Atay Maghrebi: A House Guest in Targa
Having done this trip twice previously, you would think I was used to it; dragging myself to the downstairs lobby of a concrete tower block in West London, next to the unending drone of 2 am traffic on the A4, and waiting for an Uber to Kings Cross St Pancras.
The end of the school year had left me with catastrophically low levels of energy. I'd had a persistent pile of marking and innumerable administrative tasks to complete for things wound-up. In keeping with tradition and despite trying to plan ahead before my flight, I had finished packing my bag around 1am.
At Luton, sluggish passengers were already queuing halfway around the entrance hall for baggage drop at the Ryanair desk, police were doing stop and search on anyone dodgy-looking, and my own pre-holiday excitement had left me feeling sleep deprived. Combined, it’s not a great recipe for the start of a summer's travelling.
At Marrakech's Menara airport, I was greeted by warmth and WhatsApp.
‘I’ve landed. Where you at?’ the message read.
‘We’ve sent someone’ Came the reply.
‘His name is Mohammed. Make sure you tip him 10dh’
‘Who? Does he have a donkey?’
‘Yes. He’s wearing a green gandoura. See him outside in five minutes.’
I had to connect to wifi to research what a gandoura actually was, only being familiar with a few North African garments – such as the hooded djellaba that you see men roaming around the narrow passageways of the medina wearing.
After a couple of minutes of research, I sat leaning against my bag, awaiting the arrival of the enigmatic Mohammed and his asinine sidekick.
Ten minutes passed by and I stepped out of the shiny, new arrivals concourse, looking around for an old man wearing typically feminine attire. Instead of this, my eyes caught sight of the flowing emerald gandoura being worn by my friend Nassima, who arrived flanked by her husband Carlos and brother-in-law Youssef.
It seemed that poor old Mohammed and his donkey couldn’t make it after all.
Unlike my previous visits to Marrakech, Youssef, who was driving, turned off down roads that were unfamiliar to me, weaving through the edges of the Red City’s growing metropolis. Though the route itself was unfamiliar, the sight of stroppy dromedaries parked at the side of the road, hijabis riding mopeds, and trucks suffering a slow and painful death at the hands of their relentless owners was all beautifully familiar.
We were headed to the suburb called Targa: down the side of the empty railway goods yard, across a two-lane carriageway, and past the Quick fast food restaurant. Following ten minutes of driving, we arrived at a modern development of equally proportioned properties and plots, all with subtle adornments to the architecture designed to manufacture a semblance of individuality.
The neatly-ordered streets, manicured grass verges, gardens surrounded by high walls and modern four-wheel drive Dacias were all a far cry from the organic madness and disorder of the medina, where only a moped or donkey can pass through the lanes with ease.
As we pulled up, I figured that the next three-storey housing block must be made up of a few apartments; stepping foot into the garden, I soon realised that this was just one villa.
It had: two kitchens, two Moroccan salas, a 'European' living room, five bedrooms and any number of additional rooms, offices and bathrooms. Amazingly, the whole place was designed from scratch by my host's father, Taib.
During the car journey I had asked about whether there were any 'House Rules'. After all, I was due to be a guest in a few week's time at Nassima and Carlos' Moroccan wedding ceremony, and didn't wish to be unceremoniously uninvited for committing some terrible faux pas.
The overwhelming response was simple: ‘Don’t worry about it.’
‘But surely there must be some banned topics,’ I pushed them.
‘Just be careful with politics.’ I think I understood what was being inferred.
Around an hour or two later, I was sat on the comfortable green sofa in the European living room discussing Saudi Arabian foreign policy with Taib, whose opinion on the matter seemed perfectly aligned with my own.
Unbeknownst to me, and out of my line of sight, Carlos had passed by and overheard our conversation.
I was later told that, in a blind panic, he had sprinted downstairs to find Nassima. In his most melodramatic manner, he'd asked, ‘What’s the one thing you told Tom not to mention?’
‘Politics,’ she had replied.
‘Well, he’s up there now in the living room talking about Saudis,’ he’d said, I imagine shaking with fear lest I was about to be booted out of the house after only a couple of hours.
As the day unfolded, an increasingly large cast of diverse characters – something a little like Twelfth Night without the cross-dressing plot twist – arrived and departed. If you add into the picture a deaf and partially immobile dog then you have the scene perfectly set.
My host’s grandmother was also on good form. She started off by interrogating me, entirely in French, about which languages I spoke.
‘Do you speak Arabic or just French?’ she started.
‘Well, neither really, but I understand French better than I can speak it,’ I’d replied with help from those more fluent in French who were sat around me.
‘No Arabic?’ She’d sounded almost disappointed.
‘I can’t speak English.’ She'd continued. ‘It’s a shame, but I only learned French. I was the best in my class.’ Curiously, the class she was talking about was at a convent school in Algeria. ‘The school was great and the Sisters there spoke such good French.’
As with all stories about convent schools, the tales of punishment for the naughty girls took centre stage. She also explained a little about the different places she'd lived before coming to Marrakech.
‘Do you speak French?’ she asked again.
It was at this point I remembered that Nassima had mentioned her grandmother was showing the early signs of dementia and this became apparent as the conversation came full circle.
Perhaps this might have made some people impatient, but having just lost my grandmother to dementia earlier in the year, I was more than happy to keep our conversation going in perpetuity. It was a strange comfort throughout my stay to speak to her.
On a slightly more worrying note though, after I’d left the room, she had been asking whether I was married with children – presumably she had someone in mind to try and introduce me to.
This was already the longest that I’d ever spent in Marrakech without going into the medina – and this was set to continue.
That evening, after some goûter (a small pastry and/or bread-based snack in the early afternoon, served with atay made by Taib), Carlos, Nassima, Najwa, Nour and I all headed into Marrakech, driven by Youssef.
We arrived at a crossroads between Gueliz and the medina that had a selection of bars, clubs, shisha lounges, and, just around the corner, a gigantic Casino resembling something from the Las Vegas strip.
Having lost all my spare cash already buying Ryanair baggage allowance, I was glad that we weren’t headed for a night of gambling with Marrakech’s high-rollers, settling instead for a rooftop terrace bar called Arkech.
The crowd was a mixed one: some with shishas, others without; some with virgin cocktails, others with small bottles of Casablanca beer; some were tourists, but many more were middle-class Marrakchis.
By around 1.30 am, my energy levels had dipped beyond a tolerable level. My early morning Uber ride followed by the Thameslink train to Luton Airport had caught up with me and I needed sleep. I'd been awake for nearly 23 hours.
Upon our return to the villa in Targa, my host's mother had made-up a small bed for me on one of the chaise sofas that lined the walls of the Moroccan sala, complete with towel, toilet roll and a bottle of water.
After a quick blast of air conditioning, to bring the nighttime temperature down from 34C to balmy 24C, I was out like a light.
It may not be as instantly picturesque, but there is still plenty of life outside of the medina walls.
I need to get a house big enough for a Moroccan sala and European living room to fit in.