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Old friends, new connections

Updated: 2013-01-25 12:02
By Mike Peters ( China Daily)

Old friends, new connections

Hakim says Morocco is eager to strengthen cooperation in fields such as telecommunications, mining and solar energy.


Moroccan ambassador Jaafar Alj Hakim is enthusiastic about the growing relations between his country and China, and their long history together

Old friends, new connections

Jaafar Alj Hakim can talk the talk of any veteran ambassador: diplomacy, trade, cultural exchanges. But right now he'd rather talk about the beach. Told that his visitor had made a pact with a US college friend to meet in Marrakesh - a pledge still unfulfilled 30 years later - Hakim's face is alight with the enthusiasm of a competent tour guide.

"People obviously like the Kingdom's 3,500 kilometers of coastline," he says, noting that the sunny sand and blue sea has special appeal for some 7,000 Chinese who visit every year. "The imperial cities of Fez, Meknes, Marrakesh and Rabat, show the heritage of the different dynasties that succeeded in Morocco and left a world of grandeur and luxury to the visitors. Fez can be a stay in space and time with Arab-Andalusian overtones, Marrakesh for its palm groves and as a gateway to the Saharan desert."

And Agadir, less-known globally than its coastal sisters Casablanca, Rabat and Tangier, boasts a fine-sand bay, golf resorts, bird watching and a leisurely escape from the workaday world.

Morocco beckons, he says, with centuries-old history, ancient traditions, and the legendary hospitality of its people.

In fact, while ambassadors to China are fond of saying that the friendship between their two countries is "everlasting", Hakim makes the statement with more authority than most. His thousand-year-old kingdom has a recorded history with China that goes back seven centuries, thanks to the legendary travels of Ibn Battuta. That Moroccan trader explored China for three of the 28 years he journeyed across the East, taking a well-recorded scholarly interest in the Middle Kingdom.

His travelogue languished in obscurity, even within the Muslim world, for hundreds of years. But in the early 19th century, extracts were published in German and English based on manuscripts discovered in the Middle East, and his book has now been published in Chinese as well. Ibn Battuta trekked more than 121,000 kilometers, a figure unsurpassed by any individual explorer until the Steam Age made horses unnecessary 450 years later.

Hakim recently celebrated Ibn Battuta's time in China by hosting a special art exhibit at the embassy. "It's not so easy to bring artists here from Morocco," he says, citing both expense and scheduling difficulties. "So we found an alternative that is perhaps a more interesting reach across the two cultures."

Twenty-one Chinese artists were invited to explore Morocco's history and culture in their art by the embassy's partners in the exhibition, the Beijing People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, and the China World Peace Foundation. The results were as diverse as the cultures of the two countries that came together for the project.

Qiu Jun's paintings reflect the romance both peoples have with the horse. Zhao Biqin's colorful landscapes reflected "Moroccan women's love for their country and their expectations toward a beautiful future." Kong Fantao and Ma Dongqin capture street scenes in cool blues and greens, while Song Lin's oil painting depicts Ibn Battuta enroute to China, experiencing the hardships of the journey with "a sense of triumphalism".

The legacy of Ibn Battuta lingers today, measurable on the map. Most of the Moroccans in China today are not in Beijing or Shanghai but in Guangzhou and Shenzhen. "We are still traders," he says with a smile.

In addition, about 250 Moroccan students study at universities around the country. When they finish their studies, Hakim says, they will enter the world economy with tremendous advantages, especially in China.

"Imagine, they come here already fluent in Arabic, in French and in English," the ambassador says. "Now they have a good education, they are trained in international business - and they speak Chinese. The opportunity is fantastic."

In Morocco, meanwhile, there are now Confucius Institutes teaching Mandarin at universities in both Rabat (since 2009) and Casablanca (2011), with a new one scheduled to open in Fez later this year, he says.

"The economic cooperation between the two countries has been in an upward trend, with a trade volume that topped $3 billion in 2011," he says, a figure that makes China the third-largest supplier of Morocco and China's sixth largest export destination in Africa.

Morocco, for example, imports more green tea from China than any other nation in the world. That's part of record imports from China that have led to a huge trade imbalance, and Morocco has been eager to balance that by inviting more Chinese direct investment in the country.

"By keeping its markets open to the Chinese companies while providing a modern business environment, integrated industrial platforms and appropriate infrastructure and services," he says, Morocco is eager to strengthen some fields where cooperation already exists between the two countries, such as telecommunications, infrastructure, mining, solar energy and fishing.

As ambassador, he has traveled to "the four corners of China". A sports and golf enthusiast, he enjoys exploring nature with his family, but he still has much of the continent-sized country to see.

That's helped him see tourism development between the countries as a two-way street. About 11,000 Moroccan tourists visited China in 2012. A memorandum of understanding to promote mutual tourism was signed between the two countries in 2006, and the provincial tourism office in Guangdong is an active partner in that sector.

Both sides are eager to see a direct flight, perhaps between Guangzhou and Morocco, materialize as early as this year, but those talks are still in progress. Right now, getting to Morocco generally requires a stop in Paris first - which is not necessarily a hardship for a Francophone country.

The growing interest in China is "unbelievable", he says, and he's dedicated to letting Chinese know that both countries share "a great culture, and a modern culture".

"In Fez we have the oldest university in the world that is still operating," he says. "We also have great festivals in Morocco, including a famous festival of international religious music in February." Morocco also has a road rally, something like the famous Dakar Rally, but just for women drivers.

Hakim has been Rabat's envoy to China since 2009, but he's been back and forth since his first visit in 2000, while he was ambassador. Later he made six trips as director-general of the Asia and Oceania Department at the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"So I can say that we are old friends," he says, and he's enjoyed watching the dynamic vigor of modern China.

"It is undeniable that China offers the fastest developing market in Asia and enjoys rapid annual economic growth, but their success is also everyone's."


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