The Irish Times – Wednesday, April 27, 2011
A fabled city defaced by stag parties and a property bubble
MARRAKESH LETTER: Visitors to this Moroccan city 10 years ago would hardly recognise the place today, writes MICHAEL O’SULLIVAN
THE MOSQUE of the Booksellers is surely one of the most poetic names ever given to a place of worship. The Koutoubia mosque in Marrakesh takes its name from the sellers of manuscripts who once plied their trade in the shadow of its ancient walls.
This iconic symbol of the former imperial capital prompted a Lebanese friend who has known the city for more than a quarter of a century to share his thoughts on more recent Moroccan history.
“As an Irishman,” he said, “you may well be offended by what I am about to say. But I have always believed that the founder of modern Morocco had much in common with Oliver Cromwell.” He went on to suggest that Moulay Ismail and Cromwell were both “men in a hurry, and as a result have been seriously misrepresented in history as bloodthirsty tyrants”.
All of this was by way of answer to a series of questions about the recent pro-democracy protests in Marrakesh – that saw widespread looting but no bloodshed – and about a city and a society in a state of flux.
“The Irish have played no small part in changing the very nature of this city,” my friend said.
“Your Mr O’Leary and his Ryanair have brought hoards of English stag party tourists here. And now, as a result, we have Zara on the Boulevard and Sushi in the Medina.”
We began to walk from the Kasbah to that part of Marrakesh known as Gueliz. This is the French town, or ville moderne, built so that the colonial seat of power was separate from the area known as the native quarter. It was a device used throughout Morocco during the period of the French protectorate from 1912 until independence in 1956, not so that the raj might set itself apart, in the manner of the arrogant memsahibs in India, but rather that the distinct identity of the medieval Moroccan medinas might not be destroyed. This was the handiwork of the first French resident-general, Hubert Lyautey. Sensitive, shrewd and unashamedly gay, Lyautey was described by Edith Wharton as possessing “a sympathetic understanding of the native prejudices, and a real affection for the native character”.
On reaching Boulevard Mohammed V, my friend’s ire was raised again as he demanded that I “behold the destruction of Lyautey’s perfectly planned town”. The evidence is indeed incontrovertible. It is now a hideous amalgam of unplanned structures and incongruous shopping malls; temples of globalised commercial activity containing all the trendy brand names which until recently were only to be found in the souks of Marrakesh as rather well-made counterfeits.
“We too have had our Irish property bubble,” my friend informed me. “This travesty is the result. And furthermore, in the ancient medina, there are now 300 riads for sale. These traditional houses were titivated by foreigners and now they want to abandon them because the property bubble has burst.”
Turning to the political situation, he suggested that the young educated middle class is on the verge of following the example of neighbouring Maghreb states into bloody revolution.
“There was always a huge gap between rich and poor here,” he said, “but now that gap has expanded to include a new, young, educated, IT-savvy class. If serious constitutional change is not put in place there will be blood on the streets here before the end of the year.”
Walking back towards the well-known La Mamounia Hotel, the theme of the lecture switched to colonialism and some choice criticism of Sir Winston Churchill, who made Marrakesh and La Mamounia his painting retreat in the 1940s.
“Europeans have never really understood the Arab mind,” was how this next intermezzo began. “How therefore could they possibly understand what is essentially the Berber mind of this country? In the 19th century it was better understood by a few women travellers than it has been by any of the dope-smoking wealthy fashionistas who moved here in the 1960s.”
Writing in 1966, Gavin Maxwell, who had a profound understanding of Morocco, said of Marrakesh that “nothing has changed in this city for a thousand years”. Within the last five years so profound a change has been wrought on Marrakesh that visitors of 10 years ago would hardly recognise it today. Unesco’s best efforts to preserve elements of the city have resulted only in theme-park orientalism. If my Lebanese oracle is correct, it will take a mighty cultural revolution to restore Marrakesh to anything approaching its former glory.