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1940’s Morocco: World War Two 1940’s Morocco: World War Two

If there was one decade I was looking forward to writing about it was this one. I’m sorry I missed it last week but I wanted to do it justice and just didn’t have the time.  The decade that Morocco entered the minds of most Americans was the 1940’s.  It’s surprising to be me when I meet older Americans that they know exactly where Morocco is and can tell me things about it.  If I meet someone between oh say fifteen and fifty they have a VERY limited concept of the country.  Of course this isn’t everyone but a generalization.  To most Americans Morocco = the infamous movie Casablanca set in the 1940’s in a fictional Moroccan cafe.

Now for a bit of history through this decade.

Moroccan King Mohamed 5

During the 1940’s Morocco was under control of France and from 1940-1944 the Vichy government aligned with Nazi Germany. King Mohamed V (seen above) remained the ceremonial head of state and did whatever he could in his power to protect all of the citizens of Morocco.  At this time Morocco had more Jewish citizens than  any other Muslim majority country, totaling over 300,000.  The Vichy/Nazis government had demanded from the sultan a list of all of the Jews in the country and his response was, “We have no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccan citizens.

An excerpt from “Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach Into Arab Lands” by Robert Satloff reveals the kings attempts to keep all of Morocco’s citizens, and especially the Jewish citizens safe;

When French authorities ordered a census of all Jewish-owned property in the country, the Jewish leadership feared this was the precursor to a general confiscation. Secretly, the sultan arranged for a group of prominent Jews to sneak into the palace, hidden in a covered wagon so he could meet them away from the prying eyes of the French. According to one of those present, he promised the Jews that he would protect them and assured them that the census was not the first step in a plan to seize their goods and property. (After the Anglo-American invasion of Morocco, the sultan arranged for the destruction of the census documents.)

As important as these private statements were, public statements the sultan made on behalf on his Jewish subjects burnished his reputation even more. At the annual Throne Day ceremony, with the elite of Moroccan and Vichy officialdom gathered at the royal palace, the sultan made a point of welcoming the leaders of the Jewish community in attendance. “I must inform you that, just as in the past, the Israelites will remain under my protection,” he said in a voice loud enough for Vichy officers and at least one French journalist to get the message. “I refuse to make any distinction between my subjects.”

There is a great series of photos and background information on the Jewish population of Morocco from Vincent Elkaim – really worth a look. King Mohamed V could only do so much because to some degree he was in place at the mercy of the French controllers.  Measures did pass that restricted Jewish citizens and deported some to work camps in the Sahara.  All Moroccans were mitigated in some way during this time and seen as second class citizens (in their own country!)

By 1942 the American and British forces were preparing to launch the North African campaign.  Their first foray into the region was Operation Torch.  This was also the Americans first battle in World War Two.  The plan was to land forces in Morocco via Casablanca and Algeria to cut off the Germans that had been chased across Libya towards Tunisia by the British 8th Army. After eliminating the Germans from North Africa it would open up the Mediterranean for further invasions in coming months without having to worry about German forces.

If you like visuals here is a good video detailing what Operation Torch was about. Ultimately the Americans and British won, giving Germany her first defeat in the Second World War.  This also opened up Morocco, creating the atmosphere it was best known for during WWII.  In 1943 the Casablanca Conference brought together allied leaders to strategize for the coming battles.  There was a reception held when Churchill and Roosevelt came to Casablanca to meet (ahead of the conference). Information about the meeting got to Hitler but due to a translation issue he assumed they were meeting at the White House (Casablanca translated from Spanish = white house).  After the diplomatic business was complete Churchill wanted to show Roosevelt the beauty of the Atlas mountains and the famous visit to the legendary Mamounia Hotel in Marrakech took place.  This image was shot during that trip.

Roosevelt and Churchill in Morocco

Churchill was a gifted artist who came back many times to Marrakech to paint the landscape that has captivated so many.

As the WWII drew to a close Morocco remained a protectorate of France, however President Roosevelt before his death had confided in King Mohamed V to pursue independence for the Kingdom.  The next decade however would be anything but smooth.

I imagine food during this time to be rationed like much of the world.  Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find much to validate this opinion however with shipping tied up and most of the world under a crunch for resources there is reason to suggest Morocco would be no different.  In her book about harem life in the 1940’s Fatima Mernissi mentions pastilla (or b’stila) – in the pigeon version she states;

“at once a pastry and a meal, pastilla is sweet and salty, made of pigeon meat and nuts, sugar and cinnamon. Oh! Pastilla crunches when you munch on it, and you have to eat it with delicate gestures, no rushing please or else you get sugar and cinnamon all over your face. Pastilla takes days to prepare because it is made of layers of sheer, almost transparent crust, stuffed with roasted and slightly crushed almonds, along with a lot of surprises.”

Suffice to say I’ve never made or eaten the pigeon version.  If you have access to pigeons who have a healthy diet and not one of soggy french fries I encourage you to swap out the chicken for pigeon in this recipe!

Chicken B'stila


  • Filling
  • 2T veg oil (I use olive)
  • 1 onion finely chopped
  • 3-4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
  • ¼ C minced fresh flat leaf parsley
  • 2 T minced fresh cilantro (I use a bit more)
  • ¼ t ground turmeric
  • 8 threads saffron, crushed
  • 1 C water
  • 1 t ground ginger
  • 1¼ t ground cinnamon
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 t salt
  • ½ t pepper
  • ⅔ C powdered sugar
  • Almond mixture
  • ½ C whole blanched almonds (I used split almonds)
  • ½ C powdered sugar
  • 1 t ground cinnamon
  •  12 sheets phyllo dough, thawed
  •  1 C (2 sticks) butter, melted (I completely skip this and used spray butter stuff)
  • ground cinnamon and powdered sugar for garnish


  • Filling
  • In a large saucepan over med heat, heat the oil. Saute’ onion until golden (6-8 min). Add chicken, parsley, cilantro, turmeric, saffron, water, ginger, & cinnamon. Cover & cook until the chicken is tender (20-25 min).
  • Transfer chicken to a bowl or plate and set aside to cool. Let the sauce continue to simmer in the pan and add the beaten eggs, salt, pepper, & sugar. Stir constantly until the eggs are scrambled. Shred the chicken & add it to the egg mixture. Set aside.
  • Almond mixture
  • In a blender or food processor, coarsely grind the almonds and mix w/ sugar & cinnamon. Set aside.
  • Putting everything together
  • Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
  • Remove 12 sheets of phyllo from the pkg and re wrap the remaining phyllo in its original wrap. Refrigerate for future use.
  • Stack the 12 sheets on a work surface and cover w/ a damp towel. Spray a little butter on a pizza pan or baking sheet.
  • Layer 3 sheets of phyllo, lightly spraying each layer w/ butter.
  • Sprinkle the 3rd sheet evenly w/ ½ of the almond mixture. Layer & butter 3 more sheets. Spread the chicken mixture evenly over the top, leaving a 1½” border of phyllo.
  • Fold over the edges to partially cover the chicken mixture. Layer & butter 3 more sheets over the chicken, sprinkling the remaining almond mixture evenly over the top.
  • Layer & butter the last 3 sheets of phyllo over the almond mixture. Tuck the edges of the last 6 sheets under the b’stilla as you would a bed sheet (at this point, I take another baking sheet and place it on top, then flip it over & seal the last 6 sheets of phyllo from bottom to top)
  •  Bake the b’stila until golden brown (20-25 min).
  • Place the powdered sugar in a fine-meshed sieve. Tap the sides of the sieve to cover the surface of the b’stilla lightly and; evenly w/ sugar.
  • Using thumb & forefinger, sprinkle ground cinnamon over the top (most people make patterns, I just lightly dust it). Serve immediately, before pastry becomes soggy.

If you’ve missed the other posts in this series please stop by and visit the 1910’s, 1920’s and 1930’s 

A Century of Moroccan Eating: The 1940's

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  • Manuela Jenkins

    November 23, 2014 #1 Author

    My father was a World War II veteran and he was stationed in Morocco . Anybody that has any info about this time in history ,please contact me. My dad died 2 years ago and mentioned this country but never spoke much about it 1943-1944


  • Jan Sanderson

    September 24, 2014 #2 Author

    My dad is 95, WW11 landed in Morocco and was there for 2 years…you would love talking to him! Talks about a tribe or people he stayed with Goomes? They protected him……He was in Casa Blanca….was there when the President and Generals were there…


  • Russ Geoffrey

    December 11, 2012 #3 Author

    Has anyone an idea where the photo of Churchill and FDR can be purchased? Thanks


  • Liz

    April 28, 2012 #5 Author

    WAaaaaay back in the day I tried bstilla! I was so proud of myself since it was my first foray into serious cooking. Let’s just say my skills were not up to par and while it tasted good was absolutely nothing like bstilla but more like quiche! :) lol! Now that you left a recipe I may consider trying again. It really is the warka (dough) that makes it so hard, but also so delicious! I made seffah last night with great success so I’m beginning to gain some confidence again in my skills. Oh and loved the history lesson – always interesting and entertaining!


    • marocmama

      April 30, 2012 #6 Author

      Go with a good phyllo dough and it should be much easier. Also there is a Turkish dough called yufka that is closer to oarqa in my opinion, it’s sometimes hard to find but worth it if you can. The egg part of the bstila just keep the heat low, and enough juice in the chicken so that it mixes and doesn’t all firm up.


  • Sara

    April 27, 2012 #7 Author

    Wonderful article and very informative! I was lucky enough to try Pigeon b’stilla at La Mamounia – delicious….but I will stick to making the chicken version at home.


    • marocmama

      April 27, 2012 #8 Author

      So glad you enjoyed! I agree the chicken version is more up my alley too.


  • Dan

    April 27, 2012 #9 Author

    Great research, I’ve been looking forward to each instalment of this series.

    The b’stilla/pastilla is one of the dishes I made in a Mediterranean cooking class several years ago. The filling was fun to make, but the phyllo.. argh! The chef had a neat way of folding the phyllo where only a small amount of each phyllo square was in the bottom of the pan so it folded over the top of the pie as well. I wish I had a picture. (I’ll send you a drawing or something else separately when I remember).

    Re: pigeon – would you believe I had it in England, smoked pigeon prepared by a Moroccan chef in a little seaside town close to London. It was good.


    • marocmama

      April 27, 2012 #10 Author

      Smoked pigeon huh? Well now there’s something I have never considered! I love how much insight you offer with these things (and thanks for the emails!)


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