One Fascinating Night in Morocco: Where the Sun Sets
Wharton Club Members & Guests Privileged
To Attend Evening Briefing & Reception at
Residence of Moroccan Ambassador,
His Excellency Aziz Mekouar
By Harvey Kipper
Approximately 2,000 years ago, the Chinese were aware of the existence of a land to their east, where the sun appeared to originate. They called that land ri ben, the source of the sun. When Westerners encountered China much later, they may have heard those words as ji ben, since the r as pronounced in Mandarin Chinese is similar to the j sound in English and French; thus Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun.
Japan is not the only geographical name that reflects a solar connection. Over a thousand years ago, Arab armies, newly converted to Islam, spread from the Middle East across North Africa. After they reached the western-most limits of that continent in 683 A.D., they named the area, inhabited by Berbers since time immemorial, al-Mamlaka al-Maġribiy ya, the Western Kingdom. The Arabic word maghrib, west, may be related to rurub ish-shams, sunset. In English, the Western Kingdom is known as Morocco, possibly due to the renown of one of its cities, Marrakesh.
On the evening of June 23, 2009, members and guests of the Wharton School Club of Washington, D.C., gathered for a briefing and reception at the Residence of the Ambassador of the Embassy of Morocco, His Excellency Ambassador Aziz Mekouar, in Bethesda, M aryland. Th e drive to the residence was itself an experience to be relished, along beautifully landscaped, winding roads, through a wrought iron fence, up a steep hill. The visual stimulation continued in the lovely residence with its many rooms filled with treasures reflecting the skill of Moroccan craftsmen and artists.
First to greet visitors was the Political Counselor of the Embassy of Morocco, Mr. Reda Oudghiri Idrissi. Mr Idrissi extended a gracious welcome to all. Ambassador Mekouar circulated among the guests, shaking hands and chatting warmly with everyone.
Soon Mr. Alan Schlaifer, the President of the Wharton Club of DC, requested everyone’s attention. In response to a question from the Ambas sador, Mr. Schlaifer informed those assembled that the Wharton Club of DC, a part of the Wharton School’s 84,000 Global Alumni Network, was a highly successful alumni group, dedicated to providing outstanding events. Mr. Schlaifer indicated that the Wharton School was the world’s first business school, begun more than 125 years ago. In response to his question about past travels to Morocco, over one-third of members and guests indicated they had visited our host nation. Two others are flying there in just a few days.
Mr. Schlaifer introduced Ambassador Mekouar, an outstanding diplomat fluent in six languages who, before being po sted to Washington, had served his nation for more than three decades, including terms as its Ambassador to Italy, Malta and Albania. The Ambassador then proceeded to speak from midway on the impressive spiral stairway to the crowd below.
The Ambassador spoke in flawless English, touching on the highlights of Morocco’s history, political system, and economy as well as current social, cultural, and religious issues. He began with a fascinating discourse on pre-Arab history. Berbers, divided into three tribes, were the original inhabitants of the land. Jews were an integral part of the demographic landscape from 70 A.D., numbering 300,000, about 5% of the estimated ancient population. Unlike in many countries where they were urban dwellers, in Morocco the Jews lived as mountain tribes. They were considered to be native to the land.
With the arrival of the Arabs, Islam was introduced to and accepted by most of the Berber population. The number of invading Arabs may have been relatively small. Thus, genetically there is probably little difference between Arabs and Berbers; the divide is language. Ambassador Mekouar stated that although he is an Arab (because the language he speaks is Arabic and not Berber), he is, nonetheless, certain that he has Berber ancestry.
Morocco, the Ambassador continued, is a constitutional monarchy with a parliament. Elections are free. The current occupant of the throne is King Mohammed VI whose family, according to the Ambassador, is descended from the Prophet Mohammed.
Ambassador Mekouar spoke movingly about women’s rights in his homeland. Within the past decade, one million Moroccans, headed by major political figures, marched for women’s equality in Rabat and one million, headed by conservative clerics, marched against it in Fez. Ultimately, even fundamentalists accepted the progressive argument for maximum women’s rights once it was framed as being in accordance with Islamic principles.
For almost 30 years Morocco has pursued an economic program of accelerated economic growth with the assistance of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
Morocco has enjoyed steady economic growth in the 5% range during the past several years. The various free trade agreements that Morocco has ratified with its principal economic partners include the US-Morocco Free Trade Agreement, which came into force in January 2006.
Morocco was the first nation to recognize the United States as an independent nation in 1777. Also in that year, when American merchant ships came under attack by the Barbary Pirates and no European countries would offer support, Morocco's Sultan declared that American merchant ships would be under the protection of the sultanate and would enjoy safe passage.
The Moroccan-American Treaty of Friendship is the U.S.'s oldest non-broken friendship treaty. In 1787, President George Washington wrote a letter to the Sultan strengthening the ties between the two countries. According to the Ambassador, the President stated that though the U.S. was then weak, perhaps one day it could repay its debt to Morocco. The United States legation (consulate) in Tangier became the first property owned abroad by the American Government.
Since 1996, Morocco has cooperated closely with the U.S. in the struggle against Al Qaeda. In 2004 Morocco became one of only 14 countries to be designated a Major non-NATO Ally (MNNA).
Questions & Answers: Q&A
What is the most difficult problem facing Morocco?
The issue of education: people graduating from universities and unable to find jobs commensurate with their educational attainments. This creates underemployment. It applies to general university education, not specialties such as medicine and engineering.
It is now 11.5%, including 10% of seats set aside as part of affirmative action.
Please describe Morocco’s health care system.
It is universal and free, as is education.
Please discuss immigration issues.
Morocco has tightened its borders so would-be immigrants from Africa’s south now proceed to Spain’s Canary Islands.
Free trade is the solution because it enlarges economic prospects for many and creates wealth hitherto unimagined.
What is Morocco’s stance on global warming?
Alternative energy sources need to be developed.
Following these stimulating interchanges, Mr. Schlaifer suggested that further discussion could continue less formally. He took the opportunity while everyone was still gathered together to express appreciation to Ms. Anne P. Orleans who had worked tirelessly over the course of many years to arrange superb embassy events, including this one.
He noted and thanked officers of the Wharton Club who were present, as well as Ms. Andrea Essex, who had helped with the evening’s event. M r. Schlaifer also kindly introduced Harvey Kipper, who had written for the Wharton Club of DC concerning the Wharton Global Forum in Rio de Janeiro as well as receptions and briefings at the embassies of Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Bahrain.
Upon conclusion of the Q&A session, there was a move en masse to an adjoining room where tables laden with Moroccan delicacies had been detected previously by the more observant. As the guests and embassy staff mingled and nibbled, conversation about Morocco and other topics flowed as exuberantly as the wide variety of beverages. Too soon the sun set, evening arrived, and before much longer it was time to leave.
Three thousand years ago, long before the Arabs became Muslim and entered Berber lands in Africa, another Semitic people was on the move. These were the Phoenicians, the ancestors of today’s Lebanese.
In sturdy ships they set sail from city-states such as Tyre and Sidon in the direction of the setting sun, establishing trading posts and colonies in areas including Sicily, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, and Spain. They spoke a North Semitic language, identical to Hebrew and related to South Semitic Arabic. To the Phoenicians, these settlements were in the maarav (maghrib in Arabic), the westerly direction, from the word erev, evening, the period of darkness occurring at sunset. Some linguists believe that erev is the root of the geographical term Europe, just as maghrib became the name of North Africa, the Maghrib.
It is fitting that al-Mamlaka al-Maġribiyya, the Western Kingdom (Morocco), and Europe, the Land of the Setting Sun, may have a shared etymology from related languages, albeit from widely separated time periods. In fact, Morocco is further west geographically than most of Europe. Of more significance, Morocco is as Western politically, culturally, and economically as a number of European countries in many ways. These include its constitutional monarchy and Parliamentary system of government, insistence on equality for women, religious tolerance, moderation and opposition to fanaticism, openness to free trade, and close alliance with the United States of America.
Text Copyright 2009, Harvey Kipper. All Rights Reserved.
About the Author, Harvey Kipper
A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Harvey Kipper is a member of the Wharton Club of DC, the University of Pennsylvania Alumni Club of Washington, DC, and American Mensa, Ltd. Harvey's interests include archaeology, foreign affairs, languages, and travel. His personal e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and his home phone number is (703) 920-4097.
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