A dearly bought hyphen

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At the beginning of the last century, the Bouregreg valley was a lush confusion of interlaced channels, thick with reed-beds and sedge, where European residents went sniping from flat-bottomed boats in the heat of a Rabat summer, avoiding pot-shots from Zaer tribesmen. Rbatis with any sense stayed well away, safe within the walls. This fragile and beautiful environment lasted, more or less, for another century, with fields and orange-orchards slowly reclaimed from the marshes, and the truly breath-taking view of Salé across the estuary uninterrupted by building. Until recently it was still possible to make out the shadowy outline in the sand of the channel leading from the riverbank to the Bab Mrisa, up which captured ships were dragged to be dismasted and stripped of their chandlery in the basin of Salé’s arsenal.

Writing at the turn of the last century, the French Vice-Consul, Louis Mercier, described this glorious stretch of unspoilt river valley.

The Oued divides  … into a large numbers of channels which cut up this marshy soil into an infinity of isles and little patches of land of tortuous shape. Dense and varied marsh vegetation covers the low plain and shelters a whole world of water birds – marsh snipe, woodcock, curlews, plovers, ducks, cranes and so on.  Only two branches of the Oued are of any importance. The main one is the furthest east, touching the right bank, close to whose high and bushy banks it flows for 400 or 500 metres. Then it moves slowly away from the bank to take a north-south direction, then northeast-southwest, and it touches the left bank three kilometres further on.

The other important branch is roughly halfway between the two banks and follows a north-south route almost in a straight line, only to lose itself in the sandbanks a few hundred metres before rejoining the main channel. This second branch is called by the natives Es-Saqia, ‘the channel:’ given its narrowness, it can only offer passage to a single boat. This is the route which hunters take, because it leads into the heart of the marsh. It also has another advantage which is not unimportant: it is equidistant from the two banks, and puts you out of range of gunshots from one or the other. The two banks are about a kilometre apart at this point, and it is well known that the Arabs don’t like shooting from a distance. For part of the year all these alluvial lands are covered at high tide.

Having arrived at the end of the saqia, you can land and continue the expedition on foot, towards the left bank. This is only possible when the tide is not too high, otherwise you are stopped constantly by secondary channels. You can continue in that direction and rejoin the road that runs along the left bank at the foot of the cliffs and goes to Chella; or continue along the river as far as the lovely orange orchards which lie a little further on. These orchards are the property of the qaid of Rabat, hence their name, El-Souissiya, which comes from the patronymic name of his family. These orchards have, for a long time, been the objective of walks for Europeans living in Rabat. They go there by river and by land. But insecurity has been growing now for three years, and these days even the owner of these orchards doesn’t dare go there himself.

Unspoiled no longer. In the time I have lived in, and loved, Rabat, I have watched the lower part of the river transformed into the Bab el-Bahr, a stack of drab, undistinguished building around a marina. The stark white control-tower of a heliport stands like a single raised finger in front of Salé’s ancient walls. Right in front of one of the world’s most magnificent mediæval urban panoramas, it is a sad impertinence. A plywood dhow is now moored at (nailed to?) the river-front near where the old customs sheds once stood. And foundations are being furiously dug further up the river valley, for more building.

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Here, I read yesterday in a breathless account in L’Economiste, there is to be a further development, a new cultural centre for Rabat, no less, centred on a Grande Théâtre by Zaha Hadid. There’s a photograph of a 3D maquette of the whole development, and Ms Hadid’s theatre looks like an enormous marshmallow that has been sat upon by a careless elephant. The developers, Wessal Rabat, are as pleased as punch with the whole thing, which is budgeted at 9,000,000,000 dirhams, and will take shape between 2014 and 2020.

La phase II, qui s’étend sur environ 110 hectares, se positionne dans un site exceptionnel déjà desservi par le tramway, les réseaux routiers et autoroutiers, qui plus est située à 10 minutes de ‘aéroport international de Rabat. C’est dire que le projet s’insère dans un logique d’attractivité touristique et culturelle. Rabat-Salé intends to attract 4 million tourists a year by 2020 (so the red-faced Brits tumbling into the medina off the new Ryan Air flight from Stansted are only a harbinger of redder things to come). To service their discerning needs there will be not only Ms Hadid’s Grand Théâtre, but a new museum of archæology and earth science, ‘thematised promenades’ by the river and lots of hotels. As well, of course, as another marina (difficile à imaginer le réaménagement de la vallée du Bouregreg sans un marina … équipée de meilleures commodités des marinas de plaisance. Quite.)

Grosso modo (and seldom, it seems to me, has that over-used Italian phrase been more appropriate) les composantes seront à forte dominance culturelle et s’inspireront du patrimoine architectural local, afin de renforcer l’attractivité touristique de la destination. That will be the 105,000 square metres of offices, I imagine, along with the house-building programme which combine des structures futuristes et traditionelles avec des touches typiques de l’ancienne medina.

But it’s too easy to carp. Rabat is a capital city, and it’s not unreasonable that it should want all the fancy bric-a-brac that goes with being one. Nor that the biggest investment fund in Africa should turn its attention from Casa Port, once finished, to the Bouregreg, la plus grosse opération jamais realisée par le fonds Wessal. By 2020 the old sister cities across the Bouregreg will be lost in a sea of concrete, and the Casbah des Oudiyas will look down disdainfully  on a valley full to the brim with cultcha.

Zaha Hadid is a wonderful architect (I recently visited her amazing new half-finished Middle East Centre at St Antony’s in Oxford and was suitably awe-struck); and culture is a splendid commodity. This new quarter will be un veritable trait d’union entre la culture et le grand public. C’est la principale mission qui sera donnée aux cinq maisons de culture de la vallée du Bouregreg. I’m not entirely clear how this rhetorical hyphen will operate in joining culture and the general public, but I daresay the latter will pour down from both banks to throng the facilities providing the former. I very much hope it works, because the price that Rabat is paying is a large one, in the loss of the almost inexpressibly lovely views of Salé’s walls and the slow-moving river, of the patchwork of small green fields and the storks nesting undisturbed on the hillside opposite the Chellah.

I went yesterday to the high place on the bluff at Yousoufia, and looked out on the valley, with storks riding the thermals far below, and tiny fishermen casting nets. The river snaked lazily along towards the sea and the great walls of the Chellah clambered dramatically down their hillside. It will be a dearly bought hyphen.

The Bureau of Industry and Amusement Hall


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