Brian Fallow

The Economics Editor of the NZ Herald

Morocco: The spice of life

Brian Fallow is charmed by a Moroccan market and ponders the future of a young shepherd.

The souks of Marrakech are patronised mainly by Moroccans, not tourists. Photo / Thinkstock
The souks of Marrakech are patronised mainly by Moroccans, not tourists. Photo / Thinkstock

I will never use the phrase "chasing a buck" lightly again. Or so I vowed after watching a Berber villager in the foothills of Morocco's High Atlas mountains risk life and limb running after a bank note, a tourist's tip, that the wind had snatched from his grasp.

This small drama was played out among tiny terraced plots of steep land - little islands of green in an ocean of dry country - outside his village.

Six times he lunged for the money, six times the wind made off with it, drawing him ever closer to the sheer edge of the terrace.

This will end badly, I thought, but on his seventh attempt he succeeded.

The mountains separate Morocco's coastal plain from the Sahara desert, two hours - but in another sense 2000 years - from the bustle of modern Marrakech.

The terrain is arid, relieved only by an occasional olive grove.

As we lurched along dirt tracks in a convoy of four-wheel drives, it dawned on me that rectangular patterns were emerging among the shades of brown.

Surely people don't try to cultivate this desolate country, I thought.

But they do. Then I saw a man with a donkey pulling a simple wooden plough through the parched and stony ground. Further along, another sowed seed by hand. A boy who should have been in school tended six scrawny sheep.

All that told you this was the 21st century and not the first was a line of electricity pylons, and here and there the indestructible dandruff of civilisation, sundry windblown black plastic bags.

Clearly, people living the tough lives of subsistence farmers - 80 or 85 per cent of what a farmer grows may be needed just to feed his family - have more to worry about than litter.

It made the comforts of the city, which we were able to enjoy on our Captain's Choice tour of Asia, all the more alluring.

But even we pampered tourists can show flashes of the same toughness.

Among the our 200-strong group was Grace, a lady of advanced years but indomitable spirit, who had tripped on the tiled floor of a restaurant the night before the trip to the Berber villages. Battered but undaunted, the next morning she was raring to go on the 4WD trek.

Marrakech's buildings are all one colour, an ochre shade of red. But the souks, or bazaars, of the old city are a riot of colours.

A shaded labyrinth of narrow passageways takes you past hundreds of shops, booths really, selling leatherwork (Marrakech is noted for its tanneries), clothes, carpets, ceramics, spices, perfumes, you name it.

Adding to the delight was the fact that you can explore them without being hassled. Apparently that was not always the case, but a few years ago the authorities clamped down on vendors, who are being rewarded for their newfound restraint with an increase in visitors numbers and business.

Now if only they would also ban mopeds from the narrow, bustling alleyways of the souks.

Still, despite the whining of tiny engines, the aroma of spices fills the air. On the open top of a sack of spice in one stall I saw a small bird helping itself - charming but not very hygienic.

The souks surround the Djeema el Fina, the central square of the medina or old city.

The name means meeting place of the departed, and dates from a time when the sultan displayed heads of the executed there.

By day, snake charmers, conjurers and fortune-tellers entertain the throngs.

But the most popular attraction, for the Moroccans at least, seemed to be the story-tellers. I briefly wished I could understand Arabic.

By night the numbers in the square build and the focus turns to eating and drinking. Non-alcoholic beverages, that is.

Morocco is a Muslim country and our sleep was pierced by the early morning cry of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.

But like Jordan and unlike Libya, liquor was available in the hotel.

What is appealing about the Djeema and the souks is that they are patronised more by Moroccans than tourists and have an authentic life of their own.

Having discovered our guide was not kidding when he said zebra crossings were "largely decorative", I looked for a cab to take me from the Djeema back to the hotel. Small, brown Fiat taxis are ubiquitous and cheap.

But the alternative, a horse-drawn carriage, looked cooler in both senses of the word.

And I was won over by the way they queued waiting for fares. As one peeled off the front of the rank the rest would move up. What was remarkable about this was that the drivers were sitting in the shade of some trees chatting with each other. The horses knew the drill.

Marrakech was founded nearly 1000 years ago, about the same time as the Normans invaded England.

For a long time it was the country's capital; indeed that is the source of its name in many languages.

Traces of imperial grandeur and the graceful Hispano-Moorish architecture of the region remain.

The Koutoubia mosque's 70m tower, for example, testifies to the engineering skills of 12th-century Moors. It also serves as a handy landmark.

The Saadian tombs, final resting place of members of a former ruling dynasty, are richly decorated in the geometric tiles Morocco is famous for.

The Bahia palace, built for a vizier (minister to the Sultan) shortly before the country became a French protectorate, shows the Moroccan taste for intricate geometric decoration in its tiles and the painting of its cedarwood ceilings.

It left me wondering what delights lay behind the walls of the riads, houses built around a central garden which present a blank face to the passer-by. They give the city a mysterious allure.

As we walked through the maze of narrow streets making up the old city's former Jewish quarter I kept a nervous eye on the nesting storks, a feature of its high spots. A bit phobic about large birds, you see.

Moroccan cuisine is justly celebrated. But I was taken aback by one course of a feast consisting of nearly a whole side of roast lamb, unaccompanied by vegetables or couscous or even a carving knife. Just the meat.

Beautifully tender, to be sure, but I couldn't help thinking about that young shepherd in the hills and what sort of life awaited him.

CHECKLIST

If you go: Australian-based Captain's Choice tours provide luxury, all-inclusive, personalised tours to remote and exotic destinations.

Further information: Call 0800 650 740.

Brian Fallow was a guest of Croydon Travel, a Melbourne travel agency which runs Captain's Choice tours.

- NZ Herald

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