Surprising Marrakech (2010)

The latest round of discussions – talks, conversations, negotiations – in the UNFCCC are being held in Marrakech this month. But the US election result – summed up in pictures of voters waving banners with “Trump digs coal” – has undermined the hopes for any further breakthrough in global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We live in ever warmer times, hoping that they don’t get any hotter.

Six years ago we went on a memorable trip to Marrakech. Some highlights are noted in the following.

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The first surprises of our trip to Marrakech were at the airport on arrival. There were long queues at the immigration control desks and the officials took their time to thoroughly examine and correct the forms we had to submit with our passports. Being allowed to enter Morocco – even as tourists – was obviously not something to be taken for granted. Then, after watching the baggage delivery belts until all the other passengers had picked up their suitcases and rucksacks and departed, we reluctantly approached the service office in order to complete another set of forms required to trace our lost bag…

Finally we stepped out into the North African night for a short ride in a taxi to a guest house (one of many such “riads” in Marrakech), in an alley within walking distance of the central square. A couple of hours later we returned to the airport to collect our bag which had turned up on another flight. The city streets were still quite crowded after dark and the air was heavy with the smells and sounds of an unfamiliar world.

We have visited North Africa several times before (Egypt in 1981 and 2001,Tunisia in 1987…) and have also lived in West Africa for two years (1996-97), so the contrasts ought not to have been so surprising. But the first couple of days in Marrakech were overwhelming. Le monde des berbères et des arabes n’est pas du tout comme chez nous, we realized, in the shadow of the Atlas Mountains not far from the Sahara! The city buzzes with people of all appearances; everybody bustling and babbling in a variety of tongues. Arabic and French are the official languages, but many people also speak English and Spanish in order to do business with the tourists, and the indigenous language is a berber dialect called Tashelhit. As our (French) host told us on the first morning of our stay while he pointed out some key landmarks visible from a rooftop vantage point, the fundamental driving force in the city is commerce, for which communication is essential.

So money makes Marrakech go round, as we soon discovered on our wanderings through the “souks” (markets). After initial uncertainties we gradually adjusted to the haggling mode and ended up with a number of beautiful purchases: jewelry, teapots, glasses and trays. The culmination of our bargaining efforts was at a hole-in-the-wall carpet seller’s business. Aged around 90, Mohammed Ben Ali has been dealing in hand-woven rugs for at least 45 years and we learnt that he has even haggled with David Beckham (although he couldn’t find the photographic evidence from his vast collection…). We bought a rug accompanied with lots of toothless smiles, after bargaining and bantering for an hour or so.

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The tourist industry has become the real driving force for the economy in this region of Morocco; low cost airlines, abundant cheap accommodation and advantageous exchange rates enable armies of travelers and charter holidaymakers to make the most of Marrakech and its fantastic surroundings. But the city seems to be large enough to absorb the influx of tourists who mingle with the large crowds of locals, notably in the central square called the Djemaa el Fna. This is an extraordinary sight, a huge open plaza packed with all manner of weird and wonderful happenings, involving snake charmers, monkeys and henna painters during the day and snack sellers, singers and drummers at night. Apparently it has been the locus of trade and story-telling for over one thousand years, a place where desert caravans meet coastal merchants. Although tourists are taking over the best seats in the cafés around the Djemaa el Fna, there is still plenty of room for colourful Marrakech families to stroll around enjoying the spectacle.

The diversity of clothing styles could be appreciated while sipping mint tea at the terrace cafés. Many locals wear long robes, but there are also young people dressed in jeans and sneakers. Most of the women wear headscarves, often elaborately styled. Some women are veiled below their eyes and a few are covered with black robes from head to foot. Wealth and status are also critical in determining the choice of garb.

Islam is in the air in Marrakech, but apart from the dress codes and the calls to prayer from the loudspeakers of the city’s mosques, the most obvious manifestation of the religious traditions is in the decorative arts of the various palaces and houses. We explored the gardens and courtyards of the Dar Said and the Bahia Palace as well as the Saadian tombs and the Marrakech museum. Probably the most impressive wooden carvings and patterns on the tiled ceilings are found at the beautiful Ali Ben Youssef Medersa, a Koranic school founded in the 14th century.

In the mythology of the Koran and of 1001 nights, gardens are likened to paradise. The pathways and fountains as well as the carefully arranged rows of orange trees and fragrant bushes around the houses and palaces of rich Marrakech rulers and merchants, bear witness to the desire to create spaces for contemplation and areas of tranquility. But the most extravagant example of gardening artistry in the city is found in la nouvelle ville, the modern district of Marrakech built by the French settlers from the early 20th century. The fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent lived in the city in the 1960s and donated a garden created by a landscape painter called Jacques Majorelle as a token of gratitude. Bamboo, palm trees and huge cacti burst from the borders of footpaths decorated with brightly painted pots, while water lilies float across ponds stocked with goldfish and turtles. Bringing Marrakech right up to date, there is also a “cyberpark” with wireless access for visitors sitting on the benches by the flowerbeds and bushy avenues.

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For several days we joined thousands of tourists admiring the gardens and struggling through the narrow streets of the “medina” (city centre). By the middle of increasingly hot afternoons, the sweaty, dusty alleys became unpleasantly crowded, with donkey carts, cyclists and motorbike riders forcing their way through the hubbub. At this time of day the rooftops of the “riads” revealed their multiple attractions. The most surprising contrast in Marrakech is the difference between the chaotic, noisy streets and peaceful, sunny “roofscapes.” We spent several afternoons sunbathing and relaxing on couches, largely oblivious to the confusion and bustle a couple of stories and a few meters below us. At rooftop level the city’s many storks are also easily visible, drifting lazily above their curious, scruffy nests perched on walls and parapets.

Gazing at the towers of the mosques at sundown, there was time to reflect on the many diverging impressions of a dynamic and highly entertaining city, in a country where economic, social and religious forces appear to be pulling people in many different directions. It is striking that stereotyped images of monolithic Islamic repression and fanaticism – so common amongst northern Europeans frightened by Muslim minorities – prove to be inconsequential, indeed ridiculous, in the face-to-face encounter with North African diversity. Tolerance of tourists may be largely due to the income opportunities arising from our presence, but there is also a tangible sense of openness to outside influences in the ancient crossroads between the desert and the ocean. Vive le Maroc entre ses traditions et modernité!

And our bags were sent to Frankfurt instead of Copenhagen on the way home, turning up two days late…

 

 

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