The road to Morocco Part I

April 30, 2021 by No Comments

At the crossroads of two continents, the Kingdom of Morocco is a unique North African nation on the northwestern edge of Africa. The diversity of desert, ocean, mountains, and mild climate make it an ideal tourist destination, and the natives are friendly. With its rich Mediterranean soil, Carthaginians and Romans made it their granary. Assigned here as a young foreign service officer, I made it my home.

A little story

One of the first things I learned about Morocco is its long relationship with the United States. At the time of the American Revolution, our ships were under attack by Barbary corsair pirates and our sailors were being held for ransom. In 1777 we asked the then Sultan Moulay Suliman for help and protection. The sultan made Morocco the first country to recognize the United States. The Treaty of Friendship between Morocco and the United States was finally signed in 1786 by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. While our embassy is in Rabat, the original American legation is hidden in the heart of Tangier’s old town. It was a gift to the United States from Sultan Suliman in 1821. It still is.

The Official Tangier

During World War II, the Tangier Legation became the largest US diplomatic mission in North Africa. It plays an important role in American espionage through the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and in the successful 1942 Allied landings in Morocco and Algeria. An Islamic country where Arabs and Jews have peacefully coexisted since the Spanish Inquisition, Morocco accepted thousands of Holocaust refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II. Since then, most have emigrated to Israel. The descendants of those who remained still live within a Monarchy that has zero tolerance for terrorists and extremists like ISIS.

The unofficial Tangier

After World War II, FW Woolworth’s heiress Barbara Hutton buys a palatial villa in Tangier’s old town, where she organizes lavish parties. Every time the US Sixth Fleet calls, one of the richest women in the world graciously welcomes the officers and crew to her home. Among other guests from the Rabat embassy, ​​I personally met Hutton during a celebration on July 4, 1971. Despite all the bad press about the wild parties and seven ruined marriages of this “poor rich girl,” I find her warm. , generous and fragile. There is the famous play on words by F. Scott Fitzgerald-Ernest Hemingway: “The rich are different from you and me.” “Yes, they have more money.” In fact, the rich are different. But unless we are born rich, we can never understand them and their messy, sloppy lives. Unfortunately, neither did poor Gatsby.

Bohemian Tangier and an American legacy

Expats like Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac, Henri Matisse, Truman Capote and many other writers and artists find their way to Tangier and make it their home. In its long history, the American Legation later served as an Arabic language school for American diplomats and a training center for Peace Corps volunteers.

When you think you are lost in the winding maze of narrow alleys and hookah lounges of the medina, anyone can direct you to 8 Rue America, where a living history of the alliance between our two countries prevails. Home to a collection of artifacts from the 17th to 20th centuries, the original legation is now an American museum and cultural conference center (Institute for Moroccan Studies) with a Paul Bowles wing, a research library, and an Arabic literacy program for women. women of the medina of Tangier.

Built in a traditional square courtyard style, from the roof of the Legation you can see the Strait of Gibraltar and the Rif Mountains. Spain is a short ferry ride away. Looking down, you’re in the heart of the merchants, donkeys, tourists, artists, and long-haired barefoot hippies, four of whom I know but never hope to see again.

Sedate Rabat and the case of the pot

Along with classical Moroccan architecture (glazed ceramic tiles, fountains, geometric designs and floral motifs), the more formal capital of Rabat reflects the flavor of the old French colonial rule with its wide boulevards and its language. Government and official affairs are conducted in French and modern Arabic.

On a quiet afternoon in the middle of my language lessons, those flower children of Tangier whom I never thought I would see again, are escorted to my office by Andy, our Marine Security Guard from the embassy. A married Canadian couple, Philippe and Adele, and two young Americans, Ethan and Amy, want to purchase a minivan so they can drive across the desert to Timbuktu in Mali. Having seen an old Volkswagen in our back parking lot, they are willing to check it out and take it out of our hands. When I tell Roger, our consular officer, he is delighted to unload the abandoned monstrosity. Two weeks later, clean and tidy, the fabulous four walk into my office with the following story.

While repairing the minivan, they discover a giant can of Wise potato chips hidden under the front seat. It’s packed to the brim with hash, and I’d like to come and celebrate how well they fixed the vehicle. Although commonly used by men, hashish is illegal in Morocco. Since the banned substance has remained on embassy property for almost two years, Roger decides to remain silent. For the next psychedelic days, we are all happy campers.

Hollywood is wrong

The industrial port of Casablanca is for commerce and Rick and Ilsa. Marrakech is for fun. Andalusian music, tajines, acrobats, snake charmers, tanneries and a kaleidoscope of souks make the walled city of Marrakech a magnet for tourists and more hippies. Following the successful invasion of North Africa in 1942, both Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt visited Marrakech and stayed at the La Mamounia hotel. Thirty years later, me too. He couldn’t afford it today, but it is one of the most magnificent hotels in the world with gardens so glorious that Sir Winston had to paint them. Just a short drive from Marrakech are the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, with scattered Berber villages and a short ski season in winter.

Fez meets mom

Nobody knows where Fez gets its name from, but it has nothing to do with a hat. A medieval center of learning, Fez resonates with the clamor of craftsmen hammering brass trays and carpenters making the tables to set them. Donkeys wander through narrow cobbled alleys where merchants sell mountains of ground spices in yellow, red and orange. A rainbow of rugs woven by Berber women is as ubiquitous as the large vats of colored dyes used to saturate their wool and leather. At dusk, stray cats glide down dark alleys, hooded figures in jellies hurry to the muezzin’s call to prayer and the minarets light up like stars.

While my mother Dorothea (Dottie for her friends) visits me in Rabat, I take her on a trip to Fez, where we stay with some Moroccan friends. Here we meet a robust USAID 60-something American agronomist named Charles.

With bites of couscous tagine and cinnamon pistachio dough for dessert, Charles falls in love with Mom. He invites her to go with him to a small village in the hills where he is teaching how to handle the soil. After levitating my septogenarian mother and her Murray Space Shoes in the Land Rover, they both take off and I don’t see them for three days.

Mom, the diplomat

In the early 1970s, Stuart Rockwell is the handsome American ambassador to Morocco. A multilingual foreign service officer whose long career began with the OSS during World War II, women buzz around him like bees. While mom the queen bee is still with me, I am invited to a party at Rockwell’s residence in Rabat and she is included. After the formal introductions, I lose track of my mother and see her on the terrace, deep in a spirited conversation over martinis with the Ambassador. I wonder what can be so fascinating that Rockwell has his undivided attention. Unlike me, Dottie is an uninhibited free spirit, completely at ease with the milkman, the postman, or the glamorous Harvard man from the State Department.

Rockwell’s wife, Rosalind, signals the end of a party by having a waiter circulate hot cups of her own highly-spiced chicken soup, which is guaranteed to knock your socks off any hangover. Watching Mom deftly swap the empty martini glass for the aromatic chicken soup, I remember that her name in Greek mythology means Gift of God. So it’s no wonder that she came into my life in the middle of the Great Depression to rescue my brother Robert and me from abusive institutional child care. She was my father’s second wife, and even though it was the worst of times, they made it the best of times for two wild boys who finally had a home.

An “ordinary” housewife who never went to diplomatic school, Dottie had extraordinary vision, a captivating smile, and loved to read. He saw life through impartial lenses and people responded to his open and non-judgmental presence. She would have been a great ambassador. To be continued in Part II.

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