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MOROCCO: From Empire to Independence, by C.R.Pennell
published by Oneworld, ISBN 1-85168-303-8

How should you write a history of Morocco? Should it be viewed as the vital component of the larger unit of North-West Africa which it was the dynamic core of during four distinct Imperial periods (Almoravid, Almohad, Saadian and early-Alouite)? Should you acknowledge Morocco's close cultural kinship with southern Spain (not just the matter of the brilliance of Medieval Andalucia, but during the Neolithic and Roman periods) and so absorb Western divisions of time, such as Dark Age and Middle Ages? Should a history centre itself on the distinguished narrative of the indigenous Islamic dynasties at the cost of becoming a chronicle of crimes committed within the madness of walled palaces? Should it instead reflect the rural reality of the Moroccan populace and the way that nature has divided the country into a dozen determinedly different geographical regions?

A simple historical narrative of Morocco, even when shorn of theoretical or political agenda, is full of a bewildering number of pitfalls. Above all, a contemporary chronicler has to try and distance himself from the mindset of the French, whose scholars and colonial administrators have laboured for generations to pile up a great treasury of information. These still vital sources can be dangerously coloured by an overreaching concept of their Morocco forever divided into two: Governance and Dissidence, Berber and Arab, ŚMaroc Utile' and Śnecessary Morocco'.

It is dangerous territory even when it is done well: Jamil Abun-Nasr's A History of the Maghrib is a modern classic but the barrage of unfamiliar names, titles, identities and locations (changing chapter after chapter) repels all but the ardent specialist. Fortunately C.R.Pennell, having taught students in Turkey, Australia and Libya as well as lecturing to disparate groups of cultural tourists, has become educated in the attention span of "the interested general reader". It is a hard lesson but clearly a very useful one. For in "Morocco From Empire to Independence" Pennell has achieved something very rare and excellent - a well-written, scholarly narrative packed full of animating details.

He warns that the records of the early Muslim dynasties may have been massaged to "conform to a holy pattern" of recorded events but that does not stop him entertaining the reader with the foundation stories of the Idrissids, Almoravids and Almohads. He is also especially strong and convincing in his survey of the early Śnonconformist' Islamic statelets that governed the outer regions of Morocco during the Idrissid period and which are too often air-brushed out of the official national record. There is an almost Gibbon-like relish to his description of the fall of the Almohads, "while the Caliph devoted himself to his one great interest, bull fighting. When he died, gored to death by a bull that he had raised himself," of a Merenid Sultan, "the posthumous name awarded to Abd al-Wahid bin Yusuf (the strangled) commemorated the manner of his death," or of a Saadian prince, "vicious of spirit, enamoured of abusing young boys."

I liked his definition of the Mahdi as a Sunni borrowing of the Shiite belief in the hidden Imam and that the Saadian Sultan Ahmed el Mansour artfully manipulated these beliefs (at the turn of the Muslim millenium) to aid his conquest of West Africa.

On the much-written-about reign of Moulay Ismail, the contemporary of Louis XIV, he looks beyond the usual studies in tyranny to analyse how the early Alouite state actually worked in close alliance with existing regional powers such as the sharifian dynasty at Ouezzane (on the edge of the Rif mountains), the Nasiriyya sheikhs in the Draa valley (on the edge of the Sahara) and the Sharqawiyya at Boujad (on the edge of the Middle Atlas mountains). Other Sufi brotherhoods were Ścalled in' from their regional power bases and invited to set up their mother-houses in the city of Fez.

He gives believable figures about the size of Moulay Ismail's captive army of Christian slaves (2,000), and a precise definition of the extent of the royal terror over this group (just 127 prisoners executed between 1684-1727) based on first hand knowledge from the primary sources. I was charmed by such details as the negroe soldiers swearing their oath of loyalty to the Sultan on Bukhari's collection of Hadith (the collected sayings of the Prophet) and the real diplomatic explanation behind the Sultans celebrated offer of marriage to Princess Conti.

In the modern period Pennell adds a valuable Moroccan perspective to the slow gathering tale of colonial domination, as well as introducing a caste of state servants (the Benjelloun, Ben Idris, Benis and Guessous clans) who still proliferate in political life and the personal stories behind such turn-of-the-century power-politicians as Glaoui, Menehbi, Kittani and El Mokri. Again and again he reminds us of the highly personalised nature of Moroccan politics; how the Second World War hero Oufkir (who rose to become the much-feared Minister of Interior) first met his sovereign and how the leading hero of the left, Ben Barka, had previously served as King Hassan II's tutor. It is an extraordinary tour-de-force.

My only concern is that the first chapter (the pre-Islamic period) lacks the vigour, charm and confidence of the rest of the book and keeps wandering off to ramble about Punic and Roman North Africa rather than concentrating on - the albeit sparse - archaeological record of Morocco. As it stands I would be tempted to remove it from a second edition. There are also a few factual typos to mop up, like that on page 22. It was of course Umar not Abu Bakr "who occupied Jerusalem in 638 and the whole of Syria in 641" and surely Don Sebastian of Portugal's corpse was ransomed by his cousin Philip and did not Śdisappear completely'?

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