War in the Sahara


Upon arriving in Morocco in 1984, I tried to educate myself in the history of the country. Being pretty simple-minded, I bought a French-language graphic novel (obviously intended for children) called “Once Upon A Time: King Hassan II.” It was the life-story of the then king of Morocco, Hassan II, beginning with a short history of modern Morocco and continuing with his saintly father Mohammed V, Hassan’s own accession to the throne, various assassination attempts (great for a children’s book, eh?), and something called “The Green March.”

Never heard of it?

Well, Spain used to own a big chunk of the Sahara south of Morocco. It pulled out in the 1970s, leaving pretty much nothing behind. The neighboring countries – Morocco, Algeria, Mauretania – all squabbled over it. The meager local population – Bedouins and Berbers – sort of wanted to be independent (which is to say they mostly wanted to be left alone).

Hassan II marched a bunch of Moroccans (not military, just ordinary folks) into the area, to establish that the former Spanish Sahara had always been and was now and forever part of Morocco.

As you can imagine, a war broke out. It was never a very hot war, but it flickered on and off for many years. (It still flickers.) Algeria and Mauretania were of course delighted to help the Sahroui rebels (who united under the name “Polisario”). Hassan had a nasty little war on his hands – and, if you accept that the Western Sahara was part of Morocco, it was a civil war.

Kenitra, where I lived in 1984 and 1985, is in northern Morocco, and is the home of a very large air-force base. One morning in summer 1984, I woke to feel the whole house trembling. I looked out the window to see whole squadrons of planes flying south.

Later that day, I went to Casablanca by train to visit some American friends. “We went to Fez the other day on the train,” they said, “but we were delayed for more than an hour, because a bunch of troop trains were in our way.”

A few days after that, I was reading the International Herald Tribune when I saw the following item: “Massive rebel offensive in the Western Sahara.”

Well, no kidding!

We heard later that the news of the rebel offensive arrived in Rabat while the king was playing golf. His servants were under orders not to disturb the king during a game, so the military attache was hopping up and down at the edge of the course while the king finished his eighteen holes.

One of my Peace Corps friends was at the time assigned to a town in the deep south, close to the Sahroui border, in a town called Tan Tan. According to him, it was dismal: dry, forlorn, desolate. (He described a man whipping a poor forlorn donkey to death in the street.) Finally my friend left town with a crazy American paramilitary, who, as his guardian angel, probably saved his life, because the Polisario pretty much flattened Tan Tan shortly afterward.

I got to know the paramilitary guy after that. He was pretty amazing. The front license plate on his car was completely illegible, because driving at 90mph through the Moroccan desert had erased it. He was also very nice.

And he saved my Peace Corps friend’s life, I think.

So, kids: did you know about this war?

And, if not, what does this tell you about the American educational system, and the American media?

I’m just sayin’.

Start watching BBC, if you know what’s good for you. There’s a whole big fractious world out there that you don’t know the half of.

Magical thinking

Partner is a very pragmatic person, but I know he believes in luck. If his team (the Patriots / the Red Sox / the Bruins) is too far ahead or too far behind, he doesn’t like it. He doesn’t want to watch, but he’s afraid to look away; I think he’s afraid that his awareness is affecting the game in some quantum way, and he doesn’t want to stir the pot too much. He gets very jittery, I can tell you.


I catch myself talking to the world a lot, as if I could influence it. It’s not exactly praying, and it’s definitely not bargaining – what can I offer the rain gods, or the gods of luck, if they do what I want them to do? And how would I be able to tell, in any case? But evidently I find the conversation comforting. I do it a lot.


So Partner and I are both magical thinkers.


I have read Jared Diamond and Richard Dawkins on the idea of “cargo.” This is the idea, common in some South Pacific locations, that Westerners have lots of mysterious stuff, including airplanes, radios, guns, and medical equipment. They’re never seen to make this stuff. If an airplane breaks, they don’t fix it; they send for a new one, and magically a new one appears.


Silly people, who think airplanes and radios are magical!


When I lived in Morocco, I heard lots of stories about the former king, Mohammed V. He had baraka, magical power, partly because he was king, partly because he was considered a saint.


My favorite story was this:


The French, who used to control most of Morocco, did not like Mohammed V, as they were afraid he might lead his country to independence someday. They exiled him first to Corsica, then to Madagascar. On the way to Madagascar, the airplane carrying Mohammed V had engine trouble. One of the crew came back to the passenger compartment to let the king know there was a problem. Mohammed V was lying down; he had a heart condition. When he heard the news, he rose from his couch, went to the cockpit, took off his prayer cap, put it on the plane’s control panel, and said: “Fly.”


And the plane flew.


Mohammed V’s son, Hassan II, was no saint. He was by all accounts a venal man, shrewd but not brilliant, willful, certainly not saintly. But he was the King, and he inherited his father’s baraka.


He survived two brutal assassination attempts. One was at his birthday party in Skhirat, south of the capital, in 1971; a group of Moroccan military cadets came into the palace and opened fire. As many as a hundred people died, by some accounts.


But the king survived.


A year later, returning from France in the royal plane, pretty much the entire Moroccan air force tried to shoot him down.


And again, the king survived.


Funny, funny. People believe in magic.


I don’t believe in magic. Do you?


Oh, wait a minute. Yes, I do.




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