Luke Jordan

Two Worlds Collide: A Moment in Marrakech.

(Available as spoken word here)

A short flight from Lisbon, from Europe, finds you in another continent, another world.

Walking along the narrow pedestrian alleys of the souk, motorcycles and scooters weave speedily, agilely by inches from your body. The call to prayer thickly reverberates in the air crackling simultaneously from hundreds of mosque speakers in a 360 panorama of sound. Animal carcasses swing from hooks, their expertly dissected male-hoods danglling freely astride the fresh meat whose acrid smell fills the air. A vegetarian’s nightmare. 

Contrasts abound. The meat slabs will alternate with mounds of the sweetest juiciest dates, mountains of multicolored olives, fresh fruit stalls, bright coloured shoes and fabrics, ornate lamps with thousands of intricately chiseled holes, a veritable sea of endless nic-nacs and bric-a-brac.

Eventually the labyrinthine enclosure of the souk leads you out into the main square. While by day the atmosphere is kept going by sunglass sellers, snake-charmers and chained monkeys who will squawk and scream only to become well-behaved and docile on a tourist’s shoulders, it is really by night that the place becomes alive.

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We find ourselves amidst the smoking, steaming food-court stalls. Bullying pushers attempting to usher us towards the freshly cooked, pyramidically mounted sheep heads. Like some kind of rugby defence, they stand in your way, a full body block. Getting to the end of the row, passed numerous weighty body bolsters, I imagine having completed an obstacle course of American Gladiator. The hassled perspiration gives way to a sense of relief as the claustrophobia of the inner food stalls (and of being a sitting duck target within them) leads out to the openness of Jemma al-Fna square.

Goods are set up by gaslight; nightmarish cheap psychedelic robotic toys whose noise seem designed to challenge any parent’s sanity; amateur henna ladies offering to scrawl on arms what, in bad attempts, looks like some kind of ornate skin disease; small crowds gather around raconteurs, acrobats and musicians who beckon you closer lest you should escape without handing over a few Moroccan Dirhams (MAD). 

All around young men dance egged on by their buddies. Onlookers flit between the drum ensembles. Everywhere smiles, bright-eyes and an aliveness in the air. The sky is lit up by the whizzing lights of brightly coloured high-flung projectiles. A kind of nightly firework display made by the street vendors who surround the square like a ring of fluorescent fire, impossibly catching the wares again in their hands after they have soared high above the buildings. Secretly, I want one.

This a space for all. Men and woman, young and old, local and foreign, mingle and merge into the sea of people best seen, captivatingly, from above on one of the roof terraces. The entrance to this entrancing view of life – the price of a cup of (mint) tea. I could sit for hours in the minty sugar high watching this perfect messy unfoldment of life just happening.

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Back amidst the crowd, the hipper youth sporting their leisurewear knockoffs contrast with the medieval attire of the Obi-Wan Kenobi lookalikes, dressed in their one-piece robes with pointy KKK style hoods and with the always ill-fitting slippers. They look like they have just stepped out of the desert from hundreds of years ago. Somewhere around the corner their camels will be tied glurping up water in preparation for the caravan’s onward journey. The denizens of the various worlds assembled all seem just to be enjoying the mood of bonhomie, rapt in attention, laughing, dancing, clapping, interacting.

A large screen has been set up in the square. Music blares from loud speakers. A video camera is turned on the gathering crowd who thrill in seeing themselves in large. Flailing arms try to find the faces to which they belong. People sing along, dancing to the popular tunes. Then the music stops. An announcer bounces up on stage trying to keep the spirit up with an enthusiastic French which I don’t quite understand. I am aware though that it has something to do with the film festival which has been ongoing during the week. No one here however looks like a cinephile. Try as I might I spot not one film buff.

I make out the words ‘Robert Redford’ and suddenly, bizarrely, inexplicably, as if those words themselves had a conjuring power, Robert Redford appears. Could it be? I can’t but admit feeling a certain surge of excitement. I happen to be in just the right place at the right time for this completely out-of-place display of Hollywood stardom.

I’m not really sure if anyone else really knows or cares about the star of the Sting, of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I doubt they’ve seen the films or obsessed over the mise-en-scene of New Wave American movies. People just seem to be happy, enjoying the moment.

Redford tells us that he loves Marrakech, that he hopes we enjoyed his film. The announcer translates excitedly. Redford repeats himself verbatim. A poor speech by any standard. He poses now at the front of the stage, the camera is once again turned around, the wildly flinging arms now a ready-made prop; the crowd a cast of unpaid extras in a film they know nothing about.

Redford leaves the stage. The music starts and people once again make busy with seeing themselves on the big screen, unperturbed by the previous interlude in their merry making. 

We leave the scene and get lost again in the various live entertainments on display, contortionists and tumblers who in another world, another lifetime, could have been yoga instagram stars. The announcer takes the stage again. I pick out something about ‘Australie’ and I’m wondering which star which magically appear. Nicole Kidnman? Hugh Jackman? Wrong on both counts. Conjured this time is Geoffrey Rush, star of Shine, the King’s Speech and em…

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Again the pulling power of celebrity draws us to the stage. The crowd parts easily to grant us front row access. We are invited to stand there by a smiling, toothless, hooded medieval man. Rush, in contrast to Redford and his brevity-to-the-point-of-rudeness speech, flamboyantly gesticulates his way through some pre-prepared, long-winded monologue, butchering the French language in the process. Looking around the crowd, no one seems to be paying much attention. Rush and his minder then move to sit unaccompanied in the front of several rows of empty seats as the film Shine (for which Rush won the best-actor Oscar) begins to be shown. People walk away.

Standing at the front I become aware of the huge rampart of railings, a doubly insulated cordon guarded by an armed gendarmerie in bullet proof vests; a strategic front line in the clash of worlds, the world of celluloid celebrity and an arcane world that doesn’t care. It looks lonely in there, staid, prison-like. The bright lights and the hype, the presentation, all seem overdone, articial. The self-congratulatory pomp, the ceremonial self-importance of the civilised, sophisticated world’s exploits seem lifeless compared to the alive immediate happenings of the square. 

Here on this evening in Marrakech I witness these two worlds collide. The mighty film festival with its money, with its stars, had cordoned off the largest section of the square and barricaded itself in. In the midst of the chaos, civilisation had set up camp. It looked out of place and it was definitely out-performed. The 90s film, so lauded in its day (and it is a good film), looked dated and stale aside the medieval carvannesque carnival-like action in the square.

I am reminded of the colonial missionaries who, after the conquering of native lands, set about converting the locals away from their alive rituals of ecstacy to mundane hymn-singing in their Sunday best. Here too was something of the condescending attempt to educate the illiterate masses. The tuxedo-ed announcer played the role of the priest. ‘Here before you are the Gods of the entertainment world’, he was preaching. ‘Here before you is culture’. 

Yet right there, on the other side of the barricades in Jemma al Fna square, culture was alive and well. Just as it has been every night for a thousand years.