Margaret and Dick   

     

    
October '10: The Marrakech chronicles

Ah, Marrakech, what took us so long to visit you?  May your sights, sounds, smells, and tastes stay with us just a bit longer!  Here are some stories to help prolong the pleasure.

   Herbal remedy

   The riad experience 

   Djemaa el Fna, the place to be 

   Women of Marrakech 

   Expiation  

 



Herbal remedy:   the souks of Marrakech

I arrived in Marrakech at the end of a lingering cold.   Day one, 97 degrees and dry, I was primed for sinus problems.  Undaunted, we plowed into the souks for an afternoon of shopping and hard negotiation.

We followed an approximate itinerary for a souk walk offered by one of the guidebooks.  One area in particular caught my eye: 

“…mystical square flanked by herbalists’ stores…  Simply name your ailment and the men in white will produce a miracle cure – be it Berber Viagra (ginseng), anti-snoring nigella, or Ramadan tea to fight the flab.”  

With Dick’s encouragement, I dove into one of the spice-and-herb stalls.
“What do you have for sinusitis?”
Grain du nigel,” the young herbalist replied without hesitation, and he pointed to a vat of black seeds.  “Here, let me show you.”
He lifted a rough-surfaced exfoliation mitt off the wall and poured a scoop of the seeds into one corner, rubbed hard, then stuck it into Dick’s left nostril.
“Sniff.”
Note to self, ka-ching, we just bought an exfoliation mitt
“Wow, that’s some powerful stuff!  Dick was impressed.
I sniffed some myself, and we agreed it would be worthwhile to take some back to the hotel. Now for the tricky part:  negotiating when you’ve already got your germs on the product

“Okay, how much for the grain du nigel?”
“One gram, one dirham (about 10 cents).”
“Okay, we’ll take ten grams.”   Somehow it didn’t seem right to negotiate down from a buck.  “And how much for the exfoliating glove?”
“Twenty dirhams.”
“Ten dirhams okay?  It’s actually a little dirty already.”
“Okay (another buck).”
At this point Dick jumped in to negotiate.
“Okay, but I want to take a picture of the two of you with the spices.”
Agreed!   Click, click.
“Yes, but please send me a copy of the photo.”
Agreed!  And thanks to our new friend Mohamed, no sinus problems.

A fine welcome to the Red City.

 


Magic moment in Marrakech:  Walking toward a high-end restaurant in a somewhat sketchy area of town, being greeted three blocks away by a man in djellaba and fez, carrying a lantern.



The riad experience


As we walked up to the terrace in our robes for our hammam/gommage/massage, we knew by the rose petals strewn on our path this was going to be a mind-blowing experience.  Riad host Francis and his lovely assistant Souade ushered us into the two-person hammam and removed our robes and any residual hesitation.  The gender switch (she with me, he with Margaret) was a surprise and (can I say this?) a delight.  They stretched us out on the benches and began a massage/bath with black soap.  The gommage (scrub with an exfoliating mitt) followed, three passes until our bodies burned and tingled.  Next they applied a coat of mud and left us to steam for ten minutes while they escaped to the courtyard to cool off from their exertion in the hot hammam.  They returned, gave us a final wash and rinse, and helped us back into our robes.
“That was amazing,” Margaret murmured to Francis.
“Ah, but it’s not over!  Now comes your massage!”
With the famous Moroccan argan oil, of course.  Midway through our massage, the evening call to prayer added to our bliss: hundreds of voices rising from the various mosques around the medina, melding into a drone.  

Two hours later, rubbed positively stupid, I looked across the dinner table at Margaret.  She was still in her terrycloth robe.
“Aren’t you going to get dressed for dinner?”
“Nope.”
“What if they have other dinner guests?”
“Don’t care.”
Yeah, it was that kind of evening.

A riad is a traditional Moroccan house with rooms surrounding an interior courtyard. The windows face in, so the beauty and charm are evident only after you enter.  The inner-city medina (old town) was once virtually abandoned for the spiffy new area of Marrakech, but the medina has come back into fashion as foreigners are snapping up old riads, fixing them up as B&Bs on steroids. Christine and Francis opened Riad Miski three years ago, a mid-life career change from their prior lives making goat cheese in Normandy (Francis) and working in the corporate world in Paris (Christine).  They are superb hosts, and we could not imagine a better riad experience.   From our arrival at midnight, when they had stayed up to greet us in a courtyard filled with candles, we knew we were in good hands.  It’s no surprise that this new upstart is among the most highly ranked among the Marrakech riads in TripAdvisor.

Riad Miski serves breakfast, of course, but dinner is available on reservation.  Miski cocktails became our daily ritual to separate frenetic daytime activities from leisurely dinners.  All are served on the roof-top terrace, where the breezes make for cool mornings and evenings. 

We booked the entire day as a blowout riad experience:  morning shopping with chef Raja, afternoon cooking class with Raja, hammam/gommage/massage, and finally enjoying the dinner that I had helped prepare.  Margaret also managed to fit in a few hours of souk shopping.  We had worked up an appetite!  Moroccan cuisine is less piquant than aromatic (cinnamon, ginger, saffron), fruity (apricots, prunes) and nutty (almonds, walnuts).  It shares many ingredients of Mediterranean French cooking (eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, olive oil), but the flavors are uniquely Magrebian (North African):  chicken with almonds and preserved lemon, lamb with apricots, ...

En route to the food stalls that morning, chef Raja showed us how to navigate the crowded alleys safely as bicycles, motorcycles, and horse carriages threaded among pedestrians.  Raja gets along with the clients in French or English, but she’s at her most assertive in her native Arabic when bargaining for the best products.  Deftly stepping in front of another customer, she ordered some fine-looking lamb cut to order.  The vendors know her well and take pains to keep her happy. 

Back in the riad, we cut up veggies and Raja demonstrated her art, prepping five dishes simultaneously.  The starter courses, which are served at room temperature, could be fully prepared during the afternoon:  confit de tomates (tomatoes cooked down to a paste and flavored with cinnamon, orange-flower water, and sugar), eggplant (fried crisp then crunched up with garlic, lemon, cumin, and coriander), and peppers (broiled on the stove-top to singe the skin, then peeled and combined with oil, lemon, cumin and garlic).  The main course was a tagine:  slow-cooked lamb with onion, garlic, cilantro, and spices of saffron, ginger, and black pepper, all topped at the last moment with carmelized apricot and walnut.  “Cook the meat separate from the toppings, to separate the salty and the sweet layers,” Raja taught me.  “Otherwise the flavors aren’t distinct.”  Dessert was a bubbly crepe folded to one-quarter size and fried crisp, topped by a pudding of milk, cream, eggs, and vanilla.

While fun to prepare, the dinner was even more fun to eat:  delicious, delightful, surprising, and the best of all our Marrakech dining.  Hungry yet?  Recipes to follow soon in the next edition of my Global Gourmet cookbook.   ;-)

Massage photo courtesy Riad Miski, used by permission.  
 


Magic moment in Marrakech:  Taste-testing the new signature cocktail Miski for our riad. The Muslim bartender, of course, can't taste the goods.



Djemaa el Fna, the place to be

The storyteller began his round of tip collection with the two tourists in the crowd.  When we dropped a small coin into his tambourine, he rejected it with a theatrical flourish to the delight of the assembled locals.  The expression on his face:  “You should know better.”  We tried 10 dh ($1) instead of 2 dh.  Another theatrical flourish assured everyone that this tip pleased him.

Place Djemaa el Fna, the central square of Marrakech, has to be experienced to be believed.  A wide expanse of open pavement, the only constants are the ring of buildings surrounding it and the fresh orange juice vendors carts lined up on the otherwise open square.  That OJ is delicious, but it’s even better from your own glass:  that wash bucket isn't changed all day long.

As the day goes on, dozens of vendors stake out territory with their shade umbrellas, separated from their neighbors by ten feet or so.  They sell tell fortunes, charm snakes, and sell henna tattoos, sticky honey-sweetened desserts, CDs, herbal cures, you name it.  During the daytime the place is a crossroads of donkey carts, delivery trucks, mopeds, horse-drawn carriages, acrobats, and hot tourists.

The evening twilight brings a drastic change of scene.  The population explodes as the locals descend on the place, mostly men but also families and pairs or groups of women.  The locals apparently know better than to come in the heat of afternoon.  Fires flare up from a dozen of brochette stands, each with its rows of tables, waitrons waving menus to attract you or to ask for a tip, politely but firmly, if you’re just passing by for a photo.

We bypassed the brochette booths to sample the street theater of musicians, dancers, storytellers, and snake charmers.  An old man played a violin in hopes of attracting an audience.  We stopped to take a photo (with baksheesh of course), and he played the same screechy tune over and over.  A veiled dancer in black swayed to her musicians and flirted with her eyes – then somersaulted like the man that she really is.  Three guys and their musicians performed a comic routine of mock arguments in expressive Arabic, and the crowd nodded in appreciation.  With all this great street theater, we wondered, where are all the tourists?


Ah, there they are, huddled back at the brochette booths.  I led us back to the first booth – all offer virtually the same menu – and we ordered chicken for Margaret and lamb for me, 30 dh ($3) apiece.  Some olives, two dipping sauces, and flat bread go with it.  Perfectly adequate and safe enough, I hoped.  As I looked at my wet plate, I remembered that the booths on Djemaa el Fna have no running water.  The guidebooks recommend using a paper towel as a plate.  It’s amazing what you can get away with so long as you munch a pepto bismol before eating.






Reflecting on our evening, we decided the storyteller was our favorite entertainer.  We were captivated even without understanding Arabic.  For props he had only a tambourine for emphasis (and tip collection) and a shoulder bag (to emphasize hip movements), but he drew a crowd and painted a picture with his hands and voice.  All nodded and cheered the story.  And when he refused our small offering, he taught us a lesson: the art of story-telling is alive and well on the Place Djemaa el Fna, and it’s a treasure.





 


Magic moment in Marrakech:  As we were leaving a museum, we asked guard for directions. He obliged but directed us first to buy a macaroon from a woman vendor outside the door:  10 cents, magnificent.



Women of Marrakech

Some of our Limoux neighbors hate it when our Muslim neighbors get religion and start wearing a head scarf and body-covering garment out in the streets.  And don't get them started on the subject of veils.  France has forbidden explicit religious expression for over a century, except of course your occasional nun in full drag.  Now that wearing a head-scarf is a fashion trend among young Muslim women, religious garb is a frequent topic of conversation. 

So it was interesting for us to view the varieties of dress among women of various ages in Marrakech.  Older women in the medina usually wear a scarf and often wear a veil, covering either nose and mouth or only mouth.  But for younger women, the styple of dress appears to depend on age, social class, location, and situation.  We don’t pretend to understand the subtleties of Moroccan fashion and social mores, so we'll just share some findings with our faithful readers and let you try to make sense of it all.


Margaret chose to dress conservatively and often wore a scarf.  In addition to helping avoiding offense, the scarf appeared to have given her a little more liberty when taking photographs.  But among the locals we saw enormous variations. 

In a market café, an older woman in full long-sleeve floor length robe (head covered, of course) sat sipping tea with (probably) her grand-daughter in jeans and tank top, arms, shoulders and head bare.  How you dress, then, seems to be your personal choice.  Madame may prefer to go out well covered, but she appears comfortable chatting with a younger women who's showing a lot of skin.

Our favorite Moroccan steel magnolia, chef Raja, dresses very differently at the public vegetable market (right) than when cooking at the riad (left).  With the younger women, the most common dress-up outfit is jeans, shoes with some heel, a long-sleeve top in several layers, and head scarf neatly arranged to cover hair and neck.  That doesn’t prevent them from looking attractive (au contraire!) and flirting a little as they walk down the street with their boyfriends.  The overall impression is, “I want to look be attractive, but like a nice girl,” i.e. marriage material.  Margaret reports that men let women know when they’re are showing too much skin by making a sucking sound between their teeth.  I had to laugh when I heard a young woman pop her gum at a man in disapproval. 

Marrakech is a big city, and women here have more freedom from social pressure than she would in the villages.  But even there there is some official control:  We were told that a man and woman walking on the street hand-in-hand can be arrested (yes, both) unless they are married or have an engagement contract.  Women in Morocco do have professional opportunities.  We saw many woman police officers, and the pilot on our Royal Air Maroc flight was a woman.  Dressed, as you can imagine, like a pilot.

We witnessed one magic moment along a crowded market street:  a young woman dressed conservatively passed a man who must have said something impolite or flirtatious.  She turned and gave him the finger, not once but twice, hand held high so everyone could see it.  Smiling.  Now that's assertive!

 



 
 
 
 
 
 
Magic moment in Marrakech:  Taking a picture of Dick in the Casablanca VIP lounge with his spiffy new sac Berber carry-on luggage.  Souk, $1.50.
 
 
 
 
 
    


Expiation

It took me thirty-three years to return to Morocco.  It was a turning point midway through a seven-month vagabonding trip around Europe and North Africa with a boyfriend I’ll call Michael.  The trip was my trip, in the ‘70s sense of the word, and Michael wasn’t a natural vagabond, but he tagged along.  I promised myself I would go back to Ireland (2009), Tunisia (1987, 1997), and Greece (not yet).  And I promised myself I would never go back to Morocco.

It was in the Fes medina that it all unraveled.  The story is too long to be interesting, but the denouement involved two bad-news kids who were screaming about being cheated and a crowd of angry adults kicking us as we piled into a car.  That night Michael said, “Tomorrow, I’m going home.”  I begged, pleaded, promised that we would skip across Algeria (no need to go back there either) and Tunisia and grab the first boat from Tunis to Sicily and the safety of Europe.  This we did, but we were dismayed to find that we had a three-day wait in Tunis for the boat.

Three days is ample time to fall in love with Tunis.  Years later, when Dick and I were headed to Tunis for vacation, I tried to call the low-end hotel that Michael and I had enjoyed so much, whose phone number I had carefully saved.  No luck, our little hotel had been replaced by urban progress.  I insisted on booking another cheapo hotel in the same neighborhood for a one-night stroll down memory lane.  Our cabbie gave Dick a tongue-lashing as he drove us to the hotel.  “You have a nice woman like this for a wife, and you take her to this hotel?  Why can’t you take her to a decent hotel where she belongs?”  It was pretty funny watching Dick stammer “but…but…but…”.  It was a cheapo hotel, all right, and I was certainly the only woman in the place.  Tired and jet-lagged, we fell onto the bed and were immediately asleep.  The next morning, we found the room key just where I had left it, in the keyhole on the outside of the door.  And I was safe as in God's pocket nonetheless.

Thirty-three years after my first visit, I was ready to get back on the horse, as it were, and go back to Morocco.  I had never made it to Marrakech, and the city felt like a gaping hole in my collection of life experiences.  And although Dick isn’t exactly a “vagabond” traveler, he’s a world-class adventurer.  We went.

Morocco has reportedly figured out that the street urchins were seriously hampering tourism – they were (almost) nowhere to be found.  The kids we encountered were en route to or from classes or playing in the streets, and they were cute, curious, charming, and innocent.  The medina experience certainly isn’t mellow – it’s bedlam! – but it’s exhilarating.  The famous place Djemaa el Fna that I had avoided on my first trip is one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever seen.  I didn’t want to leave.  I want to go back.  I want to spend a month.

Ah, expiation!



Magic moment in Marrakech:   My seatmate on the flight from Casablanca was a French woman of a certain age. “My husband loved Morocco,” she said. “Just after we married, he begged me to move there. ‘Just five years,’ he said, ‘then we can move back to France.’ That was in 1945. I’m still here.”



Limoux stories index

Next Limoux story:  Aux barricades!  France goes on strike

If you'd like to receive email alerts for future Limoux stories, sign up here.