Marrakech: Morocco's Living Work of Art (Part 2)
Novinite is publishing the second of three articles about Morocco, where a group of journalists was invited to spend more than a week in November and get to know a country which is not far from Europe, looks fantastic on tourist billboards and draws millions of visitors every year, but Europeans don’t know about it as much as one would expect.
This second part takes us to the imperial city of Marrakech. None of the texts pretends to be a guidebook at all; it is just a traveller’s way to share a few thoughts. The first part, dedicated to Rabat, is available here.
When Winston Churchill visited Marrakech, a city he described as "simply the nicest place on Earth to spend an afternoon", he just needed a fine scenery to inspire him and help him paint several of his best-known watercolors.
In Marrakech, splendid as it is, a visitor realizes
people and not just urban landscapes are what makes up most of the cultural heritage.
Historic sites are impressive, needless to say; streets and buildings we are about to see will stick in our minds. Landmarks on our way point to a glorious past as we walk surrounded by kilometers-long adobe ramparts, bearing testimony to the two separate times in the course of a few centuries when this city was a capital. A number of gardens (Agal, Menara, and colorful Majorelle); the Bahia ("Brilliance") palace built in the 19th century and intended to be the quintessence of Islamic art; the Koutoubia mosque just off Djemaa el-Fnaa with a 77-meter tall minaret seen from a distance of 25 km...
Well-kempt gardens in the area of the medina, the historic part, are the first thing that strikes the eye in a city with such a semi-arid climate and dry summers, one located thousands of kilometers away from Middle Eastern desert areas where it is customary of oil-rich kingdoms to spend billions in providing the best conditions for their gardens. One wonders if, apart from everyday care, this colour of leaves ranging between moderate and lush green is due to the khettara, a centuries-old irrigation system developed by the Almohads, a Berber Muslim dynasty that took the rule in Morocco and made Marrakech its capital in the 12th century.
Menara gardens are a good example of Almohads' care to turn their newly-established capital (Marrakech assumed that role in 1947) as a pleasant place. The subsurface irrigation watering system they set up helped them use the natural reservoir of the snowy Atlas mountaintops located just some 30 km away.
This pond is the prime source of water for some 10 000 trees.
Inside a pavilion added to the pond by the Saadian (1554-1569) dynasty, an elderly man smiles to us, standing at the entrance to a hall, obviously posing for a picture but having no idea which camera to look at, and preparing to tell us the story of the place. “There are 10 000 trees around. Most of them are olives,” he says, and two or three more sentences follow. He smiles again. Is this “disappointing”? Can’t be – he is not our guide and we are not on a guided tour. When leaving, he opens his hand for a small change, grinning all the time. A vendor of words. People who answer to questions, people who show the way or offer a quick camel ride – for visitors Morocco is full of these restless vendors of tiny pleasures piling up coin by coin. Here, it doesn’t look like poverty or humiliation in itself; it is more of a peculiar extension to the economy.
Djemaa el-Fnaa, the heart of Marrakech and one of the most famous squares of Africa, is where we briefly stop on our way to the Koutoubia mosque. The moments of looking around here, around the place whose name loosely (and not quite certainly) translates as “Assembly of the Dead”, are a turning point in how I am looking at Morocco. In the mind of an amateur traveler who is also a beginner photographer and is sightseeing around (and is neither Churchill nor a painter), frustration is constantly building up, the more cities are left behind – pictures never look good enough to reveal the country's beauty. At the square, I am walking with the others and wondering if I should take pictures or just shamelessly stare at the passersby. I occasionally look through my lens, but often choose the latter option. We are sticking together all the time, in twos or threes, to make sure no-one loses the way. We later find out this is the best city to get lost.
This square is not just the most suitable place for a tour in Marrakech to begin. Inevitably its marketplace, frequented by city visitors and locals day and night, offers mountains of souvenirs – these make up a big share of Morocco’s handicraft industry which constitutes nearly a fifth of the gross domestic product.
Moroccan markets, however, are not used by tourists alone; they are part of everyday life.
Stalls with fruits and vegetables, with spices and nuts can be found on the main square, but also orange juice vendors: the word goes this is “the best orange juice in the world”. Spices counting as “exotic” in a European country are considered commonplace here and are much cheaper to buy.
Once used to punish offenders (a story goes suggesting this could have been where its name originated), it now has a busy downtown area on one end and Morocco’s largest Berber souk on the other. On the fringes, an unimaginable variety of goods is sold in addition to daily food items or pottery – a tall man is selling toys, and two people are trying to grab the attention of passersby, clutching a handful of smartphones each.
Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)has several scenes shot here. Visiting a famous restaurant an hour later, enjoying traditional dishes (everything being tasty, most impressive is the pastilla, a Moroccan pigeon pie) while a man is playing the oud, we see the sign indicating it was also part of the movie’s setting.
Several details from that restaurant which cannot be seen in the movie. Ornate tile decoration is something rulers of Morocco also passed on to Spain and, notably, Portugal.
Working out our way up and down the streets of Marrakech’s medina, carpets hanging from doors, windows or roofs are among sights no-one can miss. Motorcycles are also a common thing to see, and many drivers are female. We walk past Berber-language (Tamazight) signs, Berber carpet patterns, the city's name itself (supposedly meaning “Land of God” and signifying the entire Morocco in Farsi or Urdu) – Morocco is far from being “just one of the Arab countries”, with a Berber majority whose ancestors inhabited the country well before Arabs arrived. Tamazight language is official in the country’s constitution alongside Arabic.
Bahia Palace was a favourite place for both the local Pasha and Western rulers. Only several of the 150 rooms it has in total are open to the public, but this is enough to give a hint of what life at the place must have looked like just over a century ago, with lavish celebrations all around.
In some streets one good is more frequently sold than another - i.e. carpets - a recollection of the time when different sections of the souk were specialized in different goods - clothes, pottery or jewelry; some souks still concentrate on particular items such as copperware or “typical” tea sets.
Local versions of “drug-and-spice stores” are not uncommon here – just in case you don’t find something in the souk or don’t wish to negotiate your price.
Eyes are just beginning to adapt to the peculiar pinkish walls of Marrakech here when another colour appears to challenge the senses –
Jardin (“Gardens”) Majorelle, a place located not far from the Medina that we visit before our final return to Djemaa el-Fnaa square, was built in 1922 as a workshop of Jacques Majorelle, a 20th century French painter who lived in Marrakech's medina and who had a certain fondness for botany.
The distinctive blue he developed and used to paint the workshop's walls is a color he named after himself.
He personally travelled to find many of the rare plants that could be seen.
It was the iconic fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent who had a story with Jardin Majorelle decades after the painter’s death, when he and his partner Pierre Berg? decided to buy the place and thus foil plans of an entrepreneur to set up a hotel complex here.
Returning to the medina, we get a glimpse of modern Moroccan nightlife, with locals sitting at lavish cafeterias, tables set on wide streets with glowing ads all around. Just minutes away, inside the old walls, it is by no means less vivid; to the contrary. Smells of food have started to spread at the Djemaa el-Fnaa square. Sounds of zurna (a wind instrument popular in some North African places) and djembe emanate from different spots all around. Groups of people, about a dozen or two, have gathered in circles around musicians. Approach them, raise your camera and one of the people who until now looked like viewers stands up, waving his finger. Pictures randomly shot by onlookers are not welcome.
Meters from Djemaa el-Fnaa, the process of urban transformation from "modern" into "old" is gradual, but distinctly visible.
Storytellers can also be found around, as guidebooks suggest. We see none - one has to be either a local or an Arabic or Berber speaker to guess. I don’t feel discouraged by this – most of the time I keep contemplating the place which has turned into the city’s biggest improvised “melting pot” for tourists and locals. The activity of local musicians, dancers and performers is far from being just a business; it became an inspiration to UNESCO’s Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity project in the 2001 – one that strives to preserve local traditions. Thanks to Marrakech, the UN’s cultural body now has a project seeking to preserve not just the way a historic site looks, but also the distinct way of life of people, any country’s greatest asset. This is why Marrakech is not just a splendid gallery of buildings;
it is a living work of art; but also the place where you have to get lost in the night and keep walking.
Narrow souk streets off the square are busy even as midnight approaches.
A charming moment when you are trying to find your way out of the medina comes when you ask someone, they start to give directions only to join you for a walk down the street they are pointing at. Some ask for money; others I have met elsewhere offer goods. The more time you spend there, however, you realize it is always easy to find your way here – whatever you do, you always reach the Square in the end.
Towards the end of our visit to this city, there is some room for regret that we will miss the Marrakech International Film Festival in December, an event of growing prominence and worldwide recognition. But
much more important things happened in Marrakech, some maybe in the streets we walked.
No list is needed, but it is worth noting it was here that Abu I-Walid Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Rushd, known to Europeans as the great Andalusian physician and thinker Averroes, spent the better part of his life in the 12th century.
In the Middle Ages of Europe and the years of political divisions in North Africa and the Middle East, he was among the most vocal defenders of an idea that neither Islam nor as a matter of fact Christianity truly embraced at the time: that women are equal to men. With Marrakech still having the spark and becoming even more popular in the age of globalization, attracting wealth but also cultural energy, we shouldn't wonder if another Averroes appears here or chooses it as a place to live.
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