Christmas morning in Marrakech

The lack of an obvious Christmas regimen leaves the door open for a day of cross-cultural exploration

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Editor’s Note: Mike Robinson vacationed in Morocco during a recent Christmas season. This is part 1 of a two-part series.

MARRAKECH, Morocco, Nov. 30, 2015/ Troy Media/ – You awaken in a long, high-ceilinged room painted white, with wooden shutters opening onto a sunlit interior courtyard.

The bed and the chairs are western, but red Fez hats and Arabic mosaics hang on the walls. The bathroom opens through louvered doors at the far end of the bedroom, and has no windows. The floor is polished stone. The shower-head drains directly onto the floor, and there is no shower enclosure. The toilette faces the shower, and a large rubber bucket sits beside the open drain. A discrete sign says, “Save as much of the shower water as possible so that the staff may water the plants and flush the WC.”

Two wider louvered doors open off the side of the bedroom into a bright open square of light. You realize gradually that the riad (literally an old mansion refurbished as a guest house) contains four guest bedrooms, each of which opens onto the second floor balcony, which faces the central interior courtyard. There are no exterior windows. A dazzling blue sky reveals itself framed squarely above. There is an open roof deck on the third floor, reached by a stone staircase that offers broad views across the old medina rooftops, stretching in all directions. Medieval mud block walls and rough timbered roofs are studded with white TV dishes, all of which tilt east to pick-up Al Jezeera.

The only structures higher than three storeys are the tall, slender mosque minarets, which are situated in the discrete medina neighbourhoods to enable the five daily calls to prayer. Every sunrise the muezzins sing their beautiful calls to the faithful in many different voices, amplified by minaret microphones. Beyond the minarets, to the east, stretch the magnificent Atlas Mountains, purple tinged in the early morning haze. Their highest peaks reach over 4,000 meters. At 8 a.m. the only noise is the splash of water from the small fountain in the courtyard, and the occasional rooster call from a neighbouring roof-top coop.

On Christmas morning in Marrakech, there is no special celebration. While Jesus is honoured as a minor prophet, he is not the acknowledged son of God in an Islamic country. There are no Christmas trees, carolers or Christmas lights. You rise with vague recollections of the sunrise call to prayer in your mind, but somehow you’ve slept through the muezzins’ songs of praise. The lack of an obvious Christmas regimen leaves the door open for a day of cross-cultural exploration in a city of complex Arab, Berber, French colonial and sub-Saharan tribal traditions.

The contrast between old and new forms of urbanism is stark. The organic 2,000-year-old mud brick sprawl of the old town clashes obviously with the Cartesian street logic and concrete condominia of the surrounding new Marrakech, home of 1.5 million residents in Morocco’s second largest city. The old medina wall, 30 feet high and pierced only by a handful of babs (gates), firmly demarcates old and new. The most tangible expression of this contrast is the pall of automobile pollution in the new town; in the medina the traditional smells of human life predominate.

After a leisurely breakfast of dark Arabic coffee, fresh oranges and grapefruit, and riad-baked bread, it is time to walk to the souks that surround the medina’s heart – Jamaal al Fna, the great urban public square that is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the largest medina public space in Africa, and for centuries has been renowned for its rich social admixture of story-tellers, acrobats, snake charmers, tribal singers, artisans and craftsmen. All begin to assemble in the square in the afternoon, and thousands of fellow Moroccans and tourists crowd in for fun, shopping, observation and business as the day develops into evening.

Getting to the Jemaal al Fna from the riad requires careful listening most of all. Our host explains:

“Go out of the door of the riad and turn left. Follow the brick pathway between the houses until it merges with the market street at the well water tap. Go straight until the Mosque Bab Doukla, near the big palm tree. Follow the souk-lined roadway to the left to the old Sultan’s madrassa. At the intersection go straight ahead, but watch out for cars and trucks moving through the Bab Doukla. Then follow your nose and ears to Jamaal al Fna. It is just ahead of you.”

We step out the door at 11 AM with our verbal map.

Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum, and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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