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Morocco's Gift


Absolute monarchy. What a disconcerting thought. Don't think you would you fancy one. Would you? Britons have the best of both worlds as in both democratic government and monarchy, yet some of us needlessly express concerns about the royal family's expenses which cost less than a pound per person. Ban McDonald's and keep the Monarchy, I say. British passport holders sometimes need to be reminded how fortunate they are to have a globally respected symbol that is such a huge force for good. The Buckingham Palace chief resident represents British heritage and hope. The English have always been fond of pomp, tradition, and ceremony. The Royal Family certainly knows how to deliver all that.

Elizabeth II and her family appear to be sensible and considerate personalities. They live to serve the public and do not want to be seen as extravagant beings who have no idea as to what the vox populi feel. Morocco, on the other hand, offers quite a different scenario. In that North African Kingdom, one must hang a picture of the monarch if they run a shop or any public office. If you do not follow this apparently un-official rule, you will become a suspect as a non-supporter of the royal family. Consequently you must prepare yourself for being questioned gratuitously for your anti-monarchist beliefs. After all, the King is a descendant of Prophet Mohammed. One of his titles is Amir al-Mu'mineen - the commander of the faithful. He embodies both "spiritual and temporal authority". Always agree with the King. And his family. They are the angels of God; the government its ambassadors. You do not have a choice but to say yes to everything. It is simple. Unless of course you are part of the ultra-rich and highly successful groups. You can then at least offer to put forward your views very subtly and carefully.

Morocco has earned itself a reputation as a tolerant, nascent democracy in North Africa. In reality, it is a very different story. I saw the true face of the country while living there between 2003-2006. Morocco may have forged privileged ties with the European Union, and as a result helped draw millions of tourists to its cities, mountains and beaches but repressive treatments and police-state activities still carry on. In Marrakech, I remember those moments when I used to feel particularly angry because my Moroccan friends were afraid to accompany me on the streets or any other foreigner for that matter. They feared the police would stop them at any moment asking for papers. Papers which they would have to apply for in order to prove we were indeed friends as opposed to them being my unofficial guide or offerer of a different service. The behavior of some policemen could often turn so ugly that they deserved to be dismissed from service. The youths always voiced their concerns for lack of 'horriya' which meant freedom. They dreamed of getting on a plane and arriving in Europe. It is not an exaggeration when I say that would mean the world to them.

The head of state of Morocco is a young man compared to his other Arab counterparts. King Mohammed VI's cherubic appearance is admired by many. The fact that he married a 'commoner' was also applauded. He is only forty four years old. According to various sources, he led the life of a colourful student living in Europe during his university days. The Belgian daily Le Soir once revealed that Mohammed VI would spend much of his free time in gay bars looking flamboyant but unrecognizable. He would be often referred to as 'La Reine' by some of my Moroccan friends who demonstrated both courage and charisma. It does require a certain degree of courage to speak freely about your leader in a country like Morocco. Why La Reine? The knowledge that the King possesses quite feminine mannerisms is apparently widespread in the country.

He is supposedly genuinely interested in developing stronger ties with America and the Western world. Several profound public speeches have been made by the ruler expressing his deep interest in creating an equal society and giving women their fair share of rights. Evidently, he did create a panel to revise Morocco's Civil Status Code, the Moudawana, in 2003. Mohammed VI made headlines all over the Arab world by modernising Family Law. It lifted the iniquity imposed on women, protecting children's rights, and safeguarding men's dignity. The sarcastic ones chuckle when I tell them that the Moroccan government has recently announced an annual Women's Day in the Kingdom every October. The reason behind their cynicism is this - the average Moroccan man couldn't care less about respecting women's rights, so why would he want to celebrate women's day? Would he not laugh at this newly created concept?

But the amended family law was crucial to promote the wind of change. Among its provisions: husband and wife are jointly responsible for the family, women are not subject to the "guardianship" of a male family member, women can institute a divorce and women have the right to accept a marriage only if her husband agrees not to take further wives. You don't have to be a Nobel Laureate to understand the harsh and cruel conditions numerous women had to endure before this law was put in place. I am absolutely certain that malicious practises still continue and nobody bats an eyelid. Law is one thing but people's mentality is entirely a different matter altogether. And these take decades to change.

One of my fondest memories is sharing a Mercedes Benz taxi on a boiling Summer day a few years ago with some Berbers in order to get to a village in the middle of nowhere in Morocco. It cost me three pounds. Squashed, thirsty and being forced to listen to the loud FM radio station that the driver had just put on. Why fondest? As they say, the journey is half the adventure and because three hours later I found myself in a largish empty room sitting down on a washed out red carpet eating couscous with homemade butter, and chicken breasts, made by a plasterer friend's mother who would keep on stroking my shoulders as a sign of affection. The only right she had been given was to cook and clean all day. Her other main duty was to obey her husband's every whim quietly; without questions. A part of me felt sad for her. Another part concluded what can one do when a nation's very own cultures and traditions contradict women's rights that we take for granted in Europe.

Their house was made entirely of mud bricks. No painted walls. Wallpaper would be a far fetched imagination. Candles would be lit at night to save whatever little electricity was being supplied. Compare that with the high life of Dubai's Arabs. After lunch, I was invited to have a little siesta in the open courtyard which I would share with donkeys. Lambs were grazing in the wide green fields. Trucks passing by on the main road every ten minutes or so. Sweaty young farmers listening to cheesy Arab pop songs during their lunch break and smoking Fortuna cigarettes. No Vanity Fair crowd this was. Life was uncorrupted, careless and merry. I would return to Marrakech in the evening to attend a dinner party where I discovered I was being sat next to Tracey Emin. What would have the farmer boys made of her, let alone her art? And afterwards, I would go to Djema El Fna for a bit of midnight musical pleasure and juicy sausages called 'Merguez'. Sometimes accompanied by foreigners on their first time to Morocco marveling at every sight and sound but most times alone which was far more enjoyable.

The following weekend I would be drinking mint tea with British friends' house guests discussing the future of Moroccan politics. Or the unemployment disasters. Some of the guests were alarmed that the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) had such power and influence over people. They all shared the same sentiment in the end irrespective of the conclusion on those conversations. Morocco was heavenly. It was bliss. A medieval oasis of life and fantastical adventures compared to the materialistic and reality TV world of modern day America and Britain. What did they know? As weekend visitors and owners of riads in Marrakech, they would descend upon their ''exotic space'', have ''a ball'' and disappear. Servants, cooks and guides would take care of their demands and house guests would enjoy impeccable hospitality. So from that perspective, yes, Morocco was indeed beautiful. I was twenty-one. Morocco felt home. But the luxury lifestyle including all the chic hotels and palatial properties that attracted foreigners to Morocco wasn't my interest. I was into the daily lives of the men and women on the street. My local butcher and I had more inspiring conversations than any I had had with the A list stars who frequented Morocco. I learnt much about the misery of the youth. I picked up Moroccan Arabic in five months. I looked Moroccan. For me, North Africa was more exciting and might I add, happening, than Europe and Asia. Growing up was something meant for other people to do back in Britain as far as I was concerned. At the time, I wanted Marrakech to be my life. Forever. Naive? No. Dreamer? Yes.

I hear complaints these days from Moroccans and foreign residents of Marrakech alike that the city has become a noisy circus consisting of foreign tourists while the queues outside the French consulate formed by visa hopefuls get longer. Everybody wants a piece of Marrakech except young Moroccans. They will do just about anything in order to touch European land. 'Chomage' is a subject passionately discussed most evenings in all parts of the country over coffee and tea.

You say what's wrong with Morocco becoming the Costa Blanca of North Africa? Well, I will tell you. No longer is there that cherished freedom of space on the streets as it was back in my days and you do not find a sense of allure anymore. Marrakech reflected a strong identity of beguiling Arab mystique. What would once have been full of Berber charm has now been reduced into mere tourism propaganda. God, Land and King. That is a motto difficult not to be aware of - it's laid out in stones on many hillsides: "Allah, al-Watan, al-Malik". But they might want to change it to Tourism, Properties and Hotels. Morocco has become a harem of hedonism for global business, media and entertainment industries - from ultra-rich Saudis to the South American art dealers (as well as dealers of other kind). Foreign kings and queens, I gather, swim naked in private pools followed by argan oil body massage while princes and princesses dance the night away most ostentatiously at Pacha and other mammoth nightclubs surrounded by palm trees and vast swimming pools. Depending on tourism money alone cannot help Morocco's future. Seventy percent of the population is under thirty. Though most of this population doesn't even have a computer at home, let alone wireless broadband.

Was I the only one to have been deeply irritated watching Peaches Geldof educating herself about Arab life, and Islam in Morocco for Channel 4. The television channel would have done a far better job sending someone erudite and knowledgeable such as Antony Gormley or Vivienne Westwood who could have influenced Moroccan youngsters encouraging them to be entrepreneurial. The Geldof programme and countless travel pieces in glossy magazines are a constant reminder that in the last five or six years, the people who have primarily benefited from Morocco's prosperous developments are foreigners (expats, holiday home weekend visitors, businessmen) and the uber-wealthy Moroccans. The average citizen is still sending that desperate e-mail from a crowded cyber cafe in somewhat poor French with attached CV containing more than a couple of spelling mistakes in the hope of a positive response from the very important European riad-hotel owner.