Elias Cannetti’s narrative set in Marrakech during the mid 1950s describes a city still under the shadow of French colonial presence. The dates of publication of the original German edition (1967) and English translation (1978, 1982) may give the impression that the text deals with a post-colonial moment. However, a close reading of the text reveals the continuing presence of French colonial structure dominating the vast desolate landscape of houses which the French called native quarters. Canetti’s narrator presents vivid images of poverty, desperation, and loss akin to those portrayed by George Orwell in his 1939 essay, “Marrakech”. Moving through the narrow alleys of the city, the seat of bygone powerful imperial dynasties, once the center of prosperous trans-Saharan trade and home of the best craftsmen, Canetti’s narrator observes a world both shocking and fascinating by its contrasts.
There are markets for camels and donkeys just outside the Bab-el-Kemis. The fact that the camels are brought from the southern provinces of the country to sell to the butchers in Marrakech seems hard to accept, and creates a strong feeling of disillusionment for the narrator who it appears has never seen camels in real life. Being based at a luxurious hotel in the French part of the city, the narrator’s exploration of the native quarters follows the same pattern of shock and repulsion. The objects of his gaze vary from one day to another. There are, for instance, blind men chanting the name of Allah in an unchanging rhythmical pattern, there is also a blind beggar who will put a coin in his mouth and chew it for a long while. This is his way for identifying the value of the coin and also for bestowing his blessing on the benefactor. There is also the woman at the grill suffering from a mental problem whom the narrator takes for a captive and stands to observe under the disapproving eyes of passers-by. Not far from the ruined house where the insane woman lives lies the Koubba visited by scores of pilgrims. The wooden door of the Koubba has a knob in the shape of a ring from which dangle rags. These “were supposed to be shreds of the saint’s own robe and for the faithful there was something of his holiness in them.” (38)
The core of Canetti’s narrative, however, revolves around the Mellah, a bustling place densely populated by Jewish families. The narrator’s initial foray inside the Mellah makes him aware of the rampant poverty which envelops the whole quarter. Jewish shops are ‘little low booths” and the wares sold are extremely picturesque. What strikes the narrator most is the discreet attitude of Jewish traders:
They had a way of swiftly glancing up and forming an opinion of the person going past. Not once did I pass unnoticed. When I stopped they would scent a purchaser and examine me accordingly. But mostly I caught the swift, intelligent look before I stopped. (40)
Moving deeper into the Jewish quarter past the bazaars, the narrator comes into a square whose charm and ambiance seem to charm and compel him to return on several occasions:
I had the feeling that I was really somewhere else now,that I had reached the goal of my journey I did not want to leave, I had been here hundred s of years ago but I had forgotten and now it was all coming back to me. I found exhibited the same density and warmth of life as i had in myself. I was the square as I stood in it. I believe I am it always. (45)
This initial visit is a sort of homecoming. Being a Jew himself, the narrator feels deep attachment to the Mellah. While his promenade in the Jewish cemetery is marred by the persistent and clamorous pursuit of beggars, his life in the Jewish quarter and its dwellers drives him to return the next day and make the accidental acquaintance of the Dahane family. The narrator’s decision to enter the Dahans’ house, however, brings more nuisance that indeed appease his curiosity. Over the remaining period of his stay in Marrakesh, the narrator is pestered with the incessant requests of Elie Dahane, a young unemployed member of the family, tofind him a job. When his requests have been politely turned down, Elie Dahane insists that a letter of reference should be written on his behalf recommending his skills and character to the Commandant of the American camp in Ben Guerir. Nothing but full compliance with his demand could make an end to Elie Dahane’s unadvertised visits to the hotel. The power he seems to attach to the letter is at once incontestable and incomprehensible.
The last sections of the narrative focus on French colonial presence in the city and present strange tales of sexual fantasies told the narrator by the owners of a French restaurant and a French bar which he frequents.