All my life I wanted to go to Morocco. Everybody in my generation, it seemed, hit that old hippie trail and came back glowing with wonders. Crosby, Stills & Nash released “Marrakech Express,” conjuring up exotic imagery enjoyed by everyone, it seemed, but me. And for years: See some piece of delicate furniture with an exquisite filigree pattern, it’s from Morocco. A soft brown robe with a hood, perfect for coming from the hot tub at night… “Oh, I picked this up in Morocco.” Hooded robes, hooded eyes, French accents, fezzes, intrigue…oh, to be on that train…
At last, I got to go. And when I came back, I loaded up the movie Casablanca and watched it yet again, and you know, they nailed it. People don’t dress that well, and nobody is as beautiful as in that movie, but those production designers knew their stuff.
Around 1975 a friend described sitting up all night on a rooftop in Morocco, drawing and dreaming. He strongly suggested I do the same. It only took me four decades, but here’s the view from Riad Twenty, our digs in Marrakech. In a single life-changing stroke of fortune, someone gave me a holiday there and told me I could bring a friend, so I invited my sister Penelope, who lives in California. We hadn’t seen each other in seven years.
This recent summer in Istanbul was challenging, with no end in sight. Tourism took a powder after the Great Gezi Park Gassing, and money was tight. My new book, Drawing On Istanbul 2, months delayed, was still at the printer when I left. I knew I’d come home to a pile of bills, and I’d been unable to line anything up to take care of them. So I went on this magnificent holiday and forgot about coming home. A nice trick if you can do it. This will change me, I thought. The person I am when I get back, she’ll know how to deal with it. That person is now me… and she did. The book is taking care of everything. At the bottom of this page, you can see about getting one, and now I can tell you about Marrakech.
Sheltered by the Atlas Kabe mountains, watered by their snowmelt, it’s a prized and cherished garden spot, full of exotica. In the three-hour drive from the airport in Casablanca, our guide Hicham told me that the French loved Morocco for its fertility and warmth. We drove past many cactus farms, encouraged by the King to promote economic stability. Eight ethnic groups, said Hicham, normally fight, but now there is peace since all owe allegiance to the King. I noticed two things right off: minarets here are not spikes but square towers with domed tops, and the cactus is that pale green paddle stuff. After so long in Istanbul’s congestion, my cramped eyes felt like they were stretching.
RIAD TWENTY: In the middle of Marrakech’s Old Medina or souk– the marketplace– is this classic Moroccan family house, two tiers of tiled rooms around a central courtyard with a pool and a tree, sparkling white with curlicues and patterned tile, beautifully restored its owner, designer Robert Bell. Penny and I breakfasted each morning on the roof with Butterbones the cat, who started out shy and grateful and wound up a howling demanding banshee. Hicham would show up to ask what we’d like for dinner and to suggest a trip or drive us somewhere. Saida the chef, Fadawa the maid and Rabir the houseboy would bustle around making us feel special. We were so safe and spoiled in the riad that we had to remember Robert’s warning to take care outside. The transition was immediate from this island of calm to the souk, a cacophonus labyrinth of narrow steep-walled streets, alleys leading off into mysteries, all thronged with trade.
Since those halcyon hippie days, two generations have grown up in Tourism, and the atmosphere is bracing: yelling hucksters in striped djellabas, bemused tourists in shorts, donkeys pulling carts, guys sharpening knives, beating drums, little old covered ladies begging, and motorbikes, the scourge of the Middle East.
Whole families crowded onto one bike, young guys being important, old men being speedy, power women in full chador and hijab, all blowing exhaust. One must walk single file far to the right in the narrow streets to avoid getting bumped. Then a short passage and wham! Peace:
The people take good care of anything green. Parks are plentiful and clean, and here’s a tree growing right in the middle of the marketplace for 200 years.
BURNING HEADS We got there just before Aid al-Adha, or Kurban Bayram in Turkish. This is a Muslim holy day celebrating the Sacrifice of Abraham. Remember, God asked him to kill his son Isaac? As Abraham obediently got ready to cut Isaac’s throat, God relented and let him kill a sheep instead. So once a year, all over the world, sheep and cows and goats all die ritually. The family buys the best animal they can afford, and many hire a professional to do the slaughtering. The meat is shared with the poor.
What this looks like in Marrakech is streets full of doomed sheep, slashed with red paint, in carts, tied in gardens, carried over shoulders. The morning of the day is full of baaing, which gradually dies out as the air fills with the coppery smell of blood. Later that day and the next, every shop is closed and the streets are full of people burning heads and hooves. They’re burned until they are white bone and then used for all sorts of things.
Bone and curly sheep horns show up in furniture, as paperweights, as the design element of the curlicue and in musical instruments, like those shown here with their maker, famous bass guitarist Mustafa. All over the Medina, guys looking through my book recognized him.
The day after Aid al-Adha, a little brat in the street threw a sheep’s testicle onto my sketchbook as I was showing this drawing of an alley to Penny. I threw it right back at him.
After I drew this, I walked into the drawing and discovered that the bottom of those houses built over the streets look like this:
Created by painter Jacques Majorelle and opened to the public in 1947, the Jardin became derelict after he died. Yves St Laurent and his partner Pierre Berges bought and began restoring these gardens in 1980, and it’s too bad the word “fabulous” is so overused.
One can wander all day in the stands of huge bamboo, cobalt and emerald everywhere, worlds of color, hanging flowering vines over dark and pale pools streaked with red carp. Imagine the parties there! Through the zigzag branches of enormous exotic cacti glow the flat blue, violet and lemon walls of the Berber museum.
Inside, this set of jewelry, a Berber family’s entire wealth in silver, amber and stone, stands glassed and glowing with a dozen others in an infinite starry night. The room is actually tiny, mirrored all around, the low black roof pierced with thousands of pinholes. I stood two hours to draw this, undisturbed by the guards although no photos are allowed, and made many friends.
GOATS IN TREES, HAPPY WOMEN
The Berber are tribal people native to Morocco. They seem well liked by everyone. We saw many of their villages salted throughout the mountains. The highway runs along a river below towering mountaintops. Along the lushly forested river are enchanting restaurants: suspension bridges rock above the water from the highway to the tables below. The color of the land goes from ochre to blood to rose to peach, all overlaid with pale green vegetation and slashed with cobalt blue paint: on tables, pots, tree trunks. We stopped for lunch and played with a raffish orange cat at the edge of a stream. Penny even made it to the top of the waterfall while I elected to stay and draw the Berber Refrigerator: the water hits the whirligig, spins it and sprays onto the cooling bottles of soda.
Most of the structures out in the country are built of taliwaugh– I’m spelling phonetically here– handmade mud bricks. After a few centuries, this rounds and erodes and sinks back into the land.
We saw many women’s collectives along the roads. At one in Marrakech, we had bought Argan oil, famed for its good effect on skin. Now out in the hinterlands were the ragged-leafed Argan trees, native to Morocco, drought-resistant, endangered and protected by Unesco and the nice profits from their oil. Here’s one full of goats.
The awful truth is that Argan oil is extracted from undigested pits harvested from goat shit. Goats climb the trees to eat the fruit. Traditional methods involve boiling, pounding and straining by many well-employed women. I pulled this photo off the Internet, which hastened to inform me that there are nice sterile machines to make Argan oil. Fooey on them, I’ll take the traditional method, and my skin likes it too.
After much driving we came to Ossauria, a coastal which gradually came out of the mists to greet me as I drew. The fort is five hundred years old. I thought the French had built those spherical cornices, but they’re Arab. Hm, could the French have gotten this architectural inspiration from the Arabs? The French were here from WWI until the ‘fifties, when they were booted out. But there remains a vivid French presence: in aesthetics, in language, in voices and faces. Even the King is partly French.
A lot of people didn’t want their pictures drawn, but Fadawa our maid was happy to pose, and very proud of her braces. Women everywhere were smiling through braces which have recently been made affordable.
Leading to the Marrakech Kasbah is an eleventh-century gate covered with fifteen-year-old wooden restoration and topped with storks’ nests occupied all year, for the storks never leave Marrakech. Just as I finished a little girl leaped up on the two cement blocks and posed for a second, long enough to catch her in the drawing. I crossed the street and showed her. I was hoping it would be all right when she reached up, threw her arms around my neck and kissed me.
TIMTAM HOUSE A doorway in a wall of the souk leads through many passageways to a tea garden of filigree and tile and tall flamelike canna lilies, and beyond to high arched windows, balconies, skylights. This is TimTam House. The owner, Yunus, told me that it was built in the 19th century by the Minister of Justice, and that it was quite plain. Yunus’s grandfather bought it in 1936. The exquisite decoration is all from 1942. While in America they were creating the movie Casablanca, in Marrakech they were creating this.
“My grandfather was more generous with artisans than most, said Yunus, and he got –” he gestured to the high filigree walls. Artisanship like this is rare, now. After his grandmother died, the family converted the house, now subsumed by the Berber Market, to a garden restaurant and carpet shop. Penny and I had spent hours in the garden, enjoying actual face time. Seven years ago she came over and took us along the Mediterranean coast and up to Kapadokya. We don’t see each other often, but when we do, we swing. Here she is on our last afternoon together.
I had a few more days after she left. Back in TimTam, missing her and drawing in the garden, I kept wondering if they would ask me to move to make room for the paying customers, but everybody treated me like Picasso. Passages lead to the center of the house, now a carpet shop, where I spent five hours drawing patterns and talking with Abdul and Jamal. Then I ran into that colossal door, the 19th century original to the house, the Minister of Justice’s door, now leaned up against an interior wall. I spent my last day drawing it, imagining the sun and storms and desperate faces it has seen. Walked home in the dark so happy that I easily avoided a common peril in the souk with its eight-foot-wide streets: being run into by an old man in a djellaba on a motorbike.
THE HIGH ATLAS
As Hicham drove us toward the mountains, I was drawing masses of dawn clouds over the plains when I saw a great shoal of cloud foaming across the horizon. Above it could be seen the tips of the mountains, the Atlas Kabe: High Atlas.These mountains are the reason for the Sahara, as they block the clouds. Snowmelt from them runs down and waters Marrakech, the jewel of the plains.
We drove into the first rain I’ve seen here. The car surged up past pine forests, stands of silver birch, the occasional explosion of a palm tree, whole mountainsides pebbled with fruited cactus.
The rivers are mostly dry this time of year, but the riverbeds are thick with trees. The land is every shade of peach, and the tiles on the houses are green. People came in and out of the mist. The road twisted upwards into the clouds. Rain starred the windshield. We drove along switchback curves, unimaginably high. On one side, the mountainside was barely visible. On the other side, a sheer drop into solid white. Lurching from side to side I fixed my lipstick, in case I met God.
Berber houses are long low rectangles punched with a row of square windows. Being built of the mountains they are often barely discernible against the land.
On the highway these have evolved into towns. In one, we drove right up to a kebap place. Hicham squinted through the window at the sheep’s carcass, hung up on display. He grunted and we drove away. “Looks yellow,” he said, “not good.” We breakfasted further along, in a bustling town of steep mountainsides, fruit stands, tractors, tour busses, cardboard over puddles of rain. A tiled room with a balcony over a riverbed, intended as a cool refuge from the heat, but in the rain it was full of steaming people. We had meatballs, and let me tell you, ground beef patties cooked with sliced tomato and red onion will hold you all day.
Hicham had given his water bottle to a kid by the side of the road with car trouble. I kept asking him if he wanted water, and he kept laughing and refusing. “You’re a Bedouin,” I said. “I am,” he said. I had been joking. I knew his mother was Berber, with blonde hair and blue eyes, and red cheeks, he said, from the altitude. But his father was Tuareg. What is Tuareg? “Bedouin,” he said, “they walk the Sahara from end to end, they know no country.”
Many women along the road were wearing robes of purple and lavender and rose. In the infrequent rain nobody carried an umbrella, walking in laughing groups to school. We passed a couple of little kids bundled into bright yellow snowsuits, two women in magenta hijab, many people in Berber blue, a pure cobalt blue, dyed with indigo. The road twisted on up, tiers of highway above us glimpsed through bits of mist. We stopped for pictures next to a few buildings huddled between the road and a sheer drop, staring across space to bare grey mountainsides rising to a jagged ridge high above. Far below was a smear of green: a Berber village. Back in the car, we looped on up toward the summit and at last flashed past a sign on a shuttered shop: ALT 2260 M(eters). Then the mist vanished and the world turned gold as we sailed down the desert side of the mountain. The river widened, and all the green bushes and trees in this world were there. The mountains were rocky moonscapes in dark red, dun, grey.
At the foot of the mountains, after I drew the settlement above, Hicham turned left and drove out through flatlands.
In a small town, he drove up to the mosque and parked. Here is the mosque, he said, gesturing to the rounded minaret, and here is the car, so you can find it. This was Ait-Benhaddou. Beyond is the Wazizih desert and then the Sahara. We walked through the town and came out of a doorway halfway up a hill. I stopped in shock. Across a wide white wash rose a mountain of towers. Spiky-topped towers pitted with rounded windows and doors, ridged with eroded carving, fringed with emerald palm trees, rising there at the edge of the desert. An Oz of sand. Hicham had driven us to the Kasbah.
I spent the next three hours drawing. We crossed the wash on a bridge crowded with tourists. This was disconcerting as I felt I was at the end of the earth, but tourists are why such places survive. Everyone in the Kasbah was either working a guesthouse or selling souvenirs. It seemed appropriate. Kasbah means residence, but thanks to the movies I associate it with a marketplace. Some of the towers are occupied and some are ruins, but you can walk up into them. Climbing up the narrow streets and steep stairs, I looked into a face of delicate beauty, a classic Berber boy’s face, wearing blue and topped with a huge black turban. I’ve seen a face like that on a postcard and wondered where in the world…
I climbed up the rocks above the ancient town and sat looking down into the towers. They looked like huge sand castles. People there said they are 300 years old. Nuts, said Hicham, a lot older. I drew until it was time to leave. Walking down through the towers I found them rounded like caves inside.
At the edge of the wash, some Tuareg guys were hustling dune buggy rides to the Sahara. They wore traditional pale blue robes and big black turbans, and their dune buggies were the sort where the wheels look like coke cans turned on the side. I realized I was walking in the actual desert. The white sand was silky, fine, clean, softer than California beach sand. I did not want to wash off my sandals.
The ride back was quieter as I was drunk on the day.
Long loops of road through the golden afternoon, then silence and grey as we zoomed into the cloud. As we hurtled up, above us shone a spectral image: silhouettes of moving cars glowing through the fog as if across a lit street between dark buildings. It was a shaft of light up on the summit. It took less time to return as we had used up every camera device in the car. All through the long drive back through the gathering dark I couldn’t speak a word, but I was smiling, because at long last I have been to the Kasbah.
All drawings Plein Air, done in sketchbook format, dimensions 18cm X 26. All drawings and photos (unless otherwise specified) © 2013 by Trici Venola. Riad Twenty is available for holiday rental, and Hicham is the manager. You can find them at www.riad20.com.
DRAWING ON ISTANBUL 2 is NOW AVAILABLE! through Amazon.com, any minute.
HERE IN ISTANBUL: In Sultanahmet, at Jennifer’s Hamam in the Arasta Bazaar. Elsewhere, ask at your local bookstore. DOI2 is available through Citlembik Publishing. You can buy a signed copy from me personally at any of these upcoming events:
NOVEMBER 30 (Saturday) 3:30-5PM at GREENHOUSE BOOKS on the Asian Side at Hilmi Pasha Caddesi No. 2/B, Kozyatagi, Kadikoy, Istanbul Turkiye 216 449 3034 www.greenhousekitap.com
DECEMBER 1 (Sunday) 4:30 PM at MOLLY’S CAFE on the European Side in Galata at Sahkulu Sokak No 12, 90 212 245 1696. Directions: head down from Tunel on Galip Dede. Take the second right past the Dervish Monastery and continue on down to No. 12.
DECEMBER 5 (Thursday) Official Launch Party at KALAMAR RESTAURANT in KUMKAPI, 7:30 PM. Caparis Sk. No: 15, Kumkapi. 90 212 517 1849. www.kalamar.com.tr. From the Shore Road (Sahil Yolu or Kennedy Cad), turn in at the Kumkapi Gate on the Marmara Sea. By tram, go toward Bagcilar, get off in Beyazit and walk straight down the hill on Tiyatro Caddesi to the famous row of fish restaurants at the bottom. PLEASE COME!!!