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The Medina of Marrakesh

Posted in Adventure, Exploration, Geography on Tuesday, 21 August 2007

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Marrakesh (illustration, picture, art: Ron Embleton)

The dancers spin around on their toes and leap into the air. Faster and faster they dance, and their white robes fly out in all directions. The clash of iron cymbals and the insistent beat of the drum become louder and louder. One by one the dancers fall exhausted to the sand and lie there motionless.

These are the “gnaous”, negro dancers from Central Africa. In another part of the immense square a young girl is dancing to the beat of a guedra, a drum made from a pottery vase with goatskin stretched over its mouth. She is completely covered in a black robe and wears an enormous shawl of brilliant blue.

In yet another part of the square, a man with long hair wearing a long woollen robe or “djellaba” squats on the ground. A small crowd gathers and watches as he reaches into a basket and pulls out a cobra with his bare hands. The man and the snake stare at one another steadily for what seems like hours.

Now a solemn procession of four camels moves into the square. Sitting easily on the camels humps are Berber tribesmen who have arrived from the Sahara desert. They wear blue robes and curious black headscarves.

Approaching from another direction, two donkeys are trotting along side by side, linked together with ropes. On the back of one of the donkeys rides a shepherd from the nearby Atlas mountains. With one arm he taps at the donkey’s head with a short stick, with the other arm he holds a lamb. Hung over both the donkeys’ backs are empty wicker baskets. Soon these will be filled with supplies bought in the “souks” or small shopping centres in the main section of the city.

Two odd-looking men walk past us wearing gaily striped “djellabas” festooned with polished brass bowls. Over their shoulders are goatskin bags full to the brim with something which can at times fetch a high price in this part of the world — fresh drinking water.

This is just part of everyday life in the market square or “Jemaa El Fna” which is “place of punishment” in the Arabic language. Here dreadful things would be done to people committing quite mild crimes many centuries ago. But today about the most severe punishment meted out might be a hearty slap on the rump of some ill-tempered camel.

The old city or Medina of Marrakesh is no larger than a small British country town and yet more than 25 miles of fortified wall surrounds the maze of hundreds of narrow alleyways and tiny courtyards where the Moroccan way of life has hardly changed in a thousand years.

The wall twists and turns and zig-zags around the old city, and here and there immense gates let in the tourists and tribesmen from the deserts beyond the Atlas mountains.

Two women walk gracefully across the square. Their faces are covered by veils and we can only see their flashing dark eyes. They disappear into a narrow street. It would be almost impossible for a visitor to guess their ages. Yet somewhere, in the maze of the Medina, the two women open an elaborately carved door and enter a house. Once inside they take off their long robes and veils. They are wearing western clothes. A teenage girl and her mother They sit around a table to drink tea.

On very rare occasions a foreigner is invited into a home to drink tea which is carefully prepared according to long tradition in homes throughout the whole of Morocco. A huge lump or loaf of sugar is broken up and placed in a tall carved brass teapot. Hot water is added to the dried tea, along with some leaves of dried mint. Then the host will keep pouring the steeping tea into a glass and then back into the pot again until he is satisfied with the colour of the brew. Then the tea is poured into glasses, never into cups. A guest must never refuse the hospitality of a second glass of mint tea.

A visitor to Marrakesh (or most Moroccan cities for that matter) should never attempt to photograph a woman wearing a veil, and most particularly if her husband is walking along with her. To do so would certainly cause trouble, and perhaps violent trouble at that.

The mosques are the places of worship for the Moroccans, who like most people living in the Arab world of the Middle East and North Africa are Muslims. They worship God or Allah and their prophet and founder of their religion was Mohammed.

The mosques are secret places where the visitor and tourist must never enter. At times it is even risky to stop and stare in through the open gate or door of a mosque, where Muslim men enter after taking off their shoes.

Most of the mosques have beautiful interiors, decorated with coloured tiles and carvings. The picturesque Arabic letters form the main motif for the decoration, for it is against the Muslim religion to use pictures of people or living things. Most mosques have impressive steeples or minarets. Every day a man climbs up to the top of the minaret and recites a “muezzin” or “call to prayer” from a tiny balcony. The minaret of the famous Koutoubia mosque is one of the highest and most beautiful in the world. It was built during the 12th century when the cathedral of Notre Dame was being completed in Paris.

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