They have a new police chief on Place Djemma el Fna, Marrakesh's Place of the Mosque at the End of the World. He is known colloquially to the denizens of the square as "Van Damme" because of his height, his toughness, and his alleged integrity. He is coming down hard on the criminals who frequent the square by night and he regularly patrols the space by himself, often on a scooter, accompanied by his walkie talkie.
Rumour has it that he takes no nonsense from his cop underlings. Rumour has it that he was one of the King's personal bodyguards before accepting this strenuous appointment. Rumour has it that he doesn't accept bribes, making him more or less unique amongst Morocco's appallingly crooked and worthless police force.
Rumour has it that he's gay or, as it was put to me, "He's about 35 and he's not married. If you're 35 in Morocco and you're not married, you're gay."
The main things that happen at night on el Fna are entertainment (music, comedy, games, boxing) and crime (fraudulent drug peddling, male prostitution, pickpocketing).
Yesterday I sat with my pal Tafik at the Cafe de France in the shade avoiding the mid-afternoon's blistering heat, watching el Fna's passing throng. In the middle distance a tall man wearing a blue denim shirt on a scooter came to a halt.
"That is Van Damme." said Tafik.
Van Damme sat in that open space beneath the sun's pitiless brain-frying glower for twenty minutes. Behind him was parked an unmarked white van and to his right was an unmarked white car.
"Those are probably cop cars." I said.
"I think he is waiting for someone or maybe he wants to catch somebody who is coming out of the medina." said Tafik.
To access the square from the medina, where a fair percentage of el Fna's lawbreakers (including myself) seem to reside, it was indeed necessary to pass by Van Damme's vantage point.
Eventually he was approached by two short middle aged shabbily dressed men.
"Those two are police who have worked on the Place for ten years." said Tafik. "They are very bad men. The one on the left lives near me; he's always looking for bribes. One time when I was 16 I was robbed on my way home from a friend's house at 3am. I went to the police station and he was the one on duty. First he wanted a bribe to investigate the case and then he said, 'What were you doing out at that time of the night anyway? You should have been at home with your family by then.'"
Van Damme stayed engrossed in conversation with the two older cops for a while. Then he handed Tafik's neighbour his walkie talkie, effective control over the square, and drove off into the heat and the sand.
The next night, coming up on midnight, I was crossing el Fna on my way to a cafe rendezvous. I saw Van Damme on his scooter approach me. He very briefly ground to a halt right in front of me, caught my eye, and assessed me shrewdly. Perhaps he was a little taken aback when I assessed him shrewdly right back.
He is a handsome, healthy looking youngish man, well dressed and with a certain elegance or hauteur. I think I'd prefer not to cross him.
Joe Ambrose wrote 14 books, including Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. Joe sadly passed away in 2018. Visit Joe's website which was completed just before his passing, for more info: JoeAmbrose.co.uk.
about Joe Ambrose »»
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