The dizzying chaos of the Marrakesh bazaar existed in opposition to the serenity of the riads, those old village houses that present their blank doors to the street.
From the alley, every house looks more or less the same. It’s impossible to imagine the world that exists behind such plain walls: two or more stories of wandering passageways linking irregular rooms, centred on an Andalusian-style courtyard, and always, in the centre, the gentle splash of running water.
Most of the riads we would find in Marrakesh were owned by French residents who arrived in the country by accident and never left.
Morocco has long held an irresistible allure for foreign travelers, but it was the immediately accessible coast opposite Spain which formed their most famous foothold in a place that was Europe’s closest neighbour, easily visible across the Straits of Gibraltar, but a world away from the Continent in terms of culture.
From 1923 to 1956, that 373 square kilometre stretch of North Africa was administered by a collection of foreign governments as an in-between International Zone with a reputation for tolerance, diversity and bohemian life.
The novelist Paul Bowles lived there for much of his life. The Beat Generation writers were pulled to the Interzone in the 1950’s, Jack Kerouac in search of exotic new roads, and William Burroughs for the easy availability of hashish and willing young men. And Matisse came to paint the colours and the light.
As Borroughs famously wrote, “Tangier is one of the few places left in the world where, so long as you don’t proceed to robbery, violence, or some form of crude, antisocial behaviour, you can do exactly what you want.”
During the years of the French protectorate that began in 1912, the urban merchants, religious notables and provincial governors who comprised the Moroccan elite colluded with the ruling Alaouite dynasty and their European allies to maintain the existing political order.
The sultan ruled from his many palaces, each city had a powerful pasha, and each province had its own caid. But the desert fringes were a different story. Southern Morocco was officially The Zone of Insecurity, where the rule of the strong prevailed.
The mountains were a rocky dividing line between the Arabic speaking people of the plains and the Berber speaking people of the highlands. Beyond the snow-capped spine of the Atlas, in the “Land of Dissidence”, warlords lived in fortified casbahs with the severed heads of their enemies decorating encircling walls.
The sultan formed political alliances with these Berber warlords who controlled the High Atlas passes as a matter of necessity, and one family — the Glaoui — soon prevailed in the south.
They ruled a state within a state, a feudal domain that stretched from the mountains to the border of Algeria, and that controlled the crucial choke points between the vast Sahara desert and the market towns of the coast. No camel caravan could enter southern Morocco at the end of its long arid journey without crossing over a pass controlled by their guns.
What was begun by Madani el-Glaoui was greatly enriched by his younger brother T’hami, who went on to become the wealthy pasha of Marrakesh (1907 – 1956), and the key ally of the French during their occupation.
But it would all be gone in little more than a generation. The once mighty family faded into obscurity, tainted forever as traitors by their collaboration with the foreigners who kept Morocco under the Gallic thumb.
The Glaoui’s old Marrakesh palace is now the Museum of Confluences, a 15-minute walk from our peaceful riad. Built in the 1910’s when T’hami el Glaoui was pasha of Marrakesh, it was an oasis of peace inside the chaos of the souk.
The entry hall turned at right angles into a courtyard tiled in geometric black and white before turning again and entering the central garden. Room after tiled room, each one barnacled in a different pattern, with smooth marble floors that swallowed the whisper of shoes.
Such gleaming surfaces did not echo with the Italian heel click of self-importance, but with the deference of shuffling slippers reluctant to disturb the calm of a powerful ruler.
Carved wooden doors towered four metres or more to match the rooms, whose elaborately carved wooden ceilings reminded me of Andalusia in capturing the best of Islamic craftsmanship cast in delicate designs.
The courtyard was a grove of orange trees laden with fruit, surrounded by Moorish arches with plaster like lace.
I sat on the fringes with my legs in the sun as an airplane left its contrail across a rectangle of sky, and I tried to imagine those who visited this place before me: Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, and one of my favourite film noir actors, Edward G. Robinson.
T’hami el-Glaoui was courted by foreign diplomats and travelers who relished the danger of being hosted by a man who still left his opponents to rot deep in the windowless dungeons beneath his many palaces.
But those glazed tile walls reflected more of our present than they did flickering images of the past.
Photos ©Tomoko Goto, 2019