|06RABAT321||2006-02-24 12:05:00||CONFIDENTIAL||Embassy Rabat|
1. (U) Meknes, Morocco's seventh largest city with a
population of more than half a million, is located an hour
and one-half southeast of Rabat and is easily accessible by a
modern toll road with little traffic and at a minimal cost
(USD 3) for expatriates. The drive is through foothills and
agriculture, resplendent with wildflowers because of the
winter rains. Wheat fields, olive groves, fruit trees and
vineyards are on both sides of the road -- the fields were
filled with horse-drawn carts, shepherds with flocks of sheep
and the occasional goat or two, and donkeys carrying grasses.
Along the toll road, people of all ages were walking or
riding; the women rarely had their heads covered.
2. (U) Once an imperial seventeenth century city of the
Alaouites, the current ruling dynasty, Meknes was founded as
a military camp/settlement in the eleventh century. Like six
other places in Morocco, the historic city of Meknes is
inscribed on the list of World Heritage sites. Like many
historic places, the older city is surrounded by modern,
concrete block multi-storeyed buildings -- the "new city" --
and is being smothered with taxis, buses and private
vehicles. The gates to the historic city have modern roads
running through them in some places; in other places, modern
roads are adjacent to the older city walls. Coffee shops
abound along the Meknes roads filled with only male patrons.
3. (SBU) The tourism sector, one of the major facets of the
Moroccan economy, identifies Meknes as an important city to
visit. The city, however, appears ill-prepared for tourism.
Informative signage, either directional or explanatory, is
minimal. The municipal fountains are in disrepair -- filled
with garbage and not working -- and the surrounding plaza,
while once it must have been a pleasant place, is composed of
decaying stones. There was still charm as the plaza was
filled with older men sitting on benches and chatting. They
and the ubiquitous car guardians (men and boys who watch
parked cars throughout Morocco) were friendly and helpful.
Solid waste littered this area and the rest of the city.
There also appeared to be little infrastructural enhancement
in the city as women were still drawing water from
neighborhood fountains. The recent intense rains had
drenched the streets; there was standing water with little
evidence of a sophisticated drainage system.
4. (SBU) A main reason for visiting Meknes was to identify
the old Jewish quarter or "mellah" of the city. The guide,
who attached himself to our party in a gentile manner, was
Berber and willing to show us the city -- most of what we saw
would have been impossible without our guide. We walked to
the original Jewish quarter which is now inhabited by
Muslims. Jewish houses, according to the guide, were unique:
they had basements for storage, unlike Arab and Berber
houses. All of the older houses had interior courtyards with
fountains. The guide was unable (or unwilling) to indicate
the original synagogues in the quarter. Once the Jews moved
out of the old city, they formed another quarter on the
outskirts of the city. The synagogue there is marked by a
"star of David" on the metal door and high walls. It was
impossible to see inside -- only the door marked the building
as the synagogue. A block away was a now unused
multi-storeyed Talmudic school building -- the name of the
school is still there on a wooden sign in Hebrew and French.
According to the guide, only about 200 Jews now live in
Meknes whereas the population before the formation of Israel
was approximately 20,000. The Jews now live in the "new
city" and, again according to the guide, are an aging
5. (SBU) Our guide said that there are two main sections to
the old city: a Berber section where the artisans are and an
Arab section where commerce takes place. Wandering through
the narrow streets of the old city, he made his point by
taking us to a silver shop. The older man in the silver shop
lectured us in French on how superior Berber workmanship is
in Meknes to that of Fez. The "Meknes is better than Fez"
theme was discussed again and again -- the Fez merchants
charge more for their products, are aggressive, lie to the
tourists and are not really good people. (Note: The Berber
silver merchants refused to speak Arabic and were most
comfortable using French. End Note.) The guide said that
the people in Fez now are not the ones who used to be there
-- the older population left over the last twenty years and
now Fez is filled with people from the mountains and
villages. The guide thought that these facts accounted for
how "bad" the people of Fez are.
6. (SBU) Young children, approximately ten and younger,
were going home after school and unfailingly wanted to
practice their French. For the most part their vocabularies
were limited and they quickly started speaking Arabic. The
children appeared well-cared for, if not wealthy. On the
other hand, we encountered several old, barefoot women with
cloth bundles filled with what appeared to be their worldly
goods walking through the city. For the most part, the city
women covered their heads with scarves.
7. (SBU) Coming back to Rabat we used the two-laned highway
most of the way; the number of trucks carrying all kinds of
commodities was significantly higher than on the autoroute.
(Comment: Trucks may not take the autoroute because of the
expense, i.e., USD 3 from Meknes to Rabat. End Comment.)
The "back road" goes through Khemiset, a town midway between
Rabat and Meknes. A stop in Khemiset revealed a lively
merchant population eager to do business and to point out how
much better their prices were than those in Rabat. There is
a monthly carpet market that draws Rabat expatriates,
diplomats, and other visitors. Again, the Berber merchants
were hesitant to use Arabic, but freely spoke French.
8. (C) Comment: As the largest of four Moroccan cities in
which the mayor is an Islamist from the Party of Justice and
Development (PJD), Meknes is an important part of the
political landscape as the country moves toward parliamentary
elections in 2007. How the PJD manages the affairs of this
important city will certainly influence perceptions of the
PJD among voters, as the PJD has hitherto existed as an
opposition party. Now it has an opportunity to demonstrate
that it can deliver. The city of Meknes, moreover, hosts a
high concentration of Islamic extremists and has been the
scene of several high-profile murders, including the fatal
stabbing of a Moroccan Jew in late 2003. In January 2005,
Moroccan police conducted a raid which resulted in the arrest
of 37 extremists connected to the Salafiya Jihadiya,
discovering in the process a large quantity of explosives.
In his December meeting with the Ambassador (Ref A), Meknes
Wali Hassan Aourid acknowledged that the crime rate remained
high, and pockets of Jihadists remained at large; security,
he said, continues to pose a problem.
9. (SBU) Comment continued: Only repeat visits to Meknes
and Khemiset will confirm or deny these snapshot views. The
Berber population understands itself as distinct, perhaps
better, than the Arab population. There is competition
between Meknes and Fez. Meknes is not prepared for an influx
of tourists -- there is a lack of infrastructure, including
waste removal, and tourist amenities, in addition to the
security concerns. The modernity of Rabat and other urban
centers is in sharp contrast to the rural areas. End Comment.
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