Back and forth, hither and yon – whether on my habitual trajectory between Touraine and Paris or further afield… destinations, encounters, events and observations I can’t resist sharing.

168 Hours in Marrakech* – Part I

January 8, 2011

Just back from Marrakech celebrating New Year with family.  It was my third time there (prior trips were sixteen and thirty years ago), but first chance to explore a full week.  It’s changed considerably since 1994 – the transformational pace much faster than between my first two visits.   Loss of authenticity is somewhat compensated by a boost in creature comforts.

The resonating experience of this trip was a flagrant disconnect between codes of dress and comportment within the walls of the medina and outside in the former French quarters – Guéliz and Hivernage west of the old town.  Shuttling back and forth induces microseism culture shock.

We rented a riad in the Kasbah section of the Medina, next to the Mosque, Saaidian Tombs and Royal Palace  – a neighborhood where alcohol is verboten, most women wear a headscarf if not a veil, and both sexes never expose a bare arm or leg.   The scene is very different around Guéliz Plaza in the Zara, Mango and Etam fast fashion chain stores – where Moroccan women wear tight jeans tucked into high healed boots and toss around manes of hair.  Neighborhood clubs and restaurants like Café de la Poste, Lotus, Jad-Mahal and Comptoir exude a glitzy San Tropez party vibe, with pulsating music and extensive cocktail menus.

Our driver/guide Mohamed, claimed that a third of tourists never penetrate the Medina and remain sequestered in outlying resorts, playing tennis or golf and lounging around the pool.

I left with an eerie premonition that Marrakech 2011 has much in common with Havana circa 196O, or Beirut 197O, before Revolution and Civil War crashed their parties.  Perusing Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable may have gotten to me (despite an inability to slog through it).  The Lebanese born author describes how well connected family and friends were sideswiped by the cataclysmic changes brought on by civil war and hovered in deluded exile, anticipating imminent return to life, as they knew it.  Ditto for Cuban elders in Miami.

There’s also a whiff of Dublin’s ghost estates.  If you drive out into the Palmeraies, resort properties and golf courses are going up cheek by jowl. It doesn’t take more than a few miles of cruising to detect a threat of serious over capacity.  Legislation was recently passed barring foreigners from purchasing property that isn’t part of a development.  It seems individual investors were jilting politically connected developers for a crumbling riad or rural kasbah.  Like diaspora Irish lured during the Celtic tiger bubble, Marrakech real estate is heavily promoted to Beurs and Moroccan born Pieds Noirs.  Ads at the airport pitch “return to your roots” investment opportunities “your holiday home for 100,00 dirham” (roughly 9,000 euros).

Grim foreboding aside, you can have plenty of fun in Marrakech.  A dividend of steady tourism and satellite dish globalization, is a reduction in the onslaught of proffered wares and services, plus women are not as heckled with “hey gazelle” (although my daughters are a better judge of that).

Though commercial development is booming, patrimony is surprisingly neglected.  Cultural sites are poorly maintained, with shoddy signage, translation, and little heed paid to conservation of tile mosaics trampled by tourists. Unlike Istanbul, Marrakech Mosques are closed to non-Muslims, which is a pity.   Several sites, which you’d assume to be state run, like the Marrakech Museum, seem to be private ventures.  Jardin Marjorelle, the former residence of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berger is an exemplarily exception – gorgeously maintained museum, garden and restaurant.

The dramatic high point of the trip was Mohamed’s arrest following an altercation with police guarding the synagogue in the Mellah (former Jewish quarter of the Medina).  After informing us in French that the synagogue was closed to visits on the Sabbath, a police guard treated us to a slew of insults in Arab, which sparked a shoving match with Mohamed, who was promptly handcuffed, smacked around and dragged behind closed doors.

After a volley of calls, we learned he was being taken to the local commissariat and that help was on the way.  He asked Jeffrey to come along as witness.  J was unable to vouch for who said what, not understanding Arab but got to observe Moroccan justice at work: screaming testimony and recriminations all around, with a succession of functionaries intervening until Mohamed was eventually bailed by a family lawyer and older brother, who subsequently distributed obligatory gratuities to key players and offended parties.

We made a day trip excursion to the coastal city Essaouira (count on five to six hours in a car roundtrip).  It’s called the windy city with good reason.  The bay is reputed to be kite surfing paradise.   If you eat in the complex of simple fish stand restaurants by the park opposite the sea wall, I recommend #4 La Rochelle. Your selections are grilled while you eat a starter of salad and bread.  Choice of fresh fish and varied sea life is as extensive as the rest of the menu is limited.  Fries are available, but have to be ordered out, so request right away.

The white washed walls of the old town accented with blue painted wood work are a pleasant change from the uniformly rosy terra cottas and ivy green of Marrakech.   The medina is laid out in a grid, which is also somewhat of a relief.   Essoaouira is famed for thuya woodcrafts.  Establish a benchmark price for the infinite number of objects sold throughout the town, by visiting the cavernous museum-like shop on the main avenue.  Be sure to glimpse into the adjoining workshop.

Tune in soon for Part II – contact detail on housing, fooding, souveneering and culture gawking.  For now, I’ll share the  principal ingredients:

hand of fatima kefta dromedaries date olive almond fig stork nest mint tea satellite dish hammam baboushe tile mosaic tajine snake charmer carved ceder fresh orange juice inlaid mother of pearl riad pastilla souk silver filigree jewelry couscous woven basket hammered metal jalaba tadelackt spice cone black soap tassel call to prayer metal door caleche water seller Casablanca beer medina cinnamon le President cabernet headscarf thuya henna tattoo mosque cat berber carpet belly dancer cumin lantern majorelle blue tooled leather tea glass leather jacket rose petal crushed velvet honey scull cap argan oil mule drawn cart bell dirham veil le roi inchellah

*The NYTimes conveniently published 36-hours in Marrakech, Morocco, on the day we left.

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