Saturday, December 30, 2006

Morocco - Part 1


After the inevitable delays en route, the Menara airport at Morocco proved to be much less intimidating than Cairo was, exactly a year earlier. Then, we were faced by an inscrutable language barrier whenever people spoke with each other in Arabic, and a stern military presence, to be followed by who-blinks-first style negotiations with taxi-drivers outside. Now, we were greeted pleasantly by immigration officials, who nodded us through to where our friends Nachi, Meenakshi and Topu were waiting to pick us up, having arrived earlier in the day. The challenge of a complete lack of a common language – since most Moroccan’s don’t speak more than very fragmented English – seemed to vanish away in the cold night of Marrakech.

Before long we had left our luggage in the Riad and headed out for dinner, with the kind of insurmountable appetite one displays on holiday. The Djema El Fna at this late hour was quiet save dimming light of the shops and café’s lining the Djema and the couple of food stalls, serving rudimentary kebabs, salads and coffee, while we caught up excitedly about experiences since we last met. The chameleon-like nature of the Djema El Fna wasn’t to become clear to us till the next day…

Waking up the next morning in the Riad, was a slow and gradual process with oodles of time passing between wakefulness and any form of mobility, competing amongst the three of us for languor, till we were in danger of missing the mid-day sun. The many sounds of the Riad drifting and sifting through the windows reminded us of the world going about its business outside, like the man collecting old and used vessels who goes by with his plaintive cry and his wheelbarrow,. The Riad set inside the alleyways of the old city, is not unusual to old Indian “haveli”s or the ancient houses you will even today in many parts of India. With the difference that the Riad has been preserved as carefully and vividly as a treasured memory. Gracious to almost every detail and an army of people managing to be ubiquitous but invisible as they go about making your life as easy as possible. Gargantuan amounts of breakfast appear by magic wherever you decide to park yourself – be it in the sun on the terrace or under the covered awning out in the courtyard-gardens. The day in the Riad actually passes like one long breakfast. The floors and walls myriad corridors and staircases that seem to catacomb the Riad are ornately decorated with typically blue-green stones – which sharply offset the pink-red of the walls. Outside the Riad is the real world for many in Marakech – these alleyways and houses are their homes and neighbourhoods. The children who play football late into the night by the lamplight and who always have to pause their game for passers by, the numerous wheel barrows and the 2-wheelers, both motored and pedaled, which form the only forms of transport here, and the loitering men on almost every corner – all are an essential and inseparable part of the old city of Marrakech. The strangely alluring monotonicity of the walls as well as the sense of barrenness they convey – few windows, and high walls in alley after alley make the nights deeper, darker and more ancient.

During the day, through the same walls all over the Djema el Fna and the numerous Souks that lead off from them are splashed with a thousand shades of red and orange. The souks are crowded, bustling and seemingly caught in the perpetual motion of trading. Organized by type of product – you can make your way through the Leather souk, the spices souk, the wood work souk and a dozen that take some finding, the souks are as inviting to shoppers as they are to those just wishing to immerse themselves in the local flavour. As in any developing country, the number of people who appear to be just there, doing not a lot is very high. But somehow, everybody is involved. Everybody can become the face that you turn to for directions or for asking the price. Neighbouring shops may have the same owner, salesmen or you might find shops which are unattended – where the proprietor may have gone for a mid-afternoon siesta, or perhaps to have a neighbourly discussion with a friend down the in souk. You’ll never really know. Through the bamboo slats above, the sun streams in, striping everything in light and shade, adding to the mystery of the Souk. The carpet stalls draw you in eagerly. They tell you they are your friend. As soon as they discover you’re Indian, they reel off half a dozen movies, film stars and burst into Bollywood love songs. Trading is done with a nod to tradition. The man who makes crepes (or what we’ve grown up calling parathas in India) only starts at 4, no matter how hungry you might feel at 3.

When you’re tired of the clamour of the Souk, you step back into the sun at the Djema El Fna – all roads lead to the Djema. At every hour, the tone and nature of the Djema change… till suddenly, it’s a whole different place. At 4 in the afternoon, the snake charmers, and fortune tellers are still going strong. The flea markets, and trinket sellers are thinking about winding up and a little lull has set in after the frenetic activity at noon, where drums from the dancers compete with the pipes from the snake charmers and the acrobats perform outside the cafes. As the sun continues to dip, and darkness shrouds the place, by some miracle there are a hundred food stalls which have appeared and furious consumption of kebabs and tagines is the only activity in the Djema. Interspersed by the prayer times, when the sounds of the prayer ring out from the visible mosques behind the jema. The feeding will frenzy will continue till it all winds down again to the last two food stalls which will serve the late-nighters.

Through all of this, two things stand out quite dramatically, but don’t really present themselves to you upfront – you discover them as you spend more and more time here. The first is the complete lack of aggression. Through the bargaining at the souks, to the jostling in every alleyway, and from negotiating rates to negotiating your journey through the old town as cycles and scooters dodge in and out of pedestrian traffic at impossible speeds, there is a harmony and an acceptance which never rises to aggression or anger. Any angst is kept well controlled, and perhaps expressed in a rueful smile rather than a frown. Apologies come quickly – be it the shopkeeper who tells you how sorry he is that he cannot sell you the piece you want at the price you want it, or the drunkard to tells you how India and Africa share the same sadness. The other is the utter lack of advertising and hoardings. The only signs are at the shops, banks, tourist offices or other places of commerce. There are no advertising hoardings in Marrakech. Whether it’s planned or just another small reason why it continues to preserve its medieval aura – right down to the chamelions, parrots, monkeys and turtles – in cages, on chains or in shows, walking into the Al Medina in Marrakech is like stepping into a time machine.

20 minutes and a thousand years away, across the city lies Guelitz – where you might remember that this is after all the 21st century. Guelitz boasts of bars, Chinese food (best avoided) and even smoky night clubs replete with live performances and scantily clad women. This is a world so hard to reconcile with the old city of Marrakech that it’s not even worth the effort. But the Moroccan pop/rock band and the entire club could have had one entrance in Marakech and the other in a Soho alley in London or New York. But this is best appreciated as a counterpoint to the Marrakech that fascinates visitors.

In that other, old, Marrakech, food can be an exciting experience as well. The Le Foundouk, turned out to be a gastronomic tour de force. The walk needless to say required us to enlist local help to negotiate the labyrinthine alleys, but the wonderful food like my order of lamb tagine with almonds and prunes left a lingering memory long after the taste had gone.

When we finally said goodbye to Marrakech, it was with the same gentleness and hospitality. Loaded into a small minibus, which allowed us and our luggage plenty of breathing room, we had an easy journey to Essouira, stopping for yet another sumptuous meal at a roadside café.

Pictures here


Blogger Yasmeen said...

I also had deep impressions after I visited Morocco, and especially after Marrakech. I remember the focal point of Marrakech is the central square, the Jemaa-el-Fna, an extraordinary gathering place and the social center of the city that at dusk offers a scene little changed since medieval times. And towering over all this is the Koutoubia mosque, the tallest building in the city, and a reminder of the importance of Islam to the lives of the city's residents. After traveling to medina and to the labyrinths of Marrakech you will have indelible impressions in your memory. The bright carpets overhanging from the roofs of various Morocco property, the smell of spices in air and the voices of people in the market Djemaa el-Fna create its unique atmosphere. Marrakech is framed by red desert and time can’t influence on this city. The very name Marrakech conjures up images of an exotic, distant city, of hot desert winds blowing in from the Sahara, of magic carpets and snake charmers and of spices and perfumes brought in by camel trains.

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