I first visited Morocco in January 1943 as a young officer affected, with others, to the Casablanca Conference; it was considered sack time, after sterner service in the Western Desert, so called, or Libya. Originally it was to have been between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, but Uncle Joe, as both called the Russian dictator, sulked off at the last moment, even suggesting, according to one passage in Churchill’s memoirs, that England had connived with Germany in Hitler’s invasion of Russia. Chiang Kaishek was also carded lo come, but only Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie, who had been squiring the exquisite Madame Chiang (one of the Soong sisters) around America on a speaking tour, believed in the promises of the devious Kuomintang commander. Certainly “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell didn’t.
That was the Casa of the Bogart Bergman epic, released earlier the same year and unseen by me until after the war, which now seems to have found some permanent niche in our lava of legends of World War II. Too, there was Blood-and-Guts Patton helping unload ships on the beaches of Fedhala (now Mohammedia), a port said to be seething with smugglers, spies, refugees paying vast sums (if not heirloom jewelry) for papers out to Lisbon and America, a town in whose waterfront dives German submarine captains openly hobnobbed with their Allied counterparts, though I myself saw none of these, nor anything of the major brass.
The security for the conference was remarkable. None of the press summoned that Sunday the 24th to watch de Gaulle shake hands with Giraud at Anfa knew that the two great Allied leaders had been in their midst for days. Staying once more at the Hotel Anfa recently, I could envision how its raised site could be cut off from prying eyes. De Gaulle was described as “very haughty” by Churchill, but this was vis-à-vis Giraud as much as himself. Henri Giraud, at that moment the linchpin of French North Africa, was an extraordinary character, and I only wish I had got to see him once. He had made two escapes from prisoner of war camps in World War I, the first disguised as a woman, surely quite a trick for a man who stood over six three, and the second (with the help of Nurse Cavell) as a circus performer.
This time round, in 1940, the Germans shut him in supposedly escape proof Konigstein, high up on the Czech frontier. In May 1942 Giraud got out by using rope smuggled to him in cans of ham. One of the last great handsome adventurers, like Colonel David Stirling of Britain’s Long Range Desert Group (eventually betrayed to Rommel by some Arabs for 11 pounds of tea), and by this time far from young, Giraud got to Vichy, France, and then over into Morocco, where he became High Commissioner for French Africa and Commander in Chief of the French Army there. Metropolitan France still didn’t trust de Gaulle, and history, not only French history, would have been very differ ent if Giraud had been chosen to lead France into freedom rather than de Gaulle.
Then, to the trepidation of those involved in Casablanca security, Churchill invited Roosevelt to watch the sun set on the snows of the Atlas from Marrakesh after the conference was over. They were lodged in Mrs. Taylor’s palatial villa, under the auspices of Mr. Kenneth Pendar, and Roosevelt was carried to the tower at its top, from which Churchill painted his sole canvas of the war. I have recently stayed in the room at the Mamounia in Marrakesh that Churchill subsequently used and am glad to say the hotel is one of the few such places not wholly vulgarized since those days. The Casa of 1943 is unrecognizable today. I have revisited Morocco many times, to motor the entire country, but particularly its sumptuous South, where a thriving, confident Arab civilization can be seen at its purest, but I fear my most recent visit will be my last.
A couple of decades ago that South was still in shock from the staggering Agadir earthquake—15,000 dead in IO seconds. Below it a new Agadir has arisen, a mini-Miami, where (chiefly French) group tourists crowd the hotels and beaches. Nonstop animation (childish games and competitions) rules the day while poolside the monokini reigns topless queen, alongside the heavy robings of native staffs who show considerable tolerance of such infidel infringements. For while the Khomeini may be trying to drag Islam back into the seventh century, modernized Morocco seems to my eye to have reached a compromise with the West.
If young Mohammed now wears a crash helmet on his motorbike, he invariably swathes it in a burnoose. No one wants to stone a woman for not wearing the litham. Men—even uniformed cops-still hold hands in the street. You may buy amethysts road side but not beer. Cafés ‘cannot sell alcohol, though vendors often asked me for payment in scotch (or tapes of rock music), and it is rare for French crus to figure on hotel wine lists—Morocco’s sturdy roses have to substitute, notably the Gris de Boulaoune. The attitude toward alcohol varies in Moslem countries, but I can’t help feeling that the absence of the aperitif hour, the famous cinq à sept, is more noticeable in former French protectorates, like Algeria and Morocco, than elsewhere, for the French organized a way of life, indeed a kitchen, around such liquid refreshments. Wherever they went, they planted trees and set out cafés, for pastis or petanque or both; in the leafy squares of their North African villages, the cafés are still there but usually empty.
Today the call of the muezzin comes from a cassette. Awakened in the dark by the sound, my Irish wife thought it a drunk in the bar and called up a puzzled management. French is taught as the second language in the schools but is less spoken than it was. You certainly won’t get any French out of the stalwart frieze of Berber women lining any local mar ket. Signposts are principally Arabic. Women wear Adidas jogging pants under their djellabas instead of those flowered knee-breeches immortalized by Delacroix. The veil is seen much less of late, though for some reason it is still de rigueur in that charming ex-Portuguese fishing village of Essaouria (the old Mogador) north of Agadir, where against stark white walls, white-robed women with black veils move like ghosts. And nearly all country women all over still whip a protective shawl out of their teeth across their faces at sight of the cam era’s evil eye, while little children hit the dirt. Once the offensive lens is put away, however, they leap up laughing, besieging the tourist with requests for bonbons. It beats being called honky in Times Square.
Even bargaining in the souks, where you can buy anything from camels to curlers, has today taken on something of an official character, with percent ages suggested in government brochures. South of Zagara, the Tamegroute library or zaouiya houses 13th-century illuminated Korans in scribed on gazelle hide, and the Draa river (once sheltering crocodiles according to rupestrian carvings in the vicinity) trickles off into the Sahara—52 camel days to Timbuktu as a sign post had it until recently. Here I sat with a group of elderly Moroccans in desert robes and watched a Seven-Up ad on TV. I have seldom seen any thing quite so incongruous in my life.
Eastward out of Agadir lie the ancient caravan routes, now concerted into good highways, through red-clay country studded with low adobe villages or ksours inhabited by a colorfully dressed and courteous peasantry, people who have nothing but share every thing. Particularly striking are the men in blue, the indigo dye of whose djella bas often rubs off on their beards. It is splendid motoring, if lonely on the flats; one can drive 20 kilometers with out encountering a car, only camel and goat herders to either side, generally girls. When I first drove these roads, they were crossed by small brooks or oueds, forging through which was frequently too much for my rented Fiat; one got to know the depth of water by the presence beside it, in picturesque poses, of two or three lo cals looking elaborately off into differ ent directions but all too ready to push-start the tourist for a modicum of baksheesh thereafter.
To Agadir’s south, Tiznit shows fine old fortress walls, while further inland Tafraoute is set in a circle of arid mountains, golden at sunset. Further into the interior still, Ouarzazate, be side the Kasbah of Taouirt, probably the most intact such survival in Morocco with its fine residence of the Glaoui chieftain, was, and still is, a sort of Grand Central of the oases of old. Colleen and I broke our trip there at the Gazelle d’Or, where we had stayed 20 years before. In those days it had the reputation of being the most luxurious hotel in Africa, and being greeted there, after navigating the snowy passes of the Atlas, by a flambeau-carrying servant in baggy breeches who ran in front of the car to the cottage selected, was a memorable experience.
The Gazelle d’Or is far from what it was, but the grounds around its 15 private chalets, each with its own log fire, are still a glorious English garden, herbacious borders of hollyhock, sweet william, sweet pea, marigold, and roses contrasting felicitously with the usual tropic riot of bougainvillea, date palms, hibiscus. In front of our stone terrace were purple convolvuli border ing the view of snow-tipped mountains beyond, while the house itself was creepered by a heavily laden lemon tree. We awoke to the cooing of wood pigeons. The pool was a private place over whose blue water swifts dived and waterskied.
Alas, such peace turned out to be an exception in the trail of hotels strung out across this magnificent mahogany landscape. Unfortunately for the independent traveler, this whole area has succumbed to tightly organized group tourism, chiefly French, German, and Dutch, though one busload of Japanese, all in jackets and ties, spilled over us at Agdz, all merrily clicking their cameras. The government’s string of Diafa hotels is being sold off to the old French railroad company PLM (Paris-Lyons-Marseilles), with the result that at 6:30 P.M., hundreds of harried travelers will fall out of their buses anywhere from Agadir to Erfoud (pretty much the end of the line), all bawling for their table d’hôte. At 6:30 A.M., they’ll be en route again.
The hotels become motels, willy nilly, and it is hard, if not impossible, for the itinerant loner to insert himself anywhere, since most of these “towns” have but one hotel. Nor are any of these hotels set up for correspondence, so that it was only by the good graces of Monsieur Raguige, Head of Tourism at Rabat, that I could plan any logical itinerary at all. I met no Americans east of Ouarzazate, barring a couple in a camper-not such a dumb idea in the circumstances. All over we heard horror stories from itinerant French who had booked months before only to find themselves roomless, hundreds of kilometers from the next stage. One such couple we encountered had rent ed a bunk in the nearest hospital.
The PLM-Diafa hotels are inexpensive, especially for groups, and usually hospitable. They vary in comfort and facilities. None we encountered would take credit cards, and few exchange traveler’s checks, entailing long lines in local banks. At Tafraout we enjoyed a vast, gloomily Victorian suite into which we could have fitted the whole of our New York apartment, and all lights went out at nine. At Taliouine and Kelaa-des-Mgouna (where we caught the festival of roses at the end of April) the architecture of the new hotels was pleasantly pre-Saharan. So was their service.
At Ouarzazate our room was the impecunious tourist’s syllogism; when you were in the bed you were in the room, but equally when you were in the room you were in the bed. On the other hand, our bathroom at Zagara was vastly bigger than the bedroom, while”the entrance hall at Erfoud was the size of a gym with the quality of some Mussolini dopolavoro center, all puce carpeting and bad brass and artificial plants under a vast cupola from which a portrait of the monarch, 10 times life-size, gazed down on the heathen with understandable compassion. The line of bottles, filled, by the bath betokened once more no water in the pipes. Furious French refused to pay their bills.
The effect on the once great Moroccan cuisine has been disastrous. These groups’ll eat anything. We never once saw in our last visit the flaky-pastried bstila (pigeon flavored with cinnamon and egg) of our earlier trips. Cous-cous has become cautious and tagines timid, with the introduction of Sheratons and Ramadas. The semolina of a good cous-cous should be dry and mealy, against which to ring a symphony of tastes. Mine were always mushy.
Nevertheless, north and east of Ouarzazate lies Foreign Legion land. The pearl of Morocco’s great South is Tinerhir (sometimes Romanized as Tinhir on signposts), set in a green oasis with a 360-degree view of mountains, including the snowy Atlases. Russet kasbahs lie around. The air is wine. Here the Diafa hotel abuts an° other Glaoui palace, from which a short excursion takes you into the Todra Gorges where red-rock walls rise a thousand feet over the rivulet and its bordering paths. It is a little reminiscent of Zion National Park north of Springdale. Here, one morning, we saw Birnham Wood descending down a cliffside. This clump turned out to be a group of girls almost invisibly hunched under immense bundles of rosemary which they had culled for their animals. Although they had to walk many miles thus at the patient crouch they were cheerful and giggly, their dresses glittering with tinsel and lame, quite the dernier cri in these arid and forgotten parts.
Having come as far as this, it is a must to make it on to Erfoud and Rissani, where the road again gives way to the duny sands of the Sahara (here and there a Marlene Dietrich reminder, one fears). From Tinerhir it leads like an arrow to Er-Rachidia, the surprisingly large capital of the Tafila-let province, where the modern world raises its ugly head, since the area is bristling with anti-Polisaro troops at the moment. Erfoud lies in a plain of palm trees. All these villages have their souks or market days; hotels will tell you when they hold them. Boumalne and nearby El-Kalaa-des-Mgounes stage theirs on Wednesdays. They are not only colorful but offer some aston ishing bargains (in the way of rugs and blankets, especially). What’s more, you tend to be less pestered in these remote parts than in Marrakesh or Tangier, where you have to run the gauntlet of importunate children directly as you step outside your hotel. For group tourism, nonexistent in 1943, has both helped Morocco, a land where every day is a gift from Allah, into Moslem ally status with America, but also turned parts of it into a touristical parody of itself. For such, for once, Americans are not responsible.