Marrakech Journal - Day 3

11 Aug

After the wonderful madness of Jemaa el Fna and the claustrophobic din of the casbah, I decide to go in search of silence in Marrakech. I walk to the Jardins de Menara and climb to the top of the small palais there. The Menara is a large open space, something I'd pictured as a sort of bucolic retreat. But the air here is deathlike, a dry stillness that can't drown out the sound of the highway in the distance. The only living sound here, besides the occasional brave bird, is the constant hum of insects.

Outside the garden, the traffic hum is rarely broken by the intrusion of car horns. When drivers do use their horns, it seems most often to be as a warning that they're ignoring traffic rules (as if to say, for example, “watch out, I'm speeding around this bus straddling two lanes and I can't see in front of me!”) rather than as a curse for the infringement of some perceived right to unfettered movement.

On the way here, I heard Michael Jackson's “Thriller” and the Bee Gees' “Too Much Heaven” on passing radios. I also got an email referencing David Bowie's “Jean Genie” and saw someone wearing a t-shirt that said “Lust for Life.” These songs now fight for space in my head and will continue to do so until I get back to the Place and have them blasted out by Berber banjo.


Still searching for what Moroccan silence sounds like, I walk to the hotel Le Mamoun, knowing nothing about it other than having been told by a Portuguese friend that it's the last bit of “old Marrakech” and that I should see it. (On the way I realize that the police officer the first night had said “four red flags,” not “four red lights.”)

I'm met by two security guards and a metal detector before I even make it into the building. They're very nice, though, and as they explain to me that they won't be opening the tables until later because of Ramadan. I begin to understand that this is also a casino. I make my way in. Rodrigo was right – it is something to behold: the splendor of Moroccan décor, the old Arabesque Deco, but here (unlike so much of the city) it's beautifully maintained. And although the tables won't open until the sun is safely set, the slots are open. I walk through, making a lap around the floor and listening to a mix of Euro synth pop of indeterminate origin and, occasionally, what sounds like traditional oud songs transcribed for a nonhuman ensemble of electric keyboards and programmed rhythms. The casino is mostly empty, but there are the occasional dings and dongs of the slot machines, although one seems to specialize in sounds of whimpering dogs and horses giving raspberries. Still not the silence I was looking for. If I'm still out in six hours maybe I'll come back to hear the gaming room in its splendor, although a sign reading “jacket and tie required” makes me think nighttime security might not be so accommodating.

I exit and head over to the hotel building. A cotillion of six men in white robes with deep red vests and fezzes is on hand to open the door for me. None of them says a word as I walk in. The hotel lobby is even more opulent, decadent, than the casino. Workers inside nod to me but also don't speak. At first it is seeming like a quiet place. With the exception of occasional voices in other parts of the multi-room lobby, the only sounds in here are the sounds of water running through two small fountains (actually just old-style spigots looking rather posh emptying into reservoirs in the wall) and the closest thing I've heard yet to Muzak. It is Muzak, in fact, if not the actual company. At the supermarché I heard soft-edged Moroccan songs, designed (or at least selected) to ease the shopping experience and far different from the passionate pounding at Jemaa el Fna. But it was still organic music. Here at Marrakech's priciest hotel I hear pure new age synthesized Arabic music. Nonobtrusive, inoffensive, it isn't meant to be listed to, which is what I'm doing. Unsurprisingly it mixes well with the sound of the water cascading reverberating through the tile and marble rooms.

Water's another constant hum, but one with enormously positive associations. It's the sound of refreshment, of growth, of life. It's safe, reassuring, especially in the treble range that connotes “not deep enough to drown in.” Traffic sounds are anxious. Insect sounds suggest death, or at least discomfort. Water, traffic and bugs aren't so different from one another on an acoustic basis. They are more like each other than they are like thunderstorms, rollercoasters or horses galloping. But water's the one that reassures us we're going to be OK. A set of stained glass doors leads to a sort of cloister with a with a large fountain in the center – and the same sort of Muzak. Surely there was a time when this place was allowed to exit, and to invite visitors, without the piped-in soundtrack.

As I walk out, the afternoon call to prayer echoes through the medina, emanating from the towering mosque that dominates the area skyline. I head to the entry and begin to remove my sandals when I am politely told that I am welcome to enter if I want to make Moslem prayer, but that normally tourists are not allowed in. I politely say that I understand and leave. There was a time when, for many people, at least in America, the house of worship might be the only place where they heard music, at least as performed by a trained player of on something as massive as a pipe organ. Perhaps in another place in another time, the house of prayer is the only place to hear nothing.


At Djemaa el Fna again, for the last time before I leave. Super-crowded on a Thursday night; weekends must be madness. It's also the last night before Ramadan. (Some establishments – at least those that deal in such wages of sin as alcohol and gambling – seem to acknowledge it early, maybe to get on Allah's good side after a year of drunken casino nights.)

Last night I took a cab to get here. The driver told me he would take me to the best restaurant in the medina and wait for me and then take me to the Place. I said no thanks, but he insisted in the Moroccan politely inflexible way. I thought “OK, I'll learn a new restaurant anyway,” but told him I wasn't hungry then. He didn't seem to understand – he just kept repeating all he was going to do for me. (I suspect he did understand, even though it's hard to see what his end game would have been). He dropped me off, saying he'd come and pick me up in an hour, so I went upstairs to have a look. A majestic dining room, of course, and a violin-led trio playing the traditional el mahoune “classical” music, much more refined than the raucous music on the street. I took a business card and made exit in case he was waiting for me. Once you get a Moroccan guide (or they get you) they have a way of watching and waiting for you to exit so they can continue to escort you; again, a useful and affordable service, but it's not easy to turn it down. The guides come back in to greet meet you so that the owner can see who brought them, and then they collect a commission for bringing in the business.

Yesterday afternoon I found myself in one of the many dead ends in the casbah. A man was quick to want to help, offering his friend (who spoke better English) as a guide. I wanted to explain to him that I wasn't lost, I'm just superstitious about backtracking. But probably it's best not to get into superstitions.

I haven't seen a black cat here at all. And there's at best about a tenth as many cats here as in Tangier. In Tangier they're everywhere. You can turn a corner and see 40 gathered together eating. People love them and feed them there, there's just not the notion of having them live in your home. It's like if everyone in New York thought rats were adorable.

New York, it seems so long since I've seen you.

The casbah is like if the West Village was made of clay and you didn't speak fag.

Part of the madness of the Place is that you can never quite find the drums. The musicians all play in ecstatic waves, the center-lit circles may have a magician or a balancing act, but the sound of the drums moves like a snake through the square. The strings can only be heard as you approach a group, and sometimes not even then. But chasing the drums is an excellent sport.

A violin looks spray-painted, another instrument fantastically distorted through a homemade speaker, while a man in boots dances on a large pan like a steel drum.

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