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The giddy abundance of Marrakech

The chaos of Djemaa el Fna is straight out of a Tintin comic
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First Published: Thu, Nov 08 2012. 07 49 PM IST
Visitors stream into Marrakech’s Djemaa el Fna, a market on steroids. Photo: Joseph Molinari
Visitors stream into Marrakech’s Djemaa el Fna, a market on steroids. Photo: Joseph Molinari
Updated: Thu, Nov 08 2012. 08 50 PM IST
I am standing in the middle of the madcap chaos of Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech. It is early evening and this sprawling ancient plaza is dotted haphazardly with snake charmers, mehndiwalis (henna artistes), fortune-tellers, young boys peddling toy parachutes that light up in the sky, an impromptu audience gathered around a loud thumping musical performance, men in elaborate, multicoloured Berber costumes posing for photographs, juice stalls piled high with oranges, and a random motorcyclist cutting though it all with James Bond-like nonchalance.
For someone like me, for whom clutter, crowds, cacophony, colour is second nature, this scene is oddly disorienting: It feels like India, except of course, the people look different, the arched passageways distinctly foreign, and everyone is speaking in Arabic or French. Plus there is a hard-to-define buzz in the air—as if you have time-travelled into a slice of history, or accidentally landed on the set of a Hollywood extravaganza, or bizarrely enough, been thrown into the pages of a Tintin comic.
As I soak it all in—while simultaneously wondering if I should have my fortune read by a very persistent, grizzled old woman who doesn’t speak a word of English—it occurs to me that Marrakech, at its soul, is just like India. It has the same “more is more” ethos—multitude, surfeit, variety, a giddy abundance, a tendency to add this to that and then embellish it some more, like the patterns of mehndi on a bride’s hand, crammed full yet with scope for a few more squiggles. The souks are overflowing. The women wear djellabas (a burqa-like garment with a hood) but it isn’t black as you might expect in a Muslim country, rather they come in a dazzling range of colours, patterns, and embroidery. Even the Moroccan salad I order comes in nine little katoris (bowls), reminding me of our Indian thali.
The souk that flanks the Djemaa el Fna is “more is more” on steroids. It is a massive tangle of narrow galis (lanes) stuffed with tiny shops—think Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, minus the muck—with a never-ending array of products spilling out of every square inch of retail space, hanging off the walls, dangling from the ceilings. Getting utterly lost in the souk and shopping your way out is the top attraction here, no kidding, with hearty haggling part of the game. Brass lamps with intricately cut designs, silver (hopefully) tea sets with an additional pot for mint leaves, rugs from different regions of Morocco, mirrors, utensils, spices, olives, dates, candles, jewellery, clothes, handbags, you name it, from the exotic to the mundane, it is here. And how could I forget, babouches, the typical Moroccan slippers—similar to the embroidered jootis in India—which seem to be swamping the souks in endless design iterations, even babouches for your baby, should you feel so inclined, in Louis Vuitton monograms or Burberry checks.
This unedited retail feast has an unexpected effect: My decision-making system crashes—like an overloaded server—as if dealing with too much of a good thing is beyond its capacity. I take refuge in the Jardin Majorelle, a garden originally created by the French artist Jacques Majorelle, subsequently bought and restored by the designer Yves Saint Laurent, who made Marrakech his second home. He created many of his collections here, inspired by the vibrant local aesthetic. The gardens are an absolute delight, whimsical and wayward, laid out more like a work of art than a neatly structured garden, full of exotic plants like cactuses twice as tall as I am, lush to the point of overgrown, meandering pathways dotted with benches, where I sit and take it all in, paying my silent respect to the great designer. A museum dedicated to the Berbers (the original inhabitants of Morocco) is here too, small but exquisitely curated, and after the overload of the souks, I value “editing” with new respect. I love the clothing and jewellery sections, and am struck by the resemblance between Indian tribal jewellery and the Berber’s.
Marrakech has quite a rocking nightlife. We head for dinner to the Jad Mahal, where we not only get a sumptuous meal—including international dishes, very welcome as I am by now tagine-d and couscous-ed out—but also an unexpected entertainment line-up. First come dancing girls balancing an awful lot of flaming lamps on their head, followed by a succession of beautiful belly dancers—major excitement, as one of them picks me to dance with her, and boy, it is quite a workout (mental note: must consider belly-dancing classes for cardio training)! As midnight draws, the live band strikes up, and we are in for a treat, in walks a petite African singer who belts out an Adele number (if you closed your eyes, you’d think she was Adele). Not sure when it happened, but the bar behind us is suddenly chock-a-block, and rumour has it that Casablanca folk drive in for weekend clubbing.
Which brings me to the final treat, our hotel, La Mamounia. Stunning. It is a grand dame of a hotel, and has been around since the early 1900s, housing celebrities from Franklin Roosevelt to Winston Churchill (who painted here), Orson Welles to Alfred Hitchcock (he shot The Man Who Knew Too Much here), and now renovated by architect Jacques Garcia, who roped in hundreds of local artisans to create a breathtaking repository of Moroccan artistic traditions. Walls of ceramic mosaic in geometric patterns topped off with intricately carved stucco work, ceilings of sculpted wood with fine paintings, chiselled metalwork, lamps with stained glass and latticed metal—but here’s the wow: There are no loud exclamations, just refined ageless beauty. The gardens outside—acres and acres of them—are equally breathtaking, including a 1,000-year-old olive grove. The service is superb—the setting is palatial, yet you feel welcomed and at home.
I’d go back to Marrakech just to spend a few days at La Mamounia. And who knows, with my batteries recharged, I may finally be able to shop at the souk!
Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury. Write to her at luxurycult@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Nov 08 2012. 07 49 PM IST
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