Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Cat in Meknès

I like Meknès. There, I've said it. Out loud. Liking Meknès isn't a something I share with too many of my colleagues but I like it, so there it is. Its greatest advantage, of course, is the fact that it isn't Rabat. Based on that alone, I could easily move on to the peroration of this posting. Many of you will probably wish that I had.

Last Saturday, Mr. Cat in Rabat and I slipped away to the Alcohol & Murder Capital of Morocco for a weekend getaway - and by weekend, I mean one night. But it was one night in a lovely riad whose only fault lay in the fact that the muezzin from the nearby mosque chose to call the faithful from our bathroom. So except for having to peel me off the ceiling at the first intonation of
Allahu akbar, it was fabby.

Meknès has much to recommend it. It has *relatively* cheap beer, Vache Qui Rit Rouge cheese product (still unavailable in Rabat), motorists who don't gun for you as you dart across their streets, and a gracious host in The Morocco Report's very own Taamarbuuta.

But unlike any other Moroccan city, Meknès is irrevocably associated with the larger-than-life historical megalomaniac figure of Moulay Ismail (1645-17
27). It is nigh impossible to walk the streets of the old city without feeling his noxious evil nefarious weighty presence. Moulay "the Bloodthirsty" Ismail - who was known to kill anyone who looked at him the wrong way - inherited the throne in spite of the some four score other family members who felt that they had a more legitimate right to rule. Consequently, the first 5 years of his reign were awash in blood, during which time the claims of his rivals were effectively quashed. And by claims I mean his rivals. Repairing to Meknès, he devoted himself to building a capital city & palace that would rival that of Versailles (it didn't). The Sultan even went so far as to request the hand of one of Louis XIV's daughters in marriage. The Sun King declined the offer.

To make manifest his vision of a bigger & better imperial city, Moulay Ismail "engaged" the services of tens of thousands of slaves - many of whom were Christian men, women, and children from Western Europe (notably the UK, Spain & Portugal) as well as the Mediterranean rim - who had been captured from ships, plucked from their Sunday church pews
, or snatched from their homes by marauding Corsair pirates (or "Sally Rovers" from the erstwhile infamous Salé, Rabat's twin sister) and then sold to the Sultan. It is estimated that at any one time, there were at least 25,000 slaves labouring in Meknès. Considering that the Sultan cast his shadow on this planet for over 80 years, that makes for a considerably large hive of enslaved disgruntled worker bees over the years.

These slaves suffered grievously, living and working under loathsome and tortuous conditions. To add to their long list of indignities, they were also used as pawns by Moulay Ismail durin
g the on-again/off-again negotiations instigated by those Western leaders and clergy who toiled for their release. Not surprisingly, treaties were seldom honoured by the Sultan and it was not uncommon for slaves not to be released after ransoms were paid. Reneging on his promises with foreign ambassadors appears not to have troubled the Sultan's sleep any.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Sultan treated the 12,000-odd horses in his vast royal stables with greater concern and humanity than he did his workers; in fact, the urine
from those horses which had completed the hajj to Mecca was caught in a special bowl by an awaiting attendant, lest the undeserving earth below sully the sacred stream of piss. During one of my many past incarnations, that was my job.

Nonetheless, Moulay Ismail was a man of unwavering faith and was genuinely and profoundly concerned about the immortal souls of his infidel slaves. Consequently, many Christian slaves endured prolonged tortures - often by bastinado - honeyed with empty promises of better treatment and freedom if they converted to Islam. Often, those who refused to abjure their faith were publicly circumcised with really dull knives anyway; those who did convert were effectively abandoned by their governments as apostates. Their only hope for release was by escape or death.

Western historians consider Moulay Ismail a capricious and monstrous psychopath while many of their counterparts in North Africa revere him as the founder of modern Morocco. In fact, so important a historical figure is he that infidels like me can gain access to his mausoleum (photo, above right). But let me just add that cutting a man in half - vertically, from head to crotch - was a common method of execution under the Sultan, so you be the judge. Although, to be fair, he did consider it more humane to begin cutting from the head rather than from the nether regions.

So there you are.
The Royal City of Meknès, a city steeped in the blood of over 100,000 slaves and moulded by the brutality of one madman: the Alcohol, Murder and now Romance Capital of Morocco. What's there not to like?


Pappy said...

Sounds delightful. Morocco, a land to explore and enjoy to the fullest.
Thanks for the historical note. Christian slaves - who knew?

Me and my camera said...

Maybe he was still pissed about that whole "Crusade" thingie...

أُكتب بالرصاص said...

you have very nice blog

in fact i liked it very much