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.

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.