Eid Mubaraak Saeed

Suddenly I’m in Morocco. A wonderfully impulsive trip to accompany heart-broken Simon who decided to get over his break-up by means of some North African sensory overload. I’m still reeling from Brazil, so yet more sunshine and exotica seems almost de trop but I had a week free, which almost never happens, so impulse won the day.

Walking in the Atlas mountains was lung-stretchingly wonderful. Those Berber villages growing out of the ochre valleys, like ancient multi-storey appartment blocks. The curiously church-like mosque design in Morocco. That wondeful oxygen-aching body tiredness you get from a 7 hour hike anywhere.

The 3 days in Marrakech were of another order however. I’ve been hiking in mountains. I’ve never been swallowed up by a city and washed away by the atmosphere. If I wasn’t so wedded to the sensory overload of Brazil I’d move there.

I was staying in a riad, a Moorish 2-storeyed house built around a courtyard in the north of the walled city or Medina. Which meant it was a theoretical half-hour walk down through the Souks to the main square.

However, the experience of getting utterly lost – one of my keenest pleasures – in a weaving labyrinth of tiny, ochre-pink streets was doubly compounded by the heaving mass of men (most Moroccan women hang out indoors – especially during Ramadan), a stinky palette of earthy smells and the most intense array of slippers, silks, dyed wools, brass lanterns, spices, dates, figs and pastries, ceaseless noise and sales patter. After more than 40 minutes of bobbing along on that washing tide of sound and colour I eventually got burped out of the Souks onto the Jemaa el Fna, Marrakech’s main square.

This place is a marvel. After all the closed-in intensity of the Souks, it’s an enormous wide plain, with an expanse of pale blue sky and a expanse of paved ground covered with food-stalls, snake charmers, transvestite Berbers, acrobats, Gnaoua dancers clacking their metal castanets and swinging their hats.

And as dusk settles in the sky goes a profound blue and the food stalls light up the square with their big sodium lamps and great billows of smoke which from a distance make it seem like the whole place is on fire.

It was the most intense sense of ‘flow’ I’ve had since the Jungle. Everything seemed perfect and in place. I moved around, grinning, completely enjoying every passing quanta of colour and sound.

We were also there at the close of Ramadan, Eid. Which meant we got a heavy dose of Moroccan celebration. Although Eid is traditionally a family affair (much like our Xmas, with people getting together in the morning), the end of one month’s fasting was evident everywhere out on the streets.

I was so impressed by the universal practice of Ramadan. I kept asking locals I met whether they really refrained from all foods and fluids from 4am to 6pm, or whether it was just the really pious who did it. It seems that everyone does it: men, women, children.

At 5.30 the whole frantic melee of the city winds down suddenly, as people start to wait for the evening call-to-prayer which signals the end of the fast. After all the noise and busyness of the day – it’s curiously delightful to suddenly see everyone sit down quietly for their ftour, the soup and orange juice that traditionally ends the fast.

That pervasive sense of spiritual rigour impressed me over and over. Although the streets are full of huge crowds of men, I never once felt threatened or that anyone would have even considered robbing me. Young men mill around the square but they only drink tea. There is none of the aggression or vague menace of big cities like London on a Saturday night. A city where everyone has the discipline to go without the most basic human desires – food and drink – for a whole day, also has the moral compass to frown upon drunkeness, stealing and violence.

I had a quite gentle reminder of the essential peace and solidity of everyday Islam. That wonderful call-t0-prayer that punctuates the day, threads as sense of bigger perspectives into things:

Hasten to prayer
Hasten to real success
Allah is great!

Men would dash into the Mosque and pray and then head back off into life – reminded perhaps of the big picture. It’s strange I was reading Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety (surely the scrappiest and weakest thing from this fine writer) and was amused by his completely Western, Americanized view of success and status. And being in Morocco during Ramadan made his provincialism seem even narrower.

I don’t mean to be Romantic about Islam – but actually living amongst practising Muslims for a week was a good corrective to all the defamatory stuff that spills out of our newspapers and tellies day after day. Women were powerful and sassy on one side of the walls and men on the other. Both seemed equally anchored in their religion. And although the briefest walk through the Medina makes you aware of grinding poverty, the fasting of Ramdam made a quote by Thoreau that de Botton cites particularly apposite: “Man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can do without.”

28 Comments

  1. Larry

    November 7, 2005 at 5:38 am

    Dear Alistair,
    The photos on your blog are amazing! The colors are so vibrant.
    What type of camera do you use?
    Thanks.

  2. Harold

    November 7, 2005 at 7:38 am

    Dear Alistair …

    I’ve been enjoying reading your blog over the past few months …
    in particular your descriptions of your Brazilian adventures and
    hosting the BBC proms concerts.

    I discovered you hosting Cash in the Attic and then House Doctor
    on cable channels here in Canada. I especially enjoyed your
    visit to Ann Maurice in San Francisco where she made you bathe
    her dog. Your warmth is the perfect foil for her, how shall I say,
    somewhat brittle personality. (Although I have to agree with her
    reaction to carpet in the bathroom. Ughh!)

    All the best to you from a fan in Canada.

    Harold
    Victoria, British Columbia
    (that most British of Canadian cities)

  3. Alastair

    November 7, 2005 at 10:25 am

    So what does “ar hadaym mya” mean? My reading of Arabic is rusty, and translation even worse!

  4. Valerie

    November 7, 2005 at 10:22 pm

    Thanks for the world tour. I was feeling a little tied
    down here. It’s nice to see someone elses perspective on
    places. The mosaic and tiles are wonderful. Keep on
    Traveling and Blogging.
    It is a shame that our vision of different sects and
    religions are dictated by the extremists that are
    portrayed in the media.
    Tolerance is a word that goes a long way in all walks of
    life.

  5. DannyKaye

    November 8, 2005 at 5:20 am

    Oh, you are so cute with your Pepsi sign.
    *sigh* .

  6. Douglas

    November 8, 2005 at 10:21 pm

    Hello Alistair! Lord, what a travelogue. Hey, it beats Philadelphia (where I am.) I want to know if you’re scouting for that new show: “Cash in the Riads” πŸ™‚

  7. Hub

    November 9, 2005 at 4:51 am

    Very sexy in front of the sign. Someday maybe we’ll get to see a shirtless Alistair. πŸ˜‰

    Alistair your photography and prose are as beautiful as ever.

  8. Andrea

    November 9, 2005 at 4:18 pm

    Shame on you! The women don’e CHOOSE to hanf out inside..they are forbidden from engaging in the delightful milieu you describe. They may have lovely cages but they are still cages. I expect more from you. As a gay man you should be more sensitive to the subtle ways society forces people to behave…one of your phrases..men women and children fast during Ramadan..how the Hell would you know? Talk to any women? BAD ALASTAIR!

  9. salman

    November 9, 2005 at 6:42 pm

    hi baby ..

    i adore you and find you a very very lovable guy .ali you are very handsome and very very intelligent guy i wish i could be your friend. but sadly i am not any where close to your path ever . but any ways this is a good site to let your fans and admiring people come and send their love to you …. thanks ..

  10. Valerie

    November 9, 2005 at 9:28 pm

    We all have constictures. It’s hard for a woman of freedom
    in the USA to realize how restrictive others lives are.
    I have choice in my religion, my fervor, my sexual persuasion
    my whole life style. I live basically by the restrictions
    I place on myself. If I choose I can change those. But
    others are not as forunate. Women of other countries are
    dictated to by their men and their religion. To do contrary
    means to be ostracized or worse.
    I pray for every woman or child who has to live a life not
    of their choosing. But admire them for perservering.

  11. Rosie

    November 10, 2005 at 1:12 pm

    Have to agree with Andrea (above) on this one. I think your assumption of how Moroccan women feel, behind their closed doors, is complacent.

  12. Milady de Winter

    November 13, 2005 at 8:49 pm

    I have to disagree with Andrea and agree with Valerie. We make our own choices in this world. ALL of us. Even those living iin restrictive cultures and societies: to say that the women sit indoors in Ramadan and hate every minute of it implies that these women are stupid, which they are not. Why stay inside if you hate it? It is a part of their culture and society they chose to accept.
    ~Milady
    xxx

  13. Valerie

    November 14, 2005 at 3:41 pm

    Milady,
    Those women do not have the freedom of choice many of us
    are priviledged to live with. Their choices are dictated
    by their society and their religion. The consequences for
    defying those restrictions can be enormous.The ultimate
    price being loss of life. Of course these women are not
    stupid they are smart and cunning enough to live a decent
    life under the circumstances. God be with them all.

  14. Milady de Winter

    November 15, 2005 at 1:05 am

    Freedom of choice is something which comes from within, not something forced upon us. Nobody forces us not to be able to choose: if the choice is compliance or death the choice is still there and if people believe in something enough they will make such an absolute choice, as history relates with so many wars/loss of life because people made a stand. These women choose not to make a stand and in doing so show that the alternative can’t be so bad afterall.
    ~Milady

  15. Valerie

    November 15, 2005 at 7:07 pm

    Milady
    I’m curious as to what kind of life you live. Freedom of
    choice is within us all. Would you willingly step outside
    your box to make a choice with unknown results. Taking
    risks is not an easy thing to do.
    If you are making choices that affect you alone, then the
    choice can be an easier one, but when loved ones ie children
    are involed it weighs heavily.

  16. Milady de Winter

    November 17, 2005 at 2:17 am

    Valerie,
    In the last 20 years I’ve stepped outside the box many times. I’ve mothered a child. Had him adopted. Found him again. Changed career several times. Almost became a nun, but changed my mind.
    Taking risk is NOT easy by any means, but if you believe in something enough, it is therefore not a risk at all.
    ~Milady
    xxx

  17. DeDe

    November 18, 2005 at 4:22 am

    I just want you to know that I make a daily visit to your
    blog now in hopes that you have posted something new. You
    use such amazing photos and I love to read about your travels.
    If only my life could be so exciting. Your an amazing
    man and I hope to see alot more about your journey.

    Love,
    DeDe

  18. simon hb

    November 18, 2005 at 1:14 pm

    They do watch telly, but they don’t use remote controls as they’re not allowed to kill the sound.

  19. totallygone

    November 20, 2005 at 2:09 pm

    hey

    My name’s Simon, and although I’m not heartbroken,
    I have been. So I identify strongly with your friend.

    Did the sensory overload work for him?

    If not, you could recommend meditation as a solution.
    Session 1: The emptiness of the heartbroken
    self.
    Session 2: The fundamental non-existence
    of the perceived object of heartbreak.
    I’ve found these to be more useful than “it’s his/her loss” or
    “s/he’s not worth it”.

    Although, of course this kind of work takes a lot longer than sensory overload, and it’s not
    for the faint-hearted.

    If he’s not familiar with buddhist thinking,
    you could direct him to this

  20. Craig

    November 22, 2005 at 3:56 pm

    rarrrr!! alistair in a white vest!!

  21. Noisy American

    November 24, 2005 at 11:50 pm

    Great pictures. I hope to go to Morocco within the next year and
    your blog is very inspiring. At present I’m in the UAE and I
    agree that, although I’m not a muslim, it’s been good for me to
    get a different perspective on Islam than that presented on CNN
    and the BBC.

  22. hardie

    November 26, 2005 at 9:47 pm

    Absolutley gobsmacked.
    Gobsmacked, an answer you just gave on Weakest Link i believe, which made me think “hmmmm…alistair appleton”, so naturally, i googled you, found this AMAZING blog, so honest, refrefreshing and…gobsmacking. Its great that fame hasn’t taken your head and you can express yourself so freely. After reading all of your blogs i can get my hands on, i crave more, and am inspired to make my own, or transfer my diary to digital.
    I’ll make a point to carry on reading your blogs, and hope you can reply to my mail;
    as any young cosmopolitan student, you can reach me me on MSN messenger on the email above
    you have an infectious smile, hope to hear from you soon, take care!
    Hardie

  23. Rose

    November 28, 2005 at 4:07 am

    I think your travels are fascinating and the pictures are stunning opening up insights to a world not often ventured by others. I have recently moved from South Africa to the USA, my indulgence at hhome, strangely enough was to watch Cash in the Attic during the little free time that I had. It allowed for me a little closer to home to watch Cash in the Attic as well. Making me feel a little less homesick.

    I am fascinated by the different cultures in this world and how people live and how their traditions affect their lifestyles. I think people should learn to tolerate and respect these traditions which possibly would make the world a better place. Thank you for sharing these fascinating tales, please keep these stories going, I think you’re very blessed to this opportunity to be able to go to all these different places.

  24. wandertos

    November 28, 2005 at 5:38 pm

    Really want to compliment your photos – what a diverse collection of
    rich and visually stimulating of photos. It really captured what
    I would imagine Morocca to be. Very Nat’l Geographic. I enjoyed
    these quite a bit and will have to check out the rest of your blog
    when I have more time.

  25. ben

    November 29, 2005 at 11:31 pm

    Congrats on your triumphant Weakest Link appearance! To be honest, I generally watch the celebrity versions and think “well, you may be rich, successful and unfeasibly good-looking, but I know more than you – HA!” However you were amazing, and Β£17,000 was an excellent result. Also, kudos are due on your website. As one who finds working with computers as daunting as writing a treatise on nuclear fission in Chinese Braille I can appreciate the effort that must have gone into it all. Please keep travelling and posting, and I will look forward to visiting places along with you in future!

  26. Lee

    November 30, 2005 at 4:02 am

    Wow, I’m terribly envious. I’ve always fantasised about visiting Morocco. Of course it’s mainly due to naive notions of Burroughs-esque exoticism, and a false colonial romaticism. I imagine myself sat at a 1920’s writing desk, with a green lamp, and a fan whirring above my head. I won’t go into the rest of the vision lest I offend more innocent minds.

    I really like those red paint numbered boxes in your photos. I guess it would be cheeky to ask you to post a hi-res version I could use for my desktop? No? Thought so. πŸ™‚

  27. Valerie

    December 1, 2005 at 6:46 pm

    Alistair,

    You must be out on safari. Hope to hear from you soon.

  28. salman

    December 1, 2005 at 9:46 pm

    hi ali

    great to see you in the morning here in islamabad .. you are such a lovely person i could just kiss you all night from head to toe … keep on doing the great stuff … love you ..
    salman ..

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