Lords of the Atlas book coverLords of the Atlas is prefaced, like many histories, with markers that help orient the reader in the world they are about to enter: a chronology of events, a genealogical chart for tracking names and lineage, a map of tribal territories. What sets apart this historical account is the adept blending of the political with the personal.

The rise and fall of one of modern Morocco’s most powerful families dovetailed with the tumultuous years of colonialism and independence, and the microcosm of world politics being acted out on the Moroccan stage. Author Gavin Maxwell never loses sight of the people involved in the theater of the “Moroccan Question.” Much like the oft-quoted Walter Harris, this book brings the personalities into the power politics at play. Against a landscape of dates, successions, treaties and conquests, Maxwell paints for us portraits of the individuals involved, and the result is a compelling narrative of ambition, loyalty, ego and mortality.

Maxwell uses the Walter Harris account of Morocco during this same time period, quoting extensively from Harris’ book Morocco That Was. These colorful examples, which make up for in flavor what they lack in historical veracity, serve well to illustrate the cultural context of Morocco’s interaction with the world between 1893 and 1957. The difference in style from Harris is evident. Maxwell’s analysis of these events, and of Moroccan culture in general, is more “modern”: analytical, even-handed, with fewer obvious biases.

One example, interesting perhaps for the reader, is the candid discussion of sexual traditions—harems, prostitution, homosexuality—that should be noted in Harris’ book for its absence. It is as if Maxwell is trying to avoid the critique he gives to one published account of the Glaoua family—of taking Moroccan traditions out of the context of Morocco—by giving a thorough exploration of the details and dramas of the Sultans and Lords about which he is writing, much of which might normally pass under the radar of history in favor of official politics, wars and events.

It might seem strange for a country to be in such proximity to Europe that it was a hub for military intrigue during both World Wars (think of the film Casablanca), but still be so recently so barbarous and backward. Maxwell reminds us of the transition Morocco underwent—from warring tribes to medieval feudalism to colonialism to independence—in the space of about 60 years. With touching sympathy for its leaders, he never excuses their atrocities, and yet subtly and not-so-subtly reminds the reader of not only the European complicity in much of these actions, but of the historical trail of tears that every country, movement, religion and all leaders have left behind. While the events are dramatic, this story is less about the quest for greatness, or battle heroics, or the triumph of democracy. Maxwell’s telling of Morocco’s history serves to demystify the exoticism of the Moroccan court—by making its kings and kingmakers and heroes and tyrants ultimately only human.

Written by Erin Tolman.