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The Moroccan population is largely rural, but many of today's city folk are yesterday's peasants and mountain dwellers. There is no frontier between town and country, not even a symbolic one. The lure of the city is strong, but despite everything, the mountain man, whether from the Rif or the Atlas, has not forsaken his roots. Even when he descends into the city, he retains his habits, his customs, and his language.
Ever since this other Morocco discovered the transistor radio and then television - run on bottled gas - the city has seemed much closer and far less mysterious.
But let us speak of beauty.
And of dignity.
Look at the eyes of these men and children in Mary Cross's photographs. These are people with dignity, even when times are hard, even when hope has grown feeble. A man in a white djellaba has stopped at the intersection of two alleyways. He stares at a wall. Perhaps he's considering his children's future. He is still, as if he were about to speak. Perhaps he is talking to the horizon. He is conferring with the red mountain, which he sees only in his mind's eye. He waits. He dreams, his eyes fixed on arid land.
This way of being, this casual stance is commonplace among Moroccans.
What is he waiting for? Perhaps nothing. Just for time to pass. As he does, another man, perhaps a peasant, scans the disturbingblueness of the sky.
On a terrace, girls in their holiday dresses gaze out over the plains and mountains. They take pleasure in wearing bright colors. They enjoy laughter.
Another man, wrapped in a woolen djellaba and a burnous woven by women's hands, pauses a moment at his work. He's making brooms from reed cuttings. He lends his gaze to the photographer. He knows it is just for a picture, a snapshot. His gaze is just right. It is neither false nor mocking. It is the gaze of a man at peace with himself, of a man who has things to say. For now, he is keeping them to himself. This is the simplicity of profound silence. Wife and children are outside the frame. He is too modest to put them on display, at least while he is present. Intimacy is not for show. That is the secret of the mountain people. It needs no explanation. You open your house to a stranger; you show him respect by offering him the best bed, the best food, but you do not introduce him to your family. This is not hostility; it is modesty.
The water vendor has become a walking icon. He has remade himself in the image others have of him: his chest is laden with medals, brooches, little bells and a few talismans. He has become an object, no longer selling water but instead, selling the illusion of his job: He is there to pose for tourists in search of an exotic souvenir of the country. Bitter memory, soulless folklore. As for the three women draped from head to toe, they seem to have worn their haiks simply to harmonize with the bougainvillea and the blue sky.
The children of this bare earth are determined to live and survive by will and solitude. It is said that innocence holds little interest for them. These are not spoiled children. They are spry, rough with each other, and competitive with grown-ups. They do not play with dolls. They go to work at an early age in the fields and meadows. Little girls who lead the cows to pasture have no time to play with dolls. They have their dreams, and often, when their parents go down to live in the cities, they become little housemaids, exploited servants in the mansions of the rich.
These are not children like other children. Raised in adversity, they are harsh, without illusions about humankind. A stony bed, cold, hunger and hard work are their companions from infancy.
In town, they are employed as craftsmen's apprentices, market porters, car minders, and washers; they are shoeblacks and paperboys; they keep other people's places on line. Even when they are at school they hold odd jobs. These children of the Atlas are cousins of the street urchins of Rio, Bogotá and Cairo. Life has not been gentle with them. They know it, and soon learn to defend themselves and to rely only on their own will.
A young girl, a herder of dromedaries, wears a scarf on her head. This is not a veil, bears no relationship to those girls whose religion makes them hide their faces. In the Moroccan countryside, women do not wear the veil. They work as hard, if not harder, than the men. They toil in the fields and on the farm. They work all the time and rarely stop to rest. The men, however, take the time to live, to relax, and it is not unusual to see them on horseback while their women follow behind on foot. In this part of Morocco, the women are staunch -but no one speaks up for them. The feminist revolution has just begun to stir in the towns, among the middle classes, but it may never reach the countryside, ruled by ancient custom, unwritten laws, and traditions that grant few rights to women.
This northern woman (her red-striped blanket is typical of Tetouan and Chaouen) hunches over her basket, deliberately concealing herself in the dark shade from the photographer. The appropriation of one's image is disturbing to those who don't know where their photograph will end up, whose hands it will fall into, or what use will be made of it. They are suspicious. A picture is like a shadow, a tiny part of oneself, a transparency that eludes us.
In the southern Atlas, animals mingle with humans. The proximity is practical. Life is natural, basic, and above all uncontrived. Harshness is a part of everyday life. The lack of amenities doesn't seem to disturb anyone. They accept the vagaries of fate and the rigors of climate.
A publicity slogan from the early sixties boasted of Morocco's beauty in these terms: "In Morocco, nature is still natural." That was true at the time. Today, fruit and vegetables are no longer seasonal. They are available in stores all year round, like in Europe. Nature has been overtaken by the greenhouse. And the peasants have been overtaken in turn by industrialists from the city, applying methods and techniques that have made nature a little less natural than it was. In addition, the citizens have little respect for the environment. They've littered it with bottles and plastic bags, household trash and other things as well.
Despite all this, Morocco is still a country of peasants and craftsmen, whatever economic developments may have taken place. The great Hassan II mosque, built on the seashore in Casablanca, bears witness to the survival of traditional Moroccan crafts. For the ten thousand artisans who worked on it, masters and apprentices, it established the viability of their creativeness. The country has not abandoned its manual workers, its humble creators and anonymous artists. Plastic may have replaced porcelain and terra cotta; formica may have replaced wood, but there has been a return to traditional objects, to old-fashioned interiors, to forgotten ancestors and their way of living and entertaining.
When people say that Morocco is a bilingual country, they mean not only in its speech but also in its connection to modernity and tradition. It is just as comfortable in its traditional robes as in European clothing. In every instance, city folk are caught in the tension between two poles, two worlds. The results of this cultural "polygamy" are often deceptive. And yet, there is never at any time the kind of identity crisis that is seen today in Algeria. In that sense, Morocco is an old nation; its history is anchored in ancient times; it is the only country in the region to have resisted the Ottoman invasion. Berber and Arab, a Muslim people that has lived in harmony with its Jewish compatriots, Morocco strives to remain faithful to its past and worthy of its future.
The dyers concentrated in the Fez medina have been doing the same work for centuries. The same movements, the same application, the same tradition. They are often photographed for the vivid colors they work with and the bygone era to which they seem to belong. These are men who love their work, passed down from father to son, and who do it meticulously, in the open air, whatever the weather. Some tourists think they are just going through the motions to demonstrate how the art of dyeing used to be performed, the way the water bearer merely pretends to sell his wares to passers-by. But they are not pretending. These are artisans, faithful to their forebears, pausing every so often to pose for an awestruck photographer.
Some bakers continue to work in the old way, with wood-fired ovens. They bake bread for an entire neighborhood. The extraordinary thing is that they know the owner of every loaf and distribute each one without a mistake.
This Morocco is a place where all artifice has been swept aside, repudiated. The colors and contrasts have not been emblazoned on the sky and in the red earth to convince the travelers of its beauty and authenticity. They are there quite naturally. Men often look to the sky and hope that each year will bring enough rain. The winter of 1994 was generous. There is hope now that the peasants will remain on their lands and that the rural exodus, scourge of recent years following three cycles of drought, will be stemmed.
The beauty of the countryside is never flawed. It often exists as an endless dream, a burning passion, an utter clarity. And perhaps, with a little more social justice, a little more dedication to work, a little more common purpose, Morocco will achieve the perfect marriage between the most viable traditions and the most essential innovations. This opportunity depends on men, and not on the heavens. To bring together in one place all the contrasts of a civilization leaning towards Europe while remaining firmly rooted in its past and its history -that is the challenge the country faces every day.
Tahar Ben Jelloun
Author Biography: Mary Cross is also the author and photogapher of Egypt (1991). Her photographs have been exhibited in one-person shows at such sites as Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley, The Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, and Meridian House in Washington, D. C. She lives in Princeton, New Jersy. Paul Bowles is author of The Sheltering Sky and dozens of other celebrated works. Tahar Ben Jelloun is author of a dozen novels, essays, and poems, among them The Blind Angel, The Day of Silence at Tangier, Lowered Eyes, and The Sacred Night.
|Marrakesh and the High Atlas||66|
|Fez and Meknes||116|
|The Coastal Plain||164|
|Tangier and the Western Rif||196|
|History of Morocco||234|