Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Bear & Sultan

This past weekend, I took a quick trip to Morocco's royal city of Meknès and although this wasn't my first trip to Meknès - I was there in 2000 - this time I was accompanied by a working camera. As a former international fashion model, this was very important to me.

You can see me atop the Medersa Bou Inania - the 14th century Q'uranic school - with the minaret of the Grande Mosquée looming in the background. I rather like Meknès. You can buy amazing donuts here. And my bipedal attendants say that the beer is cheaper than in Rabat.

Probably unlike any other Moroccan city, Meknès is almost solely associa
ted with one historical figure ... one larger-than-life historical figure by the name of Moulay Ismail (1645-1727). You can see me below peeking out from one of the horseshoe doorways at his mausoleum (below right) which, because of his god-like status in Moroccan history, is open to infidels and bears alike.

Moulay "the Bloodthirsty" Ismail seems to have inherited the throne legitimately in spite
of the 80 or so family members who felt they had an equal or better right to rule. Consequently, the first 5 years of his reign are drenched in blood, during which time the claims of his rivals were effectively quashed. I wonder how many of the 80 or so were left standing once the smoke cleared? Repairing to Meknès, he devoted himself to building a capital city & palace that rivalled that of Versailles, even asking for the hand of one of Louis XIV's daughters in marriage. Apparently the Sun King declined.

To help build his palace, he "engaged" the services of tens of thousa
nds of slaves - many of whom were Christians from Western Europe (notably the UK, Spain & Portugal) as well as the Mediterranean rim - who had been captured from ships or snatched from their churches and homes by marauding Corsair pirates, or "Sally Rovers". Their home base was Salé which is the twin sister to Rabat. That’s where I currently live.

These slaves suffered grievously, living and working under tortuous conditions. They were used as pawns by Moulay Ismail during the negotiations instigated by those Western leaders who sought their release. Treaties were seldom honoured by the Sultan and slaves were
often not released even after ransoms were paid. He treated the horses in his vast stable with greater concern & humanity; in fact, the pee and poops of his horses which had completed the hajj to Mecca were caught in a special bowl by an attendant, lest the earth below sully them.

Many Christian slaves endured prolonged tortures, honeyed with empty promises of better treatment and freedom if they converted to Islam. Often, those who refused to abjure their faith were publicly circumcised; those who did convert were effectively abandoned by their governments as apostates. Their only hope for release was by escape or death. As a bear, I would have bitten them – even though I am a freelance goodwill ambassador.

Western historians consider Moulay Ismail a capricious and monstrous psychopath while their counterparts in
North Africa revere him as the founder of modern Morocco. Let me just add that cutting a man in half - vertically, from head to crotch - was a common method of execution under the Sultan, so you be the judge. Although, to be fair, he did consider it more humane to begin cutting from the head. Just thinking about it makes my seams itch.

I think it would be fair to say that Moulay Ismail would not have made a very good goodwill ambassador, freelance or otherwise.

Grey Bear Tip: Giles Milton's White Gold provides an excellent read for those interested in Moulay Ismail & the plight of his infidel slaves.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Bear & Poet

That's me - not a statue of me - sitting on a bear-size chair next to a bronze statue of poet Fernando Pessoa which stands (or sits) in front of the Café a Brasileira, one of Lisbon's oldest & most famous coffeehouses. I had to wait quite a long time to have my photo taken because every tourist in Lisbon had to have their pictures taken that day too. Tourists can be so tiresome ... always on the prowl for a photo op. Unlike me who, as a former international fashion model, has a moral obligation to share my image with the public.

Eighty-five years ago, the Café a Brasileira ("the Brazilian Woman") first opened its doors on Largo do Chiado - an offshoot of a coffee shop that had operated there since 1905 - to offer Lisbon "genuine Brazilian coffee". The café became a popular watering hole for intellectuals and artists, and gained even greater fame for permanently exhibiting the portraits of Lisbon artist José Almada Negreiros. These paintings were moved to the Centro de Arte Moderna in 1960. Currently, there are no portraits of me there; I am seeking to rectify the situation.

Still a java-hotspot, the café's tables have now spilled outside to acco m modate sun-seeking coffee aficionados. On the occasion of the centenary of native son Fernando Pessoa's birth, his image, cast in bronze, was erected outside what was one of his many haunts. The poet once wrote:

I have no ambitions and no desires.
Being a poet is not my ambition,
It's just my way of being alone.

Really, it's not so different from being an international fashion model and freelance Good Will Ambassador.