Leaving Milan I was full of expectation. The pictures of Marrakech were of deep blue skies, exotic visuals, Koutoubia Mosqueand customs barely changed for hundreds of years. I landed in Marrakech International Airport at 9:00 am feeling a little dragged down from the 4:30 wake up call. The airport is a lush garden of a port, set amongst trees and flowers with dry hills and the snow capped Atlas range in the background. The cab took me as close as is possible for a car to my hotel. He handed me my bags and said “go straight”, which I have come to find out is a euphemism for “try to head in this direction and find your way along the small, twisting, turning streets and try to not get run over by a motorcycle”. Being directionally challenged I was lost almost immediately. Luckily a nice man in the traditional djellaba (traditional one piece wool clothing worn by men and made famous – aka – borrowed for the clothing of the desert people in Star Wars part 1. Think Obi-wan’s costume.) led me the way there through the maze to the front door. I use the word hotel lightly. I’m staying at Jnane Mogador, a riad, or traditional family home built around an open courtyard with an open roof top deck. Luckily its very close to where I want to go and what I want to see here – mainly Jamaâ El Fna in the old city, or medina.
Jamaâ El Fna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001, is an open square in the center of the old city that dates back to the 11th century by most accounts, and in some form or fashion for longer still. Being on an ancient trade route to the sea, Marrakech was a stopping point for caravans of spices and/or pilgrims making their way to Mecca. To feed hungry travelers locals began setting up small food stalls. These were made to be portable and drawn by donkey, just as they are today. As the city grew more varieties of food began to open, as well as forms of entertainment. I went first thing today after dropping off my luggage. By 10:00 am there were a good thirty stalls selling fresh orange juice and as many selling nuts and dried fruit. Snake charmers with their strange instruments and drums sit on carpets and keep their cobras and vipers entertained. Monkeys on leashes perform tricks and sit on shoulders. Water sellers, in their ornate, brightly colored clothing, bang together small cymbals to let possible buyers know they are near by. The square is a living being as a social creature, as many sociologists have said of groups of people. It is controlled chaos. Within an hour the square had changed a little. Food stalls started opening and some of the juice stalls started closing. It wasn’t like a changing of the guard, it was more organic than practiced. I sat in a corner shop and sipped sweet mint tea for an hour watching the comings and goings. And as the mint finally settled to the bottom of my second glass a more vibrant square was beginning to take shape. I wasn’t the only one watching. I was surrounded by locals doing the very same.
I left for a bit to explore. I meandered down a few side streets glancing in the souks, or shops, at the millions of objects for sale. The souk district is similar to the Grand Bizarre in Istanbul, only smaller and a little less controlled feeling. Not really in the mood to purchase, I caught an open top bus, a tourist’s paradise on wheels, to get my self familiar with the area. Marrakech is a strange city. It is a place of deep tradition and old ways of life. At the same time the outskirts have in the past few years become the playground for the rich and famous of Europe. A simple hostel can go for five dollars a night. One night in a renovated historic riad can cost thousands. The only real casino in town requires a coat and tie to get in the door. Winston Churchill loved to vacation here and is known to frequent a particular bar in the newer side of town. I thought about this quite a bit today while aboard the bus as well as stopping for a walk around a garden created by designer Yves saint Laurent, a walled off city block circled by less than opulent surroundings. In a world of Disney theme parks and Travel Chanel specials, travel can easily become a bit of a top ten travel sites to visit demi-glace – lots of the good condensed into single servings. Not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. I have, after all, done that very thing for ten days so far. I rode from site to site getting a feel for the place but not really feeling anything. Shortly after dark, however, I got off at Jamaâ El Fna and walked to the distant sound of drums toward the bright lights and smoke pouring out of the center of the square. Unlike the daytime, this was true madness. Where was once a few dozen orange juice stalls was now a mob of cooks and waiters selling everything from kabobs, tajines (small, one serving stews cooked in clay pots over a flame) and couscous to the more exotic snail and boiled sheep head options. This is street and comfort food rolled into one. Along the way to my stall of choice I passed interesting oddities you don’t often see in my neck of the woods. Crowds gather around belly dancers moving to the beat of the drummers, fortune tellers reading palms, witch doctors selling remedies for every ailment under the sun, and story tellers who make their living recalling forgotten myths and legends. This is one place where the tourist actually adds something to the mix. The square was created for travelers passing through. It would be almost nothing without someone to be sold something.
And in this sense the idea of “history” becomes something to really think about. We grow up reading history texts – memorizing the dates and locations of monumental events. TV series and movies use strange phrases like “…and changed history forever.” But really, history is much more abstract than that. It isn’t just a collection of recalled events organized by periods and state or technological advances. You don’t change history, you create it. Every person I walked by today has a history as unique to them as their own face. And their, or our, history is more important to us than the achievements of Reconnaissance artists A food stall at Jamaâ El Fna(which will be the next blog – got a little behind on account of lacking internet access in Italy) or the impact of Hellenism after Alexander the Great. This is my fascination with a relatively obscure four block by four block square in the middle of a small city in northern Africa. History is transported from an abstract concept attached to an ancient building into a living, breathing being that continues to find its small place in a large, diverse world. An ancient tradition becomes part of my history. I often think about the importance of tradition in living. For a very long time we humans have survived both mentally and physically by traditions. We live in an era where it is normal if not encouraged to “break with tradition”. To see not just a physical building but a way of life and tradtiona received as a Heritage Site is very important.
The food was as good as I had hoped. Being a fan of a good tajine, and despite the fact it was also my lunch, I had one with bread and a few kabobs on the side for good measure. The smell of the tajine when the waiter removed the lid, with its still sizzling chicken and vegetables, was incredible. Tajines were traditionally food for the working man. The round, heavy clay pot with domed lid were brought to work every day with the necessary ingredients. The ingredients would all be mixed together and thrown on coals in the morning and would be perfectly cooked by lunch. Its basically a single serving stew. My personal favorite, and the type I had for lunch is chicken with preserved lemon. The stall I ate at, (Stall 1) had four or five different tajines available, of which I hope to try by the end of my visit. The kabobs were fantastic and under a dollar a piece. All in all it was the best $8 (with water) I could have spent. I will be back tomorrow and the next. I think tomorrow might also be a good day for snails…
My stomach is full and my eyes are heavy after the early morning flight.