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Christmas in Morocco

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Christmas in Morocco

As you know I am in Southern Morocco. Itís an odd place, so where do I start?

When I first came here many years ago there was some sort of frontier just south of Tarfaya. We didnít notice it, except that at some point the language changed from Arabic to Spanish, and we realized we were in what was then called Spanish Sahara, which was a separate country. However, things have changed. In the late seventies there was a great march south from Morocco led by King Hassan the second.

The Moroccan march was peaceful, and achieved its objective of persuading the people of Spanish Sahara to throw in their lot with the government in Rabat, and what vestige of frontier there was faded into history. Morocco now officially drifts down into the wastes of Mauritania.

There was another border there. This was more rigourously policed in my day. In fact, it was officially closed. I havenít been that far south this time so I dont know whether one can carry on south without hindrance, always assuming youíd want to.

Having said that, I hear on the local news that Morocco has just signed a new accord with Mauretania, so maybe the frontier will open again, until the next spat comes around.

But Iím beginning to lose my thread even before Iíve got started. Yesterday was Christmas Day. I had intended to avoid the festivities that in Northern Europe have been turned into a long drawn-out nightmare of commercialism played out to the soundtrack of that dreadful dirge groaned out by Bing Crosby. Being in a nominally muslim country I expected to be able to avoid christmas altogether, however, one does tend to forget that Morocco is a mixed society. Islam is predominantly an Arab religion. The population of Morocco is only about 30% arab. The rest are mainly berbers, with a scattering of christians. In short, there is not exactly a rush to prayer five times a day.

The inhabitants of former Spanish Sahara speak a mixture of Spanish, Arabic, French, and some local patois, and there is a history of Spanish religion across the country. This means they celebrate Christmas.

My hotel has a large conference hall, and that was set aside on christmas day for the local christians of the region to come in and have their special service. It was a great deal of fun. The noise was such that I couldnít resist joining in, and so I shared the christmas jollities after all.

I would have liked to give you a couple of examples of the noise, but I still havenít worked out how to do what I want using javascript. I was intending to create a movie of the proceedings, but was asked not to photograph. Since I was a guest I could hardly refuse, but I did record a lot of the audio. Unfortunately, this was done on the iPad camera setting. However, I canít now extract the audio from the movie, and I am still trying to work out how I put a play button on the movie. Without that I can only play one sound and it will start as soon as the page loads. So, for the time being, no sound-track. Sorry about that.

Inside, everybody was dressed for the occasion, in smart expensive suits, in multicoloured dresses, with the kids spruced up and formal, and some of the little girls with their hair done up like the spokes of a wheel.

We arrived just as they began one of their hymns. Wrong word, of course. This was a gospel chant, and it went on and on and on. We had a female chanter, with a small but very noisy band consisting of electronic keyboards, guitar, and drums. And then we had the congregation. Wow! What a racket!

As the chant progressed everybody started to dance. Some shimmied, some swayed, some did what I can only describe as a slightly discreet dervish whirling, others were jumping up and down and singing lustily, interspersing the tune with shouts and whoops. Many left their seats and sashayed up to the front where they formed a dance group. It was a whole bundle of fun.

We had three or four of these bouts of singing and dancing where several members of the congregation got quite carried away, and it took several minutes of shouting before they came back down to earth.

Then we had a sermon. There was a display board which started off in Spanish, but quickly morphed into French. The sermon (in French) ranged quite widely across the life of Jesus, and the fore-tellings of his coming, plus quite a few jokes. The biblical quotations were thrown up on the screen as we went along.

For my taste, the sermon went on too long, but we eventually wound down. The final part of the sermon was accompanied by a guitar, which gradually morphed into the next anthem, and we were back to the noise and dancing.

Eventually that too wound down, and we adjourned to the back of the hall for something to eat. Several tables were set out with trays of rolls, cakes, biscuits, and so forth, plus orange juice and mint tea.

The Spanish traditions have obviously been embedded in the church services here. One which I particularly like is when, during the last chant, people turned to shake hands with their neighbours, and give a few hugs. Unfortunately we had no church bells to peal out at the same time, which is what usually happens in Central and South America during the observance of this custom.

I suppose all this appeals to my sixties attitude to life. The music, the drugs, the friendliness. Church of England seems so dry and academic by comparison. This religion is all about listening to a story, learning a moral from the story, having a good sing and dance, getting high on the musical energy, and then embracing your neighbours. Now, thatís what I call religion! If thatís what they do every sunday, book me a seat.


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