What Politics Can Be Like: King Hassan II in Tangier

Mitchell ChanelisDirector, Project DevelopmentThe Fund for New Performance/Video
It was in 1964. I had planned to leave Tangier days before, but people I knew said, ‘No, you have to wait, you have to wait: the sultan’s coming.’ There are rumors he was going to be assassinated and everybody was on tenterhooks. So I was in the crowd near the train station when he came along in an open car. He was standing up, without any visible protection. That was extraordinary because if we knew there were rumors that there was to be an assassination, you could be sure that he knew. But he was standing up, with no bodyguards to be seen – though I’m sure there were plenty around. He just rode blithely along the waterfront in an open car.
And the next day, there was the calf. I assume it was male: a bull calf. This was probably the most mysterious aspect of it, but profoundly moving too. Again, this was in the context of assassination plots, but it looked like a ceremony that had gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years. I only saw it once, and I never heard of it before or since. It was very simple, totally without pomp – so elegant, and so mysterious. And there was the sheer effrontery of him seemingly being without guards, with the people pressing in: they were not kept away, and he rode very, very slowly through the Medina, the old quarter of Tangier, on a white horse, in very simple white robes, very voluminous: a wonderful sort of djellaba, with a hood. And there was an attendant with a large parasol essentially covering him, and in front of the horse—which was being led by someone, an attendant, a pure white calf, a bull calf, let’s say, with garlands of flowers, two or three garlands of beautiful flowers. The horns of the little being were painted gold. So, the pure white calf with gold horns, the white horse, the white raiment of His Majesty, and the bearers of the umbrella and the leader of the calf: that was it.
I was very close. He was ten or twelve feet from me. It was a very narrow street, not more than twenty or thirty feet wide, which is wide for a street in the Medina. But there were hundred and hundreds of people. They didn’t call out to him. It was just—joyousness at his presence and it was very refined: I guess that’s the word I was looking for. It was just so elegant and subdued but without being somber—just an appreciation of each other. I could say mystical union, but that would sound too churchy. It wasn’t like that: it was joyous – but restrained, though people didn’t seem held back at all. And he was giving. He was definitely very happy to be there. He wasn’t waving, he was just riding a horse and holding the reins. He was just there: it was his presence that was doing it all. He was almost laughing: not at a joke but full of joy. I could see it, the joy of him receiving, and that he was giving back: it was a chain reaction that went on. A moveable feast, as he was moving through the crowd. I’ve never experienced anything like it before or since. It stays with me as the image of what it can be like. What politics can be like.
No one was working them up. It was very quiet. They stayed themselves, as the Moroccans do. They’re fiercely themselves. It’s a very collective society, but that’s the great thing about it for me: that everybody is himself: they don’t get easily carried away. It was dignified; it was intelligent.
It was—- an organism, and there was some mysterious replenishment, refreshment: it was feeding, nurturing. He was getting something too; he was responding to the love he was feeling from them, and he was giving it back. And they weren’t submitting to him. That’s one thing about the Muslims: they don’t submit to human beings. That’s why I respect Morocco so much. The people are fiercely individual. It’s very democratic, actually, the way people relate to each other. Even with poor people and rich people: you know, people fawn; people need money, so they do that. But the sense is that everybody’s equal, before God, and that’s an inviolable part of the life: that’s what I respect.
And— it was the intimacy that was so extraordinary. People weren’t touching the bull, it was inviolate, but I had the sense of them pressing against the horse and him, not reaching for him necessarily, but wanting to be as close as possible.

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