In safe hands with Ab­dul in Mar­rakech

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - EDDY FUR­LONG

‘ SIR, we should leave now to en­sure you ar­rive with plenty of space for the cous­cous,’’ Ab­dul says. I am re­minded of the tor­ment of Tan­talus, whose curse was eter­nal de­pri­va­tion of food, as I fol­low the djellaba-clad fig­ure through the crowd.

We are in the Moroc­can city of Mar­rakech near the foothills of the High At­las Moun­tains. Last night, while I pho­tographed the sun set­ting on the dis­tant snow patches from my ho­tel bal­cony, Ab­dul re­minded me the Sa­hara starts just be­yond the moun­tains. This old im­pe­rial city is best known for its souks and the Dje­maa el-Fna, the tra­di­tional mar­ket held in one of the busiest squares in Africa.

This af­ter­noon Ab­dul of­fers to ac­com­pany me on foot to dis­cover the city. He is short, his voice be­trays a con­stant ef­fort, his hear­ing is not the best and he is a lit­tle frail. Small, cheeky eyes brighten his tanned and wrin­kled face. There is no doubt that Ab­dul will do what it takes to make my ex­pe­ri­ence trou­ble-free. As he es­corts me through the maze of al­ley­ways in the souks, it is ob­vi­ous he is well-loved and re­spected. He seems to have a kind word for ev­ery­one as he chats with the stall­hold­ers. He makes sure I re­main free from heck­ling hawk­ers.

When we emerge into the Dje­maa el-Fna, Ab­dul ad­vises: ‘‘Take your time and walk around the square. Give me your bag, keep your wal­let se­cure and en­joy the com­pany of Moroc­can mu­si­cians, water-sell­ers, dancers, an­i­mal tamers, snake charm­ers, the lot.’’

With a cam­era on dis­play, it isn’t long be­fore my ne­go­ti­at­ing skills are tested by a guy wind­ing a snake around my neck and a young lady ex­e­cut­ing in­tri­cate henna tat­toos on my arm.

Food stalls spring up as the sun sets over the bazaar, turn­ing it into one vast, open-air restau­rant. Lo­cals con­verge on seats for a meal. I am drawn to the stalls where warm aro­mas of Moroc­can spices and roasted meats waft and tease, when sud­denly a fa­mil­iar voice re­minds me of the Ber­ber Fan­ta­sia at Chez Ali tonight. Given that I have com­mit­ted to spend a few days with Ab­dul as my trusted guide in Mar­rakech, I de­cide to lose my­self in his Ara­bian nights and sur­ren­der.

Chez Ali has all the hall­marks of a Ber­ber fair. We are ush­ered past armed horse­men and to­wards clans of peo­ple per­form­ing a wel­come chant. Ab­dul bids me farewell as my new host, Tariq, takes me into a gi­ant Ara­bian tent, richly car­peted and dimly lit by large bon­fires out­side and light­bulbs within. I am barely seated when wait­resses in colour­ful puffed dresses chore­o­graph the de­liv­ery of harira soup and an ap­pe­tiser of fra­grant lamb and chick­peas. I savour mar­i­nated me­choul, rich with herbs, as Tariq through the set menu.

Soon the first sig­na­ture dish ap­pears: it’s vegetable tagine, and lift­ing the lid re­veals a splash of red and yel­low pep­pers, prunes and chick­peas with harissa on a co­pi­ous bed of fluffy cous­cous.

A spec­tac­u­lar dis­play of proud Ber­ber her­itage fol­lows the feast. It feels like I’m on a movie set for Niko­lai Go­gol’s Taras Bulba, what with all the horse­back ac­ro­bat­ics.

It’s not some­thing I would have slot­ted into my itin­er­ary but Ab­dul has said he be­lieves the ex­pe­ri­ence is a suc­cinct mi­cro­cosm of Morocco. At least I am re­plete with cous­cous and I do have some great pho­tographs.

takes me

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.