In the Medina

By Geoffrey Heptonstall, October 9, 2018

Green is the colour of Islam, presumably because it is emblematic of paradise. Fertility in a climate of extreme heat and vast deserts cannot be taken for granted. It may seem to a believer God-given, a blessing. The surprise is how green much of Morocco seems. Even in the intense heat of Africa, there are […]

Green is the colour of Islam, presumably because it is emblematic of paradise. Fertility in a climate of extreme heat and vast deserts cannot be taken for granted. It may seem to a believer God-given, a blessing.

The surprise is how green much of Morocco seems. Even in the intense heat of Africa, there are fertile valleys watered by rivers that flow down from the Atlas Mountains. Beyond the mountains lies the Sahara, arid but for the rare and welcoming oasis, but the western part of Morocco is a significant area of fecund, cultivated land. There are many fields of grain, beans, olives and vines. Although this is a Muslim country, with a traditional prohibition of alcohol, there are to be found well-cultivated vineyards. The evils of alcohol, Islamic scripture say, outweigh its merits. The medicinal effects, perhaps, justify the viniculture appreciated mostly by visitors from cultures that are less cautious in their conduct.

Hashish, of course, has been one allure. The wild generation of the Nineteen Sixties sought the mood of reverie invoked by the drug. Tranquillity is one effect, ecstasy another. Seekers after hidden truths made their way to Morocco, and to Marrakech especially, in the hope of discovering a natural and spontaneous vitality that the over-civilised West has lost.

This may be no more than a mirage in the minds of those in search of sensation rather than spiritual depth. Arabic culture has age-old traditions of learning in Faith, Science, Medicine and Literature. Intense study is seen as the key to enlightenment. The first thing you notice about a Moslem at prayer is the discipline of the body – which must be clean – and mind which must seek purity. The carpet of a mosque is not be sullied by shoes that have trodden the streets.

Moroccan mosques forbid entrance to unbelievers. This may be a source of regret for the respectful traveller, but a suspicion of infidels rests side by side with the tradition of tolerance. It is a tolerance that puts the West to shame. Islam contains its fanatics, yet the welcome to other faiths in general Islamic society is genuine.

The Moroccans try to place me. They gaze at my features and discern that I am perhaps Arab or Jewish by descent. As far as I know, I am neither. Jewish, they decide, is the more likely. There is no condemnation in their judgement. The Mellah, they say, is this way, indicating the ancient Jewish quarter now abandoned by emigrants to Israel. They are proud to speak of the Mellah, which was not a ghetto but an integral part of the city.

There are cities within the city. The Kasbah is one, the Medina another. In Fes, the Medina is vast, a labyrinth of many thousands of alleys. Perhaps there is no-one who can know all of it, although many can find their way through the dark, unidentified streets. They have names, but these are rarely signed. Then some streets have an Arab name, a Berber one and another in French. The three cultures move in an interplay of light and shadow through Moroccan society

France withdrew its colonial claim decades ago, but the French influence has not diminished. For one thing French is often a useful means of speaking with those nations of Africa that do not speak Arabic. There is International English of course, but that is no more than a convenience. It does not come naturally from the heart of Moroccan life. The English briefly and long ago possessed Tangier and the diarist Pepys was Governor. They withdrew and would not find their way back to Africa until the Victorians. Morocco’s sustained contacts with Europeans have been with France and Spain.

From the Sierra Madre, you can glimpse the Atlas Mountains.  They appear in the distant and might be mistaken for clouds. No, they are another continent, another culture, another world. In Andalusia, the long occupation by the Moors is evident in flamenco, in historic sights and a continuing awareness that it was Africa that colonised Europe centuries before European sought mastery of Africa.

The ferry that runs to Algeciras leaves a trail of foam that resembles a track for others to follow. In Tangier, the Spanish coast is visible in the haze. Migrant workers and refugees look across the few miles across the straits to a continent so close you might reach out and touch, though the waters are guarded, and crossings require the papers those desperate dreamers cannot find.

Can a continent so varied ever be the possession of another? Africa is not one place but many. Morocco is no more than a corner of Africa, yet it feels in itself so vast as the train travels southward. The ties with Europe loosen with every passing minute. That is true until you reach Fes and see not only the ancient Medina but the vast Ville Nouvelle that the French began and which expands with what is, apparently a developing economy. The poverty of Morocco is evident. So, too, is the wealth of the apartment blocks and the sleek automobiles.

So much of life for the visitor is lived on the rooftop terraces. The cool mornings and sunsets, the afternoons when mint tea is served in silver pots. Loo out to other rooftops, and you see satellite dishes. Technology makes distant places familiar and disappointingly anonymous. However, to deny Moroccans the benefits of technology is to require Morocco to be not a country capable of advancement like our own, but a changeless folk museum of the exotic.

That is not to deny the desire of Moroccans to retain their identity. That identity is built on traditions they are unwilling to forsake. It brings in revenue from tourism. It also accords with a sense of being a culture that the global monster of technology cannot devour entirely. Something of another reality is sequestered in the intricate passages within the ancient walls of the Medina. There may be found workshops of traditional crafts. Here a way of life, encompassed by the modern city, continues as if modernity  – electricity apart – had never reached North Africa. Tradition here becomes a living resistance to the empire of soulless innovation.

In material terms, the tradition is dependent on trade. The Moroccan is eager for custom because trade has been the lifeblood of society. He is eager for money because he – it is usually he – has a family. He is eager to please because the culture is one of welcome to strangers. A customer is a guest. Respect is due to a guest even as a bargain is struck to the merchant’s advantage. When the customer drives the harder bargain this is not so welcome. The guest has not repaid the hospitality as the merchant had thought fitting. That is the reality of commercial life, but it is disappointing to see Westerners who are not so easily parted from their money.

Moroccans are a spiritual people, for all their worldliness. The two conditions may be the seen as complements rather than contraries. The worldliness of the Arab peoples is a matter of survival in hostile terrain. So much is a wilderness that survival depends on inner resources as much as the material ones. The contrast between matter and spirit is not the sharp distinction of the Western world governed by mechanisms and techniques. Spices not only enhance the flavours of food: they raise the spirit towards thoughts of paradise. Carpets, elaborately patterned and laboriously woven, are symbols not only of comfort but also symbols of the divine plan of human existence. There is a reason for everything. All that happens is to a purpose.

From the minarets, the regular calls to prayer serve to remind the faithful of their duty to remember the deeper meaning and higher purpose of life. Life does not stop when the muezzin cries. The calls to prayer are part of life, like bells that chime on a church clock. The difference lies in the nature of these sounds: time is a perpetual reminder of life’s limited span, whereas prayer is a conversation with eternity.

Art for Ahmed Harrouz is a conversation with the soul. Ahmed Harrouz is an artist whose studio is a tower on the walls of the coastal city of Essaouira. He looks out onto the Atlantic vastness. The walls and their towers were used memorably in the film of Othello by Orson Welles. They evoke not the Venice familiar from Canaletto but an older and forbidding presence suited to the dark theme of this tragedy of jealous love and hatred. Gulls in great numbers flock about the harbour when the fishing boats return laden with their catches.

Ahmed finds the atmosphere not menacing but equally contemplative and inspiring. A volume of poetic meditations, L’Essence des Sens. No brief quotation can do justice to the effect of this evocation of art’s relation to the spirit. The book may be understood as a thoughtful and perceptive search for love, at once sensual and sensitive. It is also a search for the transcendent stillness that may be found in art when created in a meditative state of mind. It is a poetry written with a feeling for the mystery that is present but sequestered except to those who know how to look and where to look.

Sufism is associated with the contemplative mind in Arabic culture. The reality is that a true Sufi is a rare, elusive presence. Sufism is an Islamic way of living not readily available to unbelievers. Why should an outsider be admitted to the mystical heart of a faith that is as disciplined and exacting as Islam? The mysteries of the Sufi are not for the religious adventurer casually, if eagerly, seeking an exotic antidote to Western materialism. The traveller may go down many passages in the labyrinth yet never find the alchemical workshop of the spirit.

Of course, there is a more public face of the exotic available. There are snake charmers, fire-eaters and magicians to be found. Some spectacles are dull and shoddy shows to lure gullible tourists. Others are more intriguing and enchanting. These hint at something more than entertainment, as if the magic were real.

What is real about Morocco is its dream projected not merely for the sake of transient visitors. Moroccans believe in their mystery. The braying of mules, the howling of dogs and the screeching of cockerels and cats, accompany sacred music that wakes the night in the Medina. The cacophonous mixture of sounds exemplifies the Moroccan way of life.

It is not an evasion of the contemporary world. It accepts development. The continuities serve to complement and enrich what would otherwise be the kind of soulless modernity that affects some communities in the West.

The first-time visitor is almost certain to see Marrakech first of all. There is much there that is worth seeing. Marrakech gives the visitor a taste of Morocco, but it is not the whole of Morocco. It is the gateway into a society that is at once welcoming and occluded. The visitors are permitted tastings and glimpses of a culture whose essence is discoverable only by a determination to travel beyond the horizon. In our time it can seem that everything in the world is easily within reach. It can seem that there are no more unexplored places. The truth is that so much is hidden from view. What we see at first sight is not what we find after the arduous search through the medina, the mountain, the desert. Dare we go there? Can we resist the lure of those things unfamiliar to our jaded Western senses? The flower does not reveal her roots. The river that flows through the city issues from a mountain spring that is barely known. The traveller waits until the sun removes the shadows. A city shimmers.

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