Here is a working link to watch the documentary Hercule contre Hermès by French Moroccan director Mohamed Ulad. It tells the story of a land dispute between a French developer and Moroccan peasants in the north of Morocco.
“A year ago, I heard about the twists and turns of the making of a documentary film that chronicled land disputes in northern Morocco between a rich businessman and a family of peasants who refused to sell no matter how attractive the offers were and despite years of legal pressures.”
By Jacob Axelrad
As we bounced along the road caked with layers of mud on our way to tour Mounir’s land near the beach of Sidi Mghait close to the Moroccan town Asilah, our instructor Mary turned to Mounir and asked him if Arab sheiks played polo.
“Yes,” he replied with a laugh, a twinkle in his eye. “With a bottle of whisky in one hand.”
In the distance, through rain-drenched windows, we could discern the polo field, a rectangle of brown carved into the lush green countryside. Since arriving the previous night, we’d heard a lot about the polo field by the sea. Now, there it was, built by Patrick Guerrand-Hermès, a French businessman who for years has been buying as much of this pristine land as he can, no matter the cost.
Mounir, an elegant man, cracked jokes in English, perfected from 20 years living and working as a fitness trainer in London. He excitedly showed off his land like a proud kid displaying a new toy collection at show and tell. He appeared relatively unaffected by the fact that he’s locked in a seemingly endless feud with Hermès.
His casual attitude could have been a stand-in for Asilah itself, located just south of Tangier. Lodged beneath the exterior of tourists and Spanish restaurants and local farmers, this land battle has touched numerous lives in the town and has garnered international attention: the recently broadcast documentary “Hercule Contre Hermès” and the New York Times piece “A Clash Over a Piece of Moroccan Tranquility.”
Being journalism students in town to learn more about this intriguing story, we had many questions: What’s the status of Mohamed El Mektiri (Hercules), the invincible farmer who refuses to sell his family’s land to Hermès? What will happen to Mounir who, as already noted on this blog, has been “charged with allegedly assaulting a contractor connected to the project?” Will Hermès and associates manage to continually bribe and extort local Asilah officials and residents to get their way? What will Hermès, 82, do with this polo field for which he built a road through previously untouched countryside and diverted resources from surrounding property? Throughout our stay, Mounir speculated that Hermès intends to sell to investors from the Emirates upon completing construction. I wonder who will continue the development begun by Hermès: perhaps more hotels, more modern housing which clashes with the surrounding scenery.
As we observed the polo field, wandered the streets of Asilah’s old medina, and saw the spot where Hermès plans to construct a beachfront hotel, I realized, had I never been informed of the situation, the road would have been nothing more than an efficient means of transportation from the town to the sea. I would never have thought about the bribes that got it built or the potential health hazards caused by cars kicking up dust into neighboring homes when the weather is warm. In short, the human conflict and tragedy would have been lost on me — the idea of a hotel would seem an inevitable prospect, the thing that happens when there’s vacant property near a gorgeous beach and tourists willing to open their pocketbooks.
Although the documentary pitted Hercules against Hermès in a David-and-Goliath-type narrative, the story of Mounir vs. Hermès is quite different. Mounir too wants to develop the land, albeit his vision of stone huts is one that preserves the landscape’s natural beauty. Moreover, he’s Moroccan. He’s from the area. While it’s appealing to categorize this saga as a black-and-white struggle between greedy, wealthy foreigner and innocent farmers who refuses to sell, Mounir represents a shade of grey, in my view. With a British passport, he too could be viewed as a kind of intruder profiting off of this tiny slice of paradise. Do we simply call him the lesser of two evils?
Before I left the U.S. for my study-abroad adventure in Morocco my guidebook described it as a country that “holds an immediate and enduring fascination.” Another book I read noted that the very word Morocco “connotes mystery, opulence, and escape.” It’s attractive to westerners, from the preserved medinas to the delicious food to the sounds of the muezzin’s call to prayer. And, in a way, the events I bore witness to last weekend are not unlike a foreigner’s fantasy of Morocco taken to grotesque extremes. Morocco may indeed invite tourists to enjoy the country’s myriad pleasures as well as encouraging foreign investment. But this is an example of someone taking advantage of those sentiments, using them to justify his own desires.
Unfortunately, as our journalism professor explained, this type of scenario gets played out the world over, from Americans in Central America to Europeans in North Africa. Foreign investment is understandably difficult to turn down, especially in the developing world. It’s needed, and it may well be inevitable. I can only hope that in this case, it is Hercules and Mounir coming out on top. I hope to one day return to Asilah in five, ten, twenty years, and see the rolling fields of green remaining unblemished, undamaged, like a painting. I wish these men, and the countless other residents who value preservation over capitalization, the very best of luck.
“In these last few days, the same private citizens – who must have a
project in mind for this area although we are unaware of its nature –
have been attacking the river after they put a giant reservoir (we are
talking about 21.000 tons) in its direct proximity. In this very
moment they are digging the riverbed where they intend to install
pumps that will allow them to divert precious sweet water and lead it
to their reservoir.”
By Alice Urban
As I think about the few days I spent in Asilah talking to landowners and learning about the drama simmering beneath the surface of this beautiful place, it is not just the thought of the rolling hills being leveled for rich men to play polo that I find so unsettling but the possibility that one very powerful man may actually succeed at completely altering this place. From what I hear, the system certainly is not in the favor of the people we met who are fighting to preserve their land.
He seems to be indirectly embroiled in a land battle with a French businessman who has acquired much of this pristine property and begun to develop it. It is all very complex. We visited the sight where sits a polo field only meters from the beach, but no one’s around to play. For now. A new road, dusty by sun and muddy by rain, winds its way up and down the hills toward the future polo turf. Near the field, a luxury home is under construction: a concrete structure that stands out from the modest stone farmhouses nestled into the hillsides.
If it weren’t so tragic it would be comical – a polo field in this place where farmers tend their livestock and only a few visitors find their way to the undeveloped beach. But, for Mounir – and other Moroccan landowners in the area who have lived on this land for generations – the threat of development is hard to fight.
We arrived as a small group of journalism students and journalists to learn more about Mounir’s fate in this heated dispute. Mounir, a fit man, who wears a New York Yankees baseball cap over his shaved head, has bought some land on which he plans to build small stone homes. He plans to sell them to people wishing to live in a place untouched by beach-crazed development.
The more we learned, the more we discovered endless layers of political dealings, judicial maneuvering and economic pressures. The never-ending twists and turns of this particular land battle are surprising. And disturbing.
Scores of families have been pressured to sell as the rich investor continues to amass as much of the countryside as possible. Another person who inspired our trip is someone facing an unequal fight against the French businessman and his associates.
The man, known as Hercules, has even been to jail for trying to defend his property and his family. And Mounir may face a similar fate. He is charged with allegedly assaulting a contractor connected to the project – he claims that the evidence against him was falsified.
But what’s the solution? Maybe the landowners need to consolidate and protest. Maybe international environmentalists should look into the water access the businessman is altering to irrigate his polo field. Maybe the Minister of Justice needs to intervene in Mounir’s trial imposing fairness.
Or maybe, the landowners should just give up. And get out. If I were in their situation, I might be tempted to cut my losses, sell my land and avoid the constant fear that the businessman and his associates are watching me. Waiting for me to make one wrong move and slap me with an unfounded lawsuit.
I have a lot of respect for this diverse group of Moroccans who refuse to give in to those who seem so much more powerful and well-connected. Despite intense pressure, men like Hercules and Mounir refuse to fold. Mounir is committed to keeping hold of his land. He won’t sell. “There’s no point, life would have no flavor,” he said.
The beach around Asilah may be like few places in the world. But it’s facing a fight against foreign development not uncommon in developing countries. Let’s hope that the Mounirs and Herculeses of the world continue to stand up for their property, their communities and the integrity of their land.
“A few kilometers south of Tangier, near the port town of Asilah, lies the wide golden beach of Sidi Mghait. It is a peaceful place, overlooked by the simple farmhouse of a peasant family, a luxurious modern villa built by a wealthy European businessman, and a small mosque, the burial place of a Muslim holy man who gave the place its name.
Appearances here are deceptive. The beach and its hinterland are the focus of a 10-year clash over land, rights and cultures….”
And the PDF version in print: 20121115_P504 
“Au sud de Tanger, Hercule et sa famille s’opposent à Patrick Guerrand-Hermès, héritier de la marque française de luxe, pour 1700m2 de terrain en bord de mer. Soit la bataille du pot de terre contre le pot de fer pour un petit bout de paradis….
“L’héritier des créateurs du célèbre carré de soie et du sac Kelly aux prises avec un manant. Cela pourrait aussi être l’histoire du combat homérique que livre un petit paysan marocain à un riche propriétaire terrien français.
Voici résumé, le scénario d’un conte moderne porté à l’écran, objet d’une bataille juridique aux multiples implications politiques….”