Historic detachment (Fes centenary)
Fes, the oldest medieval town still in existence, is celebrating its 12th centenary. The highlight of the festivities - otherwise most noticed by added decorations to the anyway stunningly beautiful centre of the new town, billboards and posters, and series of lectures - was an open air stage show of folkloristic art comprised mainly of dance and music. With the exception of some terraced seating facing the stage, which was reserved for dignitaries, the event at Bab Boujloud, one of the gateways to the old Madinah of Fes, was free admission for all. In retrospect this may not have been such a good idea.
The visual effects were superb with live recording of the stage alternating with scenic photography on a large display screen, complimented by a separate but corresponding imagery cast across the whole width of the old city walls. The choreography, too, was well crafted, and as a cultural show the presentation was of high quality, even if the attempted marriage of old and new, West and East appeared forced and artificial at times, for example in the mixing of Spanish Flamenco with a form of tap dance from the desert in an apparent imitation of Flatley's River Dance. Yet, the best description available for this celebration of Moroccan culture and history is probably that of detachment.
Whilst it didn't help that the inadequate supply of loudspeakers made it difficult to listen attentively, the crowd present was anyway not interested in doing so. The show was staged for them - and of course the cameras, resulting in glowing accolades in the national media no doubt -, it did not involve them, however, and there was no real interaction between those on the stage and those watching them on the big screen. A ticketed event with a modest entrance fee would have been more appropriate, accompanied by smaller in situ events engaging local communities. As it happened, the people of Fes who attended expected a party atmosphere and soon got tired of the constant flow of folklore. From the very start they couldn't be bothered listening to the introductory remarks of the organisers or even the Royal visitor, crown prince Molay Rachid. They preferred talking, laughing, shouting, whistling, and on the whole would have been better placed at a football match. Football is big in today's Morocco, culture is not.
There were only two numbers which really caught on with the crowd: the performance of a local rap band and the absolutely magnificent fireworks which beat those staged at New Year in most European cities. The fireworks provided an ecstatic finale without which the whole show would have been flat, the rap music was a marker of how modernity has pushed heritage aside in today's Morocco, drowning centuries of cultural treasure in monotonous beats. The intention had been to celebrate the history of Fes and Morocco and portray Morocco as at ease with its past and the present, bridging the conflicts between competing cultures and values. Whilst there is some truth in this latter observation, the dominant impression, viewed from amongst the mass of spectators, not the media or the specially invited guests, is of a country having become detached from both its history and its culture, of a people starting to loose their soul, and of a Moroccan populace no longer at ease with, nor appreciative of, its own foundations. 1200 years on, the living Fes is becoming a museum for tourists and surrendering its claim to being the spiritual and cultural capital of the Maghreb.
Detached from present-day reality, the festivities were a celebration of the past without offering a path to the future. Vast sums have been spent in this and other events where, so the official tag line, "Moroccans celebrate their history". More accurately, Moroccans are having their history celebrated for them and thus find that it no longer speaks to them. Reducing a people's past to song and dance is ultimately shallow. What about their writers, their scholars, their poets, their craftsmen, their fighters, their heroes? What about the stake the ordinary citizen has in the society inherited from earlier generations? With incoming investments and tourism resulting in the rapid rise of property and other prices their own country is fast becoming out of reach for the locals. Unemployment is high, as is the confusion about how to synthesise Islamic and Western values. A true celebration of one's heritage must build on it to propose perspectives for the future. Dazzled by the bright lights of the fireworks the attendees lingered a while and then, realising that that was it, went on their way home, impressed, but otherwise unaffected. Maybe the quite considerable sums of money would have been better spent in rejuvenating the old town and supporting its restoration and what survives of its ancient craft workshops and artisans.