When I started this blog almost two years ago, I chose as the masthead picture a line of mannequins outside a clothes shop in Avenue Hassan II, between Allel ben Abdellah and Mohamed V. They seemed to me to capture something quintessential about Morocco, the melancholy of the young men chipped and battered by life, their eyes ringed with smudged brown paint, bleak, dazed and despondent. They have a teddy-boy’s quiff, a jaunty wave of the hair, and a not-quite-firm jaw. And they go resiliently on through chips, scratches and breaks, repairs and re-paintings: eternal survivors
Later I found out that the mannequin, who also has a wife and two children, is still made from moulds sold by Spanish travelling salesmen in the 1960s and 70s. I came across a small workshop on the old Kenitra road making the wife, who is known (there at least) as Monica. A week later, the foreman told us, he’d be doing a run of Monica’s consort, Er-rajul, the young man in my picture. The faces of Er-rajul and Monica, who I have come to think of as a Moroccan Adam and Eve, stick firmly in the mind: I can’t walk through a mdina anywhere in Morocco without seeing them staring sadly, perhaps reproachfully, out at me from shops and stalls. Once spotted, they are everywhere: Monica and her fibre-glass, teddy-boy husband are very much part of the imaginative fabric of my life in Morocco.
Today I was walking along Avenue Hassan II on my way to lunch, and I stopped outside the shop where I took the original photograph. I stopped without any conscious reason for stopping, in fact without being fully aware of having stopped at all. But I saw suddenly that the mannequins in front of the shop had changed dramatically, and I found myself face-to-face with a line of besuited male figures wrapped in silver foil, like a line of joints ready for the oven. If you look carefully in the photograph, you can still see the line of their jaw and the sweep of their hair, under the shiny gift-wrapping.
It felt as though someone had painted the Tour Hassan pink, or hung Christmas lights on the DGST headquarters. As though my life in Rabat was coming to an end, its imagery subverted. I took it rather personally, in fact, as a foreshadowing of my departure from Morocco at the end of this coming summer. “Roll up that chap,” as Pitt is whimsically alleged to have said of Fox, “we shall not need him these ten years.” Well, wrap him in baking-foil, anyway.
But the more I think about it, the more I realize that if it is a reference at all, it is a reference not to me but to the young man, the quintessential Moroccan. Old and chipped isn’t good enough any more – Er-rajul has to be slick and modern, his familiar, battered old face turned into an anonymizing attempt at arty chic. A bit like Morocco itself, I reflect, as I look out towards Salé over what used to be the soulfully beautiful, desolate floor of the Bouregreg valley, now a clutter of meretricious building to which has recently been added the control tower of a heliport.
Change must come, I daresay, but I am delighted to have seen the tail-end of Rabat as a truly lovely city – with its strange interstitial population of kohl-eyed teddy boys.