Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Book Review - Lords of the Atlas by Gavin Maxwell

Lords of the Atlas : the rise and fall of the House of Glaoua, 1893-1956 by Gavin Maxwell

London: Longmans, 1966

I guess when most people think about Morocco, they think of beaches, holidays, and maybe the life of literary types who spent time there. Or perhaps the movie Casablanca. That, and a vague knowledge that there has been a low level insurrection that has been going on in the South of the country for the whole of my life, is pretty much the sum of my knowledge of the country.

Gavin Maxwell on the other hand is probably best known for his books on raising and protecting otters in Scotland - I was set Ring of bright water as a text in my schooldays, a book I enjoyed a lot. What he has written here is history of a sort: he's taken the life of Thami El Glaoui as the centrepoint to look at the history of Morocco in the first half of the twentieth century, and written a satisfying tale of greed, power, and tragedy that works well for those who don't know too much background to the story.

Morocco in the late nineteenth century was much as it had been for hundreds of years - the Sultan, based in the North of the country for the most part, was nominal ruler of all of Morocco, but really had little real power beyond the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. These areas were ruled by ambitious families, one of which was the Glaoua. In 1893 the Sultan passed through the Glaoua's territories with his army in a bad way, leaving his antiquated cannon in possession of Madani El Glaoui as he traversed the Atlas back to Rabat. This cannon, the only one in Morocco not in the Sultan's control, enabled the Glaoui to dominate neighbouring tribes.

Maxwell, in describing the rise of Madani and Thami from minor tribal chieftains to kingmakers and powerful warlords, passes briefly over the history of the Sultans, making much of the brutality of the times, and of the gradual French incursion into the country. He shows how World War One led the French to rely more and more on people such as The Glaoui to enforce their colonial policy, and how The Glaoui was only to happy to help, as this alliance enhanced his power and territorial control in the South.

He makes much of The Glaoui's popularity in Europe (particularly England and France) in the 30s, something that history has erased, but possibly similar to the Aga Khan in later times. People travelled to his court as a sort of adventure tourism, which The Glaoui was happy to encourage. Meanwhile Thami ran his fiefdom in the traditional way, with hundreds of concubines, possibly over a hundred children, and many of his subjects and enemies rotting in his vast dungeons.

Having raised his standard alongside the French, Thami had no time for any members of the burgeoning independence movement - his concern over Sultan Mohammed V's support for independence led him to organise a coup to replace him, which was supported by the French. Unfortunately the people of Morocco didn't support the change of ruler, and unrest increased. After the second assassination attempt on his life, the new Sultan lost interest, and the French began to realise that they would be better off re-instating Mohammed V. This meant betraying the trust of Thami El Glaoui, which he felt keenly, even as cancer was beginning a concerted effort on his life.

In almost his final act, Thami prostrated himself before the re-instated Sultan, and died soon after. Not long after that, his family were dispossessed of their land, money and titles, much as happened in previous centuries.

Maxwell has written an entertaining history, written as a tragedy, and none the worse for that. This is not the book to turn to for a thorough history of Morocco, but as an insight into a particular era, it's a good read, and the photographs and drawings throughout the text add to the atmosphere.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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