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A Poet’s Progress: Arriving in Casablanca

Past, Present, Future, Rabat, Morocco


Three months after I got back from Morocco, the riots in Tunisia began and within days, it seemed, the government fell. Friends who knew I had recently been in northwestern Africa wondered if Morocco would be next. “No,” I said. “The Moroccans love their king.” And then I would give them a list of reasons why they should. For instance, when there were demonstrations in the capital requesting some civilian representation around the time that Mubarek fell, the King conceded the time was right for limited democracy in Morocco, and began discussions on how to build the best parliament. I told my friends that present social efforts in Morocco were an example of the power an enlightened monarch had to create positive change seemingly impossible in more democratic countries.

But, my friends taunted me, there are accusations of human rights violations in Morocco, they haven’t behaved well toward their neighbors or even some of their own people. I bet if you talked to some of the Sahraui, they said, they would have a different opinion on the king—but you can’t because they’ve been forced off their land by government forces into refugee camps in neighboring Algeria. It’s a hereditary monarchy in two thousand and twelve, for Christ’s sake. There’s no free speech, no free press, the king owns a piece of everything for sale in the country, and he tolerates obvious graft and corruption and probably skims a little bit for himself.

Okay, all of that is probably true. But King Mohammed VI has a program well underway that will ensure that Morocco—a country with no oil reserves—will be energy independent well before the end of the decade (with 40% of that supplied by Green power sources). He is doing that by turning the barren desert into windfarms, and is powering even the most remote areas with solar panels. He’s aggressively pursued social programs and contraception and pre-natal and post-natal care, passed laws designed to protect and educate children and women, and built hospitals and schools and roads. He has funded huge infrastructure projects, like an important dam and a four-lane highway system that’s employed millions of untrained workers in the remotest and poorest parts of the country. He has started women-owned cooperatives that have given illiterate women a place to work with other women where they can earn a decent wage and self-respect. And, like I say, the Moroccans love him, especially those old enough to remember his father’s notorious reign—whose rule was more Draconian than post-colonial. And I didn’t see a single photo of him in military garb or perched upon a tank. Instead he usually finds a way to get his family into the photo ops, standing proudly beside the mother of his children. So all I’m saying is that if you have to live under a king, Mohammed VI is a pretty good one to live under.

And, like I said, there was no revolution in Morocco.

September 15, 2010:


Sign upon leaving the Casablanca Airport:

       We apologize for the
inconvenience of the
under way works.

Morocco is the farthest west you can go in the Moslem world. The name Morocco comes from the Arabic word for “the region of sunset.”

This year’s Destiny Day—the anniversary of the day the Koran came down from the angels to Mohammed—fell on the Friday before we arrived. It was also the last day of Ramadan and a day of great feasting that traditionally lasts until 3 or 4 a.m. Even though the crowd in the plaza outside the mosque this year was over a quarter million, there was no need for extra police to manage the crowds.

Although giving to the poor is important year-round to all Muslims, on Destiny Day they are especially encouraged to give food to the pilgrims who have traveled from across the country to Casablanca’s Hassan II Mosque, the second largest mosque in the world. This year was a good year for many Casablancans, and there was more than enough chicken tajine and royal couscous, the traditional foods of the mountain people and nomads this year. Entire families with their best casserole dishes and cooking pots were lined up ten to twelve deep at every food station until the early hours of the morning, waiting for their chance to kneel and serve the faithful.

It is said that if you make a pilgrimage to a holy site like this mosque during your lifetime, it will absolve you of all of your blemishes for the equivalent of one thousand and one months. One thousand and one months—a common number in Arabic for innumerable—is also the equivalent of eighty-three years and four months, so basically an entire life. For this reason it is thought that one pilgrimage to a holy site like the Hassan II Mosque and you’re pretty much covered for a lifetime. Since it is so expensive and difficult to travel from Morocco to Mecca—it would cost over $5000 just in transportation for most Moroccans, a sum far out of reach of the average nomad or rural family—there are holy sites in almost every district, often the tomb of a holy person or sage.

On a walk downtown to one of the King’s four palaces, we pass two competing bookstores—one is called Dar Al Fikr, the House of Thoughts. The bookstore across the street is called Dar Atta Kafa: the House of Culture. The House of Culture is filled with books about architecture and art, flower arranging and computers, fashion and modern cinema. The House of Thoughts is filled with books on philosophy and politics and religion, the walls lined with calligraphized quotations from the Quran, and photos of the King and his smiling family.

This is a juxtaposition that I will encounter throughout this trip—the co-existence of two visions of Morocco. There are those whose way of life is disappearing—the nomads and elders—and those whose life is just beginning, who dress like the young men and women on big city billboards and smile at them from flashy western fashion magazines. They talk on the latest cellphones as navigate the cracked stone sidewalks in stiletto heels and red Converse All Stars. Some women look as modern as they can, with make-up and stockings, and there are even a few bare shoulders and tiny strips of their bellies showing. But if they dress this way in the cities—and I saw no one dressed like this in the rural areas—they are regularly denounced on the city streets by shabby looking men with real hatred in their eyes, who wiggle their fingers at the women’s backsides in obscene gestures. It is common, however, to see a young woman in modern dress walking arm in arm with one dressed traditionally. But I never saw a woman in a full burqa holding the hands of anyone other than her youngest children.

When older Moroccans meet, the customary greeting man-to-man is a handshake and then the fingertips are raised to the lips for a kiss and then pressed to the heart. When the men have all greeted one another, then the women are acknowledged with a short bow in their direction, the women’s heads a little lower than the men’s. More stylishly dressed men and women greet each other the way Parisians do—by pressing their cheeks together, simulating a kiss. Sometimes they kiss both cheeks, sometimes they start over and do it all over again.

It is still light out at eight p.m., the time of the fifth and final prayer of the day. I watch a man in a black suit stop at the fountain in front of the the mosque. He washes his hands and wrists three times. Then he splashes water on his forearms up to his elbow three times. Then he splashes his face three times, washing his ears, brushing his hair back, finally washing his feet and ankles. Now he is pure enough to enter the mosque.

Ibrahim—our guide—tells us that when a Muslim has sex, they cannot enter the mosque until they have purified their entire body. He says that Fatima, Mohammed’s daughter, is taught to be remarkable because she was never “defiled by blood.” He says that redefining these attitudes toward sex and women in a modern idiom is the challenge of Islam today in the advancing countries. When I ask him about the schisms in the Islamic church he says that every Muslim is affected by their interpretation of the Koran but that “many people don’t really believe what they have been taught because those who are teaching them don’t believe what they are teaching—that’s the problem.” He says that Berbers have taught their children how to cross streets ever since the days of the caravanserais with the same advice that the mullahs are giving to the Muslims in Casablanca today about moving forward: “Cross … and be careful.”

Fifty percent of Morocco is under twenty-one, which puts a stress on the wage-earners. Although medical care and schooling (including a university education) are free, if you’re feeding twelve mouths it’s very difficult to keep everyone fed. It used to be necessary to have that many children because many of the children died, and the quality of a couple’s old age even today depends upon someone being able to take care of them when they’re no longer able to take care of themselves. For millennia having numerous children has meant the difference between a comfortable retirement and the childless ones who can be spotted begging every day in the streets of the bigger cities.

Ibrahim says that nine of the children in his family have died and now there are three—he has one brother and a sister—who take care of their parents. Before one of them buys a new car or a widescreen TV for themselves, they first make sure that their parents already have one or don’t want one.

Everyone in Morocco—including the nomads and rural farmers—knows that the most important element that must be controlled in order for people to live well is the size of their families. With the construction of over two dozen new hospitals in the last decade, infant mortality has plunged and there are more mouths to feed in every household. And free education up through the university means that children are staying at home years longer without contributing to the family income.

Today birth control is free and widely available even among the nomads and the most rural families, and the birth rate is rapidly falling. Thirty years ago the average family may have had twelve children, but when free birth control became widely available in the early 1980s, it quickly dropped to eight. Ten years ago it had dropped to six, and today an average family plans on having three or four children. Ibrahim and his wife have two, with no plans for a third. His wife is employed and childcare is difficult during the good months when he is leading tours. But he is lucky because his family lives in Marrakech, so he can spend an evening and morning with them one night every three weeks when he is on the road.

But it’s hard to change human nature when the problem isn’t only consistently distributing birth control to the farthest reaches of a kingdom that is largely unconnected by roads, but of overcoming generational cultural expectations as well. The last generation spent their entire lives denying themselves in order to serve their parents, knowing they would receive the same treatment when their time came. But their children are more concerned about their own lifestyle than their parent’s retirement. They spend their money on things their parents don’t understand or approve of, like cellphones and fashionable clothes. Not only has the older generation’s future been taken away from them, but they are often still serving their own parents, and their children are rarely home and show little interest in helping out around the house. The younger ones spend their days in school and their evenings with friends doing homework or playing soccer. And since the children are not interested in pursuing the nomadic lifestyle, there is almost nothing the elders have to teach them, and the children are frustrated that their parents are unwilling to cross over into the future. No generation in the history of the world has probably been more distant than the last nomads and their children.

A thousand years ago, Ibrihim says, their Moroccan ancestors fought with the desert and sun and water in order to survive. Now they have conquered the desert, and their life is somewhat easier. But their children have tasted freedom, and world culture as seen through television and education—and although they speak the same languages (mostly French and Arabic and a local dialect) they live in two separate worlds with nothing to say to each other.

More damaging than all the rest, the children are now exposed to pleasures and temptations that their parents have spent their whole lives repressing. The parents are worried because what they see happening with their children—the lack of respect for the traditional way of life and their elders, their dancing to lascivious music and dressing in provocative ways and speaking the tongues of the infidels—has been foretold in the Koran as the End of Days.

Door Within a Door, Erfoud

Prelude to the Music List

I came very close to starting off the music list for this column with Tunisia. I knew that the music in these columns would travel around the continent in a counterclockwise direction, and I wanted to begin and end with Tunisia, mostly for the beauty I find in the music of Tunisia’s Anouar Brahem. But the illogic of not beginning with Moroccan music became obvious to me, so I changed my plans.

I want to apologize in advance for the dearth of music from Egypt below. This is the result of poor planning on my part and will be remedied later in this series.

The Music of Northern Africa: Volume I, Part 2: Tunisia and Algeria.

Track 1: Badhra, by Anouar Brahem, John Surman & Dave Holland, “Thimar”; ECM.

The story of how I came to learn about the music of Anouar Brahem will be told in a later entry. He is an oud player born on October 20, 1957, in Halfaouine, Tunisia. He studied music at Tunisia’s National Conservatory of Music. He played lute for Costa Gavras’ film “Hanna K.” John Surman is a saxophonist who has played with Jack DeJohnette and John McLaughlin. Dave Holland is one of Miles Davis’ most sympathetic bassists and he has also played with Coleman Hawkins and a symphony orchestra. From a 1998 release.

Track 2: A Kind of Love, by Dhafer Youssef. No info.

Dhafer Youssef is a singer and oud player born in 1967, in Teboulba, Tunisia. As a student in a Qur’anic school, he was forbidden to listen to music, but secretly listened to any jazz he could get his hands on. In 1990 he left Tunisia to try a musical career in Paris and Vienna. He has performed with Jon Hassell and Cuban pianist Omar Sosa. In 2001 he recorded “Electric Sufi” with the ex-Sugar Hill Gang and Tackhead rhythm section, Will Calhoun and Doug Wimbish.

Track 3: Sull lull, by Jan Garbarek, Anouar Brahem, & Ustad Shaukat Hussain, “Madar,” ECM.

More about these guys in a later entry. Ostensibly a Jan Garbarek recording, this features Anouar Brahem on oud and Ustad Shaukat Hussain on tabla and vocals. A 1994 release.

Track 4: Meriam Maria, by Ouled Jouini. From “Afrique 50 Ans De Musique North Africa (Disc 3)”

Track 5: Moi et Toi, by. Abdel Ali Slimani From “Arabic Groove” Putumoyo.

Abdel Ali Slimani was born in Algiers. During his teens he fell in love with the revolutionary Rai music as performed by Khaled. He traveled the world and ended up in London, where he worked as DJ among the North African community. There he met and began performing with Jah Wobble as a vocalist. Within three weeks he went from spinning records at weddings to singing at the WOMAD festival in Toronto, Canada. For the next three years he was a member of Jah Wobble’s band, most notably on their “Take Me To God” release. I first heard him sing on Sinead O’Connor’s “Fire in Babylon” single. He performed it with her on Top of the Pops, the first Arab singer to appear on the program.

Track 6: Kel Akalin, by Baly Othmani & Steve Shehan, “Desert Blues 1 Ambiances Du Sahara”

Baly Othmani was an Algerian Tuareg oud player known as “the poet of the desert.” Steven Shehan is a percussionist and member of the Hadouk Trio and also records with Nabil Othmani, Baly Othmani’s son.

Track 7: Toura Toura, by DJ Cheb I Sabbah from “La Kahena”

Cheb I Sabbah was bon Haim Serge El Baz in Constantine, Algeria, and now lives in San Francisco. He first began spinning 7” Soul records in Paris in 1964. He moved to the U.S. in 1968. Cheb I Sabbah translates as “young of the morning.” His first album was entitled “The Majoun Traveler,” perhaps a reference to a prose work by poet Ira Cohen with that name. Majoun is a form of marijuana that is turned into a kind of candy. Cheb I Sabbah has recently been diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer and has no medical insurance. If you happen to have more money than you need, there is an on-line effort to raise funds for his treatment at http://chebisabbah.org/

Track 8: Hakmet Lakdar, by Hasna El Becharia No info.

Electric guitarist Hasna el Becharia is from south-west Algeria, and is known as “The Old Lady.” Her band blends musicians from Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Niger. The lyrics for “Hakmet Lakdar” translate as:

By chance I am here, friend of my heart, by chance I am here
Where can I find you, you so miserable?
All my friends have betrayed me
God and my parents that is all that remains to me
By chance I am here, and it’s God who wanted it, by chance I am here

Track 9: Wahrane Wahrane, by Khaled. “Khalad”; Barclay Records (France)

Khaled Hadj Ibrahim was born on February 29, 1960, in the Oran Province of Algeria. According to his Wikipedia profile, he is known as “The King of Rai” and is the most internationally famous Algerian singer in the Arab World. His first record “Khalad” (1992) was produced by Don Was. Khaled asked Was to incorporate American R&B and “Americanize the music.” Was—who has produced Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop, Ziggy Marley, George Clinton, Roy Orbison, Solomon Burke, Paul Westerberg, Willie Nelson, B.B. King, Waylon Jennings, Brian Wilson, Poison, Garth Brooks, Old Crow Medicine Show, et al—brought a collection of R&B loops and beats to the studio on his Macintosh and played them via a keyboard. Khaled’s band then played Rai music live while listening to the R&B tracks over their headphones.

Track 10: Raoui, by Souad Massi. “Raoui,” 2001. Wrasse (British)

Souad Massi is a singer and guitarist born into a poor family of seven children in Algiers, on August 23, 1972. As a child she fell in love with American “roots” and country music. At 17 she joined a flamenco band, but quickly grew bored, and quit. She played in the political rock band Atakor for seven years (heavily influenced by Led Zeppelin and U2), before leaving the country following several death threats. During her last days in Algeria, she disguised herself as a man in order to avoid the fundamentalists who were stalking her. She performed at the 1999 Femmes d’Algerie concert in Paris, which led to her being signed to Island Records. She sings—sometimes in the same song—Algerian, Arabic, French, English, and Kabyle, the language of the Berbers. Raoui translates as “Storyteller.” Her most recent work “O Houria” (2010) features Paul Weller (of the Jam) on vocals and piano.

Track 11: Sufi Dialogue, by Soliman Gamil No info.

Soliman Gamil (1924-1995) was an Egyptian musicologist best known for his film and theater work. “Sufi Dialogue” features a dialogue between an oud (a type of lute) and the kanoun (a form of zither that dates back to the times of the Pharaohs).

Track 12: Hely Mely, Hamid el Shaeri from “Arabic Groove,” Putumoyo.

Hamid was born in Bengazi, Libya, and moved to Egypt in 1974. He plays a kanoun. The lyrics to Hely Mely (Come and Sway Toward Me) are

We’ll tell sorrow to leave us
Let love be our path
Song by song
We’ll surround life with our desire.

Newtopia staff writer RANDY ROARK worked with Allen Ginsberg for the last 17 years of his life, first as an apprentice, then as his teaching assistant, and finally transcribing and editing 28,000 pages of Ginsberg’s poetry lectures, currently available on-line through the Ginsberg trust. Following Ginsberg’s death, he worked with artist Stan Brakhage, producing art events featuring his films until his death. Since 1998 he has worked with Sounds True as a producer, where he has edited artists such as Alex Grey, writers including William Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson, and a wide variety of spiritual teachers, including Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, and Lakota Elder Joseph Marshall.



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