Sunday, December 03, 2017

The Wren Boys by Carol Ann Duffy

Cover image © Picador/Dermot Flynn
As an English teacher it is impossible to escape Carol Ann Duffy. A couple of years back, a colleague in my department perhaps to rub this in, perhaps because of the story's link to Ireland, or maybe just seized by the Christmas spirit, bought me one of Duffy’s small seasonal poems, The Wren Boys, beautifully illustrated by Dermot Flynn.

The tale of the poem links to a rural Irish tradition that takes place on St Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas Day, whereby groups of people will dress up and go hunting a wren.

According to the various myths, the wren, or wran, is thought to have betrayed the Saint’s whereabouts to his captors with its song and to have cheated against an eagle in a flying competition.

The writing is wonderfully evocative of a cold, rural Christmastime:
The old year, a tear in the eye of time;
frost on the blackthorn, the ditches glamorous
with rime; on the inbreath of air,
the long, thoughtful pause before snow.
The air is filled “everywhere musky with peat from the first fires/as though the hour had started the day/with a neat malt” which, to a country boy like me, can’t help but strike a nostalgic chord.

When the Wren Boys’ search is ultimately fruitless, they still manage to end the day with a celebration:
while the Wren-Boys boozed and danced at the Inn;
one with a widow, one with the farmer’s daughter,
one with a sweetheart, one with a sozzled priest.
Later, the snow settled, a star in the east.
It’s a short read, but a perfect way to start December, or to pass the time whilst you listen to your family argue over whether to watch an Agatha Christie adaptation or Wallace and Gromit on Christmas Day.

The full poem and some of Dermot Flynn's illustrations can be read on the Guardian's website: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/dec/19/wren-boys-carol-ann-duffy-christmas-poem

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Atay Maghrebi: To Essaouira and the Atlantic

Street life: looking towards Mosquée Ben Youssef in the medina, Essaouira.
Leaving Marrakech, the landscape stays flat, except for a few distant outcrops of rock. The sensation of the inhospitality of the environment creeps up on you as the olive groves become fewer and further between and rough scrub runs away to the base of distant hills.

Eventually, the landscape starts to undulate as you pass through small towns like Sid L’Mokhtar, and, after two hours, Morocco simply runs out of land as the coach starts to plummet down to the Atlantic coastline and the peeling whitewash of Essaouira’s medina.


The morning started with the obligatory slices of sweet cake dipped into apricot jam, with a side of yoghurt and coffee. I had a chat with Merissa who was already awake and wearing sunglasses like she was nursing a hangover.

I packed up my bags and meandered my way out of the medina towards Bab Laksour to get a taxi.

Having learned the lesson last year that taxi metres are always mysteriously broken in Marrakech, I readied myself for a battle with the driver who had emerged from the morning shadows of the arched gateway to the outside world.

“You want a taxi?” the friendly looking driver asked.

“Yes, but only if your metre is working,” I replied.

“It’s a fixed tariff. Look I’ll show you.”

“You don’t need to show me anything. Tell me how much it is to the bus station.”

“I’ll give you for 60dh.”

“No way! It’s only down the road.”

“60dh. It’s as far as the airport and that is 70dh on the tariff.”

“That’s okay then. I’ll look somewhere else. Bsalama,” I finished in a friendly tone and walked off.

“You can get in,” a man in a blue Adidas tracksuit said, chasing after me.

“40dh to the station, and I’ll give you 50dh if you can get there in 5 minutes.”

“Get in,” he said, his face looking distressed at my insistence of knocking what equates to about £1.50 off his fare, but that saving would cover a quick lunch later in the day for me.

Last year I had caught the CTM bus to Essaouira, but this year, on another taxi driver’s recommendation, I’d booked a seat on Supratours. Supratours are owned by ONCF and so their buses leave from the old railway station building around the corner from the more modern new station.

As anyone who has ever visited the small town of Essaouira that clings to the African mainland looking out into the Atlantic sea, the crowd on board the bus was eclectic: Moroccan families, German families, Aussies fresh from Bondi, Americans dressed like they were in Malibu and a Belgian guy who looked like an overweight Jean Claude Van Damme.


Located down a narrow alleyway grandly named Rue El Abbana, off the main Avenue Mohamed Zerktouni that runs through the heart of the medina and near to the fish souk, Atlantic Hostel had symbolised a turning point in my trip. It was the point at which I’d shifted from thinking ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ to ‘I actually like it here!’

Amongst the urban gothic mist rolling off the sea, permeating through the tight lanes of the medina, the echoing bells of the water-sellers and the ghostly cries of shrouded seagulls, I’d managed to find an assortment of people to provide both entertainment and good company.

Two guys called Khalid, and their enigmatic friend Strex; a Scotsman learning Arabic in Casablanca; an Aussie teacher based in West London; and later on the classmate of a Ugandan friend’s little sister who now lives in Holland.

We had initially bonded over luiza tea, amlou and cheap shawarma wraps from the kebab shop opposite the hostel. With the weather being as it was that year, there hadn’t been much else to do except read, chat, and eat, but it was all that any of us seemed to need. It also marked the point that I had first heard any music by Cheb Khaled.


This year, I was looking forward to Atlantic Hostel’s ramshackle charms and had spent time extolling them to Marissa the night before.

As with Marrakech, the welcome familiarity of the place brought a smile to my face as a young volunteer called Younus checked me in to the hostel.

Sunset over Essaouira in the direction of the Atlantic Ocean.
A few minutes later, the manager, Yassine, or Couscous as he is more widely and affectionately known, came through the door.

“It is you!” He shouted. “I knew it! I saw you in the medina and was trying to guess if my brother was coming back to the Atlantic.”

We started to recount a couple of stories from the previous summer, at which point Couscous hugged me and spent a good portion of the afternoon and evening plying me with atay and coffee. All the while, he prepared food for the hostel’s evening meal to a soundtrack of Tuareg and Imazighen music as more of the evening’s guests rolled in – the music only stopping for various adhans as the day rolled benignly into evening.

❦ 

The meal itself seemed a much grander affair than in previous years.

Shortly before the meal, the much smarter downstairs area was set out with large tables, covered in red cloths, all with enough space for around forty people, all lit by cosy candlelight.

The starter was hearty and warming harira soup served with the ubiquitous Moroccan flattish bread rolls.

This was followed by chicken tagine made with onions, preserved lemons, dates, ras el hanout spices and olives. A really salty rice side dish appeared also with more bread, which was great when dipped into the sauce of the tagine.

Dessert was fruit salad covered in yoghurt and amlou – a sort of Moroccan peanut butter made from ground almonds, honey and the key local ingredient, Argan oil.

This was washed down with special tea and an impromptu drumming display by some of the staff.


Lessons Learned
  • Cats can sleep through very loud Tuareg music.
  • Revisiting places of uncertainty can result in you truly moving forward.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively

Cover image.
One part of my job involves me walking around other English teachers' classrooms and making sure that our younger students are getting the best from of our department. On one such ramble I saw a copy of The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively (1973).

The one and only time that I had previously come across the book was during Miss Appleby's Year 8 English class at Aylesford School, Warwick. It had been the focus of one half term's assessment, but now twenty years later, I thought it would make a good Hallowe'en book to read.

The story is set in the early 1970s and centres around a young boy, James, and his family who have just moved into a small cottage in the fictional Oxfordshire village of Ledsham.

The tale begins with workmen in the roof of the cottage converting the attic into a bedroom. As they are chipping away at the walls, a small green bottle, seemingly hidden behind the plaster, falls out and onto the ground, smashing in the process. 

Not long after this innocuous incident, strange things start to happen around the house; writing appearing in an old script, strange draughts, and things suddenly breaking. It soon becomes apparent, to James at least, that there may be something more supernatural going on.

Inevitably, the strange behaviour gets blamed on James, much to his older sister's delight, but with his roguish dog Tim as a guardian and his slightly disbelieving friend Simon on hand to provide some moral support, he sets about getting to the bottom of the mystery.

Illustration from inside the book.
The book definitely shows its age, and, being aimed at children, brings with it a host of predictable plot twists. It would be easy to think this story would no longer be interesting in a world where there is now so much children’s fiction filling the shelves, but this does the story a disservice.

It is a quick paced, engaging, funny and, ultimately, relatable story that many a mischievous child (or adult) would be intrigued by. Furthermore, in terms of the vocabulary Lively uses, it is a cut above some children's literature.

Penelope Lively’s own interest in the changing nature of society and our relationship with the past permeates the narrative. Throughout the story there are hints at the encroachment of modernity, the burial and ignorance of the past, and one boy’s struggle to mediate between the two. Indeed, as the story unfolds, we see that even the eponymous poltergeist struggles to fit in to this new world being from such different times.

For me, the story obviously represented a brief nostalgic trip down memory lane to a time when I sat at the back of an English classroom terrorising the teacher and two girls called Jenny with my own mischievous nature, but in the present, it made for a decent Halloween read.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Atay Maghrebi: Out of the Dark and into Jemaa El-Fnaa

The setting of the sun can be the start of everything in Marrakech.
The night time offers a wealth of opportunity and intrigue in almost any country, but when I'm somewhere where my understanding of the language extends to just a handful of phrases and disconnected words, I find it all the more enthralling. Marrakech genuinely quickens the pulse and widens the eyes by night, with the famous Jemaa El-Fnaa as its wildly arrhythmic beating heart.


After a day of perfectly idle wandering and preparing for my journey to Essaouira, I sat up on the roof terrace, ordered atay, read the ending of Alex Garland’s The Beach and waited for sunset.

During this time, a Dutch woman and a Belgian man sat near to me and started to talk about a range of subjects. Most of their discussion was centred around the regular banalities of two travellers who don’t know each other well and clearly don’t have a great deal in common.

Shortly before sunset, the Belgian man caught my attention as he started to regale his newfound friend with quotes from the Quran taken both out of their religious and historical context, and all of which seemed to centre around the killing of polytheists. 

I was initially a little shocked, but less so by the chosen topic, but because just moments before the man had been explaining how he’d been learning Arabic and had taken the time to read the Quran. The saddest irony was that his diatribe continued, to my annoyance, through the adhan for the maghrib prayers. He may have not have been either an Islamophobe or xenophobe, but he did his best to present himself as one.

I had to use a fair amount of willpower to resist joining in as what is arguably one of the most beautiful moments in the medina was disturbed by his ramblings. I remembered that I was on holiday and arguing with ignorant tourists mightn’t be the best idea.

Furthermore, his telling of these stories about the Quran seemed to be some strange flirting ritual, in the same way that boys tells stories to scare the girls they like at Primary School.

After about twenty minutes, the Dutch woman, who had been pretty silent save for the occasional moments of noncommittal back channelling, could be seen visibly tiring of the topic.

“Sorry, I am boring you?” the man asked.

“Not at all,” the woman said through a stifled yawn.

Continuing to ignore the cues, he carried on for another 10 minutes before they both retired from the rooftop, finally leaving me in peace to enjoy the warm darkness of the medina air.


Returning to the dorm, a new arrival was lying on one of the top bunks.

Marissa, was a Canadian devised theatre teacher and, despite her fatigue, soon became animated when recounting her travels from Italy to Morocco.

After chatting for a little while about education, I headed out to find food. Very quickly I replayed a bit of the conversation that we’d just had.

“The souks are magical by night as everything is so brightly illuminated,” I had said.

“I’m not ready for walking around for walking the souks alone at night,” she had replied.

I returned to the dorm, told her where I was going and she decided to come along for a brief walk, through the medina alleyways and souks, to the Jemaa El-Fnaa for food and street entertainment.

Once we were amongst the golden glow of the nighttime lamp shops, dress shops, piles of multicoloured spices and hanging rugs, Marissa became even more animated, although her tiredness  had started to affect her ability to speak. 

We wandered around the square for a while, taking in: Adil the One Man Band, who seemed to have an instrument attached to every conceivable part of him; a number of Gnawa musicians, both young and old, with their hypnotic strains and revolving lineup of musicians as the endless songs continued;  and something not too dissimilar to “Hook a Duck”, where punters had to get a ring over the neck of a 2 litre bottle of Fanta, using a wooden rod and a length of string.

All across the haze of smoke from the multitudinous grills, small huddles of people could be seen around snake charmers, monkeys, storytellers and henna artists. Barely a square foot of space was visible beneath the gentle ebb and flow of promenading feet.

A couple of tajines later at the Toubkal, a favourite café from a previous visit, and a slow amble back through the now rapidly-closing souks, we were back the hostel for a night of listening to other people snoring and trying to be quiet whilst walking in and out of the rooms.


Lessons Learned
  • I should have given the entertainment on Jemaa El-Fnaa a chance sooner.
  • Gnawa music by night is perhaps one of the simplest and most enjoyable ways to fall into a hypnotic trance.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Atay Maghrebi: 'Your Eyes Aren’t Moroccan' and Palais El Badi

The Koubba al Khamssiniyya, seen across the orchards, in the Palais El Badi.
Arriving the day before, I had rolled along the main road from Marrakech Menara Airport in the front seat of the transfer bus. All the way I had sat with a wide smile on my face as the familiarity of the scene unfolding before me was reabsorbed by my mind. 

There were the old men on even older motorbikes meandering along the side of the road, young women in hijabs racing along on mopeds talking into iPhones, and donkey carts dislodging there loads as they bumped along the thoroughfares. All this in bathing in the unbridled dissonance and a perfect cacophony of car horns.


The day had started with actual clouds in the sky and the sun somewhat subdued. Never one to intentionally miss an opportunity to avoid sunburn, I finished breakfast quickly and headed off towards La Place des Ferblantiers with the Palais El Badi as my ultimate destination.

Crossing the square, muted in the pre-lunch haze, a lady in a purple niqab approached and addressed me in French, "Bonjour monsieur. Ca va?"

"La shukran," I replied in poorly pronounced Arabic as she started to show me the range of jewellery that seemed to climb up her wrists in a vine of fatigued copper.

"You’re Moroccan," she said in high-pitched Arabic pointing to my skin, at this point still burnt from Sports Day.

At this point I took my sunglasses off to better show my facial expression and she almost jumped back saying, "You can't be! Your eyes aren't Moroccan!" She stood staring at me in a moment's awkward silence. I shrugged almost apologetically.

Using the opportunity to give her the slip, especially as I wasn't in the market for a very feminine looking bracelet at this point of my journey, I made for the archway at the northern side of the small plaza, dodging a plonker riding his moped past a 'don't ride your moped here' sign.


Palais El Badi, the name of which implies its beauty as 'incomparable', is explained as being both inspired by and comparable in beauty with the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. This was, of course, before the ravages of conflict and time cast their jealous shadows over the Saadian rulers’ great architectural gem in Marrakech.

Stepping into the grand courtyard it is, in many ways, much grander in scale to the largest square of the Nasrid Palace that sits on the edge of the hillside in the Alhambra complex, but lacking the ornamentation in the masonry and water in the pools, it took a little bit more imagination to conjure such an image of majesty - luckily I had visited the Alhambra on my birthday earlier in the year and could rebuild the palace, albeit mentally, as I cast my eyes about.

Each corner of the grand courtyard has a small orchard sunk into the recesses either side of the two large pools. During my visit, these orange and (I think) fig trees spent their time being carefully tended by a few gardeners in the ever-present Marrakech heat.

In one corner of the courtyard, an archway opened onto a smaller courtyard whose trees offered a group of Spanish visitors some shade. Past a jolly guard, and through a smaller doorway the restored minbar from the Koutoubia Mosque is housed.

The minbar, to the untrained eye looks like an ornate set of wooden steps. It is from these steps that an imam delivers a service inside the mosque, similarly to a pulpit in a church.

The room itself is a museum of sorts to the restoration of the Koutoubia’s minbar. Around the walls, small details of the intricate wood engravings have been recreated to portray the stages of the process which was undertaken in America. The woodwork is all unfathomably intricate and includes kufic script asking for the protection of Allah for both the Saadian sultans and for the Koutoubia mosque.

Further around the courtyard, there’s an exhibition further examining the Saadian artisans’ craftsmanship, along with some original cartography and a rather striking picture of the Sultan Al-Mansour's emissary to Elizabeth I. He didn't look like the kind of guy you'd want to upset in a hurry.

A real highlight for me though is a photographic exhibition of Marrakesh in days of old. Concealed beneath ground level, gallery shows how, especially in the case of Jemaa El-Fnaa, some aspects of life in the medina really haven't changed: that same combination of snake charmers, musicians, food for sale and storytellers can still be find as dusk descends. 

One particularly interesting form of entertainment depicted in one of the photos was what appeared to be a rather rudimentary, hand-operated Ferris wheel, complete with simple seats mounted inside cramped-looking wooden boxes, all attached to a basic wooden frame. They really should bring this back. In addition, there are a large number of photographs and artefacts showing everyday life for Marrakech's Jewish community in the past.

After resurfacing into the Marrakshi air, feeling smug about only having paid 20dh to enter the Palace, I headed back towards Place des Ferblantiers, deftly pirouetted past the jewellery seller like an oversized ballet dancer, and crossed to a small café facing the madness of the lunchtime traffic. Here, a man from Meknes persuaded me that my plan to take a Grand Taxi to Essaouira was mental and that it was CTM or nothing. On that basis, I obviously booked onto a Supratours coach.


More by accident, than by design, I had started writing notes in my red notebook again exactly one year after I had stopped. 

Work commitments, amongst other things, meant that I never got to talk about the train from Marrakech to Tangier, the lunacy of being in a romantic hotel by myself, meeting regular Moroccans, visiting Essaouira and stumbling across a schoolmate of a Ugandan friend’s sister and then returning to the UK completely in love with this corner of North Africa.

As the Atay Maghrebi drinking continues, those stories may find themselves woven into this one, as, after all, tales committed to our hearts often breathe longer than details we struggle to keep in our minds.

Lessons Learned
  • Attending Sports Day before a holiday is good for your skin tone.
  • Everything is easier the second time around.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Atay Maghrebi: Bahia Palace and Reflecting in the Souks

A courtyard inside the Palais de Bahia, Marrakech, Morocco.

During breakfast of orange cake, yoghurt, atay and the world’s sweetest apricot jam, the distant shape of a plane takes off carrying Ireland’s answer to Ali Baba back home. All around me are the chattering voices of a multitude of languages; French, mainly, but also a smattering of German, Dutch, Italian and Spanish, mostly belonging to females.

Having become really accustomed to the main thoroughfares of the medina, the ways in and out, and a few landmarks, I hear stories of being lost and confused.

J'ai tourné à gauche comme il l'a dit. Maar ik was op de onjuiste plaats. Sucedió tres veces más.


Last evening, after dinner, I had swapped numbers with Dee. The idea was to head to the Palais de Bahia (or Bahia Palace) together after breakfast, but there was no real sign of her anywhere.

At around half past ten, I received a message from Dee saying that she been up all of the night chatting to her dorm mate, a young Moroccan woman, but still wanted to come along.

So, a little later than anticipated, we started out, wound away through the late morning shade of the souks where, amazingly, some stall owners and shop owners were only just opening up.

Thus far I had resisted the lure of shopping. I am a reluctant shopper at the best of times, and it can bring out a rather impatient side of me. I’ve become accustomed to a style of shopping similar to a smash and grab raid; the one difference being I will always pay.

That said, after emerging into the intense heat of the morning from the shade of the souks, crossing the quiet Jemaa El-Fnaa, heading along the noisy Avenue Hommane Al Fatouaki and reaching the Place des Ferblantiers, we came across a herbaliste shop.

The shop owner lacked the truculence of some of the shop owners in the souk, and proceeded to guide us through his most prized stocks. Of particular interest to us was the reddish tajine spices mix in its pure form. He pulled out a handful, put it through his loud mechanical grinder and told us to smell it. 

The scent was so fresh, fiery and unlike anything European. The note of star anise behind the strong palate of North African spices was apparent more so than in any tajine I had eaten so far. At 800dh a kilogram, or roughly €80/kg, it wasn’t cheap, but the richness of the scent was very tempting. 

Dee, who was taken in by it all, went a bit mad gathering dried mint, some Ras El-Hanout and eucalyptus, not realising it was all adding up to nearly 700dh in total. Going into a mild state of shock, she ditched the eucalyptus, that were actually 10dh per gram, and the price plummeted to 250dh and her heart rate returned to normal; she hadn't realised that the tiny crystals were priced so differently. Amazingly, despite the sign stating that the price shown couldn’t be negotiated, she talked them down to 200dh and the spice seller threw in some form of natural lipstick and a pumice stone.


Escaping the clutches of what was, in all honesty, a rather slick sales pitch unscathed, we walked the short distance, guided by the shop owner, around the corner to the Bahia Palace.

After the stupid amount the guide at the tanneries and the subsequent leather shop had tried to charge me for his tour, the entry fee of a meagre 10dh for the Bahia Palace seemed so minuscule, and so much more worth it.

A window inside the Bahia Palace, showing intricate woodwork and painting.
The palace was built during the 19th Century and its name translates as ‘brilliance’ or ‘brilliant’. It was strarted off by Grand Vizier Si Moussa and added to by Bou Ahmed to be purposefully beautiful. 

The palace is composed of a complex of courtyards in the style typical of a riad with rooms facing inwards to the courtyard, rather than outwards. Each courtyard is in someway distinct and was used for housing wives, concubines and visitors.

Some have carved wooden arches with painted alcoves, surrounding a densely wooded square of palms and bushes; others have an open courtyards with intricate zellige tiling surrounding a central water feature. The grandest of all is around 80 metres long, according to the guide, and is surrounded by white colonnade made entirely of cedar wood, with a smooth marble floor that reflects so much of the midday sunlight that it looks like an ice-skating rink. Dee confesses that this is the first real historical attraction or monument that she's visited since arriving in Marrakech, and we take an age photographing almost every last detail of the complex.

We later retired to the Kif Kif for lunch so that she can finally try the kefte tajine, having barely been near a tajine at all. Looking over the square towards the Koutoubia, she is equally as in awe of the flavours of it as I am, but we agree that it perhaps wouldn't be the same if you tried to recreate it at home – or would it? How much of the pleasure you get from food is connected to the context in which you are consuming it?


That evening, we met on the roof for atay just before the adhan for the Maghrib prayer. After a while Paul, a friendly German joins us. I thought that all German speakers would have a radar for one another, but both Paul and Dee don’t work out they speak the same language for the longest while.

Before heading out to the Tabkhoul for an evening snack of harira soup, Moroccan salad and chicken pastilla, Paul and I discussed Brexit.

He lends a sympathetic ear as I explain how a number of my colleagues and I felt that the Remain campaign had been weaker and lacked a figurehead; about how those who voted leave were wooed by the big headline figures, and seemed to be expecting an immediate change.

I realised that I'd been talking non-stop for most of our walk, but Paul found it interesting, especially the infamous “£350 million a week” NHS bus poster.

Wandering back through the souks after eating, it was hard not to see why they have such a charm. The glowing lights reflecting off any number of ceramic and metal wares makes for a quite enchanting scene in the labyrinth of alleys, coupled with the gentle intermingling of Moroccans and tourists from all over the world.

The quieter passageways can hold a certain fear factor for visitors during the day; their narrowness can exclude nearly all forms of daylight from reaching down to the cobbled floor. Coupled with this, the truculence of some of the traders nearer to the Jemaa El-Fnaa, easily misread by nervous tourists as aggression, means that it is no wonder that you will hear people saying that two days of heat and hassle is enough for them.

By night, though, the transformation is complete. Not only is there, ironically, much more light in the souks as they bask in the golden glow of electric light, but more people are on the streets and in the narrow lanes. The result is you're never isolated and any possible negative attention you may receive is heavily diluted.


Lessons learned
  • The best things in life cost 10dh
  • After Maghrib prayers, the souk is a magical place

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell

Cover image © Penguin Books.
In need of an uplifting story to get 2017 started on the right note, Tom Michell's The Penguin Lessons seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

I was on the phone to a friend when I bought the book, stood in Hammersmith Broadway, craving a bit of non-fiction. I actually couldn't decide between this book and Jon Krakauer's Into The Wild so I ended up buying both.

In the mid-1970s, Tom Michell left the UK with a plane ticket to South America to start a teaching job at a private school in Argentina. The story starts when the author takes a stroll along a Uruguayan beach at the end of a holiday. Whilst walking he finds a horrific scene; hundreds of penguins, covered in oil and tar, washed up on the shore dead. 

A few moments later he notices some movement and spots a survivor; the penguin who names Juan Salvador:
One valiant bird was alive; a single surviving soul lying on its belly and covered in tar like the others, but making little spasmodic jerks of its head and wings. Death throes, I assumed.
After an initial fight against the grumpy bird, Juan Salvador, who is also referred to as Juan Salvado (‘saved’ rather than ‘saviour’), is taken back to the flat that Michell has been staying in and is cleaned. 

Satisfied with his efforts, Michell takes him back to the sea, leaves him to it, but soon realises that the bird is following him back up the beach. Despite his best efforts, the bird won't leave him alone.

So what would you do in this situation? You would smuggle the penguin into Argentina where you have a job teaching in an international school, of course.

What unfolds is a story, set in part against the social history of Argentina at the time – you learn of Eva Peron, descamisados and coups – whereby the penguin becomes an integral part of life at the school.

All the time, Michell tries to learn more about the small Magellanic penguin and the two of them create quite a bond in the process. Juan Salvador also becomes the school rugby team’s mascot and encourages a boy, who struggles academically, to swim.

Moments in the book are, at times, evocative of that most famous of South American travel stories, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s Motorcyle Diaries, but with the inclusion of a penguin and a distinctly British undertone.

The book is light-hearted, a bit eccentric, and full of poignant moments, but, overall, carries the message that a penguin can teach us about the need to look after each other and to take care of the planet for all creatures before it’s too late.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Atay Maghrebi: The Saadian Tombs

Inside one of the mausoleums at the Saadian Tombs, Marrakesh.
Stepping out of the cool darkness of the shuttered dorm, into the shade of the courtyard and then up onto the bright reality of the roof terrace, I realized that Saturday morning seemed to have even more of a Sunday morning feel than Friday did. The hotel was silent save for the handful of people at breakfast and the usual group of sparrows dancing around, picking up cake crumbs from the buffet.

The massiveness of the pale blue sky would seem almost oppressive, were it not for the distinct outline of the Atlas mountains in the distance and a handful of minarets nearby. Only the occasional revving of a moped shimmying through the alleyways brings you back into your present.


Getting more used to the Marrakshi heartbeat, I decided to stick to my plan of going to visit something specific in the cooler morning air. Today, it was my full intention to reach Le Palais de la Bahia, or Bahia Palace.

Setting off, passing through the narrow passageways of the medina, a route with which I had familiarised myself the previous day, I made my way along Boulevard Fatima Zahra, onto Rue El Mouahidine and continuing on Avenue Hommane Al Fatouaki.

In a small navigational error – I hadn't restudied the map from the guidebook and was going mobile internet free – and ended up turning a couple of streets too soon.

Walking past an unending line of camel-coloured grand and petit taxis, I found myself not arriving at the Bahia Palace, but walking below the castellated walls of the casbah and into the square opposite the Moulay El Yazid Mosque.

I turned the corner, and found that another of Marrakech's historical monuments, the Saadian Tombs squirreled away in an innocuous corner, nestled between the walls of the much younger mosque and the modern palace.

Once I’d got past the man trying to sell me a German guidebook to Marrakech, I discovered that entrance fee was only a minimal 10 dirhams.

The Saadian Tombs are a curious attraction. On the face of it, you may be tempted to think it isn’t visually too spectacular apart from a couple of the larger mausoleums, but you’d be wrong.

The Saadians were a ruling dynasty in Marrakesh and Sultan Ahmed Al-Mansour decided that a fitting monument to his rule would be a mausoleum made of Italian marble, golden muqarnas plasterwork and colourful zellige tiles. The tombs house a number of princes, wives and nobility.

What is the most curious thing is how such a monument has survived, seemingly at odds with Islamic convention. The Saadian Tombs are, in essence, a monument to a past dynasty of kings, and my understanding is that any such memorial could be considered a form of idolatry.

The Saadian Tombs are well hidden between high walls in the casbah, Marrakech.
Indeed, the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia has, over the years, removed a number of historical sites connected with the history of Islam lest they detract from the sole worship of Allāh.

What you discover is that the subsequent Alawite ruler Sultan Moulay Ismail walled the tombs up so that they were completely hidden from view. Some say it was superstition that prevented him from destroying them.

For lunch I spend an hour or so on the roof terrace of Café Casbah overlooking the mosque and the entrance to the tombs.

Somewhere in the distance a rhythmic beat appeared and disappeared like a ghostly carnival before the relative silence of this neat little section of the city returned.


That evening, shortly before Magrib prayers are called, I meet with Dee on the top terrace and we talk briefly before she attempts to meditate.

Allahu akbar… hayya'alas-salāh

After a while she gives up and reveals that she's had an awful day. It seems that after ten days of travelling alone she is homesick and has spent most of the day buying new flights to Barcelona, but is now worried about how to proceed onwards to Switzerland.

I reassure her by saying that she is, in fact, remarkably brave to be travelling alone. I'm attempting it for the first time and I was homesick after about five hours, let alone ten days – although, I admit tiredness played a part in how I felt.

It transpires that, in spite of having a partner, she mainly travels alone.

"Maybe though, at this time, it is not the right thing for me," she says.

After a while we are joined by Rory - a red-headed, harem-pants wearing Dubliner with a beard that's so good it's practically sunnah. He is quite a sight and when we are joined by Ella, an Irish primary school teacher, Dee’s mood lifts.

We resolved to find some dinner, wandering through a part of the medina that I’ve not been through yet and settling for a small café just off the main part of Jemaa el-Fnaa. Crucially, most of the customers seem to be Morrocan, rather than European.

Rory and Dee are good company and it felt good to be in a group rather than alone. Rory designs video games for smart phones and is having a short break before heading back to meet the launch deadline for his app. He is quietly optimistic about the potential success of it.

Dee is a dance and yoga instructor. She is self-employed and is less certain about things. She tells us about how she can't really have a sick day because she won't get paid.

Rory, who was self-employed for a long time, offers a few bearded words of wisdom and encouragement, looking as he does like a wise character from One Thousand and One Nights.

Throughout dinner, where I opted for merghez sausage, harira soup and Morrocan salad, we talked about where we are now and where the immediate future may take us.

Denmark got more than a fleeting mention from me and I momentarily daydreamed about the prospect of leaving the UK – my own Brexit brought about by a perfect cocktail of circumstances.

After offending a diner, whose dinner-stained white shirt meant we'd mistook for a waiter, Dee bought ice-cream for three child-beggars and we took a gentle stroll through the slowly-closing souk, returning to the hostel.

It was generally quiet and the terrace being closed already signalled an earlier night than yesterday.

Lessons learned:
  • Food is cheap when you avoid the casbah (where a tagine will cost you a lot)...
  • … and eat where you see Moroccans eating.
  • Cats will enjoy harassing you whilst you eat in any country.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Københavnske Dagbog: Min Identitet På Tværs @ Støberiet

A Danish-Somali woman in a 2017 reimagining of a 1975 photo by Manna Tarah.
Shortly after lunch on Friday 17th February, I headed over to the rather hipster Hackney-esque Papirøen, or ‘Paper Island’, for a coffee and chat with Pernille, a fellow lover of East Africa.

As is often top of the agenda these days in Europe, we discussed migration and the question being raised by one political party about what constitutes Danish values. It is interesting as it seemed to mirror similar discourse about British values that had arisen pre- and post-Brexit in the UK.

When the conversation moved on to discuss the diversity of my students in the UK, Pernille recalled a small photography exhibition that had just opened at Støberiet in Nørrebro, just down the road from what is affectionately called ‘Little Somalia’ and on my way to my friends’ apartment.

The title of the exhibition, Min Identitet På Tværs, roughly translates as ‘My Identity Across’ and implies a potential tension, or distance, between divergent aspects of young Danish-Somalis’ cultures.

According to the website, the curators, Manna Tarah and Hibaq M. Ahmed, put the exhibition together to ask questions of: whether a cultural heritage can be maintained in the ever-changing cultural community; and can the new and old cultures really coexist?

Not realising that by being half-term in Denmark the exhibition would be closed, I was fortunate that one of the librarians in the bibliotek downstairs unlocked the gallery and switched the lights on, leaving me to look about at my leisure.

The pictures on display recontextualise and reimagine vintage Somali pictures from the 60s, 70s and 80s, and place them into a modern, predominantly urban, Danish context. The idea behind this was “to form a visual bridge between Somalis across generations and continents, across borders and time.”

A particular favourite denoted a young Danish-Somali woman in a reimagining of a 1975 photo of the model Iman Abdulmajid. It was taken by Manna Tarah in 2017 Copenhagen and, despite the obvious difference in appearances between the two subjects, it helped, if not to answer the question about how a cultural heritage is maintained in a different context, but at least to indicate that being at once Danish and Somali shouldn’t be seen as diminishing the cultural heritage of either nation.

Although small, the notion of diverse cultures being explored within the self is an interesting facet of migrant often overlooked by many quarters and it would be nice to see more similar projects in West London too.

Min Identitet På Tværs is at Støberiet until 15th March 2017. More information can be found at https://kulturn.kk.dk/event/fernisering-min-identitet-paa-tvaers.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Atay Maghrebi: Eating Snails and Adam's Tale from the Sahara

The sun setting behind distant palms, seen from the roof of Equity Point.
As the maghrib prayer was called, a small group of us were left watching the dust-blown orange sun setting and, as ever, it put on quite a show as it lowered itself below the tops of three palms in the middle distance.

The multitudinous adhans started as, one by one, the muezzins called "Allahu akbar… hayya'alas-salāh" in a rippling effect that hums across the massiveness of the sky over the hostel’s roof terrace. 

Save for the soft fizzing sound as hot atay hit the cube of sugar at the bottom of my glass, we were left silenced.


As with the previous day, there is a rolling cast of bit part players coming and going within the hostel.

Shortly after maghrib, I had wandered to the Jemaa el-Fnaa. Encouraged by my stolen guidebook, I had decided to brave one apparent local delicacy - snails!

The snails are sold at small stalls in the centre of the market place, slightly away from the larger food stalls in the middle and adjacent to a line of orange juice sellers. The proprietors all stand in the middle with monstrously large silver pans filled with small brown shells and a steaming light brown broth. All around the edges of the stall are seats for diners to sit and dine from.

Conscious that I was the centre of attention as I paid my 10dh for a small bowl full of the creatures, I just copied the actions of the nearest Moroccan man I could see. One by one, using a small toothpick, I plucked out only the meatiest part of the snail and left the slimier looking part well alone.

A few American tourists came over to look at the snails as the seller shuffled the snails around in the pan to a chorus of clattering shells. Needless to say, they gave a wry smile and headed off to the nearest café selling burgers.

It's difficult for something that looks like this to be appetising.
I wandered back through a quieter part of the souk to find the young American couple rummaging around in the dorm room in a bit of a panic - at this point, I should point out that neither were American; she was Canadian and he was German.

During the night, she had been bitten to hell and back by bedbugs, apparently a regular occurrence for those who have been out in the desert trekking for a few days.

This seemed to get her German boyfriend flustered, but no one else in the room had been affected. The one thing we did have to do was to package up all of our clothes and any belongings made of fibres and hand them to reception to be tumble-dried. 

Grouchy Frenchman seemed unmoved – I guess if you're already annoyed by everything life has to throw at you, it can't really get much worse.

When Grouchy and me arrived in reception, both of us knowingly avoiding any smalltalk, the two female members of staff started to have a giggle about the situation. After a couple of moments, their infectious laughter, and gentle mockery of the both of us, finally raised a smile on the face of Grouchy. It seemed the ice-man was melting.

Both Grouchy and I were moved to a new room, as the young couple showered us with apologies.


A short while later, and back on the roof terrace, Adam, a young German photojournalist with wavy locks of dark hair, a stylish beard and an enthusiastic tone to match, started to tell us about his current project. 

As part of a project that he was organising alone, he had been travelling to the Western Sahara, a disputed territory that is split between Morocco's Southern Provinces and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic's (SADR) area called the Free Zone by their Polisario Front military group. Following the Spanish withdrawal from the territory in the 1970s and a conflict with neighbouring Mauritania, Morocco has had control of the area, having claimed the territory formally in 1957. The dispute continues to affect some political relations with neighbouring countries to this day.

Adam told us that he had travelled to Laayoune, the capital of the Moroccan-controlled Southern Provinces, and had started by photographing pro-SADR/Polisario grafitti. He claimed that often, within hours, any such graffiti was being painted over.

He had then crossed deep into the SADR-held territory and visited some of the camps there. These had been a massive contrast to the clean streets of Laayoune and he spent his time photographing the rebel Polisario forces parading, whilst trying to document ordinary life of the Sahara with people there.

He told a story of how, during one evening when someone realised that there was Champions League match involving Barcelona, loads of them had piled into one shack to watch it. Part way through the match, the battery had run out on the television and the room emptied as a new one was harvested from someone’s car. Football truly does come first all over the world.

After a couple of days, even though he had all of the requisite permissions from the Moroccan government, and the Polisario Front, the authorities didn't take long to suspect he might be in someway doing something rogue. Within 24 hours of arriving in another small town – which based on the details he gave us must be Guelta Zemmur – officials arrived demanding his passport from his hosts. 

What unfolded, and I have little reason to doubt his story whatsoever, sounded like a scene from a Jason Bourne movie. Kay, a young Australian girl, Dee, a Swiss woman of around my age, and myself sat enthralled.

His hosts, naturally, had denied that he was in the building and this had given him time to slip out of the house. They had been making progress away from the area when a police roadblock a few kilometres  later appeared out of the dust and paramilitary police had emerged from the vehicles with their weapons pointed.

He got taken the 600km to the nearest airport and was told to leave immediately for Casablanca on the next flight.

He told the whole story in much more detail and as if it was something that had happened years ago, but, it had literally happened just the day before.

Eventually, one of the giggling receptionists told us that we had to leave the roof terrace; the time having flown by, so we headed to a seating area. Adam, as if to prove that what he told us wasn’t a lie, showed us some of the images of Sahrawi graffiti, phosphorus production and Polisario troops parading that he’d taken before his deportation.

By the morning Adam had disappeared, possibly to try and get back to where he could continue his project, or maybe back to the relative calm of his home in Germany.

Lessons Learned
  • Bed bugs don't like tumble-dryers. 
  • The texture of snails, however tasty the soup, is basically how you would expect it to be.
  • I really need to own a roof terrace in the medina of Marrakech.
Note: The dispute over Western Sahara is a complex one and one that I personally only know a little about. The story was told to me by a fellow traveller whose name has been changed in this story. It is his subjective account on events and in no way is to be taken as representative of an objective account of the conflict, the Southern Provinces of Morocco, or the SADC/Free Zone under Polisario control.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Københavnske Dagbog: The Colours of Djibouti @ Davids Samling

Djibouti 12 by Peter Bonnén displayed at Davids Samling's Collection.
When I arrived at the Copenhagen Backpackers Hostel, one of the first things that caught my eye was a leaflet for an exhibition called Djiboutis Farver or The Colours of Djibouti in English. The picture on the front was of a wall with a small window cut into it, the bottom half a dirty salmon and the top a washed out baby blue.

The name of the venue, and the leaflet, had slipped out of my mind until my friend Signe said over lunch, “I really want to visit the Islamic art museum.”

I asked her where it was and what it was called, looking for a chance to build on my exploration of Essaouira’s Museum in the summer. She made a noise that sounded a bit like, “dad’s salmon.” Then she spelled it out and it was the same place that I had been looking at the leaflet for.


After chasing the changing of guards around town for a bit and having a coffee in the Grønlands Repræsentation, I wandered towards the innocuous entrance to the Davids Samling Collection, opposite the Kongens Have or King’s Garden. 

Downstairs there is a collection of European artwork, but I bypassed this to see the Peter Bonnén exhibition first.

The photography centres on what is essentially something very ordinary; the painted walls and doors of houses and commercial buildings in Djibouti, a small country in northeast Africa with colonial ties to France and cultural ties to its neighbours, Somalia and Ethiopia.

What makes his works interesting is encapsulated in the photographer's introduction to the gallery. Bonnén states that when he used to attempt to paint in his younger years, he found his works becoming more and more monochrome. Even today he says, “I am not that good at colours.”

When Bonnén visited Djibouti, with its mass of foreign soldiers to combat piracy and the chaos of the market when a delivery of khat from Ethiopia arrives, he “found the colours and the colour combinations that [he] had always sought.”

Indeed, what his photographs are representative of are something quite idiosyncratic and document how “the colours of the houses and doors everywhere [he] looked were so surrealistic that they sang.” This was a perfect explanation for the collection, and especially for my personal favourite Djibouti 12.

Having taken the time to absorb the colours of every single image I saw, I walked upstairs to where the another, permanent treasure trove lay in wait. 

The Djiboutis Farver exhibition is at the Davids Samling Collection until 16th April 2017. More information can be found at https://www.davidmus.dk/en/.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Atay Maghrebi: The Koutoubia Mosque and Hotel La Mamounia

The Koutoubia Mosque and its imposing minaret, early on a Friday morning.
I didn’t really feel that Marrakech and I had got off on the right foot. This morning, after a really good night’s sleep, I had resolved to have a calm day, take in a few sights, and limit my spending to 200dh.

Perhaps most excitingly, it was my first Jumu’ah spent in a Muslim country. The day already had the feel of a Sunday morning in a Christian country and when I finally got out of bed the hostel was very quiet. By 8.30, there were only two others on the roof terrace.

Breakfast was, as expected, a bit of a bread fest, but there are also the options of cake, yoghurt, coffee, atay, pancakes, all accompanied by the worlds sweetest and thickest apricot jam.

I took my time eating and made the most of the sun’s mild temper to write the previous days misadventures into my notebook, accompanied by a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and a pair of sparrows who insisted on monitoring my every move lest I drop a crumb.

I also reflected on how humourless I had been the day before. Plenty of people go travelling alone, but, as it’s something that I had never done before, it seemed like the lack of any sense of order hit me hard. Today I realised that I simply had to find a rhythm to my day.

After studying the Marrakech Lonely Planet guidebook, handily stolen from the library at my workplace on the last day of term, I made a modest itinerary for the morning: Koutoubia Mosque followed by a wander around the gardens of La Mamounia, a large hotel by the medina walls.


The minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque is the defining architechuaral feature of Marrakesh’s medina.

Mid-morning on Jumu’ah, the square in front of the mosque was quiet, save for the traffic rushing in small waves along the junction of the Rue Mouahidine and Rue Ibn Khaldoun. 

In front of the mosque was the small white-washed tomb of Lalla Zohra, whose history it's hard to pin down. Some sources told me she was is considered a saint, others I spoke to said she was the daughter of a liberated slave. I found it strange that there would a tomb or mausoleum to a potential saint, and a female one at that, so openly placed at the side of the road – especially when this could be considered as a form of idolatry under Islamic law. It wasn't the only instance of such a thing I would find in Marrakech.

Turning back to the main building, to say that minaret dominates the landscape is an understatement and somehow seems to cheapen it. It was built in the 12th Century and is one of the oldest buildings left in the medina as well as one of the tallest. One taxi driver, a Paris Saint Germain fan called Hassan, confidently informed me, “You can see that tower for 40 kilometres in every direction.” I didn’t test whether this was the truth, but I could well imagine that it would be.

In many ways, the bottom of the minaret is quite plain, but the intricacy of the design increases the further up you look. 

It starts with some carving into the masonry around the window spaces; further up there are lines of blue painted into geometric patterns; some small castellation; a smaller part at the top where the muezzin would call the adhan has both blue and red details, a variant of the fleur-de-lys in the stonework, and at the top four golden orbs, one of which being supposedly a penance payment from a sultan’s wife for breaking her fast during ramadan.


Even the secluded areas of La Mamounia's gardens are palatial.
After this, I made the short but rather hot walk through Parc Lalla Hasna to La Mamounia. 

Nearing the end of the park, the scale of the hotel becomes evident, but you can’t truly appreciate its architectural splendour until you’re safely through the security gate.

Emerging from a well-manicured garden full of trees with large branches, the entrance to the hotel looks more like modern reworking of the Alhambra in Seville, Spain. Not a square inch of the entrance is free from either zelij – the typically Moroccan mosaic patterning – or carved and sculpted stucco or masonry, with designs so complex that only my camera was able to do it any real justice.

The hotel opened to travellers in 1923, but has a history that stretches back much further than this. The gardens were gifted to Prince Al Mamoun in the 18th Century and the palatial theme is continued throughout the premises. Indeed, the hotel’s website claims that Winston Churchill once remarked to Franklin D. Roosevelt that it was “one of the most beautiful places in the world.”

Inside, the floors and walls were made of what seemed like polished black marble interlaced with gold highlights. Along the sides were small water features with the ubiquitous zelij sorrounding them, gently flowing as I made my incongruous (read: linen trousers, light blue T-shirt and sandals) passage through the lobby towards the blazing light of the terrace that overlooked the gardens.

I sat myself down with Ian Fleming’s For Your Eyes Only, feeling a little bit like James Bond as a waitress in a gold and white abayah took my order. Whilst the couple on the table next me, a Canadian woman and her partner from Kent, went for a late-morning mojito, I opted for second pot of atay, that came accompanied by three small pastries.

Whilst finishing my atay, I read a bit more of my novel and then some of the rather arty in-house magazine. Ironically enough the articles include one about a house that was used for fiming in the recent James Bond movie Spectre in Morocco and an article on atay, which really was becoming a running theme of my stay.

In Mouna Lahrech’s article Fifty Shades of Green, she took aim at mint tea, claiming that it wasn't really that Moroccan. She says, “Moroccan tea was originally a British idea” and that green tea was “introduced in the mid-19th century by the British who were looking for a market for their exports of different green tea varieties.” She also can’t stand the slurping noise that you’re supposed to make whilst drinking it.

Just as I was beginning to despair as my entire notion of one of Morocco’s essential components was beginning to crumble, she went on to write that what Moroccans did with the basic ingredient of green tea is what makes it special. Indeed, the addition of mint and other regional variations of ingredients is what “created a beverage that would accompany life’s most beautiful moments for an entire country” – although she still prefers coffee.

With my faith in the Moroccan integrity of atay restored, I set off on a stroll around the gardens. Now, having recently agreed with my father in an argument about the overuse of football pitches as a means for measuring area, I will avoid doing so, but you get the implicature; the gardens were vast.

Within the boundaries of the garden, which push up against the inside wall of the medina, there were countless cacti of every shape and size imaginable, rows of date palms piercing the cloudless Marrakshi sky, lush green lawns standing in counterpoint to the reddish sands that surround the city and even a 'water bed' – a flower bed filled with lilly pads, flowers and bulrushes. In amongst this there was evena terrapin swimming blithely amongst a couple of small fish.

To add to the magnificence, a small seating area, or so it seemed at first, in fact opened out into a small riad style courtyard with a symmetrical balance of columns, alcoves and soft azure zelij, all finished off with an artistically overflowing fountain in the centre.

Considering that it was just the garden to a hotel, it took me nearly forty-five minutes to navigate and I managed to get mildly lost before emerging near the pool bar. I could only guess at what the price difference must be between my room at Equity Point and La Mamounia.

For the afternoon I had planned to visit Le Jardin Majorelle, the one time residence of Yves Saint Laurent, but when I got back to the AC of my cheap, but comfortable, dorm room after a lunch of kefta tagine and yet more atay, I fell asleep for the majority of the afternoon.

Lessons Learned
  • Waking up early and getting out whilst the sun is a bit cooler is a good idea at this time of year.
  • Not every Moroccan actually likes to drink mint tea, and some will actually print this opinion openly.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Atay Maghrebi: Walk-on Roles

The smaller of the two riads that make up Equity Point Hostel, Marrakech.
That evening I paused for while on the top terrace of the Argana to drink more atay. In the orange half-light of dusk, Jemaa el-Fnaa, with the adhan for Maghrib prayer being called from the Koutoubia mosque and a wave of other smaller mosques following suit, was transformed into something almost otherworldly. 

Whilst locals dashed to the multitudinous mosques squirreled away down every narrow passage of the medina, and tourists lazily continued their sun-beaten wanderings, I took out my red Moleskine notebook and thought about the assortment of people I was beginning to unearth in the hostel.


Arriving in my shared dorm room at Equity Point Hostel that afternoon, there was, who I assumed to be, an American couple canoodling on the bottom bunk of one the beds. Upon reflection, she sounded more American than him, and I suspect that he may be in possession of one of those Americanised accents that many young Europeans have when speaking English.

Feeling a little guilty for breaking up their 'moment', I asked them which of the bunks was free. The guy had his own bed, but was now sharing with her. I realised that their relative youth and slender frames would make this possible, along with the fact that they were next to the air conditioning. There was one other bed with a neatly folded pair of green swimming trunks laid on top of it.

After a few minutes, another dorm mate arrived: enter, Grouchy Frenchman. He was around forty years old, was in possession of a portly belly and wore a trilby hat.

Gathering their stuff together, American Guy asked me, “Would you like the door left open?” 

Before I had chance to reply, Grouchy interjected. “Non!” he cut in, “fermé la porte because the AC will otherwise not work!” He then continued to mumble something under his breath that sounded very grumpy and exceedingly French.

American Guy looked awkwardly at me and retired backwards out of the door, as if edging slowly away from an angry dog. I was worried that they may have had a 'cultural difference' already and imagined my peaceful night’s sleep ebbing away over multilingual invectives. 

I tried, albeit falteringly, to engage Grouchy in a little small talk about the weather, failed miserably and decided to sleep off the early afternoon’s unplanned ramblings


Later on, I was already beginning to feel a little less isolated, a little livelier and my annoyance over being fleeced by guides was fading.

Outside of dorm 108 at the hostel, set on the ground floor of two interconnected riad style courtyards, was a swimming pool. This was a definite draw for this hostel when compared to others I had researched in the medina

When I had fully awoken, Grouchy was in the pool swimming some short lengths – I was half-trying to avoid being in his company as he really behaved like a localised cloud of doom. Luckily, the moment the big toe on my left foot hit the water, he jumped out and I had the water, and the last remaining spot of sunshine in the courtyard, to myself.

A short while later, a young Dutchman in his second year at University got in. We talked a bit about where he’d been around Morocco now that his trip was drawing to a close.

He had actually come into Morocco via Spain with his two friends, and had worked his way down the country by coach: Tangier, Rabat, Fez, “But avoid Casablanca whatever you do!” he said. I didn't enquire why.

He was studying Business Administration and wanted a future career in logistics management. Not overly exciting, but at least it didn’t have to pay anything near to what his UK counterparts have to pay in terms of tuition fees. In fact, even with reduced government funding in Dutch Universities, he was still only paying €2000 he said.


Looking down at the pool and dorm 108 at Equity Point Hostel, Marrakech.
After returning from Argana, I lay on the roof terrace of the hostel staring up at a whole load of empty nothingness. The sun had long gone down, but the warmth still permeated the air and I was fighting off the urge to ask myself for the tenth time: “What the hell are you doing here alone?”

I had been beginning to think that travelling to Morocco, alone or otherwise, might be a young person’s game; young Dutchman and his mates, giggling hordes of young French women in abayahs bought from the souk and the canoodling American-sounding couple all stood as stark counterpoints to me and Grouchy Frenchman.

Sat crossed-legged on the one of three semi-circular seats was an American woman in her late 30s and an Irishman in his late 20s. Clearly they hadn’t been travelling together, but they were having a major existential heart to heart about where they were in life – lolling around on the planet somewhere between lost and listless.

It seemed the woman was trying to escape the fallout of a relationship breakdown in New York and was now trying to find some peace, albeit by disturbing the peace of the Irishman. His responses seemed to hint that he may have just been humouring her and her woes, but he seemed to be sharing a bit of his recent challenges too.

She was having her very own 'Eat Pray Love' moment, but in a manner that was desperate for someone to overhear it all. I was curious as to whether everyone here around my age would be on the run from something.

Heading back downstairs, I went into the dorm to find another new arrival: Théo.

As I walked in, I casually said, “y’alright!”

He leapt up, looked at me in shock and said “yes” with a heavy French accent. At first, when I saw his eyes I was concerned that he may be under the influence of something very strong; there was something wild about the way his eyes appeared. A few minutes later, I realised what it was about him – he just had a really strong prescription in his glasses and the lenses magnified his eyes rather spectacularly.

We stumbled through a Franglais conversation about Africa for half an hour or so. As he disappeared into the en suite, Grouchy Frenchman shuffled back into the room after what seemed like his twentieth swim of the day. He grumbled something about the AC again. This time Théo bore the brunt of the mumbling, I ignored him and the Americans lay feigning sleep.

I didn’t know what to expect from staying in a hostel, especially as a thirty-something, but what I found on the first night was that it is just a bit like an alternate version of Big Brother, peopled by a cast of equally divergent characters. Your prize may be that elusive inner peace, your motivation may be to get discovered, or may just be to discover yourself, but it’s generally all harmless fun.

Lessons Learned
  • Argana is the ideal people watching spot at Maghrib prayer time in Jemaa el-Fnaa – unless you’re meant to be praying.
  • Always shut the door if you have the AC switched on and a Grouchy roommate.
  • Embrace the strangeness of any potential roommates. You are probably equally as weird to them – or they be long-sighted.
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