Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Marrakech - The final piece in the puzzle

You cannot claim to fully understand the Spanish nation without first making a trip across the straits to that other continent that people once believed began at the Pyranees. Nonetheless although the Iberians would have you think that Morocco is a very distant land, my visit proved to me that it is in many ways a lot closer to their European neighbours than political geography might suggest. Modern times dictate that this is the point where Europe ends and Africa begins. However this was not always the case.

Marrakech is a chaotic, noisy and dusty city. It is also a quaint, likeable and searingly hot Moroccan metropolis where the predominant colour is yellow, the typical animal is the donkey and the principal form of transport is the screeching moped. Even so, while walking about the narrow streets I could not help but notice that the city’s soundtrack was frighteningly similar to that of nearby Spain. In the end it was a very distinct human “hiss” sound that sent my mind jumping randomly and confusedly between Europe and Africa. Until now I had only ever come across this very particular manner of calling someones attention on the Spanish streets of Granada and little did I expect to come across it in the Arab labyrinth of Marrakech. Furthermore as I wandered on observing the natives and hunting for that ever elusive perfect portrait I came to realise that I was at times looking into the faces of my very own friends. If it had been Madrid I would have presumed it to be an uncle, grandfather or even brother? How could it be that this Muslim holy man can look so similar to the priest who drinks his morning coffee in the same Malasaña café as I. But then again why should this surprise me when the forever vilified Moors who settled in ancient Spain arrived without any women.

I naively expected Marrakech to fit my ill informed, preconceived notion of what such a Muslim city would be like. Still and all it was a misconception that did not last long as I immediately witnessed local women speeding about on mopeds sporting fancy cleavage and fancy jeans. However that said, invariably cycling in the opposite direction would be a girl of equal age peeping through her consersative Muslim attire. While most Moroccan girls would never dare to converse with you in public , they would instead stare with their dark piercing eyes and slip you a forbidden smile in a manner that most Spanish girls would find too forward. It was all just a Moroccan game of tease that I naturally enjoyed given the astonishing beauty of the Marrakech ladies. Meanwhile the truly ugly side to this is that their glorious females are treated as lesser individuals and indeed one of the most absurd sights were the separate queues at cash machines, one for women and another for men.

Morocco is not a democracy and I therefore expected a far more visible uniformed police presence than turned out to be the case. Furthermore road rules did not seem be of much importance although I do recognise that they would be impossible to enforce as driving through Marrakech is a veritable game of “dodge the donkey”. Afterall how does one incorporate unpredictable mules into the "safe-cross code" of an African nation! Thankfully however the Moroccans are not aggressive drivers and of course it goes without saying that there is no drunk-driving in a Muslim “dry state” such as here. Thus as safely sober cars wormed rapidly between the kasbahs and bizaars with arabian-french rap blaring through the windows I smiled to myself as the words of Joe Strummer came to mind and with the new found insight that it was not about Morocco that he sang;

"By order of the prophet, We ban that boogie sound, Degenerate the faithful, With that crazy Kasbah sound."
One of the most interesting features of Marrakech were the Riads which were the ancient homes with closed gardens dotted about the city. All rooms of these wealthy residences opened out onto the central garden, thus providing private shade from the sun and no doubt shelter from religion. It was in these exotic walled oasis and adjoining quarters that the ever polygamous owners energetically enjoyed their many wives. Hence as I sat marvelling at the splendour of the ceramics I recalled the common theory that the Moors lost their 800 year hold on Spain after their overflowing harems slowly smothered their soldiering prowess. Furthermore exploring these opulent refuges it was easy to identify the origins of the modern Andalucian homes common throughout southern Spain. The only difference is that in Cordoba there is no 5 am calling to prayer in which each mosque tower duly competes on a daily basis to be heard above their nearby rivals. Conclusion: No such thing as a lie-in in downtown Marrakech.

In only a matter of days it became quite evident to the eye that the history and culture of Spain and Morocco are undeniably intertwined. In spite of the contrasting fortunes, political predicaments and recent histories of the two nations it was nonetheless possible to see that common gestures, words, sounds, foods, music and architecture still mirrored each other to an incredible extent. It is not unusual to read the ancient history of nation without necessarily being able to identify the traces in modern cotidian society. This was not the case. Afterall, what is 12km ?

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