Mercurius Maghrebensis

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

Month: September, 2015

“There’s no ‘Yo man’ any more. We’re into religion”

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Four days ago Niger surrendered to the International Criminal Court a Malian man called Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, who has been indicted by the court for the destruction of religious buildings in Timbuktu. This man, who calls himself Abu Tourab, insists on being addressed in Arabic by the Court, though he was born about 100 kilometres from Timbuktu and is a Tamasheq-speaker. He is a leader of what were apparently called the ‘Manners Brigade,’ the benighted thugs who terrorised Timbuktu when it was under foreign Arab occupation, blowing up tombs, burning books and bullying the population into behaving as they imagined seventh century Hejazis to have behaved. This Ahmed is, individually, of no interest at all, just an example of the small man burning with resentment and self-loathing, looking for revenge through bullying and destruction on a world he doesn’t understand. But his indictment is interesting and important because it highlights the place of cultural destruction in today’s conflicts – and the newfound preparedness of the international community to confront and punish it.

By chance, the night before reading in today’s paper about the indictment of this man, I had sat up watching Abderrahmane Sissako’s fabulous new film Timbuktu, which follows the Manners Brigade as they attempt to impose their stunted culture on a small Malian town. The invaders are defiantly foreign, scorning the Malians’ attempts at Arabic but making not the slightest effort to speak Tamasheq themselves. They come from the north, the ‘Green Land’ of Libya, and have no interest in the rich culture of Timbuktu, a centre of learning and high Islamic culture for centuries. They help themselves to women, blustering that they are following the instructions of the Prophet. They punish mercilessly the singing of sacred music. They forbid a ludicrously predictable range of things from bare female hands (even on the wet fish stalls in the market where gloves are obligatory) to football, long trousers, smoking and shaved chins (there’s a barber’s placard, fleetingly in the background of one shot, on which the profile faces without beards are obliterated with red crosses). In fact, as one of them puts it, “It is forbidden to do any old thing.”

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There are no burned books or blown-up shrines in Timbuktu. In fact there are no public buildings or recognizable shots of Timbuktu: despite its name the film is set in an almost abstract Malian village-scape of ochre mud-brick alleys and metal doors, and in the semi-desert around it. In the alleys of the town Abdelkrim and his bully-boys swagger and punish; in the country they are much less confident, careering incompetently after gazelle in their pick-up trucks, sneaking off for illicit cigarettes behind the dunes and pestering Satima, the wife of the film’s central character Kidane, when he is away from his tent. They may come from the Green Land, but they are creatures of the town, comfortable in small bureaucratic huddles, dealing out ‘sharia’ punishments in gloomy rooms and scribbling in exercise books with sandy biros. They hunt down the strains of music caressing the night air, climbing on rooftops and entering private homes to find and punish those who are “singing praises to the lord and his prophet.”

The action of the film is personal, and gently symbolic. Abdelkrim, the lecherous bandit leader, says disparagingly to Kidane, “What do you know about inner strength and goodness?” – when of course it is Abdelkrim who knows nothing, and Kidane who in his very human way exemplifies both those qualities. Kidane is a herdsman, a singing idler who loves his family and keeps out of trouble. His wife Satima says of him “the reason he’s still alive is because he plays the guitar and sings. He’s not a warrior. Warriors die young.” When he forgets this distinction and takes revenge on the fisherman who has killed his prize cow, GPS, the fragile security of his little world unravels and he is led inexorably through cursory trial to execution. Kidane accepts his fate, yearning only for a sight of his wife and daughter before he dies. His is the noble role, his the inner strength.

Music is central. Kidane sings, and so does the girl whose voice draws the Manners Brigade through the night to her gentle gathering of friends. The boy who is reproved for his lack of conviction in denouncing to camera his rapping past (“There’s no ‘yo man’ any more. We’re into religion”) finds it difficult to forswear music with any conviction. But defiance is musical too, and the singing girl bursts into anguished song as she is lashed, her voice rising above the squalid scene in the market place in a sublime cadence of pain and endurance.

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Defiance is all. The girl sings as she bleeds. The man who is told to roll his trousers up because they are too long, takes them off entirely. The football-playing boys obey the letter of the new law by playing without a ball, in an exquisite ballet of mimed passes and shots at goal, while the puzzled thugs glide sulkily by on a motor-bike, unable to complain. Zabou, a statuesque eccentric driven mad by a long-ago earthquake, wanders insouciantly through the film in ragged turquoise finery, her hair uncovered, her hands ungloved and her tattered black train brushing the dust behind her. She takes no notice of the Manners Brigade, at one point stopping their pick-up truck by blocking the narrow alley with her arms spread wide: they have no vocabulary to deal with her, and Zabou glides on, unmolested.

Also defiant, though gently so, is the imam of the mosque, a quiet, measured man who reasons firmly and uncompromisingly with the jihadis about jihad and about their behaviour. Never aggressive, always civil, he makes them very uncomfortable and is never reproved for his impertinence: these jihadis are not good at confronting integrity, whether it is that of a saint or a madwoman. And finally there is the enigmatic figure of a water-seller whose face we never properly see, a Malian Everyman who threads his way through the film on his motorbike, delivering water in yellow jerry-cans to tents and houses, weaving from scene to scene in flashes of his green robe. It is he who at the end of the film brings Satima to Kidane for the last snatched glimpse of her face before they die together; and he who races away on his motorbike, like the gazelle at the beginning of the film, while a truckload of barbarians pursue the symbolic figure at speed, black banners waving, shooting their automatic weapons incompetently at his back.

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Timbuktu is extraordinarily beautiful, cutting from a village of browns and reds with painted swirls on the walls and moonlit nights full of distant music, to a landscape of dunes, lakes and small shrubs, through which cattle amble. The lake shots, great silvery panoramas, with silhouetted men like Indonesian shadow-puppets at the centre, are exquisite. The landscape cries out to be caressed, a cry that even reaches the dimness of Abdelkrim’s brain when, frustrated by Satima’s scorn for him, he spots a suggestive tuft of grass between dunes, a dark declivity which stirs some lecherous cupidity in his dull heart. He blazes viciously away at it with his Kalashnikov, mowing the grass into submission.

In appearing to ignore the destruction of physical culture – the shrines, tombs and libraries which offended the shrivelled souls of the puritanical jihadis – Sissako allows the oppression of the human inhabitants of his Timbuktu to stand for all. The culture that is oppressed is represented by music, love, compassion, normality. The destruction, by flogging, stoning, shooting and abusing. But there is one very telling scene of cultural annihilation, right at the beginning of the film: a row of traditional dark wooden carvings, of female figures with large breasts, is lined up on the sand and shot. We don’t see who is shooting, though we know at once; but we watch the material culture of an old and civilised society being shattered by unseen idiots in a parodic firing-squad, and we know that this lies in the background to the whole film.

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It is a delicately brushed and sensitively represented balance. In the last couple of years we have heard a lot about the choice between ‘people’ and ‘things’ – about the obscenity of concern about material culture when flesh and blood are at stake. It is right to worry at these questions as Palmyra trembles, Nimrud falls and eleven million Syrians flee their homes. But in the end, the two are not easily disentangled. A few weeks ago I wrote about Palmyra, and the problem of ‘people’ and ‘things,’ and I shall risk quoting myself and – more importantly – Robert Bevan, here:

In a particularly good article  in the Evening Standard, Robert Bevan, a member of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, discusses this whole issue very wisely, writing that “until the West can demonstrate that it understands that the fate of peoples and the fate of their culture are interlinked, there can be no resolution to the ongoing attacks on both.” He discusses the insights of Raphael Lemkin, the Byelorussian Jew who drafted and promoted the 1948 Genocide Convention (having coined the word). Lemkin linked the two voices of annihilation – against people and against their culture – in his drafting of the Convention, but the UN removed reference to the destruction of culture, with disastrous results. Not that Lemkin confused the two. Bevan quotes him as saying, luminously, “Burning books is not the same as burning bodies, but when one intervenes against mass destruction of churches and books one arrives just in time to prevent the burning of bodies.” 

Sissako’s balance is right, with every stick of dynamite and every blow by bulldozer fully implicit in the singing of the flogged girl and the shooting of the gentle Kidane. The tombs of Timbuktu’s saints have mostly been rebuilt since the relief of Timbuktu, and the books were largely hidden before the vandals reached them, so the material damage is all the more easily subsumed into the human. Now at least one of those responsible for the double destruction will appear before the ICC, a Touareg pretending only to understand Arabic.

As for Kidane, the representative Malian, “the reason he’s still alive is because he plays the guitar and sings.” Yo man.

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Millions of chickens coming West to roost


We are told with po-faced solemnity that there is a real danger of the Daech’s smuggling Islamic State terrorists into Europe in the vast column of refugees that is now knocking at our gates. I daresay this is true – it seems likely that amongst the million or so refugees entering Germany alone this year will be a few bad guys, as well as a lot of dentists, cameramen, street-sweepers, research chemists, hockey-players, games-programmers, pickpockets, graffiti artists and ney-players. So what? This is true of any mass movement of people, and it is plainly silly to think it possible to scrub a refugee population clean of all its murkier elements. But I rather doubt that there is a bearded mastermind in Raqqah co-ordinating the disguise and cover-story of suicide-bombers and arranging for them be pushed surreptitiously to Germany in wheelchairs. Why on earth would they bother?

Pause a moment to compare this curious (and frankly inflammatory) assertion with reports from Bangladesh last week that Britain is the source of much of that country’s daechi recruitment: “We have growing numbers of Bangladeshi diaspora guys coming here from Britain to recruit,” as a Bangladesh Intelligence source told the Guardian. “There are very large numbers of young men [in Bangladesh] who don’t have a job or any prospects. Their only experience is the madrasa and the mosque … when Bengalis from the UK come in, they are very easy to lead. The jihadi recruiters are coming from London, from Germany, from the US.” No need for cunning disguise here – you just buy an air ticket. Because the bad guys (as governments, in different contexts, are continually warning us) are already in Europe.

The refugee crisis, unfolding each day in new and often ghastly permutations, is morally as well as practically challenging: it is not easy, and perhaps not possible, to reach a fully-rounded reaction to it yet. Any well-functioning human being wants to help and welcome the river of humanity that stretches from Syria into central Europe, of people rescued from the immolation of Syria where so many of them began their awful journey. Equally, there is fear mixed with that generosity. One after another, transit-countries have thrown up their hands helplessly, unable to deal with the vast moving column of refugees marching north and west. The Macedonian-Greek border, the Serbian-Hungarian border, the Serbian-Croatian border, the Austrian and German borders have been closed, not necessarily out of malice, as often just overwhelmed by the demands on small countries and small border villages. This is perfectly understandable. But there are many commentators and political actors who by their choice of vocabulary and imagery (not to mention the solutions that they propose) clearly intend to push the popular view not to careful reflection, but to xenophobic rejection.

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This growing xenophobia, sometimes legitimised by governments, everywhere in the background, is most visible at the moment in eastern Europe, though not absent from the west. The Czech Republic has become almost hilariously paranoid, with chimney-sweeps and foreign footballers mistaken for terrorists. Even in Germany it seems that the bulk of anti-refugee attacks take place in the old DDR rather than the BRD. At Roszke on the Hungarian-Serbian border masked Hungarian border guards fire tear-gas and water-cannon through the fences, shouting at the thousands of refugees – it would in other circumstances be almost funny –  “Go away.” As George Szirtes points out, this is aimed at domestic audiences: the Hungarian government has put up hundreds of billboards telling the refugees that they will not be allowed to take Hungarian jobs. These billboards are, naturally, in Hungarian, a language which not one in ten thousand Syrian refugees speaks. And yet it is essential that we not forget the Hungarians, Romanians, Slovaks who swim bravely against this tide and question the callously nationalist sludge running down Europe’s gutters.

What is particularly disturbing is to watch governments across Europe treating the refugee crisis as a domestic political problem. Reactions are trimmed to the electoral winds in each country, rather than to the gale of humanity blowing out of the Levant. Fearful of the growing chauvinism of the right, whether from Jobbik or Pegida, UKIP or the FN, Europe’s governments are rowing back. Germany and Sweden have been honourable exceptions (Mrs Merkel was keen to show “Germany’s friendly, beautiful face”: but Germany has now closed its borders, and the river of humanity has frozen almost solid. By offering asylum to all Syrians and then shutting the door again, Germany seems actually to have significantly contributed to the awful knockback of human tragedy along the Balkan corridor).

The rhetoric is often small-minded, and deals with what we can allegedly afford, with the ‘austerity’ under which we live, the sheer numbers of refugees that would overwhelm us, the cultural threat to Christian Europe and – as I noted above – the risk of importing terrorists. By way of antidote to that I shall quote (at length because it is so very clear and good an expression of another, and better, way of looking at this whole problem) a letter from a newspaper last week, written by Paul Anderton of Newcastle-under-Lyme, about the welcome that Britain offered to Belgians in the autumn of 1914:

Estimates of 100,000 Belgians, mostly in family groups, and overwhelmingly coming in the three months of September to November 1914 were welcomed throughout Britain as victims of a war their government did not seek, and ours did little to avoid. They crossed the Channel by ferry and fishing boat, crowded into Folkestone, and were distributed out of holding camps in London by a volunteer War Refugees Committee headed initially by Lady Lugard and Viscount Gladstone.

These families were welcomed in towns and villages by a spontaneously formed scattering of committees which raised cash, found empty houses, organised brass bands to greet them at railway stations.

Newcastle-under-Lyme, prompted by the mayor, entertained more than 100 Belgians and raised over £2,000 before November 1915 to support them in groups managed by various church congregations.

Leek housed more than 50 refugees in three different properties by Christmas 1914 and silk-mill workers led a fund-raising scheme which made over £2,500 by May 1916.

Congleton was the first place in Cheshire to receive Belgian families, on Tuesday 8 September. Their reception was an occasion of great excitement, with two brass bands to conduct them from the railway station to their accommodation, with large crowds applauding in the streets. There is much to learn about handling a refugee crisis from a contrast between three places.

One very obvious observation is that in 1914 the government was slow and clumsy in its response to the flood of humanity. Churchill flatly rejected any idea of receiving them, and the Local Government Board had no part in distributing the families. This was done by volunteers. In fact, it was the charitable and humanitarian instincts of all sections of society that ensured that scores of thousands of families fleeing from a war zone were found shelter, food and clothing when most arrived with nothing. This episode is not quite forgotten as an aspect of the first world war, but too few lessons have been learned from it because it has never been given the attention it deserves.

The population of England and Wales in 1911 was about 36 million; of Scotland another 4.7 million. So 100,000 Belgian refugees represented some 0.24% of the UK’s population. The same proportion of today’s population, 63.4 million, would be 152,000. This is a trifle larger than the 20,000 – 0.03% of the population – that the British government currently proposes to receive; but much smaller than Mrs Merkel’s 800,000 who would constitute 0.1% of Germany’s people. (Last week’s EU quotas, small as they were, are in the range of 0.01% to 0.04%.) Then, as now, it was left to citizens rather than government to lead the effort and make the moral weather: “Churchill flatly rejected any idea of receiving them,” but Britain got on with it.

The local newspaper in our corner of north-west Essex reports that our Conservative-controlled District Council has debated the reception of migrants, and voted unanimously in favour “of playing a  full part in the housing and support of refugees seeking asylum in the UK.” As one councillor put it, “On the whole, Uttlesford is a very rich area and I would ask the working group to think about the resources available and the willingness of the people of Uttlesford to help and contribute, and I would like to see us go above and beyond what is simply our duty.” I am proud of them. No mention of who – of religion, gender, age – just unconditional openness, as “a compassionate community, to welcome desperate people and to give them sanctuary.”

That openness is vital. Most pictures of refugees are of children, families, the elderly and handicapped. The images that have particularly stirred Europe’s conscience have been of a dead child on a Turkish beach, or a Hungarian journalist tripping up an old man carrying a child, for camera. But in reality most refugees reaching the EU, and about 80% of those reaching Germany, are young men, aged 16-20, less picturesque and in some eyes more threatening. How we welcome them – the (as yet untested) Uttlesford way or the (all-too tested) Roszke way – will define the outcomes. They have very significant contributions to make to our European societies if we welcome them, give them the opportunity to work, study and remain. But if we don’t – if we make them feel excluded, despised, shut out from work, study and friendship – there will be bitterness. Irina Molodikova, an analyst from the CEU in Budapest, wrote recently that “Refugees are with us, and around us in the neighbouring countries. If we do not help them, we will marginalise them. And then – further down the line – they will follow those who promise them a better life and they will believe in it.”

Which, come to think of it, is what is happening to those young Bangladeshis “who don’t have a job or any prospects,” and are susceptible to the Pied Pipers of Bethnal Green, Cardiff and Luton. Europe must be very thoughtful, and judiciously (but generously) open-armed: there isn’t a practically, or morally, viable ‘No’ option.

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Education in North Africa

An essay of mine on education in North Africa since Independence, entitled The Sheepskin Effect, appeared in Critical Muslim no. 15, an issue devoted to Education Reform. It is part of an interesting collection, edited by Ziauddin Sardar and Jeremy Henzell-Thomas. Critical Muslim is published by the Muslim Institute and Hurst, and is an excellent quarterly review, which I thoroughly recommend. The Sheepskin Effect begins: 

“The kingdom of Libya became independent of Italy under King Idris in 1951. Just over a decade later, Algeria finally followed after its long war of independence with France in 1962. Between this period, the five countries of the southern Mediterranean coast each in different ways took control of their own futures. Amongst a sobering battery of challenges, one of the more pressing for all of them was education. A large proportion of colonial civil servants, businessmen, skilled workers and teachers left at Independence, especially from the francophone countries where settler colonialism was particularly dense. In Egypt the 1952 Revolution, followed by the Suez War and the expulsion of the mutamassirun, resident foreigners (Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Italians), had a similar effect, though Egyptian capacity was already far more developed than that of the Maghreb. In late Protectorate Morocco, for instance, there were three times as many French fonctionnaires as there were British civil servants in India, with its population forty times the size of Morocco’s – quite apart from a large European commercial and artisan classes. Each country faced an urgent need for skilled manpower to fill the vacuum. Each country’s educated local elite was both much too small, and mostly unsuited, to fill that need itself, and at the same time largely unequipped to train the next generation. Each government faced a pent-up demand for the social escalator that education represented, and from which the vast majority of the Muslim population had been excluded under French rule. Constructing a new education system was for each an urgent and absolutely crucial area of national development.”

Read more …

English Tangier – ‘Our little Town, and narrow lines’


Sitting in a hospital bed I have been consoled by an excellent new book, English Colonial Texts on Tangier, 1661-1684, by Karim Bejjit of Université Hassan II, Casablanca. If that sounds dry, blame only the title, because the book itself isn’t dry at all. Prof. Bejjit (and I admit an interest in both senses of the word, Karim being a friend; and I, fascinated by his subject) has collected a series of a dozen and a half contemporary pamphlets about Tangier under the English occupation, edited them into a chronological narrative and provided a very useful, long introduction. I have read the book at a sitting (a luxury perhaps best available to readers who are confined to a bed covered with tubes and sticky electrodes) and enjoyed every page. Both Professor Bejjit and his pamphleteers write, in their different ways, English prose more elegant and muscular than many of those who have come between.

In 1662 Charles II received the city of Tangier, along with the seven islands of Bombay, as part of the dowry of his Portuguese Queen, Catherine of Braganza. If we reflect on the extraordinary imprint that Bombay left on English culture, commerce, empire and history, it seems necessary to ask why Tangier did not have the same sort of impact. Bombay remained British, site of the symbolic Gateway to India, until 1947; and, now renamed Mumbai, is one of the great cities of the modern world, as well as India’s financial capital. Tangier remained in English hands only until 1683-84 when the garrison slighted the walls, blew up the harbour mole, and sailed away, leaving a much reduced Tanja to Moulay Ismail’s army, and a long sleep. Budgett Meakin, the editor of the Times of Morocco, wrote of the post-English period, “Since then its history has nothing worth recording, even as a pirate harbour, the only events of importance being the removal to it of the foreign consuls in 1770, and its bombardment in 1844 by the French.” One might add that it has been a place of exile and pleasure for Moroccans and Europeans, an arm’s-length holding-pen for the European diplomatic corps, an international jurisdiction, a rather tawdry haven for those in search of pleasures frowned upon in Europe, a bête noire for King Hassan II and only today – 331 years after the English left – perhaps the focus of a real economic take-off. The obvious question is, why?

The answer lies in a complicated intersection of English politics and a new, effective Moroccan dynasty which asserted itself in the later seventeenth century. While Charles leased Bombay to the East India Company for £10 year, he kept Tangier as a crown possession, and tried to develop it as a colony. Bombay, for all its ups and downs, was a strategic entrepôt which attracted trade and investment, and turned John Company a massive profit. Tangier, close though it was to Charles’s heart, was a drain on royal finances at a time when there were many other financial drains much closer to Whitehall. But more importantly, it fell victim to the deeply antagonistic politics of the 1670s and early 1680s, the struggle around the Exclusion Crisis and the Popish Plot, which made raising money from parliament very difficult indeed. The king certainly had the vision. As another author (Mrs Routh, in 1911) put it, Charles

saw in imagination a busy and prosperous city, the capital of a Moroccan Empire, possessing a harbour which, in the hands of English engineers, would make Tangier one of the best trading stations in the Mediterranean, and would help England to maintain that command of the sea which is they keystone of her power; a city attracting to its neighbourhood numbers of English settlers and merchants, who would create a growing trade in the interior of Morocco, and who would ultimately make the King’s African dominions a self-supporting colony and source of strength and wealth to the mother-country.


But he did not, in the end have the means, and the sums were huge: by 1683 Pepys estimated that Tangier had cost the crown £1.6 million. The structure was wrong – the constant lobbying of the Tangier merchants prevented the establishment of a Morocco Company which might have had the kind of incentives for investment that the EIC had in Bombay; and so the economic basis of English Tangier was never solidly built. What Prof Bejjit shows admirably is how the pressures of English politics made it quite impossible to raise the necessary funding through parliamentary grant. Just as the Alaouite sultan Moulay Ismail began to put serious military pressure on the Tangier colony in the late 1670s and early 1680s, it became definitively clear that the money needed to defend the colony was not going to be available. The vision was lacking in Parliament, and the granting of supply came to seem simply another prop to a catholicising authoritarianism. In the end the King decided to do without parliament altogether, surviving on grants from his brother-in-law Louis XIV, which did not stretch to underwriting colonial adventure. It was this all-consuming conflict with parliament, and its financial implications, that squeezed English Tangier off the bottom of the royal priority list. There is a splendid note in Grey’s Debates from October 1680 (quoted in Annabel Patterson’s Long Parliament of Charles II) which illustrates this beautifully:

On the day the Exclusion Bill had been left with the Lords, his Majesty had by Message demanded a Supply for Tangier, without which, it was urged, that Place could not much longer be preserved. There was some truth in this, and some fallacy, as there is generally in all demands of the like nature. Tangier was indeed in some distress, but the king was in more, and whatever was given in relief of the first, would also have contributed to relief of the last …

Parliament was not just posturing, though there was a fair bit of that too: Tangier must really have seemed quite dangerous. The Tangier Regiment, the second of foot (later known after the Tangier Governor Sir Percy Kirke as ‘Kirke’s Lambs’), was only the second permanent regiment established and funded after the Restoration, and memories of Cromwell’s New Model Army, along with the King’s catholic sympathies, and his brother the Duke of York’s catholicism, made a standing army – which is what the Tangier garrison was – a very hot potato. On top of this, many of the troops were catholic Irish (there is a telling moment in May 1680, when soldiers called from fort to fort in the outworks to co-ordinate their withdrawal to the city, and in order that the Moors in the siege trenches not understand, they “spake to us in Irish”). At least two governors of Tangier were catholic: Lord Belasyse (one of the five lords impeached during the ‘Popish Plot’) and John Fitzgerald (who had commanded a regiment of Irish exiles in the Spanish service), while another, Lord Peterborough, was dismissed the Council during the ‘Plot,’ and converted to Rome in 1687. The explosive nature of the cocktail is clear. Tangier had a symbolic value in the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary struggle over religion, absolutism and a standing army which hobbled it from the start.

One of the pamphlets in this book, anonymously written, laments the decline of Anglican practice in the town, and the rise of Catholicism. “Too many have cast off all respects due to the God that hath made them, and mind nothing but Debauchery and Lewdness: other have hearkened to the sollicitations of some Popish Priests, and make profession of that Religion, that they might, by means of their Absolutions, enjoy their Vices and filthiness without remorse of Conscience.” The religious antagonisms of London ran through the Tangier garrison.

Maintaining Tangier in a military sense was an uphill struggle. In Lord Peterborough’s garrison “the Souldiers were eaten up of wants, cowed with their frequent misfortunes, possessed with an opinion the Moor was invincible,” and Lord Teviot, his successor had to undertake “the restoration of a body to strength, and to secure it from relapsing, after some emacerating disease has reduced it to sort of breathing skeleton …” Conditions continued hard, the garrison often at odds with the town, while “the Souldiers diet being salt Meat, disposes them in two or three years to inveterate ill habits of Body, Obstructions, Scurvies, Fluxes, etc.” Pay was frequently two years in arrears, rotations of duty virtually unknown, recruitment difficult. It a wonder the garrison put up the brave resistance they did to Moulay Ismail’s assaults in 1680.


What comes across very strongly from the pamphlets is that Tangier never ceased to be an alien implant in a strange land. Long gone the days of the previous century when English foremen worked on the sugar plantations of the Souss: these tangerine Englishmen were for the most part ignorant strangers. “As men fallen in love with their prison, nothing by them seemed as feared as enlargement,” wrote one chronicler of the early days of the occupation. And as another anonymous writer lamented sadly in 1679, “it is our unhappiness that we know not what is done amongst the Moors; we live in Tangier within the Walls and Lines, and unless we send a Flag of Truce for some pittiful business, we scarce see the face of a Moor in a years time, but at a distance … we have never sent any to understand their Country, to search into their strength and dependancies, to examine their Interest …” They had little idea what was going on in Morocco at a momentous time of shifting power, with the fast-consolidating sultanate of Moulay Ismail at Meknes replacing the fragmented statelets that had already given them enough trouble in the 1660s. Rare were those like Colonel Percy Kirke – he of the Lambs – who went on mission to Meknes and Fes in early 1681, made a good impression on the Sultan, and kept his eyes open while observing military exercises. Kirke noted that Ismail’s military strength, particularly in gunnery and siege-works, was provided not by Frenchman as was generally supposed, but by renegades; he understood the superiority of Moroccan horses and cavalry, but also the possibilities offered by their indiscipline. He did not, though, underestimate them: “Our Ranged Armies, keeping their Squadrons firm, and relieving their Charge with loose Parties, after their own manner, must take their ground from them, and so consequently be Masters of the Field; but however they are a very Vigorous and Valiant Enemy, their Discipline proportionable to the confused and difficult passages of this Country, observing their Ambuscades with the greatest cunning and patience Imaginable …” This was in marked contrast with Lord Henry Howard who, in 1669, in a fit of abject cowardice refused to leave Tangier at all, to proceed on his mission to Fes, because he feared for his life.

By the time Kirke led his mission to Meknes and Fes, the game was already over. A brisk campaign between March and May 1680, commanded by Qa’id Omar ben Haddu Hamami, rolled up the forts that the English had worked so hard to establish in forward positions to command the environs of the town. Renegades ran artillery and mines (“One of our Men belonging to Henrietta Fort is turn’d Moor, and made Master Gunner,” comments a diarist), and very effective deep trenching works were dug between the forts. A truce was made in mid-May, but it was clear that the remaining forts were indefensible and that, as the same diarist put it, “The Moors grow a formidable Enemy, being improved in all the Arts of War, as Mining, Sapeing, Scaling, and Battering.” Without a serious financial and military commitment, English Tangier was effectively lost: there was no such commitment, and the King, recognizing realities, ordering withdrawal and demolition. The main slighting and demolition was done in November 1683, and the last English ship sailed away the following spring. A rather half-hearted adventure was over.

It could have been different, though it is Morocco’s good fortune that it was not. Henry Sheres, the Surveyor-General of the Tangier Mole, was in no doubt of the city’s strategic potential, overlooking “the greatest Thorough-fare of Commerce in the World; having in one view almost the whole Sea comprehended between the Four Capes of Travalgar, Gibraltar, Spartel and Ceuta … so that no vessel can pass in or out of the Mediterranean, unobserv’d from thence.”  This strategic stranglehold on the Mediterranean would be increasingly essential to England’s naval power and commerce; but in the end, Gibraltar proved an easier stronghold from which England could dominate the Strait. It was captured in 1704, and ceded by treaty in 1713 – remaining British at least half a century longer than Bombay, a continuing post-colonial presence on that “greatest Thorough-fare,” and a potent factor in the history of Morocco.


Arab Hyphen

Arab Arts and Literature


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

L'édition au Maroc

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

Mercurius Maghrebensis

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

Maroc (im)pertinent

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

Ahmed Benchemsi

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

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