Tuesday, September 5, 2017

On Marrakesh and Orientalist Fantasies

What can I say about Marrakesh?


This city, the Red City, City of Palms, held unfulfilled romantic fantasies of souk merchants and spice bazaars. It is the dream of the Western Orientalist to wander the labyrinths of yesteryear, time frozen, as if it is somehow our right to see things as they were without the encroachment of modernity.

Of course, that is the wrong view of things, the "good old days" syndrome of the white and the privileged. Or is it? That is the whole nature of the struggle in the Islamic World - the struggle for or against modernity and change. Nostalgia is, perhaps, something...human?


We descended from the snow-capped mountains of the High Atlas to the vast red flatness of the Ourika Valley and the sprawling metropolis of Marrakesh, a city of one million people and the crossroads of the nomadic Berbers and the Mediterranean people. It was a relief; the winding mountain roads were rather nerve-wracking. Approaching the city was like any other - some farmland, then the industrial areas with factories and yards of cement pipes and petroleum tanks and scraps of metal and warehouses full of products waiting for shipment, the ugly side of civilization. There were noticeable differences, of course - palm trees everywhere, women covered from head to toe, donkey and horse carts on the roads - but the city order was the same. We passed shanty towns, rock-strewn vacant lots, apartment complexes, wealthy suburbs, and palm-lined golf courses, the same signs of the plague of inequality that threatens our species.



Then we hit the city limits, a hazy line between the predictable order of the outskirts and the chaos of too little land stuffed with too many people.  Fes, which is similar in size, seemed like a quiet rural village in comparison. 

Before we left Fes on our desert excursion, I had been inadvertently comparing Morocco to Lebanon. What I was really comparing was Mediterranean peoples. When we left Fes, we left the Mediterranean (and Arab) world for the land of the Berbers.  (This is a vastly simplified way of saying it, so please don't crucify me for that comment.) While Lebanon and Mediterranean Morocco have vastly different histories, they do share That Thing that is common to Mediterranean people, That Thing that keeps me coming back. Berber land is something else entirely.

I used to describe Beirut as "functional chaos." The same cannot be said about the chaos of Marrakesh, I'm afraid, small sample size withstanding. I never wanted to rip my hair out on my first trip to Beirut; Marrakesh made me want to hide. 

Our driver suckered me into a spice store before dropping us at our hotel. I was conned into buying $65 worth of spices, so if you want to come to dinner, I'll be cooking. The reason that I succumbed to this tourist trap is because so many of the spice markets import their spices from China, and our driver, who had been with us for three days, assured me these were Moroccan spices. I'm not sure he is trustworthy, but he did make an effort to point out the Chinese imports, whereas many are mum about that. 

I didn't need "Moroccan cumin" or cinnamon or any of the other things I can get at home. I wanted mixtures and stuff I've never heard of. The first mixture smelled wonderful...I couldn't tell her I was planning to use it with a pork roast, but that's what is coming to my table. I bought another mixture for beef, some harissa pepper to make the harissa soup I had loved in the north of the country, and some saffron...but I was ripped off on the saffron. I had arrived expecting to buy a lot of saffron at much cheaper prices. Instead, I paid $13 for one gram. The woman tried to convince me to buy more, but I had it in my mind to look for it elsewhere.

She also tried to get me to buy herbs for medicinal purposes, but we have enough of that "holistic" snake oil racket in the US. I spent $65 in that store, yet she seemed insulted I didn't buy more.
That was my introduction to Marrakesh.

Our hotel was easy enough to get to, but for some reason, no one could tell you how to get there, even after I had learned how to get there and told them the way and even pointed to Google Maps. Our driver called the hotel several times and still couldn't figure it out; he ended up asking some old man with a cart who was willing to carry our luggage for three bucks, but as he led us through the dark alleys of a thousand year old city, I had to wonder if he was leading us into robbery. We entered a small doorway with graffiti covered walls and few lights and because I knew nothing of the city I felt uneasy. But we arrived, and as it turned out, our riad (guest house in Morocco) was wonderful, and it was even in a great location, once I learned the layout of the city (in a few hours.)

Our hotel

One of the things that strikes me about Fes and Marrakesh and the other old cities we've visited is how ugly are the exterior of their buildings and how beautiful the interiors. You wouldn't believe it from looking at the crumbling walls with the pollution stains and the fading paint jobs and the broken streets and the dirt everywhere, but every building we have been inside (and some others I've peeked into) have been stunning. It's as if private and public life are two different worlds. I would like to say more about that but I really don't know enough to speak about it - my greatest experience in the Muslim world was in Lebanon and it is nothing like here (or anywhere), except for the road signs.

I led Chris to a Western-oriented hotel with a piano bar for many reasons. I will tell you the first was for wine. Our three day journey in a car had whetted my thirst and the chaos of Marrakesh had not helped. We went to Maison d'Arabe, where a soft singing Moroccan played Western tunes to a Western crowd and that crowd was quite sparse. In reality, it was a destination. I wanted to roam the streets and explore the famed medina of Marrakesh as soon as we set down our bags, but Chris at this point could only do twenty minute walks, so this was the compromise.

Our waiter gave us a tour of the hotel





I sampled four Moroccan wines on our trip and all of them are worthy of drinking. Maybe I already wrote this but it is a shame Moroccans can't sample their own wine. It is technically illegal for them to drink alcohol, although in Marrakesh and some other cities they do. Imagine a world where religion dictates what you can and cannot do. That is what the alt right wants for America. We already had prohibition and back alley abortions. Let's not go back to that.

Now, the Moroccan citizen or the Muslim faithful might read what I have written and say I am looking down on the culture, that I am being orientalist or imperialist or whatever term they want to use for it. So be it. Freedom of thought is what alleviates poverty and moves a country forward. If drinking alcohol or not wearing something on my head is bad, then let me meet our creator on Judgment Day for that. Judge not lest ye be judged. Render unto Caesar. It is not up to governments to tell us what to believe. Governments that claim they are acting in the name of religion are just playing God, which is forbidden in all major religions. That my own country is heading the direction of Muslim countries is a source of depression for me and so many others. Economic ruin will soon follow.

I have this idea in my head that maybe history happens in waves, that civilizations progress at different rates and sometimes the forward ones have to move backwards just to give others time to catch up. So, women in the United States a hundred years ago were treated in the same way as women in many Muslim countries are now, and while women in Muslim countries are making great strides, we are losing some of our progress in America. I probably won't be alive long enough to see if this is true or not, but I could give you countless examples in history in various parts of the globe that seem to indicate the same, which would make sense, given that in physics, time is a wave. Or something like that. One thing I can tell you for sure is that Marrakesh is the place to think about the concept of time. The past and the present are barely distinguishable from each other.

If, in the four day time I spent in Marrakesh I had to sum it up for you, I would say this: Pollution. Chaos. Disappointment.



Yeah, that happened.



Funny - just a few days ago they had the UN Climate Change Conference here, where all the world leaders met to discuss next steps on saving human beings from ourselves. It was planned before Trump was elected president. I'm sure most of it was spent trying to figure out how to move forward without the United States, which is rapidly becoming irrelevant in the global world order. Chris developed difficulty breathing. I developed a cough. Chris, whose immune system was compromised due to a chronic and serious illness, was confined to our hotel for a significant portion of our time in Marrakesh. That anyone would dare hate environmental regulations is appalling and should be condemned to the same illnesses that pollution causes. I fear that with the fascists in power in America now, the Clean Air Act is threatened. Problem is, Americans don't know how good they have it because THEY NEVER TRAVEL ANYWHERE.
If I ever convince anyone to finally get a passport and see something in the world, I hope the first place they go isn't Marrakesh, because it is one of the few places I have visited that I didn't like. I will never go back unless it's for a job because I have been there and done that and don't ever have to do it again. I am struggling right now to think of any other place where I feel that way. I was not impressed with Amman, Jordan but I only spent four days there and it was for work and I was sick. I find Brussels kind of dull but I would go back in a heartbeat. I didn't like Varna, Bulgaria but it was winter and it is a resort city on the Black Sea, so I probably went at the wrong time. 

What can I say about Marrakesh except that it was a kind of cultural Disneyland, scrubbed up and overpriced for tourists, its famed markets, like in Fes, full of cheap junk from China. I haven't quite figured out why I liked Fes and did not like Marrakesh, but there was an underlying, annoyed feeling. There are too many variables. First, I had to see most of Marrakesh on my own, while Chris was with me in Fes. A single American woman in the capital of Berber country is, without fail, a target for harassment. Then there was the rain, which cut short my tour of the 16th century El Badi Palace and its famed orange orchard. We were also tired after two weeks of touring, the last three having been in a car. And I was constantly worried about Chris, wondering if we should go home early or if I should take him to the hospital there. When we went to Morocco, his MELD score was 21. When we came back, it was 29 and dangerous and he went to the hospital for a week almost immediately. We were also sick of tajine to the point where we were eating pizza and pasta to avoid Moroccan restaurants, and what's good travel if you aren't experiencing good food?

But I think it was just the city itself, and the morons on motorcycles speeding through the narrow alleys and the noise and the harassment and the pollution, pollution, pollution.

Here are some pictures that will make you wonder why I didn't like it so much:


Berber style door

Berber style doors
nice avenue






Jemaa el Fnaa, the main market square and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Argana restaurant was bombed by terrorists in 2011.

Chris and his snake oil...





Drying leather

Almoravid Kubaa (the dome), 12th century, the only Almoravid architecture still standing in Marrakesh. The ruins are a former mosque. The Almoravid dynasty founded the city of Marrakesh in 1062. At the peak of their power, their empire stretched from southern Spain to Ghana. The kubaa also contains the oldest inscription in Berber script that says, "I was created for science and prayer, by the prince of the believers, descendant of the prophet, Abdallah, most glorious of all Caliphs. Pray for him when you enter the door, so that you may fulfill your highest hopes."

Vote tally wall for Marrakesh, as explained in the post about Ait Benhaddou




























storks