The Moorish Wanderer

Glimpses of Morocco’s History Vol. 1

We need to go back to basics. No, I haven’t turn John Major yet (it’s only a matter of time before one can turn to a vegetable, right ?) but it seems, in the evils of wicked education policy pursued by some powerful lobbies for some three decades now- even well-educated internet-users are shockingly unaware of Morocco’s history.

And what makes matters worse, many that boast their undying patriotism can be put to shame for ignoring large scores of our history. It is usually understood that true patriots, so keen on loving their country, just like a lover, do their best to know their idol’s past history. It seems not.

I don’t claim to be historian. In fact I don’t claim to know that much about Morocco’s history too: some of High-school history lessons were so boring that I just skipped the teacher’s soliloquies on Moulay Ali Sherif, or the sub-Saharan expeditions Sultan Mansur Dâhbi sent raiding for gold and slaves. (I did however, rely on well-prepared notes, but, sadly, only for exam preparation. Some facts and dates managed to stick to mind, though) And as I grew older, with the hot political involvement of post-high school, I also discovered post-1956 history (the one that is strangely not taught at school, private or public)

So let me make it up to all of us: the agora around Morocco, patriotism, our ’12 centuries of History’, and other features of ill-informed doxa prompted me into changing course:  I’d like to leave politics aside for the time being, and start posting about history from time to time. I had this ambition many years ago, but time, and perhaps laziness prevented me from carrying out such a project. I shall now, to the best of my abilities, present some relatively unknown parts of our glorious history. I don’t claim to cover all of it from the Phoenicians up to the February 20th demonstrations, but rest assured, the random posts I’ll be tossing around will try to cover the widest possible chronological span.

I shall start with the High Atlas. I have developed a romantic streak for this place since I last visited it about 4 years ago; but still, the place has its history too. And instead of going for the all-too-celebrated imperial cities, let’s have a look at the rural areas, shall we? My accounts are usually drawn from books like ‘Saints Of the Atlas‘ (E. Gellner), ‘Lords Of the Atlas‘ (G. Maxwell) ‘Les Origines Sociales et Culturelles du Nationalisme Marocain‘ (A. Laroui) and other articles I’ll be citing along (with possible weblinks whenever available)

More specifically, I’ll be discussing the state (Makhzen) apparatus in the region: for all its fierce autonomy, local tribal democracy, and frequent clashes with the central power, the High Atlas, as the second-line border to the grand Sahara, has had some of the most ruthless governors (Caïds قيّاد), whose descendants had the unfortunate demise to be durably labelled as ‘collaborators’.

Consider the High Atlas: the plains and immediate surroundings of Marrakesh, one of the oldest Imperial cities (along Fès, Rabat and Meknès) are relatively safe, whether in times of asserted central authority or when the Makhzen has little grip over its territories. The mountains, on the other hand, are rebellious. contentious and frequently prone to challenge authority. A word of semantics here: Blad Siba does not mean anarchy. It does mean however that central power (which is going to be referred to as ‘Makhzen’ from now on) is non-existent, or rather, does not have the legitimate means of violence to coerce the rebellious subjects and force them into submission. These rebels are quite curious: they do not intend to break away from the Sultan’s authority; quite frequently, Friday prayers are established in His good name, and whenever possible, all kinds of respectful tribute are paid to the Imperial Sultan; the explanation is quite simple and resides in the Islamic obligation to be under a Ruler’s authority. What Blad Siba refuses is quite simply to pay the taxes. Not because of greed, but certainly, as we shall see later on, because of the way these taxes are literally extracted from the locals.

The plains are indeed usually docile (or, to put it more euphemistically, are less prone to riot and rebel against the local and central power) than their brethren in the mountains. The late Interior Minister, and Hassan II‘s factotum, Driss Basri, described it most emphatically: ‘we are [referring to Settat] plain and medowlands tribes, farmers. We always needed the Makhzen protection from mountain tribes’. When taxes were collected, plain tribes could afford -when harvest was good- to pay the Caïd and the Sultan. Tribes localized in mountainous and hostile regions, less so.

Let us take a leaf from Gavin Maxwell‘s account: “The […] rough geographical division […] covered the terms Blad Makhzen – the country under government control- and Blad Siba, Lawless Country, where force [for the Makhzen to prevail] was the only criterion- of the infinitely greater territories of un-subdued tribes. [Throughout the history of Morocco] it was from Blad Siba, and more especially the land of desert and palm oasis lying to the east of the Atlas, that almost every new dynasty of Sultans rose to conquer and replace the last […]” (p. 29-30)

handsome, […] and a most dignified bearing (G. Maxwell) “] […] In 1893, the reigning Alaouite Sultan, Mouley Hassan [1st], decided upon a tax-collecting expedition to the desert oases beyond the High Atlas, with its ultimate aim as the restoration of law and order at Tafilelt, the great palm oasis that had been the cradle of his dynasty, and which was now, as so often before, in a state of anarchy. […] It had always been the custom of the Alaouites to send home to Tafilelt unwanted members of their families […] as he majority [of these Alaouites] were unwamted, the descendants of the Prophet in Tafilelt were legion, it was an unusual state of affairs if there were not a few stirring up trouble“. (p. 33)


Here we are then: collecting taxes is not the main goal for these Harkas, far from it (and as it turns out, these expeditions cost way more than the effective collected tax receipts) but it is a bold symbol, of tribal submission and imperial authority. A Sultan like Hassan 1st, barely spent more than 6 months in one palace. For a Sultan to assert his power over his contentious subjects, He must be one whose “Imperial tents are never stored”.

Maxwell also describes the tax collecting: When the harka meets a tribe, no matter how obedient or rebellious it was, whether in peace or in a state of self-defence, they had to provide the food for the Imperial Juggernaut. The Sultan hardly travels alone, or only with a military outfit: The imperial retinue gathers numerous wives from the Harem, viziers and their families, courtesans, merchants looking for some fair bargains, and the usual rabble following a campaigning army: harlots, small trades, and any marginal seeking a meagre reward in sticking with the grasshopper army. Even when passing through a deserted and poor countryside, the Caïd and the tribe chiefs have, in addition to provide food and shelter, to stand before the Sultan, pay their respect and pledge allegiance (bey’a) and fill to their best, the Imperial Coffers. ‘Every Sultan, since the empire of Morocco first came under the dominion of the Arabs, had travelled in exactly the same manner…‘ Incidentally, the whole journey to Tafilelt, through the impregnable and dangerous mountain passes,  through the numerous skirmishes with rebellious mountain tribes, the frequent punishments (we shall describe in great details what it entailed) and then, the inevitable diseases and losses due to scarce water and food, bad if not non-existent field hygiene. Late 1893, Moulay Hassan arrived a dying man to Tafilelt. He was to die soon (summer 1894).

The Kasbah Of Telouet, A cardinal fortified strongpoint in the High Atlas (Picture. Virtual Tourist)

There was something very specific to the High Atlas tribes, far more complex than what have been recorded in Europe, and certainly with no similarities with Arab and plain-established tribes. Their leaders -usually elected, and seldom selected by central government to serve the Caidat position- lived in high-pitched castles (the formidable Kasbahs like Telouat) contumacious and very rebellious toward the Makhzen, against whom swords were crossed and muskets were fired only too frequently. Although fiercely Muslim, pageant rituals survived, with animist worship mixing into a very local Islam.

These feuds are not specific to the High Atlas, but they do provide, by the stalwart autonomy these tribes earned, a vivid illustration of the reprisals and punishments pro-Makhzen caids and Harkas exacted against the rebels and dissidents: Any captured prisoner, after horrendous torture, was beheaded, and the local Jews were paid to salt “literally thousands of heads” for public display on the nearest city’s wall (hence the ghetto the Moroccan Jewish community members were living in, The Mellah) The ringleaders, when captured, fared no better fate: they were stripped of their clothes, imprisoned in tiny cages, and at best, kept there until they die of starvation.

Next piece is going to be random. However, if anyone is interested in a particular history period, and to the best of my abilities and references, I shall post on it. Just send an email to tmkadet(at)gmail(dot)com