Barbary pirates once roamed the Atlantic seaboard of this poor nation at the edge of the fierce Sahara desert. Ruled by an all-powerful royal family, it’s curious as to why the jasmine revolution, which has consumed neighbouring Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, has not reached Morocco in any significant measure despite the odd protest or two.
Unlike Egypt, a vast necropolis, which was ruled by a brutal dictator, life in Morocco seems touched by the lazy charm of Rick Blaine in the immortal classic Casablanca. On a visit once, I was hyperventilating to get to Casablanca. In its cobbled streets sloping down to the ocean, I almost expected Humphrey Bogart’s smoky voice to say, “Here’s looking at you kid.” The romance of Casablanca is alive and well, even if Sam is not playing anything one more time for old time’s sake and Rick’s has been replaced by Turkish coffee joints.
I was struck by how many people sat around in cafes all day long, shooting the breeze. But, not once did anyone have a bad word for King Mohammed VI in a region where people love nothing more than to run down its strongman rulers. The king is obviously a lot smarter than the dictators in the region. To counter the excesses of his father’s rule, he set up the Arab world’s only truth and reconciliation commission, encouraging the growth of human rights bodies.
He has also slowly created more space for the opposition, for a robust press and for civil society, quite a change from the Gaddafis or Mubaraks with their insatiable appetite for real estate in Europe and bulging Swiss bank accounts. It helps that the Moroccan royal family has been part of the scenery for centuries and in modern times have, by and large, kept their noses out of political manoeuvrings. Much like the Thai king, this has given them the power to intervene in times of crisis as King Mohammed is doing now.
As in all countries of that region, corruption is an issue which exercises young people, but given the numerous anti-corruption institutions which exist, they have recourse for redressal, something which keeps them off the streets. The enormous tourism industry has also exposed people to outside influences, marginalising the growth of Islamic fundamentalists. Yet, much of the architectural landscape is Islamic. One is the spectacular Hassan II mosque in Casablanca. It puts the Vatican in a shade with its Murano glass chandeliers, its glass floor over the Atlantic ocean, its laser lights targeted at Mecca and a roof which slides back allowing the faithful to worship under the stars. What was impressive was that no one seemed to mind me wandering about inside and even taking pictures, though I imagine I would have been in the clink in one of the more orthodox Islamic countries had I done that.
While Morocco is poorer than say Algeria or Tunisia, there does not seem to such a huge disparity in income. There are no overt signs of poverty, just as there are no overt signs of plenty. Again, to take the young as a yardstick, education has been a priority for the government. But where it has faltered is in employment generation which has led to many young people trying to leave for Europe which is less than welcoming. The refreshing aspect of Morocco was how free and candid women were and how they held their own with men in every sphere.
This is probably why, to mangle Rick’s dialogue, of all the gin joints in that region, if I had to walk into one, it would be in Morocco.