Atay Maghrebi: 'Your Eyes Aren’t Moroccan' and Palais El Badi
Arriving the day before, I had rolled along the main road from Marrakech Menara Airport in the front seat of the transfer bus. All the way I had sat with a wide smile on my face as the familiarity of the scene unfolding before me was reabsorbed by my mind.
There were the old men on even older motorbikes meandering along the side of the road, young women in hijabs racing along on mopeds talking into iPhones, and donkey carts dislodging there loads as they bumped along the thoroughfares. All this in bathing in the unbridled dissonance and a perfect cacophony of car horns.
The day had started with actual clouds in the sky and the sun somewhat subdued. Never one to intentionally miss an opportunity to avoid sunburn, I finished breakfast quickly and headed off towards La Place des Ferblantiers with the Palais El Badi as my ultimate destination.
Crossing the square, muted in the pre-lunch haze, a lady in a purple niqab approached and addressed me in French, "Bonjour monsieur. Ca va?"
"La shukran," I replied in poorly pronounced Arabic as she started to show me the range of jewellery that seemed to climb up her wrists in a vine of fatigued copper.
"You’re Moroccan," she said in high-pitched Arabic pointing to my skin, at this point still burnt from Sports Day.
At this point I took my sunglasses off to better show my facial expression and she almost jumped back saying, "You can't be! Your eyes aren't Moroccan!" She stood staring at me in a moment's awkward silence. I shrugged almost apologetically.
Using the opportunity to give her the slip, especially as I wasn't in the market for a very feminine looking bracelet at this point of my journey, I made for the archway at the northern side of the small plaza, dodging a plonker riding his moped past a 'don't ride your moped here' sign.
Palais El Badi, the name of which implies its beauty as 'incomparable', is explained as being both inspired by and comparable in beauty with the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. This was, of course, before the ravages of conflict and time cast their jealous shadows over the Saadian rulers’ great architectural gem in Marrakech.
Stepping into the grand courtyard it is, in many ways, much grander in scale to the largest square of the Nasrid Palace that sits on the edge of the hillside in the Alhambra complex, but lacking the ornamentation in the masonry and water in the pools, it took a little bit more imagination to conjure such an image of majesty - luckily I had visited the Alhambra on my birthday earlier in the year and could rebuild the palace, albeit mentally, as I cast my eyes about.
Each corner of the grand courtyard has a small orchard sunk into the recesses either side of the two large pools. During my visit, these orange and (I think) fig trees spent their time being carefully tended by a few gardeners in the ever-present Marrakech heat.
In one corner of the courtyard, an archway opened onto a smaller courtyard whose trees offered a group of Spanish visitors some shade. Past a jolly guard, and through a smaller doorway the restored minbar from the Koutoubia Mosque is housed.
The minbar, to the untrained eye looks like an ornate set of wooden steps. It is from these steps that an imam delivers a service inside the mosque, similarly to a pulpit in a church.
The room itself is a museum of sorts to the restoration of the Koutoubia’s minbar. Around the walls, small details of the intricate wood engravings have been recreated to portray the stages of the process which was undertaken in America. The woodwork is all unfathomably intricate and includes kufic script asking for the protection of Allah for both the Saadian sultans and for the Koutoubia mosque.
Further around the courtyard, there’s an exhibition further examining the Saadian artisans’ craftsmanship, along with some original cartography and a rather striking picture of the Sultan Al-Mansour's emissary to Elizabeth I. He didn't look like the kind of guy you'd want to upset in a hurry.
A real highlight for me though is a photographic exhibition of Marrakesh in days of old. Concealed beneath ground level, gallery shows how, especially in the case of Jemaa El-Fnaa, some aspects of life in the medina really haven't changed: that same combination of snake charmers, musicians, food for sale and storytellers can still be find as dusk descends.
One particularly interesting form of entertainment depicted in one of the photos was what appeared to be a rather rudimentary, hand-operated Ferris wheel, complete with simple seats mounted inside cramped-looking wooden boxes, all attached to a basic wooden frame. They really should bring this back. In addition, there are a large number of photographs and artefacts showing everyday life for Marrakech's Jewish community in the past.
After resurfacing into the Marrakshi air, feeling smug about only having paid 20dh to enter the Palace, I headed back towards Place des Ferblantiers, deftly pirouetted past the jewellery seller like an oversized ballet dancer, and crossed to a small café facing the madness of the lunchtime traffic.
Here, a man from Meknes persuaded me that my plan to take a Grand Taxi to Essaouira was mental and that it was CTM or nothing. On that basis, I obviously booked onto a Supratours coach.
More by accident, than by design, I had started writing notes in my red notebook again exactly one year after I had stopped.
Work commitments, amongst other things, meant that I never got to talk about the train from Marrakech to Tangier, the lunacy of being in a romantic hotel by myself, meeting regular Moroccans, visiting Essaouira and stumbling across a schoolmate of a Ugandan friend’s sister and then returning to the UK completely in love with this corner of North Africa.
As the Atay Maghrebi drinking continues, those stories may find themselves woven into this one, as, after all, tales committed to our hearts often breathe longer than details we struggle to keep in our minds.
Attending Sports Day before a holiday is good for your skin tone.
Everything is easier the second time around.