Taroudant: worried about the king - Have this woman washed and brought to my tent - CycleBlaze

Taroudant: worried about the king

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THE PROBLEM with an organised ride is that it's organised. There isn't much scope to change the route, the date, the distance. So it is today. We are booked tonight into a hotel in Taroudant, which we would have reached this evening had we crossed that snowbound col, and so we have to get there.

We obviously can't go back once more to where we were and there's no other way than pass through Agadir, out on the coast, and then turn back inland. There are only the two roads and this is the only one still open. The result was that this morning we called in two small buses and loaded the front wheels on top of one and the bikes on the other. In the rain. It is still horribly cold, it is still wet and it is still not what Africa is supposed to be.

This has come as such a surprise to one or two that they packed only shorts. One especially unhappy soul bought a snazzy new rain jacket and then left it at home. Some had no gloves. They were none of them especially content with life yesterday.

On the way out of town, we passed another of the billboards picturing the king. His picture is everywhere here and he always looks bewildered, a man seemingly pushed into the front line against his wish and forced to be hero-worshipped. He appears to be worshipped, anyway. His picture is everywhere, in bars, café, hotels. When I've asked, people have told me it's "because we love our king," which took me back to the drooling attitude the British showed their Royal Family when I was a child.

"We love our king," folk said repeatedly. His portrait, looking slightly confused, is everywhere.
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I don't get the impression there's compulsion to show his portrait. There may be a patriotic expectation, of course, but that's not the same thing. In fact we heard many times that it was the affection Moroccans showed their king that had stopped the country joining the Arab Spring that has changed northern Africa in recent months.

I had time on the bus journey to read more of my French-language paper. It was several days old and much taken by the king's speech promising more democracy. There is an elected parliament in Morocco but the king holds enormous powers, including the right to create his own laws and to dissolve parliament. Cynics say the lightening of control was to head off trouble - there have already been demonstrations in a couple of dozen cities here, although the atmosphere is peaceful - but the paper mentioned nothing of that.

Instead, sycophantically, the front page had a story above the main headline - a hamper headline, in the trade - that the French president had spoken with "His Majesty the King," as he was styled. Most of the rest of the page was a thousand words of uncritical reporting of S. M. Le Roi's words.

Page two had three stories, one on top of the next, each heaping praise on S. M. Le Roi from Brussels and elsewhere. Page three was enthusiastic comment from the nation's personalities, and so it continued beyond. Noticeably missing was any analysis, any insight, any suggestion that the changes didn't go far enough.

There's no news censorship, though. The world's newspapers are on open sale and Le Monde ran a comment by a Moroccan editor that S. M.'s changes were like a heavy man standing on your foot and offering to buy you new shoes. There was never a proposal not to stand on your foot again.

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Well, we drove out of the city and into an hour or more of dull, bleak, sandy countryside which was as close to desert as we chose to see. A new motorway links Marrakech to Agadir and it and its service stations are so similar to those in France - except that the Moroccan ones have prayer rooms - that we could guess whose engineers designed them.

The countryside and our hopes improved as we crossed the mountains close to the coast. The sun came out and the countryside turned green and welcoming. Tonight we are in Taroudant, a bustling town with numerous squares, several souks, an awareness of tourists but no determination to exploit them. It is, however, still cold.

As irony would have it, we are scheduled to have a rest day tomorrow. I don't think there's the slightest doubt we shall go out on our bikes instead.

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