Friday, January 27, 2012
Talk about a lapse in research. I just found out today that there was a major terrorist attack in Marrakech last year. I knew about the Casablanca bombings almost 10 years ago but those incidents did not kill any tourists. But in April 2011, some guy - true, a non-Marrakshi and convicted rapist, but Al Qaeda and its analogs prey on expendables - walks into a cafe on the Jemaa al Fna, the huge central square and UNESCO site, the equivalent of about 1001 Raekoja platses, and blows himself up.
We were on the road back from Italy after a late Easter, and not reading the papers. But I have been online many times since on the subject Marrakech and had not come across the news, so it seems that Morocco's tourism has done a good job keeping it off the radar, as much as you can do with a bomb that takes out 15 people in your #1 site.
My impression, a bit unfairly I'm sure, remains that Morocco is safer than Israel, that it's a client state of the West, too cozy for the liking of any Islamists, but with enough open coastline, royal social democracy and historical resistance to mainstream Arab culture to not to become a second Algeria.
But I guess there should be no confusion that Arab Spring brought not only scattered street protests in Morocco but also one major instance of tourist carnage.
I'm here for the city's marathon, and my main preoccupation is getting rid of chronic fatigue by getting sun (it's real and it's bad this year), and remaining gastrointestinally healthy before the race, so I'm playing it low-key and not living it up or doing many traditional tourist things. But being here for three days meditating on West-East relations for the first three days, then finding out about the bomb, has been interesting.
Interestingly, I was looking for the Cafe Argana based on a 2007 Lonely Planet Guidebook -- I guess the fact that the bomb utterly destroyed it explains why I didn't find it. I wasn't looking for the Argana to eat there, though. Some double standards have already started to grate on me. There's actually much not to like about the Djemaa square itself. I have started gritting my teeth and adopting a thousand-yard stare (which happens to be the Djemaa's width) when I cross it, giving a wide berth to the rip-off food stalls and random hustlers. The exception is the highly competitive fresh juice stands, which charge a democratic 4 dh, and there's some proletarian eateries on the northern side where you can eat for single digits (rather than the tourist tajine for 50 in the stalls).
The official spin on Djemaa al Fna is that it is a magic square, a perpetual carnival of delights, sights, flavors and smells. What better way to enjoy it by going up to the atmospheric terrace high above the square? These two ideas keep on getting joined in the official copywriting. It's not quite honest. My impression is that people go up to the ramparts to escape. It's a hustle-free, less crowded area and most of all, they can drink there -- even though it is within full sight of the Koutoubia mosque's imposing tower. Anyway, the second floor terrace was pointedly the target of the bombing. And it didn't kill any Moroccans.
Drinking is interesting in Morocco, even in an open city like Marrakech that is everybody's playground from Manchester to Rabat. Alcohol consumption really occurs behind a quite substantial screen, and often, security. I noticed in the ville nouvelle street-level coffee cafes that there was a sidewalk security guard. I'm not sure whether it's a post-April safeguard or to keep hustlers away, but there aren't very many hustlers in the ville nouvelle.
Last night was rainy, windy and 10 degrees and for the first time in Morocco, I felt like a beer. But I was also in the medina, the old non-European quarter more than a mile away from the new town. I went up to the terrace of Cafe Arabe, which is basically a speakeasy above the restaurant. A very cozy space, when they take the translucent plastic off in summer, the views of the medina must be great and again probably include a couple mosques . Good beer, Casablanca, a domestic brew in 33 cl bottles (55 dh - 5 euros), utterly undistinguishable from any other.
All these foreign couples were sitting quietly on couches, they seemed silent, doing some odd ritual. Three impeccably comported bartenders, one a woman, stood quietly off to the side, along the wall. For some reason I thought of an opium den with rich foreigners lying on settees tending to their business.
My quick take is that the pendulum has swung as far as it will go. Oddly enough, I sympathize in a way with the hardliners -- I assume these are the some 20% of men who wear full-length robes, many of them middle-aged, who look studiously severe and extremely devout. I already have a liberal's conscience, I lament Venice's historical core getting Venetianized, the fact that Tallinn's Old Town doesn't have working cobblers to repair the residents' shoes. When I think on the theme of Westerners in the medina, the less I like it. "Why are they there?" Of course it's just a transferred crowding neurosis. The trick is probably not to think about it.
I got a few nights at a riad, or townhouse B&B, which ran around 500 dh a night (44 euros), three times pricier than the other lodging I used. In 2009 in Essaouira, we rented a riad from a Briton in the medina. So we became residents that time in the sense of running a household for a week and buying our own groceries.The Marrakech riad this time is a slightly bigger one, and I have an individual room + the run of the place.
Traditionally, a Moroccan family might invite a close Western associate or friend into their townhouse. Now, especially in Marrakech, foreigners have bought many of the riads and turned them into hotels or B&Bs. They try to simulate the feeling of being a guest in a Moroccan home, and I suppose that considering the owner often lives somewhere else in town and there are 24h staff of porters and servants there, it is like you are still in a Moroccan home. But you are paying a fee, so it's commercial lodging.
Which doesn't mean you can't get to know the owner and the help. The guy who runs the riad I am is a modern nomad, moving with his wife and two kids from place to place every few years. He ran a lottery company, which was somehow connected with the public sector, on the department of Reunion off Madagascar for a few years. They then "followed his heart" to Morocco where five years ago he bought the riad from its previous owner, also French. In the riad, there is a collection of books, but a Koran with French parallel text is on a coffee table, the piece de resistance.
Like all riads, it has an open square courtyard. From space, the medina looks like a million rimmed eyes staring up like some amazing alien.
I don't think I have yet seen a riad courtyard without some patches of rainwater, but I've only been here in midwinter.
Saida and Zaira are the staff and Rashid is the night porter, all seem competent though Rashid got swept up by the football against Gabon last night and disappeared to a neighbor's for 10 minutes -- there was no one to let me in, but it had stopped
Morocco lost 2-3 in a heartbreaking last-minute turnaround.
Is that enough white guilt? There's plenty of more ways to feel bad if you're creative. At its best, the Moroccans are the masters of their domain, and there is a stylized, ritualized script that has been observed the same way for decades when it comes to haggling and foreigners in the medina. First of all, the foreigner in the medina should conform to the part of hopeless case, with no idea where he is going, so that the local young men could have something to do and earn a few dirhams. If the foreigner is making his way deeper into the medina, down residential cul de sacs, clearly he must be looking for the main square. But then someone like me comes along, looking specifically for off the beaten path places, perhaps the worst parts of the mellah. (These are not always pretty areas. I saw a man standing at his front door discard a wrapper on the street.) The local boy will inform me that it's ferme'(e) (closed, dead end). I tell him I will walk to the end anyway and then turn around. Clearly I am fou. I carry a Garmin GPS which is clearly not a cell phone. Quite a few people know what the yellow gadget is, and that it could - yikes - replace their own questionable "services". I don't participate in their game. At the markets, I take counteroffers from other stalls, I explore futures, as if I'm running a local souk version of Priceline. Are there others like me? Can this slowly increase resentment, force young men to turn to begging and worse? I don't even support King Mohammad's economy by eating the tourist 50-dh tajines but eat the common people's food and subsidized khobz (bread) for 5-10 dh (0.50-1 euro).
Before it rained, the air was terrible in Marrakech and you couldn't see the mountains, so I took that, of course, as a cue to go to the mountains. I rented a car. This should not be viewed as a bucket list, exotic pursuit. Gas costs under 1 euro a liter, the rental from a local company (La Concorde in this case) with a bit of haggling will be about a third of what it would be in Europe (though unlike Hertz, they won't do 24 hours as a one-day). And the other drivers are not terrible. They don't want to die, either. But dictum about driving at night is probably a good one (no helkurs!), though early morning before dawn was OK in the countryside.
Drove over the High Atlas and camped in the stony desert at Ait Benhaddou. People are far more friendly and calmer on the Sahara side. It's a dramatic difference.
I made friends for life, or so you would think, with a Berber innkeeper miles from neighbors who cooked me an omelette in a tagine. He spoke some French but didn't know the word anglais - is it really possible, in this day and age? They were around 159 km from Marrakech and some 50 km from Ouarzazate. He was curious as to whether their inn (Issalene) was in my Lonely Planet (it wasn't), took pains to have me spread the word. A little pricey on the quoted lodging, I think it was (400 dh/37 euros for a double), but the omelette was only 4 euros with complimentary olives. Nice folks. As I understood, I had an offer of free lodging, were I to return that night.
The road out of Marrakech to Ouarzazate seemed pretty dire. It goes through scrubland and woodsy country, takes forever for the plain to end, another reason to consider Marrakech a bit overrated. Then just as long in the foothills. The roadside towns look desperate for the entire 110 km from city to the crest. Reminded me of some parts of Mexico.
It was more or less clear on the desert side, high of 12 C but brilliant sun. Didn't continue to Ouarzazate, desert town of 60,000 where the country's movie industry is based. Turned left heading back north in the direction of the main range to Ait Benhaddou, which has also been used for scenery in many movies.
Lots of tour buses at the kasbah in Ait Benhaddou. Unmolested by hustlers. No one charged for admission to go up to the kasbah. Camped in the desert; it's pretty much the end of the road. A 4WD road does continue farther back to the crest and reconnect with the main highway near the pass.
It was 2 C on the desert floor but no dew fell. It snowed in the night at the pass, the mountains were white from 1500-4000+ m going back NE at sunrise, quite a sight in treeless country. Some slush and ice on the road at the pass, glad I was driving.
Trouble with authorities: Stopped for supposedly speeding in an unmarked 60 zone on the way up, warning, very friendly. Looked like a young Harry Belafonte.
Big yellow boot slapped on wheel back in the city within 10 minutes as I was getting the rental car guy - amazing. Only cost a few euros to remove.
Posted by Kristopher at 7:03 AM