Morocco 2006

The following is an article written by Craig Phillips who served at Port Lyautey in the early 1970's. Craig subsequently lived in France and is now retired and living in Morocco. He brings a whole new perspective of Morocco today, a far cry from the Morocco that many young American sevicemen remember. Craig can be reached at craig_ben_edgar@yahoo.com

I have been living in Marrakech since September 2005. I visited Morocco with my daughter in 1999. We arrived in Marrakech where we spent a few days and then rented a car for a circuit which included Casablanca, Rabat, Kénitra, Meknès, Fes and then a return, via the inland route to Marrakech. This visit revealed a Morocco which had changed dramatically since I left it in 1973 following the attempt, by young Moroccan Air Force officers, many of whom were my friends, to shoot down the king's plane as he was returning from France. The Morocco I found was a modern, vibrant and forward-looking country.

I hardly recognized Kénitra. It has spread in every direction and the center of town is now full of modern buildings. My old home at 40, avenue Hassan II is now a school. The clock has vanished. Mehdia beach has quadrupled in size. A month after our visit Hassan II died and was succeeded by his son Mohammed VI. With the arrival of this young monarch hope for a more open and progressive blossomed.

As I approached retirement, I began looking more and more towards Morocco as a place to retire. It is certainly less expensive than Paris where I had lived for thirty years following my departure from Kénitra in 1973. In June and July I came to Morocco to look more closely for a potential retirement spot. I spent a month in Marrakech and a month in Essaouira. I settled on Marrakech. In September 2005 I moved into an apartment which I rented in the médina. Friends began finding their way to Marrakech.

One significant visit was from Brenda and Bert and Susie. We all met 38 years ago in Kénitra where we were all working at Morocco-U.S. Naval Training Command. Brenda worked in the Civilian Personnel Office, Bert was a Lieutenant (junior grade) in Public Works, Susie was a civilian employee in the Supply Department and I was a Lieutenant in Supply Corps, working as the Material Officer. During our time in Kénitra we entertained mutually and took an occasional trip together. Brenda was the center of large circle of friends which included most of the young Moroccan Air Force officers stationed at the Base. We shared a lot of memories of good times and fun, good meals, trips to the beach, almost weekly shopping excursions to Rabat which inevitably included a meal at La Maman or the Mandarin and trips to various spots in Morocco. We also shared the tragic memory of the plot against Hassan II's plane in 1972 and the subsequent execution or imprisonment of many of our Moroccan friends. Brenda had returned to Morocco in 2000 with her niece, but Susie and Bert had not been back since Bert left for Viet Nam and Susie returned to Corpus Christie to give birth to Bert III or "Trece".

One priority was trying to organize a visit to the Base at Kénitra. I wrote a letter to the commander of the Base, outlining our relation with the Base and our desire to revisit places that played a major role in our lives. Brenda relied on an old friends circuit, hoping that Mohammed and Kébir could pull the necessary strings to arrange a visit to the Base.

We all met in Rabat on the 22nd of March. Although it is a bit tattered and tired, we had all booked rooms at the Balima Hotel where we had many fond memories of afternoon mint tea in the courtyard facing the Moroccan Parliament building.

Susie and Bert called during the afternoon to tell me that they would be arriving later than expected due to a change in train schedule. I settled into the Balima bar with a clear view of the entry awaiting Brenda's arrival. Shortly after that my cell phone rang and it was Brenda calling from the reception desk asking where I was. I stepped out of the bar and told her to turn around. After hugs and gales of laughter and some catching up on recent news we walked across the street to the train station to greet Susie and Bert. The reunion trip was launched with a dinner of pizza at La Mamma on the street behind the Balima.

When we were stationed in Kénitra the town of Salé was "off limits" to U.S. personnel. We decided to spend the following day visiting this "forbidden fruit". We took a Grand Taxi which let us off in the middle of Salé, but exactly where was a bit of a puzzle. We studied the map trying to figure out where we were and where we wanted to go. The central market and the gold shops were the goal. We finally found the central market and then were guided by passing residents towards the gold shops. These occupied a series of long lanes in the center of the medina. But it was lunchtime and they were rapidly closing. Windows were scanned and addresses noted for a return trip after lunch. We wandered among food stalls looking for a place to have lunch. The food stalls displayed a delicious looking array of fruits and vegetables. We finally found a little restaurant on the street just outside the medina walls. Our simple meal was served with great attentiveness by a cook/waiter for whom we were surely among his few foreign guests.

After lunch a local "guide" took us in hand. Nourdine led us back to the gold shops which were still closed. Susie and Bert again explored the windows and then we went on a visit of the médina, guided by Nourdine. He led us through lanes and squares to the Médersa or Koranic school. This is a lovely building which has been recently restored to its former glory. It is a magnificent and largely unknown monument. Our guide then led us around the exterior or the grand mosque with its seven doors and then through the labyrinth of the médina and into various shops and a wool dying shop. We returned to the gold shops for a long session of comparing and bargaining.

The next morning we rented a car for a visit to Kénitra and familiar sites from our years with the US Navy. Brenda had arranged for us to meet with Kébir who had been an administrative officer in Public Works on the Base. He now has a successful insurance agency in the center of Kénitra. We were warmly greeted in his office by his staff with whom I had spoken on the phone while arranging the visit and then ushered into Kébir's office. He telephoned a friend on the Base to try to arrange a visit. It turned out to be impossible. Kébir proposed a drive around town and to Mehdia Beach.

The changes in Kénitra are quite remarkable. The once sleepy little town is now a large city which spreads in every direction. Large houses occupy the spaces which were open fields when we were there. As we drove through town Kébir pointed out the sporting clubs on the banks of the Sebou river. We passed the base and were able to see that it had also been developed with housing extending right up to the fences. The most remarkable change is that of Mehdia Beach. It has grown into a large seaside town with several restaurants and numerous large luxury villas. A few vestiges of the village we had known remain, but it is a totally changed place. The Bellevue Restaurant which we knew as "Mamie's" is now a modern restaurant-night club complex. There is no trace of the somewhat shabby place where Mamie produced excellent food over charcoal braziers in a tiny kitchen amid dozens of cats. Everyone who passed through Kenitra/Port Lyautey has fond memories of Mamie and her restaurant. We strolled through the kasbah overlooking the entry of the Sebou River and the Atlantic Ocean.

Kébir invited us to lunch at the Hôtel Firdaous on the Plage des Nations at Bouknadel. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the Plage des Nations was an isolated beach with a small restaurant run by "Madame Bernard" where we could enjoy delicious lunches. One day the bulldozers arrived and razed the restaurant to build the Hôtel Firdaous. The hotel is in pure 1970s style and amazingly well taken care of.

The lunch was sumptuous and lasted several hours. The sun was setting as we left the table.

The next day we returned to Kénitra for a bit of "memory lane" visits. We began with a visit to my former home which is now a school. In 1999 my daughter, Christine, and I had visited our old home which was just being transformed. Now the transformation is complete and additional buildings have been added to the school complex. I am pleased that the home I loved so much has found a noble vocation. We then found Brenda's old home. Unfortunately it is considerably run down and her once-lovely garden is overgrown with weeds.

Leaving town we stopped at the large Aswak Assalam shopping mall. In "our day", the Base Navy Exchange was the biggest shopping center in the area. Even the Palace used it.

On the road back to Rabat, after a visit to the Exotic Gardens at Bouknadel, we looked for the restaurant which Madame Bernard had on the highway, Bernard l'Hermite. Instead we discovered another delightful place, Chez la Mère Faitout, run by Ghislaine, a lovely, voluble lady. She did not yet have her license to serve wine but provided us with a bottle "under the table".

Shortly after moving to Marrakech I came across a book written by Ahmed El Ouafi telling of the plot to shoot down the king's plane, his trial and the 19 years he spent in prison at Tazmamart. I wrote a letter to the publisher and Ahmed called me. We agreed to meet.

I arranged to meet him with Brenda after Susie and Bert went on their bus tour. He was waiting for us as Brenda and I stepped off the train in Casablanca. Abundant tears were shed. We spent a couple of hours sharing memories and then agreed to visit him at his home the following day. Brenda then contacted Mohammed who had shared the same experience and he agreed to join us for drinks later in the day. Mohammed had just returned from a visit to Tazmamart with a group of former prisoners. After a rapid drink at our hotel we agreed to meet later that evening at Rick's Café.

Brenda and I arrived early at Rick's Café and found a seat at the bar. By chance we were next to Kathy, the owner. We began chatting with this vivacious, charming lady who has realized the dream of creating a real Rick's Café to continue the legend of the imaginary Rick's in the 1942 film classic, Casablanca. We told her the story of our lives in Kénitra and our reunion. We also said that we had known many of the officers involved in the 1972 plot to shoot down Hassan II's plane. We recounted how we had met two former prisoners during the day and that one would be shortly joining us for drinks. Mohammed arrived and we continued our story and stayed for dinner. After dinner we rejoined Kathy at the bar and she introduced Mohammed to Amine, a member of the jazz combo and the son of General Medbou who had fomented a plot overthrow Hassan II in 1971 during birthday festivities at the beach palace at Skirat. General Medbou was killed during this horrible bloodbath in which over 100 guests were killed . To my surprise, Kathy included our story on her website http://www.rickscafe.ma/ and you can find her text on my blog http://craigbenedgar.blogspirit.com/ .

The next morning Ahmed took us to his home in Bouskoura, outside Casa. We had tea and cakes with Ahmed and Khali as they shared their story and added to the information that was in Ahmed's book. Khali's story was particularly touching. She was thrust from a secure life of comfort into a world where she had to raise their two sons alone. For many years she had no news of Ahmed. They led us to Ahmed's office where we could see and touch the letters which has been smuggled in and out of Tazmamart. It was a deeply emotional experience.

At the end of our trip through the south of Morocco we returned to Casa. We again met Mohammed and he invited us to his home for tea with his wife Naïma, a childhood friend whom he married when he got out of prison, and their daughters Doha and Rita. Mohammed and Naïma later joined us for dinner at Rick's Café where Kathy had reserved us a private dining room overlooking the Atlantic. This was our farewell dinner. A memorable visit came to its end.