North Africa, West Asia

Bliss Was It in that Dawn to Be Next Door

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The author asks how small children will survive sukuns - Morocco's spoken tongue; ponders the word "museum"; and closes with a favourite Moroccan parable. 

Martin Rose
19 March 2014

Bridge of sukuns

There’s a nice piece on bridges in last Thursday’s L’Economiste, reporting a conference at the Ecole hassania des travaux publiques. Mustapha Qadery of UM5A spoke about his research on bridges, and particularly into why so many bridges in Morocco are reputed to have been built by the Portuguese, even when they are in parts of the country where the Portuguese never reached. It turns out that these Portuguese were less than entirely willing bridge-builders, and that there were large numbers of such bridges built in the reigns of Al Mansour Saadi in (1578-1601) and Moulay Ismail in (1672-1727). Both won famous victories over the Portuguese – at Ksar al-Kabir in 1578, and Larache in 1689, when a great many prisoners were taken and enslaved. So the Portuguese builders, far from being imperial engineers, were somewhat involuntary navvies. Portuguese nonetheless.

Also interesting (if rather demoralising) is a sentence in the article beginning: “Le peuple de “Brtqiz” (portugais en darija) était en effet …” Brtqiz? No wonder I’ve had such trouble learning darija – it is entirely bidoon harikat. When I used to buy oranges in Cairo I would ask for burtugal, or burtugan … big, brightly coloured words full of vowels. Brtqiz depresses me almost as much as my friend Abnbi, who turns out after intensive linguistic-forensic analysis to be called Abdel Nabi. Pragmatically and theoretically I see very clearly the usefulness – perhaps in the long-term inevitability – of education for literacy in darija. But I wonder, I wonder, how small children will survive on paper the fusillade of sukuns that is Morocco’s spoken tongue. Dive for cover?

This blog was first published on Mercurius Maghrebensis on March 10, 2014.

O for a muse of fire …

In last week’s TelQuel there is a comment by official responsible for Morocco’s 14 public museums, that gives me pause for thought. The bulk of the interview is predictable and worthy – is the president raising much money from the private sector? Is there tension with the Ministry of Culture? What is the state of training in museology? And then comes this extraordinary question from the interviewer:

Comment se-fait il que dans le privé, l’appellation « musée » ne soit soumis à aucune réglementation ?

To which he replies : Il y’a aujourd’hui un vide juridique qu’il va falloir rapidement combler. Il est capital que l’appellation musée réponde désormais à des critères extrêmement précis. De la scénographie à l’architecture en passant par la nature des collections, tout va devoir être formalisé, réglementé, et vite!

It appears that both the interviewer and the interviewee share an overwhelming concern that people outside the public sector may be exhibiting Collections of Things and – hold your breath – having the effrontery to call them museums. Down this road, of course, lie chaos, anarchy and the collapse of civilisation. It’s a bit like unregulated use of terms like house, railway station, door or window – the top of a slippery slope of presumptuous imprecision which can lead only to overheating the bureaucratic brain, short-circuiting the fonctionnare’s synapses and eventually, boiling alive the pin-striped cerebellum.

Museum is a word used – occasionally pretentiously – to describe a Collection of Things, exhibited for those who want to see them. It is a description, not a title. In other words it has more in common with door (another description) than with Major-General (a title of which we can expect fairly limited ascription). It started life as a Temple of the Muses, but I imagine that anyone so brazen as to open a temple under the name of a Musæum in that pristine sense these days would have inspectors from the Ministry of Culture all over him like spots.

My mind strays to Brussels, home by repute to over 80 museums including a Toy Museum, a Magritte Museum, a Beer Museum, a Hergé Museum and – my favourite when we lived in Brussels a decade ago  – the Witloof Museum, a museum devoted entirely to chicory. There is a Musée du Slip there, too, an underpants museum to which celebrities of both sexes donate pairs of their own knickers to be framed and displayed. I can already see a humourless frown passing across the brow of the Inspectors of Vocabulary … these undisciplined, morally lax and linguistically promiscuous institutions can have no right to call themselves museums! What inexcusable impertinence!

Perhaps this simply demonstrates the deep chasm between a French and an English world-view. What Englishman in his or her right mind could possibly devote more than a millisecond to considering regulating the use of the word museum? I challenge any of my fellow-countrymen to read, without giggling uncontrollably, this sentence: It is vital that from now on the term museum answer to very precise criteria … all must be formalised, regulated – and fast! It’s the sort of running gag that the television comedy Yes Minister used to enjoy – like the imaginary EC directive for straightening bananas.

But now I come to think of it, there is an upside to all this. Could the same towering authority remove the right of telephone companies that don’t deliver a functioning telephone service to call themselves telephone companies? And instruct the municipality to stop using the word road for the frayed ribbon of decaying tarmac outside my front gate that collapses into a gruyère-like mess of holes whenever it rains?

Now those are vides qu’il va falloir rapidement combler. Really.

This blog was first published on Mercurius Maghrebensis on March 4, 2014. 

Martin Rose

Martin Rose

To dream of an engine

Martin Rose. All rights reserved.

Martin Rose. All rights reserved.

In Marrakech for the Biennale, an increasingly splendid extravaganza dropped from heaven on the Ochre City this year for the fifth time. There’s a lot of interesting art, and many friends in town. The opening took place at the Badie Palace, in a courtyard so huge that the other side was lost in the haze of unaccustomed sunshine. We wandered among strange installations and watched a film which the British Council had been responsible in a small way for supporting, Shezad Dawood’s Toward the Possible, an enigmatic parable of alien visitation and seaside violence. We waited agog for the performance by Jalili Atiku that was promised for the Opening, entitled I Will Not Stroll With Thami El Glaoui, which was widely rumoured to include a number of live sheep. Frustratingly, it was cancelled at the last moment, owing, we were told, to fears that the sheep might fall off the paths into the water-filled basins. It struck me that this might actually have added considerably to our enjoyment, and I imagined dozens of angry moutons bobbing around in the ornamental pools as in a vast sheep-dip. The performance was cautiously relocated to the Jam3 al-Fna, outside the Banque du Maghrib, at 7 o’clock. We hot-footed it down there to see the sheep in a safe, pool-free environment, by now increasingly curious about the role of these woolly extras in the story of Pasha Glaoui.

Martin Rose. All rights reserved.

Martin Rose. All rights reserved.

Arriving early, we went into the Banque du Maghreb, which was open as a venue for the Biennale. A fabulous building, normally closed to the public, it has a banking hall in zellij and carved plaster, with a high vaulted ceiling. In the middle of it was one of the cleverest, most provoking pieces of art I have seen for a long time. A car engine, constructed out of the most unlikely materials – wood, basketwork, zellij, repoussée silverwork, glazed porcelain, cork – a thing of the strangest, most unexpected loveliness. It is of course a conceit in self-contradiction, a machine that could never work, but draws eye and mind into questions of what it is telling us about precision engineering, Moroccan crafts, utility and futility, modernity and tradition. The notice on the wall tells the story, and it is so perfect that I shall simply quote it here:

Eric van Hove (b. 1975 BEL) … presents V12 Laraki (2013), the conclusion of nine months of work. V12 Laraki is a perfect replica of the Mercedes-Benz V12 engine used by Abdeslam Laraki in the Laraki Fulgara, Morocco’s first high-performance luxury car.  Laraki had hoped to manufacture the car entirely in Morocco, but was forced to import its engine from Germany. V12 Laraki brings the dream of a Moroccan engine full circle. Each of its 465 components was handcrafted in 53 traditional materials, including ceramic, bone, tin, goatskin and terracotta, by 57 Moroccan artisans. Both the V12 Mercedes-Benz and V12 Laraki are equal if non-transferable products of human excellence – the former of a hundred years of Western engineering, the latter of a thousand years of Moroccan heritage.

Martin Rose. All rights reserved.

Martin Rose. All rights reserved.

It is a simple idea, exquisitely executed in an object that is far from simple. The machine is beautiful – the crowds around it were thick and vocal and taking hundreds of pictures – and you want very much to run your hands over it. It feels a little as though it has escaped from between the pages of Jules Verne or H G Wells or China Miéville- a leftover from a transitional age when men and machines had a more intimate, less formal relationship. It manages to be at the same time a precise representation of the V12 engine in form and apparent function; but a wild and hilarious fugue upon it in material and functionality. It is an icon of disappointment – don’t be entirely fooled by ‘equal and non-transferable products of human excellence’ – which encapsulates the failure of Morocco to produce the engine that Laraki’s Fulgara needed. But nothing daunted by this apparent failure, it is a triumphant pis aller that transcends its original in quite another voice – a spritely substitution of craftsmanship, sprezzatura and cheeky humour for precision engineering. I’d infinitely rather enjoy Van Hove’s piece and drive a clapped-out old Renault 4 than own a Laraki Fulgara.

We came out into the darkened square, with the arc-lights burning over the food-shanties, and looked about us expectantly. No bloody sheep, and no explanation, so I’ll probably never know what the sheep had to do with the Glaoui; nor why it was that the author was so determined not to stroll with him. But on the plus side I can now cherish a humane, loving parable of Morocco that will give me quiet pleasure for a long time.   

This blog was first published on Mercurius Maghrebensis on February 27, 2014. 

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