Whatever Happened to the Clock of Desire ?By Gonzague SAINT-BRIS Sofitel Fès Palais Jamai
Once upon a time, in the history of kings, there was a mad desire that wanted to cross the Mediterranean. The most astonishing proposal ever made: when Moulay Ismail, sultan of Morocco, from his court in Meknes, asked the Sun King in Versailles for the permission to marry the Princess of Conti! In 1672, just as Louis XIV was starting his Dutch War, a young Alaouite prince sat on the throne of Morocco and sumptuously reigned over his court in Meknes. Both men would end up becoming legendary princes, absolute monarchs chasing after the rays of the sun. Both would reign for a long time – fifty-five years, to be exact. Moulay Ismail always inspired passion to the chroniclers and fascination to the historians. He is one of those controversial characters that pique everyone’s curiosity, captivating some and raising hatred in others: “Some paint him black as ink; others white as snow.”
The sheriff liked to compare himself to the Sun King, yet never wanted to submit himself to his dazzling reflection. During the glorious campaigns led by the French king, he dared, to help him in his unremitting combat, propose that his own troops join him to fight against the allies of the War of the Spanish Succession. Moulay Ismail was not a man prone to doubt anything – himself least of all. He asked the Sun King for the permission to marry one of his natural daughters, the Princess of Conti. Always the conqueror, Moulay Ismail, once raised to the throne, stayed on the saddle for twenty years. He was a great womanizer, and an eternal lover. He is said to have sired no less than eight or nine hundred children. He had several wives, including Zidana, an ebony-skinned beauty, and Khnatta, a wonderful creature with an eerie and exotic charm, as well as Rhamania, from a noble tribe of the Marrakech region. Let’s not forget, in this sensuous enumeration, the mesmerizing Jeannette, also known as Bakkais, whose abode can still be seen in Meknes and was called the House of the White Woman. Such was Moulay Ismail: a man of magnificence, women, war, who would have liked to admire himself in the gilded mirror of the Enlightenment century.
The Sun King was quite embarrassed when Ben Aïcha, the ambassador of the sultan of Morocco, came to his palace in Versailles to relay the proposal… His reply was to have two sumptuous clocks sent to the sheriff sovereign – to teach him the art of patience, perhaps! One of those masterworks of time is still known to us, while the other has mysteriously disappeared.
On my way to the World Sacred Music Festival of Fez, I kept nurturing hopes of obtaining clues as to where I could find it. When I arrived at the Jamai Palace Sofitel hotel, located near El Karayouine University, I took the exact measure of the majesty with which this palace presided over the medina of Fez, classified as a Unesco world heritage site. Behind the medieval ramparts of this spiritual and cultural capital, where one of the very first universities in history was founded in the year 859, the palace presented itself as a subtle association of pavilions, patios, and fountains that seemed to blend into an Andalusian garden smelling of tangerine and lemon trees. I was captivated by this Arabic and Moorish architecture, with its painted ceilings and walls, its myriad vaults and niches, its finely chiseled woodworks, its ceramic mosaics, and its stucco embroideries. As I entered the light-flooded lobby, my eyes, charmed by the palace’s ornamentation, were immediately attracted to the azure swimming pool. I was greeted by the manager, Denis de Schrevel, whose exquisite courtesy reminded me of those French diplomats who possess the very same delicacy from having been posted in a variety of places all over the world. He talked to me first about Fez, the green-roofed city, one of the most beautiful in Morocco, stamped by the historic presence of the Jewish and Arabic Andalusians, rich and educated traders, who built palaces there, and gardens and medersas in this fertile glen of vineyards and orchards. After listening to him, I couldn’t help confiding to him about my quest for the lost clock. He did not seem surprised by my request, and the following days would confirm that he, too, may have been waiting for some time in the very same anteroom of mystery…
The Grand Vizier Jamai, the representative of the king of Morocco in Fez, had built his palace in 1879, but on the old city side, next to the Bab Guissa gate, a U-shaped palace, where he slept his head turned toward Mecca. The noble part of the whole structure still stands tall, like a watchtower; the other part, below, opens onto several gardens, on various levels, including the Andalusian garden, the forest garden, and the rose garden, all of which, of course, stimulate one’s imagination into thinking that such a intricate maze of interior spiral staircases, backdoors, and secret underground passages, would lead me on the royal pathway of Louis XIV’s munificence. My investigation just started, when I heard that a part of these gardens had once been a cemetery. Presently, some people still preferred not to sleep there; others yet felt dark vibrations, even some sort of disquieting presence lurking around. A cave had been blocked, and those who happened to sojourn nearby politely complained, gently saying, “The former tenants never left.” I then asked the manager if I could, as a historian, have the privilege of visiting the site more thoroughly. And thus I realized that there were, on the one hand, doors leading to other doors, and, on the other, doors leading to mirrors.
As I made progress in my treasure hunt, I stumbled upon an obstacle that proved as fruitful for my research as materially impossible to overcome: a mirror in front of a staircase climbing up to the right. The base of that staircase had been walled up; what a sight it was, seeing those steps that led to the vertical wall of denial! During my second visit, the manager accompanied me, and he explained that, when climbing down from the first floor to the office, one came upon yet another wall. So there were two walls, and in between, there had to be a secret staircase.
Puzzled by this multiple partition system, worthy of the entrails of an Egyptian pyramid, I questioned the housekeeping manager, Hayat, who had been working there for thirty-nine years and often went through these parts of the palace. She told me that once, as she was on the first floor, she was drawn to the bottom of the staircase by the meows of a dropping cat. She moved her aside and became aware of a ticking sound, like that of a metronome, from behind the wall. She thought it came from the kitchen that connects to the Moroccan restaurant’s office. Intrigued, she looked for the exact place from where this eerie tick-tock could come, all the while carrying the cat and her newborns in the cradle of her arms. That same night, when she went to check that everything was clean in the restaurant, she walked past the mysterious wall, and thought to herself she could not have heard anything, since there was too much space between the kitchen and the bottom of the staircase. She went back up to the first floor, came back down, and heard it again: the swaying symphony of the same mechanical movement as before…
The next morning, on my advice, she asked Hussein, the hotel’s mason, to unhinge a couple of stones from the wall, and that’s when she clearly heard the tick-tock of a clock. She warned the manager that something was off. He then decided to resolve the mystery by having a larger breach opened into the wall of secrets – and there it was, all wrapped up in old gold and silver weaved brocades: the magnificent and finely wrought clock given by Louis XIV.
Standing in front of that marvel, which went on ticking after so many centuries, I first thought how true was that famous saying, oft-quoted by François Mitterrand: “One must give time some time.” The great man was always careful not to point that this wise sentence came from Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Then it stroke me that such a phrase, for all its brilliance, did not explain why or how a clock from Versailles could still be ticking although no one had ever reset it from the 17th to the 21st century.
I decided to find the hotel manager to tell him how confused I felt. Very quietly, in the manner of those seasoned diplomats he resembled so much, he took his time to answer me, savoring in advance the impact of some impending revelation. I looked at him with the same hungry curiosity that must have been Stanley’s when he finally found Dr. Livingstone in the deep end of Africa. The manager then offered me, along with a smile that owed as much to his congenial and professional discretion as to the terrific pleasure he took in holding the key to the puzzle, a short and definitive explanation, delivered as a masterpiece of terseness:
“Given the fact that this hotel is located on a seismic geographical spot, such that we can feel the attenuated aftermaths of tiny earthquakes from time to time, it is not inconceivable for the clock to have been reset by some small tremor.”
That last phrase – some small tremor –, so familiar to the libertines of the 18th century, was not unknown to me, but I thought it was used exclusively to describe sexual ecstasy. Then again, that was exactly what I had just felt – a historical orgasm – upon discovering that magnificent clock, though surely it was less desirable than the Princess of Conti must have been!