Morocco – Prisoners At Aoulouz

WE had scarcely been a day in the castle of the hospitable patriarch when the news of a party of Roumi having arrived in the Souss reached the lord of our division of the province, Si Larbi Ou Derdouri, caïd of Ras El Oued, who is the son-in-law of the powerful over-lord, the Goundafi. He sent one of his personal body-guard, a cross-eyed soldier with a long muzzle-loading gun, to escort us to his vast castle at Aoulouz (“Land of Almonds”), a few hours’ ride up the valley of the Souss.

In the morning we set out after cordial farewells with hospitable good-feeling from Moulay Ali, and a blessing from the marabout who always sits with him at meals, muttering prayers and doing prostrations all through the conversation. We look back as the road turns, and catch a glimpse of our patriarchal host still waving at us and still clutching in one hand the great keys of St. Peter. The plain, a stony, barren extent cut by dry stream beds, is already burning and torrid. Even the Barbary fig cacti have shrivelled up into sickly yellow clumps and the wild olives are twisted and tortured with thirst. Innumerable flocks of sheep are finding nourishment on dry, woody weeds and thistles and the withered stubble of straw in the reaped barley fields. This is the aspect in August of a land, which the natives tell me is a luxuriant garden in the spring. There are still two or three green oases where a perpetual water supply permits irrigation. The irrigation systems are elaborate networks of canals; each region is flooded in turn on successive days.

We stop at one of these oases to rest, and the cross-eyed soldier hunts out a melon that has been protected from the sun in a thick field of maize. We drink from any canal that is not too muddy; if there are crawling things in the water, one strains it through a handkerchief or the corner of a burnous. Long ago we decided that germs are more tolerable than thirst.

By noon we reach the great castle of Aoulouz. As the Caïd Si Larbi is away on a visit, we are received at the outer gate by his brother, the Calipha Haj Abderrahman (“Slave of the Compassionate”), a sleek, well-fed person with an unpleasant eye. His pilgrimage to Mecca, which gives him the title of Haj, does not seem to have broadened his horizon very much ; he speaks only his own Shelluh dialect. He receives us coldly and gives us in charge of a black major-domo, a confidential family slave. We are led into a white plastered court with a little jet of water in the centre, spattering into a small basin with orange and almond trees grouped about it. Off from the court are three large rooms with tall painted doors, and windows grilled with twisted iron gratings. The shutters and the arched ceilings are decorated with arabesques in blue, red, and green. The floors are covered with beautiful thick Moorish carpets woven at Marrakesh, and one chamber has the walls covered with a single huge silk hanging, embroidered in panelled Moorish arches of brilliant colours.

Black boys bring water for washing our hands, then coffee and a kouskous of mutton stewed with yellow tomatoes and wild pears. When tea is served the fat calipha comes in, and a long conversation ensues. We have come without permission. The country is not open to foreigners. We cannot be allowed to roam around at will. We shall have to remain here as the caïd’s “guests” until he decides what to do with us ! We shall have good treatment, but we must stay under guard in the vicinity of the castle.

The calipha leaves us, and we settle down to reconcile ourselves to captivity in this luxurious prison. The fact of the case seems to be that Haj Abderrhaman is embarrassed by our presence. He knows that the French Protectorate does not consider it safe for Europeans to wander at large in the Souss and that it forbids their coming. The Soussi do not seem to object to our presence, for we have met with no expressions of ill-will or suspicion, but Haj Abderrhaman probably fears that should we be murdered by bandits, complications with the French might ensue and he and his brother the caïd would be held responsible. They have no wish to give occasion for the sending of machine guns and hated Senegalese troops. Later, the calipha decides to send a messenger to Taroudant, the most important city of the Souss, some fifty miles west of here, where there is a mission of two or three French information officers, who keep an eye on native affairs. Meanwhile, here we are as prisoners, with nothing to do but lie about on silk mattresses and embroidered cushions, and watch the shadows lengthen through the long, blazing afternoon.

Our siesta is disturbed by various of the caïd’s retainers, who are moved by curiosity to come in to visit us and get the latest news of the world, which means Marrakesh to them, for their imaginations do not go much farther. Among them comes Si Tab, another brother of the caïd, a villainous looking chap in the twenties. The big ugly scar down one side of his face gives him a savage appearance, but he is really very mild and stupid, with a dull curiosity about foreigners. He has a weakness which frequently obsesses very ugly people, for having his picture taken, and to satisfy his vanity I snap him in a half dozen poses with an empty camera. When we begin to be bored by the very personal interest of these various idle gentlemen, the call of the muezzin takes them off to prayer and we are left in peace.

Little Kbira and the younger Lhassen play about the court and get each other very wet splashing in the fountain. The doves moan from the high roofs. The flat twang of an African lute and the lazy laughter of women come through a mysterious locked door in a white arched passage-way that leads to the women’s apartments. Kbira peeps through the keyhole and runs away bubbling with amusement; what she saw was another inquiring eye!

In the evening, we sit about on the rich carpet, the curtain over the doorway caught up to let in any wandering breath of air the night may bring. The candle, twisted by the heat, stuck in a huge brazen candlestick in the middle of the floor, casts yellow gleams on the faces of us prisoners lying lazy and hot on the silk cushions ; it softens the crude arabesques of the arched ceiling and makes mysterious darknesses in the deep window casements, where lizards may sleep and scorpions lurk. Out in the court, the full moon silvers the almond trees and throws wonderful black shadows on the strangely blue-white walls and carved plaster arches. The muezzin calls the night prayer in his uncanny falsetto wail which echoes in the court-yard and dies into mournful silence. Old Si Lhassen, who is squatting against the wall, rises for the invocation and then makes the threefold prostration before the name of God. He groans and mumbles his prayers in his beard, and brings a childhood recollection of my old grandfather asking the blessing at table.

Monsieur Lapandéry walks up and down the chamber singing in his magnificent baritone the songs of old France, fine old peasant songs, generations old. He twirls his heavy moustaches, gesticulates in the manner of old-fashioned opera, and lets his voice out to the full, and the sombre African night is startled by these far-away songs heard here for the first time :

Et pourtant je regrette Les jolis yeux bleus de seize ans!

At ten o’clock the Ethiopian major-domo leads in two slaves bearing on their heads trays, covered with peaked straw cones. I eat ravenously of the tajine, or stew, and the vegetable kouskous, and roll over on my mattress in the court, and fall asleep under the twinkling stars, to the thin strains of Moorish music and the faint throb of a tom-tom in some distant part of the palace.

Our prison life is a monotonously luxurious eating of the lotus day by day. I am awakened in the cool fresh morning by a cup of Si Lhassen’s excellent coffee, just as the sun touches the tops of the orange and almond trees, in which dozens of birds are making a delightfully discordant rivalry. As there is nothing to get up for, I smoke a cigarette and sleep again, lulled by the mourning doves that moan from the square kasba tower just above us. Then I am awakened again to eat a bowl of vermicelli and a platter of grapes and ripe figs. After that, of course, there is tea. About eleven o’clock we go into another court where a swift-flowing ice-cold stream, which has run for miles through an underground conduit, breaks forth into a square basin, which with its lining of soft green moss, makes a delightful bathtub. At noon come in two dishes of kouskous, and an hour later, coffee and mint tea. I spend the afternoon lying on the gay carpets and cushions in the great darkened state chamber and shout for young Lhassen whenever my pipe needs refilling. My only use for a brain is the assistance it gives in adding a few words to my vocabulary of Berber. At half past four, we drink an apératif of rum and water and have another meal of kouskous to stay our hunger till dinner, which comes at ten at night.

One great surprise was to find that the caïd has an automobile, an old French machine he bought at Mogador on the coast, some hundred miles away. A French chauffeur brought it over the bumpy camel trail to Taroudant, and from there the caïd has by a little scraping and raking made a kind of road through the plain to Aoulouz. The chauffeur is an amusing character who has been in Morocco four months without learning a single word of Arabic, and did not even know that the language spoken around him is Berber. He leads a life of infinite laziness and loneliness. He passes the time scrawling rude pictures on the white walls of his room, innumerable hearts pierced with arrows, very décolleté ladies with Cimabue faces all labelled “Ninette,” and an expressionless side elevation of a “Madeleine-Bastille” autobus with a portrait of himself at the wheel. The drawings show more sentiment than perspective. Strange, self-exiled soul, thinking of his beloved boulevard.

He has brought with him as interpreter, a handsome little eleven-year-old Arab named Omar, who has learned some French in the Franco-Arab school at Mogador. Omar is marvellously picturesque in his long robe of exquisite peacock blue, and he has the face of angel infancy, but he is really descended from Chitane, the Father of Lies. Under the pretext of translation he makes the chauffeur say the most absurd things to the caïd and the calipha, and is constantly the cause of the most amusing misunderstandings. These are partly due to Omar’s lack of knowledge of the language he pretends to translate and partly to his impish nature. Half the chauffeur’s time is spent chasing Omar around the palace in attempts to administer well merited chastisement, hurling all the slippers in sight at the flying peacock robe, to the joyous delight of the dignified owners of the slippers.

The chauffeur has an ancient copy of La Vie Parisienne, which we take turns at reading aloud.

The natives stare at the bizarre pictures in vague wonder, for images and pictures are absolutely out of the lives of these strict Moslems of Morocco. They solemnly whisper as they turn the pages and seem very much mystified. The alluringly indiscreet high-stepping damsel on the cover, gaily driving a pair of very red lobsters harnessed with blue ribbons, can hardly seem to their placid imaginations the representation of anything in heaven above or the earth beneath or the waters under the earth.

Everything moves slowly here. As the chauffeur puts it, life runs on second speed. There are numberless retainers and slaves, but nobody seems to be working. A meal is brought in ; we wait twenty minutes for the ewer and basin for washing; we wait fifteen more for fresh water to drink. If there are several courses we wait long between each, and we wait sometimes an hour afterward for the tea service to come. Time means nothing in Morocco; except for pashas and caïds it is a world without energy or ambition. If it is written in the Book of God that you are to be a serf or a prince, nothing can change that decree. So why struggle? No activity is ever apparent here but the slow carrying of water jars or covered dishes, or the indolent labour of a few workmen in the caïd’s new-built garden. Sleeping in the shade of a wall or quietly chatting by lantern light are the most apparent occupations in the palace.

The life of these great Berber lords in the Souss is a life of indolence rather than of what we should call luxury. It is a life of large patriarchal plenty, simple, easy, and monotonous. There is very little art in it, nothing subtle in architecture. The great palace-castles like this of our caïd have a certain impressive Babylonian massiveness, but the detail of the iron-work, wood-work, and arabesque painting is crude and quaint. There are embroideries and carpets, it is true, but they do not have the sophisticated elegance of Persian, Arabic, and Turkish textiles. This is not a decadent civilisation like that of the northern cities, Rabat and Fez, but a patriarchal life which has remained the same for at least two thousand years. The Saracenic civilisation has only touched the Berbers on the surface. The marvels of art achieved in Spain, in Fez, and in old Marrakesh, though built by Berber sultans, were wholly of Arab inspiration.

The calipha Haj Abderrhaman is very proud of his single diamond set in a silver ring. (For good Moslems do not wear gold.) He also showed us a small agate and a carnelian he carries in his purse, but there are no Aladdin dreams of jewels and wealth here. The wealth is in flocks, corn, and oil. And the rich lord does not spend his riches on art or on expensive amusements. His satisfaction is in the power his wealth and place give him. The democracy of these absolute chieftains is another thing surprising to us who live in so-called democratic countries. The calipha invites not only his sheiks and vassal barons to eat from the same dish with him, but even personal attendants and soldiers.

The lazy days of our captivity are relieved by very few incidents. The calipha and Monsieur Lapandéry sometimes have long conversations on commercial matters, the selling of oil, almonds, and sheep. An agreement is hard to reach. The fat calipha is suave but very firm. He must have all the money in advance, and then, if Allah be willing, promises to deliver the oil in six months. As there is no power but Allah to hold him to his agreement, trade conditions are not easy; perhaps it is written that the oil shall not be delivered. And so they argue, with much good nature on both sides and with many cups of tea.

One night Lulli the hound, who is very much bored by this life in an ultra-Mohammedan community, where there are no other dogs to fight with, arranged a battle to the death with a very savage black cat. The uproar of yowls and barks, together with the encouraging shouts of Kbira and the hurling of properties by Lapandéry and me, roused the whole palace guard, who are usually to be found fast asleep at their respective posts, and actually gave us a thrill of excitement for a few midnight minutes. On another evening, when Taïb, the caïd’s younger brother, was taking tea with us, he observed that we put a drop of rum in ours, and expressed the desire to taste the drink that is forbidden by the Prophet. He took a few sips and sneezed, but decided that rum might be productive of some amusement if he could get enough of it. After he left us, he sent a servant back to ask for a small cupful on the plea that his wife was ill. We grudgingly gave it, and then he sent again for a second supply. What he did with it was not to drink it himself, as we imagined, but give it to three soldiers, who not accustomed to spirits, ran wild. They tore about the great court, yelling and brandishing their poignards and pounding their heads against the wall. One of them tried to slice off the ears of everybody within reach. With some difficulty he was captured and put in a pit with a stone over the mouth, and he howled there for several hours.

A life of nothing but eating I find is dull. The monotony of patriarchal civilisation is oppressive. I am beginning to suspect that the disillusioned Philistine who said, “Toute l’orient, c’est une blague !” was perhaps right. I used to wonder what profound mysteries, what deep truths of life old bearded Arabs pondered as they sat for hours, their backs against a wall and their eyes turned inward. I suspect now that they think of nothing. And I have become just like them. Life is merely a succession of faintly perceived sounds and shadows, and now and then comes kouskous and tea. That is all ! But the philosopher will say that that is all life is anyway, and so perhaps I have come to a true understanding of it, and perhaps the orientals are right in just letting it float by.

At any rate, the life here is picturesque, filled with strange little groups and bits of composition, which the camera can rarely seize without creating a self-consciousness in the subjects. I go and sit in the outer gateway of the great court with half a dozen other loafers and ten coal black pickaninnies, and wait for something to turn up. An old slave comes by clothed in half a rag, carrying two big earthen platters, one balanced on his head and one on his upstretched arm. A naked black boy who has been pounding gypsum for plaster, passes like a white Greek statue come to life. A negress loaded with bangles and bead necklaces balances a huge water jar on her shoulder, and glances scornfully at the impudent soldiers on guard. Old Yaccoub, a bearded peddler in black Jewish skull-cap and gaberdine, strolls past with an armful of scarves from Fez, woven in crimson and yellow silk.

In the early evening, the glamour of twilight changes the aspect of these scenes from the picturesqueness of a photograph to the deep romantic mood of a sombre etching, always strangely beautiful and always a little sad. The white clad figures moving homeward in the dusk, the inevitable beg-gar crying at the gate, and the groups of laughing dark-faced idlers round a gleaming lantern, become shadowy symbols of the toil and tears and rest of the world. The eternal rumble of the river of Time is heard in the hollow sound of the imprisoned stream that rushes under the stone pavement of the great courtyard, and the sad hope of Religion is in the prolonged, solemn chaunting that comes up every afternoon from the school for saints, and fills the soft night with monotonous peace and dies away. I catch a glimpse of the little sanctuary lamps quietly glowing before the prayer niche in the tiny mosque. The young neophytes on the roof stop their chaunting as I pass, and look do on me with an admiration mingled with contempt.

If the early evening is cool enough, we stroll out at sunset time in the fields and olive groves around the palace. Two tall blacks armed with curved poignards in beautiful brass scabbards swung from crimson shoulder cords, follow on either side as escorts. There is a huge threshing floor where two teams of little oxen and asses, fifteen abreast, are driven in a perpetual circle, as they tread out heaps of barley straw; and the fat animals are rejoicing in the Levitical command which sayeth, “Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn.” Nearby, thirty or forty serfs and slaves, helped by the evening breeze, are languidly winnowing a vast pyramid of grain. Squatting near a brushwood hut, a dozen women are husking corn, chattering and singing as they work. The sun goes down. The overseer gives a sign, and serfs and slaves send up three feeble shouts. The day’s labor is done, and they all saunter slowly away, some to sit grouped under an olive tree and drink tea. Thousands of sheep and black goats are filing down the paths of the scraggy hillsides, driven by languid shepherd boys; a dozen fine big dromedaries stride homeward with lazy awkwardness, cropping olive branches as they come. A cool breeze springs up and brings across the plain snatches of Shelluh songs and the faint rhythm of a tom-tom, which seems to express the sad monotony of the soul of Africa.

The great kasba, like an Assyrian city, with its four castellated towers and its walls within walls, stands out clear against the sunset; the jagged line of western mountains radiates a million golden filaments like the glow of boreal lights, and the air is filled with a strange, green, luminous haze which blends into the pale rose of mother of pearl, To the north, dark and forbidding, lofty and vast, like Ossa piled on Pelion, with broken, black, tusky peaks on the sky line, stands planted the Great Southern Atlas, the barriers that have kept back the Phoenicians, the Romans, and the Arabs, and preserved the primitive life and language of the Berbers for two thousand years. Overhead, two black hawks sail and swoop from the deep turquoise zenith. From the square squat minaret of the kasba mosque the muezzin intones, “Allah akbar! Allah debar! La As his prolonged, quavering wail dies away, silent figures here and there in the twilight landscape, with their backs to the sunset, prostrate themselves in prayer, and the violet haze of night falls over the hills.