An eight hour flight will get you from Abu Dhabi to Casablanca, another 30 minutes in a connecting flight will get you to Marrakech, and will immerse you in a love that only a fortunate few will experience in their lifetimes.
I didn’t know much about Morocco, I still don’t, but that didn’t stop me from the wonder and awe of seeing the snow covered Atlas mountains from air, or the desert in between them and the sudden and abundant appearance of orange groves surrounding the city. I forgot what it was like to view ochre, burnt umber and green parcels of land; I forgot organised cultivation and farming, the last I have experienced was in Texas while flying. I forgot the hundreds of villages that these parcels create of farmers and their dependents live in, I forgot most of all the beauty of this tapestry, and it is these that evoked the immediate feeling of love to this land and its people, even before meeting them! What aided that, I must admit, was the pleasure of having a Moroccan neighbour for 7 years in Bahrain. Now I am a guest in her country for but a few days, the first of which had tremendous impact on me.
I had to get out.
Disregarding the back-pain and the more than 12 hours of travel time, I had to go visit the town I have briefly read about; so in the company of a fellow Bahraini and a new Jordanian friend we got into a taxi that took us to the heart of the old town: the Medina, which the taxi conveniently dropped us at what possibly is the largest traditional crafts shop in town. And I want to buy almost every single article it contains! From fantastically constructed side-tables with intricate inlaid mother of pearl and ivory, through to several iterations of Berber carpets and copper and bronze fanouses, lamps, to cushions and their covers and leather goods which are a fetishist’s wet dream! I want them all, my home would certainly benefit greatly from them.
Fortunately; however, my travel experience kicked in and I just contented myself to taking photographs – when allowed – in the knowledge that I want to see what others have to offer and then utilise the last day in this distinct city to buy a few articles.
Walking out of that centre, we started walking in the general direction of the flow of people, stopping every few minutes – to the detriment and annoyance of my friends – to take pictures. Thankfully, most people did not mind once permission is politely sought, and there are an awful lot of subjects that you simply must shoot! This town is anything but un-photogenic, every single thing in here lends itself to a great picture: the old man sitting by his shop, the restaurant grilling skewers of meat, the children playing, the people walking, the traditional fashion, the old doors, the narrow alleyways, the shops and their contents, the eccentrics… everything. And this is not an exaggeration. By the time I reached my room again last night, I have shot 248 photographs, most of which are usable! The value of a 4GB CF card has certainly proved itself worthy.
Onward we walked, and fortunately intercepted by an 11-year-old urchin who promised to take us through the Casbah and before we knew it, we were following this kid through the most amazing mazes which opened up to uncover tremendous architectural and artistic features in the most unlikely of places! The alleyways, some of which are probably not more than a meter wide, had intricately constructed doors with their awnings, high walls, some of which looked like ancient ruins with cacti growing on top of them, electricity wires snaking between houses and even small recesses where kids played with their spin-tops or even football in these areas not larger than 3 meters by 3 meters.
After about an hour and a half of following the kid, we exit yet another winding alleyway into a main street in the depths of the old city, and we are yet again hit with that distinct smell of spices, to enter a traditional alternative medicine shop in which all your senses are bombarded at the very same instant: your sight is flooded with all rich colours imaginable, your sense of smell is attacked with the most sensual smell of spice which lead the rest of the senses to add to the tremendous experience for your visit to become whole.
And I continued to photograph things which I became aware of; framing, adjusting and shooting as I went along.
Walking further down the road we decided that we have seen enough of this area of town and it is time to do the time-honoured thing and hail a taxi to take us to the next feature, after rewarding the boy for him giving us a nice tour through the Casbah. As we were thirsty and ready for a coffee, we asked the barely-Arabic speaking taxi driver to take us to a nice place in which we can sit, chill out and watch the world go by while enjoying a nice cup of coffee. As none of us have mastered French yet, we thought that our louder voices and gesticulations were enough to communicate to the driver where we wanted to go. And off he went. For half an hour circling the city dodging impatient pedestrians and starved looking horses, donkeys and mules drawing touristic and freight carriages, all the while the three of us watching this great city’s neighbourhoods and features going by with our mouths open with wonder… this is a place that is so completely different from the imagination, and most certainly different from any Arab city I have ever been in. It is a one and only experience.
We stop and ask for the charge, the silly twit expected that we must have had wool on our eyes; he asked for about $100 for his trouble, but he (happily enough) accepted $3!
Dropping us at the entrance of what ultimately knew to be the Djemaa el Fna, the busiest square in the entire African continent, we walked with the throng and stopped aghast at the site that greeted us only a few minutes from leaving the taxi. How can such a multitude of people gather in a single location? There must have been thousands of people in there; locals trying to sell their wares, tourists and onlookers all in one place! There were snake charmers, fortune tellers, spice sellers, tarot card readers, dancers, jugglers, food sellers, story tellers and probably an awful lot more that I have missed. It was yet another sensual over-drive!
And the camera continued to add its voice to the cacophony, but unfortunately a lot of these vendors refused to allow their pictures to be taken without being rewarded first. I didn’t have the local currency yet to oblige, nor did I have the inclination to be forced into giving, so most I have left to be, but I still managed to take a lot of general shots which I shall treasure for a long time to come.
Time was getting on, and we had to get back to the hotel to attend the welcoming activities of the conference we were invited to attend so we decided to make our way back to the hotel. We thought we knew the general direction, and as the street was familiar looking and the buildings too – all buildings in this city appear to be of a standard pinkish-orange colour – we decided to walk. Half an hour later I prevailed on my friends to hail a cab as I was convinced that we were hopelessly lost, especially after I stopped a lady and asked for directions to our hotel, the incredulous look on her face when I said we could walk to it sealed the situation, and a cab was hailed. It appeared were were significantly away from the hotel, apart from it being at the complete opposite direction of where we were walking!
That was the first afternoon in Marrakech my friends, a city I am determined to bring my family to as soon as possible for them to enjoy too, as I am absolutely sure that they would enjoy it tremendously, and yes, this is based on just a few hours of being here.
I am in love with this place, and I will leave a little bit of my heart in it on my departure… simply as an excuse to come back and retrieve it with the ones I love!