Morocco – Marrakesh, An Oasis City

THE long straight road ahead is lost in a shimmery white haze of heat that shuts in close the monotonous blank horizon. There is not a tree or a shrub in sight—nothing but a brown, baked sandy plain, here and there heaped into mounds and hillocks, with sparse starved clumps of withered grasses powdered with impalpable dust and scorched with the incandescent glare. An intensely dry torrid breath tans my face and burns hot in my throat. Hours and hours pass. The haze opens up a mile or two ahead and closes in a mile or two behind on the monotonous landscape, the monotonous glare, and the intolerable heat. The car stops a moment; not a sound; the limitless white silence of a July afternoon in the Bled. A caravan of laden camels ambles by. The animals awkwardly plant their soft felt-cushioned feet into pools of dust which blows in choking clouds, and as they pass, they turn their ill-natured faces toward us and wrinkle their thick lips in scorn. Two white-muffled drivers in ragged short burnouses prod them with goads to keep them from bolting, and shout, “Arrr! Zit!” in excited falsetto.

The caïd’s son in the front seat of our car is silently enjoying his first automobile ride. He is muffled in half a dozen soft-flowing garments, and has retired into himself with the aloof dignity of an eighteen-year-old Arab aristocrat. He is going from his father’s castle in the Chaouia province to visit relatives at Marrakesh, the great metropolis of southern Morocco. Beside me is my young friend Ahmet Ben Abbes in a barbarically gorgeous uniform of scarlet, gold, and blue. He is coming home to Marrakesh on a three months’ vacation from the military school at Meknes, from which he will graduate next year as a sous-lieutenant. He has less reserve with foreigners than the caïd’s son, and we converse desultorily in a mixture of Arabic and French.

The car goes on into the heat over the smooth white military road. The raging sun beats down pitilessly on the withered brown world that lies thirsty, parched, baked out, and dead. A land of dust, heat, and glare, and glare and heat and dust, day after day, through the long summer suns.

Suddenly, over toward the low barren hills of the Lesser Atlas appears the soft pale blue of warm water in the sun. A turquoise lake, dream-like and dim, smiles quietly at the burning sky, and its vague grassy margin seems to creep closer and closer toward us, reaching out in tempting little bays and inlets. And now on the other side appears another long thin line of shimmering water that loses itself in the white hazy horizon. How glorious it would be to go and lie in it, to splash and plunge down out of the burning glare ! Then, in a moment the whole blue vision disappears, and we are left thirsting in a land of sand and thorns. The mirage ! Mysterious, strange, incredible !

This is a land of enchantment and unreality, where brilliant empires brief and beautiful as the mirage have lighted their little hour or two and gone, gone without leaving a trace, or at most but a crumbling monument. For the history of Morocco is a tale of turbulent dynasties that endured but a decade, and reigns that have not outlasted the roses in their new-built gardens. There is some-thing illusory and transitory about this land; its successive contacts with culture and occasional periods of grandeur have marked it lightly, and the people do not care even to remember them. And this fleeting, unstable character seems inherent in the country itself, for during a few weeks in the spring, the desert bursts into flower and then until the next year’s rain, shrivels into the brown arid waste of this July afternoon.

After we have endured another hour of the silent, monotonous road, the caïd’s son shouts, “Marrakesh!” And there ahead is a vast dark green patch of palm trees, miles in extent, and in the midst, the tall square minaret of the Koutoubia mosque. Far beyond, to the south, loom dim through the hazy air the lofty, jagged, snow-crowned peaks of the Great Atlas. They are vague, and shadowy, mysterious and lone. Perhaps they too are exhalations of the desert, the misty white landscape of a dream that will fade like the turquoise lake and leave us in dumb amazement.

Soon we pass through groves of palms, growing in graceful clumps on ridges and ravines or springing from the ruin of some old sun-baked wall. They shoot up, thousands of them, straight and tall, motionless in the still air, and the slant sunlight makes long sharp shadows and lacy outlines of fronds on the red, baked earth. Now we reach the French town of Gueliz and drive up the long avenue planted with eucalyptus and evergreens, and dotted, as yet sparsely, with dazzling white, cleanly plastered houses. The car stops for a sleepy little French functionary to get the Casablanca mail. He says nothing, for he is still taking his siesta. No one makes any comment on the heat for there is nothing unusual about 115 degrees in the shade.

We go on past irrigated green gardens of palms, olives, and spreading fig trees, and cross over a wet ravine which is a tangled jungle of bamboo and Barbary cacti, until we are up under the long ancient walls of Marrakesh. Ahmet’s dark brown eyes glow as he recognises the familiar approach to his own city, and the caïd’s son becomes animated and talkative. Ahmet describes the entry of the French a few years ago, which he had watched as a boy of twelve, squatting cross-legged on the rampart over the west gate. For him the walls have the simple intimate associations of home, but for me they have the wonderful romance of the mysterious orient. These two boys are at least eight hundred years older than I am.

The lofty impressive walls, a part of which dates back to the Almoravide founders of Marrakesh, go seven miles round the city, flanked with two hundred massive square towers and pierced with ten gates, from which start the great highways that reach to the provinces tributary to the metropolis of the south. These old walls are crumbling and broken, beaten by centuries of tropic rains and worn by a thousand desert sand storms, until their sun-baked clay has faded to the colour of dusty withered rose petals that have lain untouched for years. They suggest the pathos of power that is gone, and fill the imagination with vague dreams of far away and long ago. Their aspect is not mediaeval. They call up an older and remoter life than the glittering chivalry with which the fancy re-peoples the walls of Aguesmortes and Carcasonne. Here one dreams of the ancient world of the East and sees along these ramparts the waving, stately peacock fans of Semiramis and the haughty, bearded profiles of Babylon.

How little has the European world known of the great things done here long ago, and ill done. Host after host has marched from the South, from the Atlas, the Sahara, and Senegal, and pitched their striped tents beneath these walls. Sultan after Sultan has risen here, and here great dynasties have disappeared from the face of the earth. The Almoravides, the Almohades, the Merinides, the Saadians reigned here in successive splendours. Twenty times the city has been captured and recaptured, five times it has been destroyed and rebuilt. Six hundred years ago its walls heard the fanatical preaching of the zealot Ibn Toumert, and looked upon the slaughter of their inhabitants by his terrible successor, Abd El Moumene, who, with the thoroughness of barbaric conquerors, carried out his vow to pass the city through a sieve. From these gates marched the armies that subdued Spain, and into them passed the triumphant host of Abou El Abbas El Mansour, “The Golden,” returning with the spoils of Timbuktu. Here for months waited the first Filalien sultan, while his besieging host ate dates from the stones of which grew the hundred thousand palm trees beside the red banks of the muddy Oued Tensift. And the latest scene in the barbaric pageant happened but eight years ago, when El Hibba, another fanatical reformer of Islam, ended his three weeks’ sultan-ate and passed through this very gate, the Bab Djedid, with his retreating rout of tribesmen and camels and asses, all to be swallowed up in the lost valleys and passes of the Great Atlas.

This afternoon the Bab Djedid sees only two tall Senegalese washing horses in a pool. They sing and shout and take a childish delight in splashing the water over the nervous snorting animals. The sunlight glistens on the wet naked group,—statues in shining black marble. As we pass through the Bab Djedid the beautiful lofty minaret of the Koutoubia appears perfectly framed in the graceful Moorish arch of the gateway. Over the city manoeuvres a French aeroplane. The deep humming makes everyone stare painfully up into the dazzling sunlight. Ahmet and the caïd’s son ask me in naïve wonder by what kind of sorcery the thing is done. I am at least one hundred years older than those two boys.