Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The policeman sandwich

The policeman sandwich

Now more than ever I get asked the question: “Is it safe to go to Morocco?”

I can´t of course pretend to be a security expert and offer complete 100% assurances that all is safe there. But as I am there a lot and I observe a lot, I can at least offer the following:

It was in January this year when I first noticed the appearance of the ´policeman sandwiches´ on the streets of Marrakech. This is what the locals call the security trio/triplet, which consists of one policeman flanked by two camouflaged soldiers carrying machine guns – and this is a trio which is repeated all over the city, and which strikes me as a clever way of subtly monitoring and ensuring the security situation.

You will note these trios standing outside banks, the bigger hotels and companies … and not far away from most tourist attractions, if not all of them. Also outside some of the bigger restaurants.
They are very subtle these trios and have clearly been told not to make themselves look too obvious. One morning I was photographing some beautifully carved trees down the far end of Boulevard Mohammed V, near a military barracks and near the French Institute. One moment I noticed one of these trios, the next they had disappeared behind a tree. They clearly do not want to be photographed.
But I have also seen tourists approach them and ask them who they are, what are they doing? Always smiling and courteous, and speaking in either a beautiful French (those Moroccans who learn French speak it exquisitely, with an enviable Gallic accent) or an English which is not so bad, they explain that they are there to keep the peace.

To keep the peace. And thus far so has Morocco remained. In peace. The king, a clever and thoughtful man, maintains the country in a peaceful state – of course it is not perfect, but you will find that the overwhelming majority of Moroccans you meet love their king and believe devoutly in their faith. In the past, the King has even arranged to send some of the Moroccan imams, famed for their moderation, to countries like Mauritania and Mali to help them to preach tolerance. And in September it was announced that French imams are to be sent for training in Morocco as part of a new programme that aims to promote “an Islam with the right balance” that conforms to “values of openness and tolerance” (I have no update as to whether this has begun yet).

Furthermore, this wise King, like the Queen in England, is head of the faith! So who would rise up against him in the name of Islam? 

Friday, 2 October 2015

The difference between a bus in Marrakech and a bus in London

I leave my friends in Marrakech a little late and see the airport bus at the stop ahead of me, 100 metres down the road. Aaaargh, I have the time wrong again. I start running, dragging suitcase behind, and yelling 'Bilati, bilati!' (Wait!)

As I draw near, the bus is still there, but then it pulls out into the road - the driver hasn't noticed me. But plenty of other people have ... a taxi, of all things, starts honking loudly at the bus, a man shouts at the driver, and then people on the pavement alert the attention of a bus official. 'Aeroport madame?' he says, and 'Yes!' I pant and he ... blows his whistle and runs at the bus and bangs on the back of it.

And the bus, which by now has entered into a lane of manic traffic, screeches to a halt and unbelievably starts to turn back into the stop, while all the while preventing any other traffic behind it from moving forward. He comes back to the side of the road, and opens the door, and I hurl myself inside with a 'chukran bisef' (thank you very much) and 'smahali smahali' (sorry). The driver says nothing and just stares at me. 'I'm sorry', I repeat. 'Are you angry?'

He looks again and then ... bursts out laughing, as do the other passengers, all Moroccans. They grin at me as the bus shoots away and I stumble along with my unwieldy suitcase. It's all sooo friendly.

I arrive back at Gatwick airport at 11.40pm and there is the usual ridiculous queue for customs, which takes 40 minutes to get through and means I miss any chance of taking a train all the way home. I have to get out at East Croydon and look for the dreaded night bus. There are two stops for the same number bus, one with the destination South Croydon and one West Croydon. I want to go to West Norwood which lies roughly north of both of those places, so I am none the wiser.

I am waiting by one when I see the bus draw up at the other. I RUN back to it and ask the driver - a snippy-faced woman - if she is going to West Norwood? 'Yes obviously', she says. 'Can't you see it says West Croydon up there?'

I explain that I don't have a clear geographical idea of how West and South Croydon relate to West Norwood and she snaps that there is a list and a timetable on the post. I say I saw West Norwood on that at the other stop and she looks witheringly at me and says you have to look at the direction.

'Well it's very late and I'm tired', I say, 'but can you wait while I run and get my luggage from the other stop?' There is a deep impatient sigh. 'I have to keep to the timetable', she says.

So I run like mad for the case and run back ... and enter a bus full of cold stony-faced people: never mind about helping me home at 1.20 in the morning, they have been held up ...

I tell you, give me Marrakech any day.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Dinner with Muhammad's family

Muhammed, the loom worker, is my friend and one of the smiliest people I have ever met. He has a wonderful smile, lighting up his face and lighting up my spirit. He is also one of the most Muslim of Moroccans, climbing out from under the loom to don his djellaba and rush off to the nearby mosque at every call to prayer. He also delicately asked one day if we could cut the music off the laptops – the ‘boys’ in the shop were showing me some local singers – as there were special sung prayers going on at the mosque, all the while apologizing profusely.

He sits there working that loom all day, from 9 to about 6, with a short break for lunch – sitting on the floor of the shop at the back – and even shorter breaks for the mosque runs. One whole day’s work results in one shawl or scarf (though they are quite large) – and he has to concentrate quite hard on the fine threads, although is often looking up and flashing me one of his smiles to reassure me.

We communicate largely by smiles, as Muhammed has no English or French and until recently my Arabic was limited to greetings and asking how much? (so I got quite good with the numbers too).

I have another friend in the shop – Mustafa – who speaks very good English, and so he generally does the translating when Muhammed and I want to get on to anything more complex than enquiring after each other’s health.

It was quite of a challenge, then, when Muhammed asked me to his house for dinner, to meet his wife and children. He told me (through Mustafa) that his home was about 3km away and that we could walk there, and we agree to go at 6 that day (like all Moroccans, Muhammad has a fancy mobile, so I presume he phoned to warn his wife).

Muhammad has a bicycle and the ‘walk’ home turns out to be a 45-minute canter, charging across busy roads and weaving through people and donkeys and carts and bikes as the sun goes down. We slow down when we get to an area where the streets are just teeming with activity, every shop a fascinating display for me, but no time to stop and look …

Finally we are heading down an alley and ‘dar’ (home) is at the bottom. Muhammad calls up the dark stairs ‘Maryam!’ and a young girl – his daughter – comes down and lights me up the stairs with the help of a mobile … for Muhammad has once again rushed off to the mosque.

Upstairs I find one room the size of an average lounge, on one side of which there is a low coffee-style table, two sofas and a big TV, and on the other a large double bed: it is clear the whole family live and sleep in this room. Yusuf, the six-year-old, bounces about cheekily on the bed and Miriam introduces me to her mother Leila – at least I think she does cos Miriam doesn’t speak French or English either (she IS only 9).

Leila brings in a tray of mint tea: we are waiting for Muhammad’s return and our lack of a common language is trying. We focus on the tea and sugar – I make big faces about how disgusting tea is without sugar as the men in the shop have started this, and we all laugh. Maryam fetches her French homework book and I try to help, but someone has already filled in the answers and they are all wrong!

Out goes Leila again and I realise that there is a communal kitchen on the landing, where there are also washing facilities. She comes back with bowls of harira soup and plates of dates and Muhammad, at last. There is also bread to dip into the delicious harira, brimful of chickpeas and cumin and lentils (this is a vegetarian one).

This is dinner for the family, I realise, although Yusuf’s not having any – he´s too busy showing off his acrobatic displays on the bed.

Then I feel a need for the facilities. I say ‘toilette’ and know they will get it, but they all look alarmed. ‘Amara!’, says Leila, and then, as I make for the landing, ‘Amara!’ repeats Muhammad with more urgency. Then nine-year-old Maryam hands me a towel and I think ‘Amara’ must mean loo paper and that I need to use this, so I take it and make for the place. ‘Amaraaa’, squeals Maryam as I go to open the door ahead … and then I hear noises inside. Aaah, ‘amara’ means occupied!

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Lake Lalla Takerkoust - or the Barraj

On a hot Ramadan Sunday, Marrakech really does become a little insufferable, so I decide to leave the pink walls behind and go visit a pretty reservoir lake I had read about.

The lake of Lalla Takerkoust lies some 35 km south of Marrakech, and so I go to where buses and ‘grande’ collective taxis line up for places in that direction. The drivers seem vague about buses, but grande taxis go they say. In Marrakech these taxis are all 1970s Mercedes – one of my favourite models – and all beige (in Rabat, in keeping with the buildings, they are all white and in Essaouira blue and white). They are also always stuffed to the gills: four in the back, three in the front.

‘Lalla Takerhoust?’ I enquire of one of these Mercedes drivers and am directed across the road to a petrol station, where a man stands by a slightly larger and newer vehicle. I ask him and he says ‘how many?’: apparently he will take a group of me for a sum about ten times as much as the regulars go for.

No, no, I insist, ‘makein fluss’ (I have no money): I am just me and I want to go with all the others like a regular.  Ok, ok, he shrugs, and so begins the usual attempt to collect others to go by shouting out loudly ‘Barraj, barraj!’. (The word for dam is ‘barrage’ in French.)

After a while, an old man with one remaining tooth, skull cap and a large sack of vegetables turns up and indicates he wants to go. But, that seems to be it … so, desperate to get there, I join in yelling out ‘Barraj, barraj’, from my standpoint in the shade by the petrol pumps with other drivers..

Eventually one more man turns up (not sure whether he is attracted by my Barraj call or the driver’s) and as we have now been here for about 40 minutes, I decide I might as well pay for two-thirds of the fare so that we can GO.

Off we set, windows all down to allow in as much hot air as possible and the driver puts some Berber music on the CD and we all clap and sway along to it. One Tooth particularly gets into the spirit of it all, as does – rather alarmingly – the driver, whose clapping means that the wheel is regularly unmanned.

Still we get to the town of Barraj (or Lalla Takerkoust) in one piece and my fellow passengers instantly disappear. Not much in this town apart from huge great barraj looming over everything – and now the driver tells me that the actual lake is another 6km further on. In 39 degrees of sultry heat the walk does not seem too tempting, so I accept his offer to take me there for a further fee ...

And the lake is a real treat. Despite being man-made – the Baraj was built by the French in the 1930s to provide Marrakech with water and electricity – it is a very pretty lake with lots of twists and curves and covey inlets. Easy paths to follow, either along the shores or up and down little hills with lovely views and shady trees – no wonder the Marrakshis all normally come out here for picnics on Sundays.

The French called the lake Cavagnac (something to do with Christians immured in a cave and plunged by God into a mystic sleep), but the locals ignored that and called it Lalla Takerkoust after the lady saint protector of the area, who is buried in the nearby town of Amizmiz.
Amizmiz is near the source of the lake, where the water is reputed to have therapeutic qualities: apparently the sick of Marrakech go there and cover their feet with breadcrumbs so that they will be nibbled by the water turtles.

But today there are no picnickers and no people with sore feet (apart from me). It was Ramadan after all, and so – apart from a few fishermen, some small groups of boy swimmers and a goatherd with his goats – I have the run of the place to myself.  I wander around contentedly, remembering the lake scenes from Hideous Kinky, which were definitely filmed here, and finally settle under a tree for a bit of a sleep.

The sleep does not last long as I am disturbed by the arrival of some boys on quad bikes – probably not one of the more soothing attractions at the lake. They are very well behaved BUT, well, they are noisy. And – much as I love the wilderness of my area – I do gaze longingly across the water at what looks like a restaurant from which some pedalos are lazily making their way across the water.

It is a hot sultry day, as I have already mentioned, and so I descend for a paddle and the coolish water is very welcome. I would dearly love a swim, but decide that this is Out of the Question as I a) do not have a costume and b) am the only female around. There IS some sort of a policeman making the rounds on a quieter kind of quad bike but still I decide that I will wait till the next time I come, when I will hire all of the man’s taxi and bring a group and a picnic.

From my paddling area I can see yet more trails for walking, and also a clearer view emerges of the Atlas mountain range, which would be stunning on a cooler, clearer day. Also I spot some other restaurant-type places and what looks like private beaches. But perhaps they are closed today as it is Ramadan.

The quads are long gone and so are the swimmers and so is my bottle of water. Now is time for the return journey. I set off on the road back to the town of Barraj and am there surprisingly quickly – it is probably more like 3 than 6 kilometres.

Hot work, though, that walk, scorching. So the sight of a white frothy river tumbling over boulders far down below the town is just too much to resist. I race down there and douse my head in the cool clear water, much cooler than the lake. The local youth seem unfazed by my presence – all is cool, cool, cool, and Allah Akhbar.

Back up in the town of Barraj I find that there IS a bus service to Marrakech after all. And the fare is 7 dirhams, about one tenth of what I paid to come out here. Taxi drivers – they are the same all over the world …

But hey, now I know all about the lake and am looking forward to bringing a picnic party in slightly cooler weather!

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Ramadan in Marrakech: how to be awed

How do people survive for sixteen hours on no food and no drink – not even a drop of water – during Ramadan? Well here in Marrakech I witness it every day … and I am stunned by the stamina of the people, by their stoic determination to observe the saim/saima (fast), but most of all by their overwhelming faith, their conviction that there is a God up there and that He will protect and help you if only you pray enough.

And as if sixteen hours without food or liquid aren’t enough of an ordeal just to survive, try to imagine what it is like when the temperature is in the mid-40s daily, as it is now! And then go one step further and try to imagine what it’s like to be a builder: because during the month of Ramadan the majority of restaurants and cafés are closed until sunset, many owners of buildings will take advantage of this ‘low’ season to renovate or restore them. So it is not an uncommon sight to see ladders and scaffolding and paint pots – and men toiling in overalls under the full glare of the sun, men who have not drunk a drop of water since 4am ...

There are of course Ramadan exemptions for certain categories: children and old people; sick people; and people who are on journeys … though I am not clear about this last one as when I was coming back from Rabat on the train everyone waited until the sunset – and then the man with a trolley did a roaring business, and smokers gathered in huddles at the end of each carriage.

In Morocco the King formally changes the hour for the month of Ramadan, so that the sun will go down an hour earlier and the people do not have to wait until too late for their ‘ftour’ - the ‘breakfast’ (made me think about the literal sense of the word) meal they take at 7.45 each evening. From about 7 all the cafés are preparing plates of ftour for everyone – this usually consists of a bowl of harira soup, a pancake, a hard-boiled egg, some dates, yogurt, fruit juice, and maybe some sweet cakes.

Everyone is waiting for the imams in the mosques to make the 7.45 call – as the words ‘Allahu Akhbar’ (God is great) ring out around the city, the people can finally break their fast ...

And even before the Imam has begun that prayer, an utter silence has descended on the city. The streets are completely deserted, all the more astounding because this city is normally one non-stop heaving belching mass of traffic and humanity. At 7.45 the street outside my hotel – usually the same chaotic cram of honking buses, motorbikes, taxis, bicycles, horses and carts,  – is totally dead. The first time I was here in Ramadan I just went and stood in the middle of the road and gaped. I could not quite believe my eyes. The stillness. The silence.

Meanwhile the Moroccans set to on their harira soup and boiled eggs, no matter the weather. They tell me it is important for the digestive system not to eat heavy, fatty food after a day's fasting – and after a day or two’s experiment I can see the sense of that. It is also apparently quite healthy for the body to purge itself this way for one month a year ... again Moroccans say there has been research conducted into the Ramadan fasting system, and the body seems to benefit (although I cannot for the life of me understand how going 16 hours in 45 degrees of heat without water can be good for the kidneys.)

So there you go: Moroccans say everything Allah ordained was for the good of his people – he had thought it all out. The fasting is good, as is avoiding pig, a dirty animal they say: it will only bring you infection and stomach problems. Every day during Ramadan the local newspaper carries an article on a subject covered by the Koran which has subsequently been proved scientifically …

As for what the Koran has to say about alcohol, well … you will find here that Moroccans are divided. Being a frequenter myself of places where alcohol can be obtained, I see many people I know to be Muslims partaking … and they don't hold back. But when it comes to Ramadan, wow!... they are all drinking Coke and coffee!

I am not sure whether I find this hypocritical, as some Moroccans do, or not. In a way it’s a bit like Catholics giving up things for Lent I suppose. But Catholics are not asked to avoid them during the rest of the year – and Muslims are. Still, the human flesh is weak and people must have treats.

I can only think, however, that it’s a good thing Muhammad didn’t have anything to say about marijuana … kif is generally accepted here, just as long as you are not too blatant about it, and it seems to be indulged in even more during Ramadan. So, if you can’t have your usual kick, at least there’s another one waiting in the shadows.

And those shadows are important, because the Moroccans’ attitude is: if you can’t resist, then OK, do it … but don’t do it out in the open; do it in the privacy of your own home!

But back to the drink: The first drink anyone actually has at the ‘ftour’ is usually a fruit juice – the Moroccans are very inventive with their juices (as indeed they are with almost everything) and you can have some exquisite mixtures: freshly squeezed beetroot and orange is the on trend drink in Marrakech this year and my particular favourite. But lemon and ginger also works really well (this often has some herbs in as well), as does a delicious combination of avocado, milk and almonds. Orange and cucumber, orange and carrot, melon, banana juice with milk, apple and orange – all these are on the menu.

Apart from giving your body a digestive break, the main point of Ramadan is of course to review your faith and pass a very holy month praying fervently for an improvement in every part of your life and your faith. One of the five pillars of Islam is about giving helping the poor with donations whenever you can (and on Ramadan’s last day, the ‘azakat’ tradition means that everyone finds a little something to give to the poor).

During Ramadan, people come to my hotel every evening a short while before sunset with an empty bowl ... and they are never turned away. In fact, pots of extra soup are prepared so that everyone who wishes can get a bowl of harira.

One Saturday night I was on my way to meet a friend and I saw something even more moving. It was about 7.40 and so the streets were deserted ... as before, with everyone either at home, or racing there, in order to share the ‘break fast’ ritual. So, the only people to be seen at that hour are odd groups of disconcerted tourists who do not understand what is going on ...

But that Saturday night I saw a man ahead of me, who looked really down-and-out and was rifling through bins and pulling out paper cups and drinking what was left in them.

Wary Western woman that I am, I was just thinking of crossing the road to avoid him ... when a car appeared from nowhere and stopped by the man. A small boy got out of the car and handed him a bag of food. The man looked amazed and motioned whether it was really for him and the small boy said ‘Yes, enjoy’, smiled, and got back in the car, which drove off just as rapidly as it had appeared.

And every Moroccan to whom I have told this moving story says the same: that to give to others poorer than you is Islam and you do it whenever you can. In fact, there are lots of beggars in the street and I see more Moroccans giving them coins than any of us suspicious Westerners ...

But probably the most powerfully moving aspect of Ramadan is the very demonstration of the people’s faith. There are normally five calls to prayer a day, but during Ramadan  the Imam summons people to pray a special sixth extra prayer for Ramadan – called the Tarawihh.

The call for this particular prayer goes out about 9.30 and way before then preparations have been put in place in the Pink City. Railings bar the busy main road  from the old medina to the Ville Nouvelle (Avenue Mohammed VI) so that the traffic is diverted away from the great Koutoubia mosque. Then thousands upon thousands of people flock to the square in front of the mosque to join in the haunting sung prayer. The men are all in their traditional jellabas and there must be over 20,000 people there each night - to see them bend and stand and bow down again, and listen to the sung prayers, is absolutely humbling and awe-inspiring ( I have a top view from the roof of my hotel).

In the last week there are more special prayers that begin at 2am – again the road is barricaded, around 1.30, and the faithful make their way to the same rush mats outside the Koutoubia. I wake to the strains of the sung prayers floating through my window … and they go on until about 3.30.

The 27th night is extra special as it is believed to be the night that Mohammed received the revelations that would later form the Koran. The people make a special meal for the sunset breakfast, and that night those who can and wish (of course) will pray all night until 6 in the morning. They then go to visit their loved ones in the cemetery the next day.

On my last night this time in Marrakech – the 28th night of Ramadan – I was walking back towards the Koutoubia along the main Avenue Mohammed V about 11.30 and it became apparent that the road ahead was already closed to traffic. The nearer I came to the mosque the more densely packed with people the road was. I could barely move for thousands and thousands leaving the square – definitely more than normal.

My friend Aziz saw me and yelled: ‘Come with me to the roof to watch’ and we dashed up there. He explained that the Imam at the Koutoubia had declared that tonight was the last night of the Tarawihh prayer – even though Ramadan wasn’t over. So more people than ever had turned up. But why finish before Ramadan, I wanted to know. He’s tired, I think, says Aziz, but it turned out that he (the Imam) had simply finished singing his way through all the special prayers two days early.

You’d have thought he could have timed it a bit better – but in a way that’s what I like about Morocco: nothing is ever that straightforward and explanations are always a little hazy. It keeps a kind of mystery there.