24/11/2014 08:34 GMT | Updated 23/01/2015 05:59 GMT

Desperately Seeking Marrakech


Marrakech, Morocco

Stepping into the street of the Medina (Old City), from our tranquil guest house with its traditional courtyard, open-roof top and old fashioned doors and locks, was like stepping into a world not to far removed from the images of Asia and Africa depicted by 19th century European Orientalist travelogues and art works. The streets of the overcrowded old town were narrow and poverty stricken, but were not lacking in character, as well as, warm and friendly locals. Some European visitors speak of suffering from 'cultural shock' when they first encounter the streets of Marrakech, and so they adopt an aggressive posture and look like something out of Joseph Conrad's novel, Heart of Darkness, looking for brutes to exterminate. Others fall in love with the place and try to immerse themselves fully in the sights, sounds and smells of the Medina.

The name Marrakech is believed to derive from an old Berber word and means, 'Land of God', and was founded in the 11th century, at its height it boasted great libraries, centres of learning and important intellectuals, scientists and scholars such as Averroes (Ibn Rushd), who is widely credited as the father of secular thought in the West. Today, these libraries and centres of learning have largely disappeared and only the large and splendid, Koutoubia Mosque, stands as testament of what use to be with its name roughly translating as, 'The Mosque of the Booksellers.' Next to the mosque is a large square called Jemaa El-Fnaa, which really does feel like something out of an 19th century European travelogue of Africa or Asia- with its snake charmers, monkey dancers, old storytellers, dancers, musicians, people in colourful clothes, open tent food stalls and markets selling everything imaginable.

For tourists seeking the darker side of Marrakech tourist life, prostitution and drugs are readily available to them; all of this gives tourism in Marrakech a colonial feel to it. The Medina is much like cities in the medieval world; it's surrounded by walls and large gates, outside these walls lies the new city with its large and spacious streets, big buildings, shopping malls, nightclubs, bars and restaurants- there's a huge disconnect between the two places- they may as well belong to different worlds, let alone different cities. This discontinuity between new and old city is fairly common across the Arab region and not unique to Morocco.

But Morocco does have its unique character, which causes political and cultural confusion for people who seek to place Morocco in a generalised category. Is Morocco Arab or African? Can it be both? A large percentage of Moroccans are non-Arab Berbers, where would they fit into an Arab country? Most non-Moroccan Arabs claim that they cannot understand Moroccan Arabic, because of its mixture of Berber, Spanish and French influences. But then it begs the question, why do we need to categorizes the place?

I remember standing outside Al-Bahia Palace waiting to enter- there where many tour groups from around the world also waiting to enter. One group that caught my attention was a group from Israel. It's illegal for Israelis to enter most Arab countries, with the exception of a few, and in the main two countries they can enter (Egypt & Jordan), Israelis tend to keep a low profile and pretend they come from other countries- not in Morocco. The tour group leader spoke loudly and proudly in Hebrew and members of the group had no problem with openly interacting with locals. Such a scene seems unimaginable elsewhere.

But in many respects that what life in Marrakech is, unimaginable elsewhere. Pace of life is much slower, despite the mountains of people and mopeds that throng the streets of the Medina, giving the impression that everyone is in a hurry. Despite the well defined tourist path that exists in Marrakech, the place does offer the chance to escape that path, but central to this is to get to know Moroccans beyond a buyer-seller relationship. They are truly an incredible, hospitable and friendly people who know how to respect guests- but above all else they are human beings- who seek to make friends and socialise with different people. I always think the purpose of travelling is not to be a tourist, but to connect with other human being who lives in different circumstances and in different cultures. Its only when two cultures meet, that we can find real humanity.