maghrebLast summer I travelled in Morocco (where I used to live) in order to write an essay for the Maghreb issue of the Critical Muslim, which I also edited. This essay is available in full online (for free). To read the other essays, stories and poems (and there are some truly brilliant ones) you’ll have to buy the issue (available on Amazon) or subscribe. Please support the journal/ magazine by encouraging your local library/ college to subscribe.

Morocco’s Arabic name, ‘al-Maghreb’, emerges from the root gh-r-b, which denotes concepts including the west, distance, and alienation. ‘Ghareeb’ means strange. ‘Ightirab’ means living outside the Arab world, whether in the west or the east. ‘Maghreb’ also means sunset, dusk, the evening prayer, the time at which the daily fast is broken. Al-Maghreb al-Arabi refers to the entire Arab west – Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, the Western Sahara – but Morocco has no other name. It is al-Maghreb al-Aqsa, the furthest west, the strangest.

The ancient Egyptians believed they spent the afterlife wandering ‘the Western Lands’. William Burroughs, who lived in Tangier, wrote a novel inspired by the notion. When I lived in Morocco, teaching English at the turn of the century, a Syrian woman of my acquaintance used to play on the word like this: la tustughreb, anta fil-maghreb or, Don’t be shocked, you’re in Morocco! On this return visit I heard the same phrase from the mouth of a Moroccan man in a train.

But shocked I was, a little bit, twelve years ago.

I’d been living in the mashreq, the Arab east, before I arrived, and (foolishly) I expected the maghreb to be similar. I found a much more liberal place, one much less subject to taboo. For instance, depending on class and region, a Moroccan girl with a boyfriend is not quite the social catastrophe it would be further east. Moroccan sleaze is not hidden away (which is perhaps, overall, a good thing). I once almost pushed my son in his pushchair past men engaged in a sexual act, not in a dark basement but among the trees at the side of a main road. Several times I walked past the same exhibitionist in central Rabat. There were police nearby but they ignored him. And I frequently saw ragged street children sniffing glue-soaked rags, more of a South American scene than an Arab one. (I didn’t see that on this recent trip). In addition to public taboos, Moroccans lack the softness and eloquence, the courtliness, of the eastern Arabs. But they also lack the airs and graces, the intense class resentments, the hypocrisies. You don’t feel everyone is judging everyone else as you can do in the east, at least not in the same way, not to the same extent.

Then there were the contradictions, or perhaps the diversity, better put, of language, ethnicity, culture and, most of all, class. Parts of the big cities were comparable to Europe in their lifestyles and aspirations. Some of my students went to French-language schools, spent their holidays in Europe, and spoke French at home. Meanwhile much of the countryside was consigned to illiteracy and grinding poverty. There was almost no modern infrastructure out there. The people didn’t speak French. Some didn’t speak Arabic either.

I return twelve years later to Rabat, once my home, a handsome capital surrounded by red walls and built in that distinctive architectural style which connects Andalusia to West Africa. Rabat’s ‘new city’ contains tree-lined boulevards, embassies and white villas, and the enormous Makhzen (royal court) compound. The madina al-qadima (old city) and kasbah (fortified settlement) are to the west. A necropolis lies west of the madina. Then comes the beach and its piers, the crab-crawling rocks, and the cold Atlantic. The madina is neither traditional nor modern: it’s contemporary, and Moroccan traditions are an integrated part of contemporary life. The glossy-artisanal rue des Consuls is designed to serve foreigners, in the past and the present, but it’s by no means an over-touristed souq. The flea market in the mellah (what used to be the Jewish quarter) deals in antiques, broken office machines, and books – classics and curiosities in Arabic, French and English.

My visit comes in Ramadan, whose rhythm has overtaken the madina. This means quiet mornings and bustling afternoons. As the maghreb prayer calls, the sunset is dispersed by light Atlantic cloud, then the streets empty and silence reigns while the fast is broken. A fat moon rises. An hour later boys are sitting on the steps of the kasbah beating drums and singing traditional songs, not for show but to amuse themselves. A couple break into dance as they walk past. More drums and picnics down on the beach. The mosques are full (of both men and women) for Ramadan taraweeh prayers, and the markets are crammed until two in the morning.

Outside the city walls, the Chellah, once a Phoenician, then a Roman settlement, is a suitable location for historical musings. Morocco’s first Islamic rulers were the Idrissis, Zaydi-Shia, and like the current monarchs, descendants of Ali and Fatima. They built Fez and founded its great religious institutions. Then the murabitoon (Almoravids) of the Sanhaja tribe swept from Senegal and Mauritania as far as Spain. The greatest and most tolerant Almoravid sultan, Yusuf bin Tachfin (reigned 1061–1106), founded Marrakesh and ruled from Ghana to Lisbon. Later, by Khaldunian process, urbane decline set in, and the Almoravids were swept aside by the muwahidoon (Almohads), a new set of puritanical nomads who first burnt then refurbished Fez and Marrakesh. Next came the Merenids of the Anti-Atlas Zenata tribe, but in the fourteenth century Bubonic Plague and chronic infighting splintered the polity, and Portuguese soldier-traders took over the coastal ports. The Saadi dynasty pushed back foreign encroachment, and in the seventeenth century the Alawi dynasty took over. It still rules today.

‘Khaldunian process’ refers to the theory of Tunis-born ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), the historian and founder of sociology, that dynastic rule works by a cycle whereby a new and innovative group strengthened by tight social cohesion, asabiyya in ibn Khaldun’s word, defeats the old rulers, then in victory becomes urbanely civilised, then decadent, and eventually loses power to a new, highly coherent group. ‘So it is’, writes Robert Irwin in this issue, ‘that the wild and sometimes fanatical tribesmen are able to defeat and conquer empires and cities and go on to create new states.’ As Irwin notes, ibn Khaldun, who emphasised the decisive role of social and economic forces, saw ‘urban life as leading to degeneracy’ and looked at luxury with disdain. The great historian is regarded as an objective, neutral scholar. But Irwin throws fresh light on ibn Khaldun, arguing that he had strong Sufi tendencies.

The most intact building inside the Chellah’s walls is an elegant Merenid mosque with a patchily blue-tiled minaret. (Moroccan minarets, ancient or modern, are not the cones or needles of the east, but rectangular towers. They look like the church towers of Spain.) On the slope above the ancient foundations and the mosque, whitewashed cubes topped by octagonal domes contain the remains of holy men – marabouts. Trees fill the gaps: bananas and olives, palms and figs, bamboo, baobabs and firs. Storks (onomatopoeiacally named laq-laq in Arabic) make that deep repetitive click with their beaks. They are huge birds, almost humanoid as they step the corridors between the trees, giants as they flap overhead. Their nests look like giant rings on finger-like trunks in the near distance. Beneath the walls a woman tends her field of greens enwalled by high bullrushes. She wears a broad straw sun hat from the Rif. And beyond her, the flood plain of the Bou Regreg, the river separating Rabat from Salé.

Salé was once a pirating capital. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries the north African maritime economy was dominated by corsairs (from the Arabic qursaan). The original pirates were Moriscos who’d been first forcibly converted to Christianity, then driven out of Spain. They understood their work not as mere piracy but as an effort to rebalance power in the Mediterranean. At that stage Christian sailors north of the sea were as keen on slaving as the Muslims. It was a very lucrative business. Captives of high birth could be ransomed; those of education could earn their freedom. One well-known slave was Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616), author of Don Quixote, ransomed by his parents after five years of captivity. The Sally Rovers, as Salé’s corsairs were known in English chronicles, roved as far as Cornwall to snatch hostages.

Earlier in its history, Salé was the upper limit of the Barghawata confederation, which ruled its own coastal state from the eighth to the eleventh centuries. Barghawata’s syncretic religion of Sunni, Shii and Khariji Islam alongside Amazigh traditions and perhaps Judaism, boasted a king-prophet, Salih ibn Tarif, who produced his own eighty-sura Amazigh ‘Quran’. Alongside pockets of Shiism, Barghawata’s influence persisted in the mountains until it was finally eliminated by the rigidly orthodox Almoravids, castigators of heresy in al-Andalus too. Today the entire region is Sunni, of the Maliki school.

More recently, the city has provided an illusion for the screen. When I lived in Rabat I sometimes saw helicopters hovering over the beach across the river. Black Hawk Down (2001) was being filmed. Salé was pretending to be Somalia. The cinema and other forms of shadow-play make a constant Moroccan theme, as we shall see.

After a week spent in Rabat and nearby Casablanca, meeting Moroccans and indulging in nostalgia, I headed down the Atlantic coast. If I’d made a different journey this narrative would have taken a different route, but I wanted to go somewhere I hadn’t been before. Twelve years ago I visited the northern coast, Asilah and Tangier and the beautiful village of Chefchaouen in the Rif. I saw the imperial cities of Meknes and Fez (the latter absolutely central to Moroccan history, and boasting – now Aleppo’s been half destroyed – the most intact medieval Arab-Islamic city in the world), the nearby Roman ruins of Volubilis, the shrine town of Moulay Idrees, and Middle Atlas towns like Sefrou. I wandered the High Atlas, and climbed Jebel Toubkal, north Africa’s highest mountain. I clambered through the Todra Gorges and followed the desert trails as far as M’hameed. I explored the vast caverns near Taza and sojourned in Oujda on the (closed) Algerian border. So: been there. Done that. (Of course all I did was cover roads, lines on the map. I’d actually seen far less than one per cent of the country.)

But this time I made a journey south down the Atlantic coast, then inland to Taroudannt and Marrakesh on my way back to the airport at Casablanca. I justified the route like this: most Moroccans live on the coasts; the coasts have determined Morocco’s economy and foreign relations; I was aiming for al-maghreb al-aqsa, the Furthest West; finally, on the coast in this Ramadan July it should be cool enough to think.

Read the rest at the Critical Muslim website.

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