Marrakesh: Morocco's Fabled City
Wickers, Kate, Contemporary Review
THE battle between old and young in a city such as Marrakesh will never be fair. After all, Marrakesh, inspite of a population of just over one million people, is rather like an old but very interesting Great Aunt, who likes to think of herself as modern but gives the game away by asking if you're 'courting' and reeking of eau de cologne. And we all know that underneath her new apparel she's wearing stockings she's had since the forties. And it is this, the city's unfailing authenticity, which has always appealed to the most discerning of travellers from Marlene Dietrich to Alfred Hitchcock, from George Orwell to Charles de Gaulle and indeed Winston Churchill. As always, as winter settles in over Western Europe and especially in Britain many people's dreams will turn toward Morocco's fabled city.
It was devastating to learn in April 2011 that a terrorist bomb had blown apart the well-known and much-frequented Argana Cafe that overlooked Djemaa-el-Fna, the city's main square and most popular tourist spot, deemed a 'Masterpiece of World Heritage' by Unesco in 2001. I've sat on its terrace more than once to enjoy a syrupy Turkish coffee and drink in the panoramic view of bustling Moroccan life. It was a sanctuary, a perch away from the hustle and bustle below, where the waiters were unfailingly friendly and the coffee always good.
The Argana Cafe's beautiful terrace was reduced to a mangled wreckage. Sixteen people lost their lives, among them Peter Moss, a British travel writer. Morocco, a country that was already struggling to recover from the effects of the global downturn, was devastated as its major source of revenue, the tourist trade, began a downward spiral. Within days beautiful works of art were respectfully placed on the tarpaulin that screened the wreckage and the orange juice sellers returned to squeeze their fruit as they had always done in front of Cafe Argana. But the square was eerily bereft of foreign visitors and business was slow.
Ironically there's probably nowhere safer to visit than a city in the wake of an attack such as this with heightened security and an increased police presence. The British Government gives no travel restrictions for Morocco and merely warns of a general threat of terrorism, similar to advice given for visiting the UK. Gradually foreign visitors began to return and the local people were grateful to see them. No more so than in the souqs of the Medina, named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1985.
'Come inside. Only for looking', the shopkeepers assure the tourists with enormous toothless grins as they stroll by their shops, many not much bigger than a kitchen pantry. Don't be put off by the persistent patter. It's all good fun and the Moroccan people enjoy a good joke. My retort of 'Hello Moroccan Cous-cous' to the greeting of 'Hello English Fish and Chips' got a roar of laughter from the market traders in the perfume-sellers' souq and a sizeable discount on a bottle of apricot oil. The perfume sellers rarely wait for potential customers to stop and show interest in their wares but daub passers-by with imitations of famous scents.
Marrakesh has for centuries been synonymous with trade. From 1062, when Youssef ben Tachfine first saw its potential as a trading post, through invasions and colonisations by a succession of Berbers, Almohads, Saadians, and most recently until 1956, French, it has never lost its trading traditions. And still today its souqs remain the historical and cultural heart of the city and the confusing labyrinths of narrow alleyways, jam-packed with tiny shops, are the best place to get an introduction to life in Marrakesh and its charmingly hospitable people.
It's a joy to get lost. In fact I recommend it. There are maps of the souq but why spend your time trying to decipher them? Give in to curiosity instead. Take a look around that corner. Follow that intriguing click-clack noise and you can watch a carpet being woven on an ancient loom and laugh at the stray kitten that jumps up hoping to catch the loose threads.
One of my favourite souqs is the souq des bahouches, or slipper souq, where you can see hundreds of varieties and colours of the traditional pointy-toed slipper - embroidered, pom-pomed, tassled, toe-curled or embossed. There's a vast array of tourist kitsch - toy camels, African bongos, Manchester United football strips - and it's easy to get carried away and end up lugging home a suitcase full of tourist kitsch. As one tired looking middle-aged Englishman was desperately trying to explain to his wife, who was holding up a purple-spangled belly dancer's outfit. His advice fell on deaf ears and she bought it anyway, perhaps with a new career in mind.
But it's in the more unusual souqs ~ just a meander away from the well-beaten tourist track - where things get interesting. In souq sebbaghine, the dyers' souq, you could watch as reams of wool were dipped into vats of crimson dye and then hung out to flap dry against a backdrop of clear blue sky. In the noisy souq hadadine, the blacksmiths' souq, candlesticks and fire-guards are beaten into interesting designs, while old bicycles are given a new life in the form of lanterns. Follow your nose to where the smell of freshly whittled sandalwood fills the air and, as quick as lightning, a young artisan fashions perfect oval beads from chunks of this soft fragrant wood.
And of course there is the famous criee herbere, carpet souq, where you could easily while away a morning sipping mint tea with the garrulous shopkeepers, and come away with a carpet and a better understanding of where the phrase 'spinning a yarn' might have originated. But I always think it's in the produce markets where the real action takes place, where bundles of dried herbs, olives the size of plums, sticky dates, and wobbly white cheeses are gossiped over by the local women.
It's not just the women who like to chatter with friends. Marrakesh has a thriving cafe culture and in its oldest cafes you'll find an all-male clientele, who recline on straw mats, smoke chicas (water pipes) and drink mint tea or strong sweet syrupy coffee. As one American female tourist was heard to exclaim, 'Gee, where does a girl go to getta a cup of coffee round here'. Even in this, the most liberal of Islamic countries, a woman's profile remains low. But for foreign females it's worth brazening it out to experience such an integral part of Moroccan life and I was politely tolerated as I sipped my mint tea and listened to the bubble of the chicas and animated tittle tattle.
For another authentic experience a visit to a public hammam, a steam bath, is for the brave-hearted, especially if you book in for a massage. Pummelled to within an inch of my life and my skin sloughed raw isn't my idea of a good day out so I stuck to the steam room of Bain d'Or, admiring the stuccoed detail illuminated by the sunlight filtering through the domed roof. For romantics a private rose petal bath a deux at Les Bains de Marrakesh comes with a heftier price tag but a lot more privacy.
One of Marrakesh's most devoted fans spent months trying to capture its warmth and light with his paintbrush. Winston Churchill, who first visited Morocco in 1935. loved the variety of subjects that the country offered and after his great friend, the painter Sir John La very recommended a visit he was to return time and again. He always resided at La Mamounia, the city's most famous and luxurious hotel, named after its gardens, which Churchill, gazing from the terrace, once called, 'the most lovely spot in the whole world'. After the Casablanca Conference in 1943 Churchill insisted that Franklin D. Roosevelt 'could not come all this way without seeing Marrakesh. Let us spend two days there. I must be with you when you see the sunset on the snows of the Atlas Mountains'. During this memorable visit Churchill painted the only picture he did during the War and presented it to the President. Enthralled by the city, Churchill returned frequently to paint the city scenes such as the Koutoubia Tower, the city's iconic Moorish minaret, and the Atlas Mountains. He was captivated by the exotic desert landscape, the richness of colour and the quality of light. One such view of Marrakesh painted in sandy pinks and vibrant ochre, given by Churchill to US President Harry Truman in 1951, sold at Sotheby's for [pounds sterling]468,000 in 2007 another for over half a million in 2008. The city is positively Chameleon-like in its ability to change colour. 1 passed Bab Agnactu, the most beautiful of the twenty gates in the city walls, several times during my stay and the Gueliz stone was a surprisingly different shade each time ranging from bluish green to orangey gold.
I spruced myself up and headed to La Mamounia for a cocktail. In Le Bar Morocain I sipped a martini and watched the sunset over the Atlas Mountains, sympathising with Churchill's quest for the perfect hue of pink or yellow with which to capture this fleeting moment. I didn't stay for dinner, however, preferring instead to return to Djemaa-el-Fna and to those who where trying to rebuild their business. Of course couscous is de rigueur in Marrakesh of which there are many options such beef braised with spices and onions or chicken with sweet prunes and it really doesn't taste any better in opulent surroundings. I was pleased to see many tourists instead choosing to sit on plastic-stools at one of the many bustling food-stalls in the square. If the local delicacy of stewed sheep's head (yes, complete with eyeballs), doesn't appeal try one of the many delicious vegetarian options - beetroot and potato salad, followed by cous-cous sept legumes.
The storytelling continues into the night in Djemaa el-Fna, where toothless old men manage to enthral crowds with tall tales told in Arabic. Storytellers rub shoulders with snake charmers and belly dancers, and tattooists. who don't wait to be commissioned but sneak up on passers-by and paint designs in henna on any available flesh. Then there are the raucous musicians who beat heavily on their drums, whipping their dancers and acrobats and very often the audience into frenzy with their syncopated beat. You have to be on the ball or be prepared to take part in the circus.
In the Palais de la Bahia I couldn't decide whether to gaze up or down. From the dazzling tiled floors to the stucco roof decoration, created by the most skilled artisans over a period of 14 years in the late 1800s, this complex of 150 rooms is stunning. They were masters at optical illusion just using paint and inlay and I discovered surfaces that looked intricately carved but were in fact flat and small courtyards that were tardis-like due to their clever interior decoration.
In a city that overloads your senses from dawn until dusk it's wonderful to escape to one of its many gardens and the best way to get to them is by local taxi of donkey and cart. The Menara Gardens, with its nineteenth century pavilion reflected in a large pool, is set amidst olive groves. With many an opportunity for secret trysts it's where young Marrakeshis meet to flirt and gossip. And in the Agdal Gardens an unkempt wild meadow with lime, fig, orange and pomegranate trees is a wonderfully cool oasis to wander through. There's an enormous fishpond at one end where locals gather to feed the gigantic greedy carp that thrust out of the water for crusts of bread. Jardin Majorette is probably the most visited, which was opened as a public garden by the painter Jacques Majorelle in 1949, who was also a great collector of rare plants. Churchill met the painter in 1947 and much impressed by his work he persuaded the La Mamounia's management to commission Majorelle to paint a mural, which can still be seen on the ceiling of the hotel's lobby.
Yves Saint Laurent bought Jardin Majorelle in 1980, opening a Museum of Islamic Arts in the cobalt blue Art Deco villa to house his private collection of textiles, ceramics, carpets, jewellery and paintings by Jaques Majorelle. In 1994 Laurent gave the garden back to city he loved. Its not exactly a restful place, more uplifting, with its almost fluorescent yellow plant pots and blue buildings. The flowerbeds are a riot too filled with an eclectic range of flora, from bamboo thickets to large spiky cacti and if there wasn't colour enough there is vivid pink bougainvillea in abundance.
It's just a short stroll from Jardin Majorelle to the hub of Ville Nouvelle. It is chic and immensely hip, there's no doubt. After all, with the likes of Brad and Angelina moving in by the donkey-cart load, it's no wonder that there are more designer boutiques, fashionable nightclubs and top-notch restaurants than an old Marrakeshi could shake a stick at. The young men sport designer trainers and chatter into mobile phones, and the young Moroccan girls favour high heels and jeans rather than the long kaftans still worn by their mothers and grandmothers.
In the Spanish Quarter I was pleased to come across some stunning Art Deco houses yet to be developed, and the Theatre Royal (twenty-six years in the making and still evolving) is an architectural delight, for the incredible Egyptian-style papyrus pillars alone. Worthy of a browse are the swish galleries and boutiques around the Rue de Liberie, owned by local designers and artists. This area is also a good place to engage in a spot of beautiful-people watching. But gorgeous as these bright young things are for a real sight for sore eyes you'll have to head back to the medina - because AH Ben Youssef Medersa is simply stunning. Once home to the Quranic School its immense cloisters are adorned with complex geometric ceramic tiles and decorated with moulds of honeycomb stucco. You can wander through the tiny monastic rooms, once dormitories for the students, which overlook the courtyard. Despite the throng of tourists the school retains its original air of quiet, studious contemplation and is a wonderful place just to pause awhile and admire the skill of the Moroccan artisans.
Back on the bustling narrow streets head for Dar Bellarj, once a hospital for storks but now a lovingly restored Had and Marrakesh's number one venue for contemporary art exhibitions. Here you'll find many modern twists on textiles, calligraphy and ceramics, testament to the desire of new artists to keep traditional art alive but fresh. Thrown in with the admission price is as much mint tea as you can drink so pause and sit at one of the brass tables in the lovely courtyard. In the Ville Nouvelle internet cafes and trendy clubs will continue to open and close and fashions will come and go, but old Marrakesh's essential charm and antiquity will remain constant and win over anything that its modern metropolis might hope to create.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Marrakesh: Morocco's Fabled City. Contributors: Wickers, Kate - Author. Magazine title: Contemporary Review. Volume: 293. Issue: 1703 Publication date: December 2011. Page number: 493+. © 1999 Contemporary Review Company Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.
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