Marrakesh (Marrakech), Morocco
June 27, 2019
We set out in the morning without so much as an itinerary. Any last-ditch planning on our penultimate day in Marrakech was ditched. I surrendered the day to Ki’s steps that led us on his flight of fancy, which did not involve any mode of transportation. We would be pounding the city’s dusty pavement as we had done the past three days. With a starter pack of Bioré sunscreen and a pair of arm guards, I was combat-ready for a day-long exposure to the harsh Moroccan sun, which shone overtime well into evening hours in the summer.
Moroccans had the penchant for al fresco dining on the sidewalk and so we did, facing the street. Since our bodies were the day’s choice of transportation, we loaded up on carbs for petit déjeuner (literally, little lunch, or simply breakfast, in French). The set menu at Smile Food Restaurant, a few paces from our hotel, heaped generous helpings of Moroccan flatbread – both the flaky pancake msemen and the fluffy pita batbout – served with olive oil along with butter and jam. We downed it all with cups of hot cocoa.
Our loins and joints thus girded, we marched down to the center of Gueliz. For some reason, the French Protectorate strictly imposed the ocher architectural color in this colonial district, later adapted by the entire city, earning Marrakech the nickname “Red City.” The place to get our bearings was on the district’s main axis, Avenue Mohammed V, where Gueliz market used to stand but had since been replaced by modern shopping center Carré Eden. Soon, a red double-decker rolled by bearing tourists on the upper deck. It was not how we rolled, though. We preferred to be up close and personal with the locals. Just then, a street dog stared at us curiously, perhaps having sniffed out our strange scent. The brief encounter foreshadowed further interactions, this time with fellow humans.
Before we discovered the exotic, Ki’s keen eyes caught the familiar – a red logo several floors up. As in Tangier, we came across yet another branch of the language school we learned Spanish at. Unlike in Tangier, it was early enough for a visit. The building guard allowed us into Instituto Cervantes de Marrakech.
We studied at the Manila school two decades prior which deepened our interest in Iberian culture, so much so that I planned a trip to Spain for us. Ki, alas, was not granted a visa by the Spanish Embassy. That unreasonable denial got us to Morocco instead, the nearest visa-free country from Spain for Filipinos. In Tangier, we beheld the mountains of Andalucia across the Strait of Gibraltar. In IC de Marrakech, we learned more about the shared cultural history of both countries.
The visit brought back more memories for me. A documentary shown on loop at the sala de actos was all about souvenir spoons similar to my late mother’s collection from her and other people’s travels. The wooden table on which they were laid out even looked the same as ours. This uncanny and bittersweet memory of Mom made her presence felt in this faraway land.
While Spanish influence was more palpable in Tangier, the colonial footprint left in Marrakech was mainly French. After that detour through memory lane at Instituto Cervantes, we continued along the avenue lined by eucalyptus trees sporting the carved works of artist Moulayhafid Taqouraite. We soon passed by a school named after Victor Hugo. It should have been a clue that we were in the historic French enclave. Further down Route de Targa, we reached the northern suburbs of Marrakech. At this point, the sparse and dusty neighborhood of Bin Lkchali unmasked the desert landscape on which the city was built.
Little did we know that we had come to the heart of colonial Marrakech. The residential blocks we walked through opened up into a small olive grove which, in turn, opened to a full view of a barren hill of rock. It took us by surprise to see a bit of wilderness in the middle of the city. Belatedly, I learned it was called Jebel Gueliz, or Mont Guéliz, a low-altitude sandstone mountain that gave the expat district to the south its name. On closer approach, we found some heavy machinery parked at the foot of the mountain, perhaps equipment for schist quarries on its slopes.
What caught my eye were the crumbling ramparts tracing the summit. It brought to mind Borj Sud in Fez, an ancient hilltop citadel overlooking the city. In fact, the history of the Jebel Gueliz fortifications did not go as far back as in Fez. French forces established their military base, Camp Mangin, on the southern slope in the early 20th century, leaving the perimeter wall and a pair of observation towers as the only visible remnants from where we were standing. Before the invention of satellites and video cameras, military surveillance was conducted from such suburban elevations.
Rushing traffic along Rue Lieutenant Mohamed Zeroual notwithstanding, the desolate landscape exuded a mystical vibe. Perhaps it was the suggestion of a nearby mosque, or perhaps not. Again belatedly, I read that, in the 12th century, the patron saint of Marrakech holed up in the mountain’s sandstone caves for an extended spiritual retreat.
As the mountain delimited the old city, so it marked the extent of our urban trek. We walked back the main avenue to Bin Lkchali. This former French neighborhood had, for the most part, fell into disrepair. Walls with arched entrances, perhaps of colonial villas that once dominated the district, remained, but the enclosed areas had been repurposed into residential compounds and public buildings.
Unlike in my overpopulated home country, hardly anyone was out in broad daylight. The sidewalks were as wide as they were empty. We were elated to see a winsome vendor for a bit of human interaction and, of course, that ubiquitous fresh orange juice. He was, most likely, as elated to have customers in a corner with low foot traffic.
Deep in the village, a three-portrait mural practically begged for photo ops. Was it an ad? The absence of product placement and text ruled it out. Wall murals were actually common in Morocco, which was unexpected because I knew the representation of human likeness was forbidden in Islam. Perhaps it only applied to religious art. So we held our phones up for selfies with the artwork.
A group of school-age children playing in the sidewalk swarmed and asked us to take their photos. Not that it was a bizarre request from kids, but Ki refused for fear that the photos could be used against us for whatever reason. We were alone in a strange neighborhood, after all, not a tourist destination. This drew the ire of the kids and they pelted us with pebbles. So much for up-close-and-personal experiences with the locals.
A few blocks from that stoning incident, another strange encounter – a more curious one than unpleasant – occurred, which I duly documented on Facebook:
I came as a tourist; little did I know I’d be the attraction. Every other Moroccan I meet on the street either stares at me or at least does a double take. Many seem surprised to see an East Asian like me. So this is how it feels to be a celebrity…or a novelty. Now I miss my anonymity. After this photo was taken, a boy with Down syndrome saw me & couldn’t hide his fascination. I think he was telling his mother about me because she threw sideways glances. This went on for the entire length of the block. I’m a fairground attraction here. And I freak out that I might look like a freak to them.
In retrospect, the special boy probably saw his face in mine.
Modern Marrakech certainly played up its “Red City” moniker but not all for tourist money. Its back alleys away from the tourist circuit were just as red. Orange-red clay and pink-tinted chalk still served as the major construction materials of buildings and houses in the city. In Quartier Bayard, we came across crumbling earthen structures and wondered if they were portions of the rose-colored ramparts that walled off the old city. Around these walls were rock-strewn, dusty open areas, sometimes dotted with olive trees and the occasional weeping willow. Behind every Moorish keyhole gate and geometric-designed steel door lay our tantalizing imagination of the real Morocco we could not see from the outside. Were the villages therein still stuck in the time of the kasbah? Would we be disappointed to see a 7-11 there? But Morocco had their own alimentation générale, so all would still be within expectation.
I was knackered when we made it back to the center of Gueliz. A growing corn on my little toe forced a 15-minute stopover outside of Comptoir des Mines Galerie. But Gueliz was a gallery in itself. As I limped our way to the hotel, we took in various street art that adorned even temporary construction barriers.
It was a full day of as much exploration and adventure we could muster on foot. The surprise of both the familiar and the unexpected marked this urban trek. Though at some point we felt we were lost, we were confidently so. Gueliz was a pedestrian-friendly district. A pleasant walk could be had to any cardinal point, violent kids armed with pebbles notwithstanding. It would be a feat to be truly lost in this age of Google Maps. Even then, the app pointed only to directions, not discoveries.