Early Winter 2003



My Quest for the Elusive Moroccan Crown

By Jonathan Ephrain Underhill 

Editor’s Note: This missive from our Mr. Underhill was shipped out in mid-summer, and for a thousand reasons of little interest to the curious reader, it has only now been trimmed, expanded, and generally got fit for the consumption of the public. Mr. Underhill remains in North Africa, and his letters have begun to pile up; thus, the sooner these antiques are gotten into print, the sooner we can catch up to current events.

I am corresponding from the city of Tangier in Morocco, which sits as it has for two and a half millennia on the narrowest waterways of the Straits of Gibraltar. It is a city on a slope, so the water is visible from every vantage in town, between every French Art-Deco relic. And beyond the water is Spain, thrillingly close, so much so that with the fall of night, the twinkling lights of Tarifa can be seen from beneath Tangier’s own. The occasion for my report, though I think I scarcely need one, is my recent series of encounters with the beloved King of this country, Mohammed VI (uttered in the French manner, as is the custom in this former colony, his name sounds like ‘Mohammed sees’).

It is sound advice to any author that he begin where his audience’s knowledge ends; that his first step be into the uncharted ignorance of his readership, or else the rest of his labor will be both useless and unread. As such, I will necessarily start this account of my royal acquaintance with the likely startling news that Morocco indeed has a king, and is even today ruled happily by him. (This might be already beyond the scope of a few of the better ill-informed, who are not sure where Morocco is, or if it is contagious, but for them, there is not enough hope to squander.)

Mohammed VI, His Majesty the King of Morocco, is a dashing youngster of forty, the latest in a long line known to history as the Alouite dynasty, which has ruled the Maghreb since the seventeenth century; and also the most modern embodiment of the so-called ‘shereef.’ Mohammed VI, like every Moroccan potentate before him, is a direct descendant of the prophet Mohammed.

He is also an avid sportsman upon the jet-ski, that menace to nautical tranquility; an enthusiastic fisherman; a devoted skier, when the season is conducive; a tall, fit heart-throb for the femmes; and an economic liberal, with as much Rooseveltian socialism in him as any regent could conceivably have, without renouncing his crown entirely. For these reasons he is the best thing to have happened to the Moroccan Ministry of Tourism in a generation, because prior to Mohammed’s accession, who in the world knew that one could even go skiing in North Africa?

The king’s photograph is seen everywhere, in every shop, on billboards along every avenue. In bait-shops, the King is pictured angling; at beach snack-bars, he is pictured jet-skiing; in banks, he is neatly and handsomely dressed in business attire. He sometimes sports a close, neat beard, which seems as if it might have been a short-lived attempt to mask the faint infantility of his visage—he is big-eared and smooth-faced. The beard, now gone, rather looked like that of an adolescent desperate for premature masculinity. All the same, Mohammed VI has been a darling of the Mediterranean singles scene for years, and last year’s royal marriage was received in the editorial offices of the French fashion magazines as an event equal to the death of Adonis himself.

Mohammed VI ascended to the throne just four years ago, upon the death of his father, King Hassan II (deux). Hassan II had reigned since the 1960s, and was generally well-liked, though nobody will deny his reputation for occasional ruthlessness, when it served his purposes. His son, on the other hand, has become known as a great modernizer, a relative free-thinker, and the Arab world’s most outspoken humanitarian. The first Arab nation to recognize Israel, Morocco’s governors can be seen in the background of just about every handshake photograph taken in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Morocco, under Mohammed VI, has initiated housing and educational programs unrivaled in Africa or the Middle East—an excursion even to the edge of the Sahara Desert will reveal vast acres of rising housing projects intended to settle the squalid, near-nomadic populations that have traditionally been the destabilizing force throughout the Third World. A telecommunications network has been installed, in the form of a government-regulated private monopoly, that is equal to even the gregarious Spaniards’. Morocco has essentially skipped the telephone land-line era, and portable phones are now as common in the packs upon camels as they are upon Italian Vespas in the streets of Rome.

The decidedly more difficult challenge of reforming education is Mohammed’s stated priority in his next four years; Moroccans’ perhaps unmatched linguistic capabilities are equaled only by their surprising illiteracy statistics. Moroccans will generally be fluent in four or five languages, and not be able to read any of them. Moroccan Arabic itself—a variation of Modern Standard Arabic—does not even have an accepted written form to learn.

All of this happy news, however, is beside the point of my epistle. It is mid-July as I write (see the editorial note above), and the king is here in Tangier with me, preparing to celebrate his happiest week. On July 23rd, he will celebrate his first wedding anniversary, to Her Highness the Princess Salma Bennani; and on the 28th, it will be the fourth anniversary of Mohammed’s accession to the throne of the kingdom of Morocco.

The Princess, his newlywed wife, is a former computer engineering student, the daughter of a university professor—quite the modern feminine for a society of patriarchs. Beyond all that, she is the first wife of a Moroccan king to ever be identified before she was married; the Moroccan crown has such a profound history of secrecy that the king’s wives were not known about until the ceremony was complete, and the assassins all thwarted. Mohammed and Salma, on the other hand, were the toast of the Mediterranean press, and their mere existence as such is perhaps one of the Islamic world’s most pronounced gesture toward Westernization.

And Mohammed and his beloved Salma can get away with all this relative libertinism without aggravating the famous Fundamentalists, who have lately seemed to hold the whole of the Arab world in their raving paws. For the King of Morocco, as Mohammed’s descendant, occupies all the religious high ground he needs against the traditionalizing forces of the Muslim world. Moroccans, politically moderate, socially progressive, also consider themselves to be the truest Muslims, direct subjects of the Commander of the Faithful. The small number of Fundamentalists that are in Morocco have no rhetorical legs to stand on. And the social and political squalor that would be their second pillar of persuasion is being systematically mended by the young King’s activism.



Entering Tangier by train, I was ignorant of the impending holidays, and it fell to my taxi-driver to explain all the banners and lights up along the main boulevards of the city. From the dusty outskirts where the locomotive dumps its charges into the aging glamour of the Ville Nouvelle, my hack struggled to make me understand that this week there were two anniversaries—and that neither was the King’s birthday. French—Morocco’s second language—lacks the vocabulary for much specificity when it comes to a celebration—a party is a party, une anniversaire est une anniversaire. Besides this syntactical difficulty, I remained unable to pronounce the King’s title—le roi—without hyperventilating and passing out. Just as I think I have got it pronounced correctly, and have still got my consciousness, my confabulated driver demanded that I try and speak French.

Regardless, I asked if the King would be making a public appearance during his celebratory stay in Tangier, and the driver, all-knowing, assured me that he would the very next morning. Tangier comes out in a throng to greet their leader, and I expressed my desire to join them—I had never met with a king before, and I expected better things after my lifetime of disappointment from presidents, prime ministers, generals, despots, shop-stewards, and maitre d’s.

The King of Morocco maintains a palace, or two or three, in every Moroccan city of any import. And it is de rigeur for the wayward tourist to find the royal palace in any given town, and find that he may not enter into it. As these immensities are generally close to the center of town, they become tremendous obstacles to the foot-borne touring of most important Moroccan cities. I had, thus, circumnavigated every Royal Palace in Morocco, at the expense of dozens of hours of sun-baked walking, and I was sure that the Royal Guard has begun to notice me, and wondered at my relentless casing of the Royal Joints. I had only tried not to peek through gates and peer through cracks in the walls, but by trying not to look guilty of anything, I knew too well that I had made myself look ten times more criminal than I am.

So on the date of the King’s wedding anniversary, I walked the long way up to the top of the hill that Tangier rests below, to find the Royal Palace, and to join the unsuspicious, adoring masses of Morocco. No such masses appeared, however, and I was quite soon at the gate of the palace—clothed entirely by red and green canvas banners, as to make the fence opaque from just such prying eyes as mine—alone with a contingent of gendarmerie, Royal Guards, and what appeared to be idling commando soldiers.

Now I must return to my excuses, as far as my lingual abilities are concerned. In Morocco several languages are spoken regularly: Moroccan Arabic, Berber, and French especially—though none capably by your author. My problem has been that these languages are generally spoken, by the natives, simultaneously. To listen to Moroccans speaking with one another is to learn nothing about their tongue, except that it is double-jointed. A single sentence will include words from two, three, or four languages at once, and so the moment the eavesdropper thinks he has figured out that a fellow is speaking French, he will hear a few words he is sure are Arabic, or a phrase that is as surely Spanish as it is a phrase at all. Thusly, a traveller who is not fluent when he lands at Casablanca will never enjoy an education while he is here. And so it was that I had arrived in Tangier, after a month in the country, with my French still atrociously unpracticed, my Arabic just better than nonexistent.

But I deigned nevertheless to approach the least-heavily armed of the King’s guards and demanded to know when Mohammed would be emerging to address the people.

“At what time will the King come out?”

The guard set his hand upon his rifle and asked me to repeat myself. A mustachioed captain, within the fence, fingered his pistol and began to approach us, to see if he could be of any help. To them both I asked again, in the most lilting, fluttering Gallic I could muster, “At what time will the King come outside?” At the word, ‘le roi’, my head buzzed with oxygen deprivation.

Who? “Le wah. Le r-wah. Mohammed sees.”

I offered, further, that I would like to see the King. I lacked the capacity to boast of my authorial reputation and to explain my impressive literary credentials.  So without any elaboration, I must have seemed like nothing better than a suitor of the Beaver’s, pining for play-time.

I was informed that the King’s anniversary party—indeed there were red and green tents dotting the walled grounds of the palace—was by invitation only. Could I go in? Not if I wasn’t invited. Would he give a speech? Not as far as the soldiers knew. My taxi driver had been lying, or else saying something entirely different than what I suspected—in fact, I now heard him more clearly in retrospect, saying something foreboding about next week. With fading expectations, I asked the captain if I would have any opportunity to see the King while we were both in Tangier. He laughed and shook my hand, either because my inadvertent frankness impressed him, or he feared I might be some sort of idiot relation to Mohammed, and he didn’t want to offend me, lest I return at some point from within the palace, Mohammed the King on my arm, jovial and familial. The captain, smiling, told me he would pass on my wishes for a happy anniversary, if I did not return with an invitation. That day, I would not see his majesty.

Five days later it was the second of the King’s anniversaries, this one commemorating the date of his accession to the throne, four years ago. Every night that week, Tangier had been pulsing with lights and pedestrians, everything red and green. A commercial festival was being held in conjunction with Mohammed’s visit, and Moroccans were out among the shops, pretending to buy things, though more things were the last of the Tangerine’s needs. Nobody gave me any further indication that Mohammed would make a public appearance here—though Moroccans were sympathetic, saying that the King must be at home tending to his newborn son, the four-month old Prince Moulay Hassan, the focus of still more editorial squealing and national pride.

So I spent the 28th a few miles outside the city, along the Atlantic coast beyond Cape Spartel, where I was surprised to discover yet another Royal Palace complex, newly constructed, and not mentioned on any map or bothered about by any road-sign. This sprawling pleasure ranch was set directly upon the windy shore, on a field of meticulously maintained grass which wanted nothing more than to die on its shallow, sandy roots, but was thwarted hourly by groundkeepers as steady as the seasons. In a landscape of windblown scrub, sand, and rock, the green swath of the palace grounds looked quite like a golf course retrieved from the desert at the great expenditure of country-club fees—and in fact, Mohammed VI is an avid golfer, as well.

This palace also happened to have been built directly on the site of the ancient Roman village of Cotta, one of the old Empire’s North African hamlets, devoted at one time to the servile production of sardine-paste, much loved by the denizens of the capital. I admit to a sort of buffery in the matter of ancient ruins, and find that no hike is too troublesome if it winds up amid the crumb-hills of an extinct civilization.

So it was that I wandered the windy shore-roads towards Cotta, and found myself, surprisingly, at the gates of another Royal Palace, confronted with yet another platoon of various guardsmen, police-officers, soldiers, and stray cats. I pointed, idiot-wise, at my map, to prove that their palace was misplaced, and the captain here merely informed me that the palace was very new, the map, not so. These fellows, however, had none of the joviality of the city-guards. I sensed that I had found a thing they would have been just as happy to have kept to themselves.

With a stubbornness that I suppose has benefited my career the more-so than those aspirant authors who are not published in such a prestigious place as this Paper, I demanded access to the ruins of Cotta, whether they were on the King’s land or not. These guards now pointed along the endless wall of the complex, and said I could go to the ruin if I would only walk the circumference of the King’s ranch, and inquire at the far gate. Behind the guard’s outstretched arm, through the ajar gate, I saw the sea, the beach, a long dirt road, and clear as a vision, a crumble of Roman remains.

“The ruin is right there. Can’t I go in this gate?”

The finger pointed, I must circumnavigate the wall. This would be a walk of an extra mile and a half, though as a bird flies, the ruin was not two hundred yards away. But I have hardly begun on the matter of Moroccan bureaucracy—the fact is that the entire country seems to have been inspired by the labors of Hercules (one of which legendarily was responsible for the geography of the Northern coastline), and nothing is allowed to be done without the accomplishment of some unrelated, near-impossible mission. I have yet to understand why, for example, when I order coffee at one of the trillions of cafes here, the waiter often runs out the door, or pays a boy to do it for him, and find that the coffee is emanating from some place other than the café at which I’m seated.

Setting aside such a digression: your author complied with the royal guard’s demand, really thinking nothing more of it than that the cardboard figures of authority are equal everywhere—those officers and agents who are employed in keeping the public separate from their governments and their private vassals, all of these the world over are uniformed jack-asses, and one’s battles with them ought to be carefully chosen. As it was, the guard—the single guard—on duty at the far gate, was a veritable kitten, and shared my unfounded enthusiasm for ancient wrecks. He led me onto the palace grounds and gave me free reign there, among the toppled bricks and eroded colonnades of Cotta. There could not have been any security-based rationale for the first gate’s closure—I was now free within the walls, no guards to watch me. The only matter was which guard had been responsible for my passage, the loner a quarter-mile to the South, or the gang of thugs two hundred yards to my East.

I did not in fact know that the King was then at the palace until I had seen the ruin, and was bound, in one of the Mercedes taxis of the country, back to Tangier. I noticed that the road—a thrilling coastal drive up hills and along oceanside cliffs—was lined with police, soldiers, and Moroccan flags. My driver and I surmised that we were following the route the King would follow as he passed between his city palace and his seaside retreat. This supposition was further confirmed when we came up directly behind the royal motorcade, a handful of black Mercedes girded by motorcycles. The soldiers and officers along each side of the road snapped into attention, twirled their guns, and doffed their caps and helmets. I made a short-lived attempt to count the banners, my arithmetic and my color vision failing above eight thousand and seven. Red and green was everywhere—what wasn’t a Moroccan flag was a row of simple colored fabric, and the rest was all strings of lights and rows of polished uniforms.

And so Mohammed VI, His Majesty the King of Morocco and Commander of the Faithful, entered Tangier with an auspicious stowaway in his motorcade—your sand-coated, heat-stricken author, riding in the oily back seat of a thirty-year old tan Mercedes ‘grand taxi’. I waved with the utmost courtesy to the saluting armed forces of Morocco, and while there were too many mustachioed faces to make quick identification, I think it is likely that the captain of the palace guard was among those ranks, and that he was glad, when he saw me properly installed at the rear of the royal motorcade, that he had turned me away with good humor, and not with the point of his gun.

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