Issue 12, Spring 1956
Marrakesh is the essence of cosmopolitanism. Its streets buzz with the dialects of the Sahara and the Atlas mountains. It is the meeting place of all the tribes of the south and the range of costumes found there seems endless. Everything is mixed up. Ancient decaying auto buses, encrusted with barnacle-like children, blunder into the heart of the medina, honking their way past donkeys and camels. It is a free and easy place,confident that it is stronger than any of the foreign influences;that it indiscriminately allows within its walls.
It is difficult to know quite where you stand in Marrakesh. The one-eyed beggar who was hounding you at noon, hollow-cheeked and chanting bits of the Koran, is suddenly beside you at the bar at midnight, slipping a double brandy into his Coca Cola.
The morals of Marrakesh are lax. Moors tipple shamelessly on the terraces of European cafès, in defiance of law and religion. Nun-like veiled figures in dark glasses accost one in the streets at high noon with unladylike proposals. One has the feeling that Marrakesh has been going, for hundreds and hundreds of years, to the dogs.
Marrakesh is the wicked city of legend to which the young man from the country comes, dreaming of urban wonders and rapid glory, and is fleeced of all his savings on the first day. I have observed the phenomenon. Let us take the case of a certain Driss.
Driss arrives, at about five in the afternoon, on the place Djemaa el Fna, which is the heart of Marrakesh. It is a large open space, seething with hundreds of people, vibrating with the sound of drums and the chank of bits of metal being rhythmically banged together. There are also, when you get closer, extraordinary stringed musical instruments played by old men in white robes, which look and sound as though they had been constructed as a joke. Each group of dancers, acrobats, story-tellers, comedians and so on, has a dilapidated sunshade behind it, made of grey canvas or bits of matting sewn together and propped up with poles. There are also rows of tents housing little restaurants, barbers and blood letters, so that the place has something of the look of a shanty town.
Driss wanders about from one group of dancers to another, watches the shake-charmer wooing a cobra, listens for a moment to the story-teller whose audience consists principally of rows of small children sitting round him in a circle, not listening, but watching the acrobats in the next group. Sometimes a hat is passed to him, and he puts on an expression of supreme disdain—it is the Christians with their cameras and flowered shirts who pay.
During the course of his wandering, Driss stops in front of a man who is squatting on the pavement with three cards; a six, a ten, and a two. The man shuffles the cards and challenges anyone to pick out the six, at even odds. Now, Driss was not born yesterday. This card trick is known from Goulimine to Timbuctou, and he has no intention of playing. What he doesn’t realize is that for somebody with a slight hankering for easy money, it is dangerous even to watch. Only one young Arab is playing, looking slightly worried and losing more money than it seems likely he would possess. When Driss arrives the game begins to get bigger, with several other people joining in. Driss begins to notice that is really quite easy to spot the six. A man beside him tries to persuade him to play— “It is so easy,” says this man, and in each successive play he points out, correctly, which one is the six, and then comments that Driss has missed a thousand francs. Driss still remains adamant. A foot in a yellow babouche steps out each time on to the six, and its bearded owner collects a thousand franc note.
The six is dealt so that it sticks under Driss’s too. “You have won!” they cry, and a thousand franc note is thrust at him. “I wasn’t playing,” he protests. The man beside him is weeping now, with indignation and fury. “Oh, you fool, you fool!” he cries.
The game continues, and the six is again lodged under Driss’s toe, the note is proffered, but he refuses to be drawn in. Then he notices that the six is distinctly dog-eared, while the other cards are not. He begins to weaken. Craftily, he thinks: supposing I did it just once, while they are letting me win... The six is dealt under his toe. He accepts the thousand francs. The cards are shuffled with gesticulation and shouting. The dog-eared six is plainly visible, and Driss steps on it, tendering the original thousand francs. “But you must put up some money too,” says the dealer. “Another thousand.” A rather confused argument follows, ending when a thousand francs is extracted from Driss. The card under his toe is examined. It is a three, and no longer dog-eared. He notices that the game dissolves as soon as he leaves it. He is boiling with anger and humiliation. This is one adventure he will not relate—unless of course he describes it as having happened to someone else.
Unquestionably the best way to visit Marrakesh would be to drop in it by parachute, coming from somewhere very far away. It is a composite of the surrounding country—the Souss, the Atlas, the Sahara, and it should be seen before them: Under a blue sky, in the middle of a flat plain whose borders are on the Atlas mountains, retaining even until the end of June some teaspoonsful of snow in their crests, surrounded by a meandering dull pink wall and palm trees. From, the outside, because it is flat, you can see only the pink wall, the palm trees, and the great minaret of Koutobia. Inside all is pink again.
Out from the Djemaa el Fna, the labyrinthine medina stretches in three directions. You may come across a souk, shaded by a small olive tree and a roof of grape vines, where leather merchants sit in patient rows on a springy carpet of sawdust, waiting for the auction to begin. Or there is the dyers’ quarter, a furor of colored skeins hanging in the sun over the street—and further on the rows of iron workers shops, little black and noisy burrows dug in below street level. Children tending the furnaces, soot-black but for a pair of illuminated eyes grin up at you like djinns from a shadow. Unexpectedly, you may arrive at fondouk full of growling camels and expostulating donkeys, where the nomads with something to sell from the coontry tether their animals and bed down for the night.
But no matter how far one walks, it is hard to grasp hold of Marrakesh. It is not a city like other cities. In Paris or New York, for instance, there is always some high spot from which you can say—I have it now, in the retina of my eye, the palm of my hand. In Marrakesh, only perhaps the mouddin, singing his lonely call on top of the Koutobia, can feel this way. Never seeing it all together, you cannot think of Marrakesh as a whole. It remains a state of being.