Friday was already going to be an adventure. I was convinced by a couple of friends to try surfing at one of the surf clubs along the coast of Rabat. Overlooked by Oudaya, the ancient cliff fortifications, the shore provides Rabatis some open space – albeit strewn with discarded bottles and plastic – to play soccer or swim. I have never been surfing before, and the idea of attempting to balance on a board in the tumulus surf seemed ludicrous. Yet, I relented, even at the cost of missing the weekly family couscous lunch. Warm noontime sun bathed the streets of the city as we flagged a cab towards the medina. We wore jeans above our bathing suits to remain modest throughout our journey to the beach.
Large crowds were awaiting us at the medina. As we stepped out of the cab, a festive mood greeted us, and the excitement in the air was palpable. Mobs of onlookers thronged past the main square of Bab al-Had to a smaller, fenced off entrance in the medina’s walls. Men donned in white jalabas – the traditional Moroccan dress – and red caps stood waiting, surrounded by policemen along the periphery of the temporary fence, a protective barrier from the pulsing crowd. All around, young and old Moroccans were holding small red and green Moroccan flags and clutching pictures of the king. A troop of young, rowdy school children briefly halted their horseplay and erupted into a chant in praise of their king. The cheer spread through the crowd, accompanied by a burst of red of the waving flags. Somewhere from within the enclosure a drum was striking a beat.
Suddenly, royal guards donned in white capes and holding large flags streamed out and assembled in formation alongside the path leading to the small gate. Other guards rolled magnificent traditional carpets, covering the sidewalks and tram rails. Traffic stopped. Anticipation filled the air. The whole crowd leaned precariously forward, risking tipping over for a brief glimpse. And then, a motorcade of sleek, back limousines and police motorcycles pulled to a stop in front of the entrance to the medina. The door opened, and to the sound of cheers and trumpets, out stepped a man in a golden jalaba: the king. Smiling and waving, the king passed by the flag bearers, the advisors clad in white, and the stiff policemen, and entered the medina for the Friday afternoon prayer.
As the crowd dissipated, I reflected on what I had just experienced. Seeing the king was a goal I really hoped would be realized, and after just three weeks in Morocco, I saw a figure that looms larger than life for Moroccans, though most have never seen him in flesh-and-blood. As an American, used to a vibrant media and democratic system, it is almost unbelievable to suddenly live in a monarchy, where the ruler is sanctioned not by the will of the people, but by God and history. Yet, as unfamiliar as this is for me, even the pro-democracy activists I have met did not wish to see a Morocco without a monarch, desiring instead a more reserved, ceremonial role for the king. All were wary of what a future without a king would look like. The king, they say, holds Morocco together.
We left the square and the king behind, and walked along the ancient reddish walls of the medina towards the glimmering blue of the ocean. Young men were playing soccer on the beach, couples were sipping tea in the seaside cafés, and a few brave souls were surfing in the waves. Such serenity is difficult to find in the intensive pace of life back home, and for a moment, I could understand why many Moroccans would like things to stay just the way they are.