A daring teenage girl defies authority to become Morocco’s first female pilot and the hero of a young nation—then the victim of an assassination still shrouded in mystery.
Touria Chaoui is buried in the Ahl Fas cemetery, off the Boulevard d’El Hank in Casablanca. Nobody’s been buried there in years. If you manage to find the entrance, take the winding dirt path to the far end of the cemetery, past the lonely grave of Abdelwahed, her father. Another hundred meters along, through plots dug so closely that you’ll have to climb over them, feet slipping on the hard mounds, fingers catching the tops of tombstones for support, you’ll come to the grave of Touria. As the guardian brushes dead leaves from a stone, he’ll tell you that a couple of German tourists were her last visitors, a year, eighteen months ago. The Arabic inscription reads:
The sad moon sings for her youth. The Virgin has found her God, and she found him pure. Martyr of the nation, a traitor’s bullet found her head.
* * *
On December 14, 1936, theater director Abdelwahed Chaoui left rehearsal, returned to his family’s riad in Fez, and was told the bad news: Zina had given birth to a daughter.
One of the first Moroccans to write a regular newspaper column in French, and known for theater productions that subtly satirized the French occupiers, Abdelwahed was self-educated, sophisticated, and no misogynist. But his role as an artist and resistant was one he had hoped to pass on to an understudy, one able to lead a similarly engaged life: a son.
He pouted for a few weeks, refusing to join his beautiful wife Zina in bed, but despite himself he was soon charmed by his little girl. They named her Touria — Arabic for the bright constellation of stars the Greeks called the Pleiades, after the daughters of Atlas, who were relentlessly pursued by the hunter Orion. A daughter was a difficult challenge, to be sure, but Abdelwahed was determined to rise to that challenge. Soon her hair was cut short like a boy’s, she was dressed in pants and he was taking her everywhere. As she grew older, she accompanied him on theater tours and acted in small roles, scandalous in a country that was still Shakespearean in the sense that a Juliet was played by a mincing Abdul. “I wash my hands of you and your family,” a neighbor declared. “Next are you going to prostitute the girl?” The hunters were already taking aim, but meanwhile Touria was learning from her theatrical father the power of self-transformation. And more than anything, she wanted to fly.
Hearing that familiar roar approaching, she would scamper out to the riad courtyard, toss back her close-cropped head and wait for the blue square of sky above to be broken by the winged flash of an airplane – Allied planes heading from Casablanca to Algiers or Palermo. And when the skies were calm, she would show her cousins how to make paper airplanes from the pages of school notebooks carefully ripped along the staples at the spine. They sent them whizzing through the air, swerving like fighter jets, or looping slowly to the ground, until the last plane was lost to the fountain at the center of the courtyard, and became a sea monster, or mush.
* * *
At four in the morning on November 8, 1942, Casablanca was startled from its dreams by the sound of engines rumbling across the dark sky, and thousands of paper tracts fluttered to the ground. The rain of paper announced, in French and Arabic, that the Americans would land at dawn. Do not resist. Lay down your arms and join with your allies to defeat the Nazis. A few miles off the coast, the largest American flotilla in history, over one hundred ships, approached the North African coast. This was to be their first battle of the Second World War fought in the Western hemisphere.
Over the next three days dogfights broke out in the sky over Casablanca’s minarets, and soon Frenchmen, fighting reluctantly for Vichy, were falling from the sky. The Red Ripper squadron off the USS Ranger made low runs in pairs to strafe the anti-aircraft batteries firing from installations near the port, including the tombstones of the Ahl Fass cemetery.
“We just feel we are floating in space,” an American pilot wrote about those three momentous days in Wildcats Over Casablanca, “casually floating in a vacuum where there is little sound and fury…The cockpits are so sound- and cold-proof that the pilot lives in a comfortable world all his own, untouched by the outer world.”
On the morning of the 11th, the French command surrendered across North Africa and united with the Allies to push towards German field marshal Rommel in Tunisia, kicking the Axis out of Africa for good and preparing the attack on Europe, where the sound and fury would come, and the world, as always, would get its revenge.
* * *
After the war, Abdelwahed Chaoui opened a Casablanca agency specializing in communication and special events. With his actor’s gift for social mobility, he enjoyed the pleasures of the country’s economic capital, meeting friends for drinks after work at the Roi de la Bière, or later at a reserved table in Parisian-style cabarets like the Don Quichotte. He was still producing the occasional play and still engaged in the resistance against the French (and still observed by the police), but his principal concern was developing the business, which would allow his growing family to join him. Eight years after the arrival of Touria, Zina had given birth to Salah Eddine, a son, and every two weeks or so Abdelwahed would arrive back home in Fez late on a Friday night to kiss the children as they slept.
That year a French movie director named André Zwobada arrived in Casablanca to scout locations for a film called “La Septième Porte.” Mostly forgotten today, the movie presented an opportunity to Abdelwahed, who was engaged by Zwobada as his local assistant. When it came time for casting, an important role was given to an outspoken young Moroccan girl, not even ten, who had some acting experience in local theater productions – Touria Chaoui.
Shooting moved out to the desert, where temperatures dipped below 100 only after midnight. It was so hot the film was melting in its cans, and at night Touria sat beneath the stars with her father, as comfortable as he was now at inhabiting two worlds – the day and the night, the city and the desert, the male and the female, the French and the Moroccan. This was the gift her father had given her, or the gift she’d given him.
* * *
In 1948, the whole family moved from Fez to Casablanca and set up house in an apartment at the back of Abdelwahed’s office on the Avenue Poeymirau. The city mesmerized the children. Touria loved the windows of the toyshops on the big Haussmannian boulevards the French had built – not so much for the toys, but for the model airplanes, which she could classify and name. Her brother Salah got a new pair of red leather shoes and couldn’t stop looking down at them as he stumbled along, not such a brilliant student as his sister, but beginning to show a talent for drawing, an instinct for color. All the same, it was expected that he would continue studying until his high school diploma, whereas Touria couldn’t hope to study further than junior high, the highest possible scholastic achievement for a girl. But Abdelwahed had always encouraged his daughter to go further, higher, and Touria still wanted to fly – which was completely ridiculous. No Moroccan – male or female – had ever earned a civil pilot’s license, much less an adolescent girl. Of course, all girls dream. What’s rare is a father who dreams just as big.
In the fall of 1950, father and daughter rode in a taxi out to Tit Mellil on the outskirts of Casablanca, where the French military had built an airstrip after the war and now trained the pilots of the elite fighter corps known as the Ailes Chérifiennes. Abdelwahed had seen enough of how the French system worked to have no great hopes of enrolling her in the school, but how could Moroccans, or his daughter, ever expect freedom if they did not at least pretend to be free? Couldn’t a performance, well played, become something like the truth? So he rode with his daughter out to Tit Mellil in a taxi, and they pretended that they were going to enroll her in flight school.
Amusement met them at the Aéroclub. Abdelwahed was assumed to be an applicant for the cleaning position, one who had presented himself in a foppish suit, accompanied by a tomboy daughter. The girl probably wanted a job too. Amusement ballooned into laughter when this Mohamed (the name the French gave all unknown Moroccan men) politely informed them that he had come to enroll his daughter in flight school. “This little Fatima [the female “Mohamed”] pretends she can be a pilot,” cried Monsieur Martin, the school’s director, to his merry subordinates. Abdelwahed continued. He could pay the tuition (although he hardly could), and so he wished to know what rule forbade his daughter from enrolling. The laughter died. There are some situations so improbable that they do not require a rule, which was unfortunate for Directeur Martin. After some hemming and hawing, certain that the girl would never survive a week in his demanding program, he agreed to let her begin.
She survived a week, then a month, then a year, infuriating not only Martin, but her French instructor, who resented being diverted from more important matters, like crushing the growing Moroccan resistance, for a sideshow. She was a perfect student, acing every test with passion and precision, but what sense was there in teaching a native girl how to fly? It’s not as if she would actually be given a license.
The Chaouis, however, still chose to believe that she would, and on October 17, 1951, they dressed in their finest – Touria’s finest was a flight suit – and made the trip to Tit Mellil to watch her final flight test. They rode in the Grand Taxi of the neighbor who had been so inspired by Touria’s story that he had driven her to and from the airfield every day for a year without accepting a franc. She was a source of pride in the neighborhood, a minor celebrity in the local groceries and hammams, but this was no longer enough. She had wanted to fly, but in flying she had found something that needed to be said to the world.
By the time the family reached the airfield, the temperature had dropped and the wind was rising, pulling in dark clouds from the ocean. Even for a veteran pilot, it was dangerous flying weather, but Directeur Martin, whose only power over Touria at this point was bureaucratic, refused to let her reschedule. One of Touria’s instructors, a Spaniard, spoke up: they could not let her go up into that storm. The Frenchmen insisted: today or never. So Touria insisted too.
Flying alone, high above the storm, much higher than she’d ever flown before, Touria performed the required maneuvers and landed with a perfect score. Two months shy of her fifteenth birthday, she became the first Moroccan civil pilot in history, and the first aviatrix in the Maghreb. Newspapers across the country hailed her as a hero, and one of her biggest admirers, the Sultan Mohamed Ben Yousef, invited her and Abdelwahed to the palace to meet.
The Sultan was a measured leader who had patiently guided Morocco towards greater independence ever since his favorable 1943 Casablanca meeting with Roosevelt. He was almost universally adored by his people, and together he and the young pilot greeted the press, grinning for the cameras, the Sultan in his brown djellaba, Touria in a dark tie, white shirt, pants, and double-breasted pilot’s jacket, wings pinned to her right breast, her arms filled with flowers. Some saw more than a celebration of one girl’s accomplishment in the photos that were published the next day. Some saw stagecraft. Some saw a Sultan too adept at symbolism, flying too close to the sun. For the French, independence was as unacceptable as a girl pilot. They would have to burn his wings.
In all the excitement, not much attention was paid to Touria’s cough. It had been too cold in the cockpit at that altitude, and she had caught a lung infection that worsened every day, until she was taken to the Hospital Colombani, where the doctor pulled Zina and Abdelwahed aside to tell them that within ten days their daughter would be dead.
Word was passed to the Sultan, who immediately acted. The royal plane flew her across the Mediterranean and into the French Alps, where at the sanatorium in Sancellemoz she spent six months away from home, and her life was saved. From her snow-swept balcony atop Europe, cheeks growing fat, she stared for hours at the white summit of Mont Blanc. The desert was another world away.
* * *
On August 20, 1953, the French dealt with the Sultan by exiling him and his family to Corsica and then to Madagascar. He was replaced by a puppet, a feckless, kif-addicted relative named Mohamed Ben Arafa, and the time of the assassinations began. Secret death squads within the French police set about efficiently liquidating resistants whom they judged a threat. For the two years of the Sultan’s absence, terror reigned. Moroccans were confined to native quarters, with curfews enforced by phalanxes of French police. Istiqlal, the leading independence party, was banned, and into the vacuum stepped dozens of Moroccan groups prepared to use violence to terrorize the French and consolidate their own power. There were the Secret Organization, the Liberation Army, the Black Crescent, and many others. Each claimed to represent the true Morocco, or true Islam, more fully than the rest. Some wanted secular democracy; others would implement Sharia law. With Moroccans of any political wisdom killed or forced underground, the ranks of the new guard were filled by self-styled gangsters, vaguely politically aware, but also trafficking arms and collecting bribes. Casablanca resembled 1920s Chicago. Moroccan informers were killed, trains were derailed, and French farms were burned.
At ten in the morning on Christmas Eve 1953, a bomb exploded in the Casablanca Central Market, killing two dozen people, mostly women and children. French settlers responded by forming their own “anti-terrorism” units – the French Presence, the Ultras, the Organization for Anti-Terrorist Defense, and others – in close collaboration with the police, who often worked bloodier cases out of uniform. They organized hunting parties in the streets, assassinated resistance leaders, and set off their own bombs at cafes frequented by Moroccans, as well as targeting advocates for peace – Moroccan and French – calculating that more violence would justify even stricter French control. Dozens of censored French newspapers called out assassination targets and published grotesque cartoons. There was only one liberal French paper. Its owner was assassinated by a group called the Red Hand, which had been formed by the French secret service.
Ahmed Touil was one of the biggest Moroccan gangsters of all, and in the purest sense: he’d kill anybody. He’d started in Casablanca as a union worker at the American air base, became a driver for a leader in the Black Crescent, which led to transporting arms, around which point he began systematically eliminating his rivals, whatever their political affiliations, including some within the Black Crescent. It was rumored that he had assassinated a Moroccan French teacher for collaborating with the enemy linguistically. He kept tabs on anyone who mattered, including Touria Chaoui, and after mastering the underworld, he became a detective in the French police department. He knew where power lay and chased it relentlessly, but like the hunter Orion, his bloodlust would destroy him in the end.
* * *
Touria had her enemies. Conspicuously independent – still cutting her hair short, wearing overalls, and now driving a green Morris Minor – she irritated both the French administration and the more Islamic factions jockeying for power. There were rumors to serve different agendas: she had lovers, she was collaborating, she was armed. Over time the rumors would acquire more and more improbable specifics: the lover was a French pilot, enraging Ahmed Touil, who was said to love her too. It was true that she spent a lot of time out at the airfield, where she was founder and president of the pilot’s club, but she had also been recruited to the boards of two non-profit associations run by rich women from prominent Moroccan families, The Future of the Young Moroccan Girl, and The Cradle of the Poor. Their goal was to teach young women to be independent by reading, writing, and working for themselves. Although Miss Chaoui wasn’t exactly club material, after her exploits she was (infuriatingly) close to the Sultan, and the Casablanca society set was happy to trot her out in uniform and rake in the donations. Touria resented being used as bait. Taking advantage of her position as a board member – a position whose advantages it had been assumed she would never exercise – she went through the books and discovered that the donations she was inspiring were going straight into the pockets of the association’s board.
She played detective, poring over the accounts in the evenings. Then she asked to speak at the next general meeting, stood before a roomful of Casablanca society ladies, and detailed the crimes of the board, who responded with significantly more outrage than the general membership. Said one officer: “We’ll skin that bitch.”
And then, of course, there were the French. The police would pull over her car and make nebulous threats. In 1954, the Chaouis were living in a house on rue Bonaparte, and their movements were regularly observed, both by the authorities and by gangs of right-wing thugs. Neighbors reported suspicious activity when the family was out, and around noon one day two un-uniformed Frenchmen in a jeep stopped at the grocery across the street to ask when the Chaouis would be home. The threat was clear. A few hours later, the neighbors helped them move everything out of the house and into somebody’s garage. Monsieur Girardin, proprietor of the nearby Hotel Bonaparte, offered them a couple of rooms for the night.
Past midnight they were awakened by the blast. Girardin knocked at Abdelwahed and Zina’s door. Outside they moved through clouds of dust to where their home had been. When the dust had settled, nothing remained but an empty lot.
Underground contacts in Istiqlal, whose Islamic agenda even the exiled Sultan, an ally, was beginning to fear, found them a safe house for a few months in Madrid, and eighteen-year-old Touria drove them there through the night. Abdelwahed, who had bought the car, didn’t have a license himself. Driving made him nervous. Salah sat in the backseat watching the nape of his sister’s thin neck. She’d been having nightmares in the room they shared. She would wake him at night, murmuring disconnected words, then screaming. But now she just drove and drove, locked in on a low straight line as stars swarmed overhead. The hunters were chasing her now, but she couldn’t fall apart.
By 1955, the Chaouis had returned from Spain to a second-floor apartment at 32 rue de Bergerac. Several bombs went off in Casablanca every single day, and this had sapped the will of Paris to hold on to the Protectorate. The Sultan’s return to Rabat on November 16 was the first step in a series of negotiations that would lead to official independence on March 2 of the following year. These would be dangerous months, with panicked Moroccan-born French settlers using the last days of administrative protection to secure advantages and settle scores, and dozens of Moroccan political groups battling to obtain maximum power in the new government.
But on November 18, 1955, the country ignored threats of violence and dared to celebrate. That day, a single Cessna appeared in the sky, looping towards the royal palace, trailing behind it thousands of paper tracts that fluttered to the ground, words raining down on the coast again, words welcoming home the Sultan Mohamed Ben Yousef, who would soon be crowned King Mohamed V. Touria hadn’t been able to contain herself. The occasion demanded a bravura performance, and now she zoomed low to the palace roofs, gleefully flinging stacks of paper from the windows of her plane.
The next day her daring was again hailed in the papers. She was a symbol of Morocco’s bright future, of a freedom she felt in flight. But every time she felt that freedom, she became a more remote symbol, and symbols are like stars: they don’t breathe, but they die.
* * *
On the afternoon of March 1, 1956 the eve of Independence Day, Touria picked up Salah from school in the green Morris Minor. They stopped by the Institution Lalla Amina — an association for girls that Touria had founded herself after the run-in with the society set — where she congratulated the girls on their work and gave them the long weekend off to celebrate. A new era was beginning in Morocco, and they should be proud of what they had accomplished. Now everything was going to change, she knew.
That day she was also eager to get out to the airfield for a meeting with the pilot’s club. But was there more to it than that? Was there one pilot in particular?
First she swung by the apartment at 32 rue de Bergerac to drop off her brother. Celebrations were already kicking off in the streets, boys dropping firecrackers and scattering. Salah told her about the drawings he had made in class that day, and she listened intently, sure of his talent.
Stopping on the opposite side of rue de Bergerac, she kept the motor running and honked the horn. The family’s maid appeared up on their second-floor balcony. Touria stuck her head out the window and called up. Then Zina stepped out onto the balcony, looking down on her jubilant daughter. A Moroccan man with slicked-back hair stepped up to the driver’s-side window and neatly put two bullets through Touria’s brain.
Her head slumped to the window ledge. For a moment they assumed that the two pops had been firecrackers. The shooter fled up to the broad route de Médiouna and disappeared. Maybe a car had been waiting. Then Zina began to scream, the maid was screaming. Salah remembers the wood paneling of the green Morris Minor. He remembers the smell of leather.
* * *
Salah Chaoui was eleven when he saw his sister shot twice in the head at a spot just below the ear. Now he is seventy, living in Vichy, France, where he owns the Galerie l’Empreinte and paints skillful oils of Orientalist themes in pastel colors: hammams, medina gates, women washing clothes in sluggish rivers. There is one remarkably detailed view of Fez, with the Al-Qarawiyyin mosque piercing up through mist hanging over the city’s basin – remarkable because he doesn’t paint from photographs, but from memories of the country he hasn’t visited in fifteen years. The Morocco he paints doesn’t exist anymore.
Mist is a characteristic of Salah Chaoui’s latest work. “I leave something to the viewers’ imaginations,” he says. “I hope they see these images as something in a dream. The overall impression should be of mystery. After all, we are all living in a mystery.”
The mystery is exactly why I’ve come to visit him, and mystery, I realize by the end of my visit, may be the only refuge of a broken heart. His sister’s murder was never solved, and her name does not appear in most of the history books taught in Moroccan schools.
“There are people in Morocco who don’t like to be reminded that somebody like my sister could have existed,” he says. “Moroccan women won’t dare to be like her anymore.”
A gentleman, Salah dresses impeccably in jackets and silk cravats. Sitting at his desk at the gallery, he tells me about Touria, who has become the most powerful symbol in his life. He is patient with me, but when I ask about her life as a girl – her friends, her favorite movies or books – it is clear he finds the questions odd. Touria was not just a girl…He pauses to wave at a passing neighbor, turning up the corners of his mouth for a quick, toothy smile. Each time someone passes, the gesture is identical. The gallery is not much of a success.
Despite those persistent rumors that Ahmed Touil killed Touria over the mysterious French pilot, nobody can remember them even meeting, least of all Salah: “The idea of a romance with Touil is ridiculous,” he says, hands gripping his desk. Ever since that day he’s heard the same accusations. “If somebody wanted to marry her, he would have officially come to the house to ask my father for her hand. Touria never spent one night out of the house alone!”
I’m about to mention the white caps of Mont Blanc, but he stops me: Nobody would ever say such things about a man. What about those martyred Moroccan resistants with streets in every city named after them today? Nobody cares that some of them were notorious womanizers, but when it comes to the assassination of a brilliant young woman, people assume it was her own fault.
Touil always denied the murder, and another story published by a resistant suggests that the husband of one of those outraged Casablanca society ladies hired a hitman to please his wife.
Or was it the French? That makes more sense, Salah thinks. Two bullets to the head behind the wheel of a car – the same method that the Red Hand had used on other famous resistants. But the French were leaving the day after her death, and it was unprecedented for them to trust the job to a Moroccan shooter.
“She was a symbol,” Salah sighs. “Let’s say that the French were behind it. Let’s just simply say that was it.” We both fall silent.
Abdelwahed never found an answer either, or never told his son. A few months after Touria’s murder, Ahmed Touil was caught in an ambush beside a gas station near the Chaouis’ apartment, his car shot full of holes by the newly-formed Moroccan police. The police chief, assuming Touria’s killer was dead, made a call to Abdelwahed, who came around to see the body, and then went home. He was debilitated by Touria’s death and didn’t live much longer. “He was like an artist whose masterpiece had been destroyed,” says Salah, whose own masterpiece has yet to be painted. There’s a portrait of his sister that he’s been planning to do, of her in uniform in front of a flight panel, but he hasn’t gotten around to it yet. He’s not sure why.
Before I leave, I ask Salah if he’s seen “La Septième Porte,” and his anger gives way to joy. His sister starred and spoke perfect French, he tells me. Had I seen her and Georges Marchal, the French heartthrob, ride off on that horse? “The horse named Djinn,” I nod, because I don’t want to tell him that in the archives of the Cinémathèque Française I have discovered that there were two versions shot of the film, one French, one Arabic, and that the girl he believes was Touria was actually a French ballerina. Like Touria’s story, the Arabic version has disappeared.