I was on the plane. My row didn’t have a window so I looked across the aisle and observed, through the nodding heads of a family of three, how clouds bubbled at the edge of the atmosphere – producing premonitions of sandy cities, citadels, square roofed buildings, terraces, spires and domes. This dream city slowly transmuted and sunk; then grew and stretched out of the blueness that underlay it like a deep ocean. It told stories beyond the scope of my life, until it too sank, like the gifted mirage it was, into oblivion, and the true coast of Africa glittered on the horizon.
Touch down felt like our plane had just fallen out of the sky and landed, on one wheel, with a crack. The passengers, who were already predisposed to be quite vociferous, screamed and squawked like too many chickens jostled in a cage. The plane consisted of numerous hen parties, a fortieth birthday party and a couple of other spur of the moment get togethers. Ryanair enabling celebrations for the masses, and that I thought, was probably the nicest thing I could say about Ryanair. Although it wasn’t their fault that the French air-traffic controllers were striking that morning and had left us sitting on the tarmac for two hours. At least our pilot had a lovely Scottish accent.
But at soon as my feet hit the tarmac all worries were extinguished. A gentle heat rose, the sky was clear, and we were situated in the middle of what us Brits would call summer (despite it being February). We were greeted by palms and agarves.
In the distance, the Atlas mountains rose from the smog like an illustration – slightly unreal but sublime. Their points were scrawled as if by a youngster’s hand and snow covered crevices were arranged upon it like the crisscrosses in an un-ironed bedsheet. They were the protective arms encircling Marrakech – forcing back the suffocating sands of the Sahara.
It took us a while to get out of the airport. First, we got our passports stamped; after which, I spent some time beholding the ephemeral document in my hands – my previous travels abroad to Europe having not necessitated a stamp I was quite intrigued. 2020 felt like it was to be my year of travel and this was an excellent way to kick start it! Little did I know we were a few weeks away from a complete lockdown!
Overhead, the lattice structure of the airport building inaugurated a sense of awe. It was like being nestled within the confines of a big empty beehive. Above, the ceiling struts were arranged like geological or astronomical patterns.
They x-rayed our bags (again) and we all crowded round little booths to fill in our coronavirus declaration forms – borrowing and lending pens as none had been provided. Clustering close together to lean upon small stands. (*insert dramatic irony here*)
When we arrived at the Riad our host greeted us with mint tea (poured from a great height). Beside which, we were handed little hand-baked orange blossom, almond and sesame biscuits. That evening we had a banquet under the stars, the temperature pleasant on the terrace even in February. The banquet didn’t look much – but it tasted. Dear God, it tasted.
Starting with a lamb stock pumpkin soup, we moved on to a lamb tagine, with preserved lemons: subtle, yet greasy in all the right ways, graceful with the sharp saltiness of lemons kept in jars. The vegetables steamed in stock: salted and seasoned. Every inch of our salad leaves soaked in dressing. The couscous was sweet with onions. I wished at this point my stomach could have been bigger – that it was concertinaed like an accordion so that I could have continued eating well into the night. Because pudding happened next. We were dished a poached pear in syrup (thick and golden), with mint and raspberries, encased in which was a paste of sesame and almonds. This, I realised, would be my choice for a death row meal should the occasion arise that I need one.
Afterwards, with the cheerful chang and chick of wine glasses and the rapid emptiness of our bottles, our evening entertainment arrived: the fire-dancer. He was a bit more dad-grooving-out-at-a-reunion-disco than you might expect and his act was perhaps less ‘gasp’ more ‘Catherine wheel’ but lets not disparage the poor man to much.
Mornings at the Riad were filled with incense and birdsong. As dawn approached, the call to prayer rang out. The voices, lifting me from the grave of night with its cacophony until the hush returned, petering, until the quiet was whole and surprising.
I rose and lay in the sun on the balcony. The cool of the night quickly evaporating until I was bathing in the light, simultaneously thinking and not thinking, and enjoying just that.
At ten-thirty, the appointed time, I met Msemmen, the world’s most delicious pancake; we made an informal introduction to each other over the breakfast table after a little light flirting, and then I promptly fell in love. At home, I stalked youtube for glimpses of its buttery deliciousness. Watched as a myriad of skilled cooks fried up these flaky breakfast treats. This was to be my latest culinary obsession.
Buoyed with butter, our next rendevouz on the itinery was a ‘camel ride though the deset’. So we clambered into our hire vehicle and drove to a sandy district on the outskirt of town were we met our pop-princess eponym camels: Madonna, Shakira, Christina, Beyoncé, and Britney.
Feeling rather like a Pepsi advertisement circa 2004, the entourage and I snaked awkwardly through the disused lot, towards a series of houses on the other side. In order to avoid the fly tippers, we arrived outside a fluttering line of brightly coloured clothes – royal red tablecloths, blue pyjamas, t-shirts, scarves.
The animals were led in a line upon a rope. Whilst I appreciate their need to earn their bread, their treatment struck me as a little cruel, and this uneasy feeling increased the longer our walk went on. I think, I’d have been happy just to stroke the camels and feed them whatever camels like to eat (popcorn or maybe watermelons?).
Sylvia (the camel) kept walking with her head turned sideways. I didn’t know if she was struck by the beauty of Katie’s blue scarf flapping in the breeze, or whether her rope was too tight, but it made me feel uneasy. Especially as we drove away afterwards and our camel-steeds (bffs forever) were tied back to the ground on a short lead. I guess everyone has to work for their wage – but I hope they got time off – you know – to be camels and do camel things. Like visit camel cinemas, and gossip about camel-news and eat camel tagi- no wait. Not that last one. That would be terrible.
In the afternoon, we went to a rooftop restaurant called Terrasse des Epices. This time I had tagine stewed lamb stuffed into ravioli with preserved lemons and saffron served with bread with oil. I literally can’t get over the food. It was so good. As I revisit this a few months later (during lockdown) I’m still struck by the food. I dream about it. That and vampires and joining a prison gang for my own protection. From the balcony of the restaurant, I glimpsed the Atlas mountains. I wanted immediately to get in a car and drive out there, watch the twists and turns of the mountain road. I felt something growing inside me, some yearning, some want, which when I’m luckily, always appears in a new place. Oh to have longer.
I had a hot bath and fell asleep.
The souks, the bazaars, the walled medina of Marrakech demanded a new vocabulary as well as fresh eyes. Every other moment some psycho on a moped or a bicycle threatened to mow me down. They called us, ‘Lady Gaga’ and collectively we were ‘Spice Girls’, only once was I ‘Glasses! You a Doctor?’ They really need to work on their misogyny.
The next day I sunbathed, sun-glozed and soaked. And when the fancy took me I plunged deep into the cold waters of the pool. Then I’d lie, once more, in the sun, skin exposed. As with all milky white Brits, I burned not having brought a stitch of sun cream.
That afternoon we toured the Souks. I bought a scarf; some Ras el Hanout (a mixture of 35 herbs and spices) to make my own tagines at home; and some mint because I couldn’t fathom how anyone could make a mint tea so delicious and different and I thought perhaps by examining the dried remains of the plant that I might divine the answer.
That evening our dinner reservation was cancelled, but by way of an apology we got an invite to an exclusive open bar party that evening. So we walked the main square and got food at a place they recommended called Le Salma. It was a beautiful looking place, with dancers, and I ate the requisite tagine (whilst delicious not at good as the other two meals).
Back to Kabana.
Cocktails lined the bar, appetisers proliferated. Everyone here was so cool it was painful. Well-coffered women à la The Hunger Games tottered on Lady Gaga heels. People wore suits in bold African print and designer trainers. Everyone looked rich and arty. They were celebrating – as far as we could gather (not speaking the language) the end of the Festival of Arts in Morocco. Some Amazighs came and sang. Someone whispered, ‘they’re wearing the designs of that man’ and they’d point, again, at someone hopelessly cool. Later Guiss Guiss Bou Bess, a Senegalese band started playing, performing in French. The lead singer comes from the ‘griot’ tradition of oral historians and storytellers from West Africa. The musicians wowed the crowd, the drums loud and timpaning, the video recording behind the band showed us scenes from their home life in Senegal. Cooking, and cleaning and hanging out with friends; dancing in front gardens. We were dancing. I was exhausted. They were dancing and I collapsed in a chair and realised there was free wifi. We walked back to the Riad bouyed and I crash straight to sleep.