Back and forth, hither and yon – whether on my habitual trajectory between Touraine and Paris or further afield… destinations, encounters, events and observations I can’t resist sharing.

Marrakesh II

February 5, 2011
Medina Gate Bab Agnaou,

It didn’t take long for my eerie premonition of Magreban Revolution to play out in Tunisia and now Egypt.  Morocco could well be next.  I was riveted by the surge of protests which erupted in Tunisia the week of our return.  They gained astonishing momentum, prompting the clandestine flight of Ben Ali, the autocratic, unelected president, in what Tunisians are calling their ”Jasmine Revolution”.  Ben Ali, who ousted Tunisia’s popular post-colonial president in 1987, had been preparing a gilded retirement in France, where he owns sumptuous properties in Paris, the Cote d’Azur and Courchevel.  He was refused the right to land here and members of his immediate family, already in France, were told to leave.  So much for that pipe dream.

The mood in France is supportive of the Tunisian people’s emancipation. The Sarkozy government took heat for protracted silence throughout the protests, then proposing support to help quell violence.  Most took that as a sign of support for Ben Ali rather than a strategy to avert violence used against protesters. The police fired on crowds and there were scores of deaths.  Hard for the French administration to stage a graceful about-face after positioning Ali as a close friend, putting up with his despotic, corrupt rule, because he squashed Islamic opposition parties and claimed the healthiest economic growth record in Africa.  Ali was hardly a comic book villain like Saddam Hussein, but has plenty in common with Permanent President Mubarak in Egypt where freedom of speech and true political opposition are also forbidden – as we can no longer ignore.

Morocco’s Royal Highness, despite his seeming popularity, has reason to be nervous.  The domino effect could take off as it did in formerly communist Eastern Europe.  The fact that Mohammed VI’s portrait is ubiquitous in commercial establishments throughout Morocco can be interpreted as a gesture of fear rather than fealty.

Geopolitics aside, I did promise to share visit recommendations to the Rose city. The reaction of French friends to our Marrakech holiday was a chorus of,  “It’s nothing like it was… isn’t the real Morocco… Morocco à la Française.”  But hey, french tourists flock to New York and Miami – which are hardly representative of America’s heartland.  Key to Marrakech’s appeal is the alluring cocktail of cosmopolitan sophistication, exoticism and a whiff of decadence – out of your cultural comfort zone without being overly disorienting or dangerous.

If you read French (and even if you can’t), pick up a free copy of the monthly official Marrakech Pocket Guide, distributed in hotels and restaurants.  It has a calendar of events, most of the addresses you’ll need grouped by category, plus ads for many good restaurants, cafes and shops.

Read More »

168 Hours in Marrakech* – Part I

January 8, 2011
Marrakech

Just back from Marrakech celebrating New Year with family.  It was my third time there (prior trips were sixteen and thirty years ago), but first chance to explore a full week.  It’s changed considerably since 1994 – the transformational pace much faster than between my first two visits.   Loss of authenticity is somewhat compensated by a boost in creature comforts.

The resonating experience of this trip was a flagrant disconnect between codes of dress and comportment within the walls of the medina and outside in the former French quarters – Guéliz and Hivernage west of the old town.  Shuttling back and forth induces microseism culture shock.

We rented a riad in the Kasbah section of the Medina, next to the Mosque, Saaidian Tombs and Royal Palace  – a neighborhood where alcohol is verboten, most women wear a headscarf if not a veil, and both sexes never expose a bare arm or leg.   The scene is very different around Guéliz Plaza in the Zara, Mango and Etam fast fashion chain stores – where Moroccan women wear tight jeans tucked into high healed boots and toss around manes of hair.  Neighborhood clubs and restaurants like Café de la Poste, Lotus, Jad-Mahal and Comptoir exude a glitzy San Tropez party vibe, with pulsating music and extensive cocktail menus.

Our driver/guide Mohamed, claimed that a third of tourists never penetrate the Medina and remain sequestered in outlying resorts, playing tennis or golf and lounging around the pool.

I left with an eerie premonition that Marrakech 2011 has much in common with Havana circa 196O, or Beirut 197O, before Revolution and Civil War crashed their parties.  Perusing Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable may have gotten to me (despite an inability to slog through it).  The Lebanese born author describes how well connected family and friends were sideswiped by the cataclysmic changes brought on by civil war and hovered in deluded exile, anticipating imminent return to life, as they knew it.  Ditto for Cuban elders in Miami.

There’s also a whiff of Dublin’s ghost estates.  If you drive out into the Palmeraies, resort properties and golf courses are going up cheek by jowl. It doesn’t take more than a few miles of cruising to detect a threat of serious over capacity.  Legislation was recently passed barring foreigners from purchasing property that isn’t part of a development.  It seems individual investors were jilting politically connected developers for a crumbling riad or rural kasbah.  Like diaspora Irish lured during the Celtic tiger bubble, Marrakech real estate is heavily promoted to Beurs and Moroccan born Pieds Noirs.  Ads at the airport pitch “return to your roots” investment opportunities “your holiday home for 100,00 dirham” (roughly 9,000 euros).

Grim foreboding aside, you can have plenty of fun in Marrakech.  A dividend of steady tourism and satellite dish globalization, is a reduction in the onslaught of proffered wares and services, plus women are not as heckled with “hey gazelle” (although my daughters are a better judge of that). Read More »

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