Madrasahs, Medinas, and Souks, Oh My

I alluded to Steve putting on a performance of his own in the main square last night. You may recall that in addition to the rows of food tents and crowds of vendors, visitors, beggars, and pickpockets, there are also clusters of street performers, mostly musicians but also storytellers. There is also the occasional carnival game. Everyone is competing for the visitors’ dirhams, of course, some more successfully than others, and there is no angle left unexplored; better carry a pocketful of change if you want to take anyone’s picture. Steve, however, raised the stakes considerably by first sussing out a needy-looking band of musicians — these guys below — and then inserting himself into their act.

How? He owns a pair of “poi sticks”, which look like high-tech fluorescent light bulbs. What they actually are is a line of 80 programmable LEDs on a motion-sensitive linear mount. When you wave them they blink in accordance with their programming to display whatever image you have uploaded and thus appear to paint the image in the air itself. Steve had prepared a set of Moroccan-themed images — patterns, desert scenes, swords, and even the Moroccan flag — and promptly quintupled the musicians’ otherwise modest crowd with a New Age light show complete with dance moves. Here he is in action:

As you might infer, Steve is not a shy guy. (His wife Thumper is somewhat more introverted, though in private she has only two settings: “Quiet” and “Will you please calm the #%}&@$+ down?”) We like Steve and Thumper. In any case, if you are really extroverted, love high-tech toys, and have too much disposable income, you can obtain a set of these poi sticks for yourself for only $1200. They’re seriously cool. (No, I am not buying a set.)

Our first stop today was one of Marrakech’s best-known sites, the Majorelle Gardens and Berber Museum. They were designed by French expat painter Jacques Majorelle in the 1920’s and 30’s when Morocco was still a French protectorate. Basically, he was looking to create an oasis in the middle of the city, and succeeded; though it is only a few acres in size, the garden is a serene, manicured little forest of cactus and bamboo, home to something like a dozen species of endemic birds. It hosts a few burbling little fountains as well and it is easy to imagine it as a retreat from the chaotic city beyond the walls.

At one end of the garden is the Berber Museum (no photos allowed, alas), a boxy blue and yellow building (you can see it through the cacti in the lower photo) that houses a small but utterly spectacular collection of Berber jewelry, costumes, and artifacts. The jewelry room alone is worth the trip; it is a dark hexagonal room lined with infinitely reflecting mirrors and topped with a black ceiling dotted with lit stars. It feels like you’re floating in space along with a lot of eye-popping jewelry.

Berber jewelry has a very distinctive style. They do a lot of very fine filigree silver work, and they are big on turquoise and red coral. The color combination makes it look like a cousin of a lot of Native American jewelry from the Southwest, an unexpected correspondence that as I think I have mentioned applies to some of the architecture as well. There is a legend that the American Indians are the lost tribe of Israel; they say that about the Berbers as well. Hmmmm.

Majorelle himself has pretty much lapsed into artistic obscurity, but for two things. First, he invented a particular shade of cobalt now known as “Majorelle Blue”, which is of course the color of the building. And second, he had a big fan in designer Yves St. Laurent, who donated the money to have the grounds restored after they had fallen into disrepair, and whose ashes are scattered in the garden. There is a small monument to him in a contemplative little glade at one corner along the path; there are some benches surrounding a small Greek-style fluted marble column.

After leaving the gardens and museum we plunged back into the medina on foot, this time navigating our way through the metalworking district en route to the Ben Youssef madrasah (about which more below). I have spoken before about the clangor of the medinas and souks, and in this case the word applies literally: the alleys were steeped in deep shadow but filled with metal sounds, clanging and banging and tapping and grinding as the artisans turned out tea sets, belt buckles, candelabras, and — like this fellow below — even escutcheons, huge medieval-style locks that would go perfectly on the cells in your dungeon.

Few of the artisans were as cheerful looking or accomodating as this guy. In fact, none were. Most wore dark expressions of concentration, dark eyes glowering at me from the Stygian depths of narrow unlit workshops if they thought I was about to take their picture. I didn’t dare.

I have mentioned frequently how crowded, narrow, and uneven the alleys of the souks and medinas are. What I may not have made clear is that in addition to these attractions they are dangerous too, and not just because of the pickpockets. They are dangerous because the Bangladesh-level population density notwithstanding, they are still streets, which is to say thoroughfares in constant use by motorized vehicles. You rarely see a car in them — they are too narrow for that — but there are mopeds and bicycles aplenty, often carrying comically oversized and insanely unsafe loads as they barrel through the alleys at whatever speed the thousands of dodging pedestrians permits, which is almost always way too fast. The mopeds in particular are a genuine terror, and it is not at all unusual to be physically brushed by them as they maneuver past you; woe betide the unwary foreign visitor who has either insufficiently catlike reflexes or an inadequately developed precognitive sense of when to take a quick step right or left.

Compared to the mopeds, the bicycles are positively benign. What this means in practice is that you are less severely injured when you get hit. (Morocco has the sixth highest rate of road accidents in the world. My reaction to this is “Only sixth?”)

Two-wheeled terrors or not, we walked through the alleys till we reached the Ben Youssef madrasah, the largest Koranic school in Morocco (though it has not been in use as such since 1960; it is a historical site and museum now).

Ben Youssef dates from the 14th century, though it fell into disuse and was restored about 200 years later by one of the Saadi sultans. (Remember the Saadi tombs from yesterday?) As madrasahs go — they’re usually a couple of rooms — this one is vast, with 130 claustrophobic student dorm rooms about the size of a half-decent walk-in closet and overlooking an ornately carved courtyard. The carvings are marble and stucco, and the ceilings of the larger rooms (not the dorms, of course) are cedar.

One of the most common carving motifs is Arabic calligraphy, seen on the photo below. It is essentially identical to what you will find in Andalusian Arabic architecture elsewhere, notably in the Alhambra in Spain. Arabic sculptors make the most of their repertoire of geometric patterns and letters; Islam does not allow the depiction of human or animal forms, so you will never see a carving or sculpture of a person. (They do get away with cheating a little when it comes to animals, though: you will occasionally see a stylized peacock’s tail, though not the bird’s head.)

Alice looks out over the courtyard from a room that she would not have been allowed to enter in the 14th century.

This pretty much winds up our stay in Marrakech — in the nick of time, since Alice just returned from the souk with another couple of hundred dollars worth of jewelry — and we move on tomorrow to the coastal resort town of Essaouira, our final stop before coming home. We’re not all going to Essaouira, though: the 10-person “Michie’s Camel Ride” ensemble is returning home tmorrow, leaving just the six of us who were on the first leg of the trip back in late September. We are also losing Momo, our trusty and genial tour lead, and we will have a different shepherd for this final stop. So tonight will be a farewell dinner for the group as a whole, before we fold our respective tents and the caravan moves on.

 

 

 

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Categories: Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Madrasahs, Medinas, and Souks, Oh My

  1. Angie Martz

    Rich – Buy a set of POI sticks!

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