Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Essential Morocco

By Paul Gerald

DECEMBER 7, 1998:  In many ways, Marrakech is the defining city of Morocco. It’s between mountains and desert, it’s Islamic and French, it’s fascinatingly old and conveniently new. It’s one of those places in the world that seemingly everybody wants to go to, and for anyone to miss it seems a shame.

Marrakech was founded about 900 years ago. In its heyday of the 12th century, it was the capital of an empire that stretched east to Libya, north to Spain, and south into the Sahara. In its palaces and mosques are marble from Italy and gold from Timbuktu.

Marrakech hasn’t been a capital since the French took over Morocco in 1912, but during their 45-year occupation they helped turn Marrakech from mysterious city of the desert into a major-league tourist destination. It’s the most-visited place in Morocco today, and little wonder.

I went there as part of the Memphis in May delegation to Morocco, which is the honored country of next year’s festival. By the time we got there, we were thankful – not just because it’s a beautiful place but because we had survived the drive from Fes. We went up and over the Middle Atlas mountains, and no matter how steep or how curvy the road, our bus driver kept right on passing people. It seems that a honk in Morocco is translated as, “Ready or not, here I come.” The only thing we came closer to than oncoming traffic was the pedestrians. My view of our driver’s activities went from entertained to terrified to not looking at all.

It’s a beautiful road, anyway. Grove after grove of olive trees is broken up by little villages with bustling markets and people in brightly colored outfits. Higher up in the hills, cedars loom, and panoramic views of mountains and deserts had us scrambling from one side of the bus to the other with our cameras.

We checked into the Hotel Es Saadi, which might just as well be in France, such is the luxury. Travelers from all over the world relax by its pool, drink in its fancy bar, stroll through its gardens, and dine in its restaurants. And it’s not even the nicest place in town; that honor goes to the Mamounia Hotel, built in 1923 beside a 32-acre garden that was laid out in the 16th century. Winston Churchill used to stay there for months at a time. We stayed for one meal, and all decided that the hotel was one of the nicer places we saw in the whole country.

A day in Marrakech starts with the chirping of birds, the sun coming through the palms, the clip-clop of horse carts, and the ting-a-ling of bicycles. People seem to always be out on the street in Marrakech.

You might tour the 800-year-old red walls that surround the city and are broken up by magnificent arched gateways of gold, bronze, and tile. Or you might go to the Majorelle Gardens, which were built in the 1920s by a French painter named Jacques Majorelle. He lived and painted there until he died in 1962, after which the gardens were abandoned, but several years ago they were restored by Yves Saint-Laurent. The gardens are filled with more plants than can be identified – bougainvillea, coconut, banana trees, bamboo, cactus, palms – and in the middle of it all is a museum housing Saint-Laurent’s vast collection of Islamic art.

As the day gets older, you head for the souks, or markets – especially the Memphis in May crowd, which included many inveterate shoppers. Walking through the souks is a dizzying experience, one that’s almost guaranteed to get you lost without a guide. You might start in leather goods, turn through shoes and slippers, wander through food into clothing and materials, stumble through pottery and metals, and find yourself at a carpet auction.

You’re guaranteed to bargain, which can be one of the more entertaining activities in Morocco. I got a hand-made leather bag in a Marrakech souk, but I lost my bargaining position because the group was leaving me behind. He said $300, I said $50, we went back and forth for a while, I said $100, he said “Okay,” and I said, “Uh oh.” If he agrees that quickly, you’ve been had. But I did get a nice leather bag for a hundred bucks. Later on I worked a man with a silver bracelet from $50 to about $15, and a man selling waterpipes tumbled from $90 to just under $20.

Emerging from the souks around dusk, you find yourself in the Place Djemaa el Fna, known to tourists as “the square.” If Marrakech is the heart of Morocco, the square is its heart of hearts. Carts selling fruits and nuts set up a perimeter, which is filled with thousands of people every night. They form themselves into circles around gymnasts, storytellers, dancers, men in drag, and snake charmers. Some of the dancers spotted us as Americans and yelled out, “Ah – Michael Jackson!” Then they broke into a funky beat on their drums and started moonwalking. This earned them a few bucks.

The storytellers would have some people so mesmerized that they squatted at their feet, with looks of terror in their eyes. What I would have given to have understood those stories. Acrobats might be stacked on top of each other, like a pyramid of cheerleaders. The snake charmers apparently perform their magic by creating so much noise with their flutes and drums that the snakes get disoriented and can’t settle on a target to strike at. I had to think, watching this show, that even with all the noise and confusion in our political system the snakes seem to be doing okay.

Over in one corner of the square, we came across the food section. I would break down the culinary options there into three categories: the sick (tripe, or cow stomach), the scary (goats’ heads), and the simply unidentifiable. We finally had to retreat to a terrace cafe for some mint tea and to take in the scene.

Sitting up there, with the sun setting and the prayer calls coming from the mosque and the square filled with its symphony of humanity, I had one of those moments that happen to you sometimes on the road. All the anticipation of a trip to Morocco, all the wondering and planning, drifted away, and I was simply in Morocco. I was carrying a leather bag I had bargained for in a souk, I was sipping mint tea, and I was looking out at a scene that, except for the electric lights and some advertising signs, had been going on every evening for hundreds of years.

Morocco might be many things to many people, but it all goes on right there in the square at Marrakech. And if you want to go to Morocco – a fascinating, colorful, ancient and yet modern country that everybody should go to once – Marrakech is where you need to be.

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