Terence Blacker: God's madman defeats the American way

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The Independent Online

In his corner of the Djemaa El-Fna, God's madman sets to work. On the paving stones before him, he chalks letters and hieroglyphics relating to the months, signs of the zodiac and the weather. Soon surrounded by people, he sits cross-legged and speaks – mostly in Arabic, but sometimes in French – of things religious and domestic, personal and universal. "On m'appelle le fou de Dieu," he said.

Elsewhere, in Marrakesh's great square of street theatre, other groups of Moroccans, with the occasional tourist bobbing about uncertainly on the margins, surround acrobats and snake-charmers, storytellers and child boxers, dentists, clowns and scribes.

It had seemed like a good time to get away from the news and although, weirdly, a lot of people have cancelled holidays here on the grounds that it is a Muslim country, Morocco is always a good place to escape to.

But news, of course, will reach you anywhere. Here, the lead story in the press and on the radio is the progress of Morocco's new king, Mohammed VI, through the province of Taroudannt to Agadir, inspecting measures to counteract the drought which has afflicted the country for three years. The Prime Minister has been visiting Jordan. Trouble is escalating in the Palestinian territories. And then, well down the order of events, there is the war in Afghanistan.

Visitors tend to be fed something of a party line when it comes to the war – calm, regretful, generally pro-American. The war is a problem for Morocco, one is told, because the country depends on tourists who are now staying away. Although it would be naive to accept this line as representing the entire country, particularly in poorer areas where a more radical Islam has a hold, it is borne out by life on the streets of Marrakesh and Taroudannt.

Attitudes to Westerners are as cordial and opportunistic as ever. At a shop selling electrical goods, a group of young men gather around a television set showing the now-familiar footage from the front. But, when one of them switches channel and tests the volume, it becomes clear that their interest is in the television set rather than what it is showing.

It would be untrue, though, to say that there is no religious fanaticism on show here. The only English language television station available at the main hotels, with the exception of BBC World, is something called Trinity Broadcasting Network on which the word of the Lord is transmitted with subtitles in Arabic.

At one level, the output of TBN is compellingly hilarious. Middle-aged Americans with dodgy toupées engage in gloopy banter with faded blondes, all big hair, teeth and tucks, like rejects from Dallas. Solemn documentaries recount miracles of instant faith-healing. A situation comedy – Mom, Pop and two teenage kids (played by actors in their thirties) – puts the case for clean, alcohol-free family living.

Beyond the sheer fake idiocy of it all, an ugly message is being sent around the world, presumably at the cost of millions of dollars. With solemn, literal references to Revelations and the Book of Job, TBN announces that the day of retribution is at hand and – here's the good news, folks – reveals that 21st-century conflict and famine are sure indicators that the second coming is at hand.

Who shall be saved? The American flag flutters proudly in the background. In an interview, a crop-haired teenager announces that he has become a "revolutionist" for the Lord. Within his soul, he has declared war on unrighteousness.

It is difficult to believe that Moroccans can treat these diseased maunderings with anything but amused contempt. In this small, low-key version of the clash of civilisations, virtue and generosity clearly belong to God's madman and to those who listen to him with quiet, devout seriousness.

terblacker@aol.com

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