When I heard of it, I had mixed feelings about the idea of a long weekend trip to Marrakesh organized for faculty members and their families. I knew the place well. I had stayed in Hotel Al-Andalus when we had a conference there last November. I don’t mind the free publicity. I particularly like the staff and food and the location of the hotel so close to the cafes and restaurants on Mohamed VI Avenue. Oh! The soap and shampoo were of such a diminished size I simply didn’t bother to use them. I also regret there is no ironing machine in the rooms, but again you don’t need to be neat and immaculate in Marrakesh. You’d be just as fine with Jeans, T-shirt and sport shoes.
I said I had mixed feelings about the trip. Well, I wasn’t sure if I would be comfortable with the idea of collective outings and group dinners. You associate holidays with a sense of casualness and privacy. That’s quite a different situation from meeting in a departmental office or even in a cafeteria. Time was to be shared and that meant being consistently polite and well-behaved which, believe me, can be taxing. My wife had a professional commitment and wasn’t coming with us. Perhaps, I thought, it was better that way. But again, there were several incentives. I like the flatness of Marrakesh, the fresh air, and nocturnal walks. I was born there many many years ago when my father served in the army. We left a couple of years afterwards, and I was too young to develop any nostalgic feelings for the place.
I visited the city time and again, but somehow there was always a nagging doubt- a persistent feeling of irritation. To be frank about it, I don’t like the chaos of Jame El Fnae square, the sorry looks of water sellers and beggars, the frenzied gesticulations of snake charmers and story-tellers and the rest of them. When you reflect on it, it’s a pitiful and humiliating display of Third World mediocrity and pauperism perpetuated by the authorities to gratify the tourists’ desire for an exotic experience in Morocco. Just yesterday I saw a tourist take a picture of a man holding apart the lips of his donkey so that the poor donkey’s gnashed teeth may be photographed. What a queer fantasy!
I’m always amazed how many people have their dinners at the food stalls in the square. I guess it’s the cheap price that attracts them, but I may be too biased here. I have my own prejudices when it comes to food. But the view from the cafe terraces, the mint tea, and music can be uplifting even if you are a first-time visitor. I like the quiet and peaceful promenade on Mohamed VI Avenue at night. That’s what springs to mind when I think of Marrakech. It’s a safe place for pedestrians away from the hassle of ubiquitous motorbikes and taxis.
Anyway, I drove down from Casablanca to the hotel and there in the lobby I found a host of colleagues and their families. My colleague and dear friend, Said was the leader of the group. Last September, we had led a group of fellow professors on an educational visit to London. Said is a pleasant person to work with and his sense of humor makes him popular with everyone. He has on top of that useful contacts almost everywhere (old classmates, friends, and former students) . In Marrakech, a friend of his who owned a transport company arranged for our tours to neighboring villages notably Sti Fadma, Dam Lala Takerkoust, Moulay Brahim, Asni, and Tahanout.
The scenery along the winding road to Sti Fadma was very green and beautiful. The eyes could stretch far ahead across the hills to the peaks of the Atlas mountain covered by snow. The sound of water flowing along the Eurika river had a soothing effect on us. There were spots furnished in the most basic style by locals for their prospective customers. All along the banks of the river in Sti Fadma village, there were traditional cafes and restaurants offering chicken and beef Tajines and hot mint tea. The sofas looked shabby and worn out, the tables low and small but that sense of simplicity and plainness added to the charm of the place.
The food was splendid. We gobbled our meals like famished wolves and forgot all about etiquette. We were over 25 individuals divided into six small groups. After lunch we dispersed to buy souvenirs, dry fruits, herbs like dried thyme, pennyroyal and vervain grown and sold locally. Along the road, large mirrors with wooden and metallic frames of all shapes and sizes were on sale. The prices varied from 300 to 500 Dhs. I was told they were made by the local inhabitants. There were colorful rags too, but I believe these were brought from far deeper villages in the Atlas Mountains.
On the second day, we had a long drive to Dam Lalla Takerkoust, which our dean -the historian- said it was named after a woman known for her chastity and sagacity. We had tea and took pictures. Then drove up thorough amazing landscape on a regional route to the height of Moulay Brahim where a yearly Moussem is held. The seat of Moulay Brahim was not very impressive. But the mountains on the right were magnificent. Our two vans then took the steep route down to Asni which I also found chaotic and typical of villages located on the road.
We had a short stop on the road to Hanaout to buy water and fruits. Our driver had a lot of stories to tell and one of my colleagues who took the front seat volunteered to act as our guide and entertainer. The nice surprise was the group lunch in Tahanout where we had meat Tajines and skewers of grilled beef and chicken. We certainly were a big crowd and occupied half of the room overlooking the garden.
The drive back to the hotel was now shorter and smoother. At night, after dinner, we had a little private party. A drummer and Oud player gave us a very entertaining performance. Around midnight we walked along the Mohamed VI avenue and like the previous night sat in a cafe and drank vervain, schweppes, and hot chocolate. We looked tired and sleepy. The conversations drifted in all directions and came back to the quiet and peaceful ambiance of Marrakesh night.
Regrettably, there were several places we couldn’t visit: the cool patios and courtyards of the Bahia Palace and the Badi Palace with their beautiful mosaic decorations, the old Saadian tombs, El Koutobia Mosque, Menara, the picturesque Majorelle Garden. Sure enough, Marrakesh has plenty of attractions to offer the tourist. No wonder it’s crowded all year long.