Wednesday, May 28, 2008

from Marrakech: on your toes and looking beyond

You have to pay attention. You can’t neglect anything – not cars, not mules, not cycles, not closing hours, not the source of directions deliberately leading you to someone’s shop, not open doors that look like they should lead you to the Sultan tombs, but in fact lead you to the mosque, the forbidden mosque where non-Muslims may not go.

Non! Non! Non! The little boys outside shout at me as I push the great big door further. Mosquée, mosquée!. I understand and yet I don’t understand. Where am I?

An older man comes up. This is a mosque, he tells me in clear and definitive French. What are you looking for? The tombs… Ah. Walk there, around the corner. But first, come visit my spice store. Artisanal.

They all know to throw in that word, that magic word, that word that makes foreigners rush to open wallets and fork over vast sums of money.

We set out this morning to visit the Sultan palace. We neglected to consider that it may be closed at lunch time. Palace closed. Come see Jewish synagogue with me. No, that was yesterday’s plan. Besides, there are a million guides in Marrakech. Faux guides, they’re called. For a coin, they will show you anything.

We pass the time in a government supported artisanal (yes, artisanal) craft store. It’s huge and it has everything, but especially furniture. Beautiful large mirrors, chairs, armoires, inlaid tables, massive birds and animals made of stone, silver, wood. And carpets. No no, no carpets, no blankets.

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That was last year. This year, think small. A small vase. A very small bowl. I’m looking for Lilliputian items. Small is good.

And finally, it is time for the tombs, the palace – all are open. Sultans from the 16th century. Living in splendor, dying in splendor.

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Except the splendid living did not last. Ostentatious display of wealth breeds jealousy and leads to war. The palace was ransacked and pilfered shortly after it was completed. And this is what remains, a place for storks to nest:

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But really, Marrakech is more about people and their simpler spaces, rather than monuments. I have already noted though, that it’s hard to take photos. Vendors can be bought with a coin or captured with a telephoto. Sometimes. But street scenes are a challenge. Crowds are rarely a good place to take interesting pictures. They move fast and there is always clutter in your frame. And still, the color in the clothing, the tight adherence to a spectrum of traditions – it pulls me like a magnet.

From the crowds, I got this much (yes, they're hooves; no, I do not know if he's buying or selling):

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But if you can strip away the crowds, take away the scooters, the cars and donkeys, in other words, wipe out the everyday madness of this very typical street scene:

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…you arrive at the tones that, to me, are the splendid Marrakech. The one that Churchill called the most beautiful spot in the world:

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Oftentimes this city is impossibly polluted by the old vehicles that plow through the streets and sidewalks (yes, sidewalks). And sometimes, it is a place of smoky grilled foods. The square in the evening offers that: the smoke rises from a hundred (or so) stalls as a sort of invitation to eat, to be part of the open kitchen.

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Spices. No one can argue that Morocco is spice cetral. Les épices, come in, authentic!

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Sometimes Marrakech is all roses and orange blossoms. The soaps, the oils are full of these and passing a store will put you right there, in an intensely fragrant garden.

Roses are everywhere in the riad. Petals in a fountain, small bouquets and large in public and private spaces.

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And they are on tables in restaurants. Petals scattered over tablecloths. Rich burgundy, creamy pink. Marrakech colors.

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We eat dinner by a pool of water. Candles add enough light for eating, but aren’t good enough for photography, so I (mostly) ignore the camera and concentrate on the food. And there is a lot of food. Plates of savory vegetables fill the table before the meal begins. And as on nights before, the flavors are intense. Eggplant, pumpkin, cucumber, chickpeas, nuts, olives, beets. Spiced, mashed, pickled, puffed, pureed.

I order a sea food couscous for a main course. After, we are given two bowls of couscous, side by side, to compare – the Berber dark grains from the Atlas Mountains and the traditional light grains. Both smothered with vegetables – the Berber with cabbage, the traditional with carrots, squashes and potatoes. And for dessert, I choose couscous with honey and yogurt and melon.

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The walk back to the riad takes us to the square, where the eating and enticing (eat here, come watch, come listen, buy a Henna tattoo, have your tooth pulled!) is winding down.

Our retreat through the back allies is already a quiet one. No scooters, no people.

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We round corners and see cats move from one discarded piece of food to another. And now we are by the great big riad door. We ring the bell and someone scurries to let us in. We are inside. The door shuts behind us. The day is done.