Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Marrakesh, Morocco

During the 11th century, somewhere in the Sahara, a confederation of Berber tribes called the Sanhaja decided the peoples around them needed to be more Islamic, and began a series of wars to spread their puritanical beliefs. First they subjugated some lands south of the Sahara, then turned northward to smash the minor potentates which dominated Morocco before heading into Spain. And it was this group, known to history as the Almoravids, who built a brand new city for their capital: Marrakesh, lying on the plains across the Atlas from the Sahara in southern Morocco, a red jewel in the middle of a yellowish landscape alive with tradition and modernity intertwined in a variety of different ways.

Like almost every other Moroccan city, Marrakesh boasts both a Ville Nouvelle and a medina, though here they resemble each other more than usual as the French continued to build with the off-pink mud used in the medina and the medina itself has far more open spaces than those further north. Most of the medieval architecture dates not from the Almoravids, but rather from their successors the Almohads, Berbers from the High Atlas who decided that Almoravid religious conservatism didn't go far enough and took their place after only a few decades. Thus the walls of the city are in the same squat functional style as of Fez, as in both cities the Almohads destroyed the original fortifications and rebuilt them only when they became convinced the population wouldn't rebel.

Marrakesh also resembles Fez in that both cities thrive off tourism. I read somewhere that 40% of the officially employed workforce in those two cities depends on tourism, a percentage which is also probably high in Agadir. This includes many of the suq merchants whose goods are purchased mainly as souvenirs, hotel, restaurant and cafe personnel, the drivers of the green horse-drawn carriages which supplement the Marrakesh taxi service, and many others I'm probably not thinking of. This also explains why the potential for terrorism in Morocco became the object of such strong government action - a threat to tourism is a threat to the nation's entire economy. Finally, it makes it almost impossible to escape from the famous "tourist track" to find the "real Morocco," which I am coming to believe is a little like trying to find the "real Madison" away from the University of Wisconsin - you can find places in Madison where the university matters little, but its influence is too great to ignore in discussing the city as a whole.

The main thing tourists come to see in Marrakesh is the great square known as the Djemaa al-Fna, surrounded by reddish-pink buildings which change shade as the day progresses, and the home to one of the greatest spectacles in the world today. Here throughout the day there are dozens of stands where you can buy fresh-squeezed orange juice for about 25 cents, as well as the water sellers dressed in fancy red outfits and bells and female henna artists sitting on the ground with their equipment. Some of this caters specifically to tourists, but as the afternoon wanes the action picks up dramatically. Between 5 and 6 in the evening dozens of food stands appear in the midst of the orange juice stalls, on the day I was there a sudden downpour of rain did not interrupt the proceedings. Here you can buy the full array of Moroccan cooking and then some, from the obvious couscous to various tajines, which are combinations of meat and vegetables grilled slowly in a conical ceramic container, salads, and really weird stuff like sheep heads. Later in the evening, there is also hunja, a Moroccan tea so spicy hot that after finishing my small cup I immediately sought a glass of orange juice lest my mouth be consumed by fire.

In addition to all of these there are snake charmers, street musicians, and a small army of storytellers which draw an entirely local crowd since the tourists generally don't understand Moroccan Arabic. These performances last well into the night, and those who tire of participating can take a seat at one of the many terrace cafes with a panoramic view of the entire scene, and contemplate the red minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque at the far end of a street leading from the Djemaa al-Fna, as well as notice off in the distance the pretty lights of airplanes landing at the Marrakesh airport. Unfortunately, part of the square was under construction, so street-level views were obscured.

Marrakesh has many other treats beyond the square, however. Impressive gardens are scattered throughout the city, though I didn't have time to take them in. In the Ville Nouvelle you can sit in a cafe and watch the streetlife as people take their taxis and carriages around or eat in one of the nice restaurants serving international rather than just Moroccan cuisine. There are also several nice museums located in historic buildings. One of these housed several art exhibits, including a bunch of 19th century pottery from Fez and the works of a Moroccan painter named Hassan Kouhen, whose style seemed to my untrained eye to include both abstract impressionism and cubism.

It was the other museum, however, the Museum of Moroccan Arts, that I found most interesting. The exhibits here began with samples of wood from different areas of the country, and included minbars from mosques, door frames, pottery and jewelry from all over the country, and some more paintings in modern styles. Captions were available in both French and Arabic. I originally thought I would be able to understand almost everything from my knowledge of the two languages; however, I quickly discovered a flaw in this plan: The explanations were often different.

For example, in discussing a particular musical style, the French caption talked about how it was derived from Greek forms, while the Arabic explained it as going back to the Abbasid court at Baghdad. Both of these could be true - the people at the Abbasid court could have developed it from Greek forms, but the targeted cultural bias of the information presented is an interested insight into the way the tourist industry operates. I once read an article about how tour guides in Israel change what they highlight and the style of their presentation based on the group they are guiding. The Museum of Moroccan Art in Marrakesh seems to unabashedly post written evidence of such a practice as Arab and European tourists wander through having the information presented in a context which affirms their own culture's past.

This suggests an important point: That though Marrakesh may be a city that attracts both Arabs and Westerners, the two groups experience it very differently. In their hotel choice, the Westerners are far more likely than Arabs to opt for one of the more expensive hotels in the Ville Nouvelle. In the square, the Arabs will go see the storytellers and other performers, while the Westerners find the exotic snake charmers and get painted with henna. And in the suqs, the Westerners - perhaps intimidated by the practice of bargaining and enchanted with the very concept of a suq - will buy something like a miniature tajine (the name of the dish in which tajines are cooked, kind of like "casserole" in English) which for the Arab would be as if I were to buy a miniature BBQ grill to represent American culture while charmed with the idea of a shopping mall.

Still, all tourists are welcome in Morocco, and not just for their money. Despite the hustlers in some cities and the constant attention you get as a member of the richest group around, there's still plenty of genuine hospitality from people who are proud of their country, and often their individual city. People on the bus or train will encourage you to travel, and often talk about the glories and excitement of places you haven't been. And when you're there, for every person out to cheat you, there's also the food stand guy who, when you hand him a 100-dirham bill you need to break to pay your 25-dirham bill, will immediately pocket it and begin praising your "tip" to the guys at the next stand over before surrendering to your panicked expression and bursting out laughing. (Retrospective hint - he did the praising in English.) Later that evening, there was even a gnawa fusion concert attended mainly by Moroccans but also a small number of Americans, and a group of girls from Essaouira invited me to go to a nightclub with their group afterward, but I had to catch an early morning bus (to Essaouria, actually). Stuff like that only comes from liking the people around you across the divides of culture and cultural expectation, and makes some connections possible even in well-touristed and busy Marrakesh.

UPDATE: Edited for syntax. In retrospect, I'm wondering just how late it was that I didn't go to the nightclub. The bus was pretty early, but my ongoing complaint on this leg of the trip was not getting to know people, and here some were inviting me out. Of course since I spent so much of my stay in Essaouira asleep (see above) maybe I was just out of gas.


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