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.