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.
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