Il était une fois, en 1968…Oum Kalthoum

Portrait d’Oum Kalthoum par un artiste de rue à Tanger. Photo gracieuseté du blogueur égyptien Amro Ali.

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.

Oum Kalthoum en scène au théâtre Mohammed V, 1968.

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.

Art de rue à Tanger. Oum Kalthoum, Bob Marley et Michael Jackson. Photo gracieuseté d’Amro Ali.

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.

Texte : Dave Brooks

Traduction : Jim Erickson

La Mamma

La Mamma

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 707 that brought Morocco X volunteers to Morocco. Taken at a mid-Atlantic stop in the Azores.

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.

Avenue Mohammed V looking north toward the PTT. The medina begins a bit farther north.

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.

People on planes

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.

Leaving Morocco, with Tangier below, and the western Rif Mountains in the distance. March, 1970.

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.

La guía

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.

Jbel Ayachi (continued)

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.

Les volcans du Maroc

Le Maroc, pays de volcans? On peut en douter fort. Et pourtant…

Quand on pense aux volcans, on se rappelle les coulées incandescentes de Hawaï, qui détruisent tout ce qui se trouve sur leur chemin et allument les cieux avec des fontaines de laves lumineuses. Ou bien on pense à l’explosion de Karakatoa, entendue à 3 000 km de sa petite île, qui n’existe plus. Ou peut-être à l’éruption de Vésuve, ensevelissant les villes romaines de Herculanum et Pompéi. Ou bien au Massif central de France, où de l’activité volcanique s’est manifestée il y a à peine 5 000 ans.

Les volcans actifs et dormants se trouvent à bien des endroits dans notre monde, notamment dans « le cercle de feu » qui entoure le bassin du Pacifique. Le Maroc, par contre, n’a pas de volcans actifs. Cependant, on peut repérer beaucoup de traces visibles d’un volcanisme datant de l’ère géologique récente.

En suivant la route de Meknès à Azrou, on traverse ce qu’on appelle le belvédère, un tronçon de route qui longe le bord des premiers plateaux et qui offre une vue des vallées et des pics du pays d’Ito.

Le pays d’Ito, vu du belvédère.

Ces sommets sont les restes de petits volcans. Parfois, comme il m’est arrivé au mois de mars 1968 en descendant d’Azrou où je venais de rendre visite à mon copain, Marc, la dépression paraît remplie de nuages, et les pics ressemblent à un archipel émergeant d’une mer moutonnée et cotonneuse.

Djebel Hebri, en hiver.
Descente du Djebel Hebri, Al Jessup et Gaylord Barr, 1968. La route menant à Azrou

Tout près, juste au-dessus d’Azrou, plusieurs cônes sont éparpillés sur les hauts plateaux calcaires. Dans une voiture, on ne les remarque guère à cause de leur faible altitude, mais si on monte au sommet du djebel Hebri, lui-même produit de l’action volcanique, les cônes volcaniques sont bien évidents le long de la route nord-sud qui traverse les hauts plateaux. Dans les photos aériennes et satellites de la région d’Ifrane, on peut distinguer nettement les effets du volcanisme.

Cônes volcaniques, près du Djebel Hebri
Vue sur les hauts plateaux. Djebel Ayachi à l’arrière-plan.
À partir de la route, on ne voit que des collines.
Vue aérienne du Djebel Hebri et des environs.

Le Moyen Atlas n’est pas la seule chaîne du Maroc touchée par le volcanisme. Dans l’Anti-Atlas, se trouve un volcan éteint, haute de 3 300 m, le Djebel Sirwa, souvent écrit Siroua. On l’aperçoit clairement du mont Toubkal et des sommets environnants.

Djebel Siroua. Vue du sommet du Toubkal.

Le Maroc, tellement intéressant sur le plan humain, l’est tout autant sur le plan géologique. J’encourage le lecteur à explorer ses merveilles qui se trouvent souvent à proximité des grandes routes.

The Seiko Watchdog

The casbah of the Ouidayas. Rabat, 1968.

In the sixties, a frequent scam involved an approach by a stranger who offered for sale some precious item that he had found on the beach. Even Peace Corps volunteers, who surely should have known better, were occasionally taken in by the scheme.

One volunteer, in Tangier for training, bought a beautiful Seiko watch, which, not unsurprisingly, stopped working soon afterwards. He took it to a medina shop in Rabat, which serviced watches, and the watch repairman took a look and quickly related the bad news. The watch was a fake.

The volunteer, who had paid good money for the watch, was beside himself. Not able to express himself in either Arabic or French, he began ranting, gesticulating, and jumping about the small shop.

Unfortunately, he stepped on the owner’s dog, which bit him severely enough to draw blood. The watch cost him far more than what it was worth, and he had to undergo a series of rabies shots to boot!

If this were a Thurber fable, I would have a good moral here. Perhaps a reader can supply one for this true story.