Marrakesh

July 1, 2007 at 4:20 pm Leave a comment

William (a.k.a. Ali Baba) seems to be viewed as a rock star here.  Everywhere we walk, people call out to him (Ali Baba, Ali Baba) smiling.  He returns their enthusiasm and their affection, clearly feeling quite comfortable in the remarkable, stunning, singular environment of the old city of Marrakesh.

 

If Casablanca was a white city, this one is clearly the red city.  Instead of white buildings, even the new high rise hotels, old city and new, are painted red/pink.  Casablanca seemed little different than any other European or Middle Eastern city I had visited.  I have never seen anything like Marrakesh.

 

I asked Ian to describe the scene for me as we left one of the suqs, and realized it would hardly be believable.  I get what all those Orientalist travelers were about—it isn’t difficult to portray this place as completely different, as everything non-Europe.

 

Of course, it isn’t.  The residents of Marrakesh eat and sleep and shop and have families and pray and work.  But they do it in such style!

 

Jama al-Fna is the center of the old city.  It seemed a pretty calm place when we arrived in the afternoon for coffee.  It’s only a few meters from the place we’re staying, an old house converted to a 12-room bed-and-breakfast.  To get to the square, we had to dodge bicycles, motorbikes and donkey carts.  (Ian jumped aside for an oncoming fez-wearing man on a motorcycle; I remarked on the young covered- “veiled”- woman roaring down the street on hers.)  At four, the square hosted half dozen orange-juice sellers (fresh juice is 3 dirhems; a dollar is 8 dirhems). 

 

When we returned around 8 pm, the square had been transformed.  It was jammed with tourists and locals.  (William commented that we had seen more tourists here in the few blocks from the train to the hotel than we had in three days in Casablanca.)  We walked through rows of tables and lines of food-purveyors that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere.  (I have to watch this process!)  We were greeted at each invisible line dividing one establishment from the next, each host inviting us to sit at his table.  Men sold snail soup from large pots, fried fish, grilled meat, couscous combinations, cooked sheep heads.  The smells were as overwhelming as the crowds.  At each table, it seemed, men came to greet William, grinning, urged him to eat at the closest booth, grabbing his hand, demanding his friendship.  It’s probably no more than they would have offered anyone else equally interested—and William quite obviously loves this place and these people.

 

Away from the tables, women offered to henna our hands, to tell our fortunes.  Men sold herbs for a variety of uses.  Beggars set themselves up among all the others on stools and blankets around the square.  Groups formed around men who told stories, did acrobatic feats, played music; when the performance ended, another circle formed around another performer.  But a snake charmer?  The naked little boy of the Said cover (Orientalism) was, thankfully, not part of the scene.  But if one is looking for the mysterious east of the old Orientalist travelers, Marrakesh seems to be the place to find it. 

 

For our young geographer Katie, Jama al-Fna is a wonderful example of the potential use of public space, more varied than a Prague beer garden, more extensive than an American street festival.  She grinned, reminded me that she is energized by this kind of public event, and began speculating about how late she might be able to stay awake tomorrow night.

  

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Jewish museum, French Casablanca Gardens and Squares

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