Saturday, 15 March 2014

Fun on the food stalls at night in the Jemaa

In the evenings in Marrakech, the best fun is to be had eating at one of the food stalls in the fabulous Jemaa el Fna - the huge heaving mass of vitality that is the old medina's central square. In the day it's fabulous enough - the vast square sits around the shops that border the souks in a kind of L shape and there are snake charmers, monkeys, acrobats, and henna artists galore. All kinds of characters put their blankets and goods on the ground in colourful and artistic displays and the fresh juice stalls do a roaring trade - at 4 dirhams (under 40 cents) a tall glass of orange juice, it's just too good a bargain to miss.

But it's at night that the Jemaa really comes alive. Groups of men gather round story tellers from the mountains, bands of musicians get going, thrumming on their drums, and row upon row of exotic food stalls, lit by gaslight, and displaying mountains of delicious-looking dishes, appear in front of it all. They are all numbered and the trick then is to persuade as many people as you can to your stall, so the air is filled with cries in every language, as both Marrekshis and foreigners are lured to the benches. Those stallholders have perfected the art of persuading people to eat their food in as many languages as I have ever heard!

I eat out there in the Jemaa as often as possible, not only because it is great value, but because it is also the source of high entertainment. In the winter, the harira soup is a winner at 5 dirhams - for 50p you have a delicious combination of chick peas and lentils and cumin and coriander and tomatoes and onions. Oh, and sometimes meat too! And there is just about every other Moroccan dish under the sun available, with all the usual tagines and cous-cous and fish ... and a whole plate never costs more than 3 or 4 euros.

There are also strange and slightly terrifying things like sliced sheep's head, tripe and calves' feet - but these are just a little bit beyond my range.

I have great fun talking to the men on the stalls, who all want to learn as much of every European language as they can, so that they can perfect their powers of persuasion. So I give them lessons in Spanish and Italian, and they return the favour with me in Arabiya ... I learn how to stop annoying salesmen with 'Skot! Stacheni frasi': I think this means 'enough of your stupid remarks' but am not 100% sure ... it always stops them in their tracks anyway.

Hisham and Rachid, two of my favourites at stall no 30 (but on some nights they are mysteriously at no 43), keep me there as long as possible on lonely nights with complimentary glasses of mint tea ... the longer I stay there, after all, the more chance they have of luring other tourists in ... I oblige by backing up their sales cries with convincing tales of how delicious it all is. Soon I think they are going to let me eat there for nothing - especially in the winter, when it is so much more of a struggle to pack 'em in.

They are all so good-natured and tolerant, these laid-back Moroccan men. Old ladies approach, trying to sell packets of tissues and young sub-Saharan boys bring their carvings - and Hisham and Rachid have a teasing way with them, but somehow they never offend. When snooty city women from Casablanca turn their noses up at their approach, and impatient tourists push them out of their way, they just shrug their shoulders. One young woman from Rabat sitting next to me suddenly screamed at them one night, and left in a fury. 'Crazy!', says Hisham cheerfully.

All this and more can be found on my website! Do have a look:

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

26 voitures full of winter clothes

When I was in Marrakech in February it was unseasonably cold and I simply had not taken enough clothes. I could have bought a djellaba in the souk, but I've done that before and when you get back home you never wear it again (it's like a lovely embroidered felt dressing-gown with a big hood, but there's no zip opening - ie, you have to pull it on over your head and then you're sort of enveloped inside it - a bit like a onesie except it doesn't have any trousers).

So one morning I descended the stairs decidedly disgruntled, having frozen half to death in the night. Thami, the hotel manager, is concerned by my appearance. I explain I just don't have the clothes for the winter - I have left winter behind in England and expected warmer climes here.

He tells me he has the solution: there are 26 voitures in the 'garage' behind the hotel and they are all selling warm clothes.

Excitedly I walk behind the hotel, but I see a road and I don't see any garage (Thami's directions are often a bit mystifying). So I go back to him and say I can't find it. He checks around, then takes me by the hand and leads me through the hotel kitchens to a small door ... and opening this we enter into a vast sandy yard, which is simply full of small white vans - more than 26 I reckon. And out of the back of these vans are appearing mounds and mounds of tracksuits, long tops, fleecy dressing gowns and pyjamas ... and loads and loads of sports stuff. All in quite the most extraordinarily vivid colours ...

Just as soon as these mounds accumulate they disappear, as they are packed onto trailer-type things, which strong young men pull away, out of the yard - they are heading for the souks and the shops lining them, where they will set up instant stalls and try their luck.

None of these men speak any French - a rare thing in Marrakech. But these men have come from outside town, their imported Chinese goods from God knows where. And they will not have had much of an education, if any ... hence their language is confined to Arabic or Berber.

Moroccans who are fortunate enough to go to school have half their lessons in French - hence their immaculate control of both language and accent, something I envy them for sooo much (having studied French from the age of about 5 to A-level, I still sound like someone on a beginner's course ... with an Italian accent).

Unfortunately the colours of the clothes produced by the voitures are all just a bit too much for me in the first light of the morning, and I let the men go on their way, their first chance for a sale at the gates to the yard, where a gaggle of women have gathered - they are not going to walk all the way to the Jemaa to have their pick!

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Mustafa is grumpy with me - but he loves the King!

Mustafa is stout, in his fifties, and limps. But he has lovely almond eyes and a nice smile and if he makes an effort he can be quite winning in his way. He is the night manager in my hotel – he comes in at 8pm every night and stays until 10.30 the following morning. He closes the main door at midnight, but only locks it at 3, when he can allow himself a short sleep until 5 – at which point he opens the door again.

With this shortage of sleep he is understandably rather grumpy at times. I had imagined that he would spend a lot of the daytime off asleep but no, he tells me he has to shop and cook for his mother (Mustafa has never married – he says this is because weddings are expensive and he is poor but I imagine the real explanation might be a bit more complex).

His mother is only 72, but she is diabetic and never leaves the house he says. He says he has to pay so much for her medication that he is never left with any money. I find it strange that a woman of 72 is so incapacitated and say that my father is 87 and goes out of the house every day.

Hmmmf, that´s because we work very hard in Maroc, it´s a poor country and we work much longer hours than your father, he retorts. I wonder how he knows how many hours my father worked, but decide to leave it. Mustafa is often, as I say, quite grumpy.

Well I am very sorry for her, I say. And very sorry that you have to pay so much for the medicaments. We are very lucky in England that we can have all this quite cheaply.

Mustafa looks even crosser. Yes, you people are rich and you don´t have to pay for anything!

But your King is so rich, I say. Do you not mind that? He doesn´t even pause to consider: ´no I love the king´, he says. And then, on considering, ´je l´aime beaucoup´.

Boy, does that King rock in Morocco …

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

The King in Marrakech

The King in Marrakech

Outside the Koutoubia mosque I see cleaning lorries and men with large brooms and buckets. The walls are being painted pinker than ever. Down the middle of Avenue Mohammed V groups of men are arranging artistic displays of big red Moroccan flags with the golden star placed strategically – and broad red bands featuring the same golden star are stretched high above the roads and between trees in the park

Yes, if we hadn’t worked it out from the presence of the police in the hotel, we would for sure have sensed it outside – the King is in town and an expectant atmosphere somehow raises the spirits (well, it raised mine anyway)

Coming out of the souks, we were passing the high walls of the Palais Dar el-Bacha – an exquisite place with even more fabulous gardens which has been taken over by the King’s mother – and were struck by the amount and variety of guards outside its huge wooden gates. There were normal policemen, there were soldiers, there were the shiny suits … and there were also members of the King’s Special Police, dressed smartly in stunning red and white outfits. They all looked very handsome, and I approached, harbouring a notion of taking a quick photo, but was quickly told to move on – and, in fact, to cross the road.

Now we turned the bend in the road we could see it was closed to traffic and people were gathering on one side, clutching headscarves and chattering amongst themselves. It was clear something was about to happen.

And then suddenly a cavalcade of black gleaming cars came screeching by, appearing as if from nowhere. Mercedes after Mercedes, BMW after BMW. Sleek cleanly shaven chauffeurs in the front, and behind … almost always one solitary man, either dressed in traditional cream djellaba with the hood up, or military uniform. No women. Then more cars with diplomatic plates, then nothing.

The King must have passed by already and we have missed him, we thought, for surely the King would go first? But the people were lingering, still excited. I decided to ask a tall imposing gentleman, standing outside a large spice shop on the side of the road.

‘No, the King will not come yet! Come inside and sit down and have some tea and wait’.

This is not always the best idea where selling is concerned but this man was different. Underneath his djellaba he revealed he was wearing jeans from New York, his English was from the same origin, and he was keen to talk. He explained that the king was going with heads of 40 Islamic states and various other dignitaries to lead them in prayers at the great Sidi Bel Abbes mosque (men only).

Soon we were being shown all over the stunning, three-storeyed, house that lay behind the shop – our man had done well from his US education. I was worrying that we might miss the king …but suddenly there were hoots and horns from the street! And we ran back outside, just in time to see a carefully choreographed collection of police motorbikes come roaring by, lights flashing in the warm dusk, and horns blazing for all they were worth. There must have been about 100 of them … and they were announcing the arrival of an Important Presence.

And then before my eyes appeared the longest Mercedes I have ever seen. Elegant and ancient and black, it must have been a 1950s model (dating from when Morocco gained its independence?) and it was gliding slowly along the road.

And standing up in the middle – appearing through the roof – there he was at last, the King of Morocco. Portly in his cream djellaba, he had his hood down so that everyone could see his cheery round face beaming - really beaming - as he waved at us all.

We all waved back and fell into reverential clapping and cheering. And afterwards stood around discussing him and the cavalcade. Heavens knows why it was such an emotional moment, but it really was. Everybody in Morocco loves the king … and if there are people who don’t, they weren’t around Rue Fatima that night.

So, one of the richest men in the world rules over one of its poorest countries. And yet its citizens love him. How does he do it? Subject for another blog!

Monday, 3 February 2014

Why are the police in my hotel in Marrakech?!

I turn up at the hotel I always always stay in when I'm in Marrakech - and the usually cheery Thami on reception looks tense and preoccupied. 'What's up?' I ask and first he tells me that someone's father has died ... which is awful, but doesn't really seem to explain his obvious distraction.

And THEN I learn that my favourite room on the roof is occupied and the hotel is full ... and why? Because the King of Morocco is in town and the rooms are taken up by 65 policemen! 65 in my hotel, and 200 in the hotel next door! The King travels with an Entourage with a capital E ...

Eventually I manage to worm my way into one of the rooms on the roof ... with some pleading and playing and praying ... as long as I dont mind being surrounded by police, Thami says, and who is going to mind THAT?! Anyway, who wants to stay in their room much when they are in Marrakech?!

So the whole of my stay is permeated by the Presence of the Police. In the mornings the scent of their cologne lingers in the corridor - for in my section of the roof reside the plainclothesmen, who leave very silently every morning in shiny dark suits and glasses.

During the day - for even though it is winter, temperatures rise to 23 or so by 2 - all the chairs and tables on the roof are covered with items of police washing: everything from smalls and socks to sweatshirts, towels and flannels, steaming in the sun. They even bizarrely leave their soap boxes out ...

At night the younger policemen all sit around in the lounge (a bit cold on the open roof) locked to their mobile phones and laptops - though the latter are few and far between (an ordinary policeman probably does not get paid very highly). They get used to me and are always very friendly, although my Arabic mostly reduces us to rather quaint greetings and hopes for sleepy nights.

The secret policemen - never to be seen in this lounge - do, however, also get used to my presence, mostly when I am fiddling with my key in the lock in the dark corridor: a head usually pops out of a door just to check that I am who I am and I reassure them that I am who I am by saying 'C'est moi'. Multi-linguistic me!

One morning they also found me tutting and strutting about on the roof cos some of the younger boys (the phone lot) had left their sandwiches (some uneaten, unwrapped and on the floor) and empty coke bottles all over the place. Two of them bent down in their immaculate suits and cleared it all up ...

... well, after all, I was the only legit guest (and only foreigner) staying on the roof. And the police have their standards, especially the King's police.

Tomorrow, I will report back on how I ... SAW THE KING HIMSELF!!!