Indigo In Marrakech - Part 5
As I set foot in the Kasbah Market, I wonder if I've made a bad decision. It really isn't very welcoming, and doesn't suggest that tourists frequent it much. There's no sign of the colourful piles of fruit and fragrant spices that you see in the guidebooks. I receive too many surprised glances, cause too many whispers, and - oddest of all - nobody tries to sell me anything.
I don't feel unsafe, but I feel out of place. I keep my camera out of sight, and continue to make my way in.
I walk past a fishmongery set up on wooden boxes in direct sunlight, with flies buzzing in hordes around the dry-looking fish. I wonder if this has been here throughout the heat of the day?
I pause, gawping, outside a shop in an archway where a man is weighing a live and uncooperative chicken. The customer nods and pays for his purchase. The transaction complete, the shopkeeper slaughters the bird on the counter, and the customer takes it away.
But I totally fail to stop at a roadside barber's shop, where a queue of locals wait for the services of a man with a cut-throat razor and no visible hygiene.
It's a world apart from my glimpse of the colourful entrance to the Soukh earlier in the day; I think that's where the tourists go. Perhaps I'm here at the wrong time of day? Perhaps I need to explore more? Both of these may be true, but in an uncharacteristic moment of disquiet, I decide to get the hell out. Seeing a sign for one of the older palaces, I stride off purposefully.
The walk to the Palais de la Bahia is uneventful, with just a few utterances of Non, merci at a succession of beggars along the way. I've been doing this reflexively all day, and might be surprised if I'd tallied the times it's been needed. There is genuine poverty here. The flights here are cheap and plentiful, the architecture impressive, and it's easy to forget that Morocco is a third world country. But never for long.
Once I'm well inside the palace in the main courtyard, I stop to catch my breath and take a drink. The courtyard is peculiar. Finished a century ago, and largely unused for the past few decades, it is well preserved, but feels empty. The ruins of a castle will always fire the imagination, while a fully restored watermill will show you exactly what it was like. But this is neither. There is an abandoned, eerie, almost haunted feel about the place.
This feeling continues as I explore. Perhaps other visitors feel the same? There's plenty of fellow travellers about, but we're all so damned quiet.
I pass through several beautiful courtyards filled with orange trees, carved stonework and mosaic floors. It's the perfect time of day to be here; the low sun adds a warmth to the scene that would be lost in the blistering heat of midday, and a cool breeze moves amongst the arches.
The guide book tells me this was actually not the palace of the ruler, but of his Grand Vizier. Apparently he had four wives and two dozen concubines. While I marvel at the exquisite carving in the courtyards, I wonder how he ever had time to enjoy them.
And the geometric carvings really are something. I take a closer look, wondering if they're mouldings, but no. Each is a hand-carved piece of stone. Wow. Some underpaid artisan probably poured blood, sweat and tears into these; no wonder this place took decades to complete.
I wander through a gleaming, high-walled courtyard which looks to be made entirely of marble. A fountain gurgles pleasantly at its centre. Then, passing through a grand archway, I find myself in what seems to be the final room; a rope across a broad archway halfway down its length suggests that this is the end of the line. I'm not surprised; the palace is large, but only a fraction of it is open to the public. I circle the room until I reach the rope, and peer beyond.
Further into the room is a high mosaic'd ceiling which is quite breathtaking. Geometric eight-fold and sixteen-fold symmetry, bright colours, intricate, beautiful. I raise my camera to capture it, but a uniformed guard appears out of nowhere and tells me that flash photography is forbidden. I apologise, step back, and circuit the room again.
Then a cough catches my attention. Another guard stands beyond the rope and beckons me forward. As I wander towards him, I notice the first guard has gone. The new guy takes to rope aside momentarily as he ushers me through. He says nothing, perhaps deciding that he knows no German, but indicates my camera and waves upwards expansively, inviting me to photograph the ceiling. I notice my camera's battery is dangerously low, but I snap a few pictures with different settings to try and capture something in the shadows above.
I offer him a quick Shukran, a simple word of thanks in Arabic. He smiles his appreciation and decides that there is more to show me. He leads me to a door and opens it to reveal a spiral staircase. This takes us upwards into a wide, low chamber. It is unfurnished but decorated. Again, he indicates I should take photos, but my camera chooses this moment to whine and die. He fills the silence with a little of the history of the room. It belonged to someone important, but I am unclear of this person's role; a French word that we both understand eludes us. I think he's trying describing a senior cleric, though several mentions of the word harem make me wonder whether I've caught it right.
Our mini-tour done, he leads me back down the stairs, and then turns at the bottom with his hand out. Thank you he says, thought I have given him nothing yet. I'm getting a bit pissed off with this kind of thing. Common sense sees this as a gratuity and an annoyance, but on reflection I relent; by a stroke of lucky timing, I have a few extra pictures, I gained access to a room that is off-limits to the public, and shared some interesting if not entirely comprehensible chit-chat.
I feel I should show my appreciation of this good fortune. It's like I'm oiling the wheels of chance for future use.
I slip him a note, making sure it's an appropriate value, and he salutes me on my way. And a few minutes later, I find myself back on the street.
It is dusk now, and after quickly checking my French dictionary I step into a shop to buy some batteries for my camera. Armed with this vocabulary, I make myself understood without bother, but I have to improvise a little to add postcards and a cigar to my basket. The shopkeeper seems to appreciate my efforts though, and offers me thanks in English as I leave.
As with most things in life, making the effort can make a difference.
The sun must have just set; the faithful are being called to prayer from the now illuminated Koutoubia Mosque. I am drawn in that direction, and after a few minutes find myself just inside its grounds.
There is something magical about this moment; it is one of those fabled instants where time stands still and you know you will never be here in quite the same way again.
I light my cigar, a rare treat for me, and pause for a few minutes. I then turn and walk slowly back to my hotel through teeming streets. The crowd seems to part before me, and there are astonished and perhaps admiring looks in my direction, at this tall, bold, foreigner who seems to be exactly where he is supposed to be at this moment in time.
My flight home is late tomorrow morning, and while there are still a few things to do and see, I know in my heart that nothing will compare to this profound memory I'm making in the singing, twilight streets of Marrakech.
I lose myself in the moment and forget about tomorrow.
Hope you've enjoyed the trip. Thanks for reading, Indigo
This blog entry is protected by copyright © Indigo Roth, 2009