There’s a story told by Edward Westermarck, about a judge – a cadi – who committed a variety of sins, culminating in his smearing soap across the threshold of his chambers and finding it hugely funny when visitors slipped and fell. He went on doing this, with growing hilarity, “until an angel of God said to him, ‘O stork why did you do wrong to Moslems?’ At the same moment he was transformed into stork; and he has still a black cloak and a white cloak, he has the henna of the bridegroom on his feet, and his eyes are black with antimony, and he is going on laughing as before.”
Storkification (the fate, too, of Antigone in Ovid’s Metamorphoses) for cruel and undue laughter seems to be a recurring theme in traditional Moroccan stories. The black-and-white livery of the stork is often understood as the habit of a cadi or imam, and the laqlaqlaqlaqlaq of the bird’s beak as the echo of the immoderate laughter. Generally the metamorphosis is a punishment; but sometimes it can also be a voluntary transformation of the sort described by Juan Goytisolo in his novel Las Semanas del Jardin, of a stork-man from Marrakech whose wife, working in France, abandons him for a Frenchman.
The Marrakchi, who lives next to Dar Bellarej, the stork hospital by the Abou Youssef mosque, tries to get a visa for France, fails, and sets out to find his unfaithful wife by other, magical, means. “The following day, I was aloft with a flock of storks in an ineffable state of bliss and delight. The world was at once miniature and immense: toy towns and landscapes, seas gleaming like mirrors, white mountains … My altitude, lightness and speed of movement granted me a feeling of superiority over humans, slow as turtles, tiny like insects.” He flies north with a muster of ‘real’ storks and finds his wife living with her French lover. He joins the household, ingratiating himself with his own unknowing wife, who adopts him, taking him for a female stork. “How incredible … there are lots of [storks] in my country. I’m sure that’s where she’s from … How tame! She must have fallen ill and can’t fly any more. I’ll look after her and feed her on raw fish. In our country they say it brings great luck: a guest sent from heaven, whom we must respect and offer hospitality to.” So he settles down, in the guise of a female stork, and disrupts his wife’s adulterous relationship, sleeping in his wife’s bed, shitting on the lover’s pillow and causing escalating arguments until he flies home, his job done. In due course his wife follows him back to Marrakech, happy, affectionate and full of stories about a strange stork which had flown to her from Morocco.
Storks have a special place in Morocco, which arises from their sheer numbers as they migrate south from Europe towards West Africa across the narrow Strait of Gibraltar, many spending the winter in Moroccan trees, telegraph poles and minarets. The pisé walls of Moroccan medinas are festooned with their gaunt black-and-white figures. One has only to think of Fes or Marrakech (where Ali Bey al-Abassi, the Spanish impostor, famously kept three, their wings docked, in his garden); or the Chellah at Rabat. Kenitra – Port Lyautey as was – is a particular centre for storks: in 1935 Bruet recorded 23,969 nests in Morocco of which 8,573 – more than in the whole of Algeria – were at Port Lyautey. No wonder the collective noun for storks in English is military – a muster, or a phalanx. The puzzle, though, is that until I came to Morocco I had never seen more than one or two at a time. Only here have I seen phalanxes.
They are bids of a mesmerising, gawky grace, winging home in the evening. Rabat has few more evocative sights than the storks returning to Chellah in the twilight, an awe-inspiring feathered cavalcade of huge, ragged wings flapping in on the evening breeze. Sometimes the crowds of birds descending are alarming in their density, and those already in the trees serenade their arrival with a windstorm of clacking beaks, laqlaqlaqlaqlaq …There are said to be a hundred nests there, including those on the hillside below Yousoufiya, but sometimes it seems that the evening rush-hour brings many more great White Storks home than a hundred nests could house. And home they fly, riding the thermals above the Bouregreg, where you can look magically down upon them from the heights of Yousoufiya.
But they come and go, these laqlaqs, and latterly they seem to be doing less coming than going. Stork numbers are down, though we could be forgiven for not noticing: what my daughter calls ‘the cockerel tree,’ on her walk to school still has eight or so nests stacked crazily one above the other like ragged bedsits, each with parents and three or so young. But more and more storks aren’t making it to Morocco at all on their way south.
SOS Stork Migration is a project that tracks storks to try and make sense of this. The jury is still out, and there is clearly more than one factor at work, but an important one is the tempting food-source provided by southern Europe’s great, stinking open-pit rubbish dumps. These are simply too easy, and too delicious to pass by, and many storks – more than half those tracked – never make it further than the great, gorgeously named, middens of Ejea de Caballeros, Bourg-en-Bresse, Alcazar de San Juan, Almagro, Montpellier, Lerida, Malpartide de Caceres, Dos Hermanos and so on. There’s another juicy one at Kenitra, which marks it as a must-visit on the modern stork-migration map, just as it was 80 years ago. Their diet (not difficult, or pleasant, to imagine) gives them added weight but lots of nasty pathogens. It also tempts them to end their journeys – the easy pickings of used nappies, waste food, packaging, pharmaceutical junk and heaven knows what else seems to remove the need to fly on southward for the winter sun. Only one of the seven storks tracked got as far as Senegal: another made it to Morocco but no further. The rest settled happily to gorge on the foetid rubbish heaps of Spain and France.
This is very sad. There is no visible shortage of storks right now in Rabat – and the walls of the Imperial Cities are still topped with countless feathered Capuchins. But if SOS Stork Migration is right, and the study looks unhappily convincing, the southward flight across the Straits of Gibraltar that has gone on for millennia will thin and perhaps peter out. Regulating rubbish-dumps in Europe (by reducing the food content) may help – but in the end, if we want to save the cockerel tree, we may need to stop clearing up rubbish dumps in Morocco.