Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Travel Writing about Morocco - Part 13

"A hundred years ago there were only a handful of foreigners living in the old town in Marrakesh. That's not very long ago in historical terms"
It is refreshing from to come across travel writing that looks a little beneath the orientalist-fantasy stereotype. Newspaper journalism, restrained by size and readership demographics to certain predictable formats is rarely able to do more than hint at the depths of a story. Charles Dick manages to do just that. Writing in the New Zealand Herald tackles Marrakesh in an interesting way - pointing out the impact of tourism and foreign investment.

Morocco's historic walled city of Marrakesh is changing fast and a veneer of Western influence is contrasting ever more starkly with its native Islamic core.

The heartbeat of the ancient capital, once no faster than camel caravans plying the trans-Saharan routes before the trek across the snow-capped Atlas mountains to reach the city, is quickening partly because of Morocco's drive to boost tourism.

Luxury hotels are being built with foreign investment and some of the millions of foreigners flocking to the North African country, where the legendary Berber "Pearl of the South" is a prime destination, are not just fleeting visitors.

Hundreds of Westerners, mostly Europeans, are buying up and often extravagantly renovating distinctive homes called riads, typically with scented oriental gardens in inner courtyards, in the old quarters of Marrakesh and other historic cities such as Fes and Meknes to the north.

"A hundred years ago there were only a handful of foreigners living in the old town in Marrakesh. That's not very long ago in historical terms," says Dr Peter Dyer, a British expert on the city's kasbah, or fortified district, explaining that this was forbidden under the French protectorate before Morocco's independence in 1956.

"It was the French protectorate which imposed its will on the local people to separate the old city and the colonial administrative quarter," he says, referring to the Europeanised Gueliz district outside the city walls where most of the big hotels are located today.

As foreigners rushed to buy riads from the 1960s onwards, led by celebrities such as designer Yves Saint Laurent, Marrakesh gained a reputation as a playground for the stars.

Founded almost a millennium ago, and a capital city during the Almoravids dynasty, Marrakesh has a mystique that has attracted statesmen and big names of pop, stage and screen - Winston Churchill, Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese among others. In their footsteps have followed the lesser rich from countries including Britain, France, Italy and Spain.

They are drawn by the charm of houses whose inner sanctums traditionally contain shady orange trees, pools filled with rose petals and central fountains. The thick, plain exterior walls, providing privacy for Muslim families and acting as a shield against the summer heat, hide often fabulous interiors.

The influx of foreigners has, inevitably, brought change. Poorer Moroccans have been moved to the outlying suburbs as the romantic inner city homes are snapped up by the newcomers.

And places like Marrakesh are becoming Westernised.

"Marrakesh has become cleaner and better organised, moving closer to meeting European standards," says Rachid Chnini of local estate agent Vernet Immobilier.

"What's more, security has become considerably tighter."

Perhaps because of that, Morocco is attracting more tourists after the slumps caused by the September 11 attacks in the United States, the 2003 Casablanca bombings and a 1994 gun attack by an Islamist group in Marrakesh in which two Spanish tourists were killed.

With the return of travelers' confidence, an ambitious development plan aims to double the number of tourists to 10 million by 2010 and includes six new seaside resorts.

Development is still slow on what is seen as the backbone of the plan to build the new resorts.

But a group owned by Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal is to take a major stake in developing a $116 million Four Seasons hotel and resort in Marrakesh.

While the influence from abroad has angered some in Marrakesh, the musicians, jugglers, snake charmers and street vendors in the city's famous central square, Jemaa el-Fna, adapt quickly.

"Lovely jubbly!" cries a vendor in the food market - using a catchphrase of a British celebrity chef - where a mouth-watering variety of local dishes is on offer.

"Air-conditioned restaurant!" he boasts, waving to his open-air stall.

Reprinted with permission from The New Zealand Herald. The original article is here: Ancient city draws the rich and famous

The Leeds Post is also jumping on the Moroccan bandwagon with a piece by Cathy Winston which, while well written, does not delve beneath the surface:

Here's an extract:

An eight-hour drive from Marrakech lies the city of Fes, and it's well worth the trip, not least for the chance to drive through the Atlas Mountains. Their snow-capped peaks provide a stunning, if unlikely, backdrop to Djemaa el Fna – as you travel, you move from the dry, dusty treeless lowlands to Alpine-style villages at the summit. You can even go skiing.

We push on to the sunshine in Fes, pausing only to wave to a few Barbary apes and camels settled comfortably by the roadside. The ancient city, another former imperial capital, is similar to Marrakech in many ways. There's a walled medina – where our beautiful riad, Riad Mabrouka, is based – and, outside, the modern ville nouvelle built by the French. But the atmosphere here seems quite different.

It's partly the quietness of the medina, where no cars are allowed, but it's also the pace of a city which, in many ways, has changed little since medieval times. The maze of over 9,000 streets is still walked by men in long, hooded robes while donkeys transport goods to warning cries of 'balek!' But look a little closer and the men are chatting into mobile phones and the donkeys are carrying a variety of modern paraphernalia – we even spot a fridge freezer strapped to one's back. One thing that hasn't changed is the old crafts. Traditional blue and white pottery is still made by hand; beaten bronze and silver plates are transformed from plain dishes by artists armed only with hammers and a single metal tool.

The full story is here: Sun and Souks

Earlier Travel Writing stories:

Travel Writing Twelve.
Travel Writing Eleven.
Travel Writing Ten.
Travel Writing Nine
Travel writing eight
Travel writing Seven
Travel Writing Six
Travel Writing Five
Travel Writing Four
Travel Writing Three
Travel Writing Two
Travel Writing One


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