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Morocco – The Experience of a Lifetime

Posted on Tuesday, March 10th, 2009 by Cliff Smith

(Note: This is a reprint of an essay originally published on Cliff’s site, by permission)

September, 1965

A young boy encounters a situation that is to bring many changes to him, physically and emotionally.

After enjoying the experience of getting a passport and being inoculated for diseases that I didn’t know still existed (or ever existed, in some cases), I entered a new world; a new world that was to bring me through the perils of puberty and culture clash.

After being met at the Kenitra Naval Air Station terminal by our “sponsor”, we were taken to the hotel we were to call home for a month or so, in the heart of the Arabic city adjoining the base. We were instructed what not to eat or drink, where not to go, what not to do, and who to stay away from. An interesting introduction to our new home, Morocco. This was going to be the last time I saw our flag except in the classrooms, in official parades which had to be accompanied by the Moroccan flag, and at the Embassy in Rabat.

While living in the hotel in town, I was able to familiarize myself with the ‘lay of the land’ and identify points of interest (from my perspective). Once in our place on base, freedoms were granted by my folks and I proceeded to make a few of those interesting places regular haunts.

Being right on the coast, the best beaches, I found, were right down the road between Kenitra and Rabat. Since motorbikes, bicycles and animals are primary modes of transportation, no licenses were required to operate them. Thus my first legal motorized vehicle, a Peugeot motorbike. Can you say “Freedom!”? All that was required was to pay the annual road tax. This became an issue later.

The beach became home, but you can only be in the sun and surf just so long. There was school, the Teen Clubs . . . ahhhh, yes, the Teen Clubs. There were 3, one on each base. At Kenitra was the Air Base, at Bouknadel (Boo-k-na-del) was the Transmitter Site and Sidi Yahia (Cidy-i-e-ah) was the Receiver Site. ** These sites were for tropospheric scatter radio for those anthropologists out there. The term may be so old nobody knows what it means anymore. ** The Teen Clubs had pool tables, record players, ping-pong tables, and other attractive items for the kids between 13 and 19. On the weekends, we had dances. Until we got a band together, the record player was the source of our tunes. But that wasn’t going to be left that way for long.

A few of the guys at Sidi Yahia and Kenitra got together and formed the “Sidi Limits”. (Now you’re getting closer to why I use the nickname City Slicker.) I was the bass player and drummer and I have a story about Innagoddadivida, but I’ll save that for another time. (Yes, the long version.) We rotated which Teen Club we played at, so every month on the same weekend, we were playing at the same base. If my memory serves me right, the 1st weekend of the month was Kenitra, followed by Bouknadel then Sidi Yahia on the 3rd weekend. We had the last weekend off if there was one that month. It was a living blast. As they said back then, “It was far-out, man!” After a while back in the States, I picked up a Reader’s Digest and saw a small article about the Sidi Limits. I was famous!

The motorbike opened other doors, too. With the freedom and the wheels, I was able to get around all sorts of places. One of these places were “The Cliffs”. When they built the base, they used a section near the shore as fill dirt for the developed areas. This left cliffs ranging from 20 to 40 feet tall. Indigenous to this area were hawks who took over the cliffs, Black Hawks and European, or Brown, Hawks. It was one of the latter that I obtained from a nest. I raised this hatchling to full growth. It was hilarious to see and hear when the little devil wanted someone to open the door to let him in. Screeching and pecking at the door. No matter where I went, he was with me. We had a special bond… a brotherhood.

I would leave on my motorbike and Screech (an appropriate name don’t you think?) would chase me and land on my shoulder. We would ride for miles and he would lean into the wind and stay right there. Occasionally he would take off and fly for a while, but would land and continue the trip as a passenger. We were inseparable. Once, when we went to visit a Moroccan friend, Screech went with me. After we left, so did the Moroccan family, permanently. How was I to know it was considered bad luck if a hawk comes into a house. Nonetheless, we stayed together. On the last day I was in Morocco, I let Screech go. I had been weaning him from me slowly as I knew when we were leaving. We drove to Rabat to get our plane. I had a homemade ID tag on Screech, and from the airplane window, I saw him sitting on the nearby fence. (Get out those Kleenex now.)

My family had wheels, too. So did some of my father’s co-workers. With those wheels we traveled even more. Almost every weekend we would take day trips to see things, from Volubulis the Roman ruins, to the Jacqueline Kennedy villa south of Marrakech. We traveled from Tangier & Te´touan in the north where Spanish is the secondary language, west to the Sahara, the mother of the Sirocs (the hottest, sandiest, wind storm that you could imagine), to the Casbah in Casablanca (of movie fame, if you are old enough to remember or watch the late show), and the Royal Palace in Rabat. Fantasia’s were the most fun.

Fantasia’s were gatherings of people to attend the mosque of their ancestors. This could be termed a very large family reunion. The festival had various activities, and all participants were set up in tents. Tents to live in and tents that housed their entire business inventory. It was an instant city. There were belly-dancers, horse riding competitions, various games of soccer (football there), and other activities. It was non-stop, until sun-down, that is. The food was absolutely out of this world. There is no better eating anywhere in the world than at these fantasias, but you didn’t want to ask what it was you were eating. There were fantasias taking place periodically everywhere. When one family’s fantasia was over, the next week someone else’s was beginning.

Visiting local residents was one of our favorite activities, as this was customary with our American friends as well. The Moroccans, however, took this as a particular honor and set up a banquet for us. A multi-course meal was served to us.

  • Rosewater hand-bath
  • Sweet biscuits
  • Mint tea
  • Cous Cous – a wheat-germ piled on a large dish with meat and vegetables placed on top — this was the vegetable dish
  • More mint tea
  • Tajine (Ta-gene) – Meat swimming in a broth containing almonds, boiled eggs, & raisins — this was the meat dish
  • More mint tea
  • Oranges marinated in cinnamon and sugar
  • More mint tea
  • Sugar Cookies
  • More mint tea

If you want the recipes for this, email me and I’ll get them to you.

All this food was served in a common dish that was also used in the cooking. Except for the Cous-Cous, all the food was eaten by hand, no utensils. Spoons were provided for the Cous-Cous because we were Americans. The Moroccans ate the Cous-Cous by hand, rolling a small amount into a ball and using the thumb to push it into the mouth. The Tajine was eaten with bread held between the fingers, pinching off pieces of the meat. The bread was also used to sop the broth and pick up the items in the broth. The meats used in the dishes could be anything living in the area. One host’s dog was never seen after we visited them. Hmmmmm. Another time the host assured us that camel was a delicacy.

As visiting the locals was a favorite pastime, once we went to visit one friend. They had a nice 3-story villa. We went to the roof to look out across the city and I noticed there was a young girl looking out from a room on the roof. Being the introvert I am (ha ha), I went over and began talking to her. I went into her room and we talked for a very long time, mixing English, Spanish, French, and Arabic (Berber) so we could communicate. After a time, some very concerned Moroccans entered and asked me to join them downstairs. I noticed the grandfather and the father in heated discussion, but I could not understand what they were saying, but they joined us for the continuance of the festivities. I was to learn later that Grandpa was insisting that I marry his granddaughter since I had spoiled her and that we were both of marrying age. (At age 13 for me and 12 for her – Marrying age?) I had committed the following taboos:

  • I had seen a girl of marrying age without her veil;
  • I had been with a single girl without a chaperon;
  • I had physical contact with a single girl of marrying age;
  • I had indicated my desire to have her as my wife (by not verbally declaring the opposite).

How was I to know that the girl had silently consented to be the wife of a rich American boy? It is a good thing the father convinced the grandfather that I was just a stupid American! Phew, got out of that one!

But trouble seemed to follow me. I was driving my motorbike around town one fine day. I was stopped by the Gendarmes (pr. – John-darms) who are the local constabulary (police, for short). They confiscated my motorbike because I had not paid the road taxes. Bummer. I had to walk most of the way back home. When I contacted my Dad at work, he asked one of his Moroccan co-workers what could be done about it. We were to find out in a short while after this incident that this friend was a high muckety-muck in the Moroccan government, answering directly to the King. Well, this friend took us down to “City Hall”. When we arrived, there was a line of folks at least a 1/4 of a mile long, all going to retrieve their bikes, motorbikes, donkey-carts, etc. There had to be almost 2,500 people in this line – I swear! Our friend, Mohammed Ben-Kaffa, took us to the front of the line, started informing the city officials just how fast he wanted my motorbike located and brought to us, and he wanted the required tax stamps to be in place for all required taxes. I’ve never seen so many people rush around like that. Within 10 minutes my motorbike was in my possession again, complete with tax stamps. I was I-M-P-R-E-S-S-E-D!!! It took me longer to wait for the darned bus than it took him to locate my motorbike amongst the thousands they had confiscated that week.

As I had mentioned, the Moroccan friend was a government official. After the incident we checked to see who he was and found out. Then it hit us, every time we went on a sight-seeing trip, no matter where we were, there was always someone there willing to guard our vehicle. We never lost not one single item out of or off our car. This was quite a feat as Americans were not welcomed with open arms. But a volunteer guard was always there to assist. Shortly before our permanent departure, we found out that those guards were there at Mohammed Ben-Kaffa’s orders. We always tipped them well as we thought this was a regular occurrence. When other Americans had their cars vandalized, stripped, or otherwise damaged, it became clear to us that we had a protector.

All this was well and good, and, for the most part, all went very smoothly for us and we really enjoyed the stay. You see, the bases that were there were considered Moroccan military training bases. All American military personnel were “instructors”. That is why we were not allowed to fly “Old Glory” except indoors or special events. This arrangement came to be a critical issue. Do you remember the Israeli “6-Day War”? Well, it happened during our stay in Morocco. The bases were sealed and nobody (and I mean nobody) could enter or exit the bases. All American personnel and their families that were living in town were ordered to come to the base and they were housed in the school, the gym, in barracks, and anywhere else they could find room. Quadruple guards were placed on the perimeter fence and gates. There was an announcement that the King of Jordan, the King of Syria, and the King of Egypt had declared that all American bases in any Arabic country be bombed as we were allies of Israel. The King of Morocco stated publicly that there were no American military bases in his country, only Moroccan training facilities with American instructors. Boy was I glad someone had the foresight to make that kind of arrangement. I then became a true believer in diplomacy. After a couple weeks after the war was over, we were allowed to again return to the status-quo. The atmosphere was different for a little while and we were shunned by the Moroccans to a certain extent, but that eased and all was normal again.

It was more of the beach, the Teen Clubs, the Sidi Limits, Screech and so on. Life was good. And I was enjoying every minute of it. But, as with Adam and Eve, paradise was lost. We had to leave. The U.S. Government had other plans for my family. So back home to the good ole USA.

Did I tell you we didn’t have TV at all in Morocco? After 2 years over there and no TV, it was another culture shock to return to Star Trek, Space 1999, Lost in Space and other hi-tech shows. Yes, there had been a culture shock twice. But the hardest one to deal with was the one when we returned. I was no longer able to drive anything. I had a curfew. And I was not able to travel around the countryside alone. After all I was in the USA. But, to this day, I yearn for the time when I can return and look up my almost-bride-to-be.

What is the purpose of this?

Posted on Tuesday, March 10th, 2009 by Cecil Byrd

Almost 45 years ago, I arrived in Pt. Lyautey all the way across the world from Portsmouth, Virginia to begin two of the most memorial days of my life. Who knows how that experience shaped my life for ever. My family was very committed to faith, the church and the concept of being a missionary. Every week end we would pack up our Rambler station wagon with everything you could imagine from the commissary and head to a missionary family somewhere in Morocco.

We travelled all over Morocco, places probably not even on the map. We brought missionary families things they had probably not had in years. This was my mother and father’s ministry. I remember Agadir and other very remote sites. I also remember our basketball team at school travelling all over Morocco to play basketball at Moroccan schools on their courts that had the oblique foul lines. Boy, were those rough and tumble brawls. There was no concept of how to play without fouling. it was a full contact sport. I remember we tried to played with technique and finesse but a few minutes into the games we decided if they wanted to foul we would show “them” how to foul. lol

I remember trips to the beach and into the medina and how you could look around and see no one out of town and stop to repair my scooter or check something and all of a sudden look up and realize there were fifty people all around you out of nowhere.

I remember sculling and crewing on the Sebou River at sunrise in the morning with my trainer Monsieur Noel when the river was smooth as glass and the mist sometimes showed in the morning. I remember our training sessions in the afternoons three days a week and the smelly bodies and my rowing partners changing and putting back on the same woolen clothes after working out. Deodorant what is that?

I remember the reaction we had to men and boys holding hands out of basic simple friendship and how that freaked us out. lol

I remember the trips to Gibraltar and the basketball games at all the military bases in Spain.

I used to life guard at the pool where I was also a short order cook. I also ran the canteen truck and sold popcorn at the movie theatre. I also worked stocking in the PX. Lots of the older kids ended up going to college after graduating from Wilhoite at University of Maryland in Munich I think.

I remember when we tried to play basketball again the Navy and Marines on base we got killed. Those guys were phenomenal. We didn’t have a prayer but with fast pitch softball, we did not do so badly. We were quick and ended up having a great bunting offense. Of course we had to import a fast pitch pitcher though.

And then there were all the motor bikes….fast fast fast. Me of course had a slow lambretta scooter. I used to be friends with Karen and Sandy Hansen. Capt Hansen was base commander at one point and Col. Canton was the head of the Marines.  Robbie and Irving were on the basketball team. My secret crush back then was Anne Durgee. Met her again after so many years when we had our little reunion here in DC back in 2000 I think. Okay gotta get back to work.

44 Years Later…

Posted on Thursday, February 26th, 2009 by Cecil Byrd

Well, 44 years later, it is good to get a little involved again.

I have some wonderful memories from Morocco.

We played basketball with the military personnel, all over Morocco and throughout Spain. We played fast pitch softball with the military using a retired AF pitcher and did quite well.

We had fun beach parties and I remember life guarding at the pool, selling popcorn at the movie theatre, being a short order cook at the pool patio, driving the canteen truck, and working as a stock man for the PX and Commissary I think. JFK was shot while I was there.

Tinney, Blackmons, Irving, Robbie, Razi, Bruno, Bob Bull, the others will come to me. I was on a french moroccan rowing team on the Sebou River. We had a nice reunion in DC around 2000 I think. 202 680-3142.