen to continue as a rival Caliphate, and a rich and culturally diverse civilization arose. Morocco remained a dead end, a cul-de-sac, limited by the vastness of the Atlantic and the fastness of the Sahara. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Berber dynasties arose to intervene in Al-Andalus, but after 1492, Morocco found itself at the end of the Arab world, a very long way from the Middle East.

The Generalife gardens in the Alhambra, a symbol of Al-Andalus.

The rise of the Ottomans had a profound influence on the other parts of the Maghreb, but Morocco never succumbed to Ottoman power. In the territory of Morocco, the Maghreb al-Aqsa, dynasties continued to rise and fall according to the rhythm of Ibn Khaldun. The last of these, the Alaouites, appeared in the 17th century. Facing the expansionist ambitions of Spain and Portugal as well as the Ottomans, the Alaouite sultans also had to contend with a mountainous hinterland controlled by powerful Berber tribes that constituted a perpetual threat. When the sultan was powerful, his kingdom expanded, and when his power declined, the tribes became an existential threat.

In the tomb of the second Alouite sultan, Moulay Ismail, in Meknes, his capital. He endowed the city with monumental gates and walls, a stable for 10,000 horses, and a vast underground prison for his slaves.

The sultan’s power was urban centered, and his legitimacy came from his dynasty’s claimed descent from Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, and to the strong folk belief in the holy force of baraka, passed through descent from the prophet Mohammed himself. There was no nation in a modern sense. There was a kingdom, with an itinerant ruler, much as the kingdoms of medieval Europe. People were not citizens but subjects, and primary identification was to one’s family or tribe or village or city. No one claimed to be Moroccan in pre-modern Morocco. Indeed, the very word Morocco, is derived from the name of a city, Marrakesh, and is European in origin. Moroccans literally call themselves westerners, and have to differentiate themselves from the rest of the Maghreb, the Arab West.

By the 19th century, the sultans had grown weak, and Morocco’s territory had become a prize for European imperialists. Deeply indebted, the kingdom fell to the French which had already ruled Algeria for half a century. France secured its colonial claims on Tunisia as well. Theoretically a protectorate, French Morocco was a colony in everything but name. The French did not seize it from the Ottomans or their heirs as Algeria and Tunisia had been taken. French intervention in Morocco aimed to secure the sultan’s empire—for the benefit of the French, but eventually for the Alaouite dynasty and the Moroccan elites.

The creation of the protectorate created the basis of a nation-state, and endowed the Moroccan elites with an administrative apparatus that in fact made it a nation upon its independence in 1956. The French destroyed the old duality of the land of insolence (es-siba) and the land of the government (al-makhzen), and brought the sultan’s territory firmly under their control, and, coincidentally, under the sultan’s control, at last. Brazen efforts by the French to exploit Berber and Arab cultural differences foundered on religion and the sultan’s legitimacy.

Modern Moroccan nationalism arose in opposition to French and Spanish imperialism, and the sultan gave it a unifying theme. The king, Mohammad V, led Morocco to independence, despite being deposed and exiled, and he secured for the state, as well as for himself, an important legitimacy. In conversations with me, Moroccans usually spoke with reverence of him, and sometimes made a strong contrast with their opinion of his son and successor, Hassan II.

Celebration of the king’s birthday in Rabat. Police, a woman in a jellaba, and the late Hassan II, in golf togs. Circa 1969.

Considerable violence, subsumed by the benign term, pacification, took place early in the protectorate, but largely in tribal areas, where the French were successful in a way that the sultans never were. The independence movement itself was relatively peaceful, unlike that of neighboring Algeria.

While Moroccans were never cut off from Arab brethren in the East, the modern ruling elites arose under French tutelage, and looked to Paris as much, if not more, than to Cairo, Beirut, or Damascus for guidance. In that respect, they were not so difference from the rest of the Maghreb, and they did not have any of the ancient ties, real or imagined, of Syria or Lebanon. Algeria, a part of France, stood between them and the east.

Independent Morocco has also escaped, so far at least, the violence and chaos of the modern Middle East. The current dynasty survived two serious coup attempts in 1970 and 1971, and still rules. Only the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan can boast of that kind of good fortune, and Morocco lays claim to a valuable and almost unique stability in a region torn by conflicts. Although Morocco proclaims solidarity with the Palestinians, the Arab-Israeli conflict has always been far away. Its major impact has been to make life more difficult for the Moroccan Jewish population, now just a shadow of its former self.

Tying Morocco closer to Europe are the thousands of migrants and emigrants to Europe. Early Moroccan wage labor migration began during  World War I, when France experienced critical labor shortages, and continued throughout the century. Early on, the migration consisted of single men. They lived thrifty lives, sent money home to their families, and visited during the summer vacations. In the 1960s, one could easily be stuck in traffic jams on the Ceuta border caused by migrants coming home from or returning to Europe. The magnitude of these migration streams was unrivaled by any Middle Eastern country, aside from Turkey, and its roots were older and more deeply implanted. Morocco sits on the doorstep of Europe, just a short car ferry from Spain. Later in the 20th century, emigration came to play a bigger role in Morocco. In a recent poll, reported on in The Guardian, 70% of Moroccan under 30 years of age think of migrating!

Ceuta, a Spanish enclave on the Moroccan coast, is a gateway to Europe, and just a short car ferry trip to the rest of Spain, it was a popular departure point.

Morocco bears an analogous position to Sicily, perhaps, sitting at the end of a long and diverse dialectical and cultural chain, owing much of its uniqueness to its geographical position. Morocco’s fertile plains border the Atlantic, and the Rif Mountains present a relatively inhospitable barrier along the Mediterranean. On the south, the Sahara presents a barrier. Morocco is a country connected to the East by religion and culture, but it faces north and west.

Finally, Moroccan Muslims are all Sunni, following the same school of law. Not even Algeria and Tunisia show this complete religious homogeneity. Indeed, few Middle Eastern countries are so homogeneous. Moroccans think in terms of Muslims, Jews, and Christians, and a country such as Lebanon is beyond their experience. Saudi Arabia, with its large Shi’a population, cannot manifest such religious uniformity.

For the better and for the worse, geography and history made Morocco what it is, and what has distinguished it from its neighbors since Roman times. Two millennia of history crystallized in the form of a nation-state in the mid-twentieth century, a state molded by the French and inherited by Moroccan elites.

Once upon a time, in 1968…Oum Kalthoum

A photo of a street art portrait of Oum Kalthoum in Tanger, courtesy of Egyptian blogger, Amro Ali.

January of 2018 marked 50 years since the 30 volunteers of Morocco X stepped off their Pan Am jet and onto Moroccan soil. The event was recorded by a couple of the Moroccan newspapers, and though it is doubtful that anyone took much notice, many of the volunteers bought copies of the papers to save as mementos. A few months later, in March, another arrival took place, and that one was widely noted all over Morocco. Oum Kalthoum, the Egyptian diva, had visited the country at last.

In the history of Arabic song, Oum Kalthoum was, and still is, the unparalleled female voice. Revered throughout the Arab world, she reduced grown men to tears and titillated her fans with the life story of a poor Egyptian girl’s rise from rags to almost unimaginable wealth and fame. She sang songs of quality, with a wonderful voice and unrivaled talent for improvisation, a key feature of Arabic song.

Oum Kalthoum on stage at the Mohammed V Theater. Rabat, Morocco, 1968.

She arrived for three days of concerts in Rabat and then traveled to the other imperial cities of Fes, Meknes, and Marrakech. In Rabat, she performed at the Mohammed V Theater, and gave private performances for King Hassan and his brother, Prince Abdullah.

One of the Morocco X volunteers, Ron Soderberg, had many Oum Kalthoum records and was already a fan. Thanks to Ron, her name was on our lips in training camp in California, well before we left for Morocco. Hearing that she was appearing in Morocco for the first time, Ron and a number of other volunteers bought tickets to her concert. The tickets were expensive, 300 dirhams or about $60 American in 1968. At the time, a Peace Corps volunteer received a living allowance of 620 dirhams per month. For most Moroccans, the tickets were simply out of reach. The concerts went long into the evening, and were a spectacle. Oum Kalthoum’s improvisation drove the audience wild. Men in expensive djellabas stood on their seats and twirled their djellabas in the air, alternately excited or entranced.

Everywhere in the country the few people who were fortunate enough to have TVs were glued to them. On the CT outside of Meknes where I lived, the CT director kept the generator going late so that he and his friends could watch a broadcast of the concert. He was bleary-eyed the next morning.

Oum Kalthoum, Bob Marley, and Michael Jackson. Tanger street art. Photo courtesy of Amro Ali.

An Egyptian, Amro Ali, wrote an interesting blog post in which he elaborated on Moroccan perceptions of Egypt, culled from his own travels in Morocco (How Egypt functions in the Moroccan imagination). Among his many observations, he notes that one cannot visit Morocco today without hearing Oum Kalthoum’s music. In homes, in cafes, in taxis, on cell phones, Moroccans listen to her songs everywhere. The feelings shown for her contrast with Moroccan general ambivalence toward Egypt, whose cultural luster has dimmed and whose language is difficult for the uneducated. That said, Amro was greeted warmly everywhere he went. Moroccan hospitality is legendary.

Those few volunteers, newly arrived in the spring of 1968, were indeed fortunate to attend an event that Moroccans still recall today with reverence. The number of videos on YouTube documenting Oum Kalthoum’s visit in 1968 bear testimony to Moroccans’ profound attachment to her.

Oum Kalthoum died in 1975 and never revisited Morocco, but her songs live on, especially in the hearts of Moroccans.

Historic Preservation

The medina of Fes, 1968. Sefrou is just beyond the distant hills on the right.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an article about preservation, or more accurately, the lack of preservation for the Casbah of Algiers. I did a quick lookup and found that the Times had printed a very similar article in 2006. Sadly, efforts to preserve the oldest part of Algiers do not seem to have progressed much in the interval. Both the French and the post-colonial Algerian government seem to have neglected the casbah, and today it has become a decaying slum, a breeding ground for fundamentalists, and a major headache. However, there is nothing unique about this.

Historic preservation in the Middle East and North Africa is everywhere a problem, and has been for a long while. In Morocco, major monuments and archeological sites began to receive serious concern when the French turned Morocco into a colony under the guise of a protectorate. Eager to promote an image of Morocco that was more Pan-Mediterranean and more closely connected to France, archeological sites such as Volubilis were excavated and restored.

Triumphal arch. Volubilis, March 1968. Note the absence of visitors. Nothing gives a better sense of the ruins than to have them to yourself.

The last independent sultans of Morocco had far more important things to worry about than old ruins. When Morocco achieved independence in 1956, its new government realized the value of its national patrimony for its citizens and for a tourism industry that constituted a major source of income for the economy.

Marshall Lyautey, the French Resident-General of the new Protectorate, is credited with the establishment of French rule and its early administration. One of his first and most far reaching decisions was to plan new towns, les villes nouvelles, alongside the existing cities, which became known as medinas, the Arabic word for city.

Fes, 1970, in the ville nouvelle. The Zanzi Bar, my favorite café, was just down the street on the left.
Fes, 1970. The main post office.
Fes, 1970. Most villes nouvelles featured large boulevards, a pleasant place to walk, and an easy way to move troops.

This policy afforded many advantages for the new European population and the French administration, but it resulted in the preservation of the old cities of Morocco intact at the cost of their slowly being left behind and crumbling. Although  the French added water, sanitation and electricity to the medinas, the new cities became the choice of the Moroccan elites and Europeans, while the old towns, under the additional burden of a burgeoning population and migration from the countryside, slowly became slums.

Fes, 1970. Early morning at the Boujouloud Gate, from which two major streets descend into the heart of the city.
Fes, 1970. A less touristic view of the medina terraces.

My boss, Si Abdullah Jaï, who ran the provincial offices of the Ministry of Agriculture in the nineteen sixties, asked me to take some photographs of his old house deep in the medina of Fes. No one lived there any longer and he wanted to sell it. He thought that his large traditional family house might have value in the tourism industry. He was right.

The medinas of Morocco have always been a prime tourist attraction, affording a view of traditional life and its urban forms. None more than Fes, taken as one of the models of the archetypal preindustrial urban form by the urban geographer Gideon Sjoberg. Still walled today, Fes and other medinas are labyrinths.

Fes today. Notice the winding streets. The large road leading into the medina accommodates tourism buses and trucks. It was not there in 1969. Courtesy of Google Earth.
The Sefrou medina, though much smaller than that of Fes, manifests the same pattern of cul-de-sacs and winding streets. Traditional Islamic law did not prevent individuals from encroaching on the public way. Over time, streets became narrower, more irregular, and sometimes had structures built over them.

After passing through gates, its narrow streets wind down into the valley that it occupies before climbing out again. Along the way, many streets branch into dead ends, and encroachment on the public way, a common practice in old Muslim cities, has occasionally resulted in streets so narrow in places that a loaded donkey can barely pass.

Sefrou, 1969. Notice the narrowness of the street and the construction over it.
Fès, 1971. The main street leading down from the Boujouloud Gate, and a busy commercial area.
Fès, 1970. Notice the canyon like street, and the rooms built over it.

The medina of Fès, closed to most motorized vehicles during my time in Morocco, was finally opened by a road that pierces the southern wall and takes cars and buses, notably tourism buses, to the bottom of the valley at the newly constructed Place R’cif, saving tourists the arduous and confusing hike once required to sightsee in the medina.

Fès, 1971. The tanneries, a major tourist attraction, are deep in the center of the medina.

To service tourism a hotel industry has grown up in Fès and other Moroccan medinas, based on the concept of the riad. The riad, usually an old medina building renovated for foreign tourists, offers an accommodation that purports to be traditional, with decorative features to charm tourists. Located in the medinas, riads are close to the major attractions, are accessed by streets that provide local color, and are modestly priced, especially in comparison to large luxury hotels.

Riads, which take their name from the Arabic word for garden, did exist as the homes of a few very wealthy Moroccans in precolonial Morocco, and sometimes, where space was available, did feature sizable gardens. Today, they often reflect the traditional urban courtyard house adapted to tourism. I would not be surprised if Si Jaï’s house, which had huge rooms and a large courtyard, though no garden, is today a tourist establishment.

You would be unlikely to find Moroccans staying in a riad. The Moroccan equivalent of a riad is a slum tenement. The same building holding a riad could easily be subdivided and rented by room to poor Moroccans, without the expense of any renovation. Many medina buildings have, in fact, become tenements in this fashion.

Medinas were also the closest thing to traditional urban life that existed during my days in Morocco, and, I, like many volunteers, was pleased to be able to live in one. We saw the medina as both authentic and romantic, conveniently ignoring the inherent contradictions. My house, described elsewhere in the blog, was on a major street, not in a cul-de-sac, and shopkeepers occupied the ground floor frontage of the house, and that of many of the houses that faced the main streets.

The shop directly opposite the door of my house in Sefrou, and the sons of a couple of the shop keepers. The shops are built into the ground floor of houses.

In the early colonial era, Sefrou still reflected its most traditional form. Today all the land inside the walls, which formerly would have been gardens, is built up. My house was built abutting the city wall, something that would have been a defensive liability when the walls really served to keep people out.

In the mid-twentieth century, a disastrous flood on the Oued Aggaï, which flows through and divides the city, caused significant damages, and forced a deeping of the river bed to avoid reoccurrences. The picturesque sight of Jewish and Muslim women washing their clothes vanished overnight. And the large Jewish quarter, the Mellah, no longer provides a home to Jews, who were numerous in precolonial times.

I seldom entered or left my house without exchanging greetings with neighbors, and bought as much produce as possible from neighboring shopkeepers. From the front room of the house, one could hear and see the bustle in the street below, but the house offered privacy and quiet in its courtyard and other rooms.

Residents, myself included, lived on the first floor, above the shops. The only wall with windows faced the street, and on this day, a procession was passing under the window.

The terrace was a place to do chores, admire the view, especially Bouiblane to the southeast, or simply relax in privacy and get some sun. In the summer the terrace was hot in the middle of the day, but always cool at night. In the winter, one could escape the indoor clamminess, and warm oneself in the sun, when it came out. Ironically, neither Clifford Geertz and his wife nor any of his students, lived in the Sefrou medina, despite writing an important urban anthropology book about Morocco. With young children, a more convenient home worked better for the Geertz family, just as it would have for an upper class Moroccan one.

In the medina, there was overcrowding and poverty, and many Sefrouis, and not necessarily the richest, were fleeing the medinas to the new quarters outside the walls such as Habouna and Derb el Miter and Seti Messaouda, where homes were newer, more easily accessible by car, and less quirky. The newer quarters also had lots for sale.

Sefrou, 1973. A view of a new part of Seti Messaouda quarter, outside the city wall (seen in the background). The houses are larger, and more regular. Along major streets such as this one, the ground floor is reserved for commercial uses.

Today Sefrou has more than doubled in size. Urban growth has swallowed much of the surrounding agricultural land and new quarters have grown up the hillsides around the town. The rapid expansion reminds me of Orange County, California, where roads and housing have replaced the fruit groves that once gave the county its name.

As quickly as locals are leaving, country folk and the poor continue to move into the medina. Overcrowding, poverty, and lack of services and investment, public or private, are quickly turning the Sefrou medina into a slum. This is no new phenomenon. In the sixties it was clearly visible in Fes and other large cities as well as Sefrou, but the population explosion and rising urbanization has accelerated the trend.

In large, modern Moroccan cities such as Casablanca, there was no real medina. Before the Protectorate, Casablanca, without a real port, was not much of a city. The French changed that, building an artificial harbor, and Casablanca grew to be the commercial colossus of the country.

The center of Casablanca, 1968.

With no medina to provide inexpensive housing, urban migrants squatted in makeshift, unregulated settlements called bidonvilles, after the tin cans used in their construction. Elsewhere in the world, this type of settlement is known by various other terms such as favela or shanty town.

The medinas of the traditional centers, being abandoned, provided an economic opportunity for owners to divide old structures into multiple units, often sharing common toilets and courtyard, just as the riad idea offers tourism operators a cheap and attractive method to house wealthy foreigners, desirous of a more “authentic” experience. Housing has co-evolved into trendy riads and seedy tenements, gentrification and decay side by side.

Fès, 1969. An example of multiple families sharing an older house.

The problem for the government of Morocco, and a formidable one, is to address the urban decay, and to preserve the character of the medina, in a time when much of the urban life has moved outside into the growing villes nouvelles or the newer quarters. When the French arrived, Sefrou consisted of nothing but the medina and a small agglomeration called el Qelaa. Now both are almost lost on the city map, surrounded by newer construction.

It is relatively easy to preserve a monument such as the Tour Hassan in Rabat. Dealing with a centuries old city that is turning into a slum is of quite greater magnitude, and, not the least, because there are four major medinas in the royal capital cities of Marrakech, Rabat, Meknes, and Fes, not to mention those in middle-sized cities such as Salé or Tetouan-Oujda, nor in many smaller towns such as Sefrou or Chauen.

A major street in the Rabat medina, 1973. Built on level ground, the streets are more regular.
The Salé medina, looking south across terraces toward the Tour Hassan, and the Bou Regreg River.
This monumental gate, in Meknes, is an entrance to the medina today. 1968.
In Meknes, the French artist Delacroix pained the sultan in the 19th century.

Across the roof tops of houses in the Meknes medina, looking at the ville nouvelle, which is separated from the medina by a valley. Note the modern construction. 1973.
The dyers’ street. Marrakesh, 1969.
Built on a mountainside, Chauen has streets that climb and wind. 1976.

The Government of Morocco has done studies of the various medinas. The World Bank has even done a study on how to preserve and develop the medina of Fes, long a favorite haunt of the banker, David Rockefeller.

One thing seems sure in Morocco. Fancy foreign-owned homes and riads cannot coexist forever with tenements, and that the medinas, that today still fascinate foreigners, will become ghettos of an underclass of poor Moroccans, and eventually crumble.

Many countries face the same issues. In Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, the Saudis seemed to be proud of the efforts they were making in the old city, but I wondered why, with all the Saudi money, the rehabilitation was not already finished. I suspect that there are fewer and fewer Saudis in old Jeddah than foreigners.

The Saudis like to showcase this house, in the old quarter of Jeddah. Anthony Bourdain ate Saudi recipes on this rooftop in an episode of No Reservations.
Views over old Jeddah. December, 2009.

In modern Iran, Reza Shah just punched through the old cities with straight roads, much the way Haussmann had done in Paris. When the power of the state is concentrated, many things are possible, and in authoritarian governments, where the army secures state power, putting down urban revolts is a priority.

Reza Shah punched long avenues through the traditional cities of Iran. This is either Yazd or Kerman, Iran, 1974.
A Google Earth view of Kerman, Iran. Note the new avenues among the more traditional streets.

In Europe, after the sixteenth century, governments began to tear down walls that no longer served defensive purposes, and constructed roads in their place, leaving only toponyms that reflect the old placement of gates. The subway stations in Paris bearing Porte in their name testify to old city gates.

What will be the future of these ancient cities? Perhaps present trends will simply continue unabated. Then, someday, and God forbid it, an earthquake, like that of Agadir, will level one or two of them in a matter of seconds, diverting all investment into the new towns beside them, and leaving vast graveyards. As the recent fire at Notre Dame demonstrates, a monument that has endured for centuries can perish in minutes.

When you visit the medinas of Morocco, keep in mind that what charms you, the Westerner, is not just a survival from the past, but an artifact of modern policy, and, behind the wall of your riad may well be a family of eight, living in a single room, sharing a kitchen and toilet with eight or nine other families.