Notes from a boom town

The trans­for­ma­tion of Tang­ier has not been with­out ma­jor chal­lenges

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - TESSA CO­DRING­TON

WHY hasn’t Morocco had an Arab Spring? On the one hand, his­tory; on the other, the vi­sion of its monarch, King Mo­hammed VI.

Through­out the colo­nial era, when France and Spain each had a slice of the coun­try, Morocco re­tained its iden­tity, its cities, cul­ture and monar­chy, which stretched back cen­turies, un­like the ar­ti­fi­cial monar­chies cre­ated in the Mid­dle East by the Eu­ro­peans. It was never of­fi­cially a colony of ei­ther France or Spain, but a pro­tec­torate.

France did ex­ile Mo­hammed V, the present king’s grand­fa­ther; but in 1956 the peo­ple suc­cess­fully de­manded his restora­tion, and full in­de­pen­dence fol­lowed in 1957. So Morocco is the only coun­try whose peo­ple have suc­cess­fully cam­paigned for the re­turn of a ruler who pre-dated colo­nial­ism.

Mo­hammed VI suc­ceeded to the throne in 1999 and swiftly be­gan a se­ries of re­forms that have al­lowed him to leapfrog the Arab Spring. The present govern­ment is headed by an Is­lamist party, in coali­tion with three of the par­ties of the pre­vi­ous govern­ment, and the king has de­volved power to that ad­min­is­tra­tion in all but two cru­cial ar­eas. As a di­rect de­scen­dant of the Prophet, he re­tains his po­si­tion as head of the re­li­gion; and, like the US pres­i­dent, he re­mains com­man­der-in-chief of the armed forces.

While the fore­sight of the king has brought much sta­bil­ity to the coun­try, cor­rup­tion, al­though con­sid­er­ably re­duced in re­cent years, con­tin­ues to be a con­cern. The king has too many cars, and some of his rel­a­tives be­have in an unattrac­tive man­ner.

But the mass of the peo­ple sup­port the di­rec­tion in which the coun­try is mov­ing (see foot­note).

While his fa­ther, a po­ten­tate, was feared, Mo­hammed VI is loved. But up in Tang­ier, where my grand­fa­ther set­tled in the 1920s, the enor­mous and un­con­trolled de­vel­op­ment, which has left many back pock­ets bulging, is very wor­ry­ing. King Has­san hated Tang­ier and for the 38 years of his reign the city moul­dered.

But King Mo­hammed’s am­bi­tion is that Tang­ier should ri­val Al­ge­ci­ras as an im­port and ex­port hub. There is a new port out­side the town, mo­tor­ways and thou­sands of blocks of flats, as well as hun­dreds of tourist com­plexes of the worst kind. There are worries about how the city will pro­vide suf­fi­cient wa­ter and ser­vices.

The beau­ti­ful wild iris, Iris tin­gi­tana, which used to turn the hills blue in spring, is scarcely to be seen. There are won­der­ful new traf­fic lights in Tang­ier. They count you down in sec­onds, and if you are a pedes­trian, the lit­tle man in green runs faster and faster as the time for cross­ing runs out. There is a game played at round­abouts, called ‘‘Can you guess which exit I will take?’’ The win­ner is the driver who de­cides last, crosses most lanes of traf­fic, and man­ages not to touch an­other car. Any­one who uses in­di­ca­tors is dis­qual­i­fied.

To the ex­pa­tri­ate com­mu­nity, par­tic­u­larly the Bri­tish, it was a sur­prise in 2002 when a Dubai-based ty­coon de­cided to build a cricket sta­dium ad­join­ing the golf club of Tang­ier. As far as any­one can re­mem­ber, no cricket had ever been played in Morocco. The idea was to have a neu­tral lo­ca­tion for in­ter­na­tional cricket, one that would be at­trac­tive to tele­vi­sion com­pa­nies: good cli­mate and time zone. But there was one el­e­ment miss­ing — spec­ta­tors. The first match at­tracted a few mys­ti­fied el­derly Brits and a smat­ter­ing of Moroc­cans who thought they were go­ing to see a base­ball match.

The last time the cricket pitch (which is still wa­tered and mowed) was used was in 2004. One can only hope that the new Is­lamic govern­ment in Morocco will change the habit of giv­ing per­mits for all th­ese rich men’s fol­lies.

Foot­note: There have been re­cent ri­ots in Ra­bat, the cap­i­tal of Morocco, against the par­don­ing of a Span­ish pe­dophile serv­ing a 30-year sen­tence. The con­victed man is among 48 jailed Spa­niards who were par­doned by King Mo­hammed VI at the re­quest of Spain’s King Juan Car­los. Tessa Co­dring­ton is the author of Spir­its of Tang­ier (Ar­ca­dia Books).


A mounted King Mo­hammed dur­ing a cer­e­mony of al­le­giance to mark his ac­ces­sion to the throne

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