To the hammam and beyond….

After an action-packed week working and travelling, it has been wonderful to wake up this morning after a peaceful sleep and find I have nothing else to do besides hang out on Skype with my lovely boyfriend back in Australia, write a blog entry and take in my daily dose of French. I slept particularly well last night after Francesca (here on a week-long reconnaissance mission from MCT in London) and I decided, somewhat foolishly, to attempt a one-day voyage to Marrakech yesterday. The extent to which we were successful depends on your definition, but we got there (eventually), we saw some stuff, and we got home all in one piece (no thanks to our taxi driver who obviously thought he was a contestant in the Grand Prix), which means I think we did what we set out to do.

We arrived at the Grand Taxi rank at a reasonable 7.30am yesterday, mentally preparing ourselves to spend four-hours in an old, battered Mercedes, and praying that our fellow passengers would be skinny. Always cramped, the capacity of a Grand Taxi is legally six places, though it is obviously designed for four. The price for the ride is per place – to Marrakech one place is 110 Dirham, or about 11 Australian dollars – meaning that to hire out a whole taxi is to pay for six places. Even though we were ‘tourists’, we did eventually manage to convince the driver that we didn’t want to hire a whole taxi, and sat ourselves down on a bench amidst the plumes of cigarette smoke and steam from the mint tea stalls to wait for our taxi to fill up with the remaining necessary four passengers. It took about 10 minutes for the first to appear, and, as we filled with hope and excitement, another appeared shortly after…Two hours, and many cries of “Makresh! Makresh!” by the taxi spruiker, later, our hope and excitement suitably quashed, we were seriously wondering if we shouldn’t just pay for the remaining two seats. Dissuaded by the knowledge that we’d probably have to pay for a whole taxi at the other end, just to get home (which luckily after another hour and a half of waiting in Marrakech we closely avoided), we were just about to pull the pin when miraculously, the remaining two passengers showed up and, praise to Allah, we were on our way.

In the end, we arrived in Marrakech at 2pm and so were only able to spend a total of about four hours there. The city is quite big, and our tour was whirlwind in the truest sense of the expression. After studying up on the Rough Guide during the four hour ride there, we had slung together a basic itinerary comprising the five or six sites we were most interested in visiting. Though we made it to most of them, disappointingly (and somewhat bafflingly) many attractions were closed because it was Saturday, and we could only really enjoy the high walls surrounding them. Aside from the open air attractions we could enjoy, like the impressive Koutoubian Mosque and the Djemaa El Fda (the big town square filled with acrobats, musicians and animal torturers), we did make it into the Jardin Marjorelle (Marjorelle Garden) – a gorgeous landscaped oasis designed by the French expatriate artist, Jacques Majorelle, in the 1920s, and now owned by the estate of Yves Saint Laurent. The lush bamboo forest and enormous patch of anthropomorphic cacti, both of which have been weirdly nurtured by the fertile ashes of Yves Saint Laurent since his death in 2008, would have provided a tranquil retreat from the buzz and dust of the city, had the garden not been completely overrun with scantily clad tourists *cringe*.

Though my impressions of Marrakech could only have been superficial given the short time we spent there, I do feel confident saying that it lacks an immediate charm for me. Besides the hordes of tourists, many people there seem to be a whole lot more pushy (to the point of rude) than in other parts of Morocco I’ve visited, and I struggled to locate the oft-mythologised ‘magic’.

Comparatively, Marrakech has nothing, charm-wise, on the beachside town of Essouria which was the recipient of last weekend’s voyage. Despite the fact that I was painfully ill for the entire duration of this 24 hour expedition, and that I had to negotiate this illness in the company of 18 very energetic others and with very few available facilities, the magic there truly is omnipresent and all-pervading. It’s immediately very picturesque: the rocky coastline nurses precariously balanced buildings, and the marina houses a plethora of rickety, cobalt-blue fishing boats (I’ve posted some pictures of these). Though the town is relatively small, one could spend days wandering through the crooked and colourful laneways, delighting in the various ways the sunlight streams through the cracks between the white- and blue-washed buildings. The beach (on which I slept and acquired a very interesting set of tan lines) and the cobbled, wind-weathered Kasbah provide the place with some serious extra points as well. Also important to mention is that on the way home, I saw goats climbing trees – about 15 of them in the one tree, perched high in the branches, nibbling away. I love goats. Especially when they can climb trees – so smart! As any of my friends from Timor-Leste would attest, this was quite literally a highlight of my life, and if I could make the text of this sentence extra big in the blog post for emphasis, I would do that.

Aside from the travel, and the always exciting work I’m engaged in here (a little bit more on that later), a particular highlight of this week was my visit to the ‘hammam’ with Francesca and Loubna (my host sister). The hammam, of which there is generally one in each neighbourhood in Morocco, is a giant sauna-slash-bath-slash-meeting place, where men and women go once a week (separately, obviously) to sit for long hours in big tiled rooms filled with hot water and steam, in order to scrub themselves (and their friends) clean. There is no fuss about it. You pay 10 Dirham (1 Australian dollar) to enter, you take your tar-coloured olive oil soap, you take your kiis (a mitten made from coarse fabric) everyone strips off and the cleaning begins. Upon arrival, Loubna had asked me if I would like to “take a lady”, and being in for the entire experience, I took a lady. I can tell you, for 50 Dirham she certainly gives you your money’s worth, especially when compared with the exorbitant rates charged by day spas in the West, and in light of the sheer volume of skin I was visibly rid of. With boobs hanging over me, I was smothered in the olive oil soap, left for a good 15 minutes to bask in the steam while my skin softened and my pores opened and, just as my eyes were closing, was woken from my reverie with a bucket-load of hot water over my head. Every inch of my body was scrubbed with the kiis for a good half an hour, and with such vigour it was almost a transformative experience on the inside as well. I really had to smile at it all, as I sat clean and renewed in the steam surrounded by naked women of all shapes and sizes, pondering what the ‘liberation’ of women’s bodies in the West actually meant in juxtaposition with the normality and naturalness of nakedness here, in an Islamic society. I felt so good afterwards – both inside and out – that I think it’ll be a weekly thing from now on for me as well.

In terms of work this week, it has been both challenging and rewarding. The women’s project has been mainly focused around planning, and during the last week I have devised a preliminary plan, outlining (hopefully) all the considerations relevant to the further development of the women’s enterprise. In addition to the development of the idea, we will obviously need to conduct some research into the market (both supply and demand), into the skills and availability of the women (and methods to address any skills shortages they might identify themselves), the technical inputs for start-up and continuous production, into the work of similar enterprises in similar contexts, how the project will be funded and financed, the most appropriate model of organisation and management, the legal structures in place, and a whole host more. Iqbal, my Moroccan colleague on this project, and I are in the process of developing activities and methods to ensure the women’s full participation in every aspect of the process. The fact that all of the women are illiterate poses a significant challenge to the way we go about this, and it will be this that we will have to pay the most attention to in our planning. Nevertheless, the women are enthusiastic and excited at the prospect of access to some income, so “incha’allah” we can help them to make it happen.

This coming week, some of the kids and staff have asked me to bring my guitar into work. This follows me being greeted on Friday by extended arms and grinning faces cheering “Artiste! Artiste! Enchanter! Enchanter!” (pleased to meet you, in French); Iqbal, surrounded by the crowd, was at her computer showing off a video on Facebook of me performing at my CD launch in March. Everyone wants lessons now, which of course, I am more than happy to give!

Jusqu’a la prochaine fois (until the next time),

Briony

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6 Comments

  1. Georges

     /  May 28, 2012

    Great text B, i must say you like goats even more tha Jordanians :P, i am very happy you are enjoying the middle east, be safe and see you soon.

    Reply
    • burningthecouch

       /  June 4, 2012

      Thank you my lovely friend. Yes! I love goats! If you get a holiday from the mission in Syria, please come and visit me 🙂 xx

      Reply
  2. Dan

     /  May 28, 2012

    When are we moving there? I’m sold! X

    Reply
    • burningthecouch

       /  June 4, 2012

      Whenever you would like to, my love! Missing out on having you here. Thanks for your reading and nice comments as always 🙂 x

      Reply
  3. Sue Sturges

     /  June 1, 2012

    Re-living a LOT of memories of my life at the same age / general location, etc. Power on, Briony – I’ll follow your blog avidly and with considerable jealousy! Your experiences are, and will be a collision of curiosity, compassion, culture, concern and committment (neat, eh!). I’m excited with and for you ……
    Sue S. (G.A.T.E.WAYS)

    Reply
    • burningthecouch

       /  June 4, 2012

      Sue! Great to see you here, and even more stoked the blog’s able to jog your memory. Thanks for your beautiful comments! xx

      Reply

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