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.