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Wednesday, 16 April 2014

A writer’s research – Morocco

When researching a place for a novel, it takes a little time. Even if you’ve been there, it’s prudent to do some research to back up reminiscences, as memory can prove faulty. True, research sources can be at fault, too. The ultimate fall-back argument is that “it’s fiction”, so artistic licence applies!

Still, it’s good to strive for as much accuracy as possible.

I’ve started my next novel (one of two works in progress), which is predominantly set in Morocco. I’ve been there, but need more detail than I could dredge from memory and photographs. A great deal of the following won’t appear in the book, but it’s certainly interesting!

A fascinating history; this port has been inhabited for over 2,500 years, a strategic point on the strait that separates Europe from Africa. They all been and gone: Phoenicians, Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, Portuguese, British and Spanish, among others. Tangier changed hands often, until the English were ousted in 1679.

The Moroccans had control then until the mid-19th century, when the port became the object of great rivalry between the French, Spanish, Italians, British and Germans. The situation was partially resolved by the Treaty of Algeciras in 1906, which meant the British were paid off with Egypt and the Italians with Libya, leaving the three remaining powers vying over the spoils. Morocco became a French protectorate in 1912, with Spain receiving control of parts of the north.

Then in 1923 the status of Tangier and the surrounding countryside altered again and was declared an ‘international zone’ controlled by resident diplomatic agents of France, Spain, Britain, Portugal, Sweden, Holland, Belgium, Italy and the USA. (A few other powers had got in on the act, clearly...) And that was more or less how it stayed until Morocco received independence from France and Spain in 1956 after years of violent struggle.. 

Literary links
Tangier has always had a reputation for notoriety. Samuel Pepys complained of the sleaziness and debauchery of the then British possession. Mark Twain visited in 1867.

‘When a man steals cattle, they cut off his right hand and left leg and nail them up in the marketplace as a warning to everybody. Their surgery is not artistic. They slice around the bone a little, then break off the limb. Sometimes the patient gets well; but, as a general thing, he don't. However, the Moorish heart is stout. The Moors were always brave. These criminals undergo the fearful operation without a wince, without a tremor of any kind, without a groan! No amount of suffering can bring down the pride of a Moor or make him shame his dignity with a cry.’ – The Innocents Abroad, Chapter 9. (1869)

Paul Bowles (author of The Sheltering Sky) landed here in the 1930s, made it his home in 1947 and his home became a stop-over point for visitors to the city. He was encouraged to come to Tangier by Gertrude Stein. He studied and wrote an account of Berber music. Playwright Tennessee Williams visited Bowles for a time, as did Truman Capote. Then in the 1950s the Beat writers descended – William Burroughs, Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Jean Genet and Samuel Beckett spent time in Tangier too. English playwright Joe Orton spent the summer of 66-67 just outside Tangier with his lover Kenneth Halliwell. Becoming jealous of Orton’s success and the loot he earned, Halliwell killed Orton and himself in London shortly after a trip to Tangier.
Heads up
Moulay Ismail, the second sultan of the Alawite dynasty (which still rules today), certainly marked his ascent to power at the age of twenty-five in 1672. As a warning to unruly tribes, he sent the heads of 10,000 slain enemies to adorn the walls of the two great imperial capitals, Fes and Marrakesh. His first twenty years of rule were filled with bloody campaigns of “pacification”. More than 30,000 people are said to have died at his hands alone.

He needed plenty of labour to complete his building plans. For example, for the construction he ordered in Meknes, he used 25,000 Christian prisoners as slave labour, as well as 30,000 common criminals. His great stables housed 12,000 horses.
He was denied the hand of Louis XIV of France’s daughter, Princess of Conti. This probably didn’t distress him too much, since he had between 360 to 500 wives and concubines (sources vary) and 800 children by the time he died.


Kathleen Janz-Anderson said...

Nik, you have such interesting information to bring to your readers. Your research is always apparent in your writings; amazing stuff. My time is limited online, but had to stop by and see what you had for us.

Nik said...

Thank you, Kathleen - and for the kind comments about my books! The world is a rich place and if we can transport our readers for a few hours to somewhere else, it's worth all that research, most of which doesn't (or shouldn't) appear.