Saturday, 7 April 2012

Marrakech for Pleasure

[I wrote this travel piece last year, just found it again... Definitely want to go back now.]

As is usual for recent Philosophy graduates, in the months after leaving the library-shaped cage of academia, I began to slip into existential crisis after existential crisis, and balk at the freedom I had craved for so long. After the initial euphoria at never having to study Logic or Nietzsche ever again, I settled into that clichéd listlessness, listened to Rolling Stones songs, watched films about other graduates feeling confused (“Lost in Translation”, “The Graduate”, etc) and began to wonder if I would ever be satisfied. I assumed that having escaped the rules and bars of before, that I would be happy – but it became clear as summer faded that I was on the verge of becoming one of the hopeless essay subjects I had spent three years loathing: “the vacuous hedonist”, “the bored Stoic”, “the unfulfilled masochist”.

I left London in September, partly because I no longer had anywhere to live, no stable job – and also because my closest friends had disappeared to rehab, prison, New York and Cambridge – making London seem empty.
But going home to Scotland didn’t take me away from that emptiness, and if anything compounded it, with whiskey and a little bout of writers’ block to make the situation all the more clichéd. I knew I should escape somewhere a bit more exciting, but it didn’t occur to me when I booked flights to Marrakech that this was just an obvious extension of the Oxbridge-waster narrative, until my father reminded me, “Oh isn’t Marrakech where Sebastian in Brideshead goes to be desolate?”

Of course the crucial difference, I insisted, was that I wasn’t going to Marrakech to be a lush. I was going there to do some charity work (orphanages, schools), not float around in a hashish haze with someone called Kurt. At least, that was the plan. Until my sister told me to stop dabbling with martyrdom and just have a good time, and I realised I hadn’t just had a good time in ages. My previous pleasure seeking had not amounted to much to remember, being so often about trying to forget.

And so a trip based round volunteering became a quest for pleasure, in a wider sense. Could a hedonist become happy? Would I need to chase pleasure or resist it? So those old essay subjects travelled with me, at the back of my mind: “Does Happiness Require Morality?” – “Why Suffer?”

Why suffer, indeed? Well perhaps some suffering is necessary for pleasure, judging from the experience of going to the local Hammam. I went with my friends Jess, Keri and Louise, the former two having already experienced the delights of what Jess referred to as, “A lot like a woman’s prison, at first” – but worth it for the perfectly smooth skin. The Hammam – or large steam room – did seem quite shady and dank at first. Naked women drifted through the shadows and steam – dispassionately wandering through their Underworld – barred into this ritual by religious discipline to a beauty regime.

But things soon lightened up when a woman tried to make us pay to leave our bags in the first room, snarling at the steaming entrance when we refused. Jess knew, after all, that this was just an effort to rip us off, and so we refused to pay the twenty Dihrams they wanted – which led to haggling in bad French, while stripping.

The angry lady’s demands were translated by another woman from Arabic to French, who then argued to Louise, whose French was best, who translated to English. As all this was going on – a circle of Arabic / French / English demands, dismissals and exclamations – we were undressing, giggling, and exclaiming, “Non!” while unbuttoning shirts. Eventually, when the French-speaking Arabic lady also got the giggles, and Louise stated, “Non! C’est cinq dihrams, ou – rien!” – the lady finally accepted, “Fin! Finito! Pas de probleme!” And, naked and giggling, we went into the first room.

A lot of scrubbing, hot water and more scrubbing followed, for about an hour, before we finally left our little adventure to find our bags still there (amazingly), and our skin smooth and rosy from the extreme exfoliation. The suffering – or at least, the nervous laughter – had been worth it after all.

But pleasure need not involve even slight discomfort, as I discovered a little later in the trip, when I went to the French-influenced New Town for a couple days. All the donkeys, crazy mopeds, rams being carried around – all the pushy selling and spices and chickens and dust – were replaced by tall fountains, palm trees, and French fashion. And so happily I wandered the leafy, lovely streets, drank good coffee in the beautiful Majorelle Gardens, had lunch on the pretty roof terrace of Kechmara, and then bought a copy of “Marat / Sade” at the minimal, sultry Café du Livre.

Although I was on a detox, New Town, with its relaxed alcohol license (compared to almost teetotal Medina) is the place to go if you do feel like letting go, and revelling in a Sebastian-from-Brideshead descent into oblivion. The local hipsters drink red wine, argue passionately, and flirt with passing journalists; old lushes discreetly smoke marijuana with their mint tea at the little cafes dotted around. And then there are the bars and clubs that make Marrakech a pit-stop for the chic and the restless; there is even a Pacha (“Biggest club in Africa!”), though I must admit that it sounded a little too sleazy-Riviera, and I didn’t go in the end, despite rumours of circus acts and monkeys. Why go to Pacha for that, when you can go to the centre of the Medina? New Town in general, while glittering and fresh, lacked the magic of the alluring Old Town, which has a way of drawing its visitors back.

Wandering the Souks with friends, dismissing and inviting treasures and beauty with each step, was unexpectedly thrilling (I have never actually enjoyed shopping before, perhaps because of those dull fixed prices of the west) – as was simply taking in the scene, the stylish wanderers all around. The winding streets were peopled by a combination of Hippy Trail, Nineties Eurotrash, and Glam-Islam clad crowds; people wore beautiful kaftans, scarves, flowing silk, embroidered pinks, violets, emerald greens. The French blues mixed beautifully with the dusty reds, ocres and deep pinks of traditional Marrakech… Just wandering around was a pleasure, in the hot November dusk, as the sky filled with smoke and colour, and music played. Drinking mint tea with intriguing strangers, trying on jewellery with new friends, and getting lost in the Souks were the most entertaining times, and the most content.

So while Marrakech now has a reputation as a decadents’ paradise, as indeed it can be, those seeking happiness rather than dissolution should turn away from the European-style bars and clubs, and enjoy the easy beauty of the original city, and the characters inhabiting it. Enjoy the brief encounters in the gardens and cafes – the games with the kids, the women in the Hammam, and the occasional escape to New Town for espresso and ice cream, for Yves Saint Laurent’s Majorelle Gardens, and mint tea by the fountains.

I realised when I flew back to England, that I met more friends in a few weeks in Marrakech than during three whole years at university. Cambridge taught me a lot of things, but it never taught me to be happy. But Marrakech, a place of every kind of pleasure and beauty, somehow opened me to another route, another, better way to solve those much-debated problems, and a happiness that turned out not to be fleeting or vacuous, but peaceful and playful.

Of course it’s a cliché to turn around like this, to find freedom on the hippy trail, but it’s perhaps a better cliché to embrace than the old dissolution of Sebastian, better to see how idyllic a city can be in spite of its problems.
And of course, that impression of Marrakech has a lot to do with the children we looked after – the youngest generation of the city, whose playfulness and optimism, in spite of their circumstances, made it impossible to find Marrakech anything but beautiful and in bloom.

And so the hedonist became happy, and suffering became something not to dwell on but simply to try and solve – a baby to cradle or a walk in the park. And all the noise of a philosophy degree was not, in the end, drowned out by music in a club, but encouraged to stop screaming, calm down, lay back, and enjoy the hot Moroccan night cast its heady spell.

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