Azzi: Morocco v. France: A post-colonial world in Qatar

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Traveling offers you a hundred roads to adventure," 14th century Moroccan scholar and writer Ibn Battuta wrote, "and gives your heart wings!"

Two hundred forty-five years ago, on Dec. 20, 1777, not long after America's Declaration of Independence, Morocco became the first country in the world to recognize our independence, a diplomatic relationship that has endured to this day.

Robert Azzi
Robert Azzi

I love that fact, just as I love the fact that not only was Turkish Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid the largest individual donor ($30,000) to a fund to build the Washington Monument but that embedded within the obelisk is a sculpted marble gift from the Sultan inscribed: “So as to strengthen the friendship between the two countries …"

I have led an unexpectedly-storied life and often wonder, as Jordanian writer Fadia Faqir wrote, "How did I find myself here? Me… [who once] wanted to be Passepartout, a traveller with little luggage, hopping from one train to another, a Thomas Cook, an Ibn Battuta. Where is Xanadu?"

When I first left America in my 20s, I hoped not to be a tourist but a traveler from New Hampshire, a photographer, a recorder of passions and politics. I believed, as American Paul Bowles wrote in his first book on Morocco, The Sheltering Sky, that "The difference is partly one of time … Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another.”

I am inspired, today, to continue my travels by the fact that Morocco made it to the semifinal round of World Cup 2022 in Qatar becoming the first African, first Arab, and only the second Muslim-majority nation to get within one victory of playing in what is arguably the greatest sporting event of our day — a World Cup final — which happens once every four years.

I love that Morocco's victories over Belgium, Spain and Portugal, along with Tunisia's victory over France were post-colonial triumphs of once colonized lands against their former occupiers and exploiters.

I love that these teams from distant lands, speaking non-European languages, and faithful to a religion often demonized in America, have histories intertwined with America's.

I love the sight of athletes praying on the pitch, dancing with mothers, waving the flag of Palestine alongside fans whistling, chanting, and dancing with joy, weeping with loss.

Fans and athletes who together challenge us to consider worlds beyond our own, beyond Shangri-La and Xanadu; challenge us to embrace the humanity of sisters and brothers from lands unknown.

I remember days, not so long ago when, on the first Thursday night of every month the entire Arab World — from Casablanca to Baghdad — stood still and listened as Umm Kulthoum, "The Voice of Egypt," gave her monthly concert from Cairo's Kasr El Nil theatre.

When, from every slowly passing taxi and private car, from every open window in city or camp, one would hear:

"Your eyes called me to the days that have passed / They taught me to regret the past and its wounds / That which I experienced before my eyes saw you / What is the wasted life to me?" - Enti Omri.

It was such a day Tuesday when Morocco played its former colonizer France.

Morocco, on that day, across Africa, across the Arab and Muslim worlds, across lands once occupied colonized, pillaged, and exploited by rapacious European powers, was the voice of Hope and Liberation, talent no longer regreting the past and its wounds but setting forth a new course.

Morocco lost but — in the fullness of this post-colonial moment — the people won.

Today, we have new teaching moments, stories to tell fellow Americans, like that of 14th century Mali (another former French colony) and its ruler, Mansa Musa, who was the wealthiest individual in all human history — perhaps even the inspiration for T’Challa, Black Panther stories, and Wakanda.

About President Thomas Jefferson who delayed a White House dinner until sunset on Dec. 9, 1805 in order to accommodate a visiting envoy from Tunis, Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, who was fasting during Ramadan.

About Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco fighting for independence against occupying European powers.

About Ibn Battuta, who became the most travelled person in history before the age of steamships — more travelled even than than Marco Polo or Columbus, who wrote:

“Traveling leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”

Today it's about a story being written of a World Cup, hosted in a former British protectorate, Qatar, an independent conservative Arabic-speaking Muslim country, that liberated the imaginations of billions of people

Finally, I love that it's all happening a week before Christmas on the Fourth Sunday of Advent when the candle of HOPE is lighted, happening on the day that Hanukkah begins at sunset, happening a week before Christmas in a part of the world that gave birth to the monotheistic traditions worshipped by so many believers around the world.

A season for story-telling, season for hearts to bear wings.

Robert Azzi, a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter, can be reached at

This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Azzi: Morocco v. France: A post-colonial world in Qatar