Meet the Maghreb

Updated 23 Nov 2014

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It was one of the coldest weekends of December when I came across a contemporarily constructed Riad (a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard). Only this wasn’t in Morocco but in Harrods’s hall, which was celebrating Moroccan culture with live Oud music and complimentary Moroccan mint tea.

My curiosity about Morocco increased when I learned that the famous traveller, Ibn-i-Battuta, was from the Moroccan city of Tangiers. The cold and grey days of December in London gave a further impetus to my plan to visit sunny Morocco, and so I decided to fly to the Red City (a nick name given to Marrakesh) which is situated in the north of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains.

The most amazing experience of my life, despite having visited many Middle Eastern countries, came when I was warmly greeted and welcomed at the airport’s immigration counter after they found out that I am a Pakistani. I was more surprised when I was treated in the same way everywhere else in Morocco as well.

  Yves Saint Laurent’s memorial at Majorelle Garden.
Yves Saint Laurent’s memorial at Majorelle Garden.

The city of Marrakesh was founded in 1060AD by Abu Bakr Ibn Umar, and in 1122AD Ali Ibn Yusuf built the ramparts (outer wall) and various buildings in red sandstone, which remain to this day. Under the Almoravids, during the early 12th century, numerous mosques and madressahs were built. The city has been transformed from the dusty, hippy outpost to one of North Africa’s busiest destinations to one that boasts of boutiques, hotels, restaurants and deluxe hammams. But inside the sophisticated modern wrapping I found the old city with its masterpiece 12th century minaret of the Ben Youssef Mosque and ramparts of Marrakesh which stretch for some 19 kilometres around the Medina (old fortified part of the city with vendors and their stalls) of the city. The walls are made of red clay and stand up to 19 feet high.

Marrakesh boasts a number of historical sites that are worth visiting. Of these Jemaa el-Fnaa is one of the best known and busiest squares in Africa, and has been part of the Unesco’s world heritage sites since 1985. It is best to visit at night when you will find hundreds of stalls of Moroccan food, dry fruits, and fresh juices. There you will be entertained by the famous snake charmers, dancers and musicians playing pipes, tambourines and African drums. As you enjoy a walk through the tangle of alleys in the souks, acrobats and storytellers will abound.

Ben Youssef Madressah is probably the most beautiful building in Marrakesh. Founded in the 14th century, the building is abundantly decorated with cedar wood carvings and colourful tiles; some parts of the building are amazingly similar to Alhamra Palace in Spain, indicating that Andalusian artists were brought here at some stage.

The King Hassan II Mosque
The King Hassan II Mosque

Koutoubia Mosque is situated in front of Medina square and is the largest mosque in Marrakesh. It is famous for its 11th century minaret, which became the model for later Moroccan architecture. The most attractive features of the building are the curved windows and decorative arches.

Besides mosques and madressahs the city has a number of gardens, like the subtropical Majorelle Garden which is one of the most delightful and stunning spots within this Red City of Morocco. It was designed by the French expatriate artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s and ’30s. Although the garden has existed for decades it was only made famous when fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent, featured it in 1997 Chelsea flower show in London.

This is one of the most peaceful places on earth one could ever visit. The garden has bamboos that seem to touch the sky, date palms, burbling streams and pools filled with lilies and lotus flowers. There are exotic plants with equally exotic origins and numerous kinds of cacti; there are over 15 species of birds here that are native to North Africa.

The sunlight-bathed walls of Marrakesh
The sunlight-bathed walls of Marrakesh

The collection of Yves Saint Laurent’s paintings on display in the studio is amazing. After his death in 2008 his ashes were scattered in the rose garden of the Villa Oasis, and a memorial consisting of Roman pillars is erected in the garden.

Moving north from Marrakesh, one finds Casablanca on the Atlantic Ocean. Casablanca (meaning ‘White house’) is the largest city of Morocco and is completely different from Marrakesh. It is the economic hub of the country, and port of Casablanca is one of the largest artificial ports in the world. The city is modern, crowded and more polluted as compared to Marrakesh.

While in Casablanca one cannot miss the Hassan II Mosque, which is the largest mosque in Morocco and the seventh largest in the world, with the distinction of having the tallest minaret (at 210 metres) in the world. The mosque stands on a peninsula looking out to the Atlantic Ocean, the sea bed being visible through the glass floor.

Travelling from Casablanca to Rabat, the capital of Morocco, you come across one of the most beautiful place Mohammedia, which is famous for its beaches.

Morocco has more than four dozen universities. The Al-Karaouine University, located in the city of Fez, was founded by a Lady called Fatima Al Fihri in 859AD, and was incorporated into the modern Moroccan state university system in 1963. It has been officially recognised by Unesco and the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s oldest existing educational institution.

Culturally, Morocco combines its indigenous Berber, Jewish and Arabic heritage with external (mostly French) influences. Perhaps that is why, apart from Arabic, the only other formal language is French. It has become the most popular holiday spot for Europeans because of its tolerant culture. Muslim women are not confined to some distant wing of their houses; they work together with men, mostly dressed in jeans or trousers while some opt for full veils and wear gloves as well. Yet there seems to be no tension between these groups and you will see the majority of women in Morocco driving moped bikes or motorcycles.

An article about the birth country of Ibn-i-Battuta can aptly be concluded with a quote of the great man: “Travelling — it leaves you speechless, and then turns you into a storyteller.”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 23rd, 2014