Suddenly I’m in Morocco. A wonderfully impulsive trip to accompany heart-broken Simon who decided to get over his break-up by means of some North African sensory overload. I’m still reeling from Brazil, so yet more sunshine and exotica seems almost de trop but I had a week free, which almost never happens, so impulse won the day.
Walking in the Atlas mountains was lung-stretchingly wonderful. Those Berber villages growing out of the ochre valleys, like ancient multi-storey appartment blocks. The curiously church-like mosque design in Morocco. That wondeful oxygen-aching body tiredness you get from a 7 hour hike anywhere.
The 3 days in Marrakech were of another order however. I’ve been hiking in mountains. I’ve never been swallowed up by a city and washed away by the atmosphere. If I wasn’t so wedded to the sensory overload of Brazil I’d move there.
I was staying in a riad, a Moorish 2-storeyed house built around a courtyard in the north of the walled city or Medina. Which meant it was a theoretical half-hour walk down through the Souks to the main square.
However, the experience of getting utterly lost – one of my keenest pleasures – in a weaving labyrinth of tiny, ochre-pink streets was doubly compounded by the heaving mass of men (most Moroccan women hang out indoors – especially during Ramadan), a stinky palette of earthy smells and the most intense array of slippers, silks, dyed wools, brass lanterns, spices, dates, figs and pastries, ceaseless noise and sales patter. After more than 40 minutes of bobbing along on that washing tide of sound and colour I eventually got burped out of the Souks onto the Jemaa el Fna, Marrakech’s main square.
This place is a marvel. After all the closed-in intensity of the Souks, it’s an enormous wide plain, with an expanse of pale blue sky and a expanse of paved ground covered with food-stalls, snake charmers, transvestite Berbers, acrobats, Gnaoua dancers clacking their metal castanets and swinging their hats.
And as dusk settles in the sky goes a profound blue and the food stalls light up the square with their big sodium lamps and great billows of smoke which from a distance make it seem like the whole place is on fire.
It was the most intense sense of ‘flow’ I’ve had since the Jungle. Everything seemed perfect and in place. I moved around, grinning, completely enjoying every passing quanta of colour and sound.
We were also there at the close of Ramadan, Eid. Which meant we got a heavy dose of Moroccan celebration. Although Eid is traditionally a family affair (much like our Xmas, with people getting together in the morning), the end of one month’s fasting was evident everywhere out on the streets.
I was so impressed by the universal practice of Ramadan. I kept asking locals I met whether they really refrained from all foods and fluids from 4am to 6pm, or whether it was just the really pious who did it. It seems that everyone does it: men, women, children.
At 5.30 the whole frantic melee of the city winds down suddenly, as people start to wait for the evening call-to-prayer which signals the end of the fast. After all the noise and busyness of the day – it’s curiously delightful to suddenly see everyone sit down quietly for their ftour, the soup and orange juice that traditionally ends the fast.
That pervasive sense of spiritual rigour impressed me over and over. Although the streets are full of huge crowds of men, I never once felt threatened or that anyone would have even considered robbing me. Young men mill around the square but they only drink tea. There is none of the aggression or vague menace of big cities like London on a Saturday night. A city where everyone has the discipline to go without the most basic human desires – food and drink – for a whole day, also has the moral compass to frown upon drunkeness, stealing and violence.
I had a quite gentle reminder of the essential peace and solidity of everyday Islam. That wonderful call-t0-prayer that punctuates the day, threads as sense of bigger perspectives into things:
Hasten to prayer Hasten to real success Allah is great!
Men would dash into the Mosque and pray and then head back off into life – reminded perhaps of the big picture. It’s strange I was reading Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety (surely the scrappiest and weakest thing from this fine writer) and was amused by his completely Western, Americanized view of success and status. And being in Morocco during Ramadan made his provincialism seem even narrower.
I don’t mean to be Romantic about Islam – but actually living amongst practising Muslims for a week was a good corrective to all the defamatory stuff that spills out of our newspapers and tellies day after day. Women were powerful and sassy on one side of the walls and men on the other. Both seemed equally anchored in their religion. And although the briefest walk through the Medina makes you aware of grinding poverty, the fasting of Ramdam made a quote by Thoreau that de Botton cites particularly apposite: “Man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can do without.”