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Van Dyk Diary: Marrakech, Past and Present

November 5, 2006

Coloured textiles in Rue Semarine, Marrakech
Photo by Martin Dady

Morocco (from el-Maghreb, Arabic for "the western region") was once under Spanish and then French domination. It has been independent since 1956. The country is on the western border of the Muslim world, which stretches from the Atlantic Ocean across Africa and Asia all the way to Indonesia and the Philippines in the Pacific Ocean. Morocco's legal system is a combination of French, Spanish and Muslim law and is thus, even more than most Muslim countries, a part of two worlds. Marrakech is Western in its hotels and nightclubs, and women in tight jeans, but Muslim when its laborers silently face northeast at prayer times and bow towards Mecca.

The late autumn sun shines brightly during the day in Marrakech. In the early morning and evening the birds are singing and you can smell the roses in the garden in my hotel courtyard. There are lemon trees and orange trees. Water from marble fountains flows gently, in the Arab style, almost too quiet for the ear to hear, cooling this once isolated desert oasis, now filled with tourists.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, Marrakech was a romantic destination, a siren calling to young people around the world, a secular Mecca, like San Francisco, Kabul, and Katmandu. Just as the anthem If You're Going to San Francisco drew hippies with flowers in their hair to San Francisco, the song Marrakech Express drew thousands of young people here.

It lured young seekers to come, for adventure, for love, for pleasure, to be part of a great happening, to be hip, to be cool. Marrakech was a place to find purpose—to escape, through hashish and distance, the modern world, the Establishment, the war in Vietnam and your parents. Travel is always escape and pursuit in equal parts.

This was all before cell phones, CNN and Fox News in foreign cities, lap tops and globalization. You could send a letter to someone c/o Poste Restante, Marrakech, Katmandu or Tehran and when it arrived days later at the post office, it was exciting to sit down and read a hand-written letter, so much more personal than email, which is clinical, immediate, and takes much less initiative.

Today, San Francisco's hippy allure is faded, Kabul is overcrowded and soldiers patrol the streets, and Katmandu is weathering a Maoist guerrilla insurgency. But in Marrakech the planes arrive every day, filled with elderly tourists and families with their children, from London, Frankfurt and Paris. Visas are not required for North Americans and Europeans, and tour buses wait in the parking lot. There are fancy nightclubs, with rock bands, alcohol and single Moroccan women in attendance.

Morocco is a Muslim country, but Marrakech is to Europe what Acapulco or Cancun is to Americans: an exotic, safe tourist destination in the sun. Yves Saint Laurent has a mansion here and I am told that, like so many other Europeans, soccer celebrities David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane have houses in the suburbs.

There are hotels everywhere and others under construction. The real estate market is booming. Construction cranes span the skyline, as minarets do in other Muslim countries. The large, curved swimming pool at my hotel is surrounded by Europeans in skimpy bathing suits tanning themselves, while beyond the garden wall dark skinned laborers, wearing hats and scarves, their bodies covered, widen a city road. At night they pack into the back of trucks and return to their villages.

Young men and women ride together on motor scooters, and hold hands in the streets. You can hear the muezzin's call to prayer early in the morning when the city is quiet, but otherwise the call to prayer is drowned out by modern life. You cannot hear Friday sermons over loudspeakers as you can, for example, in Pakistan.

When I was a young man, I listened to Marrakech Express, as did most people in my generation. But it did not appeal to me. I was a traveler on occasion, not a hippie. When the song came out I knew that Marrakech had become too popular. I began my Moroccan journey, in 1968, in Tangiers, which Truman Capote, who went there in 1949, called a "ragmuffin of a city." Paul Bowles, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Tennessee Williams and others of the Beat generation, these fathers of the Hippie movement, went there and smoked kef, or hashish, in the cafes until dawn.

There is no smell of hashish in Marrakech or Tangiers today, only of pollution. However, Morocco is still said to supply much of Europe's cannabis, which grows wild in the mountains.

Back then I stayed in a hippie hotel deep in the Casbah. I first heard Islam's haunting call to prayer, called the azzam, like church bells in Christendom, calling the faithful to worship, and began my journey into the Muslim world. I hitchhiked east, away from hippies and their pursuit of nirvana and pleasure, through Algeria and Tunisia, former French colonies, now independent.

There was only one two-lane, mostly empty, paved road then, stretching across North Africa. I always got rides, mostly from truckers, but once from a pretty young French woman in a Deux Cheveaux [old Citroën model] who taught school down in the desert. She smiled and was not afraid. In those days, no foreigner I met was afraid in the Muslim world. One morning as I sat by the road, listening to the crickets and the sound of the desert, I saw a young woman in a black dress walking towards me. I thought she was an apparition and that I had been in the sun too long.

She was English and carrying a small backpack. "I was working for a British company in Baghdad, but I got bloody well bored with all that and decided to hitchhike home to London. I crossed through Israel, asked them not to stamp my passport, and continued west. The Arabs are all right. Just treat them with respect and they will treat you the same." I told her I was heading east. "Pity," she said, and she continued west walking down the highway until I lost her in the heat waves rising in the distance.

Her one sentence about respect, I believe, goes to the heart of our troubles today.

Moroccan Perceptions of the Nuclear Threat

The morning newspaper, Le Matin, had a picture on the front page the other day of an atomic bomb exploding. The headline read "Rabat, Capital of the War Against Nuclear Terrorism." It referred to a two-day conference in Rabat, the Moroccan capital, which was the first conference of its kind on nuclear terrorism. It was attended by representatives from the U.S., Russia, France, the U.K., China, Japan and others, and focused on North Korea, Iran and organizations like al-Qaeda.

According to the paper, The Los Angeles Times reported in March 2002 that the Bush administration had asked the Pentagon to elaborate on what its plans would be if it were ordered to use atomic weapons against China, Russia, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya, and Syria. It further noted, as papers do in the Muslim world, that Israel has a nuclear arsenal, and like the U.S., its major backer, Israel has never signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Thus it has been able to develop its arsenal free of international regulation. Muslim countries do not enjoy such support, the paper noted. (In fact, in addition to Israel, India and Pakistan have declined to sign the treaty, while the United States has signed it. )

Morocco, Movie Capital of the Arab Muslim World

The Muslim world is not always what we think. I am in Morocco working as an advisor on a Hollywood movie about the 1980s Afghan-Soviet war. I covered the war as a journalist. Morocco is to substitute for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The other day as we sat out long before dawn, as we always do, my driver, Mohammed, put in a B.B. King CD in the radio of our 4 by 4 as we headed up into the Atlas Mountains. They are similar to Afghanistan in that people walk and ride donkeys, and herd sheep and goats.

"To sit in a club, with a Jack Daniels, and listen to the Blues—that's the life," said Mohammed. "Blues, Country, Jazz—they are the best." Morocco, he noted, is not Pakistan. "I watch television. They all seem to be fanatics over there." Mohammed wants to start a jet-ski club. "The king of Morocco, Mohammed VI, loves to jet-ski. He is a champion."

We are filming in high, isolated, Berber villages where there is no electricity or running water, and where the women are never veiled. The Berbers are the original inhabitants of Morocco. The Arabs came, with their religion of Islam, in the seventh century, as they spread out around the Mediterranean. As I walk through these villages I do think of Afghanistan. But here the windows have glass in them, the homes are made of red clay, not adobe, and the village mosque is not domed, as in Afghanistan and Iran and elsewhere in the Muslim world, but is shaped like a church steeple.

To make a film is to spend a lot of time waiting to set up a scene or cameras. The Berber extras sing and clap their hands while waiting in the cold. They use a pan for a tambourine. They smile easily and openly. Their music is more Western than Arab and makes the wealthy Westerners among them happy.

There was a storm the other week and we were stuck in a ski lodge, with birch paneling and a fire in the sitting room overlooking the mountains. I had a long talk with Nour-Eddine Sail, director general of the Centre Cinematographique Marocain, the government agency that oversees and assists foreign films being made in Morocco.

Foreign movie-making is a multi-million dollar industry in Morocco. It would have been more authentic to shoot our movie in South Asia. But it would be far too dangerous, Hollywood felt, and the insurance costs too high, to make such a movie, with a big budget and big stars, in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

"Morocco is the only country in the Arab world where Hollywood, and others come to make their movies about this part of the world," said Sail. "There are sand dunes, palaces, expert horsemen and an efficient production infrastructure. It is a big industry."

Sail, elegant in a blue suit up in the mountains, poured a glass of Moroccan red wine and ate an olive and a piece of cheese. "The West, especially, the Americans, does not understand the Arab world. The French are only slightly better." (Arabs only make up 18% of the Muslim population. The largest concentration of Muslims is in South Asia—Bangladesh, India and Pakistan—not the Middle East.

Morocco is safe, secure, Muslim—and yet not too secular, too French, too modern, it is said, for al-Qaeda.

Recent Bombings

As I write this, there are news reports of another attack on a madrasah in the Bajour Agency tribal area, possibly made by a CIA drone, or the Pakistani military [Pakistan has now taken credit for this.]. It is similar to the one at Damadola village, last January, in the same area along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Nearly 80 people are said to have been killed. Ayman al-Zawahiri, according to reports, visited the madrasah. It is hard to know the truth. Journalists are not allowed to visit these areas.

Morocco is not exempt. On May 16, 2003, 14 suicide bombers set off a series of bombs in Casablanca, killing 45 people and injuring 100. The attacks were initially attributed to Assirat al-Mustaqim (The Straight Path), an Islamist group tied to al-Qaeda. It is still not clear who was responsible. The attacks came just before elections in which Islamists were predicted to win. Some here feel that the attacks were orchestrated by the government to be used against the Islamists.

The Washington Post reported that Abu Mussab Zarqawi ordered the bombing. On November 4th, the Madrid newspaper, El Pais reported that Spanish police had arrested two men who were members of the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group. This group is blamed for the Madrid train bombings, which came nine months after Casablanca. The men, the paper said, are tied also to the Casablanca bombings.

There is clearly an "integriste"—French for "fundamentalist Muslim"—movement in Morocco. It is not clear to me, here only a few weeks, how powerful it is. However, I am told that when the king visits a city like Marrakech, there are police placed every twenty yards along his route.

In the West, we call Muslim fundamentalists "Islamists," but as people here make clear to me, an Islamist is not a fundamentalist. An Islamist in Morocco is a deeply religious, respected person. An integriste is political and wants a pure Muslim state, which is what al-Qaeda wants in Iraq and the Taliban want in Afghanistan.

Morocco guards closely its ties to the West. There is a secret U.S. military base at Ben Grir, outside of Marrakech, and another one, it is said, in Tangiers. When King Hassan II, father of the present king, died in 1997, George H.W. Bush attended his funeral.

The Battle of Algiers

Years ago, as I traveled across northern Morocco and then Algeria, I stopped in Algiers, the capital, a beautiful city, with orange trees lining the walkways along the Mediterranean, and whitewashed buildings, as in Greece. Algeria had just waged a successful war of independence, from 1954-1962, against France, which had ruled it for 132 years. It was the first nationalist Muslim victory over the West in history.

The Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo made the epochal movie, Battle of Algiers, about this war of independence. French president Jacques Chirac fought as a young officer in this battle, which explains in part, I believe, why he chose not to side with the U.S. when it invaded Iraq. In a "60 Minutes" TV interview with Christiane Amanpour before the U.S. invasion, he talked about how hard it was to fight the Arabs in an Arab city, seeming to almost shudder at the recollection.

The film depicts the torture that the French used against the Algerians. I saw the movie originally as a student in Paris in the 1970s. I recall discussions in class, and newspaper articles, about the French using torture in Algeria. Former officers, angry at losing Algeria, defended its use. Others condemned it. The debate tore at the fabric of this nominally Christian, Western society.

The Battle of Algiers was shown at the Pentagon just before the U.S. invasion. I saw it again in 2003 at the U.S. Army War College, in Carlisle, PA. One retired National Guard colonel raised his hand afterwards, in discussion, and said glibly, "They lost because they were the French."

The French were in Vietnam before we were. They fought in Algiers as we now fight in Baghdad.

Marrakech Today, a Tourist Mecca

You can listen to rock and roll on the radio and European tourists, in their shorts, with sunburned faces and cameras, fill the souk, this ancient Arab shopping mall, now part of a World Heritage Site. They are looking for manufactured souvenirs, which are crammed into stall after stall. Male and female Moroccan shopkeepers beckon to them, just as others elsewhere beckon to foreigners in the Muslim world—Turks in Istanbul's bazaar, Egyptians in Cairo.

It is safe in Morocco, but there is an elaborate state security system nonetheless. The hotel where I am staying has guards with earphones, like secret service men in the U.S. They are seen around the gardens, and on every floor, protecting the tourists.

The most popular tourist site in Marrakech, judging by the crowds of European tourists, seems to be the Ben Yousef madrasah, built in the 14th century by Yousef Ben Tachim. He was the leader of a nomad tribe which founded Marrakech in 1062, planting 15,000 trees and creating the Almoravides dynasty. The madrasah, deep in the old, walled city, with its fountains, carved cedar, tiled floors and small, austere rooms, is a religious school. Madrasah means school in Arabic. Today, too often, I believe, the West considers all madrasahs to be incubators of hate.

As I looked at these rooms in the madrasah, with straw mats on which to sit and sleep, small wood stands for the Koran, ink pen holders, writing paper, tea glasses, a small kettle, candles, and a tajine, the Moroccan clay-fired cooking pot in which students cooked their food on a stand of coals, I am reminded of seminaries I have seen in North and South America, each austere and simple in its own way, places where older men teach younger men about their faith.

On the walls of the madrasah there are no crucifixes, of course, or any other icons, all forbidden in Islam. Each room has a window opening up onto a courtyard, giving light. There is a sense of the spiritual here, of seeking God, purity and knowledge, even goodness, away from the outside world.

The European crowds walk curiously, politely, trying not to push, taking pictures, with children running, through the narrow passageways, following their tour guides, trying to learn, perhaps, about those people they once conquered who now live in increasing numbers among them. It is only 20 miles across, at one point, from the tip of Morocco, to Spain.

Outside, boys, similar in age to those who would be in a madrasah, roar by on motor scooters through the medina, with black smoke belching. There are mosques both inside and outside the old walls where madrasah graduates will someday preach, like ministers in the U.S., but there are no tourists in them. The tourists sit in the restaurants overlooking the large main square, the beautiful, spacious place Jamaa El Fna, where couples walk, and snake charmers sit. They watch the natives and look for the exotic, which exists only in our minds.

Long ago, on my first trip, I reached Istanbul, and its famed Pudding Shop, that caravansary for hippies and travelers, where we sat at tables and on old sofas, drank tea and ate rice pudding and baklava before we headed onwards from this last outpost in Europe, to Asia.

We were all excited. It was an adventure. Westerners could cross Muslim Asia happily then. Not today. Instead, now they come to Morocco, where they feel secure.

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