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

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