three pairs of lovers with space

A CHLEUH DANCE: MARRAKECH IN 1947

 

The pederotic Chleuh dance was first mentioned by English journalist Michael Davidson in his autobiography The World, the Flesh and Myself (1962), and then described at length in Some Boys (1969), his memoir more narrowly focused on Greek love. Both accounts are presented here, the shorter as an afterword.

 

Some Boys

The text is taken from pp. 9-18 of the unexpurgated American edition (New York, 1971), which in this instance is the same as in the British edition.

MARRAKECH

THE CHLEUH is a southward looking man; from his home on the further slopes of the Atlas mountains or below in the Sous valley on the verge of the Sahara, the sun is forever in his eyes—from the moment it rises somewhere beyond the Algerian sands until it reaches the rim of the moghreb el-aksa, the extreme west, he is face to face with it more starkly, surely, than any other. His back is always to the north and from the vast reflecting wall of the Atlas he gazes from birth to death into the burning south. That, at least roughly, has been his historical destiny since the Chleuh people—they are more than a tribe—have been settled along the southern marches of Morocco.

   Chleuh in his traditional dance performed in Marrakech

And yet, in spite of all this ferocious sunshine, the Chleuh—who belong to a sept of the great Berber race of North Africa—are a fair-complexioned, slender, small-boned people, elegant and even feminine in their movements, with delicate and slightly womanish features. The milky-white cheeks of their sons are often capable of a maidenly blush; while the sexual ambiguities of their tribal dance, performed by the boys and ephebes, are renowned. In this dance the youths wear an ankle-length white garment, more feminine than masculine, and—especially relevant—a woman's belt; a girdle that no other North African male would dream of fastening round his waist; and the dance itself, executed to the beat of flute and tambour by twenty or more youths ranged in a circle, is a tremulous shuffling shimmy which we Westerners, most of us, would hail as a lovely send-up of a drag party. Yet what seems like an exercise in camp choreography in fact is a national tradition descended from a legendary past; the equivocal appearance and androgynous vibrations of these apparently bisexual boys are symbols and emblems evolved by history. But symbols of what?

What is the ancestry of this curious équivoque which one discerns in the tradition of the Chleuh, and even in their emotional temperament (though I've never heard that they're any more prone to homosexual behaviour than any other North Africans—nor any less)? Whence comes this streak of femininity that seems to course through the generations of the Chleuh male—otherwise as masculine and vigorous as anybody? They are by nature a gentle people, farmers and foresters, tilling their terraces cut into the high mountain slopes, or their fertile fields by the river below, and living in small walled villages built in a style of which their great city of Taroudant is the noblest flower. I don't think the Chleuh, in the history of a half-continent's warlike people, have been specially prominent in war; they prefer a tranquil life. And, as I've said, their lives are sun-drenched day in, day out.

Can it be that the very sun has something to do with it? While unqualified to proffer any theories about cause and effect, I can certainly say from experience that solar exuberance and sexual liberality are widely to be found coincident. In those golden hot latitudes where the sun blazes long and strong and, one often feels, for ever, where the soft sultriness of the atmosphere and the liberating lightness of one's scanty clothes together work like a refreshing aphrodisiac—in those regions where the sun is really hot and seldom hidden except by night, there's a sexual laxity or tolerance—permissiveness is the modern word—which finds expression in almost any youth's perfect readiness to indulge his ever-brimming desires in whatever manner and with whichever sex he's offered. That this climatic permissiveness is widely recognized and respectably joked about is shown by that very old chestnut, recounted for at least half a century in London smoking-rooms and British officers' messes, about the Consul in Pernambuco. "You want woman? You want small girl? You want nice boy?" an important visitor, arriving in the city, is asked. "No, no," snaps the visitor testily, "I want the British Consul." Says the pimp: "That is difficult, but it can be arranged."

                             Map of Marrakech by Jacques Liozu, 1946

So the sun it may be; and even classical myth attributes to Apollo the introduction to humanity—or at any rate a principal share in it—of the male's love for a youth. Apollo, some ancient writers say, was the first god ever to love a member of his own sex and competed with the first mortal to do so, the poet Thamyris, for the affections of the lovely Hyacinthus—indeed there were two other rival suitors for the boy Boreas and Zephyr, the North and West Winds. The latter was so enraged by Phoebus's apparent success that he caused the discus the boy was learning to throw to boomerang on to his own skull, killing him on the spot; and where Hyacinthus's blood fell, there sprang the flower. And although geographical purists may insist that this episode occurred in Sparta, a long way east of Morocco, it can't be denied that nowhere does Apollo's passionate eye stare with more fiery steadiness than upon the southern face of the Atlas mountain; and on those foothills undoubtedly the hyacinth grows.

The sun it may be; but the world's belt of perfervid sunshine is wide and broad, and there's no evidence that I know of that the Chleuh are more susceptible to unconventional seduction than anybody else. So the strange hermaphroditism of their dance and the hint of girlishness in their boys' demeanour remain unexplained, their causes hidden in the mists of antiquity.

Wrongly and deplorably, the city Arabs of Morocco—descendants, or claimants to descendance, from the original Arab invaders of the seventh and eighth centuries, largely living in the towns—are inclined, or used to be, to dub "Chleuh" any Berber-speaking people in a tone of slight denigration; in the same way, somewhat, as all Latins in the United States used to be called "dagos." Mustapha, my "Arab" boy-companion for three happy years of long ago, himself certainly of Berber ancestry, used to say, apologizing for the rusticity of some visitor, "Oh, he's just a Chleuh," when in fact the visitor was nothing of the sort. Was, I sometimes wondered, the quite wrongful taint of general disparagement often given by the Arabs to the name, to be traced to this semblance of effeminacy tucked into a corner of a manly and martial nation?

A note of apology here to the reader, before this sketch move on towards its proper termination—about the tiresome and mechanical matter of transliteration. "Chleuh" is the French way of rendering the native sound; the phonetic capabilities of English orthography being small, the word is impossible to reproduce in English—particularly as the final h is aspirated, like a Greek "breathing". In German one could write Schlöh, though that still doesn't sound the h: conventional transliteration from Arabic puts a dot underneath an aspirated h. In English perhaps one could write "Shlur"—pronouncing the ur as in "absurd" or "turd", and trying to remember the final h.

*             *             *

                                             J'maa el-fna, Marrakech in 1940

All visitors to Morocco, from travellers in the days of Leo Africanus to members of the present-day "package tours" and coach-tour "safaris" which the world's travel-agents organize, want to see Marrakech, the great red city in the south, capital of the Atlas barons. And there, the first place they go to is the J'maa el-fna, the vast piazza or "place of assembly", as the Arabic has it, which is the focal point of the people's footsteps and the scene of all the fun of the fair. An Islamic "fair", at any rate in Morocco, has a religious slant, or rather an occult or medico-magical one: nearly all the "shows" have a supernatural intention: the invocation of saint or demon for the purpose of curing disease, recovering stolen property, restoring a lost sheep or purse, reclaiming an adulterous husband, or some similar reasonable need. All these miracles are performed by the disciples of certain saints or the members of certain sects who've been endowed with special powers over djinn or other spectral beings—who are, in fact, sorcerers. Thus the Aissaoui, through their sympathy with snakes, can influence certain potent djinn; the Ouled Sidi Khalifa can, through the immense disc of their thrumming drums, into which the drummers whisper as their hands beat out an evocative rhythm, call up from the netherworld the most remarkable demons, capable of solving all sorts of useful domestic problems; which they do after throwing their supplicants into trance-inducing jig, a hysteria something like that which the modern pop-fans of the West attain through the mesmeric rhythm of their idols. I suppose that the Chleuh dance too has some sacramental or animistic meaning, though I don't know what it is, but no like ceremonial rite of such antiquity, in Morocco, can be without some amount of power for good or ill.

Nor do I know whether the Chleuh dance has joined so many other old traditionalist popular fantasies—all cherished by the ordinary, illiterate folk and all harmless—beneath the ban of the new nationalist puritanism. When I revisited Morocco some five years ago I found that the eager reformist hyperchauvinistic government of King Hassan, bent upon presenting to the world a modern, go-ahead, modish "image" no matter how wretched the common people beneath it might be, was suppressing all the popular customs that smacked of superstition or heresy; an outward show of Islamic conformity was officially required, while any folklorist unorthodoxies, no matter how picturesque the tourists might find them, were made illegal. On the common people, the effect was rather the same as if in America baseball were banned as being degrading to the national "image"; but in Morocco the common people don't count.

I'm perfectly sure that the new puritanism will have banned a very specialized edition of the Chleuh dance, one arranged for a very special audience. It was in Marrakech that this took place; and I haven't been in Marrakech since some years before the French resigned the Moroccan power to the Moroccans— and in those days there was a greater permissiveness, under the French, than there is today. I think if one asked the hall porter of the Mamounia Hotel, today, about seeing this special Chleuh dance, he'd shake his head and sorrowfully say he couldn't help—poor fellow, he'd be losing a tip. . . .

Marrakech as painted by Winston Churchill in the Mamounia Hotel, when he and Davidson were both staying there, 1947

But in those old days almost any hotel porter, approached confidentially, would be willing, for a consideration, to give equally confidential instructions to a cab-driver. The last time I saw this spectacle was in 1947, and it was the very grand-looking commissionaire of the Mamounia who helped me—at a time when Winston Churchill was a visitor inside, recovering from an illness.[1] I whispered to the porter "les gosses chleuhs," and passed him a whopping tip. He called up the nearest cabby and whispered the same three words; and off we drove.

As I remember it now, the place inside looked rather like what in England is called a "village hall"; where jumble-sales are held and parochial concerts presented. It was quite small, and the greater part of one half was filled with a stage, which was brightly lit up by stark electric lamps. There was no curtain. We sat—I'd gone with a friend—on one of a couple of benches in front of the platform; on the floor behind were a few rush sleeping mats, rather dingy and dirty now, but still displaying those delightfully coloured geometrical patterns which the mountain Berbers plait and dye from the wild dwarf palm and home-grown pigments. The impresario was a skinny, middle-aged city Arab, with a meagre beard. He wore a red fez and shabby sky-blue djellaba and, unlike most Arab businessmen, wasn't interested in bargaining: either we paid what he asked, or we didn't come in. He knew we'd come in, and therefore pay: he knew his public. I could certainly see his point. That evening we were the only customers, and I suppose on many evenings no audience turned up at all. We paid about ten dollars each (ten dollars twenty years ago) for about twenty minutes' show—any services provided after the show were charged for like "extras" on a hotel bill. But I felt that the ten dollars were well spent: not solely because the spectacle was one of rare interest, and excitingly erotic, but also because it was unique and, in a sense, historically unrepeatable; nowhere else in the world and probably never again in time would one see this barefaced, and barebottomed, version of the strange and cryptic Chleuh dance.

                         The Mamounia Hotel with its helpful porters

There were seven or eight boys and they ranged in age, judging by appearance, from about seventeen down to eleven. They filed in on to the stage from a side door, the smallest boy first, and stood for a moment facing the "audience"—us two—in a row: "sized" like soldiers, tallest on the left, shortest on the right; so that they seemed evenly stepped downwards like a set of organ-pipes. They were all wearing long white cotton gowns, belted at the waist. Then the impresario started to thrum out a rhythm on a tambour of stretched goatskin, and a concerted tremor, like a breeze through a field of corn, shivered through the rank of angel-robed boys; their bare feet began to whisper and sigh over the boards of the stage in a strange sort of static shuffle, without their shifting position; their bodies, beneath the thin stuff of their garments, were seized in a kind of symmetrical paroxysm of trembling undulation and their cropped black-haired heads nodded and jerked as if scanning an unending series of hexameters; half-a-dozen or more long lush black eyelashes fluttered and ogled like feathered fans. I looked at those faces, pale as parchment most of them, with high cheek bones and small Berber noses delicate as a lamb's, and lips full of warmth and youngness: beautiful faces, in the way that some masks are beautiful; cold, immobile expressions without feeling, like conventional marbles—if hunger or exhaustion seemed to be the sensations uppermost behind these wan childish cheeks, it was just one's guess. Only their dark liquid eyes were alight but their fire reached beyond the walls of this room—like the eyes of boys in school who aren't listening to the lesson.

There was something hieratic about them; a hint of sacerdotal virginity in the long flowing folds of their robes, like albs, with high chaste necks buttoned at the throat, and their close-cropped monkish heads; one might have imagined them to be a group of cloistered novices performing some ritual of spiritual initiation. And then suddenly the smallest boy at the end of the descending scale, if in answer to a quickening of the drummer's beat, unbuckled the woman's girdle from his waist and, with a deft sleight-of-hand that one scarcely noticed, threw off his single long garment and continued the dance as naked as he was born, without the slightest variation in the tempo of his undulations—undulations which now, of course, could be watched in every flexion of his muscles and each tremor of his flesh. And then the rest followed suit: first, the next to him in size and place; and then his slightly taller neighbour; and so on until all seven or eight of them were stark naked and still dancing with the same mechanical impassivity, as if it were all the same to them whether they had clothes on or none. Now, in the harsh lights on the stage, one could see every detail of their bodies, though still no more of the hearts and minds within than one could before; they were Muslim, of course, these Chleuh boys, and so all were circumcised (in the Moroccan bled, or countryside, circumcision is done generally at about eight or nine years old) and those who had reached puberty and beyond, obedient to the Koranic rule, had shaved any hair they may have had around their genitals or in the armpits; though the tallest, who must have been seventeen at least, had already allowed, again in accordance with Islamic practice, the dark down on his upper lip and cheeks to sprout into an untidy fluff. Of course, I was fascinated by the sight of this graded rank of lean, quivering nudity; and a miscellany of leaping genitalia, from tiny to immense, each as unique among the rest as its owner's countenance in a crowd. Their bodies were beautiful—for young creatures are always beautiful: in spite of ribs which pressed too sharply against such puny skin, in spite of shoulder-blades like ploughshares and harrowingly thin thighs; one watched these poor bodies with a pang of guilt. They shimmied and shuffled and their slim long fingers dangled against their buttocks; a row of drowsy penises bobbed and frolicked as involuntarily as corks being juggled by the jets of a fountain, and a row of sad blank faces were as cold and colourless as moons. The spectacle was spellbinding, yet chilling too in the heart. . . .

Now the drum again seemed to miss a beat and change to a more urgent measure; and all the boys did a left-turn, so that they faced into single file, with the smallest in the lead. Slowly they began to advance, round and round the small stage in a circle; then speed imperceptibly increased, like a boat gathering way —a shuffling walk slid into a jog-trot and thence into a run: and then they were galloping round like an unruly riding-school, each trying to gain on the other—and the next moment they'd all seized their cocks in their hands and, making obscene thrusting leaps forward, each was mimicking attempts to rape the boy ahead of him: thus the oldest and tallest of them, while apparently in hot pursuit of the boy next to him in size, seemed at the same time to be fleeing from the baby of the lot—who, firmly gripping his tiny pintle in his right hand, was scampering after the broad bottom of a youth twice his own height.

And there the show ended. The throbbing of the drum abruptly broke off like church bells stopping in the middle of a peal; the impresario, looking scraggier and more sour-faced than before, wiped his forehead with a sleeve, pushing back a fez whose felt rim was stained dark with sweat. The boys picked up their garments, and slouched wearily off stage. The impresario then told us we could choose any of the boys we fancied—there'd be an extra fee for that, plus any gift we liked to give the boy, and a small charge for the use of a mat. . . . We declined this offer; but we did manage to find the boys and give them some money for sharing among themselves. Don't let the Master of the Drum get it, we whispered to them —and to this day I've been praying that the impresario didn't grab that money from them.

Looked at with the gluttonous eye of a Trimalchio, or the brutal one of his emperor, it was an amusing show; and my eye was little less sensual, little less vicious, than theirs. But it left a very nasty taste in my mouth. I suppose it was no more squalid, mean and perverted (in the wider sense) than any of thousands of furtive bordellos hidden about the world, where boys, little girls or pitiful and hopeless women are used to pay the rent of hundreds of madams, male and female. In those days there was tragic poverty in a city like Marrakech starved and homeless boys begged and slept in the gutters. At least, some may argue, these dancing boys were being fed, even if meanly. Yes, perhaps. . . . Anyway, prostitution's never been a trade I would recommend to any child of mine, except possibly as a sideline, an esercizio secondario, like marrying for money. . . .

 

The World, The Flesh and Myself

So much for that stay at the Mamounia; the next came a few months later, on my way to Timbuctoo. It was, and I hope still is, one of the world's most gracious hotels. Through the commissionaire at its door, at that time, one gained the entree to the house of the Shillah dancing boys. I don't mean, of course, those troupes of equivocal youths who, with women's belts round their slim hips, wambled ambiguously among the crowds in the J'maa l-F'na and at every public festival; but that secret house, reached furtively in a cab instructed by the Mamounia commissionaire, where another troupe, running down the ages of adolescence from 18 to 12, performed naked the same Shillah dance; adding, though, embellishments that weren't equivocal at all.

 

[1] This detail about Churchill makes it possible to identify the month Davidson witnessed the dance as December.