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Friday, December 20, 2013

Day 14 -- Marrakech

If you seek a quiet corner of the world, Marrakech is not it. And yet, this is one city you can't miss if you want to see it all in one place. Yet there is so much of it available right before your very eyes, that you don't know where to look first.

Bicycles, public buses and tourist buses, motorcycles, private cars, taxis, donkeys, and horse-drawn carriages all try to go from one place to another at the same time. Police in their blue uniforms and white hats and large-cuffed gloves, try to direct traffic. 

The Medina and Jamaa el Fnaa square are even more challenging. People in wheelchairs—with and without legs—are on the move. Old people walk through. Beggars, including mothers with babes in arms, have their hand out. Dealers with arm loads of goods edge their way. Young men in bleached jeans happily walk in groups, while young girls, who wear veils and jeans with thigh high coats, shop in twos or threes. Soldiers (we were asked not to photograph soldiers) with their jaunty berets look over the crowd.It's all insane and yet it works. Moroccans and visitors alike are attracted to Marrakech—and to the Medina in particular. I wouldn't have missed this for the world. It's just the place for an extrovert. 

Skinny medina cats patrol the streets for rats and mice and sometimes invade each other's territory with squeals and chases. Cafes filled with people watchers provide a bit of relaxation for those lucky enough to find a table. Street hawkers approach and stick to their “prey.” Candy men and bread men push their carts to offer their wares. Snake charmers dazzle a crowd around them. Some try to put a snake on people's shoulders. Umbrellas provide the only shade and women who do henna-coloring call out to passersby. At the appointed time, the mosque lets people know it's time to pray. No one seems to stop whatever it is they are doing.  Shopkeepers look over their colorful wares to make them as attractive as possible to potential customers. 

You have to have eyes all around your head,” advised Yemni as he told us how to cross the street. This would also be the same strategy for dealing with the many souks (small shops), traffic, and people who hung out in the Medina.

It's all insane and yet it works. Moroccans and visitors alike are attracted to Marrakech—and to the Medina in particular. I wouldn't have missed this for the world. It's just the place for an extrovert. 

We started out our journey to the Medina with a stop at the mosque...and we did it in style in a horse-drawn carriage.  This is just one of the nice touches that OAT provides.  I rode with Julie and Lester and Nancy.

Once we arrived near the mosque, we had a group picture taken, which is a nice memory present of our group.  The photographer, arranged by OAT, also took some individual shots and made them available for purchase.  A few Moroccan watermen were also on hand to a photo and a tip.  (Once I figure out how to add these photos to this blog, I will.  They are hard copies.)
water man
Nancy checks out the horses.  She loves animals.

Koutoubia Mosque

The mosque is the most prominent feature in Marrakech.  It has been a landmark for caravans and tourists alike.  Yemni advised us always to look for the tower of the mosque as are marker for finding our way home.  As non-Muslims, we were not allowed to enter the building.

Here is a short history of the mosque according to   Wikipedia .  

The city of Marrakesh was captured by Almohads after the death of the Almoravid leader Ali ibn Yusuf in 1147. The Almohads did not want any trace of religious monuments built by the Almoravids, their staunch enemies, as they considered them heretics. Abd-al-Mu'min, who won the territory, was responsible for building the first Koutoubiya mosque on the grounds of the former palace of Ali ibn Yusuf in the southwest quarter of the medina. This first mosque was built between 1147 and 1154 and completed in 1157.

This initial mosque was rebuilt under the Almohad Caliph Yacoub El-Mansour, as it was realized halfway through construction that the mihrab (prayer niche) was misaligned and not oriented towards Mecca, and underwent many changes until the end of the 12th century, when the Andalusians defeated the Almohad dynasty. The alignment problem was a minor issue, as devotees could always adjust the direction when offering prayers in the hall, but the decision was taken to build a new mosque alongside the first structure.

The first mosque was completed while the second mosque was undergoing construction. The second mosque was built identical to the first except for its orientation. The layout, architectural designs, inscriptions, dimensions and materials used for construction were all the same. The minaret plan and design remained the same in both buildings. While in the first mosque, the orientation of the mihrab was 5 degrees out of alignment with respect to the direction towards Mecca, in the second mosque, the orientation was 10 degrees off, thus actually further out of alignment with Mecca than the first mosque.

Both these structures were built during the rule of Abd al-Mu'min (reign 1130–63). The second mosque was started after 1154 and the building was partially completed by September 1158, with the first prayers held in the mosque at that time. It was completed by the 1190s, though reported completion dates vary between 1162, 1190 and 1199. The first mosque eventually deteriorated. It is apparent that the second mosque was not built as an alternative to the first one, as the two mosques shared the same site for 30 years before the first mosque became derelict.

Craftsman were drawn from as far away as Moorish Andalusia and created the building in a functional style rather than the more ornate Umayyad architecture style. Outside the plaza of the mosque, in a depression which in the 11th century contained remnants of the reservoir of Dar El Hajir (House of Stone), destroyed by the invading Almovids who then built the mosque on its site, are the ruins of an old fort built by Yusuf ibn Tashfin. Buildings were demolished within the enclosed fort area to make way for development of the city. The Koutoubia Mosque and tower constitute the oldest and most complete structure of the Almovad period. The mosque was followed by two other structures built on the same pattern, the Tour Hassan in Rabat and the Giralda in Seville, Spain. This structure thus became the forerunner of Moroccan-Andalusian architecture. Non-Muslims are not allowed inside the mosque; however, they are permitted to visit the Tin Mal Mosque, built on the lines of Koutoubia Mosque.

These pillars behind Yemni are all that's left of the first mosque.  The pillars held up a roof and people prayed under it.

The finial balls on top of the tower are brass (as are the walls of the tower) and provide grounding for lightning that might strike the building.  The triangular structure to the right of the balls points east toward Mecca. 

Bhaia Palace

Our horse-drawn carriages then took us to the Bhaia Palace.  The palace was built for Si Moussa, grand vizier of the sultan, in the 19th century.  (The viziar oversaw the affairs of state when the king was only 12-years old.)

The Bahia Palace was intended to be the greatest palace of its time. Its name means "brilliance," and it captures the essence of the Islamic and Moroccan style with a two-acre garden and rooms opening onto courtyards.

The palace was named after Bahaia, one of the viziar's four wives, and the one who bore him his first son.  The Black slave, Abu Ahmed, had the Bahia palace built by bringing in craftsmen from Fez.

The palace is made mostly of stucco and plaster and is decorated in blue and green mosaic tiles.  As with all buildings of this type, the stucco on the exterior of the building  was composed of gypsum, ground marble, egg whites and water to retain its design and color.  The stucco on the interior walls had the same mix without the egg whites.

The artisans drew their designs and then carved them out with chisels.  The repetitive nature of the designs is typical of Arab architecture and used to signify the "endlessness of the universe."  Common figures are typically embellished stars of David, shells, and flowers that represent the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions, respectively.  The floors are Italian marble, which is indicative of the time when Morocco exchanged this marble for salt.

The palace uses the typical square building pattern with a courtyard, fountain, and four-cornered garden in the center, as we have become accustomed to seeing in Moroccan architecture.  The palace was completed between 1892-94, but the viziar died in 1900 and the palace was closed until the French colonialists reopened it in 1913.  They installed fireplaces to replace the charcoal fires that were previously used for heat.

The viziar, his wives, and concubines used the reception hall (left) to receive guests.

The tall doors were closed during the winter months and people moved through them with the smaller arched openings within the door.  During the summer months the doors were kept wide open. 

The viziar ruled much like today's dictators (Muammar Gaddafiafi and Bashar al-Assad), and he received 20 concubines as political gifts from his allies. 

The concubines lived in a harem, which simply means "the place where women work."  In a book titled The Harem, Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi discusses the life of the concubines and how these women contributed to many of the changes in the traditions of this country.

The bedrooms in the harem were in a four-square arrangement surrounding a smaller courtyard. Apparently, the concubines lived here for six years and they were very happy.  They were not educated and they had one of the best occupations women could get.  They were given food, clothes, baths, and all the comforts of home.  When the viziar died, some of the concubines married rich people from Fes or Marrakech while others returned to their homes.

Bhaia's room (right) was split in two with a bedroom and wardrobe on one side and a sitting room with sofas against the wall on the other.   Here Bhaia also received her family and guests.

The ceilings are of particular interest for their beauty and intricacy of design. They were designed by Marrakech artisans. Some ceilings have stained glass.  The glass came from Syria and it provides a soft light in the rooms. 

Spice Shop
Remember those Ginsu knives that could do everything? There's a little spice shop in the Marrakech medina that can do the same whatever your need. I expected to see a lot of cooking spices in the shop, which it had including coriander, cumin, saffron, curry, mint tea, (“Moroccan whiskey”). But a spice shop in Marrakech also is a pharmacy where customers can get relief from whatever ails them: colds, wrinkles, hair loss, dark circles under the eyes, anti-aging, weight loss, migraine headaches, insomnia. Of course, there are aphrodisiacs that can also help with memory loss and serve as energy boosters and menopause cures.

Our hostess had us first sit down for a demonstration of her wares. She wore a white pharmacist's coat and talked so fast that I could hardly take notes. She passed around the samples and we'd take a whiff of them from their jar. When it came to showing her make-up samples, she enlisted the help of a couple volunteers and applied the chemical-free lipstick or the “gazelle eyes” eyeliner that did make a significant difference in appearance. And, they take credit cards.

I ended up buying a small package of weight loss leaves for less than $20 and will hope for the best. Apparently, I can lose 5-6 pounds in no time. That's what it will take to lose what I gained on this wonderful trip.

Saadian Tombs

Our visit to the Saadian Tombs was another "take me to the kasbah" moment.  The tombs lay within the kasbah or fortress. The holes in the walls was for scaffolding when the time came for restoration.  That strikes me as very forward-thinking.  In other words, the builders assumed the buildings would last a long time, and they had a plan to restore them.
According to Wikipedia:
The Saadian tombs date back from the time of the sultan Ahmad al-Mansur (1578-1603). The tombs were discovered in 1917 and were restored by the Beaux-arts service. The tombs have become a major attraction for visitors of Marrakech because of the beauty of their decoration and the code system for identifying the graves.

The mausoleum comprises the interments of about sixty members of the Saadi Dynasty that originated in the valley of the Draa River. Among the graves are those of Ahmad al-Mansur and his family.  The building is composed of three rooms. The most famous is the room with the twelve columns. This room contains the grave of the son of the sultan's son, Ahmad al-Mansur. The stele is in finely worked cedar wood and stucco work. The monuments are made of Italian Carrara marble.

Outside the building is a garden where the graves of soldiers and servants lie.  The raised platforms indicate the soldiers and their rank while the flat ones indicate the servants.


We had pizza at the Pizzaria Venezia.

Kari and I shared a pizza with half anchovies and olives and the other half without anchovies.  The only problem was that the staff had forgotten to put on the olives.  They came to the rescue with a small container of olives, which she is using to doctor up the pizza to her liking.

Below is Barbara and Mary sharing their lunch.

Afternoon shopping
We had the afternoon off and what better thing to do was to shop in the souks of the Medina. This medina had a lot more space than the one in Fes, but it was just as plentiful in goods, and the vendors were more aggressive. Window shopping and curiosity about price is not the same in Marrakech as it is in America. And, if you have even a slight interest, the vendor will engage you whether you want to be engaged or not. So you must have a plan and a limit for what you buy. I knew I wanted some fabric for a wall hanging in my guest bedroom, and I knew I wanted a sunrise/sunset color. When I stopped at one shop, the vendor showed me what he had and then I bargained for the price. This was all well and good, but buying just one thing is not the end of it. They always have “a good price” for a second or a third item. Knowing this high pressure sales technique is one thing. Getting out of the store alive is another. That takes another skill that I haven't yet acquired. Incidentally, they don't take “no” for an answer.

Earlier in the day when we were visiting the Saadian Tombs, a street vendor wanted to sell me some cheap bracelets: one for 100 dh, then 3 for 100 dh, then 5 for 100 dh. He was a poor Berber, he said, with a family. (This is the same excuse and the very reason for me to buy at the same time.) He just wouldn't go away. Yemni even yelled at him to scat, which lasted only two minutes and the vendor was back trying to sell his wares to another member of our group. This was exhausting and yet, I wouldn't miss it for the world.

In another instance, Nancy and I were by ourselves as the group had gradually dispersed into the “belly of the beast.” We both wanted the “hand of Fatima,” which is considered a good luck charm and protection against the Evil Eye. A vendor suddenly showed up out of nowhere and said he had a friend who had just the thing we wanted. We followed him through the alley ways for at least five minutes until he came to a silver jewelry dealer, Rabin, a man whose family owned his small shop for at least three generations. Unmarried at age 32, it was now his shop.

Rabin's wares were locked up in their glass cases, so we were sure that he was selling the good stuff. At least, we hope so. He took out a few select pieces of silver with turquoise or some special stone in it. The cost was about 800 dh ($100). That was more than Nancy or I wanted to pay. I showed no interest at all, so he zeroed in on Nancy who engaged him more. After a few minutes of dickering over price, he sat us down and offered us tea. (I don't know where he'd get it. Maybe there was someone in another alley way who had some and they would share resources for their customers.) Then we talked about family, ourselves, and whatever. Then he came back to the sale. This charm offensive is yet another way to engage a customer and/or to form a relationship between two people who had none a few minutes ago. It's also part of the wearing down strategy to get you to buy. He asked Nancy for another price and she gave him one: 500 dh ($62.50). He counter-offered and she did the same a couple times before they settled on 525 dh. He hadn't completely forgotten me. I was interested in a piece that was a silver/and something else alloy, a lot cheaper and not as fine. I wanted it as a wall hanger instead of as jewelry. He wanted 250 dh and I bargained for 200 ($25). Nancy made this part of the deal. When she pulled out her credit card because she was out of cash, he encouraged her to go the a nearby ATM and get some money, which she did. Since I was out of cash also, and my purchase was too small for a credit card, Nancy loaned me the 200 dh. The whole process must have taken 30 minutes, but it was not over yet. The man who led us through the medina now wanted a tip for taking us to his friend the silver dealer. Nancy gave him something and we were on our way.

Shopping in Marrakech is not a quick, self-serve step to the nirvana of purchase. It is a process, and you need to be ready for it. Perhaps that's why tours end in Marrakech. After a couple weeks in Morocco, you DO learn how to deal with vendors. In Marrakech, it's just more intense, much more intense.

Nancy needed a couple more items for her daughters and we stayed in the souks for about 30 minutes more—and went through the same process as we did with the silver dealer only without a “guide” leading us. It was about 3 p.m. and we needed to return to the hotel (about 2 kilometers away) and meet the rest of the group by 6 p.m. when we would go to the night market. That meant we had to find our way out of the Medina. To do that, we had only to look up for our landmark, the minaret of the mosque, the highest building in the area. The only problem was that we couldn't find daylight. After wandering a bit, and seeing a few shops that were familiar, we finally asked for directions. This was especially risky because we were concerned that it might lead to another sales encounter. However, we must have had a “we're finished shopping and want to get out of here” look on our faces because all we got were the directions and not another sales pitch. After a little maneuvering, we finally found the square and left the souks behind.

It had been awhile since we made our lunchtime comfort stop and this hour was a good time to have a coffee. We stopped at a cafe and ordered. We weren't sure if we sat down first or went to a counter to order. During our tour Yemni would arrange all of this for us. Now we were on our own. We asked the waiter and he invited us to sit down. We chose a couple seats in the patio section where all the seats face the street. This is typical for Morocco. The street is where all the action is and people sit, smoke, talk, and drink their drink while they check out what's happening. This is leisure at its best, and quite enjoyable. What happened next, however, was a miracle and one of the spontaneous joys of travel.

Behind us was a man with a blue hat and a yellow M on his cap. I asked him if he was from the University of Michigan. He was. He had studied there. I then told him I was from Michigan and had lived in Ann Arbor for a short while. This got us talking a bit before we went back to our tea. When Nancy and I were ready to move on, we asked the man how we were to pay. He said the waiter would come back and take our money, so we waited until we saw him and waved him toward us. We payed our bill and then proceeded to the restroom. It was a hole, which takes another strategy of doing what comes naturally. As we began our journey back to the hotel, we realized we didn't know which street to take out of the square toward our hotel. Yemni had told us where to go to find a taxi, but we stuck. So we went back to our “Michigan man” and asked him. It turns out he was on vacation in Marrakech and lived in Rabat, so he didn't know. Nancy pulled out her map and he studied it and made a suggestion for directions. Then he said that he and his wife would accompany us toward our destination. At first, we felt this would impose upon them, but they apparently looked upon it as an opportunity not only to help us but to take a little walk for their own enjoyment. Besides, the man said, when he was in New York City looking for directions, someone helped him. This way he was returning the favor.

This sort of thing is what street life in a city is all about. I have found it everywhere I've traveled except in the United States because we have largely abandoned street life and taken to our cars, which is a pity. We have traded efficiency and independence for a rich and serendipitous social life, which as far as I'm concerned, is what makes life vital and interesting.

As the four of us walked down the street, we got to know each other a little better. It turns out that the woman was a captain in the military and her assignment was as a Royal Palace Guard for the King. The man was an MBA student at the University of Michigan and he was now in business in Rabat.

We asked a white-gloved policeman (a traffic cop) for directions also. He stopped his busy duty to point the way after he studied our map for a bit. That's about the time the man and woman took a turn toward wherever they were going next. We bid each other good bye with a handshake and a French-style kiss (a peck on each cheek twice). There was a boulevard on the street and we decided to use it because there was less sidewalk traffic there. Unfortunately, Nancy tripped on one of the inlaid slate tile and fell on her face. Instantly, three men saw her go down and they rushed to help her up and brush her off from the dust of the path. She was fine except she broke her glasses. We went a few steps and another young man who saw her fall, stopped and brushed off a few more specks of dust. We appreciated such kindness from strangers. It also was another example of what “eyes on the street” means in city life. It is not just about security from terrorists, but it is about helping a stranger who is in distress—kind of like the Good Samaritan story where you look out for the other guy.

We finally found the street to turn and within a few minutes made it to our hotel. We were exhausted from the whole experience—but satisfied that we had had it. It was especially nice that the two of us could share it together. I felt that I had made a friend in Nancy that day even after we had traveled together in the group for two weeks.

Night Market
At 6 p.m. sharp, our group all met in the hotel lobby for an experience of the Medina Square. This is the place where people go for a little entertainment at night. It starts at 4 p.m. when the food vendors set up their tents and rev up their grills so that they can produce the outdoor picnic environment that accompanies the street entertainment that goes on well into the night, sometimes until about 1 a.m. But first we had to get there. I was prepared for a 2 km walk and dressed accordingly with two jackets on top of each other along with a hat and gloves. Then we decided to hire two van taxis to take to the square. Actually, I was relieved, although I would have welcomed the walk just for the exercise.

After the taxis dropped us off into the square, we indulged in the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and vitality of the Marrakech central square. There were people everywhere in an area the likes of which I've only seen in Beijing, China. Most of them were young people (Yemni typically drops off his 14-year-old son here to meet with his friends) but there were families, tourists, beggars, and vendors of all kinds. Clumps of people gathered around various musical groups that featured drums and metal “maracas” such as we had witnessed in the Sahara Desert. It actually sounded like African music that I would have expected in the jungles of the Congo. There were toys available that walked and talked or showed off their neon colors as they twirled into the air. Someone who had something to sell might lay down a blanket and offer their wares. Others had a henna coloring stand for decorating hands. There might have been a few fortune tellers; I didn't want to look too closely lest I encourage them to chase after me for business. Then there were just hoards of people walking around and looking at who was there or what was going on for this is where the action is.

An outdoor cafeteria.  These restaurants are put up every afternoon about 4 p.m. and taken down at night around 1 or 2 a.m.

sheep head for sale

Lester is willing to try anything once.  He ate a sheep head this evening--and liked it.  He later ate goat brains when some of us stopped at a restaurant for a snack.

This man did not want his photo taken, but I got the shot before he could object.

Julie, Barbara, Nancy and Art

Yemni suggested we go up to the rooftop of one of the restaurants on the square and get an overview of the scene. However, we had to pay for a soft drink or a coffee they offered. We stayed up there for about 30 to 40 minutes looking at the lit-up food tents as gusts of smoke emanated from their grills. People were everywhere moving about. The sounds of their voices permeated the air, although no one was overtly loud.

We hadn't eaten dinner yet and this was one occasion where we were on our own. At first, we were going to return to the Italian restaurant where we had lunch, but then decided to go to a local place where we had grilled beef, lamb and turkey along with a plate of fresh-cut french fries and yogurt. Delicious!

But even I, a curious extrovert, had had enough. The day had been exhausting, but it was not yet over. We walked to the place on the square where people hire cabs. Yemani negotiated with a couple guys who turned out to be not cab drivers, but their agents. That meant that they wanted a tip in addition to what we'd pay for the cab. He got noticeably irate with them and walked away. We saw what a true negotiator does even though it was all in Arabic. Members of our group had peeled off throughout the night so we were down to about 8 members plus Yemani. We piled five people into a Mercedes cab and 3 others into a “petite taxi” or small cab and made it back to our hotel by 9 p.m. I was exhausted, watched TV a bit to unwind and was in bed by 9:30.

Marrakech is unlike any other city I've ever visited when it comes to intensity and excitement. However, the quality of its character—both the high pressure negotiations that goes on in the souks and the impromptu kindnesses shown to us as strangers—was both surprising and refreshing. It illustrated that even a big city can be intimate.

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