Marrakesh (Marrakech), Morocco
June 25 – 26, 2019
I was a headless chicken running around, looking for a place to pee in the middle of the maze-like medina. Luckily, I bumped into a Berber artist and restaurateur who went by the name Nabil Couscous. Wasn’t couscous a kind of food? But my immediate concern was to empty my bladder, not to question his name. He led me several steps to a bar with free toilet service. I had to excuse myself through a dark room full of men smoking shisha. I finally got to do number one! But unexpectedly, I found Mr. Couscous waiting for me outside the bar. For his trouble, Ki and I went back to his café for a meal.
Much had been written about the relentless, ruthless touts in every souq in Marrakesh. Props to Nabil, not only for stepping up when I desperately needed help, but for displaying uncommon subtlety in getting me to his restaurant. Many started their sales pitch on the wrong foot – assuming I was Chinese and Ki Nicaraguan (yes, that specific!).
One inquired about my country of origin. He retorted, “Philippine? Imelda Marcos! Two thousand shoes!” “Three thousand pairs,” we corrected him. The elderly man then talked about thieves having a black face because “it should be hidden.” We were floored. The notoriety of our former First Lady endured through the decades on the other side of the world as opposed to her own forgetful country, luckily for her and her family. The incident also proved that the medina was teeming with interesting characters if given a chance to digress from sales talk.
People aside, the city was a character in its own right. Marrakesh, both its modern and ancient faces, bled rose red. The hue actually ranged from scarlet to salmon pink. A crescent row of upscale real estate, Appartement Chic Gueliz Plaza avec Vue, kept to the color scheme of the city’s ancient Wall Agdal dating back to 1126. The massive wall of pink rammed earth surrounded nine kilometers of the medina. It provided our portrait photography a solid-colored background, albeit liberally punched with bolt holes.
At almost a millennium old, Marrakesh had not lost its magnificence and significance to time and circumstance, clearly embracing its long history with red-hot consistency. Historic city walls and traditional buildings sporting the city’s signature color provided the template for modern architecture as well. It was serious in living up to its nickname, the red city of Morocco.
The uniform tint came from sanguine soil, said to be iron-rich, around Marrakesh. The medina was still mostly built the old school way called tabia, the traditional use of compact mud as construction material. If there were concrete foundations, they were painted over with all shades of red. Our faces were invariably flushed in photos taken in narrow alleys and under Moorish keyhole arches, reflecting the encompassing redness. It applied a rouge of light on our skin, making Instagram filters grossly unnecessary.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Medina of Marrakesh had been the “downtown” for almost a thousand years. Within this walled city were several markets, called souq in Arabic, zoned as they were according to trade: leather, brass, spices. There was much to explore and experience – and buy – in North Africa’s largest souq. Its labyrinthine network of streets remained as narrow as it was before motor vehicles; only mules and donkeys could negotiate it for transporting and delivering goods.
Color defined, not only architecture and topography, but also merchandise and fashion. Local people in veils and tunics moved collectively as a stream of vivids and pastels. A spectrum of trinkets, carpets, lamps, and spices filled the marketplace to the brim as did the aromas of coffee and incense. But this sensuous environment truly came alive with colorful characters that peopled it.
Nabil and the old man who knew Mrs. Marcos were two of many such characters. A younger guy, upon seeing my Chinese looks, suddenly spoke gibberish while making kung fu moves. I came across as Jackie Chan to a majority of Moroccans. I chuckled at the silly encounter, but I also hoped it put some color to his day. What never failed to color mine, aside from the people, were the murals depicting Berber history and way of life on walls around the medina.
At Nabil’s Café Caravane along Rue Bab Doukkala, Ki and I opted for al fresco dining at the terrasse panoramique, or terrace with a view, a common feature in Moroccan restaurants. The roof deck seemed unprepared for guests as paintings on canvas and fabric were scattered about. Apparently, it doubled as an art gallery. Before we tucked into our order of mixed salad with long-grain rice, we took in colorful imagery of Berber life in various paintings, drawings, and hand-painted rugs. It was a kaleidoscopic peek into the life of Berber warriors and women, a drastic departure from the mostly geometric patterns in Islamic art.
In perfect timing, the call to prayer soon blared from nearby Mosquée Bab Doukkala, adding an auditory dimension to this already-thick traditional atmosphere. The experience was an unforgettable synthesis of sights, sounds, and smells.
A few steps away along Rte. Sidi Abdelaziz, we came across Galerie Arcades – Atelier de Marrakech, which treated us to more diverse Berber art. Inexplicably, we shared the large, high-ceiling exhibition center with no other visitor at that time. As I had no budget and luggage space for art acquisition, I could only buy miniature paintings on plaster blocks as pasalubong and my own keepsake.
We exited the medina through Rue Sidi el Yamani on our way to Mosque Koutoubia and completely missed Jemaa el Fna, the iconic souq of Marakesh, by a block or two. It was also rather late, perhaps 8 PM though the sun was still up. We would be back in our hotel when darkness fell.
As the sun in various time of the day imbued different moods on the dramatic landscape – brightly scorching at noon and deeply smoldering at sundown – so it did on the city skyline. As such, Marrakesh looked as much an intrinsic part of the environment, not merely a city rising from it. The dry, sun-baked land itself painted the town red and bestowed upon it a sense of timelessness.
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