Friday, October 25, 2013

Book 1:10 Marrakesh 1

Marrakesh, City of my Dream

Like so many travellers before me, and since, I was immediately seduced by my first view of the ancient city as the bus ground its' way down the dusty road out of the stony hills into a wide flat valley oasis; the embedded red-walled city overtopped by the vast expanse of unexpected date palms with the solitary emergent giant finger of the Kutubia minaret pointing skywards high above them, the snow-covered Atlas forming the grand backdrop to it all.  This was more like it!  I felt a rush of affinity with the place, almost a déjà vu, not quite a homecoming, but a sense of having arrived on the threshold of some old familiar dream of another  world, ancient, beckoning, ripe with memories promising  wonder and delight. A gladdening warmth radiated from deep within and I became one huge smile.

We spilled out of the bus outside a huge ancient arched red stone gate, eyes popping & all-a ’fizz. “We’re here, we’re here!” I was beyond excited. Every expectation was met and reinforced as, with shoulders touching we held hands and almost dancing, passed through the massive arch into the Medina. Weaving light-footed through the flow of robed & hooded people with their laden donkeys and the odd camel, we negotiated a maze of narrow lanes, canyons of red mud walls plugged with closed iron-clad doors, behind which overtopping tall palms suggested gardens within.  Finally we emerged out onto an enormous open area - the Jemaa el Fna, The Assembly of Fools, the quaintly named main square of the city. Being still morning the full circus, the dancers, the water bearers, the snake charmers, all the crazy daily extravaganza that brings people from all over the world to witness its’ offerings, was in not yet progress.  Small clumps of people of many diverse cultures were setting up stalls and a few singers and orators were attracting curious tourists.

Verandah cafes overlooking morning activity on part of the J'ma el F'Na - recent view.
We spied a rooftop cafe overlooking the square. Seemed the obvious place to take it all in and relax after the trip.  It was still morning and there were empty tables, but my instant take on it was that it was “The Scene”. Mostly foreigners.  A few obvious tourists with cameras, some gap-year student kids, a few Beautiful People and hippy traveller types. Only Moroccans were the waiters.

Amongst other travellers I was, at first, delighted to find Minna, a crazy young Danish woman I had met on Formentera, someone I’d had good times exploring and lazing on the beaches with back then, before my life got shredded.  She was sitting at a table with some very spaced-out Rasta heads, all so “cool” man.  We put our baskets and wraps down at a nearby empty table and prepared to join in a happy reunion, but the news she had completely ruined my euphoric mood and turned my smiles to a mask of frozen horror. 

She had just been in jail in Rabat, she told me.  They had stripped her, raped her, beaten her, sprayed her with a fire hose through the bars of a tiny cell until she lost consciousness and she had been chained to the wall of a windowless cell in a loony bin for a month.

I didn’t understand all she had to tell me as my mind had frozen and I had no experience of this side of life & could not process what she was saying. This was compounded partly because her English was muddled with travellers’ road argot, and she was not in a very coherent state because apart from everything else she a badly swollen jaw as she’d lost several teeth from the beatings.  She had also, not surprisingly, miscarried.

I was sickened, horrified, and became very protective of her.  What had she done to deserve that, I asked. She said she’d been caught buying dope.  I had no idea that there were penalties like that and instantly leapt back in my mind to the Rif trip and saw the danger we had been in.  She was destitute, as usual, so I bought her food and she took us to the rooms she was crashing in with several other Euro hippies who were also junkies.  I didn’t like the atmosphere, especially as the junkies seemed to spend all their time moaning, or cooking up dubious substances on spoons over candles.  They offered to let us sleep on the floor on the floor, but it was not the way I wanted my Marrakesh experience to be. But we left our gear there and went with them to visit the King’s Gardens, not, as I naively thought, to appreciate the architecture and botanise amongst the exotic plants. 

Ripe Opium poppy capsule

Instead Minna harvested ripe opium poppy capsules. 

My comments about it being risky & probably forbidden were met with the “chill, be cool man”, the raised eyebrow of opprobrium, with its’ inherent threat of “uncool is not one of us”. Lesson 6 in the School of Cool is to stay silent or be square. Back in the rooms I watched as they split the pods and extracted the white goo, processing it via the spoon cooking rituals. I began to understand.  They gave me some to smoke and it reacted very badly on me.  For hours I had a revolting pink headache.  I also felt very drained.  It was the last time I touched opium.

Looking around at the comatose junkies, cocooned in blankets on the floor like blind white rats, I was overcome with revulsion. I was not judging, just reacting. Whatever was driving their need to do this to themselves I could not know. But I knew this was not my scene. Not my version of “cool”, in fact very “uncool” to me. This was no celebration of the joy of life. So I left that house, telling Tom, all locked in to preaching Universal Love to the Unreachable, that all this was not for me. If he shared my views we could re-connect at the rooftop café later, but I needed to be alone for now. 

Wandering into the back streets of Marrakesh alone, I shed all the negative vibes like a dog shaking off fleas, recovering my spirit and energy. 
Wandering alone thru the mazes of  Marrakesh lanes
 I was looking for a place that answered my dreams of the Marrakesh lifestyle.  I had no intention of staying anywhere near those junkies. Not one word any of them had said showed they were on my path and did not want any of their influences in my life. They represented so much of what I was rejecting in what I saw as civilisation’s decline.  I might have been somewhat grief-crazed, but my deeper sanity guided me to better choices than hanging around that pathetic scene. I could almost hear the sirens in my head howling “Alert! Danger!” The further away I got from the house, the more I felt the revulsion deepening at the same time experiencing a flowering relief at breaking free from that prison.  I would not be returning there.  My way was to clean clear blue sky and water where I could dance in the sun and by moonlight. In Tom I felt I’d found a man who shared this inner clarity, but was I right? This would test his resolve. I’d given him the choice to join me, or not. I realised he had a zealot’s instinct to preach to the unenlightened. He felt it was his work, his calling.  I was being called in another way and felt it so close now, my own Xanadu.
Back alley mazes, what lies behind faceless doors?
Behind the J'ma el F'Na the back alleys were a maze of red mud-walled canyons. Blank walls with anonymous iron-clad doors. 

I could not find any way of exploring beyond – no way of finding a room presented itself. Tired now, I decided to try another approach. Word of mouth. Perhaps other travellers could help.

Eventually I made my way back to the rooftop cafe overlooking the square and s discussing accommodation with some lively mellow Danish people who lived in a cheap little pensione which sounded much more like my kind of scene than Minna’s.  At least it would do for a few nights until we got our bearings.

One of the Danes was a woman called Bia who had a Brazilian mother who had followed her Viking man to Russia where they lived in Kamkatchka before taking the family back to the family estate in Aarhus, Jutland.   Bia had been born in Kamkatchka and shared a birthday with me, (which I, in my crazed state, took to be some sort of good omen) and I became enmeshed in the extraordinary maze of her cosmopolitan life story.  We liked each other so well that she decided she’d show me the bijou riad where they were living and said there was a room free.  It sounded exactly what I wanted. 
To my intense relief Tom soon floated up, robes flowing, drums bouncing and sat with his arms around me, kissing my hair, nuzzling my ears. “You are right, babe, so right. Not our scene” I was relieved. Yes, we were on track again. I knew I was falling in love and felt a great surge of contentment.  We set off back into the lane maze with Bia and her friends to check out the riad. It wasn’t far from the Square, next to an active little mosque.   It was the usual anonymous iron-hinged door in the wall, but to my delight opened onto a tiny shady Sahn courtyard, open to the sky above, over-looked by an upper balcony supported by tiled columns which provided a sheltered arched colonnade beneath. 
Typical riad with central fountain, tiles & colonnade.

The floor and surrounding blue walls were set with Moorish tiles as was the central miniature fountain, ancient but still eccentrically spitting and bubbling.  A small palm and several fruiting cumquats in  Ali Baba pots were set back in corners and niches. The whole ambience was like stepping into another world, a gently welcoming cool relief from the Medina beyond. Instant peace.

At the back of the colonnade downstairs rooms gave onto the courtyard - a washroom/kitchen and two side rooms and I could see behind the upstairs balcony there were more promising doors. I took one look at an upstairs blue-painted room with a view out over the rooftops to the square, the city walls and the distant snow-covered Atlas and rented it immediately. It seemed ridiculously cheap compared to prices in Tangiers. 

The main feature that sold me was its’ Moucharabiya, a tiny projecting oriel window enclosed with carved wood latticework set with stained glass. Otherwise it was bare and rudimentary, a low platform bed-base with no mattress, a tiny table and two rush woven wooden chairs. A few pegs on a board on the wall. 

No comparison to that highly luxurious Tangiers rooftop pavilion, but I could see that with a few personal touches I could make it our own cosy retreat. I still had enough money to be able to live reasonably comfortably, if I was frugal. I had already put traveller’s cheques aside for the donkey trek.

I transformed the bare cell with a few basic buys from the soukh. 
It didn’t take much - a new cheap mattress, a beautiful hand-woven bedcover, a few exquisite diaphanous embroidered hangings, a filigree brass lantern as a light-shade and a small Moroccan carpet.    

At night candles made magic and by day when I lay on the bed a little carved mirror reflected the Moucharabiya view of the ever-changing light on the snow-capped mountains of the high Atlas on the horizon.

However the idyll was flawed. Several times a day the peace was jolted by the amplified roar of the adhān call to prayer being broadcast from the little next door mosque’s minaret at the same level as our window. Boom! Boom! Shake the room!  At first I felt shocked, violated, needing to cover my ears, roll in a ball and disappear. No wonder the rent was so cheap! I wanted to flee instantly, to find another place. But I was too exhausted after all the effort to settle in after such a long day since we left that desert palace, way back in the dawn. As the days passed it became less of a foe and I even found myself quite enjoying it anyway.

The years of being married to an architect had given me an intense appreciation for the form inherent in buildings as well as city & town layouts. The textures, the patterns and the landscaped gardens. The squares, lanes, boulevards. In Marrakech everywhere I went I found myself in a wonderland, a feast of the senses.  From opulence to simplicity, from formal well-maintained palaces to decaying mud-walled hovels, my eyes took in scenes, objects, people and I was filled with awe, an appreciation on a level I hadn't experienced so far in my travels. Greece was one thing, Venice, Florence, Paris, the Alps, and so many other outstanding places,  had all given me huge input in their individual ways. But this place astounded me. Every day, every minute, I found something new to fascinate my delighted mind. And then there was the food.

Our little room became a haven.  I had started opening up creatively. Drawing, writing poetry, playing music on the flute and drums.  Dancing, yoga and making love a lot. Making God’s Eyes which Tom sold in the marketplace next day. I found a couple of basic French and Arabic grammars and started improving my bad high-school French and puzzling over Arabic.  Arabic calligraphy intrigued me and I spent hours copying its' flowing style, using the Chinese Shūfǎ and Japanese Sumi-e brush and ink techniques   I had learned way back when I was an Art student in Sydney. The walls of the room soon blossomed with our art. With the help of one of the waiters at the rooftop cafe I wrestled with the pronunciation of some simple Arabic words and phrases.

Arabic calligraphy intrigued me
 When we weren’t out exploring the city and its’ surrounds, sometimes linking up with other travellers to eat or share jaunts with,  we were content to stay in the room, smoking a s’bubsi pipe or two, passing quietly creative hours in these ways. The pain of my grief blurred.  Inside something wonderful was opening like a flower to the first rays of the rising sun. We were in Love….with Morocco, with Marrakech and each other. 

Sunrise over Marrakesh