Letter from Robert L. Ripley (1931) on Northern Africa and it's Pirates

Approaching Tangiers from the sea, my ship passed the sleepy little town of Tarifa. 100 years ago this quiet little place was a humming beehive of activity, for then it was the home of the original "racketeers." The word "tariff" comes from Tarifa, where all ships had to pay to pass. I have just motored a thousand miles along the Barbary Coast where the Corsair fleets of infamous memory collected tribute from the great maritime nations of the world for 200 years, or until little United States of America said "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute." (The U.S.A. was less than 40 years old at the time.)

The pirates are gone, but the spirit still lives. Extended palms greet you everywhere--and, well, just try to get an even break from a Moor in a bargain. The populace of Ighil Imoula, Algeria, made a vow "while others live by word of mouth, so shall they live by being silent," and to this day the inhabitants roam the country as fake deaf mutes, thereby earning their living.

I find the old pirate states of Barbary--Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Tripoli--to be among the most interesting countries on earth. You will like Marrakesh the Red; Meknes, the royal city of Moulai Ismael, father of 888 children; the Holy City of Moulai Idriss, where no white man is allowed to remain after sundown; Bidonville in Casablanca, built entirely of American tin cans, where a wife can be bought for a dozen tomato tins; and I recommend Fez, Tlemcen, Biskra, Constantine--the "City of the Air," and Timgad, a Roman city built in the desert, and not forgetting Tunis.

I offer you Marrakesh the Red! This city of the Sherifs, moulded from the red earth of North Africa, is worth your while all the while.
And if you think Africa is a barren waste of land, listen when I tell you that I rode all day long down here from Casablanca on a road that stretched straight as a ribbon through green fields and beautiful wild flowers. This part of Africa most resembles California--except that the roads are better here.

But picture Marrakesh the Red, lying in a verdant valley and backed by the mighty snow-covered Atlas Mountains. Snow? Yes, sir, snow. As I once stated in a "Believe It or Not" cartoon, "A caravan of 20 people froze to death near the equator in Africa beneath the blazing tropical sun." One look at the white heads of these gigantic mountains would convince all those who doubted me.

But Marrakesh the Red! The Koutoubia over all. It is the minaret of a ruined mosque standing sentinel-like over the city. The ground on which this fragrant tower stands is the oldest "entailed estate" in the world. It has remained in the same hands for 1,300 years.
I said "fragrant tower." it is
More than 750 years ago the Sultan Yakoub el Mansur built this tower and placed in the mortar 960 bags of musk. Today the scent is still fragrant and the sweet-smelling odour still rises to Heaven after seven centuries--a mute tribute from Yakoub to Mohammed.

Atop the tower are three balls--the original pawn-brokers' sign known the world over--from A to Uncle. These three balls glisten golden in the sun, and well they might. Inside these three balls that glisten so golden in the sun is money and jewels valued at $1,300,000. Yakoub el Mansur built this altitudinous altar to Allah from money taken from the Christians. He used the booty exacted after the battle of Alarcos (Spain, 1195) in which he defeated the Christian armies under Alphonso VIII. The money that remained after the tower was built was placed in three balls atop the Koutoubia--the holiest and safest place in his kingdom. In after years some of this money was used to help indigents (they had depressions, too) by loaning them money on collateral with easy terms, and so, in the East, the three balls became identified with pawnbroking.

Just below the three balls is the platform of the muezzin, the town crier of the Mohammedans. Five times a day the priest ascends the stairs and sends the call to prayer booming out over the city. I saw him yesterday. He was blind. Then I found out that only blind muezzins have been allowed in the Koutoubia for the last 600 years. You see the Koutoubia is so high that the muezzin has the advantage over his fellow men--he could see into all the harems...

The flag at the top indicates that it is the hour for prayer. As the sun goes down you will hear the muezzin cry from the four corners:
"Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar, La Allah Il Allah, La Allah Il Allah, U Mohammed Rassul Allah" which means:
"God is Great, There is no God but God, and Mohammed is the Prophet of God."

This call, which is heard by more people than any cry on earth, sounds weirdly fascinating as the setting sun bathes the hoary heads of the Atlas in gold. Then it sinks from sight, and Marrakesh is no longer red--but black.

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