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Rap the Kasbah (Amusing)

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Rap the Kasbah

Our regular look at countries which rarely feature prominently in the international news. This week: The appointment of Morocco's new government was overshadowed by a fatal prison fire and P Diddy's big birthday bash

Nick Taylor

Sunday November 10, 2002

King Mohammed VI passed the country's reins to a new prime minister on Thursday, following the results of Morocco's September elections. The king also appointed a 31-strong cabinet made up of members of six of Morocco's major political parties, and including, for the first time, two women. Notably, the king gave no governmental position to the country's Islamic party, despite their strong showing at the election.

Moroccan politics is famously fractured. Twenty-six parties stood at the elections six weeks ago, and even the two major parties, the socialist USFP and the conservative Istiqlal (Independence) party, only took about 50 seats each of the 325 in parliament. The new prime minister, Driss Jettou, is a former businessman and trusted ally of the king.

The only really remarkable thing about the new government is what it lacks - a single representative of the Islamic Justice Party (PJD), a moderate Islamic party that made significant gains in the election, more than tripling its number of votes to win 42 seats.

The PJD is a moderate and reformist Islamic group that formed only six years ago. It draws most of its support from Morocco's poor working class, and in a state where 50% of the population remains illiterate and many live on less than a dollar a day, the party's rise has been rapid. But many of its leaders are regarded as former Islamic radicals and the king is desperate not to allow any Islamic group to develop a position of power in Morocco. The kingdom is seeking eventual membership of the EU, and is desperately promoting its tourist industry.

Morocco doesn't have a history of free and fair elections but the most recent poll wasn't marred with the vote-buying and violence which besmirched its predecessors. Despite this, any elected government remains under the thumb of Morocco's royal family. The current King may be a reformer compared to his father, King Hassan II, but he still keeps a tight grasp on the country's power, directly appointing powerful regional governors who, together with the king's entourage of advisers, make most of the key decisions in the country. The king's choice of cabinet should keep power conveniently split between opposing parties for the next four years.

Anger at prison deaths

Almost as soon as the new government was formed it found itself facing public anger about a fire that raged through a prison two weeks ago, killing more than 50 inmates. It was the second lethal prison fire in four months, and returned public attention to the chronic problem of overcrowding in Morocco's jails. With television screens broadcasting images of the charred remains of prisoners, the public wanted to know what the new government was going to do to prevent anything like this happening again.

The fire broke out in the early hours of the morning at the Sidi Moussa jail in El Jadida, 112 miles south of the Moroccan capital. Most of the victims died of smoke inhalation or were trampled to death trying to escape. Six of the victims were so badly burnt that they couldn't be identified, and their bodies were buried in unmarked graves.

A report issued last year by the Moroccan Prisons Observatory (OMP) claimed that in many prisons up to 80 inmates are housed in single cells. Morocco's jails have a capacity of around 40,000 but currently house over 60,000 inmates, according to the latest estimations. Sidi Moussa was built to take 940 prisoners but more than 1,300 were being detailed there on the night of the fire. The cause of the fire is still being investigated, but preliminary reports suggest it started because of faulty electrical wiring. The August fire started the same way. In 1997 a fire at a Casablanca prison left 28 people dead.

P Diddy hits town

While the public clamoured for answers, the king withdrew from sight to play host to some A-list guests. As part of Morocco's 10-year plan to boost tourism from 1.5 million to over 10 million visitors a year, Mohammed VI hosted the country's largest ever publicity stunt last weekend, throwing a five-day birthday party for the US rapper P Diddy, the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy.

More than 260 guests flew in for the party, including Naomi Campbell, Tobey Maguire, Elton John and Ivana Trump. The celebrations, which included belly dancers, camel rides, flying carpets and seemingly every other conceivable Arabian Nights cliché, were reported to have cost over $1m. But despite never having met Puffy before, the king was happy to pick up the tab.

When he came to power, Mohammed VI made tourism one of his main aims. The party, and the media coverage it generated, is hoped to help turn Marrakech into a party destination for the high-end jet set. Hosting such famous western guests also helps project an image of the king as a young, modern monarch.

The celebrations included a private party at the home of Moroccan actor and comic Jamel Debbouze, who is rumoured to have dreamt up the idea of hosting the party, and a ball at Palais Bahia, a marble palace belonging to the king. Puffy is said to have imposed a dress code on the party: all guests had to wear Versace, Armani or clothes by his own label, Sean John.

With Ramadan on the way, there was concern over whether the foreign visitors would be able to get their hands on the requisite supplies of booze once the party was in full swing. During Ramadan foreigners can only buy alcohol by taking their passports to a branch of the king's own supermarket. In apprehension of this over 1,000 crates of Champagne and tequila was shipped in for the occasion.

A miracle

Bucking all scientific wisdom, a Moroccan mule has given birth to a foal. The birth defies the laws of nature, because mules - half horse and half donkey - are sterile.

The foal was born in August in a small town in the region of Oulmes, 50 miles south of Fez. Initial reports of its birth were rubbished by scientists, but DNA tests, released this week, have proved that indeed the foal was born to a mule, making this a (minor) scientific miracle.

Mules are unable to give birth because they have an uneven number of chromosomes. Horses have 64, and donkeys have 62. But hybrids of the two have 63, which cannot divide into chromosome pairs.

The mule's offspring was fathered by a donkey, which makes it three-quarters donkey and one quarter horse. It has apparently become a local tourist attraction and receives visitors every day.

But the birth, while fantastically unusual, is not a first. Since records began, and for some reason they've been kept since 1537, there have been a number of other reports of mules giving birth. How it happens however is a mystery. It seems nature really does find a way.

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