BOOK REVIEWS: Lords of the Atlas, Gavin Maxwell
Morocco: The Rise and Fall of the House of Glaoua
Illustrated edition published by Cassell & Co, ISBN 0-304-35419-8, £25
Beware. 'Lords of the Atlas' can instill a desparate craving for Morocco and the red-walled city of Marrakech. I drunk too deeply, too young, from a magic potion composed of Gavin Maxwell's 'Lords of the Atlas' and Delacroix's 'Arab Tax', and have been obsessed by Morocco ever since.
It is dangerous territory. The House of Glaoua, a clan of Berber Lords from the High Atlas mountains, offer up a heady murderous fusion of 20's and 30's style. The Glaoua combine all the lethal elegance of a gangland mobster with the opulent charm of a hereditary Indian Prince. They shone with all the glamour of a desert sheikh married to left-bank/Hollywood chic but were also sustained by a military alliance with the Foreign Legion, and a virtual monopoly on the Moroccan prostitution and drug rackets. Thami, the ruling Pasha of the Glaoua was full of improbable contradictions: personally made a knight by the King-Emperor Edward VII, he also had Edward G. Robinson as a son-in law. His palaces were equipped with cinemas, courtyards filled with concubines and well-stocked dungeons underground. He built the first golf course in Morocco - just outside Marrakech (near the Amanjena) and kept the greens watered throughout a four- year-long drought. He gave emeralds to his guests, could raise a dust storm with his convoys of Hispano-Suiza's or raise an army of tribesman overnight. His guest list started at the top, with Churchill and Roosevelt
The Glaoua could also build. They built with an external severity and an internal delicacy that no-one else has quite matched. In Western terms, think London's brutalist National Theatre for an outside equipped with a Frick Museum or Café Royale interior. In eastern terms we are talking the traditional mud brick architecture of the Berber south encasing courtyards from Granada's Alhambra.
If you gave yourself a week in Marrakech you would have just about enough time to check out the major Glaoua sites. First off is the great town-palace of the Thami el Glaoua, the Pasha of Marrakech, in the heart of the old city. Next you have to see the vast brooding fortress-palace of Telouet perched in half ruin on the summit of one of the ancient crossing places of the High Atlas mountains. Then I would suggest the recently restored kasbah of Taourirt whose labrynth of courtyards, stairways and passages still dominates the pre-Saharan town of Ouazazarte. After that it should be a meal on the roof of the hospitableTiffiltoute kasbah followed by mint tea amongst the falling ceilings of melancholic Tamdaght. Then there are those forbidding palace-castles at Tazzerte, Tioute, Talioune and Tinerhir to be seen before rounding things off with a meal in their little pavilion in the Ourika valley - now a restaurant. Go soon: four of these great monuments have a secure future, the rest are poised freeze-frame in romantic ruin that could soon turn merely gaunt and craggy.
For all their free-wheeling glamour and style, the Glaoua would be a lost footnote to the Anglo-Saxon world (though not the French) were it not for Gavin Maxwell's 'Lords of the Atlas'. It has a cult status as one of the bibles of 20th-century Orientalism. Maxwell offers the reader a 20th-century Castle of Otranto set in the farthest mountains of Morocco - and one that possesses that quality that Horace Walpole defined as "the true rust of the barons wars'. It is a contemporary Vathek which exceeds even Beckford in imagination and scale, a veritable North African Gormenghast - but one revealed through investigative journalism and historical inquiry. It has helped define the romance of Morocco to two generations of English speaking travellers since its first publication in 1966. Stuffed inside my wife's wallet there is a faded photograph of a shirtless, mop haired, hashish-stoned youth reading a copy of "Lords of the Atlas" with feverish concentration on a mountain top. Since those lost years I have - with comparative sobriety - seen four separate editions of my Cadogan Morocco and two editions of my History of North Africa to press. I now know Morocco rather better than Gavin Maxwell ever did, but My God the magic of his writing is still strong.
I must have read it at least six times. Yesterday I glanced once again at this handsome new Cassell edition. I read from the first page: "The castle, or kasbah, of Telouet is a tower of tragedy that leaves no room for laughter. The double doors to the forecourt are twenty feet high. A giant Negro slave opens the lock with a key a foot long....He carries sixty-seven keys. He has been in charge of Telouet for three years, but even now he does not know his way through the labryinth.." I was hooked again.
In 'Lords of the Atlas' Gavin Maxwell chronicles the story of the Glaoua clan, a petty dynasty of Berber chieftains whose domain was perched up in the cleft of the High Atlas. They rose to power and wealth as government ministers in the intrigue-ridden years of the 1900's when the Moroccan Sultans were struggling to preserve their independence from the predatory powers of Europe. They backed France, the right horse, and rose to become virtual Viceroys of Southern Morocco during the subsequent French Protectorate. In the process they built a series of magnificent kasbahs to control the mountains and oasis valleys of the pre-Sahara. However the moment the French left and Morocco recovered its Independence in 1956, the Glaoua fell from their high estate. Their fortune, their estates, their armies disappeared overnight - like a mirage of princely power.
To a foreign traveller the Glaoua might still appear the very definition of glamour. It is a very different story for a Moroccan, for to the home audience the Glaoua have all the appeal of a Quisling to a Norwegian or a Vichy collaborator to a hero of the Resistance. They were the paid henchmen of the French Colonial regime, entrusted with all the nasty work and most of the treachery. They also deliberately exploited the ethnic differences between Arab and Berber for the sole benefit of a foreign power. Love of the Glaoua is only possible from a very Western perspective.
Maxwell was well placed to be their apologist. Through his very bones he could empathise with their self-serving glory. His mother was a Percy, the daughter of the head of that proud clan of Border Lords who have ruled the war-torn rough hills that stretch between England and Scotland for centuries. It is a landscape studded with their castles and which still whispers epic tales of their magnificence, mingled with tales of their past treachery, nobility and power.
Read 'Lords of the Atlas' with delight but also take care.
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by Barnaby Rogerson