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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Janvier 2018 a marqué 50 ans depuis que les trente volontaires de la cohorte Morocco X ont débarqué de leur avion Pan Am pour fouler le sol marocain pour la première fois. L’événement a été souligné par quelques journaux marocains et même si on peut supposer que la nouvelle n’a pas attiré beaucoup d’attention, plusieurs des volontaires en ont acheté un exemplaire comme souvenir. Quelques mois plus tard, au mois de mars, une autre arrivée a eu lieu qui, elle, a eu un immense retentissement partout au Maroc. Oum Kalthoum, la diva égyptienne, était enfin arrivée en visite au pays.
Dans l’histoire de la chanson égyptienne, Oum Kalthoum était, et reste encore, la voix féminine par excellence. Révérée partout dans le monde arabe, elle savait faire fondre les hommes en larmes et titiller ses admirateurs en racontant l’histoire de l’ascension d’une pauvre fille égyptienne de la misère à une richesse et à une renommée presque inimaginable. Ses chansons étaient toutes de qualité supérieure. Dotée d’une voix merveilleuse, elle possédait également un talent d’improvisation incomparable, élément clé de la chanson arabe.
Elle est arrivée à Rabat pour y donner trois concerts avant de se diriger vers les autres villes impériales, Fès, Meknès et Marrakech. À Rabat elle a chanté au Théâtre Mohamed V et a donné des représentations privées au roi Hassan II et à son frère, le prince Abdullah.
L’un des volontaires de Morocco X, Ron Soderberg, possédait une importante collection de disques d’Oum Kalthoum et lui vouait déjà un culte. Pendant nos trois mois de formation, le nom Oum Kalthoum était sur toutes nos lèvres bien avant notre départ pour le Maroc. En apprenant qu’elle allait se produire pour la première fois au Maroc, Ron et un certain nombre d’autres volontaires ont acheté des billets. Les billets coûtaient cher, 300 dirhams ou l’équivalent de 60 $ US en 1968. À l’époque les volontaires recevaient une allocation mensuelle de 620 dirhams. Pour la plupart des Marocains, les billets étaient tout simplement hors de portée. Les concerts continuaient tard dans la soirée, tout un spectacle, et les improvisations d’Oum Kalthoum ont littéralement affolé l’auditoire. Des messieurs portant des djellabas luxueuses se tenaient sur leurs sièges agitant leurs djellabas dans l’air, tantôt excités tantôt en extase.
Partout au pays, les rares personnes qui avaient la chance d’avoir un téléviseur y étaient collés. Au centre de travaux où je vivais à l’extérieur de Meknès, le directeur gardait la génératrice ouverte bien tard pour que lui et ses amis puissent regarder la retransmission du concert. Il avait les yeux bouffis le lendemain matin.
Un blogueur égyptien, Amro Ali, a écrit un billet intéressant dans lequel il explique les perceptions de l’Égypte par les Marocains, tirées de ses propres voyages aux Maroc. (How Egypt functions in the Moroccan imagination). Parmi ses nombreuses observations, il note que de nos jours on ne peut visiter le Maroc sans entendre la musique d’Oum Kalthoum. Dans les maisons, dans les cafés, dans les taxis, sur les cellulaires, partout les Marocains écoutent ses chansons. Les sentiments qu’ils expriment à son égard contrastent avec l’ambivalence générale qu’entretiennent les Marocains envers l’Égypte dont le lustre culturel a pâli et dont la langue est difficile à comprendre pour les peu scolarisés. Ceci étant dit, Amro a été accueilli chaleureusement partout où il allait au pays. L’hospitalité marocaine est légendaire.
Ces quelques volontaires, fraîchement arrivés au printemps 1968, ont été bien chanceux d’assister à un événement dont les Marocains se souviennent encore aujourd’hui avec révérence. Le nombre de vidéos que l’on trouve sur YouTube portant sur la visite d’Oum Kalthoum en 1968 témoignent de l’attachement profond des Marocains à son égard.
Oum Kalthoun est décédée en 1975 sans avoir jamais revisité le Maroc, mais ses chansons se perpétuent de génération en génération, particulièrement dans le cœur des Marocains.
Back in the nineteen sixties, many foreigners lived in Rabat. The city was much smaller than it is today, which, of course, can be said about all Moroccan cities. Since the French ruled from Rabat during the Protectorate, and the newly independent government of Morocco kept the city as its capital, there were embassies and aid missions and cultural organizations, and the city was interesting and pleasant.
Pan American Airways flew to the Rabat-Salé Airport from New York City. The U.S. gave up its Strategic Air Command base at Berrechid and had vacated all its bases by 1963, but when Peace Corps arrived in Morocco, the Casablanca Nouaceur airport was still under construction. Early Peace Corps programs used the New York-Rabat flights. Those flights, on Boeing 707s, often stopped in the Azores and Lisbon.
The airport in Salé was conveniently close to Rabat, but it had a major drawback. Close to the Atlantic, the airfield was subject to dense fogs that interfered with landings. Eventually most international flights were moved to Nouaceur, which was inland away from the coastal fogs, and, in addition, had longer runways.
While Pan Am flew to Rabat, the flight crews often rested there overnight. You would see them at restaurants around the ville nouvelle, and one of their favorites was La Mamma, a restaurant and bar that served pizza. Not expensive and conveniently located just off Mohammed V, Peace Corps staff and volunteers also frequented the place.
In those days, inexpensive restaurant food was not hard to come by. Most of it was French, with three courses, often a salade niçoise, a piece of meat or filet of fish, and fruit or flan for desert. Jour et Nuit was near the Peace Corps office, and you could get a quick bite there. If you wanted something a bit more upscale, Le Père Louis, behind the Balima Hotel, offered a nicer atmosphere, with the proprietor managing from a desk near the door as was the old custom in France.
I only ate at La Mamma a few times, but I still remember the last time vividly. It was in the summer of 1970, and I was with a date. In those days, La Mamma sometimes had entertainment, and on that night, there was a guitarist singing Brassens, the sand along. Brassens was already an icon in France, and most French knew at least some of his songs. The pizza maker threw dough into the air in time to the beat of the music. The waiters danced around, and everyone thoroughly enjoyed themselves. On that hot summer night, the atmosphere was festive and fun, and the pizzeria resembled a boîte à chanson far more than a restaurant. Though I spent a fair amount of time in Rabat after that, I don’t recall ever having returned to La Mamma.
La Mamma is still there, 50 years later, and, if the Internet food reviews are credible, still serves decent fare in a pleasant atmosphere. You probably won’t hear Brassens if you eat there, but if I returned, I would certainly strain to catch the echoes.
One never knows whom one may be seated next to on a plane. Early in another blog post, I mentioned being on a medical evacuation flight from the U.S. Navy base in Kenitra, Morocco to the American Air Force base at Torrejón, just outside Madrid. When the Americans withdrew from the latter in 1992, the Spanish built a new regional airport there. Originally a SAC base for B-47s, which also flew from Moroccan bases in the nineteen fifties, by 1970 when I visited, F-100 Super Sabres and F-4 Phantoms were flying there. I remember the noise as squadrons landed and took off.
I was seated on the plane next to a gentleman whose job was to train Moroccan pilots to fly F-105 fighters. When he asked what I did, I told him about my extension work and about the Peace Corps more generally. He was very impressed, and our conversation ended with him wondering whether he couldn’t use some volunteers in his program! For the record, a year later, in a coup attempt on the life of the Moroccan king, Hassan II, those planes attacked a passenger plane carrying the King, and he narrowly escaped with his life.
Many, if not most, Peace Corps volunteers were posted to countries where their skills were needed, but not necessarily the counties in which they wanted to live. If my recollection is correct, John Paulas, a graduate of Paul Smith’s College and avid outdoorsman, really wanted to go to Nepal. On the flight to Morocco, he was seated next to another new volunteer on his way to Nepal. When John told him that Nepal had been his first choice , the other volunteer responded that his first choice had been Morocco! I consider myself very fortunate to have wanted to go to Morocco and to have been actually sent there, though it did take the Peace Corps two tries, since they had first offered me a placement in Senegal.
Perhaps the strangest encounter on a plane was between my housemate, Gaylord Barr, who had re-enlisted in 1970 prior to teaching English as a second language. On his flight from New York to Casablanca, Gaylord asked the fellow next to him why he was visiting Morocco. The response was unexpected, if not a bit unsettling: the man was going for a sex-change operation. Apparently Casablanca was a major center for gender realignment surgery in the late nineteen sixties and early seventies. Recently I learned that Jan Morris, the notable travel writer, now 92, went there in 1972 for that purpose. Now Gaylord was no prude, and would have had no objection, but he was shocked at the time. Morocco had many foreigners going there for many reasons, sometimes scandalous ones, but this man’s journey threw Gaylord for a loop!
After rereading this published post, I got to thinking about the scenes in the satirical film, Airplane, where one of the protagonists tells his sob story over and over, driving the passenger next to him to suicide. If you’ve flown often, you probably have your own stories to tell.
Six months have passed since the last book sale. The Friends of the Youngstown Free Library, a group of volunteers, many of them elderly, hold the sale twice a year. Mary, the Friend in charge of sales for the last couple of years, has passed the torch to Keith, a young retiree from the Air Force. Mary did a terrific job, in spite of serious health issues, and Keith has managed his first sale without a glitch.
At the first evening of the three-day sale, the doors of the old brick school gymnasium are open only to those who have registered as Friends. School teachers mix with the local doctor, retirees with professional book buyers, and everyone with others looking for a good read for themselves or someone else. Book lovers all, they happily search through the donated books, films, and music CDs for a treasure, a pleasure, or a profit. Most are not disappointed.
At each sale, I look for materials about Morocco, though here on what I call the Marches, my expectations are low. Across the mouth of the river, in Canada, a book sale might be expected to produce more materials about Morocco in French. The Youngstown sale occasionally has Canadian books, though seldom are there any French ones. Books about Morocco are even rarer.
This year I did find a book about Morocco. Among the travel guides and foreign language materials was an old Spanish pocket guide to Morocco, published in 1961 for Spaniards. I purchased it as a curiosity. Unless I use it to resurrect my old high school Spanish, I will probably not open it many times, except for memories of my stay in northern Morocco. The Guía de Viaje-Bolsillo, Marruecos will become a souvenir of times long past, but still close to me.
Today, the melting glaciers of the Himalayas are giving up the bodies of climbers from ill-fated expeditions of the past. Time can bury or, sometimes, with a little human help, resurrect.
The film clip below is from March 1970, roughly 49 years ago. Don Brown, the Peace Corps Administrator and excursion cinematographer took it on our hike to the summit of Jbel Ayachi (3,757 m.) I wrote here in an earlier blog about that climb, unaware that Don had video footage. The grainy 8mm film looks as ancient to me today as the early black and white films of the first expeditions to Everest looked to me as a youth. We are all now accustomed to the sharper, better exposed clips, taken with ease by a cellphone. I kept thinking of Merrimack Cooper’s Grass, where he follows a Bakhtiari nomad migration across the Zagros. “Tramp, tramp, tramp.” I see the silent movie’s captions in my mind, along with all the sheep.
What a gift to have this video resurface! The team of three is clearly having fun. The star is H. Louden Kiracofe, Peace Corps doctor. The film begins at the Peace Corps Office in Rabat, Morocco. Louden is clowning as Abderrahman, who took care of the Peace Corps motor pool, inspects the vehicle.
The action shifts briefly to the Setti Messaouda Gate in Sefrou. My house was inside to the left. Don and Louden stopped there to pick me up.
Next we are camping in the Cirque de Jaffar, one of the possible starting points for climbing Jebel Ayachi. Berber boys were fascinated by us, and hoping we would share chocolate with them, which we did, of course.
We left about sunrise, and the mountain shots are dark. There is a narrow gorge on the initial approach, with vertical walls and a stream flowing through it. Afterwards we just continued up through the valleys that lead to the summit. Louden and I had done the climb before, and there was little difficulty finding the route.
Out of breath from the altitude and the march, Don decided that he had had enough and stopped in the large basin about 500 feet below the 12,300 foot peak’s two summits. There he waited until Louden and I returned, hence, no footage from the summit, though Louden and I took 35mm slides. I am the guy with all the sunscreen on his face, and the red cap. Don appears briefly in his yellow parka.
The trip was great fun. Thanks, Don, for finding the old film, digitizing it, and sharing it! To see it, just click on the link, Climbing Jebel Ayachi.