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Marrakech Retreat

A group of American friends bypassed the hotels and restaurants of this beautiful Moroccan city so that they could live--and eat--in a luxurious private villa in the heart of the Medina.

It doesn't take much time in Marrakech to achieve shabaan, the Moroccan arabic word for a state of total satisfaction. My friends and I reached it after just one day in this gateway city of northwest Africa, across the Atlas mountains from the Sahara desert. Perhaps we found shabaan so easily because we had rented a riyad, a private house with a central garden courtyard, in the Medina, the heart of the old city. We spent the first day buying items on our wish list, from spices to sandals. When we returned home that night, we were greeted by our two cooks, Laila and Sabah, who bore brass trays of hot, sweet, invigorating peppermint tea. Mouthwatering aromas of the dinner they had prepared--lemon-roasted chicken served with kisra and other freshly baked breads--also welcomed us. We felt shabaan even before we knew the word existed.

When our group of 10 arrived in Marrakech, it took two vans and a burro to convey us and our embarrassing number of bags to the riyad, which was so well hidden at the end of a dark, zigzagging alley that our drivers could not find it until they'd asked several bystanders for help. Tucked away between the 12th-century Ali ben Youssef Mosque and the northern entrance to the souks (the markets), the house was in the middle of the busiest part of the city, yet also somehow apart from it. Urban sounds were our constant background music: chattering people, street musicians and the muezzins calling the Islamic faithful to prayer five times a day. But the house, with its broad arches and flame-shaped doorways, its hanging mosque lanterns and Berber rugs, provided a respite from the crush and the cacophony. Fragrant rose petals floated in the tiled courtyard pool, and the rooftop--partially tented and decorated like a sultan's lair, with rugs and colorful cushions, brass tables and lanterns--offered sweeping views of minarets and mountains.

Built for a large family, the riyad easily accommodated my extended group of friends. Besides Heather, a magazine editor who had discovered how to rent the riyad, there were her husband and two children; my partner, Carl; and four architect friends who came to shop for clients and for themselves. For most of us, this was our first visit to Morocco, and we were eager to experience real life in a Marrakech household. We did not want to eat in a different restaurant every night. In fact, we had pretty much agreed to skip restaurants altogether. Instead, we asked the company that rented us the riyad to supply us with the two cooks, Laila and Sabah, who would make almost all our meals and would, we hoped, let us help.

The bustle of the city notwithstanding, days in Marrakech pass slowly, at an hourglass trickle, making our week there a wonderfully long blur. Each morning, roused from sleep by the smell of coffee and the soft sounds of Laila and Sabah in the kitchen, we gathered for breakfast (a variety of crêpes and beignets and buttery rolled omelets--just one remnant of the French influence on Morocco). Then we commenced our activities, though that is too ambitious a word for our peregrinations. No doubt we would have seen more of Marrakech if we had hired a guide. That kind of forced march, however, was the last thing we desired, and what we missed seeing (more of the Gueliz, which is the newer section of the city beyond the medina, Berber villages of the Atlas Mountains, a gate-by-gate tour of the Casbahs and ramparts), we made up for by experiencing a bit of the city's domestic life.

We spent much of our time wandering the souks, located more or less in the center of town. Some stalls are open-air, but most are shaded by slatted roofs and are grouped by trade or merchandise. There are clusters of jewelers, weavers and carpenters and rows of pottery makers and sellers, wool merchants and rug dealers. Many of the goods are made before your eyes, such as slippers and sandals stitched by men wearing long, hooded jalabas (caftanlike robes), just one of the scores of daily sights that seem unchanged since biblical times. Even if we had wanted to, we couldn't have avoided the souks, which were on the way to and from the best-known landmarks of Marrakech, many of which we did see: El Bahia Palace, Djemma el Fna (the central square) and Koutoubia Mosque (which has stunning architecture, but which, like all mosques in Marrakech, is closed to non-Islamic people).

It was easy to while away entire mornings and afternoons in the souks in pursuit of things like leather poufs (we had decided we wanted only square ones, making the search more fun), candles so delicate that they bend as they burn, and babouches, pointy suede slippers the color of paprika, saffron, turmeric and ginger. Early in our stay, two of the architects discovered a pair of antique shops, the Khalid Art Gallery and Trésor des Nomades, where bargaining (the national sport of Morocco) proceeds quietly, almost leisurely, a relief after the hectic souks. At each store, carpets--including my favorites, handsome weaves of leather and palm fronds--were unrolled for our inspection as we sipped peppermint tea poured with a flourish from a copper or brass teapot into small glasses. Mint tea is ubiquitous: One morning I passed three construction workers gathered around a tea service, delicately holding their glasses with soiled hands as they crouched on the ground. The shops were also "a showplace for Orientalism," as the proprietor of the Khalid Art Gallery described his inventory, which included brass mosque lamps, jewelry, incense burners and tables inlaid with mother-of-pearl. An exotic treasure house, to be sure, though we were hardly the first to discover it: American celebrities such as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Chelsea Clinton and Drew Barrymore had shopped there and beamed from framed photographs on the wall.

Losing track of time, shopping right through the lunch hour, we'd drop packages off at the house and find nourishing snacks set out for us: figs, almonds, oranges sprinkled with cinnamon, leftover couscous or stewed lamb from the night before. Laila and Sabah seemed amused by the energy we devoted to shopping and were delighted when we brought things home for the kitchen and table, such as tagines (the ceramic cooking and serving vessels with distinctive conical lids), brightly colored cloths and cushions, blue-glazed Safi pottery and buckets of bougainvillaea, tendrils of which we wound around the poles supporting our rooftop tent.

We would also return from the souks with ingredients for Laila and Sabah, who made excellent use of them in our meals. They took our paprika and mixed it into a chilled sweet potato salad with mint, our preserved lemons topped a spicy chicken dish, our olives found their way into an herb puree, and our almonds appeared in a bisteeya dessert, a sweet variation of the classic meat-and-phyllo pie with layers of delicate dough. And under their tutelage, we helped cook dinner: We crushed cumin seeds and pieces of cinnamon with a mortar and pestle, rubbed spices onto chunks of chicken and lamb, pierced meat with skewers and turned them as they grilled on kanouns, small, charcoal-burning stoves placed on the kitchen floor.

We waited until late in the week before venturing a few blocks south to Djemma el Fna, the huge square at the city's crossroads. You cannot enter the square without encountering some medieval sight amid the modern-day bustle, with snake charmers, acrobats, scribes, trance healers, the occasional dentist and purple-costumed water sellers with leather pouches and brass cups strung across their backs, all competing for your attention and your coins. Though hardly quiet during the day, Djemma el Fna reaches a frenzy at dusk, when the setting sun casts an intense glow on the surrounding pink buildings, smoke starts to rise from scores of grills, and birds swoop and screech overhead. That's when food vendors, their stalls lined four deep along the square's northern edge, fire up grills to feed hundreds of people every evening, locals and tourists alike. We particularly liked number 11, run by an Algerian family of eight, masters of light and fluffy couscous. To our left, a family from Senegal shared a platter of couscous, grilled chicken and steamed carrots; to our right, newlyweds from Paris ate a version of a dish that Sabah and Laila prepared for us one night, stewed lamb with eggplant.

"Très bon," the bride said, when her young server asked about her meal. "And this place is wild, so many people."

"It's this way every night," said the young man, a teenager working for the family business.

Feeling a certain sensory overload, we soon retreated to the quiet roof of our riyad. Lolling about on cushions, passing around bottles of robust Moroccan wine and plates of salty almonds and spicy olives, we were mesmerized by the moon rising over the Atlas Mountains and the muezzins' last call to prayer.

Laila smiled when I sighed contentedly as she brought forth the tea tray yet again and began to pour. Accustomed to visitors, she knew how happy we felt, how grateful.

"La belle Marrakech," I said, venturing a little French.

"You like?" she asked.

"Yes, very much. Très, oui."

"Shabaan," she said. None of us knew the word.

Vance Muse is director of public affairs at The Menil Collection, an art museum in Houston. We Were Here, his book about a summer colony on the coast of Maine in the early 20th century, will be published next year by Pantheon.
Published September 2000
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