Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Nous reviendrons, inch’Allah!

The airport in Marrakech looks like it was built by the Rajasthan PWD, but then you should never judge a city by its airport (or, speaking as a Bangalorean, by its lack of one). I have never quite been able to shake the habit of comparing new places to ones that I know well. I once exasperated a good friend by travelling halfway across the world to see him in Rio de Janeiro and exclaiming appreciatively, while we were driving through a leafy suburb: ‘Wow, this looks like Indiranagar!’ I am comforted by the thought that some of the best writers in the world have done this. (Virginia Woolf thought Athens – yes, the one in Greece – was like St. Ives in Cornwall. I suppose they both have the sea.)

Marrakech stopped looking like it was developed by the Rajasthan PWD as soon as we registered that the roads were actually very good and that they led into a cityscape, the likes of which we had never seen anywhere before. Not long after we had passed the old city’s high earth walls, we were deposited at the edge of a large square. From here, we had to walk to the hotel in which we were meant to be staying. Taxis do not venture into Marrakech’s old city or medina, but everything else does – mopeds, vans, donkey carts, bicycles, people with tiny fragile babies in cumbersome prams. This would seem unremarkable, except for the fact that the medina is an intricate warren of congested alleyways, the broadest of which are not more than ten feet wide. Opening off these are still narrower passageways, some vaulted, quieter except for the occasional two-wheeler, and lined with scores of anonymous doorways. It is impossible to guess what lies behind these. Some lead into decrepit interiors, old houses that have seen better days and have since been partitioned and sold off by inhabitants who can no longer afford to maintain them. Others conceal quiet oases of luxury – boutique hotels in old souped-up riads, their rooms grouped around courtyards with fruit trees and fountains, and furnished with the most exquisite artefacts sourced from Marrakech’s souks.

The medina’s alleys are its alveoli, teeming with life at all times of day and night. The closest I have come to anything like this is the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, but the Bazaar is a positively sedate, orderly and contained space in comparison. In Marrakech, the entire northern half of the medina is effectively one huge open-air bazaar. There is method in the chaos – the souks seem to be roughly divided into occupational zones: spices and olives, jewellery, textiles, leather, carpets, handicrafts and antiques, pottery, metalwork and everywhere slippers, slippers, slippers. But maps will only get you so far. This is the sort of place where a ball of string would be more helpful. Or children. They seemed to dart out of nowhere, knew instinctively what we were looking for and offered to lead the way. Many asked for money, and when it became apparent that they weren’t going to get much out of us asked, puzzlingly, for ‘un stylo’. These we happily dispensed, but what did they go off and do with them? Set up a thriving resale market in pens? Or doodle? The latter is an entirely likely possibility, for this is a city of designers that has survived into the twenty-first century on the strength of its artisanship. Browsing in the souks, you could be forgiven for thinking that the city’s commercial life was still regulated by medieval guilds. There is an unmistakeably pre-industrial flavour to the place, most starkly evident in the tanneries where the hides of goats, sheep, cattle and camels are soaked in pits of lime and softened with pigeon shit by men wading knee-deep in filthy, viscous liquids. The stench is so overwhelming that visitors are given pudina leaves to hold under their noses.

All roads in the medina seem to lead back to Jemaa El Fna – the square that is not quite a square, that is the throbbing heart of the medina, and indeed of Marrakech itself. The name roughly translates as ‘Assembly of the Dead’, referring to its one-time use as a venue for executions where the decapitated heads of unfortunate victims were mounted on spikes for all to see. Marrakchis display a sense of irony in retaining the name because the square is the setting for a sort of ritualised bedlam that takes place every day. By early evening, temporary shelters are erected and chairs and communal dining tables laid out. There is plenty of couscous and tagine and kebabs of many different varieties (if, like us, you find Moroccan food bland, ask for harissa), but the hungry can also feast on snails or scoop the brains out of a ram’s head (served complete with horns). Just beyond the food stalls, actors, musicians, snake charmers and acrobats entertain groups of goggle-eyed onlookers; a woman offers passers-by henna tattoos, brandishing a dirty syringe menacingly; two men lecture their audience on the workings of the human body using plaster of paris models with the outer layers helpfully cut away to reveal gory innards; Tuareg merchants sell aphrodisiacs and pills and potions for every imaginable ailment. Everyone in Jemaa El Fna seems to be in search of their fix, singing, dancing, cruising, fishing Coke bottles, smoking up, juggling, drinking tea, or just enjoying the end of another day in the company of friends. An hour after midnight, the square is empty again.

The southern medina contains many of the city’s most impressive monuments. The Royal Palace is closed to visitors, but we managed to see the 19th century Bahia Palace (a somewhat random series of oddly shaped pavilions and courtyards decorated in traditional Moroccan style). The nearby 16th century Badii Palace is a good deal more inspiring, even though very little remains of the original structure. Reputedly encrusted with gold from Timbuktu when it was first built, it was stripped bare less than a century later by a subsequent ruler, its riches used in the construction of a new capital at Meknès. Its spacious central courtyard features a massive central pool flanked by four sunken gardens. Today its only inhabitants are the storks nesting on its ramparts. We climbed up to the roof and were rewarded with a magnificent view of the surrounding areas. At this height, Marrakech is a city of storks. Considered sacred by many, the birds can be seen everywhere, tending to their enormous nests on rooftops and minarets and making proprietorial clattering sounds with their bills. Back on the ground, we soon found ourselves in the Mellah, the old Jewish quarter. Another unexpected boy-guide led us to a still functioning synagogue, excitedly pointing out Star of David tiles on the walls and proudly proclaiming himself a Muslim. Later in the souks, we bought a Hand of Fatima pendant with a six-pointed star engraved on it.

Everywhere we went, we were identified with relentless accuracy. ‘India-Pakistan?’, people would call out, as if referring to a troubled but essentially singular place. Or ‘Shahrukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan!’ Some would break into song and a few even attempted sales-pitch in Hindi. Every movie theatre displayed posters of Indian films, albeit a few years out of date. One restaurant discreetly changed its house music to play an entire CD of Kajol songs while we dined on – what else but - couscous and tagine. It was all very friendly, but I got the sense that they didn’t quite know how to place us. ‘Hindu-Muslim?’, some asked (again hyphenated, troubled). One man wanted to know the rupee-dirham exchange rate and promptly lost interest in me when I calculated that it would take 5 rupees to buy 1 dirham.

Because we were scrimping on the budget, we didn’t venture very far into the Atlas Mountains. That would have taken a four wheel drive and many more days. But even the short drive to Kasbah Telouet offered spectacular views from a highway that snaked in jagged hairpin bends through the foothills of the High Atlas. It was astonishing to be able to stand in hot, baking valleys of scrub vegetation and cactus and look at the snow-capped peaks not very far away, knowing that the great Sahara itself was only a few more hours beyond. The Kasbah (fortress) of Telouet is in such a state of disrepair that you would think it were a medieval structure. In fact, large parts of it were added in the late 19th and 20th centuries, but it has been allowed to go to seed because complicated inheritance laws mean that all members of the once fearsome Glaoui clan, who own it, would have to agree to any changes in its ownership and management. All that remains of what must once have been a magnificent structure is a central banquet hall with an ornate wrought iron window which affords breathtaking views of the valley below. We climbed to the top of the rambling structure to look at the storks nesting in its towers amidst emerald green glazed tiles on the surviving portions of the roof.

Perched on a hillock, the kasbah is separated from the tiny village of Telouet by a strip of vegetation that hugs the narrow trickle of a stream flowing through the valley. Bright green fields and gnarled white almond trees contrast strikingly with the earthy brown of a clutch of dirt poor mud huts. It is incredible how picturesque poverty can look and how ugly the concrete structures of the upwardly mobile in the village. In the dystopian novel that the scene conjured up for me, the Ministry of Tourism in some hellish neoliberal future dispatches emissaries to tear down the pucca buildings and rip out the electricity wires (except to the sole hotel in the region), so that wealthy tourists can continue to come here to gape at pre-modernity.

Our guide in Telouet was a man named Ali, who said he came from another village not very far away – one that might well not have been very different from the one we saw. Ali is Berber but looks uncannily like Thierry Henry and cuts a striking figure in the hobbit-like cloak that all Moroccan men wear. He insisted on speaking to us in English because he said he needed the practice. He struggled to find words on occasion, but thanks to his fluency in French, he would startle us every now and then by using a word like ‘anarchy’ or ‘dissension’ or ‘autarchic’. He seemed incredibly knowledgeable about the local history of the area and of Morocco more generally. He was able to tell us exactly what had happened at the Saudi-brokered talks between rival Palestinian factions that had taken place in Riyadh the previous day. When the conversation turned to Third World politics more generally, he reminded me that Tito had not been at the Afro-Asian summit at Bandung in 1955. He had read The Picture of Dorian Gray in French and when he mentioned Camus’s L’Étranger, I excitedly asked him if he knew Fanon’s Les Damnés de la Terre. This drew a blank, but, to be fair, it was probably the wrong book to bring up in an absolutist monarchy. Ali has never been outside Morocco. Not even to neighbouring Mauritania, to the border of which his brother regularly drives trucks to supply the Moroccan army fighting against Polisario.

At some point on the road west out of Marrakech, the buildings change from pink to blue and white, the air becomes cooler and the landscape more gentle and fertile. Our final destination was the pretty seaside town of Essaouira, sheltered by its castle-like ramparts from the Atlantic Ocean perpetually crashing on the rocks outside. Dinner at a fish stall on the beach was the undoubted gastronomic highlight of the entire trip. We chose our meal from the catch of the day laid out in a slithering, squelching mass of fish flesh – sea bass and jumbo prawns, lobsters, eels, shark and crabs, still moving.

Essaouria is an eclectic place. As with anywhere else in Morocco, Islam is everywhere, the architecture is Moorish, but the town has long been a favoured destination for beatniks and countercultural figures (Jimi Hendrix is said to have visited and Cat Stevens is a regular). There are hippies everywhere – local and foreign – sporting dreadlocks, smoking ganja, selling Rasta caps, bongo drums, Marley posters and reggae music. There is a sort of placidity with which all these incongruous influences seem to coexist. But this is true of Morocco itself. As the closest thing to Europe that is not Europe, the country has always occupied a special place in the Western exotic imagination. The French of course stayed to rule for more than half a century and, like imperialists everywhere, left behind hotchpotch, mishmash, multicultural melange. ‘Comment ça va?’ ‘Alhamdulillah.’ What else is there to say but ‘Nous reviendrons, inch’Allah!’

'the closest thing to europe that is not europe'--depending on definitions, of course, one might also say this about some of mine own haunts. Te souviens-tu de Kadikoy?

The star-of-david fatima's hands are also very common in Israel, I hear tell--also ones with Hebrew lettering. Have I ever mentioned that in NY, my khamsa means I'm often taken to be Jewish/Israeli?

I am charmed by the Kajol story, but it's Mr Ali I'd really like to meet. You should post him a copy of Fanon.

Oh lord, how I wish I could go to North Africa.

next year in Cairo, inshallah?
not an expert on this, but i'm not sure there has ever been any variety of the 'are we european or something else?' angst that you get in turkey, or indeed all the way up to baku on the caspian sea pre-1917 (more on that later). sure, the angst in turkey has been the preserve of certain geographical and/or class locations, but there is enough of it for the question to be asked of the country as a whole. morocco has some highly westernised areas (gueliz in marrakech, casablanca is architecturally all french art deco, and of course what used to be the international city of tangiers has always been something of a european playground). but all this notwithstanding, you don't find the sort of ambivalence about continental location in the national narrative that you get in turkey. (it helps that the entire country is located across the water on a different continental landmass, although i am realising as i write this that the annoying spanish protectorates mess up that neat little theory). ok i shall quit talking crap, this is your area anyway...

i might get ali into trouble by sending him revolutionary books. plus there are probably tons of copies being smuggled in from algeria, so it may be a case of coals to newcastle. or maybe it's not as absolutist as i think it is and the book's on shelves everywhere...

next year in cairo?! you sound like an exile when you talk like that.
Nice info and nice read !

Somehow I felt it is like India yet so different.
hopped over from Elizabeths :)
And *wow* you just made me want to pack my bags and visit Morocco now.
Does not help I have been obsessin about Fez and Marrakech for way to long now...too much wanderlust has got to be a bad thing.
welcome, cuckoo and szerelem! it's an incredible place ;) but i've said that about so many places now, that i've decided the world is just amazing. right, i'm getting cheesy and earnest, so enough gushing for now.
ah, I talk like an exile all the time, no? never satisfied with where my feet are planted.

re: Morocco and Turkey: I think the mechanics of colonial/imperial influence were so different as to make parallels weak, so you're probably right there. But then again, it says something that the Maghrebi elite speak French--a striking contrast to the Turkish example. Maybe the difference is that the Kemalists would insist that Turkish is a European language.

But then, I might now say that of Arabic, also.
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