A Clash Over a Piece of Moroccan Tranquillity

5:28 PM Aida Alami 0 Comments

ASILAH, Morocco — A few kilometers south of Tangier, near the port town of Asilah, lies the wide golden beach of Sidi Mghait. It is a peaceful place, overlooked by the simple farmhouse of a peasant family, a luxurious modern villa built by a wealthy European businessman, and a small mosque, the burial place of a Muslim holy man who gave the place its name. 

Appearances here are deceptive. The beach and its hinterland are the focus of a 10-year clash over land, rights and cultures that has been chronicled in a documentary, “Hercule Contre Hermès,” by Mohamed Ulad, a French film director and producer who was born in Morocco. 

The film, 72 minutes long and shot over three years, lingers over the rhythms of a pastoral life: water drawn by hand from the farmhouse well; a field tilled by a wooden donkey plough; fish netted, gutted and grilled over a fire; bread baked in a wood-fired clay oven; tourists playing in the surf or eating in a reed-covered restaurant shack that the family builds and runs every summer on the beach. There is the wedding of the farmer’s oldest daughter, and a trip by his oldest son to see a girlfriend in Spain and to visit his married sister in Brussels.

But the film also shows a way of life under threat from development: Former neighbors gather at the mosque, grumbling that they have been cajoled, pressured or tricked into selling their land; a track to the beach is churned into mud by earth-moving vehicles; beach dunes are bulldozed and rolled flat; the farmer’s wife, summoned by the police, must answer a complaint about land access, one of many, filed by her wealthy neighbor; the family’s lawyer argues over payment, then refuses further assistance. 

The protagonist of Mr. Ulad’s film is Mohamed El Mektiri, known to his friends as Hercules because of his physical strength. He is the oldest of eight children of Mrait El Mektiri, a farmer.
“If he hits someone with his big hands, he could kill,” a local taxi driver said, describing how Mohamed, who has become famous in the neighborhood for protecting his family in adversity, came by his nickname. 

Mr. Mektiri’s adversary, omnipresent but unseen in the documentary, is Patrick Guerrand-Hermès, a sports entrepreneur, real estate developer and former president of the International Polo Federation who, since arriving in Sidi Mghait over 10 years ago, has acquired, parcel by parcel, all the land surrounding the Mektiri farm. Mr. Guerrand is a grandson and heir of Émile-Maurice Hermès, who headed the Paris fashion house Hermès for decades until his death in 1951. Mr. Guerrand’s mother, a Hermès, married Jean-René Guerrand, and several of her children added Hermès to their name. 

Mr. Guerrand met with Mr. Ulad last year in Paris and gave his conditional agreement to participate in the film but later changed his mind, saying that the film was exploiting the Hermès name for commercial purposes, Mr. Ulad said in an interview. 

“I thought he was a very charming man,” Mr. Ulad recalled. “He insisted on talking to me about the charity he was doing in the region. But he refused to comment on what he is accused of.”
In the film, and in separate interviews, critics of Mr. Guerrand accuse him of running an electric power line across a neighbor’s property without his consent, taking sand from a public beach to build a polo field, and misappropriating communal water resources. 

For example, Mr. Guerrand “took sand from one part of the beach that belongs to the state and used it to build his polo field,” Rachid Chebihi, the provincial director of the High Commission for Water and Forests in Tangier, said in an interview, adding that court proceedings over the matter had been pending since early this year. Mr. Guerrand met with a reporter to discuss this article but declined to make any comment on the record. In a subsequent e-mail, however, he described Mr. Ulad’s film as a “documentary (or fiction?),” dealing with a “non-event.” 

The documentary was broadcast on the Moroccan television channel 2M on Oct. 14 after a court rejected a bid by Mr. Guerrand to block it — the last move in a battle of lawsuits and countersuits that accompanied the making of the film. It has also been optioned by the French and German network Arte, and Al Jazeera. Dates for showings have not been set. 

Mr. Ulad said he had made the film to explore how state power, through the law and the police, allied itself with wealth and privilege rather than with the idea of protecting ordinary people.
The filmmaker, who is the partner of Mazarine Pingeot — the daughter of François Mitterrand, the late French president — lives in Paris. He was born in Asilah and returns there every summer for vacation with family and friends. For years, he said, one of the rituals of summer life had been to eat at the Mektiri family’s beach restaurant at Sidi Mghait. 

“One summer, Hercules wasn’t around,” he said, using Mr. Mektiri’s nickname. “When I asked, people told me he was in jail.” 

It was 2008: According to the family, police officers had come to the farm saying they were investigating a complaint by the family’s wealthy neighbor, and ransacked the property.
“They destroyed my oven,” the farmer’s wife, Rachida Mektiri, says in the documentary. “They destroyed the stables. They threw everything out.” 

When Mr. Mektiri defended his mother, who challenged the search, they were arrested. They were sentenced to six months and two months in prison, respectively, for assaulting an officer.
It was this, and the way the family was treated even by its own lawyer, Mr. Ulad said, that led him to make the film. 

“My father had a physically damaging accident when I was younger and his lawyer betrayed him and allowed the other party to get away without paying anything,” he said. “Since, I have been obsessed with the question of injustice.” 

Speaking of Mr. Mektiri, he said: “I see myself in him a lot. We come from the same place, and we both have strong-willed, imposing mothers. Then, when all the legal problems started with the movie, I felt like I was going through the same thing the family was going through.” 

Of Mr. Guerrand’s unseen presence in the film, he said: “Hermès as a person, whatever his behavior, never interested me. I think he is revealing of many dysfunctions and is a mirror of the way the Moroccan administration works.” 

“There are many dimensions to this story,” he added. “What I expect from European investors is to help us get out of a corrupt system, not use it for their own business interests.” 

For now, the legal jousting has ended: The Mektiri family remains on its land, and means to stay there. Selling and moving away has never been an option, Mrs. Mektiri said in an interview. 

“My children were born here,” she said. “They earn a living here. Why would I ever want to move to the city? The money from selling won’t last forever and the family will fall apart. I will never sell.”

Read the article on the New York Times' website

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