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.
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