29 October 2012

Storks galore

Walking around the Djemma El Fnaa in the evening at dusk is a wonderful experience. The food stalls are arriving as carts pulled by barrow boys - only to be transformed within minutes to fully-functioning instruments of food heaven whose smoke wafts through the air calling people to sample their delights. The day shift of henna tatooists, medicine men and palm readers all depart, leaving room for storytellers, dancers and musicians to take their place as the evening encroaches. 

But if you look upwards you will see amazing birds circling up and up, higher and higher into the sky, their vast wings outstretched...these are the most revered birds in Marrakech, the storks. There are many stories told as to why they are to be found here and why they demand such a revered status...but whichever is true, the fact remains...the offence of disturbing a stork carries with it a three-month prison sentence.

Soaring overhead

One such story told is that of a local imam (islamic priest) who gets very drunk and then climbs the minaret of the mosque, blaspheming as he goes, thus committing two grave sins. Instantly God's wrath is poured out on him and he is transformed into a stork. The stork is white and black owing to the colours of the djellabah and robe the imam was wearing at the time of committing these most vile sins. Believers of this story would claim that this is why storks are often to be seen with a prayer-like posture when at rest. Even before the arrival of Islam, however, an old Berber belief was held that storks are really transformed humans. In fact, up until recent years, there was even a hospital in Marrakech which cared for ill or dying storks, so strongly held was this belief!

It is with eagerness then that I set out to find these beautiful birds at close quarters. I'm told the best place to see them is at El Badii Palace. We make our way down dusty narrow roads, dodging the ubiquitous menacing mopeds, until we arrive at an opening - high above us we can see a giant nest straggling the wall, craggy twigs hanging down...but the nest is empty. We continue further until we reach the entrance to the palace. El Badii translates as The Incomparable - and indeed we can see that we are now standing in the ruins of what was once a magnificent palace. Not much is left to see, just an enormous courtyard which houses a large rectangular pool (now empty of course) and the remains of an irrigation system which served to water the four sunken gardens which still remain today. The crumbling walls glow a wonderful ochre colour in the early evening sunlight and even now the gardens are full of orange trees, lemon trees and beautiful flowers. How much more beautiful would this garden have been when complete with the turquoise filled pool, I wonder.  Apparently, so the story goes, this palace was built in the 16th century by Ahmed El Mansour and the walls and ceilings were encrusted with gold from Timbuctoo. When the sultan saw how wonderful it looked he asked his fool what he thought - the response was somewhat prophetic - that the palace "would make a fine ruin." And indeed his words ring true. Sadly, the sultan died soon after the palace was complete (it took 25 years to build!) and after only a century of standing tall, the Merenid sultan, Moulay Ismail, had it stripped bare and removed all the riches, transferring them to his new capital at Meknes. What a sad ending to such a beautiful place. Climbing up the steep steps to the ramparts, this is what most visitors now come to see - the storks who nest along the walls.

El Badii Palace

Evening glow on the walls

Up close and personal

In flight

Lined up on the walls

I gaze out over the rooftops of the medina, pondering what has gone before, when suddenly a stork swoops low and lands perfectly on its target - a giant nest not far away from where I am standing. Such grace and ease of flight astounds me. As I watch, others come into land, and before I know it, they are lined up along the wall in their various nests and poses - probably just waiting for the throng of visitors to get snapping. I am one of those! Unfortunately, all too soon we are ushered out as the palace is closing...so we continue on to another haunt of the storks, so we are told...Kosybar. This is indeed a place of comfort with soft seating, low lights and a lovely ambience - though the prices are a bit high! From the terrace we look out over the Place des Ferblantiers, the square where the beautiful lanterns you see everywhere are made, and watch as the storks swirl above our heads. George Orwell once described them as "great white birds...glittering like scraps of paper". I sort of know what he means. The word for stork in arabic is laq-laq and this sure describes the sound they make. It is like a moped idling or castanets being clattered together. If you repeat the word laq-laq aloud repetitively, I'm sure you'll get the idea. This is the sound to which we fast become accustomed as dusk falls.


Detail of lantern

Stork and palm trees

Huge nests they build

View towards the mountains


Whether the visitor to Marrakech likes these majestic birds or not, one thing is for certain...they are here to stay!

16 October 2012

The Man with the Fez

Almazar is the name of the shopping mall in Marrakech which houses the giant supermarket, Carrefour, along with many trendy stores such as Benetton, Pizza Hut, TGI Friday's and Virgin Megastore, as well as many other local stores selling all manner of goods from clothes to nic nacs. It also houses places to eat and cafes to chill out in, not to mention the wonderful 'les maitres du pain' which sells the best cakes in Marrkech (in my humble opinion). It is here that hubby and I often spend a little time on a Sunday afternoon, enjoying a coffee, browsing around the stores, doing the weekly main shop (only the things we can't buy at Tahannaout market, of course)...and finally we may occasionally treat ourselves to a take-away pizza for tea from Pizza Hut. Sometimes, it's nice to have a taste of home!

So it is that today we find ourselves once again browsing the stores; hubby has his eye on the new iPad 3...hmmmm...'for his work' no doubt! I just want to get the shopping and go home and bathe in the afternoon sun. Our attention is drawn, however, by a gentleman wearing a fez who is sitting at a table and attracting quite a crowd around him. As we approach I see a sign written in several languages stating 'Names in arabic - free for a smile'. Men, women and children are all taking it in turns to sit down at the table for a chat with the gentleman and to request their name be written for them. This is not just a quick inscription though - the gentleman, who later tells me his name is Baba, is a Moroccan Calligrapher who has travelled all over the world, writing the names of hundreds of people every day in the most beautiful handwriting, both for common people as well as heads of states, princes and princesses and presidents. The tools of his trade are ostrich and eagle feathers and ink. We watch as he dips the feathers in ink and then, with a steady hand and a few flourishes, he writes names on the patterned paper requested by each person, finishing them off with a swirl here and an extra flourish there. He makes time for each person, presenting them finally with their unique handwritten souvenir.

Filali Baba

When it is my turn he speaks to me in perfect English - 'Where are you from? What is your name? I've just returned from England, I attended the Olympic Games!' It evolves in conversation that Baba is a friend of Martin's boss, he knows my home town of Birmingham ('Ah, New Street Station', he says - as if it is the most wonderful place...I beg to differ!) Then he proceeds to tell me about a beautiful pen museum located in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter - this man knows places in my home town that I've never heard of! I write down my name for him and choose a mosaic patterned sheet of paper for my script. Deftly he begins to write. I wonder at first what he is writing...that isn't my name...but then I realise he is writing something in French. Now he is writing 'Katherine', my full name, but he has written the sound rather than the actual spelling...'Kh' instead of 'K'...it all adds to the uniqueness of my souvenir. Then he writes my name in Arabic beside it, and with a few flourishes it is complete. He turns it around for me to see the final masterpiece...It says in French 'Queen Katherine', followed by my name in Arabic and two hearts. He proceeds to put it in a silver frame for me as a special gift. What a beautiful souvenir. Each person is also given an additional gift...girls receive a small bracelet, boys and men receive what I assume to be a text from the Qu'ran - in calligraphic writing of course, women receive bookmarks with 'Bonne Chance' (Good Luck) inscribed on them. And all this is for free from a man who is passionate about what he does: "It is nice that names in the calligraphy of my design reaches thousands of homes everywhere," he says with a smile. He always writes titles such as 'Sultan', or 'Queen' or 'Princess' because he likes people to feel special. Well, it has certainly made my day meeting such a lovely gentleman!

My beautiful handwritten inscription