Outside the Koutoubia mosque I see cleaning lorries and men with large brooms and buckets. The walls are being painted pinker than ever. Down the middle of Avenue Mohammed V groups of men are arranging artistic displays of big red Moroccan flags with the golden star placed strategically – and broad red bands featuring the same golden star are stretched high above the roads and between trees in the park.
Yes, if we hadn’t worked it out from the presence of the police in the hotel, we would for sure have sensed it outside – the King is in town and an expectant atmosphere somehow raises the spirits (well, it raised mine anyway).
Coming out of the souks, we were passing the high walls of the Palais Dar el-Bacha – an exquisite place with even more fabulous gardens which has been taken over by the King’s mother – and were struck by the amount and variety of guards outside its huge wooden gates. There were normal policemen, there were soldiers, there were the shiny suits … and there were also members of the King’s Special Police, dressed smartly in stunning red and white outfits. They all looked very handsome, and I approached, harbouring a notion of taking a quick photo, but was quickly told to move on – and, in fact, to cross the road.
Now we turned the bend in the road we could see it was closed to traffic and people were gathering on one side, clutching headscarves and chattering amongst themselves. It was clear something was about to happen.
And then suddenly a cavalcade of black gleaming cars came screeching by, appearing as if from nowhere. Mercedes after Mercedes, BMW after BMW. Sleek cleanly shaven chauffeurs in the front, and behind … almost always one solitary man, either dressed in traditional cream djellaba with the hood up, or military uniform. No women. Then more cars with diplomatic plates, then nothing.
The King must have passed by already and we have missed him, we thought, for surely the King would go first? But the people were lingering, still excited. I decided to ask a tall imposing gentleman, standing outside a large spice shop on the side of the road.‘No, the King will not come yet! Come inside and sit down and have some tea and wait’.
This is not always the best idea where selling is concerned but this man was different. Underneath his djellaba he revealed he was wearing jeans from New York, his English was from the same origin, and he was keen to talk. He explained that the king was going with heads of 40 Islamic states and various other dignitaries to lead them in prayers at the great Sidi Bel Abbes mosque (men only).
Soon we were being shown all over the stunning, three-storeyed, house that lay behind the shop – our man had done well from his US education. I was worrying that we might miss the king …but suddenly there were hoots and horns from the street! And we ran back outside, just in time to see a carefully choreographed collection of police motorbikes come roaring by, lights flashing in the warm dusk, and horns blazing for all they were worth. There must have been about 100 of them … and they were announcing the arrival of an Important Presence.
And then before my eyes appeared the longest Mercedes I have ever seen. Elegant and ancient and black, it must have been a 1950s model (dating from when Morocco gained its independence?) and it was gliding slowly along the road.And standing up in the middle – appearing through the roof – there he was at last, the King of Morocco. Portly in his cream djellaba, he had his hood down so that everyone could see his cheery round face beaming - really beaming - as he waved at us all.
We all waved back and fell into reverential clapping and cheering. And afterwards stood around discussing him and the cavalcade. Heavens knows why it was such an emotional moment, but it really was. Everybody in Morocco loves the king … and if there are people who don’t, they weren’t around Rue Fatima that night.
So, one of the richest men in the world rules over one of its poorest countries. And yet its citizens love him. How does he do it? Subject for another blog!