Sunday, November 23, 2008

On the Marrakech Express

Yesterday morning, I awoke at 6.30 to catch the 7.45 train to Marrakech for a little weekend escape from Rbati family life. A friend of mine from Rabat had spent a week in central Morocco with her aunt, and I was going to join her for a fun Marrakshi weekend before both heading back to Rabat on Sunday evening.

It was a four and a half-hour trip that reminded me of how much I love traveling by train. Perhaps I learned to love it as a high school student, when memberships of regional and nationwide symphony orchestras required a fair amount of train travel to and from rehearsals across the country. Unlike on a plane, I can easily sit on a train for hours on end, content just with watching the changing landscape and letting my mind wander freely. I love air travel, too, but it is sterile, it’s unimaginative. It consists simply of leaving a place, arriving somewhere else, and a white, anonymous zone of nothingness in between. On a train, however – much like in a car – the trip is all about the in-between. And as such it is ‘travel’ in the real sense of the word – it is movement, constant transition. You see the landscape changing, flashing by, as you move through it. It renders me reflective, makes me turn inward in a pleasant way, and sometimes there is nothing I love more than to be alone, listen to appropriate travel music, and stare out the window of a train.

Traveling from Morocco’s Atlantic coast to the dry mountain valley in which lies Marrakech, the landscape slowly changes color: the moist black earth of the fertile coastal regions becomes red, then yellow, as it dries out. Its surface begins to ripple and fold, first into hills, and then into mountains. The first sign of Marrakech is a vague outline of the Koutoubia’s minaret – built by the Almohad dynasty in the 12th century, it is twice as high as its sister minaret in Cordoba, and visible for miles. It is not until after the train passes through a vast forest of palm trees that the city itself emerges, in all its pink beauty. Elsewhere in Morocco, walls, buildings, and cities are white or grey. But in Marrakech, they have all been washed a dark, orange-tinted pink.

The walls of Marrakech are also noticeably cleaner than they are elsewhere in Morocco. This is so clearly a city that is run by people with a particular aesthetic: it is a city that caters to an audience of rich foreigners intrigued with the city’s exoticism. Marrakech represents all that makes Morocco so interesting and intriguing. It is colorful, traditional, exciting. Arab, Berber, and tangibly African: in other words, the capital of the Moroccan exotic. This has attracted not only the hippies portrayed in Hideous Kinky, but also a rich Western public with enough money to create a little exotic space for themselves in this old and famous city. And as Moroccans left the declining medina for apartments in the Ville Nouvelle, Westerners came in to take over and renovate the traditional riads.* In the medina they cleaned up the grit to create a more sterile, more picture-perfect rendition of what they expected Morocco to be, and in the Ville Nouvelle they built pools, nightclubs, and casino’s for some European-style entertainment.

All this makes Marrakech feel a bit like a Hollywood version of what it once must have been. And so it is beautiful, and creates an incredibly pleasant refuge for a little weekend getaway. But with its shiny coat of gloss, it lacks a bit of the reality, the grit, that a city like Fes has always maintained. The grit must still be there – in concentrated form, probably, beyond the playgrounds of the wealthy. Beyond the hotels, nightclubs, the medina souqs that cater to tourists. The disparities between rich and poor must be tremendous in Marrakech, and a part of me wonders how this other, less fortunate, half must live.

But the other half of me was overjoyed to be back here – this city I had fallen in love with four years ago. I, too, get a little swept up in its beauty, and simply in the idea of it – all that the name “Marrakech” represents. And I eagerly let myself drown in all it had to offer, feeling wonderfully free with the knowledge that I would not have to return to my wonderful but very noisy and dominant host family in Rabat, until Sunday evening. After a glass of juice at a café overlooking the jma l-fna, the huge open square that is the heart of Marrakech (and the groups of Sufi drummers its beat), my friend and I spent a few hours strolling around the touristy area of the medina. Following the general flow of traffic, we stayed within a certain perimeter lined with traditional shops selling earthenware, wooden objects, jewelry, carpets, paintings, babouches, traditional beauty products. We shopped successfully: apparently, knowing some Arabic gets you a lot of smiles, open doors, and lower prices in Marrakech. Sampling music at a small cd-shop, for instance, we got involved in a conversation with the proprietor of the traditional drug store next door, who was full of smiles and enthusiastically told us about his life in Italy – after which we simply had to take a look inside his shop as well. It was a small square place lined with shelves that were filled with jars of powders, soaps, and liquids. Large containers of powders (most of it different kinds of henna, I think) stood at the center, and a collection vats of sabon bildi (the traditional soap used at the hammam) was placed at the entrance, all with different fragrances and consistencies. Curious objects hung from the shelves – large beads, goat- and gazelle horns. As he continued his stories, he and his brother sampled their products for us. One after the other, they took down the large jars from their shelves, and lifted out cubes of musk, powdered lavender, kohl, and so on. They would rub it on our hands, have us smell, and look at us expectantly: “zouina, yak? (‘delicious, isn’t it?’).” An excellent opportunity to buy some sabon bildi, I decided, and the scrubber-gloves that go with. The proprietor showed me his collection – not only a choice of soaps, but a variety of gloves as well, each with different degrees of roughness. With a big smile, he looked at my pale skin, and gave me the mildest of them all. Normally, he said, he’d charge tourists a lot for this. But because it was me, and he liked me, he’d give me a good price! I gave him my best appreciative smile, and told him that because he was so nice, I’d take two each of gloves and soap.

And so we spent the afternoon. A few hours, some more souvenirs for family and friends, and a slightly lighter wallet later, we had a snack at a streetside café (Moroccan pancakes with Nutella…to die for) to tie ourselves over until Moroccan dinnertime (9 PM, approximately), and then returned to the hotel to get ready for the evening.

The Marrakech film festival, which had been going on all week, was on its final night. Films – new releases from all over the world – were playing at cinemas across the city, as well as on a big screen constructed on the jma l-fna. One of these cinemas was located just around the corner from our hotel, and we so we went to the 8 PM showing of a South African film starring John Malkovich. At 10 Dirhams a showing, seeing a movie most certainly was not a pleasure reserved only for the wealthy guests of the festival. In fact, the festival encourages locals to join in on the fun, and indeed, the entire theater was full to the brim with Moroccan teenagers, who could not stop giggling at every romantic or sexual scene on screen.

After the movie, and after a quick meal at the snack bar next to the cinema, we were ready for a real night out. But where to go, and how to find out about the city’s hotspots? We found a quick, and apparently efficient way of answering these questions. We headed for a trendy-looking bar, sat down, and ordered ourselves a drink, a dessert – and some nightlife advice. Our server listed at least four different clubs we could choose from. We decided on a location that wouldn’t leave us too isolated (and thus dependent on scheming cab drivers) at 3 in the morning, and made sure we’d get our 150 Dirham cover charge’s worth: was he sure it would be busy? Oh yes, he said, it was always packed. The place to be.

And so we went, to Teatro, located (as the name gives away) in an old theater adjacent to a huge casino in l’hivernage, a neighborhood in the Ville Nouvelle. At 00.15, we were uncomfortably early. Nearly the first, in fact; we arrived to a completely empty space, the music still at manageable volume, and the servers and bartenders standing at attention just past the door, waiting for their first customers. It was a huge space, decorated in a lush theatrical red and chrome. It was filled as far as we could see with tables and lounge chairs – all of them reserved for bottle service, all already supplied with bottles of soda and water, glasses, and containers with ice. We went to the bar (created, from the looks of it, in what used to be the orchestra pit), asked the bartender a little about how these reservations worked, and got ourselves a free round of drinks. Don’t worry, the bartender said, feel free to sit down at one of the reserved tables as long as it’s unoccupied.

In fact, we sat at this table long after that. The table we had chosen had been reserved, it turned out, by a suave and friendly Frenchman of Moroccan descent and his work associate – a middle-aged gray Frenchman who, it seemed, was seeking to reclaim a lost youth through trendy clothing, an age-inappropriate enthusiasm for the core-shaking bass of the music being played, and the young Moroccan girl he had brought with him. They invited us to stay, and we spent the rest of the evening around their table, dancing and trying in vain to communicate.

Because the music was loud. Louder than I have ever experienced in a club. I noticed how core-shaking it really was when I went to the bathroom; though removed from the speakers and subwoofers, the bass was inescapable even here. Even here, I felt it rippling right through my body; even here, it made most communication impossible.

But it was fun. Teatro put on quite a show – live music, beglittered staff dressed in devil-costumes, a veritable fire-show, even. And I let myself go with the music. It was house – the real stuff, the stuff I miss in American clubs – the stuff I love, to most Americans’ consternation. Unable to truly talk, unable above all to escape the bass, there simply was no other choice but to let ourselves go with the music. And so we danced, until 4 AM, after which the suave French-Moroccan drove us back to our hotel. And at 5, after a brief shower to wash away the stench of smoke, we finally rolled into bed.

* Riads, by the way, are the traditional Moroccan houses of the medina – a court yard, salons leading off it. Marrakech now even has new quarters, built recently just outside the medina, in traditional medina-style. They are suburban subdivisions of cookie-cutter riads, all next to each other, all exactly the same. It is such a sign of the kind of people Marrakech attracts.

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