Welcome to the second installment of these notes from Marrakech, most alluring city in Morocco (you could argue). For Part I, go here. Keep going, without further preliminaries? Okay.
They say that the Medina in Marrakech — the old city, the labyrinth of workshops and stalls, the great square — is something in the world you must see. They say it is one of the most colorful and exotic and eye-popping places on earth. “A human pageant.” “An assault on the senses.” You can recite the clichés with me.
And, you know? They’re right. The Medina is all they say it is. Isn’t is nice when they — you know: they — turn out to be right?
The blacksmiths and similar artisans go about their work, sparks flying everywhere. You step around this fire, dodge that torch. If an OSHA inspector walked into this labyrinth, he would die on the spot.
But this is a serious subject. Just recently, workers have been introduced to such things — such elementary items — as goggles and gloves. The older ones, particularly, are resisting. They have lived with the dangers, accidents, and injuries all their lives. I think of the old bikers in our country, who balked at helmets. (Some still do, I know.)
A man walks by me, carrying a mountain of skins — ready to be made into slippers and so on. At least I think it’s a man. He is totally covered by this mountain of skins. The mountain just moves forward. I’m not sure how the person in the midst of it sees.
There are hints of the modern in this very ancient-seeming place: A leatherworker, working himself to the bone — there is a lot of that going on — has an earpiece in, listening to an iPod.
There are some children working too — showing tourists around for money. A local intellectual tells me, “Their parents discourage or prevent them from going to school: because those kids can bring in money. I wish people would hand them books or pens instead of coins and bills.”
The butchers have meats that are incredible to behold, and that the USDA would not approve. These sights could lead you to vegetarianism. Among the products are innards — gruesome — and tongues, all slapped together.
Elsewhere, there are gazelle heads — not to eat, just to buy and display, I suppose.
Some vendors sell turtles. They are good luck — at least in the minds of 90 percent of the Moroccan people (more like peoples). In the minds of 10 percent, they are the exact opposite: bad luck. Funny how minds work.
The Medina’s famous “assault on the senses” includes smells, and “assault” is indeed the word. But there comes suddenly a rush of something good: a tray of freshly baked bread. Is there anything quite like it?
The aforementioned intellectual says to me, “See this particular plaza? It was once a slave market. Lots of slaves sold here. They don’t like us to tell foreigners that.”
In that great and famous square, Djemaa el-Fna, the human pageant pulses. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more colorful, more riotous scene: including Khan el-Khalili (Cairo), including in Bombay. (Including in San Francisco.) The snake charmers, the magicians, the musicians, the freaks, the men with monkeys on leashes, the hustlers (they’re all hustling): This is humanity at maybe its gaudiest. (How could I have left out New Orleans? At least pre-Katrina. I can’t vouch for now.)
I have a sense of being in the world of Kim. Never mind that that is India, thank you. Has any conjurer ever conjured the way Kipling does in that book? In any case, as you go through life, you can start to think, “I never see anything new. I never see anything surprising. I never see anything truly foreign. Wherever I go, it’s the same old, same old. The world bores me.” (Puff on cigarette.)
Not here it doesn’t. And if it does bore you — you’re pretty much through indeed.
‐In the Medina — in that labyrinth of workshops in particular — you can see people living as people did hundreds — truly hundreds — of years ago. Close by is a Cyber Park: where people can go and connect to the Internet for pennies. “A city of contrasts” (another cliché).
‐I learn a little fact: Here in Marrakech, you can’t build taller than the greatest and highest mosque. Reminds me a little of Washington, D.C.: where you can’t build higher than the Capitol (I believe). Which is why there are no skyscrapers in Washington (again, if I have learned correctly).
‐Moroccans — Marrakechers in particular — have a reputation for friendliness. I find it well-founded. I keep saying and writing, when I go to the Arab world, “Arab hospitality is not a cliché.” Or, better put, it is not a myth, not a fiction: It’s true. And you know how Western travelers have been saying for centuries that the Arab world is “seductive”? That’s the great word they lean on: “seductive.” It’s true.
It’s good to be reminded, lest we forget, that the Arab world is more than jihadism.
‐As there is a great variety of people, there is a great variety of clothing. The Berber men in their robes. (Is that the word? “Man dresses”?) The businessmen in their suits. Women covered, in a multiplicity of ways. I see an old man in traditional Berber garb with a woolen cap on his head. (It’s about 75 degrees, and he may well be freezing.) The cap has the Nike swoosh on it.
‐There is a mélange of languages here too (as I think I mentioned in yesterday’s installment). The languages are distinct, of course — but they also blend, as people sprinkle French into their Arabic, Arabic into their French, and so on. English hovers somewhere. (Where doesn’t it?) And I ask a source whether Arabic and Berber are similar. He says, “They are as different as English and Japanese.” That’s different.
‐When you have eaten “Moroccan crêpes,” you have eaten well. They remind me of Indian puris, those puffed-up, greasy pleasures. You may prefer an older transliteration: “pooris.”
‐A man tells me, in all seriousness, that the worldwide recession has been good for Marrakech. In what way? “The prices are lower. We are more able to afford things now. Ask anyone struggling to earn a living, and he will tell you that we could use two or three more recessions.”
This is particularly true, says my informant, in the area of housing. “Before, you couldn’t afford anything. The prices were sky-high, and foreigners could pay them. A real-estate agent wouldn’t meet you. He would look at you, see that you were Moroccan, and say, ‘I don’t have time. I have to meet with a Frenchman, I have to meet with an American.’ Now, they have time for us. And we can afford some things.”
Interesting, sad — screwed up.
‐This same man recalls the late Hassan II — who ruled from 1961 to 1999 — as a great orator: “one of the greatest of the century, along with Martin Luther King and de Gaulle.” (I am quoting him directly.) “A real intellectual, speaking beautifully in both Arabic and French.”
I myself can’t offer an opinion, one way or the other.
‐I find Marrakech, as I do other cities in the Arab world, and in the Third World, a place of architectural extremes. Let me try to explain what I mean. The buildings that are beautiful are very, very beautiful — memorably so. The buildings that are ugly are very much so: just eyesores, with no thought to human feelings. There is nothing in the middle: no architectural okayness, no architectural pleasantness. Just the great stuff and the junk, the inhuman junk. You know what I mean?
An achievement of civilization is to make the middling stuff nice. I’m not sure that’s the way Ada Louise Huxtable would put it. (Was she the mother or grandmother on the Cosby show?) But that’s the best I can manage, typing at this hour, amateurly.
‐Let me tell you about the taxis here. The drivers are supposed to use meters. They don’t. Often, the drivers refuse to pick up Moroccans — because Moroccans will insist that they use meters, knowing that the drivers are required to do so by law. This is especially true of Moroccan women. Moroccan women will not put up with nonsense. So, the drivers pass them by.
It’s the foreigners they want — whom they can bilk. Moroccans refer to foreign taxi passengers as victims. “Oh, there are the drivers, idling outside the hotel, waiting for victims.”
I have this taxi driver take me to a restaurant. I know the fare should be six, eight dirhams. Ten max. I know this because a local businessman has told me so. We get to the restaurant, and the driver says nothing. “What’s the fare?” I ask. He smiles and shrugs. I say, “How much?” He smiles and shrugs. I like the guy, we’ve had a nice conversation — I say I’ll give him 20. He is disappointed. “Come on,” he says, “50. You are American!” (Therefore, loaded, of course.) I say, “Oh, you charge by the nationality, huh?” He smiles — I have scored a bit of a point against him. I give him the 20, thank him, and exit.
‐Cheek-kissing is a matter of sociological interest throughout the world. How many times do people in a given place do it? When they greet each other in the street, is it two kisses, three, four — more? I used to think that three was rather laborious. Here, it seems to be four. Who has the time?
‐Sometime yesterday, I posted an item at the Corner. Check out the first part, below (for it relates to this journal):
In my Marrakech Journal today, I say, “The Star of David is the symbol of Morocco. It’s woven into everything, including the logo of Royal Air Maroc. For some reason, I have a feeling they don’t call it the Star of David in Morocco.” I was being a little cheeky — too cheeky. Readers have written to say, “The Moroccan star has five points, the Star of David six.” Gotcha. Who’s counting? (Numbers have never been my strong suit.)
Which is true.