Marrakesh, la majestueuse, is the perfect getaway for an orientalist fairytale. Yet under the surface she remains mysterious and untouchable. The riads of the medina, the old town houses turned into luxurious hotels with stylised Moroccan interiors and calm courtyards. are oases in the red mud brick bustle. Exploring the terracotta maze, visitors observe as the life of the old town glides by, as unperturbed as it has been for centuries.
Sometimes these visitors may feel they are the centre of attention. Eyes follow everywhere – the merchants in the souk are keen marksmen, and so are the scoot chauffeurs hooting their horns in a constant concert. Bands of young men are fascinated by the sight of a spot of bare skin, regularly exclaiming an innocuous ‘Salut, la gazelle!’. It is not long before a lost Westerner is picked up and accompanied to the Place Jemnaa Al Fnaa, certainly not by the shortest route.
The Place has for centuries been the vast open space it is today, heating up late in the afternoon to the sound of drums and snakes moving slowly to a stringy tune. Storytellers gather the crowds while acrobats tumble and dark veiled women extend henna coloured hands. Oil lamps light up the smoke rising from one food stall after another. Westerners float by, spectators and bait for commerce, though not a true part of the rhythm of the square as for centuries it has gathered the wonders of the desert – who would stop this now?
Occasionally the peaceful and gentle indifference of the people is disturbed. A cyclist spat at me and missed, although I was sensibly dressed. As he made the corner towards a city gate, something about my appearance must have deeply provoked and displeased him. Stunned I turned, as did those around me, gazing at the disturber and the disrespect. Another time in the souk I insisted that I did not want to buy the object nor sleep with its owner. This led to such an outcry of sexual insults that I felt close to smacking the guy desperately.
Yet overlooking the red mud brick town bathed in silver November sun, the light setting and the soft traces of the surrounding mountains etching the skyline, life is amazing. Marrakesh and its riads are a comfort for the senses – delicious food, elegant architecture, interiors in full colours, and hospitality to perfection. What flows behind though, imperceptible and unbinding, leaves us in two worlds. The town tolerates its tourists, but just barely so.
Elias Canetti – Les voix de Marrakech (1968) “Les souks sentent les épices, il y fait frais et ils ruisellent de couleurs. L’odeur qui est toujours agréable, change toutefois suivant la nature des marchandiers. Il n’y a pas de noms, pas d’enseignes, il n’y a pas de vitrines. Tout ce qui est à vendre est exposé. On ne sait jamais ce que couteront les objets, leurs prix ne sont pas indiqués et ne sont d’ailleurs pas meme établis.”