Easily seduced by the Marrakesh excess

Jeremy Atiyah, sampling a weekend break, falls under the spell of the teeming markets and the cool courtyards
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The Independent Travel
No catamite or movie star sex goddess has ever been more lusted after than Morocco. From Andre Gide to Yves Saint Laurent to Mick Jagger, this Orientalist's fantasy country right on our doorstep seems to have been specifically invented to satisfy European cravings for the exotic. Hooded figures in dark passageways, whiffs of hashish and sexy goings on in the casbah - with reality like this, who needs theme parks?

Not that I was going to fall for any such claptrap of course. In fact, by flying out to Marrakesh for a long weekend, I was hoping to break new ground: to see the updated Morocco, a fledgling democracy, a modern country on the fringe of the European Union, a smart winter resort.

As I stepped out of my hotel at dawn, what struck me more than anything though was the dazzling light and the hubbub of birds and insects singing at 7.30 on a February morning. I saw blossoming shrubs, green grass, and pink buildings. Pretty girls swished past in long gowns and the dawn traffic comprised bicycles and donkey carts. Palm trees spread out across the skyline. The air was faintly dusty; camels sat outside the city walls.

Strolling towards the town centre, I had the odd sensation of having come not merely to Morocco, but to the heart of Africa (perhaps arriving in Marrakesh is like arriving in the UK at the Outer Hebrides).

In search of the modern Morocco? Actually my first port of call, just south of the town centre, was the Mamounia Hotel, where Winston Churchill used to spend his early spring-times. This Orientalist's paradise, with cedarwood ceilings, grouped columns, ponds, fountains, and gardens of luminous grass dotted thickly with bushy olive trees, is the most alluring - and expensive - hotel in Morocco. The patches of light on the shaded lawn were a vaguely fetishistic arrangement, suggestive, perhaps, of catamites among the olive trees.

Whoops - caving in to the old-fashioned perspective already. Time had come to hire a real-live guide. It wouldn't take me long to find one: strolling past the Kotoubia, the great Almoravid tower that has marked the centre of this city for centuries, I encountered a stubbly youth complaining about the shocking unemployment figures. "And by the way, I am an unemployed guide," he added. "I show you the medina, ca va?"

Almost at once, I was ensnared with Mohammed in the the ancient labyrinthine town-centre, the medina. "I'm not buying anything you know," I kept shouting, above the cries of vendors and the clash of hammer on tin. Mohammed responded by showing me places that had nothing to do with my money, including the exquisite Merdrasa Ibn Youssef - fabulous stucco-work and carved wood - where hundreds of students once packed the tiny upstairs rooms in pursuit of Koranic wisdom.

We also dropped in on mediaeval looking hotels, with courtyards for donkeys and bare, doorless rooms containing seated Berbers inside, chewing breakfast. The stench of donkey manure intermingled with whiffs of honeysuckle and jasmine; the sun's rays slanted through dusty air onto pastel coloured walls.

But just as the Orient was really getting its claws into me, I found myself in a carpet shop. The first thing I saw here was a photo of Mick Jagger in a hooded jellaba standing beside the owner. "Mick hasn't been around for a couple of years now," said the fat old Berber regretfully. "He has some problems with his wife you know. But peut-etre you are interested ...?"

It began to dawn that Mohammed was, after all, expecting me to spend just a little money. Well, why not. My first purchase was a pair of soft leather pointy slippers, then a kilim in gaudy colours. I had no intention of buying the kilim, until a man with relaxed eyes and moustache began working the casbah magic on me (the mint tea, the secretive location and the hallucinatory carpet designs also played their customary role). "Well done," I congratulated him at the end, hysterically emptying my wallet. The salesman laughed modestly.

And I still wasn't through with Mohammed. Around the corner he brought me to a sprightly Berber pharmacist, who began showing me leaves for headache, seeds for indigestion and a woody root called mandrake of "sexual efficacy". I must have looked interested, because he immediately shook out a bundle for me. "You put in boiling water for two minutes, then add sugar," he explained. "Then you drink one cup and take your partner, finish. One hundred and fifty dirham please."

Later a concerned gentleman from the tourist board told me that while official guides - identifiable by brass sheriff's badges - help tourists to strike bargains, unofficial guides encourage tourists to overspend on things like fake aphrodisiacs. Like Mohammed, they also walk at great speed, dodging across open spaces, because if the police see them guiding a foreigner they will be jailed for 15 days. "Oh yes," sighed Mohammed, when the time had come to say goodbye. "I risk jail for you. You give me 200 dirhams?"

I was already in a dream, and more was to come. From late afternoon the great central space in the centre of the medina, Djemaa El Fna, slowly began to pack with thousands of people. Amid coiling smoke from myriad food stalls, a man surrounded by tame doves sat on the ground ululating to the sky. Black men began thumping drums and swirling pompoms on their hats. Snake charmers blew their relentless, reedy pipes. I saw gesticulating story-tellers, tattoo-artists, teeth-pullers, monkeys on leashes, jugglers, acrobats, dancers, clowns ...

Surely all this frenetic entertainment was being laid on for the pleasure of myself, the European tourist/orientalist?

Actually no. This nightly circus has been taking place for decades, even centuries. And the audience on the ground mainly comprises a lot of dark Moroccans, of either sex, in long gowns and pointed hoods. The foreign tourists with their video cameras and tele-zoom lenses tend to stick to the security of the upstairs terraces of cafes overlooking the square.

As darkness fell, the hot, pounding, clashing music grew more intense. Eyes of storytellers flashed over hurricane lamps, while massed groups of male listeners formed circles of illuminated faces. I kept moving, with my hands on my wallet, wondering what would happen - horreur! - if the blonde French teenagers in mini-skirts, just now walking past, should accidentally disappear into one of those circles and not come out again.

Just another fantasy, of course. By the next morning, the whole mad spectacle of Djemaa El Fna would be replaced by another champagne dawn over the desert city. And so it was.

Eager to pack in some sight-seeing on my remaining day, I hired a bicycle and set off into the pink streets of Marrakesh. Traffic, of which there was not much, ran even slower than me, especially the donkeys. Riding a bike was a great way to zip through the medina: I could do hit-and-run photography raids, confident of a quick getaway.

My goal though was to get down to the southern part of town, to visit the relics of the great sixteenth century Marrakshi, Ahmed El Mansour ("The Victorious") who in his day not only trounced the Portuguese, but also seized the caravan routes as far as Timbuktu.

I reached the Saadian tombs, where El Mansour was buried, before the tour groups did. The din of birdsong inside was almost deafening. The sun shone on brilliant green foliage, carved cedarwood, and faded pink plaster. A cemetery for a stern Islamic hero? In fact it was mighty hard not to see an Orientalist's pleasure garden in all this (after all, the tombs had been rediscovered and restored during the French Mandate).

Not far from here are the ruins of the El Badi Palace, where El Mansour kept his court. Today the whole massive edifice - stripped almost bare of its finery - sits silently under the snowy mountains of the High Atlas to the south. The central vaults are a sunken garden of fragrant orange trees. Oddly, the place is infested by giant, noisy cranes, whose huge twiggy nest structures balance precariously on the tops of crumbling walls.

As the afternoon turned hot I pedalled back to the medina. On an obscure backstreet in the Mellah, the old Jewish quarter of town, I visited the Maison Tiskiwin, a museum and restored home of a resident Dutchman in the medina. Behind a tiny wooden doorway lay a huge, cool interior of stairways and odd-shaped rooms around a central courtyard.

The courtyard was a perfect square, overlooked by ornate windows, plaster relief Arabesques, carved cedarwood eves and ceramic rooftiles. There was even a dark, handsome young man in a white turban seated on the marble floor painting Arabic calligraphy on scroll-paper. An Arab, in an Arab city, playing the role of decorational feature in a European's house?

The Dutchman himself, when I saw him, was dismissive about his creation. "Oh there are lots of houses like this here in the medina," he said. "This is what Marrakesh is like."

Really? As an irredeemable European on a weekend break, I could hardly know.

FACT FILE

Accommodation

The author stayed at the Hotel les Almoravides (Tel 04 440081) which is central with a pool, and inexpensive, at about pounds 25 to pounds 30 for a double room. Hotel La Mamounia (Tel: 04 448981) costs upwards of about pounds 150. There are plenty of very cheap hotels (pounds 10 or less) in the Djemaa El Fna area.

Getting there

The author flew to Marrakesh with Royal Air Maroc (Tel: 0171-439 4361). This involves flying via Casablanca (total journey time about five hours). Four non-stop flights weekly to Casablanca, with connections all over Morocco. Current return fare to Marrakesh pounds 344. Cheaper charters are also sometimes available.

Other information

Most passport-holders, including British, do not require visas to enter Morocco. Cadogan Guides Morocco by Barnaby Rogerson (pounds 14.99) is one of the best guide books, with a new edition out this year.

Main picture

The painting above is by Richard Tuff. Limited edition print versions (framed silk screens) available from CCA Galleries 0171-499 6701.

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