Nov 11, 2005

In the Pax cemetary

In Rabat, the cemetary for foreigners is hidden behind a long tall, white wall. The cemetary is called Pax. The word is hardly visible in the arches above the entrance. Today — in the 11th hour of the 11th day in the 11th month — a rememberance service was held to mark the end of World War I. Representatives from a dozen countries stood in a semi-circle around a modest obalesk inside the north gate. Ambassadors or their wives, or in one case, a beautiful young blonde woman from Bulgaria, with the bemused and confident expression of a famous mistress; they all stood in front of the monument and looked respectful or uncertain or uncomfortable, or lost in some interior dialogue. Wreathes were laid. A military band played. Colonels and generals saluted. A horn player lost his breath. Pigeons took off. Someone sneezed.

I drifted away, leaving the Australians to film.

The cemetary must be nearly 100 acres. Here and there, patches of 3 foot tall, white-washed crosses, these are mostly soldiers, in among the more elaborate offerings, in gray and black marble. Most names were French. Many of the inscriptions were from the early 20th Century.

Here and there the tombs are breaking up, split by a palm tree or a bush. In the poorer districts of the cemetary names and dates are broken or covered over.

Finally, I decided to leave and found myself on the main avenue that runs right to the north gate. I noticed five black women, elaborately dressed. They were happy, half dancing. One had a broom. The women stood outside a particularly elegant masoleum, with carefully polished marble, and inside, photos and sayings from none other than Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga. Otherwise known as "The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake". He was the great Congolese leader who renamed his nation Zaire and took on the appearance of a nationalist. He followed the dictator's arc from promise to betrayal. He amassed a $4 billion fortune, the equal of his country's national debt in the 1980s, and pretended to be a nationalist. Which is why no doubt around his tomb there are trees and elaborate flowers and while the Europeans were memorializing the war to end all wars, here were five ladies, half dancing, one with a broom.