Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Guéliz - the old and the new

I went to visit a friend’s flat in Guéliz, the so-called ‘Nouvelle Ville’ of Marrakech: called this originally by the French when they built it in order to provide a modern alternative to the old medina (they did this in most Moroccan cities). One of their first constructions was a Catholic church and the story goes that ‘Guéliz’ is a Moroccan corruption of the French for that – ie, église.  Nowadays, Guéliz is only modern in a few choice areas, with some shiny cafés and boutiques and a couple of malls, but most of it now is not so very modern … and many of its attractive 1930s buildings are falling into complete disrepair (an old cinema going this way really grieves me - see below, the cinema and an artist's imagined queue).

Anyway, my friend told me to take a taxi to ‘Victor Hugo’, and this turned out to be a large grammar school which lies at the end of the long and busy Avenue Mohammed V.  It was quite a new area for me and I phoned her for more directions when I arrived, but struggled to hear what she was saying as suddenly I was surrounded by a seemingly non-stop stream of kids pouring out of this school, screaming and shouting at each other, revving up noisy scooters or heading for fancy cars.
From her sunny balcony on the fifth floor we gazed down at the corner opposite the school, full of inviting-looking salad bars and patisseries. My friend explained that it is the city’s rich kids who go to Lycée Victor Hugo, the only purely French-speaking school in Marrakech, private and expensive. And as these kids are all free between 12 and 2 – no lunch is offered on the school premises – many pour across the road to the salad bars to spend up to 10 euros a day on their lunches … quite a lot for a school lunch! If they do NOT stop in the zone for lunch, they are picked up by mums or drivers in expensive Range Rovers and the like.

Then I found out that the flat actually sits between TWO large secondary schools – one the exclusive Victor Hugo, and the other a big state school called College la Princesse Lalla Meriem (Lalla Meriem is the King’s big sister). So there is quite the event at midday each day when a huge, noisy outpouring of youth emerges from both these two establishments for lunch. The rich kids are either collected in 4x4s blocking the road and blaring their horns, or they leave on motos and scooters. Meanwhile the state school kids emerge on bicycles (two on each) or run down the main boulevard in the traffic. Others hang onto the back of trucks (which they grab at the traffic lights) in order to get a dangerous but free ride down to the military zone where most of them live – my friend said that in many cases their parents were probably not from Marrakech originally. The area where they go is called Camp el Ghaoul, which was an old military encampment even before the French built on it.

So, the state kids make their chaotic way down the road as rich kids make their way up it, but – and here’s the weird thing – my friend commented that although both groups often fight amongst themselves, they NEVER clash with the other set.

It as though, coming from two completely different worlds, they just do not see each other.

And this dichotomy is repeated in the eating situation in the area. As I said, many rich kids sit eating in the fancy salad bars, but the state kids head for home. Meanwhile, a mere two streets up – where the situation changes dramatically and there are many smaller older cafés and stalls – tables are full to bursting with workers from offices and building sites nearby. And here you can buy a tasty tagine for just 20 dirham (2 euros).

But we went to eat in one of the trendy salad places near my friend’s home, fighting our way through the neon-coloured backpacks and roaring motos. You could hear some of these kids deliberately speaking French to each other – a type of status symbol, as Moroccan Arabic is almost certainly bound to be their mother tongue.

‘In this part of Marrakech,’ said my friend dryly, ‘it is all “regardez mon Range Rover” … but you don’t have to move far before you get back to the “donnez moi un dirham” …

This is Marrakech today. I think I fancy a 20 dirham tagine.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

A dream for our children

There is a place I like to go in Marrakech of an evening to have a glass of wine. I have been going there for years now and I know all the people (all men!) who work there well. Over the years some of them have got married, had children, been to places we have talked about, shared stories about the pink city with me – we always have stuff to talk about. And I have learnt most of my more colourful Arabic expressions from them too …

One night I was there after visiting a Book Fair in Marrakech with my friend from the Musée de la Femme. We had been looking specifically for books by Fatima Mernissi – as an ‘Islamic feminist’ in the early days of Morocco’s independence, she lectured in sociology at the Mohammed V university in Rabat and cut quite a controversial figure, analysing the role of women in Islam, through history and on the contemporary stage.

But that night I took one of her ‘lighter’ books to the bar, a memoir of her childhood spent in a harem in Fez, during the early days of the French protectorate. The book is called Rêves de femmes – Une enfance au harem’ (‘Women’s Dreams – A childhood in the harem’ … but actually translated in the English version as ‘Dreams of Trespass’). This book, in addition to having a beautiful cover of three women in the inner recesses of the palace where they live, also contains a wonderful quotation, which you can see on the wall of entrance to the Musée de la Femme:
‘Dignity is having a dream, a strong dream that gives you a vision, a world where you have a place, where your participation, as minimal as it may be, will change something.’

I show the guys at the bar the book, and then the quotation – and I ask Fta, the barman, what his dream is, how he hopes he will change something. His answer comes so quickly it seems he has already given it a lot of thought. He says he dreams only for his children, that they will grow up to be intelligent like me. 

Like ME? I say, but I am just a useless woman who comes and drinks WINE here every evening …

No, says Yusuf (one of a trio of friends I call the Three Musketeers), ‘the wine is not important and for us you are more than that. We were just talking about you when we started work today, saying that every time you come here you bring bits of outside knowledge and interesting information for us, photos and books and stories about history and people – and things you have noticed about our language and yours – you know so much about the outside world and we want our children to grow up like you.’

Ooooohhhh, I say I think I am gonna cry – only I actually say ‘I think I am going to rain’, because I am talking in my terrible French and I mix up the verbs for rain and cry … they will NOT want their children to grow up talking languages like I do!

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Football in the heart of the Mellah

It has been wonderful but terrible watching Morocco play in the World Cup … because their team, the Atlas Lions, are soo good, but they have had such bad luck: in their opening game an own goal in the last minute allowed Iran to beat them, a jammy goal did the same for Portugal and in their last – simply fantastic – encounter, it looked like the Lions were up against VAR instead of Spain. They ended on a 2-2 draw, but were definitely the better side. Awful bad luck.

Yes, the Atlas Lions are fantastic players, but I wonder how good conditions are for aspirational football players in Marrakech?

Recently, I came across a revealing scene that said a lot about football in this city. There have been several ‘improvements’ made to the Medina in the last few years (although many complain that this is all done to make the place look better for tourism, with very few benefits for the locals) and one particular area – the Mellah – has seen some quite drastic changes.

My favourite bar lies concealed in a corner of Place des Ferblantiers – a square right in the heart of the Mellah. Once this was a charming little square, shaded by palm trees, and punctuated by the sound of metal workers hammering away at their lanterns as they sat outside their shops around the square. A lovely fountain stood in the middle.
But now the Place des Ferblantiers has become a large open rectangle with very little in the way of charm. Most of the metal workers – ferblantiers – have been persuaded to leave their shops and offered new premises across the road. The square has been enlarged considerably, the fountain destroyed, and most of the palms also removed. God knows why. Some architect will have convinced the authorities that it is a ‘cleaner’ look.
For me, all one can do now with this large open space is cross it to the bar. But during the daytime and early evening it has attracted some groups of smallish children, who run after each other and play games there. 

I generally arrive after 10 for my glass of something relaxing – I go to the top floor and gaze out over the huge eucalyptus tree (they have not dared cut that down as it has been there for ever) to the high walls of the neighbouring Palais Badi and to the lights of the medina in the distance.

At this hour there are still children screaming and scurrying around the square, with their parents probably now employed by the new restaurants and tourists shops across the road from the square.

But as I was leaving the bar the other night after midnight, I found that the dynamics of the square were quite dramatically different. Out there in the square, I was amazed to discover two fully formed adult teams playing football in that large rectangle – and playing it very seriously indeed.

I asked my friend on reception what they were doing there – why so late and do they not have a better place to train? And she told me that these are football teams from a club who have given up waiting for a pitch they were promised out by the Akbal gardens. They waited months and months for the authorities to build them a decent ground … and finally gave up.

My friend said these teams sometimes play until 3 in the morning! For in the cool and peace of the Place des Ferblantiers at night, they have found an excellent use for that large gaping rectangle.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Madame this is a hotel, not a toilet

(Written on January 28)

I was running nervously down the long road to the start of the Marrakech marathon (well, half marathon in my case, but it's the same start place) when I felt unnerving twinges in the nether regions. I had been suffering from erratic bowel behaviour in the whole build-up to the race, and now it looked like boiled eggs and bananas were already making their presence felt in my colon ...

At this point I am passing the Mamounia Hotel - probably the loftiest and oldest and finest in Marrakech (there are many more now which are more ostentatiously luxurious, but nothing quite with its class). Winston Churchill used to stay and paint there. And nowadays people like Nicole Kidman and Joanna Lumley (not together obviously - somehow they would make an odd combination).

So, I know I cannot last much longer ... and right ahead through the old city gate (incongruously known as Bab Jdid - or New Gate) after the roundabout lies ... the Start of the Race.

There is heavy security presence in the Mamounia entrance. And when I say heavy I mean one of them must weigh about 100 kg. But I choose him. 'Excuse me please, but I am taking part in the marathon and my stomach is very upset - could I please enter and use the toilet here?'

Mr Big looks me up and down with the faintest of disdain. 'Madame this is a hotel not a toilet. There is a public toilet.' And he takes me outside to point back down the long road from whence I have come ... a long long way back.

'I know it is a hotel and a very beautiful place it is too - I have visited several times. But if you are kind you will allow me in because I am a little sick and it is urgent NOW please', I plead desperately.

He sighs. 'OK, please wait a moment madame', and he makes a telephone call.

I wait on tenterhooks and then he puts the phone down and motions me ... IN! I am exultant! I know exactly where the wonderful toilet is and am ready to make a run for it when ... he takes me gently by the arm ... and leads me to a tiny toilet concealed behind the grand entrance.

Inside there is no light, no flush. I perform urgently by mobile torchlight and then search in vain for the means to dispose of the, er, proceeds. Nothing. And no time and not enough Arabic to explain to another man who is washing in the sink.

I rush out, thank Mr Big profusely, and ask God to bless him. Then makes off as rapidly as possible.

It will be a bit of a while before I dare to show my face there again.

Friday, 15 December 2017

They never forget you

The kindness of the leather repair man

My handbag - of beautiful soft camel leather bought in the Marrakech souks - was coming apart a little at one seam, so I decided to take it along for a stitching job to the general leather repair man, who also doubles up as the shoeshine man. He sits at a street corner next to the news stand and I knew where he was because I had been to see him before with a sandal to repair. And as soon as I began with my painful Arabic - salaam a lekuum and afak, can you fix my bag - he remembered me. He took my bag, looked at what needed to be done and reached for his needle and thread. 

I said I could come back later but no, 'bilati, blati' (wait) he said and offered me a stool next to him, from where I could watch the street life go by.

He sewed away cheerfully and generally tidied up my bag, trimming off odd pieces of thread elsewhere. When he'd finished I asked him how much? But he just smiled and motioned me away. Nothing?! No, no, I could not believe it, but he just smiled at me again. I left something anyway and then we both asked Allah for mutual blessings.

I told a Moroccan friend this lovely story and he said it is quite common for repair men like this to remember you and take to you if you have made an effort in their language. 

I love this type of genuine warmth and generosity that I find in Morocco.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Mouslim! Mouslim!

I have a friend who lives way out in the suburbs of Marrakech and to get there the only option is to take a grand taxi, usually an ancient beige-coloured Mercedes – all taxis in Marrakech are beige, in Essaouira blue and white, and in Rabat white: they go with their city's decor.

A lot of these grand taxis leave from one particular street and if you want to go to Imam Mouslim (which I do, cos my friend lives there), you have to walk into this street into a melée of taxis, bikes and people, and begin to enquire from every driver you see ‘Mouslim?’ … and he will direct you to the part of the street from where Mouslim taxis will depart today.

Once you have found a Mouslim taxi, you have to wait until the car is filled before he goes – four in the back and two in the front next to him – and delicately he will try to ensure that women – as far as possible – are separated from men. NOT a good idea to get inside on a hot summer’s day until the last possible moment as you will bake to death.

‘Mouslim! Mouslim!’ he stands in the street shouting and – once we are all stuffed inside – off  we go – edging past all the other waiting taxis and then out past the King´s new palace, through a gate in the city walls, and on up to the Menara gardens before turning and heading for the airport road and freedom …

Inside, I am gently trying to edge myself into a position where my protuberances are not coming into contact with my neighbour on every turn or braking instance. Always in the back (I have never succeeded in making it to the front), I try and make myself as diminutive as possible, and limit myself to muttered choukrans for change when I hand the money over (it’s 5 dirhams/40p for the journey), and tentative smiles in the directions of my neighbours, who are often quite bulky women wearing thick fleecy-type djellabas, even in the summer and carrying large shopping bags. Sweat pours down … and of course the window winders never work. I can’t even reach my phone to let my friend know I’m coming.

It’s another thing at night. Now workers who have finished their shifts are in a mad hurry to get home, and you must locate your taxi and firmly establish your place in it! And it is DARK.

So one night I am squashed into the outside place in the back by the door, four of us already there, when the door opens again – and not one but TWO young men try to get in on top of me. ‘Amara, amara!’ (it’s full) says the woman next to me as I try desperately not to give way and also to shove them out. Mercifully I also look down at this point … and see that one of them has his hand in my bag. I snatch it away from him, and he backs off, but the woman next to me has seen – ‘hchoma’ (shame) she shrieks at him, then yells at the driver about what has happened.

The whole taxi is convulsed with concern for me. ‘Nti bikher?’ (are you OK) they ask, and they mutter angrily about how things have changed, the medina never used to be like this but now there are thieves all over the place etc etc. The women in the back keep up a non-stop flow of enraged commentary and apologies, despite my repeated ‘makein mushkil’ (no problem) and one offers me water, another a little packet of biscuits. Aw.

By the time I near my stop I have been so flooded with attention that I have not yet paid the driver. So, ‘hna’ (here) I say, and ‘hak’ (take) the money, and I hand over my 5 dirham coin. No, no, madam, he says, we cannot accept your money after such an outrage. And he stops and gets out to open my door (never usually done), helps me out, looks carefully around, and sends me off with an ‘aandek’ (be careful).

These are the people I like to be with.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

What I learnt about ‘prettyness’ from my new friend Fati

I turn up at my usual sandwich bar for lunch : there is a new girl working there who has noticed me the last three days. She likes that I try to order in Darija, or Moroccan Arabic, and we all have a laugh with my pronunciation. Today she tells me that I am very zwina (pretty) … NO! say I, YOU are very pretty, ‘ana chibaniya ou haiba’ (I am old and ugly). Today I am feeling very weary ...

She laughs and says that I am completely wrong: ‘In Morocco when we say pretty, we mean the eyes, the nose, the expression on the face – we are not worried about the SKIN!’

(They don´t have to be worried about it of course – they all have wonderful skin, the result of hammams and great diet and SUN).

Then she asks me if I have any friends, or any children (!) in Morocco. I say some to the former, and no to the latter. She says that foreigners don´t seem to mix very much with Moroccans and she thinks it’s a shame. She suggests she could be just a shweeeeeeeya (small) friend of mine. Her name is Fatima, she says, but her friends call her Fati and so I can too now.

My takeaway salad arrives (everyone rushing to make sure I have what I need, filling little paper bags with salt and pepper, and a tiny plastic container with harissa sauce, which I like on everything). 

‘Bslema (bye) Fati’, I say, and walk jauntily away down the road thinking that my new young friend has taught me a thing or two now about what ‘pretty’ is. I feel almost confident!