MARRAKECH, Morocco – Didn’t see much of Marrakech my first week there. Didn’t even glimpse the friends I traveled from Nairobi to meet. Nor had I spent more than fifteen minutes in the swanky hotel room before receiving word that the main subject of a story I was working on – a Muslim cleric – was shot dead that afternoon.
While my travel companions compared notes on Pastilla aux pigeons at the different restaurants and deciding where to find the best deal on leather genie slippers, all I could think about was the extrajudicial killing of a ‘radical’ jihad recruiter in Mombasa – and filing my story.
So, for me Morocco was a blur seen from a speeding taxi or walking briskly and absentmindedly from souk to souk.
It was my first time out of Kenya in a year and I was struck by the sharp winter sun that shined most of the time; so bright it made my eyes hurt.
The medina is a walled city crammed with hole-in-the-wall souks. The colors are roughly the same everywhere: terracotta, saffron, crimson red, Indigo blue. Frankincense, rose, orange, jasmine, musk and cedar oils scented every alley inside the medina. No cars are allowed inside the medina, but donkeys and motorbikes whiz by narrowly missing tourists.
Marrakech reminded me of parts of California or maybe more of the American desert southwest. Santa Fe, New Mexico or outlying areas of Tucson – without the strip malls. The town sprawls out on the flat high desert near the foot of the snowy Atlas range. (I never knew Morocco had hills let alone a mountain range). The air is dry, the earth a fleshy pink color. Some the walls of the larger riads had tiny holes and looked like they’d been pierced like a pie with like fork tines. An antique dealer told us they were peeping holes.
Some locals live in adobe-like mud huts in dry river beds, where they live for cheap if not for free. Annual flash floods wash them away.On either side of the river beds on higher ground are estates belonging to Europeans – mainly Parisians – with second homes. About 25,000 expats live there year round, though never found out what they do exactly.
Marrakech’s skyline remains low-slung; modern buildings are no more than a five stories. That’s how current King Mohammed V wants it. Apparently, the city won’t issue you a residence permit if you don’t agree to coloring the exterior of a house or building some shade of terracotta.
Morocco is for the most part a peaceful and stable country, for sure. Locals go to great lengths to tell you this. It’s had its terrorist moments in Casablanca in 2003. With the exception of Thailand, countries with monarchies and even dictatorships seem the most stable.
Residents attribute the stability to their King, Mohammed V, a big promoter of tourism. One of my friends hadn’t been to Morocco in years and she was impressed at how tidy it had become. Boulevards with flowers and trees had replaced old two lane pot-holed tarmacs.
Apparently, Morocco was the first African nation to recognize the USA’s independence from Britain. This may explain why Morocco is rarely criticized for its practice of sharia law, conservative Islam. The women are as covered up, oppressed-looking as in other Muslim countries. The wooly blanket-like robes with the pointy hoods the men wore looked slightly pervy.
Two Parisians, an antique dealer and his partner, an anaesthesiologist, invited us to his multi-acre riad (private residence). Their vineyard and orange groves were among a dozen estates in manicured suburb you might find in Tucson. We lunched under the dappled shade of a trellis draped with wisteria. Waiters served turkey Tagine, couscous and for desert a simple fruit salad of Morocco’s famously large, juicy, thick-skinned easy to peal oranges sliced and sprinkled with cinnamon and sliced roasted almonds.
From Marrakech I drove for five hours to Tangiers. The highway was as tidy and smooth as any you’d find in the U.S.. Except for the mosques the landscape was mainly irrigated fields and unremarkable. The driver didn’t know what anyone was farming nor did he seem to care.
Morocco is a peculiar country; neither first world nor “developing”. Classic second world, which to me lacks life. I didn’t see any slums but the apartment buildings were made of cement and cheap exported tile.
Tangier lies on the country’s north coast at the western entrance to the Strait of Gibralter, where the Mediterranean meets the rough Atlantic.
I stayed for a few nights at a grand yet petite guesthouse over-looking the sea in the old Kasbah riad. The 14th century villa once belonged to a French prince. I wandered the maze of alleys in the Kasbah, the old part of town on a cliff.
Unlike Marrakech city is apparently undergoing rapid and indiscriminate development – ports and apartment buildings – among the ancient ruins and colonial French architecture. The city seemed scrappy to me.
The French villa was built in 14th century on the highest point of the Kasbah. Except for the construction of a new fishing port, you couldn’t see any buildings below. The floor to ceiling windows seemed to stretch out over the Atlantic and into the heavens.
When the clouds obscured the sun, damp grey weather depressed me. It wasn’t until I left the city I realized I’d never heard any music or much laughter in the streets. There were no direct flights back to sunny Marrakech, so I drove to Casablanca.
I wasn’t particularly enjoying myself, but I wasn’t able to leave Morocco.
For most of my time there I never really stopped thinking about the violent death of the middle-aged man holed up alone in a tiny apartment in one of the most impoverished areas of Mombasa. Last I communicated with him he repeatedly told me he knew he’d soon die. His mission in life – however dubious his methods – seemed as simple and straightforward as whoever decided to “terminate” him.
One morning – around 4 am – I woke up to the predawn call to prayer called Salat. Mercifully, most of the calls were not amplified by microphone and loudspeaker. The only one using a mic sounded like a bullfrog by comparison.
The calls were deep with mystery and longing. Longing for what, but seemed to stretch back in time. I was never sure and something my western sensibilities may never fathom.