2000s Archive

Lifting the Veil on Marrakech

Originally Published November 2000
A new look at a city that is familiar and mysterious, private and public, chaotic and calm.

Marrakech is jarring, a shock. Most fabled destinations upset our habitual perception in some way, which is why we love them. The lonesome elegance of Paris brings on a nagging doubt that you’ve ever really known romance; the rot of history in Rome leads to musings on your own mortality. Marrakech unnerves by flooding the senses and then soothes with the freedom of instinct. Nothing is so known about this place as to prevent us from appreciating the chaos at face value. You spot something—a mosaic, a carpet, a carved wooden doorway—and love it simply because it is beautiful. For all you can tell, the flowing Arabic script on the plate you’ve just purchased says “employees must wash hands before returning to work.” Such an escape from educated appreciation comes as a relief.

But first you must yield to the chaos. And there is no place more disorienting than the place Djemaa el Fna, the great square where all the nerve endings of this ancient city come together. At dusk, the air is heavy with the scent of dung and diesel and the perfume of orange blossoms. Men squat in rapt attention to the incantations of storytellers; horse-drawn carriages plow through the square, already bisected by a noisy parade of taxis, motor scooters, buses, and vans. There is no empty space in which to stand still for more than a moment.

Surprised by a flash of veiled green eyes, I narrowly miss a donkey pulling a cartload of coriander. I step aside and accidentally jostle a snake charmer, who thrusts his cobra at me (at least I think it was a cobra). I cross the street and follow a neon-lit staircase to a second-story terrace café. From here, I can survey the frenetic scene from a comfortable distance.

On the horizon, the snowy peaks of the Atlas Mountains turn indigo in the tawny light spreading across the landscape of palm trees and hundreds of white satellite dishes, the latter sprouting from flat roofs like mushrooms. As the sun sets, more and more people spill into the square. Strings of white lights illuminate a hundred food stalls where meat sizzles on braziers. Dark-eyed adolescents giggle at khaki-clad tourists; would-be guides tug at their sleeves. Pairs of soldiers strut through the crowd, backpackers thumb guidebooks under streetlights, and a self-consciously elegant American couple, dressed in crisply ironed linen, stride by on their way to dinner.

Tension between tourists and international tastemakers is yet another flash point in this tightly wired city. The French visit Morocco the way Americans go to Florida—it’s only a two-and-a-half-hour flight—and they feel a proprietary satisfaction in the fact that theirs is the country’s second language. The foreign elite may dote on the delicate, honeycomb carvings of the Saadien Tombs and the 16th-century mausoleums that are among Marrakech’s most famous sites, but thousands of others swarm in for a cheap sun holiday set against an exotic backdrop, quickly vanishing into the bunkerlike hotels outside of town. Marrakech, like Capri, has a spectacular ability to absorb all comers into the landscape. Yet I suspect that ordinary tourists love Marrakech for more or less the same reasons as the head of Hermès, Jean-Louis Dumas, who has a house in the Palmeraie; or Bernard-Henri Levi, France’s best-known philosopher, and his actress wife, Arielle Dombasle; or any of the other glamorous types who stay in the stylish small hotels that have opened in the Medina. They come to Marrakech to take in the languid rhythms of a culture that is teetering on the cusp of irrevocable modernity but has yet to buy the required assumption that time means money.

Before 1912, when Morocco became a French protectorate and transportation improved, few Europeans had visited Marrakech. In 1922 the painter Jacques Majorelle, who was suffering from tuberculosis, came to Marrakech for its healthful climate. His boldly colored canvases became cult items in Paris, serving almost as tourism posters. In the same year, La Mamounia opened. The sumptuous hotel, a lavish hybrid of Art Deco and Arabic motifs, became a destination in itself, and Marrakech slowly found its way onto the itineraries of wealthy but venture some souls with a taste for the exotic.

During the Sixties, of course, the city became a magnet for the counterculture, not least because Morocco was a major producer of hashish. In the decade that followed, Yves Saint-Laurent bought Majorelle’s villa and helped to restore a little of the city’s glamour. But by the Eighties, the hotel boom on the edges of town had tipped the delicate equilibrium between locals and tourists: Marrakech became overbuilt; shopkeepers, aggressive.

Then, in 1994, a stern force of tourist police spread the word during the GATT trade talks that foreigners were not to be hassled. Europeans and a few Americans trickled back into town, and some started buying riads, the old Medina houses with interior courtyards. Now people from all over the world scramble to buy riads in the walled city, the same ones who went to Figueres in Spain in the Fifties or Provence in the Sixties.

Today, when you arrive in Marrakech, Mohammed VI—a natty-looking fellow in a rakish white suit that could pass for formal dress in Monte Carlo—is there to greet you: His portrait is all over the airport, adding some chic to a terminal that looks more like a high school auditorium. The Moroccans affectionately call their young king “M6,” which also happens to be the name of a French TV station that’s a Gallic version of MTV. His liberal policies, including an interest in the rights of women, are among the reasons why Morocco, and Marrakech in particular, has once again become popular.

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