Following in the footsteps of a legend

Updated: 2013-02-03 09:45

By Mike Peters (China Daily)

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Following in the footsteps of a legend

Jaafar Alj Hakim is dedicated to letting Chinese know his country, Morocco. Provided to China Daily

Morocco's 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.

"People obviously like the Kingdom's 3,500 km of coastline," he says, noting that the sunny sand and blue sea has a special appeal for the 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," he says, while coastal Agadir boasts a fine-sand bay, golf resorts, bird-watching and a leisurely escape from the workaday world.

Hakim notes that 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 during the 28 years he journeyed across the East, taking a scholarly interest in the Middle Kingdom. Ibn Battuta trekked more than 121,000 km, a figure unsurpassed by any individual explorer until the Steam Age made horses unnecessary 450 years later. His book has now been published in Chinese.

Hakim recently celebrated Ibn Battuta's time in China by hosting a special art exhibit at the embassy.

Twenty-one Chinese artists were invited to explore Morocco's history and culture in their work. Qiu Jun's paintings reflect the romance both peoples have with the horse. Zhao Biqin's colorful landscapes showcase "Moroccan women's love for their country and their expectations of 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 en route to China 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 opportunities are 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.

"Economic cooperation between the two countries has been growing, 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. Telecommunications, infrastructure, mining, solar energy and fishing are important trade sectors between the two countries.

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. He's hoping that a direct flight, perhaps between Guangzhou and Morocco, can materialize as early as this year. Right now, getting to Morocco generally requires a stop in Paris first - not necessarily a hardship for a Francophone country.

Meanwhile, he's dedicated to letting Chinese know his country's great traditions and modern culture.

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

Hakim has been Rabat's envoy to China since 2009, but he's been back and forth since his first visit in 2000.

"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."