MICHAEL DAVIDSON’S LOVES IN FRENCH MOROCCO, 1937-40 AND 1947
The following account of the boysexual English journalist Michael Davidson (1897-1976)'s time in French Morocco is taken from Chapters 13 and 14 of his autobiography The World, the Flesh and Myself (London, 1962). It is supplemented by a anonymous letter describing the same to the British Secret Services.
The World, the Flesh and Myself
Following his three-month imprisonment in London for an affair with a boy and further harassment from the police, Davidson got his brother’s help arranging an initial financial allowance of £ 2 a week to enable him to “escape from the leering malevolence which suddenly England seemed to mean.” …
Germany was out of the question; I'd never found France sympathique but, with good French, it seemed sensible to choose a country where that language was generally understood; sunshine, and the sea were other requirements, and a sexual benevolence uncomplicated by taboos. With my romanticism, and an innate English yearning to play-at-Arabs, North Africa stood out golden from the map; besides Barbary was then still adventurous and bizarre; and to me, with my hunger for novelty, seductively new. Gide's 'Si le grain ne meurt' pointed to erotic enchantment; and Cunninghame Graham's stirring account of 'The Furthest West' showed Morocco to be still remote and gorgeously barbaric. I chose Morocco; and at the end of 1937 said goodbye to my mother. It was the most poignant parting from her I'd ever known; I don't know why—we neither of us could know that we wouldn't see each other again. […]
Having entered Morocco by train from Algeria, Davidson stayed briefly in Fez, then settled in the capital, Rabat …
In Rabat I met Mustapha. It was one of those magnetic encounters of the eyes, beneath the evening lamps of the Boulevard Galliéni, that lead sometimes to a brief bit of amusing commerce and sometimes—but O, so rarely!—to an ineffable happiness. From that evening on, Mustapha and I were together for nearly three years; until the fall of France cut brutally our lives apart. Once again I'd found that 'divine friend': Werner was reincarnate in Mustapha—without Werner's peerless verve and glitter, but with the same sweet genuine loyalty and, in place of Werner's peremptory passion, a soft and wistful gentleness.
I thought Mustapha to be about 14. He thought so too; but since Moroccans counted their birthdays from some unrecorded point in history like the summer the drought killed 50 sheep or the year the afreet appeared in the guise of a jackal, speaking with the voice of a man; and since they build their years out of lunar months, it's best to assess an age by looking, as it were, at the teeth. He had the true Berber's sweet oval face, snub and artless, with none of the Arab's semite severity; his tribe were the Sghana, who grazed sheep over the plain above Marrakesh.
We went to Beni Mellal in the northern green skirts of the Atlas, where seven streams kept the encircling village lands lush with fruit and flower; and lived in a sparkling white palace where, in the evenings, on the chequered tiles of our patio with its colonnade of delicate arches, Mustapha played on his one-stringed lute small plaintive melodies which hovered up and down among the three or four notes which compose the Arab key, while I sipped red wine and watched his brown plucking fingers. The night we moved into our palace we set out saucers of milk and sugar to please the good djinn and a saucer of salt to dismay the bad; but next day we had a plague of cockroaches which Mustapha said had been sent by the evil djinn. We slew the cockroaches with brooms till our patio was littered with corpses. Next morning the corpses had vanished: I thought of the cats I'd seen lurking on the top of the patio wall; but Mustapha said the benevolent djinn had proved the stronger and the hostile ones, defeated, had carried the bodies of their friends away.
In the mornings I worked: making notes of everything that Mustapha had told me and I had seen; while he shopped and cooked our midday tajin. Later we bathed in one of the streams; or Mustapha would teach me to 'fish' for scorpions by poking grass stalks down their holes in the earth, so that they grab it as a crab in a rock crevice seizes your finger.
And once a week the postman blew his trumpet outside our house and paid me in Moroccan francs my two pounds; it seemed to me wonderful that at the bidding of a bank in London a Moorish postman in the Atlas mountains should hand me cash over the doorstep.
But we tired of Arcady; and, besides, we'd decided to make a home for Mustapha's mother and any of his sisters who needed one. We went to Sla: a fairy-tale Moorish town almost without blemish which, piling like white lumps of sugar up a hog's-back hill to its apex over the sea, overlooks from the north the estuary of the Bou Regreg and, across the river, its ancient enemy in Rabat, the fortress of the Oudaya.
Malika, Mustapha's sweet mother, was sadly beset by evil djinn; they attacked her with persistent malice, and she spent a lot of time trying to drive them off—fumigating herself by putting beneath her skirts a small earthen brazier of burning benzoin; procuring amulets written by holy men on bits of paper which she hid among her clothes; preparing magic potions of which fragments of a dried chameleon were important ingredients; putting out saucers of salt; calling softly to her favourite saints; working with her beloved wool-carding, spinning, weaving, dyeing—which, like bread, milk, whiteness, and the person of a shereef, was laden with the divine essence: the baraka, which signifies quite simply 'the blessing'.
Some Friday mornings I would go with her to the Sultan's palace in Rabat to watch him ride out ceremonially for the Friday Prayer. It was a fine, barbaric pageant; and it gave Oumi Malika a good draught of the especial baraka distilled by God's viceregent on earth. The benefit of this outing was doubled for Oumi Malika if the Sultan was riding a white horse, and not a black; the sight of him on a white horse put her in brighter health and spirits for the rest of the day.
A favourite sight at the Friday Prayer was El Mokri, astride a solid mule and looking like Abraham. Behind him rode the lesser Viziers, all riding mules. El Mokri, reputed to be then 120 years old, had become Grand Vizier 60 years earlier and had remained Grand Vizier ever since, under four or five sovereigns; it fascinated me to believe that perhaps he'd really been born in the year of Johnnie Walker.
No wonder Oumi Malika and a horde of other women with her were conscious of the baraka when Sidi Mohammed V came radiantly through the gates on a dancing stallion beautiful as Pegasus, I was too: he looked like God himself—or perhaps the Holy Ghost: exquisitely hieratic in soft, sumptuous white: rapt, regal face framed tightly in the snowy cowl of his burnous, like a knight's in chain-mail: no wonder the women broke into the ecstatic ululation—tongues trilling like aspens within their cheeks—with which they greet and consecrate any auspicious happening: the birth of a son, the public display of the bloodstained towel after consummation of a marriage; with which they used, from the housetops, to goad on their men riding out to battle. Behind this shining seraph came on foot the bearer of the caliphal umbrella (necessary, Mustapha said, because the Sultan, being himself a sun, couldn't be allowed to be outshone). He rode splendidly to the mosque; but returned rather quaintly inside the semi-state coach given his grandfather by Queen Victoria—looking now, alas, much more like a nursemaid in bonnet and cloak than like the God one thought he was.
Fatima came to live with us, Mustapha's eldest sister; a little over 20 I should think—she'd been married twice, perhaps three times: it's easy to forget such details. The dark lid of one eye was permanently shut; so that the other, the colour of bronze, in moonlight, seemed to glow in rather ominous solitude. Fatima was beautiful in a wry, sultry way; she was a bit of a witch, given to incantations and the sticking of pins into the wax image of an enemy; and there was in her soul a tumult of sombre passion. She smoked hashish, and sometimes drank wine—privileged sins of the male, which no woman should commit; and now and then she'd go off for a couple of days, into the sensual obscurity of some affair of the flesh. Then she'd come back, sulking, full of dark silences; and sit for hours huddled over the charcoal brazier, dropping into the embers black pieces of incense. 'C'est putain, celle-la ma soeur—hadda lka'hab' Mustapha would say angrily mixing his queer French with Arabic; but they loved each other. He, of course, was worshipped by the women: the only male of the family, he was their lord and master, they his absolute slaves.
As master of the house, it was Mustapha's duty to perform our ritual sacrifices: when, on the Muslim feasts or important occasions of our own like the completion by Malika of a splendid piece of weaving, we killed a goat or even—ah, that was grandeur!—a sheep. I hated it; but was compelled by a horrible fascination to watch spellbound for the bloody moment. He looked beautiful and uncorrupt, knitted skullcap of geometrical colour on his thick black hair, as he held the poor victim between his knees and, facing vaguely eastward, said 'In the Name of God!' The ghastly blood spouted; and was carefully caught by Oumi Malika in a large dish: when it had cooled and settled, she would read the omens written on its surface.
Mustapha gave me a tiny silver bowl, like a thimble, for my hashish pipe—the long stem was of sculpted wood; and a delicate pouch of gazelle-skin for the kif. Kif-smoking in Morocco was rather like drinking in England; when a friend called, one said, instead of 'Have a drink?'—'Have a pipe? A reasonable number of pipes, I found, like a reasonable number of whiskies, did no harm and, unlike whisky, bequeathed no hangover next day. One or two neighbours would come in for a pipe:—a fat, jolly local tinsmith; and a dear dignified old chap who had been a kaid l-mia—literally 'centurion'—in the Sultan's army about 35 years earlier and retained the honorific title of Kaid. On these evenings the brass samovar would be hissing, for a lot of tea would be drunk; and on the low table there'd be bread and olives and a bowl of oil for hashish makes one hungry.
Soon, still reclining on my mat and cushion, I start to rise in a singular act of mental levitation until, perfectly comfortable and quite unsurprised, I'm suspended near the ceiling and looking down on the others as if from a stage-box. This produces a wondrous, yet quite calm, feeling of disembodiment—or rather of release: the moorings of one's tethered balloon have suddenly been cut; one's no longer of this world, but a spectator absorbedly watching it through a stereoscope. Everything is enhanced and transformed as if touched by the hand of alchemy, the commonplace becomes rare, the inelegant beautiful; what before seemed futile now is fascinating; all experience has turned to pleasure: even the hot wafts of the tinsmith's breath seem like perfume. I go on talking as if nothing odd had happened; but now the words of this banal conversation have become jewelled; the old Kaid's voice, which used to be like sandpaper, has acquired purity; no music was ever sweeter than Mustapha's twanging of the gnibri; Oumi Malika's fingers as she twirls her spindle move with an incomparable loveliness; the flicker of the solitary candle seems like the light of paradise. . . . And time, like gravity, has been prorogued: each moment is eternal — there's no beginning to sensation and no ending. . . . I was told that under the spell of kif the sexual orgasm can seem to be marvellously, almost unbearably, prolonged. I've been sorry since that I never tested this; I was always too interested and enchanted in the hashish heights by what was already going on to think of orgasm; and then, after a bit, I wanted simply to go to sleep.
By 1939 I began writing a book: a chain of sketches describing the things Mustapha and I did and saw—a sort of 'Stories Toto Told Me', only it was Mustapha who did the telling. Later, when I'd done about half, the book was accepted by Lindsay Drummond, who gave me a small advance; but the war, dislocating mind as well as circumstances, cut the thread and when, back in England, I tried to join the ends, I couldn't. […]
The war came. At first, after one's agonized cry of disbelief in a thing one knew must happen, it didn't seem to count; our tranquillities recurred day after day as before, and our happiness—nothing changed. It seemed so far away from Morocco; and France was safe behind the Maginot Line. 'La France, il a beaucoup la force', said Mustapha, 'Le' Zallemand it est vîte foutu'—and that's what most people seemed to think. […]
With the help of Mme. A., a Frenchwoman, Davidson began to support himself through teaching English to her and then other ladies in her high-society social circle …
I took a lodging in Rabat in May 1940, on the dusty edge of a terrain vague behind the Balima Hotel, so as to be nearer my pupils; and left Mustapha with Oumi Malika and his stormy sister Fatima in our little house near the topmost mosque of Sla. Mme A.'s kindly and genteel propaganda had procured me a handful of customers from among the affluent ladies of Résidence society, and consequently the torment of a time-table. […]
In the early summer of 1940, France’s defeat became evident…
But most Moroccans, urban Arab or pastoral Berber, were unmoved by the Nazarene conflict beyond the sea. Yet among the ordinary people with whom I had mostly lived, there was a great volume of rather patronizing affection for France; almost anybody would have echoed 16-year-old Mustapha's casual touching sympathy. 'Pauv' LA France,' Mustapha would say in his pidgen-French, writing off the Protecting Power with a lingering fondness: "pauv' La France—il était genti' quan' même. . . ." […]
Shortly after the Pétain surrender, we Allied 'ressortissants' began to feel its effects: General Nogués, a negatory man anyway, was choosing the laissez-aller negation of Vichy; and a rumour that Britons in Morocco who did not get out quick were to be interned seemed, from enquiries among my French friends, to be approaching fact. Harry Whyte had already left for the neutral enclave of Tangier where he had fixed himself up with a 'string' to the Daily Express. I wanted to hang on as long as I could: partly because I was still able to make a living by teaching, but mainly because I shrank from leaving Mustapha. I thought of going into hiding with Mustapha, into Arab anonymity—perhaps moving the family down into his tribal pastures; but that, I saw, would be lunatic: by putting me out of reach of funds, it would do Mustapha no good at all.
Soon there were reports that Axis missions were on their way to Morocco; it was time to be off, and I followed Harry Whyte to Tangier. Mustapha had been with me for nearly three years; it was one of those partings, shocking and apparently intolerable, which in a life like mine ineluctably repeat themselves down the years: one gets over them, and fresh friendships succeed the ones they cut short; but their pain, and the happiness that made that pain inevitable, are branded in one's memory for ever. I gave him what money I could, and a letter to Mme A., who, gentle as ever, had promised to find him some domestic job among her friends. When I boarded the train, I told him that I would come back. Today, two decades later, the picture of him standing on Rabat railway platform is as bright as it was then: the jester's hood of his purple djellaba clutched beneath his chin, framing the harrowing brown face in the impeccable oval of a miniature. I thanked heaven for Islam; which permits even a 16-year-old to accept with fatalism the crassest quirks of fortune.
I promised myself I would come back; and on the lumbering journey north I tried to devise conspiratorial ways of doing so—vaguely it seemed that entry into the field of espionage might be the thing. As events turned out, it was to be seven years before I saw Mustapha again; and by then he was charmingly married, and dear, whimpering Oumi Malika, whose only defence against the daily encroachments of tribulation was the concoction of magic and alliance with friendly djinn, had died.
Living in internationally-administered Tangier, “a city without love”, Davidson had, according to the chapter on it in his memoir Some Boys, liaisons with boys rather than the love affairs described in this article. He did not, however give up hope of returning to Mustapha in French Morocco …
Harry Whyte was now compiling the Legation's bulletin of war-news and propaganda, and was a part-time functionary under Ellis; a circumstance which seemed to me valuable when I decided to go into espionage myself.
It wasn't espionage for its own sake—or for the sake of my country—that attracted me: I saw in it a means of returning to Mustapha in the French 'zone', now under the thumb of Vichy. […]
I possessed already a red leather purse about a foot square which, containing precious objects like one's kif pipe, was slung from a shoulder on a sable silk cord; I loved this bag as I loved Mustapha: he had given it to me two years earlier.
Davidson’s spying venture soon led to his capture and imprisonment in Spanish Morocco, followed by his return to England in 1941, where he stayed until the end of 1946, when further trouble over boys there determined him to begin a career abroad as a foreign correspondent.
So I went back to Morocco at the beginning of 1947: David Astor had given me my apprenticeship in foreign reporting. […]
My first concern was to find Mustapha. I scoured the places where he was likely to be but could find no trace; until one Sunday we came face to face by the main door of the cathedral, and caused surprise among the ladies of Résidence society who were going in for Mass by weeping for happiness upon each other's necks. He was now 23, married with a child, and working as chauffeur to a French government official. Dear Oumi Malika was dead; Fatima had married again. We picked up our friendship; and Mustapha was kind, in an avuncular way, to my new boy Sidi Salah.
Sidi Salah (whose exquisite face is immortalized, if the British Museum Library confers immortality, in Robin Maugham's North African Notebook, published about 1949) belonged to the great holy family of the Cherkaoui, the shrine of whose sanctity is in the town of Boujad. That's why he bore the title of Sidi, 'My Lord': every Cherkaoui boy is born a saint, and even his mother addressed him as 'My Lord Salah'. Morocco has a scale of courtesy titles founded on sanctity: so my 14-year-old saint was called Sidi Salah. […]
Now and then Salah and I would go off for a week or two to his tribal pastures south of Casablanca (Cherkaoui fractions were dotted about the country). It was bare rolling bled, treeless and dry, but good sheep country; there were plenty of sheep, though they didn't belong to Sidi Salah; they were his uncle's. We were poor; we lived—Salah, his brother, his mother, one or two babies, and I—in a small straw hut like a beehive which stood, with the donkey, in a small quadrangle of loose stones. There was a patch of ground which Sidi Salah's mother tilled for the rich uncle, and somehow she and the babies lived.
A Rabat Resident’s Report
The following “rather rambling note about” about Michael Davidson’s past in French Morocco was “received, in answer to our request, from a local resident” by the British Consulate General, Rabat. It was forwarded by the latter to the “[Name blotted out] Department, Foreign Office, London SW1” with an accompanying letter of 21 February 1947 saying:
The small British community in Rabat-Salé has recently been added to by the arrival of Mr. Michel Davidson, who sets up to be a correspondent of the Observer, perhaps “an occasional correspondent.”
The secret department of the Foreign Office was evidently the Security Services (who had been interested in him since 1933, as a suspected communist activist) as it is now to be found in their section of the National Archives at Kew (KV 2/2975/1/32). Some sentences of no Greek love interest are here omitted.
MEMORANDUM OF MR. DAVIDSON – RABAT
18th February 1947
[…] He then came to England and then on to Morocco. After some bit of wandering he landed in Beni Mellal in the Tadla plain where I came to know him in 1936. For about a year I was in contact with him there. At Beni Mellal with him at the time was also a Communist – like himself – a Mr. Whyte. Both Mr. Whyte and Mr. Davidson lived at Beni Mellal in the same house. This was a native house rented by Mr. Davidson and run by the family of a certain Arab boy named Mustapha in whom Mr. Davidson took more than an ordinary interest. He had picked the family up elsewhere and had settled with them in Beni Mellal. Mr. Davidson is a Socialistic-Communist with of course the orthodox Marxian condemnation of “Capitalistic Imperialistic Agression and Exploitation”. He came to Morocco with the intention of writing a book on Morocco which he hoped Messrs. Gollancz and Company of London would publish. Most of or some two years at Beni Mellal was occupied in the writing of this book. I went to England in 1938 and when I came back in 1939 – this time to Rabat – I found at Rabat both Mr. Whyte and Mr. Davidson. He again was installed in a native house which he rented (though through the intermediary of the parents of the above mentioned Mustapha as the renting of the house in his own name would have been difficult) a house in the native quarter of Salé. Here he continued the work on his book tho’ he hadn’t the inspiring presence of Mr. Whyte who lived a more or less normal European life in the French part of Rabat. […] Mr. Davidson meanwhile finished his book on Morocco just about the time of the outbreak of war. At the fall of France he left for Tangier, via the Spanish Zone. When he left Rabat he made out a will in which he left all his property goods and money, whatever that might have been, - to the boy Mustapha. The boy Mustapha and his family remained in Salé. Now upon my return to Rabat I find that Mr. Davidson has also returned. […]
Mr. Davidson is fairly orthodox in his faith of dialectical materialism and was very anxious that I should not mention anything of the Christian faith to his Mustapha. The boy Mustapha was when I last saw him in 1940 about 17, and so now must be about 23 years old.