Evensong at the Bou Inania

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One of the more wonderfully unexpected things I’ve done recently was to sit at Evensong in King’s College chapel with a group of Moroccan historians on a visit to Cambridge. We wandered in almost by chance last Thursday evening, and found ourselves swept happily by vergers and sacristans through the choir-screen.  As we listened to the sublime singing of the boys’ choir and as I stared up at the great fan-vault, I found myself thinking about the two ancient traditions of higher education brought together in the pews. The Qairouyyine at Fes, perhaps the world’s oldest university, was already more than half a millennium old when Henry VI laid the first stone of his chapel; but the two seats of learning would have been quite recognizable to each other, communities of scholars and students living cheek-by-jowl in the chill damp of King’s Parade, or the foetid heat of the Attarine or the Bou Inania madrasa, learning, disputing and hearing commonplaces. My Moroccan colleagues were not at all discomfited by the Anglican service, and I was grateful for our quiet welcome into what was as much a performance as an act of worship.

We were in Cambridge for a historians’ workshop on Morocco from World War Two to Independence.  It was the first result of an agreement signed earlier in the year between the British Council, the Moroccan-British Society and Cambridge, to build research links between Cambridge and a group of Moroccan universities. The idea started a year ago with a visit, known as ‘Cambridge in Morocco,’ by a group of Cambridge scholars to Fes, Rabat and Casablanca where they lectured and took part in some very interesting research workshops. (The lectures will be published in the next few weeks.) Now the whole project has legs, and is drawing in scholars from Oxford and London, too, as well as guests from the US and Europe.

The workshop, also supported by Cambridge’s Woolf Institute, was at Churchill College and examined what one draft title called ‘the dark years,’ when Morocco emerged from the war and began the business in earnest of shaking off the French protectorate. Sessions on the war itself – the American landings of 1942 and their momentous significance (Jamaa Baida), the Moroccan Goumiers at war and the wider impact of soldiering (Driss Maghraoui), and the French slave labour camps in the Western desert (Susan Gilson Miller) – were followed by a more specifically focussed session on the Moroccan Jewish experience, which picked up where Susan Miller had left off in her paper on the Jewish slave labour used to lay the unfinished track of the Algiers-Timbuktu-Dakar railway. The resistance of the Sultan, Mohammed V, to Vichy anti-Semitic policies was discussed, along with the broader impact on Moroccan Jewry of war and nationalism (Mohammed Kenbib), as was the ultimately catastrophic effect of the uncertainty, marginalisation and abuse of Morocco’s Jewish community (Mohammed Hatmi) and the strange physical ‘embodiment’ of Jewish angst and aspiration (Samir Ben-Layashi).

The afternoon session on the first day looked at the knot of foreign policy problems facing France and – particularly – Spain in administering their post-war protectorates in Morocco. Papers talked of the tension between the need of Spain’s Tetouan government to hold down the nationalists and its need to appease the Arab League in search of a lifeline for Franco (Maria Rosa de Madariaga); of the work done by Moroccan nationalists and their allies like Rom Landau in building international support in the US and at the UN (David Stenner); and of the activities, real and supposed, (and the significance of the supposing), of British Intelligence in Morocco (James Roslington). I had to leave before hearing the next morning (though I later read with pleasure and profit) Moshe Gershovitch’s excellent paper From Puppet to Hero: The Transformation of Muhammad V and the Endurance of the Moroccan Monarchy.

What the workshop achieved was a high quality debate between leading historians of Morocco from Morocco itself, and their colleagues from Britain and elsewhere. Historians seem often not to pause long to reflect on the side-alleys of the broad road leading from the war to independence; and doing so on this occasion opened up what will prove profitable lines of enquiry. The workshop’s papers will, we plan, be published as a special edition of a leading journal of North African studies. Its collaborations will go on to help structure Moroccan-British academic relations in the field of history, and form a network of links that will give substance to the growing academic interest in North Africa visible in Britain today. For rather too long the intellectual orientation of the Moroccan academy has been heavily slanted towards France; in Cambridge we saw the ice melting and breaking in another reach of the river.

The project which Cambridge and the MBS have put together with us will encompass another eight or so workshops and conferences in the coming three years, in areas across the humanities and social sciences; and these will help draw British scholars into relations with Moroccans, and vice versa. To me this is very good news, and in particular is a vindication of the long-term work of George Joffe, who was very much the parrain of this event. George was unable, because of illness, to be at the workshop, though his presence was felt at all times; and if (as I have little doubt that we shall) we succeed in building links, bridges and collaborations, it will be a fulfillment of his firm commitment over many years.

With Moroccan history very much on my mind, I read Susan Miller’s splendid new History of Modern Morocco (Cambridge, 2013) on the aeroplane – a relatively short and enormously readable book, which addresses all the complex, difficult and sensitive interstices of recent Moroccan history, right up to 2011, with gentle precision and few holds barred. It is highly recommended, as is – and yes, Reader, I have finally got hold of a copy of this elusive volume – Histoire du Maroc, Réactualisation et synthèse, the 750-page doorstep of a collective history put together by a galaxy of Moroccan scholars under the general editorship of Mohammed Kably. Published by the IRRHM, this is a really splendid piece of book production, a handsomely designed and beautifully printed volume; it reads well and easily, so that the long chapter on Le Protectorat: conquête, résistance et mutations (which is all I can claim to have read in the 48 hours that I have owned it) is a real pleasure – as is finding that two of the chapter’s half dozen magisterial contributors, Mohammed Kenbib and Jamaa Baida, were with us in Cambridge.  No surprises there.

Hurrah for Evensong at King’s, and our stop shortly afterwards at the Eagle, where Crick’s first announcement of the discovery of DNA was made in 1953. May there be many more.

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