I was in my late teens when I first read about Marrakech. By chance, I picked up a copy of Elias Canetti’s Voices of Marrakech, a slim volume of writing documenting the author’s late 1950’s stay in the city. The book opens with a chapter on Canetti’s visit to the camel market outside the medina at Bab el Khemis. His description of the scene is seductive and harsh. The reader is brought to a place that is totally exotic, full of interesting sights, sounds, and smells. Canetti’s writing creates a world that is difficult to resist…and then reality sinks in. Many of the camels are being sold for slaughter and will wind up on the dinner plates of Marrakech. Some of the camels - the ones who barely made the trip across the Sahara and the ones who are too sickly to sell - will be killed and burned. The unsold camels will continue their trek north to be sold or slaughtered at Settat, just south of Casablanca. Throughout Canetti’s book, scenes romantic and exotic are leavened by reality.
I reread Voices… a few weeks before our travels and should have paid a bit more attention. If I had, perhaps the whiplash from the excitement of our arrival slamming into the reality of daily life would have been a bit less jarring. Or perhaps not. A certain part of traveling is about losing yourself in the moment, escaping into fantasy, and ignoring the obvious around you. In Marrakech, it is very easy to get sucked into the architecture, the music, the colors. The place is very, very intoxicating, so much so that the obvious is easily obscured.
Our first real life moment was something that was quite trivial. It is late morning and we are our way to the Kasbah. After a brief stop at the post office on the Jemaa el Fna, we head down Rue Ben Marine. Susan tells me that at the post office she was shunted off to a tourist line. Locals had the speedy service, visitors had to wait. We hit a main street and try to cross. The “anything goes” traffic that was so exciting the day before is a drag today. We look for an opening but there is none. After about five minutes, we line up behind some locals and push our way into traffic when they do. Across the street, we wander into a little square of shops and cafés , sit down at a café, and order a couple cokes. Flies arrive before the cokes , flies that will follow up for the rest of our stay. The smell of sewage drifts towards us; someone has opened the bathroom door, 100 feet away.
We make our way to the Kasbah wall near the Palais el Radi, find an opening and start wandering through a maze of cobblestone streets. We are alone and our walk is quiet. The chaos and stench we just encountered is gone. We are back in fantasy land. A school boy, no older than eight, crouches, petting a kitten. Susan bends down and pets the cat. The kid turns to Susan and, in French, says “Do you like the kitten?” “Yes, it is cute.” “You can have it for 10 durham.” Susan tells me what he says and we laugh. There is no innocence in Marrakech.
Our exchange with the school boy was the most charming of our encounters with people on the street. Actually it was the only charming street interaction we had. Without exception, when walking through Marrakech we were either ignored – which is great – or hounded. When not trying to misguide us (“The gate is closed. I can show you the way,” when walking down a dark street…which had no gates), a local would insisting that we need him as a guide. A simple “no” was never enough. In fact, to reply negatively to any offer was tantamount to opening negotiation. And to not reply was often an invitation to insults. Casual interaction on the street was impossible. Step out of your lodging, a café, a shop, a museum, anywhere and within a couple minutes the hounding started. We were told by one local that this is not only unavoidable and common, but better than it was a few years ago.
A couple days into our stay, we go to the Saturday morning flea market outside Bab el Khemis, the same place where the camel market that Canetti describes took place. Instead of camels, there are hundreds of people selling used stuff. It’s a scene we are totally unprepared for. I’ve been to hundreds of flea markets across the United States, in Europe, and in Mexico and I know what you find is stuff one step away from the landfill. Old tools, furniture, clothes, and used electronics are what I usually see. And Marrakech’s flea market is no different. What is different is how close to the landfill this stuff is. The clothes are always in piles and always in poor condition. Rusted pipe sit next to broken chairs. Everywhere, spread out on bed sheets are bits and pieces from cell phones mixed in with what looked like broken computer motherboards and spools of used wires. If the flea market didn’t wake me up to the fact that we are in a very poor country, the strange hand probing for my wallet does. Seeing someone go for my front pocket, Susan yells, sending a pickpocket scurrying. I’m not angry. I’m not shocked. We stand amidst poverty and by local standards we are rich. Normally I am pretty keen to what is around me, so why did it take this scene to wake me up? Consider George Orwell’s answer:
All people who work with their hands are partly invisible, and the more
important the work they do, the less visible they are. Still, a white
skin is always fairly conspicuous. In northern Europe, when you see a
labourer ploughing a field, you probably give him a second glance. In a
hot country, anywhere south of Gibraltar or east of Suez, the chances
are that you don't even see him. I have noticed this again and again. In
a tropical landscape one's eye takes in everything except the human
beings. It takes in the dried-up soil, the prickly pear, the palm-tree
and the distant mountain, but it always misses the peasant hoeing at his
patch. He is the same colour as the earth, and a great deal less
interesting to look at.
It is only because of this that the starved countries of Asia and Africa
are accepted as tourist resorts. No one would think of running cheap
trips to the Distressed Areas. But where the human beings have brown
skins their poverty is simply not noticed. What does Morocco mean to a
Frenchman? An orange-grove or a job in government service. Or to an
Englishman? Camels, castles, palm-trees, Foreign Legionnaires, brass
trays and bandits. One could probably live here for years without
noticing that for nine-tenths of the people the reality of life is an
endless, back-breaking struggle to wring a little food out of an eroded
soil. (From the essay “Marrakech”.)
I try to ease into my natural stoicism, but it is difficult not to feel under attack. Suddenly the stares from locals go from indifferent to unfriendly. The offers from men on the street are hostile. And indeed a couple exchanges we have with would-be guides end in being told to “Fuck off.” But, it is crazy to think that this hostility comes from nowhere, that it is the result of some Neocon con like “They hate our freedom.” The root of the hostility is pretty obvious. Most of the people we encountered are poor or very close to that. We are Euro/Americans, staying in a place with hot, running water, something plenty of Marrakechis go without. We have Obama; we have “hope.” They have King Mohammed VI; they can go to jail for being critical of him.
Though Morocco has an elected parliament, in reality, it is the king who has the power. He controls the military. He controls the police. And, because he appoints the prime minister and can dissolve the legislature, he controls the parliament. As noted, people are routinely jailed for criticizing the monarchy. The few conversations about politics I had with Moroccans were done in hushed tones. As with other countries where dissent has no “legitimate” voice, the desperate turn to desperate measures. In 2003, there was a wave of suicide bombings by Islamic militants, from the shantytowns at the edge of Casablanca. The state met the violence with a wave of repression and mass arrests. The king also put into action a slum removal campaign, a project which got quickly mired in corruption.
This situation is nothing new. In fact, the reign of Mohammed VI is generally considered more liberal than that of his father or grandfather. Human rights groups cite the Seventies and Eighties as a pretty dark time in Moroccan history, at least if you had a political opinion counter to the monarchy. That is not to say that people didn’t speak out. They did and they got jailed. They also sung out. Legendary among the singers is a group called Nass el Ghiwane.
Formed in the late 60s, Nass el Ghiwane was a part of a small scene of musicians who fused traditional Berber music with parts of Arab music, Sufi trances, and Gnaoua ritual music. While some groups incorporated electric guitar and organ, Nass el Ghiwane used traditional acoustic instruments. Many of these groups’ lyrics dealt with social and political issues; Nass el Ghiwane was the most outspoken (member Boujemaa Hagour is thought to have been assassinated by the secret police). This scene – which I have yet to find a name for – is credited with pioneering Rai music.
Today I am going to turn you on to a single I found on my trip. There will be more to come.
Nass el Ghiwane Lahmami b/w Mezzine M'dihek 7" (Polydor, 1974)