I feel weird – jet-lagged, trying to make myself stay up until normal bedtime. This sultry afternoon I went to get first a cup of tea at the Bengali bakery – to keep me up – and then a pedicure – Jenny, expert salon employee pumiced away at the callus that had developed on my right big toe tromping through the souks and the marchés, through madrasas and palaces, museums and metros. The world, this trip reminded me, is bursting with various and chaotic splendor.
We took a red-eye that stopped over for four hours at Heathrow, where we ate some odd food (Gary’s sausages, he swears, were “bangers”) and wallowed briefly in the accents, which we could not help imitating. Long lines at Heathrow and curt signs posted saying not to bother the airline staff or you would be sent home. One bag only permitted. Liquids in Ziploc bags. It’s always been a hassle to travel, now more so than ever. Frayed tempers. My hair a giant dried-up frizz, sharpness in nose – I wanted to cry. That feeling of yanking oneself over an ocean. But I did feel that it was an omen to see this:
We arrived in Marrakech on time, at just after 7 in the evening and just in time for a sunset. Tiles in the airport – air hot and dry. Met by an extremely tall Moroccan man who drove us to the riad. My French had to kick in instantly. Driving up to the city, he explained that we were nearing Koutoubia, the great mosque that sits just across from the Place Jemaa el Fna.
The rosy color of the walls. Veils. Whizzing motorbikes: vweeeeeeee, vweeeeeeee. Heavy smell of diesel. Then inside the medina – whoa, crazy driving – into labyrinthine streets. Much street activity – shoppers, storekeepers, donkey carts, teenagers out in the cooler evening air — and we were dropped off at a little place we later learned was the Place Moukeff – car too big to go all the way to Riad Safa, where we had booked a room. So our luggage went on a kind of wheelbarrow into a tiny twisty little street where Gary tripped on a rock in a dark stretch of alley. Kids running there, screaming, trying to grab our ankles. A doorway: our riad.
We were greeted by Jean Michel and Frederic, the kind proprietors of the riad. Jean Michel, sportive and brisk, explained this little hand-drawn map of the medina to us. Fred reminded me of Ray Bolger, lanky and with a wide grin.
Riad Safa was so beautiful – with its open courtyard’s magnanimous orange tree, its perfect décor down to the tassels on the curtains, the tastefully placed antique travel ephemera, the woven cushions, or this lamp outside our room:
Dinner of sandwiches on the terrace, prepared by one of the two cooks at Riad Safa – I didn’t catch the names of these two angels, but their sweetness was so palpable I could only think, whenever I saw them, “orange blossoms!” — then showers, and then to bed under nearly unnecessary mosquito netting (I saw only one mosquito in Marrakech the whole time we were there) (but it did look nice and reminded me of home) that first night for two very weary travelers.
(written mostly Monday morning)
How to describe that feeling, going to a place for the first time, that it is ever so much more like its representations than you had expected? Stepping out of the riad into the hot light and the rosy, dusty pathway – a woman passes in full djellaba and veiled face – like a pastel kuroko – can this world still exist? Did the Medina evolve out of sheep paths? Or what else explains its twistiness? The walls – both the outer wall and the walls that set off the houses – the fondouks – from the street – are like fortifications, it’s true – but the colors are so sensuously soft and the details so exquisite – iron knockers on doors the shape of hands, curled iron grillework, arched passageways in nested layers – that it feels more like a collection of secret places than a place of defense.
Gary proved – unexpectedly – to be a brilliant navigator, clutching the little map Jean Michel had given us and finding the first fountain, then the second, that were the landmarks on the way out of the little piece of the maze where Riad Safa nestles. We were tentative on that first day – our first stop was the Medersa Ben Youseff, which is no longer active as a madrasa, but was filled with huge tour groups exposing both impractically and insensitively a great deal of skin. The amazing madrasa:
I kept entirely covered while I was there – though not always my head – and must say that I found the uncovered skin and body-conscious outfits I saw on tourists and “loose” Moroccan women much less attractive than the variety of djellabas – in sherbet hues, embroidered in arabesques – I loved especially the pink ones – so elegant and groovy on whizzing motorbikes. Moroccan women are breathtakingly beautiful – perfect oval faces and hair twisted up and clipped at the back, when not covered by a djellaba hood or pretty headscarf:
I didn’t make it to a hammam and that makes me very sad, as that is supposed to be the best way to get to know Moroccan women; I didn’t even buy any of the famous savon noir they use for gommage polissante. Sad! But I was only there for four days, and they were hectic, and hot, and full days – and I must admit to being culture-shocked. Strange! I’ve been to Hat Yai and Penang, SuZhou and Prague, Virginia and Merida, Hastings and Ubud – but Morocco was different. Not just because it was a Muslim country (for so, after all, is Malaysia, and so is, for that matter, much of my neighborhood!), but because it is (arguably) Arab.
Did I mention that outside the Medersa was an herboriste outside of which hung enormous loofahs and some REAL leopard pelts? I don’t have a picture to prove it, but there they were. I surely was in Africa. The Medersa was a study in intricacies. If you are, as I am, a tile fetishist, you MUST go there.
The lobby of the Marrakech museum held the hugest and most impressive brass chandelier one could possibly imagine. Recesses that once served as fountains held audio speakers that played luscious and hypnotic oud music which I would happily have bought had it not cost even more than it would here in New York.
Exhibits of Berber jewelry and embroidery sent me into utter ecstasy.
Even the bathroom was gorgeous:
I transformed myself for a moment into a pasha, a brazen orientalizing fool. OK, for more than a moment. What can I say?
To be continued!