In safe hands with Abdul in Marrakech
‘ 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.