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Des Hommes Et Des Dieux: Azrou

26th December, frosty calm and still, a clear silver-gilt sunset light.

July 27th this year, we took the night bus from Meknes to Azrou, a town in the Middle Atlas, about an hour and a half south of Fes. I was not hoping to go trekking in the Cedar Forest (protected here, as a huge chunk of it has been bought by some Desert Arab rich nation, maybe the Emirates?); hoping at best for a hired taxi and a stroll. Azrou is nothing like high enough (1,200 metres) to be cool in summer. We were gently yet ruthlessly propositioned by a "mountain guide" as soon as we left the bus station, but I may be English, I'm not such a mad dog as to want to go hiking at 40 degrees, even to benefit the local economy. But a funny thing happened. By the time we'd chosen ourselves a room, actually a suite, with wonderful views, in the estimable Hotel Panorama, the roasting aftenoon had turned cool. So we went out for a walk, and then decided we might as well go all the way to the deserted Benedictine monastery and dispensary (the monks had to leave in the nineties, due to anti-Christian feeling, it says in the Rough Guide). We climbed up out of Azrou, took the minor road to Tioumliline, a wind got up and the sky grew dark as a bruise. We were just saying to each other that in England this would mean a thunderstorm, when the storm struck. It almost wasn't fun: the temperature plunged and we were getting battered by icy, driven hail, scrabbling for shelter.

We hid under a tree until the hail stopped. We climbed the flights of concrete steps that seemed likely to lead somewhere, but there was no signage. We guessed we must have found the old monastery, when we recognised the church, locked except for a bare shadowy porch;with the red and gold stained glass windows,the Lamb of God still intact at the eastern end. There was a dormitory block, store buildings, vegetable gardens, a lone donkey that had got into a shed full of grain in sacks and was having guilty fun. All empty, unoccupied, but with fairly fresh, fairly crude paintwork and repairs. . a strange air of a place partially restored, but then abandoned again, quite recently.

Next day the weird weather continued, so that we were able to walk: out from our hotel all the way up to the forest. We made a 16mile circuit of it in the end, around the valley and among the wonderful great trees. We got pounded by rain, we got dry again, we didn't care, and the temperature was miraculously cool. We asked the manager at the Panorama, is this normal for July? No! he said, laughing (possibly at our dreadful french). It's utterly bizarre. Nature has been bizarre this year.

Azrou was an adventure, that walk to the deserted monastery the kind of lost, offbeat experience that often spins a story out of me (nearly all my short stories are travel stories), but I don't think that's going to happen this time, because last week I went to see Of Gods And Men. For a long time resisted what I was seeing. I told myself the landscape of the Atlas mountains must be the same in Algeria as in Morocco. That probably all the little roads winding around in the bare, sweeping hill country of North Africa look exactly the same. And the mountain village attached to the monastery in the story definitely wasn't Azrou. . . which is a happening little burg, as my old pal Bruce Sterling would say, a small city that's getting a lot of money pumped into it. (When we were there, in Ramadan, the coloured lights and the fountains at night, for the passagiata, were as magical as money and good taste could make them). I finally twigged, when Christian (wrestling with the tempations of martyrdom) goes for a walk in a great golden clearing, forested hillsides on every horizon. No, I thought. This is not a coincidence. I've walked exactly there, I've seen that very skyline. . . It was a little distracting, from then on I was partly waiting for the location credits to find out if I was right: which I was.

I thought, from what I'd heard, that movie would be like Boonmee, a fascinating fragment. When the monk who could recall his past lives turns out to have passed on, and you decide to make the show anyway (like those documentaries where the giant squid never turns up). When the dying man's dead wife has come back, a real person, not a ghost, to be the one who takes his hand and helps him across the river; when the two witnesses have returned from that shadowy and thrilling borderland, to an everyday world that seems so drab and banal. . . you have something extraordinary, a convincing suggestion that dying is an exciting adventure: but it's slight, even allowing for the amorous talking catfish. Actually, Of Gods And Men is a solid, gripping character-driven drama, not about death but about dedication. It reminded me very much of the writing of another French Algerian, Albert Camus. It's just a question of whether two and two make four, says one of the characters in La Peste, explaining why he's finally decided to stay in the plague-ridden city, and cast in his lot with the suffering population, even if he dies for it If you know that two and two make four, then you can't change your mind and agree that two and two makes three, or five, no matter what anybody tells you. (this is not a word for word quotation, nb).

So those were my Christmas movies, a curious contrast with last year, when our festive outings were the Paris ballet Ballet Russes revival live on the Big Screen at the Dukes, and Avatar (Bless it: I can't understand why people don't like Avatar, I thought it was sweet). Also strange the way they're complementary: Of Gods And Men fades out, schematically, where Boonmee fades in. But that fade out, into the snowy mist, must have been a political as well as an artistic decision. In real life, "nobody knows" how the six monks who were taken hostage actually died, or who actually killed them. (The kind of "nobody knows" where there's a fair chance the vicious Algerian military did those particular "Islamist terrorist executions" themselves, accidentally or on purpose). Better just let that brave little company vanish, then, without apportioning blame. Maybe that's why Mark Kermode's intense appreciation of the movie was marked by uneasiness: he wanted to know whose side he ought to be on. Is it okay is it cool, to find yourself regarding French Catholic monks as heroes? But there aren't any "sides", not in this version of the legend (and it's a legend, already was one before the movie was born or thought of; check it out). It's just a question of whether two and two make four. Anyway, set your prejudices aside and go and see it. Also, try to resign yourself to subtitles. You know it makes sense. You know Hollywood remakes are always inferior and generally utterly dire. What is up with you people? Can't you read???

Revised by Gwyneth on 6th January, a day of heavy cold rain, because I finished a task this morning and was doomed to idle this afternoon away, watching a trashy action movie and noodling. I haven't resigned myself to the new year as yet. Really, what is the point in committing to 2011, with all this apocalyptical stuff going on? Might be a complete waste of time.


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