Last week’s issue of Tel Quel magazine (12-18 May 2012) contained a special file on Pasha T’hami El Glaoui (1879-1956), the old powerful collaborator of the French Protectorate in Morocco. The cover page features an old man  dressed in traditional attire a little absorbed in wistful thoughts. Perhaps the pensive air and brooding demeanor are no more sincere reflections of his inner thoughts than the  humble garb is of his immense wealth and influence . The Pasha was and remains a difficult puzzle. He was a ‘feudal’ lord who ruled the Atlas mountains with an iron fist and showed no mercy for his conquered enemies and rivals. Yet to the Protectorate officials and official circles in Paris he was a man of trust, a liberal patron of arts and a legendary potentate whose diligence in promoting the interests of the Republic commanded praise and admiration.

The title ‘El Glaoui, l’Autre Roi (the Other King)’ may sound a bit excessive. Until 1950 El Glaoui showed himself a dutiful vassal of Sultan Mohamed Ben Youssef. He owed his fortune to the sultan’s grandfather, Moulay Hassan I. The story sketched in the article has it that Sultan Hassan I, returning from one of his punitive campaigns in the south in 1893 a year before his death, crossed the valley of Dades in tatters and was along with his starving army received with profuse generosity and pomp by the chieftain of  Telouit, Madani El Glaoui, the elder brother of the future Pasha of Marrakech. As a reward, Hassan I nominated Madani Khalifa (Deputy) of the sultan and presented him with one of the most sophisticated weapons in the sultan’s arsenal, a Krupp cannon which the Glaouis later put to effective use reducing  scores of rival tribes to their submission.

The Cannon today is displayed at Kasbah of Taourirt in Ouarzazate

By the early 1900s both Madani and T’hami had secured control over large parts of the south and become major players in the political scene of Morocco. When the Regent Bou Ahmed (ex-Chamberlain of Sultan Hassan I) died in 1900, Sultan Abdel Aziz who until then had occupied a rear position proceeded to exercise his rights as sultan. The situation in Morocco, however, had deteriorated to the extent that the central government (Makhzen) had little or no control over extensive parts of the country which had slipped into a state of lawlessness. The Glaoui Brothers hoping to ingratiate themselves with the new sultan, put their forces at his service in attempt to eliminate his enemies. In 1902 they took part in the campaign against a rebel in the north east of Morocco, a certain Bou Hmara. The disastrous defeat suffered by the Sultan’s army not only signaled the bankruptcy of the political order, but it also convinced Madani and T’hami Glaoui to seek allegiance with the sultan’s brother, Moulay Abdel Hafid. This was to become their style of government: ‘always change your masters when they have lost their power; be ready to lick the boots of your enemy if they hold the reins’. Over the next few decades, T’hami El Glaoui exemplified this philosophy of profiteering blended with a deep sense of servility particularly vis-a-vis the French.

 In offering their sketchy account of T’hami El Glaoui’s background and career, Tel Quel editors drew heavily on an important book published in 1966 by Gavin Maxwell, titled Lords of the Atlas.

Lords of The Atlas: Adventure, Mystery, and Intrigue in Morocco, 1893-1956 (New York: Lyon Press, 2000), 272 pp.

The book still remains the only major account of the rise and fall of the Glaoui family during the first half of the twentieth century. Maxwell himself used the accounts of two early British travelers who accompanied the sultans in their campaigns, namely Walter Harris and Lawrence Harris. The greater part of the book deals with T’hami El Glaoui who, following in the steps of his brother, threw his lot with the French colonial establishment and become General Lyautey‘s principal collaborator in the ‘pacification’ of Morocco. When many tribes rose in rebellion against French occupation in the south, the Glaouis affected to join the ranks of the invaders and marched against their countrymen and reduced them to the authority of the occupation. From 1918 until his death in 1956, T’hami now Pasha of Marrakech played various roles in consolidating French colonial presence in Morocco. His commitment was unswerving even when nationalist sentiment began to manifest itself in urban communities in Fes and Casablanca and undermine the very ideological foundations of the French colonial establishment.

 The rift between the collaborators and enemies of the Protectorate increased in the years after the second world war. A political movement inspired by nationalist ideas in Arab countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria was gradually taking root in the towns and villages of Morocco. Whole communities were secretly mobilized to embrace the nationalist ideals. After years of docile co-existence with the Protectorate, Sultan Mohamed Ben Youssef who succeeded his father in 1927 began to lend a sympathetic ear to the aspirations of the nationalists. This was a dangerous liaison that could cost him dear. The nationalist leaders who were a motley crowd of political activists varying from progressive liberals, radical socialists and conservative Arab/Islamist nationalists believed that alliance with the sultan would strengthen their ranks against the colonialist regime and its collaborators.

 T’hami El Glaoui viewed this close partnership between the court and nationalists as a harbinger of his downfall. The servile collaborator he was, he did not hesitate to deploy his forces in 1951 to Fes in a what was portrayed as a spontaneous uprising against the sultan. This dramatic escalation comes as a reaction to the sultan’s refusal to severe his ties with the nationalists.  Already in December 1950 the Pasha of Marrakech tried to dissuade the sultan from pursuing his policy of support of the nationalists. The sultan ordered him to leave at once and never set foot in his court again.

 The Pasha’s attitude became radicalized in the years to follow. His relationship with the sultan shattered forever now, it became clear to him that his privileged status not only depended on the continuity of the Protectorate system, but also necessitated the removal of the sultan himself from the political landscape. Conspiring with another collaborator, the religious figure in Fes, Abdel Hay Kittani, he called on the Resident General to depose the sultan. In 1953 El Glaoui’s ordered his troops to march on Rabat. Things were taking an ugly turn. In the momentum of that unprecedented escalation of events, General Guillaume on orders from Paris deposed the sultan and forced him and his family into exile to Corsica and later to Madagscar.

 After his deposition, Sultan Mohamed ben Youssef was replaced by one of his relatives, an old uncle named Mohamed Ben Arafa who showed himself more tractable than his nephew. The Protectorate decision was a miscalculated move given  subsequent popular reaction and the barbarism with which it was countered. There were several attempts to assassinate the appointed sultan, the most famous was conducted by a nationalist activist called Allal Ben Abdallah in Rabat on 11 September 1953. It failed, but the reputation of the sultan was at ebb low. It was a moral assassination in many ways.

The Protectorate officials had indeed seen to it that enough troops (over 200.000) were deployed to Morocco to crush the popular uprisings, but as months passed the situation was as precarious as it was in 1953 (p. 210). Ben Arafa had to be replaced; he was obviously hated and despised by his own countrymen whom he called his subjects. Glaoui tried to resist with so much fiery, but he was an old and sick man in his final years and the course of events, unpredicted three years earlier, was now irreversibly heading towards the restoration of the deposed sultan. Eventually, T’hami El Glaoui had to swallow his pride and concede his defeat and humiliation.

On 31 October 1955, the Sultan arrived in Nice and proceeded to Paris where he “was received with the full honours due to a reigning monarch” (p.228). T’hami El Glaoui flew to Paris to show his submission to the sultan whom he had forced into exile.  Gavin Maxwell describes this last scene of submission in these vivid terms:

T’hami went in alone, discarding his shoes, to the room where the Sultan sat upon an ornate Louis XVI sofa. He knelt, advanced the last few paces upon his knees, and touched his forehead to the ground before the Sultan’s fee while the Sultan’s minister performed the ritualistic action of pressing down upon the old man’s shoulders – a ritual indeed, for T’hami could prostrate himself no lower. Almost in a whisper he begged the Sultan’s mercy upon one who had lost the road and gone astray, but Mohammed V replied, ‘Let us forget the past. We have need of you both for our person and for our people. It is not what you have done that matters, but what you do in the future.’ T’hami was helped to his feet and backed unsteadily out of the Sultan’s presence. (p. 230)

T’hami Glaoui prostrating before Sultan Mohamed Ben Youssef

T’hami El Glaoui died in Marrakech on 30 January 1956 of cancer. He represented everything Moroccans in the mid 1950s wanted to leave behind. Perhaps their aspirations were a little too optimistic. It is important to remember how the French colonial establishment used all the decadent and archaic traditions to maintain and preserve its presence in Morocco. Maxwell’s account is as much a portrait of the Glaoui family as an indictment of French colonial legacy.


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