From November 28 through December 2, 2012, a 70-member delegation of Moroccan diplomats, academics, musicians, artists and journalists visited Honolulu for the signing of a sister state agreement between the State of Hawai‘i and Morocco’s Greater Region of Rabat-Sale-Zenmour-Zaer. Designed to open doors to long-term collaborations in education, culture, tourism, environment and business, the agreement was commemorated with a weeklong series of Moroccan cultural, educational and economic events in Honolulu. These included a handicraft exhibition; a Forum on the Advancement of Women’s Rights, Major Political Reforms and Economic Modernization in Morocco; and the inauguration of a traditional fountain gifted by the Moroccan government to the Hawai‘i State Art Museum. On December 1, Shangri La hosted a special evening reception for members of the delegation, who were surprised and delighted to encounter many fine examples of Moroccan visual culture embedded throughout the historic house.
Indeed, Shangri La has deep connections to Morocco—and to Rabat in particular. In May 1937, Doris Duke and her husband James Cromwell traveled to Morocco, then a French Protectorate, where they visited Marrakesh, Rabat, Fedala (now Muhammadia) and most likely Tangiers. There, they viewed the traditional Moroccan crafts of zellij tilework, carved and painted wood ceilings, carved and turned wood screens (mashrabiyya), colored-glass windows (chemmassiat), and carved plasterwork. Thousands of miles away, the construction of Shangri La was already well underway.
Their time in Morocco must have left quite an impression on the couple. Before returning to the U.S., they traveled to Antibes, where they met René Martin, proprietor of the Rabat-based firm S.A.L.A.M. René Martin. From Martin, they commissioned custom-made architectural features for the foyer, living room, central courtyard, and James Cromwell’s bedroom (known as the Moroccan Room). These features included painted and carved ceilings, a fireplace mantel, tall doors, a headboard, stucco friezes and spandrels, balustrades, wood screens, colored-glass windows, and turquoise green roof tiles of the type used in the Great Mosque in Paris. The work was carried out by Moroccan craftsmen—specialists in wood and stucco—based in Rabat and Fez. The commissioned work arrived in Honolulu in September 1938, and was installed in December 1938, just in time for the Cromwells to move in.
During the December 1 event, two Moroccan television networks filmed interviews with Shangri La’s executive director Deborah Pope in the foyer and living room, giving Moroccan television audiences a chance to enjoy the beauty of Shangri La’s holdings in situ.
The weeklong series of events uncovered more connections between Hawaiian and Moroccan cultures. “Amazing similarities,” said Hakim Ouansafi, the festival event chairman, who was born and raised in Morocco but has lived in Hawai‘i for 15 years. “In Morocco, they call it ‘salam.’ And if you truly translate it, it is aloha. It is the sense of family, all-togetherness.” Just as Hawai‘i is the gateway to the Asia-Pacific region, Morocco is a bridge to Europe, Africa and the Arab world. When Doris Duke originally conceived Shangri La as a synthesis of Islamic and Hawaiian architectural styles and cultural influences, little did she know that 76 years later the State of Hawai‘i and Morocco would envision and eventually forge a similar cultural exchange.