Photos: A group shot of the camel ride in the Erg Chebbi dunes (Grace Shieh); Inset: Author Kim Honey
> The Big Read
Travel by the Book: A Literary Tour of Morocco
On a long-awaited trip to the North African country, the written word offers a new perspective on the people and the culture. / BY Kim Honey / October 9th, 2023
The little yellow taxi deposited us on the grimy sidewalk of Rue Moulay Ismail, where my fellow travellers and I dodged locals and tourists hurrying to and from Jemaa el-Fna, Marrakech’s vast square. We had been warned it would be jammed on the weekend, when “there are a lot of people coming to party from Casablanca and Rabat,” said Rachid Ait El Hadj, our Collette tour manager. He was the patient guide for 24 travellers who joined the 15-day Colours of Morocco trip in May. We started in the verdant capital of Rabat, with stops in the ancient yellow city of Fez, the lush agricultural heartland near Meknes, the golden dunes of the Sahara Desert and the purple-hued peaks of the mighty High Atlas Mountains, before we arrived in the red-walled city of Marrakech, exalted by jetsetters and commoners as an oasis of cool.
A teeming mass of humanity swept us into its current and deposited us into the beating heart of a city I had been yearning to see since I read The Drifters by James A. Michener. In the 1971 novel, three American university drop-outs and a troubled British debutante drive a yellow Volkswagen pop-top into Morocco seeking a drug-fuelled adventure. In Casablanca, they meet a traveller who urges them to go to Marrakech. “You go to the Djemaa,” the girl from Liverpool continues, “and you stand there for one minute looking like a foreigner, and so many things will happen that you’ll be dizzy for a week. You don’t look for things in Marrakech. They look for you.”
Unlike the drifters, we’re not here for hash or heroin; we just want to eat dinner, shop in the souks and take in the scene. Four decades after I read Michener’s description, the vibe was just as frenetic: The repetitive drone of snake charmers’ flutes pierced the air as smoke drifted over our heads from dozens of barbecues in the food stalls, serving everything from sheeps’ brains to snails. Circles of spectators gathered around performers, including a pair of teenaged boxers – one boy and one girl – as water sellers wandered in their midst, hoping to coax a few dirhams from our pockets. The restaurant touts were out in full force, with one shill entreating us to eat at stall No. 22 because we were too skinny, and the charm offensive continued when Mary, a fellow Canadian, was told she was worth a thousand camels.
In 1986, The Drifters was my lodestar, and I was hell bent on Marrakech because of the picture painted by Michener. I had already followed in the footsteps of his characters as I backpacked through Spain, Portugal and Morocco, but Marrakech eluded me after one of my friends ate street meat in Fez and became violently ill, so we returned to Spain after only a week. When I reread The Drifters before this trip, I was shocked by its hedonism, but I could see how the story about disillusioned hippies trying to make sense of the world had appealed to a kid from Nova Scotia who had only been on a plane once, and that was to England. Until I spent a year in Europe at 22, books were my window on the world.
This trip, I decided, would be an experiment in literary tourism. The bulky guidebook I had lugged around was replaced with an iPad loaded with digital copies of In the Country of Others (2021) and Watch Us Dance (2023), the first two books of a planned trilogy by French Moroccan writer Leila Slimani, and her non-fiction book, Sex and Lies: True Stories of Women’s Intimate Lives in the Arab World. The idea was to add depth to what I was experiencing, and augment the patter of local guides tasked with compressing hundreds of years of history into palatable chunks. The books allowed me to see into the hearts and minds of the people I was meeting, in a way that a perfunctory interview could never do.
I started with In the Country of Others, where Mathilde meets a dashing Moroccan soldier, Amine, at the end of the Second World War, and – looking for adventure and a way out of her small-town French life – marries him. Slimani picks up the story’s threads in Watch Us Dance, which focuses on Amine and Mathilde’s children: daughter Aïcha – who returns to Morocco as a doctor after studying in France – and Selim, her athletic brother, who definitely won’t be taking over the estate Amine built on a seemingly inhospitable piece of land he inherited near the city of Meknes. When Mathilde sees the property, “the hill appeared hostile to life,” but in Watch Us Dance, she is now surrounded by a garden exploding with roses, dahlias, avocados and jacaranda blossoms.
We visit Meknes on a day trip from Fez, but its main sites – including the majestic Bab El Mansour gate – are obscured by scaffolding, so our tour bus slowly cruises the streets, with Ait El Hadj pointing out landmarks mentioned in the book. It isn’t until we head into the countryside, however, that the land of plenty Amine dreamed of – “filled with sunlight and orange trees, where farmers were millionaires” – is revealed.
We’re in the broad plain at the foot of the Middle Atlas Mountains, where the soil is sown with hectares and hectares of grain, fruit trees and vegetables. The patchwork of gold and green fields is topped with olive groves, which creep up the mountainside, stopping short of the peaks covered in cedar and cypress trees. We take a break at Domaine de la Zouina for lunch, a winery on an old colonial property planted with vines in the early 1900s, much like the one owned by Amine’s neighbour.
The literary déjà vu I experienced in Jemaa el-Fna was repeated in Volubilis, a partially excavated Roman city full of mosaic tile floors, towering columns and even an Arc de Triomphe, where I saw Zerhoun Mountain in the distance, the very same peak Mathilde and Amine gaze upon from the window of their farmhouse. It happens again, back in Fez, where the streets are so narrow only humans, handcarts and donkeys can transport goods in and out, and my shoulders brush both sides of one claustrophobia-inducing passageway. I remembered a scene from In the Country of Others, where Amine goes to visit a friend and starts to panic after going in circles for two hours. “He kept having to press his body to the walls to let a donkey or a cart go past. ‘Balak, balak!’ men would yell – ‘Get out of the way!’ – and Amine would jump,” Slimani writes. I was thrilled when the very same thing happened to me, and I managed to narrowly miss being trampled by an overloaded mule, its head obscured by precariously balanced cargo.
After the trip, and on the recommendation of Ait El Hadj, I read A House in Fez by Australian journalist Suzanna Clarke, who bought a 300-year-old riad in the Medina of Fez in 2003. Clarke revels in the smells, sounds and sights of the city, including her “fancy French loo” arriving on top of a donkey, “high-pitched ululations from far over the rooftops as a wedding celebration continued into the small hours,” and the “yeasty aroma of bread and cakes from the communal ovens.” We’ve seen the beasts of burden, heard the trills from a group of women at a dinner celebration in Rabat, and eaten the round flattish bread called khobz every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner, often minutes after it had been pulled from a wood-fired oven.
A House in Fez was written during the early reign of king Mohammed VI, who is widely viewed as a reformer with liberal tendencies, in part, as a local guide tells us on a visit to the palace in Rabat, because he only has one wife, a university-educated commoner and the first royal spouse to be presented to the public. (Impressed, I Google Princess Lalla Salma, only to discover she and the king divorced in 2017, and she has not had a royal engagement since.)
More light is shed on the status of women in Morocco when I meet Jihad Ibnouelghazi at a tagine cooking class in Marrakech. She explains that the co-operative, called the Amal Association, trains disadvantaged women – many of whom are illiterate and fleeing abusive spouses or, in the case of servants and maids, employers – to cook for their catering company, and helps find them jobs in the hospitality industry.
Ibnouelghazi recommends another female author, who interviewed women in country villages, and wrote a book in Arabic, which exposes a huge gap in my literary tourism experiment. This is a country where the Berber people lived for 2,000 years before the land was settled by successive waves of Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans, and before Idris I – an Arab invader and descendant of the prophet Mohammed, and the ancestor of all Moroccan kings – introduced Islam in the 8th century. The French ruled Morocco between 1912 and independence in 1956, so there are a lot more books in French and Arabic, which Ait El Hadj, a Berber, said is a bit like the old parlour game of broken telephone. “There is no Moroccan written history,” he said, referring to the lack of accounts from the Berber people, who had an oral storytelling tradition. “All of it is from French writers and an interpretation of oral accounts, filtered through the colonial mindset.”
Even if I could find the book Ibnouelghazi recommended, I would never be able to read the Arabic text. The same goes for the French non-fiction book, Notre ami le roi, which criticized the present king’s father, Hassan II, who arrested, imprisoned and killed many of his detractors, including General Mohamed Oufkir, a longtime friend and confidante shot on the king’s orders after he led a failed attempt on Hassan II’s life.
But when I got home, I bought Stolen Lives by Oufkir’s daughter, Malika, the incredible story of the woman King Hassan II adopted at 5 as a playmate for his princess daughter, and who lived at the palace in Rabat until she was 17. It describes unbelievable scenes of wealth and excess, from concubines diving for the perfumed cotton ball he throws in their midst to commoners picking up dung from his horse as a keepsake, and tales of panther hunting by helicopter in the High Atlas Mountains.
When Malika’s biological father was shot, Hassan II ordered his henchmen to arrest Malika, her mother and five siblings, who packed up their designer clothes in 20 Gucci, Hermès and Louis Vuitton suitcases, and disappeared into the Sahara desert for 20 years. There, they were held in scorpion-infested hovels before they were finally released in 1991, an ordeal Malika describes as “living a fairy tale in reverse.”
By contrast, the Sahara, for me, was freedom. Outside my glamping tent, there was nothing but endless blue sky and silky sand, and I spent hours sitting on what felt like the edge of the world, mesmerized by the whorls, waves and peaks created by the wind. We got caught in a sandstorm at an oasis, scrambled up a huge dune to get the perfect shot of a sunset and spent 30 minutes hanging on for dear life as our camels’ massive hooves somehow found purchase on the shifting ground. The Sahara reminded me I was just a speck in the cosmos, and the desert sands would sweep away all traces of our footprints until the end of time.
The Collette trip ends in the port city of Casablanca, where we have a tour of the ornate Hassan II mosque, and a farewell dinner at Rick’s Café, built by an American in 2004 to capitalize on the famous 1942 film. On the flight home to Toronto the next day, I’m still digesting all I have seen and read. In an oft-quoted passage from American beat writer Paul Bowles’ 1982 book, Points in Time, the narrator says all the American visitors he meets in Morocco are seeking the same thing: mystery. “They find it in the patterns of sunlight filtering through the lattice work that covers the souks, in the unexpected turnings and tunnels of the narrow streets … in the secretiveness of the architecture, which is such that even if the front door of a house is open it is impossible to see inside.”
When I read that sentence, I was wonderstruck. I had taken a picture of white-striped, kelly-green watermelons at a fruit stall precisely because of the pretty diamond pattern the sun was making on the ripe skins through the crisscrossed strips of woods above, and marvelled at hidden courtyards full of orange and lemon trees.
Morocco, I have seen you in all your glorious colours – jacaranda mauves, camel browns, saffron yellows and cobalt blues – but I will never claim to know you. I can only read the words of those who have come before me, marvel at your mysteries, drink in your beauty and revel in your contradictions.
WIN A TRIP TO MOROCCO: Follow in the author’s footsteps by entering our contest to win the same Colours of Morocco tour Kim Honey took as a guest of Collette. For all the details, and the entry form, click here.