Tuesday, May 27, 2008

from Marrakech: darting and swaying

Throw back the shutters, see the sun playing with puffy clouds.

Eat a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and yogurt and set out.

You need stamina. Not so much for the long walks, but to move with haste to avoid the scooters. One honk, that’s all the warning you get. I push us out of harm’s way, right into the waiting vendors who seize the moment and beg you to buy. German? French? Fish and chips? (The latter must be a short cut for British.) Best price!

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At first, the endless market, snaking in all directions, far far grander in size than the market of Istanbul, seemed nothing more than a blur of rich color. Yes, there are the Moroccan slippers and leather goods and silver platters. The cloths, the spices, the old tea pots. Now, though, I’m seeing favorites. Not just slippers, but lemon slippers with pointed toes. I focus on those. I don’t buy them, but I like to pick them out each time I pass a slipper store. Look! There is another, even nicer version of my lemon slippers!

We are strolling and admiring and avoiding scooters and saying endless no’s to the hopeful sellers and this continues for a long long time, except this time we have a destination. Not many historically significant buildings are open to non-Muslims here. Not the mosques, or places of religious meaning. But one is and it is a gem: the Mendersa Ben Youssef. An old building (16th century), with all the detail and curved entryways and tile work we have come to associate with Moorish and North African art and architecture.

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It was once a religious school and there are cells where scholars worked and it all gives you pause about the demands of scholarship in the past.

The Mendersa was nearly empty, or at least very quiet and in Marrakech I have come to expect this: chaos outside and tranquility within.

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Did I say chaos? In wandering back, we stumbled on a food market, where buyers were picking out the best mint leaves and melons and potatoes. I’m sort of a student of fresh air food markets. I visit quite a number of them and I like most of them and I have never found two that were alike. This one had goods spread on low crates and on the ground and so buyers stooped low to pick what they wanted.

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And what stands out? One child so beautifully curved over the arch of his mother’s back as she reached for food.

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And just at the edge of the market, the clay pots that I have come to appreciate at each dinner in Morocco.

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Rest. We need a riad moment on the roof. Chaos followed by rest followed by more chaos. So goes the pattern of each day.

Our riad hosts bring us cheeses and salads and refreshing beverages and afterwards, invite us to sample an apple cake and mint tea, the drink of choice in Morocco.

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That’s good enough. The sky is still a mix of clouds and sun, the afternoon melts seamlessly into early evening. We set out again. We are looking for the Jewish neighborhood and we never find it. The chaos of the alleys and shops is nothing compared to the chaos out on the streets and at one point I tell my daughter that I cannot endanger her life anymore, so we head back. This was the nontourist Marrakech, where children dart between speeding vehicles and old men and women sell small quantities of insignificant things to no one. It is an achingly poor Marrakech. Robust and crowded, but straining.

It’s not many times that I turn back and give in, but this time, it was inevitable. We did pass the crumbling walls of the palace where indeed, as described in literature on the city, storks nest and look at the world from their strategic vantage points and assess it all.

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And now it is evening and in the vast Medina square, cooks and vendors are just beginning to set up their nocturnal operations. Food stalls crop up and smoke rises as cooks dish out grilled meats from animals whose heads are positioned there for you to admire.

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At the side, snake charmers play their flutes and story tellers tell their tales and I haven’t many coins again so I keep the camera at bay. Most of the time.

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And now it is night. Monday night. Many restaurants close today, but our riad hosts suggest one which will welcome us, just down the alley. I accept the reservation but am curious about this place and since it is nearby, I suggest that we take a peek. Maybe study the menu some?

We can’t find it. Alley boys are eager to help. Anything for a coin and I am willing to part with my last one but I know they wont find it either because it is one of those Marrakech things – it is secret.

We ask at the riad hosts how to get to the mystery place and they tell us to go out on the end of the alley and look for a man with a yellow robe and red hat. He will lead us to it.

And sure enough, there is a man and he is dressed just so and he escorts us this way and that until we come to a wooden door.

Suddenly, we are inside a room with many candles and the tables are low again and the cushions are in abundance and we notice that the building has no roof, or at least has only half a roof so that it is half courtyard too. At the side, a musician sings the continuous song of Morocco, swaying to the moan and warble of his own voice, while somewhere in the dim light a beautiful woman, leans against the wall and thinks her own remote thoughts. A mystical scene of deep rich colors, a canvas, a sensual moment of music and spices.

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Our own server tells us that the cook cooks what he pleases and what’s fresh that day and we should come to expect a wonderful meal. Dishes come, one after another and we don’t know whether there will be another or how many are still in the making. Vegetable plates and tajine pots of chicken and lamb and more aromatic vegetables and spiced stewed peaches at the end.

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The candles burn down and I am in danger of drifting off to the music of the Moroccan singer and so we lift ourselves from the soft cushions and our yellow cloaked man leads us back to the riad where the wooden door is opened for us and shut behind us and I tumble into the huge bed and drift off.

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