Mercurius Maghrebensis

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

Edward Casaubon and Global Jihad


The day after I posted about Peter Pan and the romantic, heroic vein of youth jihadism, a friend sent me an interesting article, which I recommend. Published in the New York Times, it is a profile by Danny Hakim, of a Jordanian called Suleiman Bakhit. Bakhit is fascinating because he has understood the craving for superheroes that jihad satisfies: but he didn’t just note it, he rolled up his sleeves and set about satisfying it.

He noticed that Daesh’s recruiters speak to their marks in whichever vernacular language they use, “and preach terrorism as a heroic journey. The biggest threat in the Middle East,” he goes on, “is terrorism disguised as heroism.” He suggests that the terrorist narrative is essentially a heroic journey narrative, as described and analyzed by the American Joseph Campbell: “a heroic journey is central to mythmaking.” I thought of Mohamed Tozy’s analysis of Abdallah ‘Azzam’s journey to the Panjshir in search of Ahmed Shah Masood (see my previous post), and Tozy’s insistence that this is a heroic journey deliberately cast in a non-religious, almost pre-Islamic mould. ‘Azzam told it afterwards in terms of dangers overcome, rugged landscapes, a ‘caravan’ crossing bare, steep mountain ranges and at the end a simple, hospitable, heroic fighting leader – the Lion of the Panjshir himself – whose virtues are those of a Bedouin warrior, not a Muslim saint. Bakhit sees this trope of a journey through hostile terrain as echoing not just pre-Islamic poetry and values, but also the journey of the Prophet to the cave of the revelations, picked up again by Bin Laden in his journey to Afghanistan and his own caves.

Joseph Campbell was America’s leading comparative mythographer, its very own Edward Casaubon, and his reductive approach to mythology has been very popular, not just with academics (many of whom indeed question his relentless schematic over-simplification) but with gurus of popular culture – inspiring, or helping to shape, amongst other works, Disney’s Lion King and George Lucas’s Star Wars. (Campbell has a lot to answer for in this regard, and by way of recognition Luke Skywalker appears on the cover of later editions of his Hero with a Thousand Faces). Lucas later said “Before that I hadn’t read any of Joe’s books … It was very eerie because in reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces I began to realize that my first draft of Star Wars was following classic motifs … so I modified my next draft according to what I’d been learning about classical motifs and made it a little bit more consistent … I went on to read The Masks of God and many other books.”

Lucas fastened, and Bakhit fastens after him, onto what Campbell called the Monomyth, the single heroic narrative that he took to be universal.  In this monomyth, a hero is cast out and journeys in search of eternal wisdom, suffering great dangers and privations on the journey, eventually finding it and returning bearing his hard-won wisdom through more dangers to bring his own people freedom. This fits the ‘Azzam story, and it fits a great many of the luridly imagined journeys made by jihadis to Syria and Iraq: they go through great danger with purity of heart in search of wisdom, and either die on the journey or expect to return home with the virtue and the experience – not to mention the baraka – necessary to set their own people free. As Bakhit points out, it’s a win-win enterprise: “If you get killed you’re reunited with the Prophet and Allah. If you don’t, you’re still on your journey.” The purpose is sublimating self in a greater cause: “When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness,” as Campbell put it.

The primal monomyth fills the hole in the heart, the anomie of dislocation and deprivation, of unfulfilled expectations, sexual frustrations and frayed identities. It’s simple, it’s self-affirming and it obviates critical thought. Going to join Daesh has much in common with the quest of Luke Skywalker or Simba the lion cub, or any number of other heroes, both in its mind-numbing, trite sentimentality and in its linear chorography. A mildly interesting question is whether volunteers are following the primal pathway picked out by Campbell, or the cod-mythology of George Lucas and Walt Disney. But in the end it doesn’t matter: the monomyth is a communications tool, as George Lucas so lucratively discovered, and one which plays very well in a world saturated in American movies. This world stretches effortlessly across apparent cultural barriers, from Los Angeles to the refugee camps around ‘Amman.

Bakhit sees this clearly, and his answer is to fill the same void with heroes. He ran focus groups with Jordanian schoolchildren: “I went there and asked the kids, ‘Who are your heroes?'” he said. “‘We don’t have any heroes, but we hear a lot about Bin Laden, about Zarqawi,’ he said they told him … “I’m like, ‘What do you hear about them?’ The children replied, ‘That they defend us against the West because the West is out there to kill us.’ And this is the terrorist narrative and Propaganda 101.”

So Bakhit started producing comic books with a different kind of hero, designed to lead the young on journeys that may be no less transgressive, but lead in different directions. He learned to draw, set up a company called Aranim and started publishing comic strips – what used to be called trash-mags in my childhood – about Jordanian war heroes, followed by Element Zero (“a kind of Arabic version of Jack Bauer, the fictional counterterrorism agent in the television series 24”) and Saladin 2100 (“an apocalyptic Mad Max style comic set almost a century in the future”).

Bakhit takes no money from Western governments (though he started out with grants from the Jordanian government), understanding very well that any whiff of his being the instrument of the West would vitiate his entire enterprise. But he is clearly not the easiest of men, having gone on to run foul of the Jordanians (apparently for Saladin 2100, set in a Jordan of a hundred years hence, where it is not quite clear that the Hashemites still sit on the throne. Well I never did: someone obviously has no doubt about the power of these things).

But there is a very serious point here, and it lies in Bakhit’s remark that “The biggest threat in the Middle East is terrorism disguised as heroism.” If the recruiters of al-Qaida and now Daesh are consciously rolling out the carpet of archetypal heroic adventure, of the prophetic journey into the wilderness in search of wisdom, as a recruiting tool, then one important answering voice is clear. That heroic narrative needs to be recaptured and repopulated – the nature of the journey mercilessly examined, the hollowness of the wisdom exposed. And who better to do this than Batman? After all, (Campbell again, grammar and style apparently not his long suit), “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”

Accounting for the apparently magnetic appeal of the jihad demand of us that we see it for what it substantially is – a simplistic, ethically empty adventure movie for lost children whose minds, battered by bad education, alienation and computer games, are drawn to easy black-and-white stories which don’t challenge intellect or conscience. In that case, countering such things is not so much a matter of protecting the young from bad influences (of which we hear a great deal too much) but giving them other, more challenging stories, other aspirations, other opportunities for meaningful political engagement. Helping them to grow up, in other words, educating them purposefully, as all our children should be, not in the Monomyth but in the Polymyth.


A further footnote on Abu Faraj. Like all good whimsies it turns out to be true. There really is a jihadi called Abu Faraj. This one is called Abu Faraj al-Libi, and is, we are told, a particularly nasty piece of work, captured by the CIA in 2005 and filling a bit-part in Kathryn Bigelow’s torture-porn movie Zero Dark Thirty, where he is played by the Israeli actor Yoel Levi (an irony which would no doubt please him). I’m not sure whether he favours the Happy Ending or the Exploding Sphincter etymology of his name; but in any case it is clearly important that we distinguish him carefully from Abu Faraj al-Poujadi.


Blowback in Rochester


More thoughts on Abu Faraj. When I can wrench my mind away from the absurd notion of the Leader as jihadist, I find a more realistic cross-reference in Pierre Poujade, the French politician of the mid twentieth century. Poujade, a one-time RAF pilot, commercial traveller, Pétainiste, pied-noir by marriage and sympathy, organized a movement of resistance to big business, tax and socialism called the UDCA. He blossomed briefly, between 1954 and 1956, his political party, Union et Fraternité Française, winning a surprising 12% of the vote at the 1956 elections and then imploding. The Guardian’s 2003 obituary for Poujade has interesting resonances:

The moment of triumph was also, for Poujade himself, the moment of decline. The weakness and inadequacies of his position were only too evident. He had organized a movement of protest. Apart from this he organized nostalgia, regret for the France of the old days with small farms and small shops, a powerful army and a colonial empire. He had always been quarrelsome: now he was at odds with those deputies who had been elected in his name … He had been thought dangerous. Now he was ridiculous, ‘Poujadolf,’ as some called him … rose from obscurity, and after a forceful and emphatic presence, he became less important and retired back to obscurity.


Peter Pan with a Machine-gun


A few weeks ago a Dutch mother from Maastrich stormed magnificently off to Raqqa in Syria to fetch home her daughter ‘Aicha,’ a ‘blue-eyed, blonde-haired’ convert to Islam who had run away to marry a Dutch Muslim jihadist by the name of Omar Yilmaz. Aicha, first married to, and then discarded by, the faithless Omar arrived home chastened, in the custody of her formidable-looking mother, and was immediately arrested. Her mother, seeking an explanation, said quizzically, “She saw him as some sort of Robin Hood.”

Aicha went through my mind last week, while visiting English universities with Prof Mohamed Tozy, one of Morocco’s leading social scientists and an internationally renowned sociologist of Islam. Speaking at Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and Edinburgh he addressed a number of questions, of which the one I found most insistently intriguing was The Romantic Aspect of Jihad.

He proposed that among the other themes running through the jihad (which he explores in illuminating detail), and its attraction for a remarkable number of young people, is its romantic appeal – its combination of adventure and a glorious cause in the service of greater ends; of mountains, blood and glowing youth. Of the 2003 Casablanca bombers, he said “They immersed themselves in video films shot in Chechnya, which glorified indestructible heroes just as Hollywood does. Little by little figures like Dassiev and Zarkaoui replaced Rambo in the imaginative world of these young people. The images of these ragged adventurers, bazookas on their backs, stopping tanks – monsters of steel and fire – with disconcerting ease, seemed miraculous.”

Starting from the photograph that plastered the press last week of the young, bearded executioners of Abderrahmane Peter Kassig, Tozy spoke of the extraordinary trajectories that brought together two Muslim converts, one a Frenchman from Normandy called Maxim Hauchard, the other Peter Kassig from Indiana: “Le victime et le bourreau ont fait le même parcours” – the victim and the executioner had made the same journey. What makes Hauchard and other would-be jihadists, and others like Aicha from Maastricht to whom Tozy referred as performing the “jihad de sexe,” drop everything and head for Syria? How does it relate to the urge that propels others to deliver aid to either side, or those – like a Kurdish girl from Britain reported in the press this week – who slip away to join the YPJ defending Kobane?

Many of these young men and women who join the jihad have little or no Salafist or extremist background, though some of course acquire it. Many are converts. Many know little of their own religion, new or old. One group of travelling Brits felt it necessary to order Islam for Dummies from Amazon on the eve of their departure, and this level of ignorance seems far from unique. The imperatives appear often not to be primarily religious or theological (though there are clearly cases where this is so); nor are they even very political. It seems plausible that in a strange sense, for many of the younger recruits to the bloody business of jihad, the appeal is a hormonally ramped-up version of running away to join the circus, or the gypsies. Or perhaps better, a sort of super-hero appeal through which, like Batman, ordinary kids can at a stroke get their hands on fancy kit and a clear, sanctioned mission to combat evil – and leave behind their humdrum lives in Clichy-sous-Bois or Cardiff. Looking at the picture in Le Monde or the Guardian of the combat-dressed jihadists standing casually in a row, smiling, it is clear too that, as Tozy points out,  they are in some sense attractive – handsome young ephebes (albeit with rather non-Athenian beards), the glow of youth on them. The teenage boy who has posters on his bedroom wall of Rambo, Schwarzenegger, Jennifer Lawrence and Angelina Jolie is suddenly offered the opportunity to be one of the handsome fighting lads himself, and to get his hands on the girls, while being guaranteed impeccable righteousness in  doing so. And all without even having to grow up.

It is, I suspect, a surprisingly innocent business for many of the young jihadis from the West. Innocent, I should add, only in the sense that their motives are childlike, even childish: the outcomes of course are often very far from innocent. Writing recently in the Guardian about the latest film instalment of The Hunger Games Suzanne Moore said, “rebellion against conformity is part of being young. An individual against a brutal authoritarian system is basically what school feels like to some. The Hunger Games ramps this up so that the teens are pitted against each other. It isn’t just a popularity contest, it’s a matter of life and death … it is all-out war, revolution and moral complexity.” This seems to me an almost uncannily accurate description of the game that takes adolescents and callow youths to Syria and Iraq: the jihad is a real-life Hunger Games, and to understand the appeal of the one, we need to understand better the appeal of the other.

To illustrate the odd by-pass around explicit religion, Tozy read at length the account written by Abdallah ‘Azzam of his visit to Ahmed Shah Massoud in the Panjshir Valley in the mid-1980s. It is, he pointed out, an almost pre-Islamic tale of hostile landscapes, dangers on the journey faced by the ‘caravan,’ to the tent of a lean, handsome hero whose virtues are bravery, hospitality and generosity. The appeal is romantic, to justice and a concern for the oppressed, certainly – but not in this case primarily to piety. Religion is scarcely mentioned at all. It is hard not to make comparisons with the magnetic attraction of Spain to the idealist young in the 1930s, and Tozy suggested that André Malraux provides a clarifying explanation in his writing about his experiences in Spain and China. Others in his audience suggested Byron and T E Lawrence.

There’s probably also a strong element of homo-eroticism here, though Tozy did not explore it in any detail – the male comradeship of arms, the love of those about to die. I have on my desk an extraordinary book, made up entirely of photographs found in a Kabul photographer’s studio in 2001, illegal portraits of young Taliban about to leave for battle who never got the chance to return and pick up their orders. They are made-up, kohl-eyed, often arm-in-arm, and while it is too easy to draw simple conclusions, these young men seem to be companions-in-arms in more than one sense. “Fierce Pashtun warriors,” as the author Thomas Dworzak, writes, “still wear the chablis, coloured sandals, two sizes too small as the bulging flesh is considered sexy, paint their eyes with kohl or stick flowers in their guns.” A similar link between jihadist violence and sex recurs in Mahi Binebine’s novel about the 2003 Casablanca bombings Les Etoiles de Sidi Moumen: two of the boys preparing for ‘martyrdom’ have sex together on the eve of the attack, to their own surprise, joy and shame, in the strange arc of love, sex and self-destruction.

This romantic simplicity clearly also attracts young women: the jihade de sexe is not primarily a religious phenomenon, as Aisha’s mother saw clearly in remarking on Robin Hood, who smacks more of cartoon social justice. Suzanne Moore again, on The Hunger Games:  “Watching [Jennifer] Lawrence in her fetching armour amid the ruins resembles a lot of news footage and that is why it is so disturbing” … “she earths the dark energy of the intensely violent films.” “A generation brought up with increasingly violent imagery, ‘gets’ it.” There is an intensity about the adolescent experience of the jihad which is not ‘about’ sex but in which hormones plays an important part. What adolescent (well, maybe many of those heading for Raqqa) hasn’t read Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls? The drawn-out meditations on suicide and impending death, the sex before battle (“But did thee feel the earth move?”) are perhaps closer to the spirit of jihad for young westerners than the austerity of the rbat, or the chastity of the Templar knight. Willing jihadistes de sexe looking for heroic husbands, or sex-slaves torn from the Christian and Yazidi communities of Mesopotamia, are all easy answers to the sexlessness of gawky adolescence, with the say-so of a father-figure who sorts out right and wrong on your behalf.

Because in the words of Jean-Piere Filiu, “Isis has nothing to do with Islam. We insist on seeing this as a religious phenomenon, but it is a political phenomenon. Isis is a sect which attacks other Muslims … It has an apocalyptic narrative, just like the other sects that you can find on the internet. It is the creation of the Facebook generation.” One could go further. It is in part at least the fantasy wish-fulfilment of a generation of dislocated, anomie-fraught, ‘culturally Muslim’ Peter Pans, boiling with adolescent dreams and frustrations, offered a religiously sanctioned career of initiation by blood, a smart-looking gun, a raison d’être and the prospect of sex with fighters and slaves, followed by martyrdom with its own strangely sensual rewards in heaven. Hemingway meets Jennifer Lawrence with a touch of Yukio Mishima, a toxic and dangerous hybrid, but not primarily a religous one. More a quest for meaning in a world without much of that elusive commodity, expressed in the vocabulary of computer-games, adolescent sex, heroic violence, romantic friendship and the pursuit of a deeply felt, but unthought-out, passion for global justice.

Scan_20141130 (8)


The Rochester by-election last week should prompt grave thoughts about the electoral system, but perhaps because my mind is on jihad, I am preoccupied by the whimsical fantasy that Nigel Farage, with his odd pronunciation of his own name, is in fact a part-time jihadi too, with the nom-de-guerre of Abu Faraj. This would be an interesting choice of moniker: faraj means relief, outcome, perhaps happy ending. Abu Faraj might therefore mean ‘the Father of the Happy Ending.’ But scanning the alternative meanings in Almaany’s dictionary, I fell joyfully upon the last definition of faraj, which is: an opening that allows air, gas, liquid etc. to pass out of a confined space. Quite. But I think that perhaps for now we’d better stick to Happy Endings.

‘Oh Land, we are murdered for your preservation’


Off last Monday to Saffron Walden’s wonderful new cinema, the Saffron Screen (yes, that’s a plug) to see Mohammed Rasoulof’s fine new film, Manuscripts Don’t Burn.

The film is a claustrophobically circular journey at several levels, a snake biting its own tail, a topologically incestuous Klein bottle with no inside and no outside.  It begins with a man, covered in blood, running out of a derelict building, pursued by a half-seen figure, and jumping into an accomplice’s getaway car. It ends with the blood-soaked scene of murder inside the building which the killer was fleeing, a poet blindfolded and tied to a post, stabbed a dozen times. The pursuer remains unknown, a Fury with his face obscured by a kuffiyeh. In between these two halves of the film’s final murder, a story of secret police brutality unfolds, banal and brutal, of Iranian security agents tormenting and killing dissident intellectuals. The circularity is reflected in the repetitive work of the two agents in the car, picking up, intimidating, torturing and killing people they’re told to, and living it as the most ordinary of jobs, murder punctuated with tea and sandwiches. The fat goon is unreflective: the thin, bearded goon is a worrier, his child ill, his bank account empty.

The film explores the final round in a long series of encounters between each writer and the police – and in particular with a smooth, neatly barbered senior intelligence official who plays coolly and cruelly with the hopes and fears of each victim, the more vicious for being a turned dissident himself, a cell-mate of one of the writers he persecutes. The two thugs are tools, bit-part players, with a cursorily sketched background of family worries for the more neurotic of the two. “Don’t worry if it’s right or wrong – we do what we’re told, and it’s according to Sharia,” says fat goon to thin goon, reassuringly.

The film isn’t a whodunnit, because we know from the first that the two thugs in the car did it and will go on doing it. The plot covers a few months, during which the bearded spymaster is trying to get his hands on all the copies of a manuscript memoir that contains incriminating evidence about his own past – and in particular about an episode several years earlier when a security goon tried to drive off the edge of a cliff a bus full of Iranian writers on the way to a conference in Armenia. The merging of motives – state security inextricably mixed up with personal arse-covering – is powerfully credible. The spymaster has his own masters, and there are things he doesn’t want to come out. One by one his minions track down the manuscripts by force and lies. One by one he has the writers involved killed – after all, many of them were, as it transpires, in the bus, and anyone who has read the memoir knows things that he shouldn’t about the cold-eyed guardian of the Islamic Revolution. With implausible symmetry, the hit-man, the man running from the old building, is the very same man who jumped from the driver’s seat of the bus as it rolled towards the Armenian cliff-edge.

But the truth is that he really was. The programme note tells us that “the story is loosely based on true events of the late 1980s and 1990s – the so-called ‘Chain Murders,’ in which more than 80 writers, political activists and ordinary citizens were killed by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and National Security.” Actually that ‘loosely’ is deceptive. The two stories, the true and the recounted, touch very closely indeed. We know the name of the murderer running out of the abandoned building, though the film doesn’t tell us: his name is Khosrow Barati. Just as in the film, Barati was in life the man who tried to drive a bus full of writers off an Armenian cliff in 1996, and failed; and probably the instrument of many of the Chain Murders. Just as in the film, the smooth author of the murders, whose name was Saeed Emami, directed the killers. Emami was a former Deputy Minister of Intelligence. Many of the horrid details are all too close to reality. Said Serjani, who like his parallel in the film was determined to get his banned book – a 1989 satire called You of Shortened Sleeves – republished, was killed by cardiac arrest induced with a potassium suppository, forcefully administered, a scene horrifically reproduced in the film. One after another, over a decade and a half, but intensifying after the signing of a famous writers’ petition in 1994, some 80 intellectuals died, often of unexpected cardiac arrests, or mysteriously stabbed to death in their homes, their bodies frequently found on waste land on the city’s edge. The film is a lightly fictionalised account of the last half dozen murders in the autumn of 1998.

What Rasoulof doesn’t give us is the sequel. The awful campaign of murders was investigated and reported in the temporarily less repressive atmosphere of Mohammed Khatami’s ‘Tehran Spring,’ in late 1998, with accounts published in the press. It became necessary to resolve the scandal semi-publically, while limiting the damage. A rogue gang was discovered to have been operating within the intelligence ministry, pursuing its own vindictive agenda of murder and torture: “Unfortunately, a small number of irresponsible, misguided, headstrong and obstinate staff within the Ministry of Intelligence, who are no doubt under the influence of rogue undercover agents and acting towards the objectives of foreign and estranged sources when committing these criminal acts,” (sic) as the Ministry’s statement put it. The bus conspiracy was revealed to an apparently horrified minister, who took prompt action to contain the problem before being fired himself. Barati and others were imprisoned. Saaed Emami supposedly killed himself in detention by drinking depilatory lotion and then died … of cardiac arrest. Then, silence: all further enquiry was firmly squashed; any suggestion that the murders constituted more than the final grisly list of half a dozen from 1998, dangerous; all mention of the affair strongly discouraged. Business as usual.

Another circle, this one of forcibly suppressed knowledge bursting out and having once again to be forcibly suppressed; of intelligence moguls covering their tracks by throwing juniors to the wolves and then squashing public mention and writing. Rather than being merely a fictionalised account, Manuscripts Don’t Burn seems more like a glass jar pushed by a child through the water-surface of a rock-pool, giving a brief, clear glimpse of the crabs, starfish and shrimps scuttling about on the bottom.

In a final layer of circularity, Rasoulof himself is part of the same fragmented community of persecuted artists, unable to work openly in Iran, living partly there and partly in Germany, banned from film-making but still making fiercely excoriating films like this. The credits roll out in unbroken black, because it was unsafe for any actor to be identified. Interior shots were made in Germany, and only the exteriors in Iran. But even here there is a sense of paranoia in the lens, of filming across streets from concealment, of cars and buses crossing the foreground too close and too jerkily. It is camera-work designed to highlight the shared paranoia of writers and goons; but it is also the paranoia of a director working undercover at considerable risk to himself.

A labile interweaving of fiction and reality, of 1998 and 2014, this film bears witness to the bleak bureaucracy of murder. Has it changed since? This week’s Economist comments that even the apparently more liberal President Rohani has no fewer than five cabinet ministers from the Ministry of Internal Security.

As the writer and intellectual Mirza Jahangir Khan Sur-e-Esrafil said before he was hanged as long ago as 1908, “Oh land, we are murdered for the sake of your preservation.” Plus ça change …


Confined to Barracks

Libya 1

The news today has been full of events at Bassingbourn barracks, where the British army has been training Libyan soldiers. Of the 300 Libyans in England, three have been charged with sexual assault (and two of them have pleaded guilty); two more are in custody charged with raping a man in a Cambridge park; and another five are said to have asked for asylum. The people of Bassingbourn report finding Libyans who have jumped the barracks fence wandering about the village, in one case hiding under cars. The womenfolk of Bassingbourn are reported to be afraid to walk their dogs. Yesterday came the announcement that all 300 Libyans are being sent home early in disgrace. The panic is no doubt a little exaggerated, but the facts are not at all pretty.

A story of cultural incomprehension and lousy discipline – but why the disingenuous surprise? To these young men on their first trip out of Libya, England must have come as a shock in many ways, and the fleshly temptations of Cambridge (I can’t believe I’ve just written that phrase) apparently proved irresistible. One of the Libyan officers who selected the candidates for training, Col Adel Akari, warned beforehand that “I really hope that the British government takes into consideration the fact that some of these men have never seen a woman other than their mothers and sisters.” It seems that no one gave this clear warning enough thought.

A gloriously bizarre moment came with last night’s BBC News, when the Beeb breathlessly interviewed a rather blank-eyed young Libyan ‘from inside the base.’ That the young man gave his name as Omar al-Mukhtar might have roused a little suspicion. Would the BBC broadcast without comment a pugnacious interview, as background to a criminal investigation and a minor political crisis, with a young Scot calling himself Robert the Bruce? Or an Italian claiming to be called Giuseppe Garibaldi? I think not, but that’s by the by.

Young ‘Omar,’ certainly took the biscuit when he said pathetically: “They didn’t tell us about British law, and what’s the difference between right and wrong here.” Well, no. Right and Wrong are generally speaking the business of a man’s upbringing and religion, not the Regimental Sergeant-Major. Saudi Arabia maintains a rather hirsute and humourless moral police force called the Committee for Enjoining Virtue and Forbidding Vice to enforce such things: Libyans too might take a dimmish view of Omar’s relativistic ‘here.’ As for British law, I am curious about the ways in which it might differ substantially from Libyan law on the matter – for instance – of gang-raping a young man in a public park.

Here, by contrast, is the little handbook issued to US servicemen setting out to defend the Iraqi oilfields in 1943, published by the War and Navy Departments in Washington. ‘You will enter the country,’ the authors write,

both as a soldier and as an individual, because on our side a man can be both a soldier and an individual. That is our strength if we are smart enough to use it. It can be our weakness if we aren’t. As a soldier your duties are laid out for you. As an individual, it is what you do on your own that counts – and it may count for a lot more than you think. … success or failure … may well depend on whether the [inhabitants] like [our] soldiers or not. It may not be quite that simple. But then again it could be.

That reflects careful thought about how to prepare young men for culture shock. The book goes on to talk about how Muslim societies regard women, and how foreign soldiers should behave towards them. It didn’t, then or later,  make GIs into saints, but it demonstrates a systematic attempt to appeal to their better natures and to inform them about the particularities of the society that they were about to encounter. Some careful briefing about analogous matters in Cambridgeshire, shaped by an understanding of the sheer scale of culture-shock that these Libyan country boys were going to confront would have gone some way towards fulfilling a duty of care (and in this perhaps the unlikely Omar has the germ of a point).

Bestial behaviour by soldiers is not a Libyan monopoly (try googling ‘rape by British soldier’ and scanning the first couple of pages of the 1,870,000 hits). Soldiers do, quite often, behave badly. As Colonel Akari said sadly, “We expected something like this to happen.” Alas, it did.

And would someone tell the BBC who Omar al-Mukhtar was?



‘Intending so to terrify the world’


Ten days ago most newspapers carried a photograph of Daesh – Isis – fighters, in silhouette against the sky, raising their black flag on the hill of Tel Shair opposite Kobani. It portended the fall of the city, and in those parts of the city that Daesh has so far managed to enter, the violence is extreme – “I have seen tens, maybe hundreds, of bodies with their heads cut off. Others with their hands or legs missing. I have seen faces with their eyes or tongues cut out – I can never forget it as long as I live,” as one refugee told a reporter. A couple of days ago the same papers carried a photograph of the black banner being torn down off the hill by Kurdish fighters, giving hope of respite for Kobani. Now it seems that the Daesh has had to pull back from most of the town.

We’ve been here before. This tired symbolism of black flags descending out of Khurasan to capture the central Muslim lands in a cascade of terror, as supposedly predicted by the Prophet in a hadith, is a recurring theme of Middle Eastern history. But to an Englishman the first resonance is perhaps of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great. The governor of Damascus, standing on the city’s walls, says in despair,

His coal-black colours, every where advanc’d,
Threaten our city with a general spoil;
And, if we should with common rites of arms
Offer our safeties to his clemency,
I fear the custom proper to his sword,
Which he observes as parcel to his fame,
Intending so to terrify the world,
By any innovation or remorse
Will never be dispens’d with till our deaths.

Tamburlaine’s reputation, which ran ahead of him like wildfire, stressed his absolute implacability towards his enemies, his scorn for the customs of war and his bottomless appetite for blood. He raised pyramids of severed heads – 120 pyramids around Baghdad alone in 1401 – at the gates of conquered cities and put whole populations to the sword. But he wasn’t unique, and it’s important to remember that this was the MO of every invading army in the history of the Fertile Crescent, from Sennacherib, through the Abbasids to Hulagu and well beyond. Hulagu’s sack of Baghdad in 1258 killed 200,000 people by his own modest estimate – 800,000 or more by those of others.

To judge by Kobani, and the awful litany of beheaded hostages from many nations, severed heads are still important props. But today there is a much more powerful vector for terror than simply word of mouth, and the great innovation of the Daesh banditry is their use of film and social media to carry these images, quite ruthlessly, ahead of them. As Olivier Roy said recently of the filmed executions of Western hostages, “It recalls to mind the ‘trial’ of Aldo Moro put on by the Italian Red Brigade in 1978.” This violence is a carefully calibrated theatre of blood, and it is carried across the world on the internet. What we are seeing is Tamburlaine on Facebook, in real time, and it is very hard to digest, and harder still to react rationally.

A recent article in the Guardian by Steve Rose looked at the film and internet output of the Daesh with the critical eye of a film writer. Their output is workmanlike, but not that good. He detects relatively sophisticated camera work with simple cameras, and an understanding of film-construction that he attributes tentatively to Deso Dogg, a German ‘gangsta rappa’ turned Daesh propagandist under the name of Abu Talha al-Almani. But he doesn’t underestimate the potency of this film output, starting his essay with Frank Capra’s reaction to Leni von Riefenstahl’s 1938 Nazi propaganda documentary Triumph of the Will: “It scared the hell out of me. It fired no gun, dropped no bombs, but as a psychological weapon aimed at destroying the will to resist, it was just lethal.” That’s just what Mr Dogg and his colleagues aim to do too, and judging by their success at Mosul, they aren’t bad at it.

These bandits, the scrapings off the bottom of Muslim communities around the word, working with the attenuated relics of Saddam’s Ba’ath and Sunni tribesmen driven beyond desperation by the sectarian barbarism of Iraq’s Shi’ite government, are a well-armed rag-bag. What they have done very well is to use these modern vectors of fear. They are children of the internet generation. They produce nimble, bloody little film clips called mujatweets, designed to be retweeted all over the world. They text photographs of butchery and decapitation ahead of them to the defenders of towns that they wish to attack – the modern equivalent of Tamburlaine’s pyramids of heads. And they make documentary films about the joys of living in the ‘Caliphate’ (“I don’t think there’s anything better than living in the land of the khilafah,” says one, smugly. He’s clearly not Yazidi, Christian or Shi’i.). They are in short, a Virtual Mongol Horde, with a PR sense like Tamburlaine’s and the ethics of a shrike.

Is there anything original about them? Steve Rose plays with comparisons. Is their style von Liefenstahl, or Kathryn Bigelow, Oliver Stone or do “the cheap production values and portentous narration resemble a bad History Channel documentary?” Undecided, but “what nobody wants to admit is that Isis could have fashioned a visual aesthetic of its own.” What though is indubitable is their easy and relatively skilled access to the internet: “Once cameras were big and expensive and only available to television and movie studios. Now they have become cheaper and more available, ordinary people have gained control of the media narrative.” (Ordinary people?)

He looks at the feeble attempts by the US to fight back by caricaturing the Daesh’s video-game style and vocabulary; and one has the sense of a bunch of black-flagged terriers snapping at the ankles of a confused elephant. And he ends with the clear conclusion that the cause of the West is far from unambiguous, and that it is the Daesh imitating us, not vice versa, that is so devastating. “Not only are we a page-setter in production values,” he quotes US documentary-maker Steve Jarecki as saying, “we are also a page-setter in murderous, amoral, profoundly disturbing content the world over. If we are watching Isis come up to speed, it’s to our own apparent obsession with gore and depravity.”

So how can this relentless tide of bloody offal be fought? It is fascinating and deeply encouraging to see clear signs of a firm and public position being taken by European Muslims. No one with any sense or knowledge doubts that virtually all Muslims deplore this awful hijacking of their religion by testosterone-fuelled, religiously ignorant Rambos. But it has often seemed very hard for Muslims to speak out, which is why (to name only one of many) the reaction of Asim Hussein, the Imam of Manchester Central Mosque, to the technicolour execution of a British hostage was both moving and impressive: “Alan (Henning) embodied more Muslim virtues than the entire Isis put together.”  At the same time the hashtag #notinmyname has taken off, reaching 300 million people in its first weeks, and “saying no way, not in the name of Islam, and not in the name of any faith or humanity,” as Hanif Qadir, one of its founders put it. But the problem is the one Jarecki describes – finding an idiom that is as far away as possible from the “gore and depravity” in which western cinema often likes to wallow, far away from government, and well beyond the kiss-of-death that is official control.” John Gray, speaking like Qadir to Dominic Casciani, says, “[Governments] definitely need to be funding this stuff and they definitely need to be helping those who would be credible messengers develop the kind of technical and messaging skills that they need. But that’s where they need to stop. They then need to stop trying to control the message. They have to get used to the fact that some of the messages that are going to be the most effective are going to be least comfortable for governments themselves.” Bravo.

Oh, and a final note on the religious illiterates of the Daesh. It seems that they are scared witless of the female Kurdish fighters of the YPJ at Kobani, because – and this is really quite delightful – they believe that if killed by a woman they will go to hell. Go girls. Get these e-Tamburlaines where it really hurts, in their brittle and much exaggerated masculinity.


Black Banners and Wizardly Bowlers

image 2

The two-month silence on this blog is the result of our moving house – after four years in Morocco, I am now back in England with my family, settling into a new home, new weather, new circumstances. I shall continue to write about Morocco and the Middle East, and hope that you will stay with me.

Unpacking books the other day, I found myself sadly holding my copy of Sir Harry Luke’s Mosul and its Minorities. Luke was a colonial civil servant of distinction, whose papers are now at Oxford and who, if you’ll forgive a personal interest, ended his career as British Council Representative in the Caribbean. He published a good deal, and this little book, off the press in 1925 when he was Colonial Secretary in Sierra Leone, is a record of two journeys to Mosul, in 1907-8 and 1924; as well as much (just occasionally it seems too much) reading.

He sets out to describe the extraordinary, closely tessellated pattern of religious minorities which had been living on the northern Mesopotamian plain around Mosul for thousands of years. It is dreadfully poignant to re-read it today as Daish/ISIS bandits set about driving the last of these communities out of their soi-disant Caliphate,  enslaving women, killing children and posting slavering film of their atrocities online pour encourager les autres. These victims, of course, are real Mesopotamians, many with bloodlines stretching back in the same region for thousands upon thousands of years – and their persecutors, as so often in history, come from far away. Not all the black banners, though, come from Khorasan: most seem to emerge directly from the dim recesses of the Muslim world, the bidonvilles of South Asia and North Africa, and the dislocated anomie of European migration.

image 3a

When I was in Baghdad with the British Council at the end of the 1980s, I used to attend the Queen’s Birthday Party at the Embassy by the Tigris, and in a book I wrote about that time, I described it:

The régime took not the slightest notice of such occasions, so that there were none of the olive drab uniforms and berets of Ba’th Party functionaries. In fact the Iraqi element of the company seemed almost entirely ecclesiastical, a fantastic flotilla of clerical outfitting reflecting the rich mosaic of Christian sects in Iraq. There were Nestorians, Melkites, Jacobites (and no doubt Schismatic Jacobites, too), Greek Uniates, Assyrians, Catholics, Armenian Uniates and Orthodox. Sometimes there was the Anglican Bishop of Gibraltar. Each wafted across the rose garden bedizened in a different panoply of pink or black silk, red chiffon or black satin. The hats were like the skyline of an Indian cemetery, pepper-pots and onion-domes, birettas, canopies and indistinct pointy hennins of white drapery. Their owners milled about in swirls and vortices, gossiping and quarrelling, cutting each other dead or dropping viperous comments. I remember once coming across a hugely bearded archimandrite in one of the rose-alleys, reading the palm of an aged Armenian pianist: both were in floods of tears.

image 4

My taxonomy was a little loose, but the impression is accurate, a snapshot of the amazingly diverse Christian heritage of Iraq. Less visible, though scarcely less important, were the non-Christian minorities, the Shebeks (a dim agricultural tribe, possibly Shi’ite Kurds, according to Luke), the Mandæans and the Yazidis. And of course, though it was easy to forget it under Saddam’s leaden hand, the Sunni Muslims themselves were a minority, too, in a predominantly Shi’i country whose census figures were necessarily shrouded in mystery. In city, plain and mountains, as Luke puts it, are scattered the remnants of other peoples, some of whom have known periods of great glory in singular contrast to their precarious present; while others have had so obscure a history that it is difficult even now to unravel their origins and the genesis of their beliefs. But of all these minorities it is safe to say that they have suffered tribulation and oppression, have undergone martyrdom for Christ, for Jehovah and even, unlikely as it may sound, for the Devil.

Luke lists Mosul’s glittering cavalcade of Church potentates, the Nestorian Patriarch, the Chaldæan Patriarch of Babylon, the Jacobite and Syrian Catholic bishops, each photographed in his splendour.  I was not wrong in my memories of exuberant hattery. Here is the Jacobite’s headgear: a large, swelling turban, made by covering a stiff, canvas frame with ingeniously plaited spiral folds of black silk, which officers of the RAF have been heard to describe as a “wizardly bowler.” Or the Chaldæan Patriarch’s flat band of shiny black satin, wound so many times round a low Tunisian fez that it projects quite a hand’s breadth from the head. Luke tells the complicated story of schism and fission that led through the fifth century Church Councils to the fragmentation of the Eastern Churches; the great Nestorian explosion of faith into furthest Asia; and the early modern seduction by the papacy in Rome of fragments of these fragments into the Uniate churches that still march alongside, and often eclipse, their elder sisters.


I remember, on visits to Mosul from Baghdad, visiting churches that were old before the Council of Chalcedon, thick with the smell of wax, light filtered through smoke and alabaster. In those days there were no other foreign visitors and the key had to be found, the key-keeper woken. There was an amazing sense of the depth of history, the unbroken, if slender, continuities that linked Mosul to the deep past. It was a history that also held Muslims in the close embrace of their own distant past, though “the Moslem Arabs are,” as the NID Geographical Handbook of 1944 puts it, “recent immigrants,” while “the Kurds and their racial associates, the Yezidis and ‘Assyrians’ … were already present in the northern mountains in the Parthian period, and are generally regarded as the descendants of the Medes.”

All this is now being ground to dust beneath the heel of the ignorant platoons bringing their sullen, bloodthirsty fury from the back alleys of Casablanca and Cardiff, Paris, Benghazi and Cairo, on a tide of Gulf money, into the land between Aleppo and Mosul. This plain is the great west-east axis of Assyria, the first steps of the Silk Road, which has given shape to northern Mesopotamia through the ages. Murder, rape, expulsion and massacre are now daily occurrences here. The human fabric of civilisation is being ripped apart. So too is the hardware. Churches, monasteries, tombs and mosques are being blown up, burnt and desecrated in pursuit of an ideology which it is tempting to see as primitive and mediæval, but which is actually very modern in its facile merging of savagery, intellectual shallowness, technical sophistication and totalising, unreflective self-righteousness.

image 1

This has happened before, repeatedly, over the centuries, but never quite as thoroughly as today. The last massacre of Bedr Khan Beg left so indelible an impression on the minds of the survivors that the Assyrians, in ordinary parlance, still date their years from 1845, wrote Luke in 1925. In future those who are left to discuss dates will doubtless talk in much greater horror of 2014.

The Yazidis suffered if anything even more. Layard describes a massacre by the Kurdish Beg of Rowanduz, who chased the Yezidis of the Sheikhan to Mosul and  “massacred the wretched fugitives on the hill of Qoyunjik within the full view of the exulting Moslawis.” The appalling fate of the Yazidis in recent weeks, driven out of Sinjar and other towns onto the mountainside of Mount Sinjar, many to be killed or to die of starvation, is testimony to the fanatical malice of the Daish towards this ancient minority. When Luke wrote of their undergoing martyrdom, unlikely as it may sound, for the Devil, he was perpetuating an easy fallacy rooted in tittle-tattle. The truth (inasmuch as outsiders know it) is much more interesting, the devil being nothing of the kind, but the peacock-angel Melek Taus who refused to bow before Adam, and was entrusted by God with the governance of His creation. Shi’ites, too, are treated as heretics and meet much the same fate. So do Sunnis who fail to toe the Daishi line, who display sentiment over the ravaged tomb-shrines of Jonah, or Seth or any one of dozens of others razed with dynamite.

But whether non-Daishis worship God or the Devil seems irrelevant. They are being extirpated from their home of millennia by outsiders driven by blood and fury, who want a ‘Caliphate’ amputated from human history and populated by cloned salafi-jihadis, with overgrown beards, grubby pedal-pushers, closed minds and womenfolk hoarded in black bags. Poor Mosul. Poor Iraq. Poor Christendom. And the poor, poor Umma. As Zephaniah said of Nineveh:

How is she become a desolation, a place for beasts to lie down in. Everyone that passes by her shall hiss, and wag his hand.

Wag on.



A propos of nothing above, one fascinating little comment in Luke’s book gives me gentle pleasure. Driving across the desert from Damascus, he comments that as we began to near the Euphrates we occasionally crossed or ran parallel with the ploughed furrow which indicates the air route from ‘Amman. The thought of aeroplanes following a furrow across the desert for navigation is wonderful, and seems almost as long ago as the Council of Chalcedon.

Entitlement and hoopoes’ blood

It’s bac time again, with thousands of young Moroccans chewing their pens and writing exams. The price of hoopoes’ blood, that sovereign booster of exam performance, is no doubt sky-high. The newspapers are full of ingenious stories of cheating. They also pay much attention to what comes next, and there was an interesting survey in L’Economiste this week about what lycée-leavers intend to do. There’s much said about career aspirations (engineering well in the lead for boys and girls) and courses of higher study. But the most interesting phenomenon is the unexpectedly small proportion of students who want to study abroad, at only 12 per cent. Why? Les complications pour obtenir un visa étudiant, la crise européenne et l’installation d’un grand nombre d’établissements étrangers de renom … This is very interesting.

The same phenomenon is picked up by Driss Lahlou in an article on career choice at the back of the paper. He highlights four major trends in Higher Education in Morocco:

  1. The growing concentration of the private HE offer in a number of major institutions with reliable quality and a distinctive offering of their own.
  2. The globalisation of higher education, with the growth too of dually awarded degrees, foreign accreditation and the increase in foreign degrees delivered locally.
  3. Growing focus on high-tech specialities like IT, telecoms and logistics – with strong appetite from the job-market for all these, especially informatic engineering and logistics.
  4. Growing diversification towards Anglophone education. “Limiting ourselves to French educations will not open us up to the world.” Really good education in English gives the student “a good mastery of the language while at the same time opening the doors of first-rate British or American teaching – still little known in the emerging francophone countries.”

That accords well with what I see. Private Higher Education is growing fast – not perhaps quite as fast as the Ministry would like, but 20% of bac students told the survey that they wanted to study privately, which hits the Ministry’s aspirations for the market, if not yet its capacity. Foreign institutions are setting up in Morocco, and foreign degrees are easier to obtain here than ever before (whatever recognition problems may remain). Closest to my desk is SIST, on the floor below the British Council, which offers degrees from the University of Sunderland and Cardiff Metropolitan. For the first time a few weeks ago, I visited Mundiapolis in Agadir, and was extremely impressed by the resource, quality and student offer.

Dr Lahlou’s third point is also interesting. Logistics isn’t a subject that has much detained me – a historian – until recently. But last week I signed an agreement with CGEM and the Supply Chain Foundation (of the UK) to establish a comprehensive framework of training and qualifications in logistics, focusing initially on the aeronautics industry. This is clearly riding a wave. The project will soon offer customised Moroccan syllabi for all levels from technician to Master’s students, and dually accredited Anglo-Moroccan qualifications. This is a very potent alliance, and I suspect a model of things to come.

Finally, education in English. I wrote recently about the growing movement towards English in education, and indeed towards English education. One Russell Group university told me recently that it has received more than 130 UCAS applications this year – almost as many as there were Moroccan students in the UK when I first arrived here. There is a growing understanding amongst the French-educated, the children of the lycée de la mission that French monolingualism is boxing them in, limiting their prospects. That English-language education is a passport to a globalised world, through universities that are disproportinately of world class.

This week I had a fascinating conversation with one of Morocco’s premier foundation institutions not just about the language and organization of ‘Anglo-Saxon education,’ but its philosophical assumptions concerning individual student autonomy, the nature of achievement, the entitlement conferred by a degree and above all the methodology of assessment. What struck me most was the mechanicity of the system that the French left behind in Morocco and which has not adapted with any real flexibility for the twenty-first century. Above all, the strange almost metaphysical rights conferred by a degree to job, security, salary, respect. It isn’t unique to Morocco (I first came across it working in Italy twenty years ago, where the intitolomento, the entitlement that a laurea bestowed, stretched to different salaries for the same job as a non-laureato). Here its corrosiveness is shown by the regular demonstrations outside Parliament by chômeurs diplomés who demand unconditional and uncompetitive recruitment into the civil service simply by virtue of having a degree. (In what? 80% of them, I gather, are graduates in Arabic Literature, Islamic Studies, Chemistry, Physics and Biology. What does that tell us?)

So I remind myself that what still characterizes British higher education is the complete absence of entitlement: a degree is just an entry-ticket to one tier of the employment market, not a season-ticket to a job. A graduate looking for a job in England still has to prove, in a very competitive market, not what she has done, but what she can do. A degree in a particular subject from a particular university may be one part of that portfolio of proof, but in these days of mass higher education, it’s only a small part. Today almost half of young Britons have degrees of one kind or another. Employers look through those degrees (what kind of university is it from? What does it tell me about this young woman?); and beyond them (what can she do? What is her future potential?) Entitlement has gone the way of hoopoes’ blood.

The Cockerel Tree


There’s a story told by Edward Westermarck, about a judge – a cadi – who committed a variety of sins, culminating in his smearing soap across the threshold of his chambers and finding it hugely funny when visitors slipped and fell. He went on doing this, with growing hilarity, “until an angel of God said to him, ‘O stork why did you do wrong to Moslems?’ At the same moment he was transformed into stork; and he has still a black cloak and a white cloak, he has the henna of the bridegroom on his feet, and his eyes are black with antimony, and he is going on laughing as before.”

Storkification (the fate, too, of Antigone in Ovid’s Metamorphoses) for cruel and undue laughter seems to be a recurring theme in traditional Moroccan stories. The black-and-white livery of the stork is often understood as the habit of a cadi or imam, and the laqlaqlaqlaqlaq of the bird’s beak as the echo of the immoderate laughter. Generally the metamorphosis is a punishment; but sometimes it can also be a voluntary transformation of the sort described by Juan Goytisolo in his novel Las Semanas del Jardin, of a stork-man from Marrakech whose wife, working in France, abandons him for a Frenchman.

The Marrakchi, who lives next to Dar Bellarej, the stork hospital by the Abou Youssef mosque, tries to get a visa for France, fails, and sets out to find his unfaithful wife by other, magical, means. “The following day, I was aloft with a flock of storks in an ineffable state of bliss and delight. The world was at once miniature and immense: toy towns and landscapes, seas gleaming like mirrors, white mountains … My altitude, lightness and speed of movement granted me a feeling of superiority over humans, slow as turtles, tiny like insects.” He flies north with a muster of ‘real’ storks and finds his wife living with her French lover. He joins the household, ingratiating himself with his own unknowing wife, who adopts him, taking him for a female stork. “How incredible … there are lots of [storks] in my country. I’m sure that’s where she’s from … How tame! She must have fallen ill and can’t fly any more. I’ll look after her and feed her on raw fish. In our country they say it brings great luck: a guest sent from heaven, whom we must respect and offer hospitality to.” So he settles down, in the guise of a female stork, and disrupts his wife’s adulterous relationship, sleeping in his wife’s bed, shitting on the lover’s pillow and causing escalating arguments until he flies home, his job done. In due course his wife follows him back to Marrakech, happy, affectionate and full of stories about a strange stork which had flown to her from Morocco.

Storks have a special place in Morocco, which arises from their sheer numbers as they migrate south from Europe towards West Africa across the narrow Strait of Gibraltar, many spending the winter in Moroccan trees, telegraph poles and minarets. The pisé walls of Moroccan medinas are festooned with their gaunt black-and-white figures. One has only to think of Fes or Marrakech (where Ali Bey al-Abassi, the Spanish impostor, famously kept three, their wings docked, in his garden); or the Chellah at Rabat. Kenitra – Port Lyautey as was – is a particular centre for storks: in 1935 Bruet recorded 23,969 nests in Morocco of which 8,573 – more than in the whole of Algeria – were at Port Lyautey. No wonder the collective noun for storks in English is military – a muster, or a phalanx. The puzzle, though, is that until I came to Morocco I had never seen more than one or two at a time. Only here have I seen phalanxes.

They are bids of a mesmerising, gawky grace, winging home in the evening. Rabat has few more evocative sights than the storks returning to Chellah in the twilight, an awe-inspiring feathered cavalcade of huge, ragged wings flapping in on the evening breeze. Sometimes the crowds of birds descending are alarming in their density, and those already in the trees serenade their arrival with a windstorm of clacking beaks, laqlaqlaqlaqlaq …There are said to be a hundred nests there, including those on the hillside below Yousoufiya, but sometimes it seems that the evening rush-hour brings many more great White Storks home than a hundred nests could house. And home they fly, riding the thermals above the Bouregreg, where you can look magically down upon them from the heights of Yousoufiya.

But they come and go, these laqlaqs, and latterly they seem to be doing less coming than going. Stork numbers are down, though we could be forgiven for not noticing: what my daughter calls ‘the cockerel tree,’ on her walk to school still has eight or so nests stacked crazily one above the other like ragged bedsits, each with parents and three or so young. But more and more storks aren’t making it to Morocco at all on their way south.

SOS Stork Migration is a project that tracks storks to try and make sense of this. The jury is still out, and there is clearly more than one factor at work, but an important one is the tempting food-source provided by southern Europe’s great, stinking open-pit rubbish dumps. These are simply too easy, and too delicious to pass by, and many storks – more than half those tracked – never make it further than the great, gorgeously named, middens of Ejea de Caballeros, Bourg-en-Bresse, Alcazar de San Juan, Almagro, Montpellier, Lerida, Malpartide de Caceres, Dos Hermanos and so on. There’s another juicy one at Kenitra, which marks it as a must-visit on the modern stork-migration map, just as it was 80 years ago. Their diet (not difficult, or pleasant, to imagine) gives them added weight but lots of nasty pathogens. It also tempts them to end their journeys – the easy pickings of used nappies, waste food, packaging, pharmaceutical junk and heaven knows what else seems to remove the need to fly on southward for the winter sun. Only one of the seven storks tracked got as far as Senegal: another made it to Morocco but no further. The rest settled happily to gorge on the foetid rubbish heaps of Spain and France.

This is very sad. There is no visible shortage of storks right now in Rabat – and the walls of the Imperial Cities are still topped with countless feathered Capuchins. But if SOS Stork Migration is right, and the study looks unhappily convincing, the southward flight across the Straits of Gibraltar that has gone on for millennia will thin and perhaps peter out. Regulating rubbish-dumps in Europe (by reducing the food content) may help – but in the end, if we want to save the cockerel tree, we may need to stop clearing up rubbish dumps in Morocco.


Moroccans at Monte Cassino


I have the clearest memory of standing, ten or twelve years ago, under the great barrel-vault of the Menin Gate, looking at the names of the 55,000 dead in the battles for Ypres, whose bodies had never been recovered. It is a melancholy place, site of an extraordinary daily theatre of the emotions when the Last Post is played at sunset, the heart-breaking bugle echoing across quiet streets. What struck me then was the number of men and officers from the Indian army, havildars, subadars and sepoys who had given their lives for the King-Emperor, very far from home in the mud of the Ypres Salient. It is a strange and sobering reflection, that victory depended on colonial armies, and that so much was given by them, so unstintingly. And of course it wasn’t just Britain’s Indian Army that fought in Europe and elsewhere: troops from North Africa – including perhaps 40,000 from Morocco – served in the Great War too, and a foundation called Forgotten Heroes 14-19 Foundation has been set up to commemorate them and promote the memory of their contribution to the winning of the war. It is a fine project and worth exploring, run by a group of people that includes Eugene Rogan of Oxford and Driss Meghraoui of Al-Akhawayn.

I was struck this morning to check my phone and find quite how often an article I re-tweeted yesterday on the Muslim contribution to the Second World War had been re-tweeted again. It clearly strikes a chord on this 70th anniversary of D-Day, when the 1944 Normandy landings are all over the press, to remember that many of the named and nameless dead are Moroccan, Tunisian, Algerian – without even mentioning the troops from East and West Africa, India and the Far East. I was mulling this over when I noticed a copy of L’Opinion on a news stand this morning, headlined on its front page Hommage aux Marocains tombés dans la lutte contre le nazisme.

It is essentially an account of the role of the Moroccan Goumiers at Monte Cassino. My father, who saw his twenty-first birthday in a dug-out opposite the monastery at Cassino in March 1944, used to say of the Goumiers,   echoing the Duke of Wellington, “I don’t know what effect they had on the enemy, but by God they scared the living daylights out of me.” Now I have a glimpse of what they did to the enemy.

“It was the legendary Moroccan soldiers of Moulay Driss Zerhoune, from Taza and the Atlas, who would breach the German lines, considered impenetrable for months, and open the route to Rome.” The French cemetery is at Venafro, twenty kilometres away, where the Corps Expéditionnaire Français was based, and there are 3,130 Muslim graves out of a total of 4,578 – sixty-eight per cent. Of the French force that took part in the Italian campaign, 72,000 – sixty per cent – were Moroccans. The Goumiers broke through the Gustav Line, outflanking Cassino, and took the neighbouring summits of Monte Majo, Monte Aurunci and Belvedere. “They had to climb steep slopes covered in mud and snow, which the Germans judged to be unscalable, before securing the peaks under German artillery fire.” Kesselring himself later said that “The French, and above all the Moroccans, fought furiously and exploited every success by concentrating their forces on each point that showed signs of weakening.” After Cassino the Moroccans marched north, and the story of their campaign is told in the 2006 film Indigènes, which had such a powerful impact, among others, on President Chirac that he finally relented on the longstanding scandal of pensions for Moroccan ex-servicemen.imgres

The Moroccan writer of the article, Abdelmalek Terkemani, notes the losses to the Goumiers at Cassino – 4,272 Muslims dead, 2,000 lost and not identified, and some 23,500 wounded, of whom the great majority were Moroccan. And he goes on to lament the growing xenophobia in Europe, where the common struggle is allowed to slip out of memory: “Photographs of these tombs, of young Frenchmen and Moroccans buried side by side, captioned ‘THEY DIED FOR EUROPE,’ should hang in every meeting room where foreigners in Europe are discussed.” But – as he concludes – “One can’t talk of this subject without remembering the unjust treatment suffered by the brave Moroccan soldiers who survived, compared to their European brothers-in-arms. Many of them died without trace, others among the survivors crippled or handicapped dragged themselves painfully for decades, to the front of French consulates demanding more just and more worthy treatment of their predicament.”

King Mohamed V was guest of honour at the first great France Combattant parade in June 1945, with Goumiers marching along the Champs Elysée, but as Terkemani points out, the lesson was not altogether well learned in France. Maréchal Alphonse Juin, the immensely successful French commander at Monte Cassino became Résident-général in Morocco and fiercely opposed the Nationalists. The present French Ambassador, Charles Fries, addressed this question gracefully and directly at the launch recently of a second edition of the 2006 history of the Goumiers, by Pierre Riera and Christophe Touron, Ana! Frères d’armes marocains dans les deux guerres mondiales. “Tens of thousands of Moroccan soldiers have twice paid the price in blood to defend our liberty. May they be assured that France will be eternally grateful to them for it.” May they indeed.

And now I know, as I leave my house in the morning and head for the office, why I am walking up rue Zerhoune, and it is a good reminder.



Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

Mercurius Maghrebensis

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

The Arabist

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

Early Modern Whale

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

London Review of Books

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

Foreign Policy

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

Jadaliyya Ezine

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 254 other followers

%d bloggers like this: