From the jagged, ocean-shaped cliffs towering over the Atlantic Ocean to the sand-swept Saharan border town of M’Hamid, where a body of water, no matter how small, might not be seen for days, Morocco’s landscape is as diverse as the people who call it home.
We arrived in Marrakech in late 2013, refreshed from a 2-day stay in Paris. The November sun poured from the sky, lighting the tan brown medina walls and the ant-like people hurriedly going about their day. Immediately, one’s senses are bombarded with noise, scents and colours of every shade. I felt uncomfortable, out of place, somehow lost despite the map in my hand.
Several steps away was a door adorned in gold. This would be our refuge. “Bonjour, hello” the proprietor says as we cross from chaos to serenity in two further steps. We were inside the Riad les Orangers d’Alilia Marrakech. The plastered walls were painted a soothing white, a small pool, surrounded by orange trees which reached to the sky above as a sort of celebration of peace and tranquility. Intricate locally-crafted lamps gently showed the way to breakfast: a delectable selection of jams and other preserves, fruits and freshly baked breads. Narrow circular stone stairs led invitingly to our room, a rose-petal covered bed and our home for the following four days.
Quickly, we learned that wherever we travelled in Morocco, our riad (a traditional Moroccan house or palace with interior courtyard) was going to be our escape from the sensual assault we were going to endure over the course of the next three weeks.
My initial level of discomfort, my lost feeling, all stemmed from a lack of understanding of Moroccan culture. After a few days, it became apparent that life here does not move as quickly as the hustle and bustle would suggest. Jemaa el-Fna is a prime example of this.
Jemaa el-Fna is a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity where, at any given moment, thousands of locals and international tourists alike scurry around to get here, or there, to find fresh oranges, dates or nuts, to find the cheapest cous cous or buy the obligatory keychain for friends and family back home. The L-shaped ‘square’, Marrakech’s main square, is surrounded by restaurants of varying quality, but all with a birds-eye view of the chaos. A closer look, however, reveals a different rhythm.
Over here, a group of elderly men huddle on the ground, drinking mint tea and discussing everything from local politics, to their wives’ house-cleaning routines. Some share stories of the “Jinn” passing along modern-day life lessons in an ancient and time-tested ritual. Over there, a middle-aged mother and her two children beckon locals and tourists alike to provide a tarot reading or peddle the latest in Moroccan jewelry. Older men stroll alone in the distance, wrapped in their Djellaba, smoking on their Marlborough cigarette. All of this, I didn’t understand.
As we moved around Morocco, I picked up a book by Tahir Shah: In Arabian Nights. I had finished it in two days, and the clouds of misunderstanding began to lift. What we had to do was talk. Talk to Mohammed, the jovial seller of lamb skin-covered lamps, who also teaches us the ways of the electrician. Talk to the Tuaregs, learning about their Berber traditions, as you wander into the Sahara desert by camel, and perhaps they will break out into traditional song. Talk to Wafi, the politically astute antique and leather purse salesman who, quite frankly, couldn’t care less if he sold you anything. Talk to Mohammed Harthi, the gentle, kind, deeply religious cobbler sitting in his 8m2 shack in the bright blue-coloured walls of Chefchaouen, and learn about the bride whose shoes he is crafting. Talk to Moseen, our waiter feeding us copious amounts of mint tea, with even more lumps of white sugar, and listen to his love for European soccer. Talk with them, but more importantly, listen to their stories.
Morocco oozes mystery and legend. All that is required is that you accept it. Of Jemaa el-Fna, Juan Goytisolo, Spanish poet, essayist, novelist, and Marrakech resident has stated that its “spectacle… is repeated daily and each day it is different. Everything changes – voices, sounds, gestures, the public which sees, listens, smells, tastes, touches. The oral tradition is framed by one much vaster – that we can call intangible. The Square, as a physical space, shelters a rich oral and intangible tradition.”
Our journey took us through Marrakech, Essaouira, Ouarzazate, M’Hamid, the Sahara, Fes, Volubilis, Moulay Idriss, and Rabat, before returning to Marrakech, changed people. People who understood. By the end of our time in Morocco, we no longer savoured the riad as an escape from what we didn’t understand, but rather a welcome retreat following a day of learning and conversing.
This is not to say, however, that moments of private reflection should not be pursued. Take Essaouira. Situated on Morocco’s west coast, this fishing town provides one of the most unique dining experiences in Morocco. Hidden deep in the historic medina, amongst mountains of leather purses, camel-wool blankets and lamp shades of all designs and quality, lies a fish market not much bigger than a tennis court. It was painted white many moons ago, but the colour is barely noticeable behind the years of dirt, grime and slime synonymous with fish markets worldwide. Here, middle-aged men, with cleaver knifes and yellow rubber aprons, behead all species of fish, de-shell all species of crab and proudly display all manner of shark and crustacean. From lessons learned, at the first stall I embark upon the obligatory chat. What is this place? What is this fish? Is it tasty? When was it caught? How was it caught? I want to get the story of this place.
Then, however, comes the reflection. With the sights, sounds and smells filling the market, it is impossible not to stop and soak in every bit of this experience. The bartering on price. The lifeless stooping heads of eels, as if shying away from any further punishment for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The smell of raw octopus, mingling with the fried grouper, on the adjacent stand. It was the fried grouper smell that snapped me from my reflection and encouraged me to join in.
At the first stand, I chose my fish. As French is a prominent language in Morocco, I only knew the fish as the daurade, or dorade. I later learned that I was enjoying a Gilt-head Bream. By the second stand, my dorade was descaled and beheaded. At the third, it was thrown on the grill. Within 10 minutes, and just 70DH ($10) later, I had my fried dorade with a fresh Moroccan salad. I was ready to conversate again.
Through In Arabian Nights, Tahir Shah told me that “stories are not like the real world; they aren’t held back by what we know is false or true. What’s important is how a story makes you feel inside.” To the outsider, Morocco does not feel like the real world. But then, it’s the way it feels inside that counts.