Tangerine Dream

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Tangier or Tangiers as the French call it is having a moment. Like an ancient artefact happened upon by accident and dusted down to reveal wonderful faded beauty, I found it a place which is full of hidden secrets and many exotic stories, and a real gem for artistic photography.

I arrived a day early, as is often the case when travelling with my friend Julia, I had a bit of time to soak up the place before she arrived with her friends, an entourage which included Richard Hamilton the author and a former BBC North Africa correspondent.

Richard’s book ‘Tangier from the Romans to the Rolling Stones’ is a fantastic find if you’re trying to get to grips with the history of the place, it’s a kind of literary archeology which starts off with Hercules and ancient mythology (Hercules Cave on the coast of Tangier is where the fabled hero rested on his way to complete one of his audacious tasks, to collect the Golden Apples). He goes on to excavate the history of the place from Romans through to the famous historic Berber traveller and explorer Ibn Battuta who is buried in Tangier, to Samuel Pepys and onto artists such as Matisse and Bacon and a litany of famous writers; Bowles, Burroughs, Orton finishing with musician Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones.

I hadn’t read the book before I came, so I just kind of experienced the place with the help of my friend who had a few stops in mind both old and new to discover. We stayed near the port in Hotel El Muniria which is where William Burrows famously wrote Naked Lunch, his room is room 9 which is now part of the owners flat on the ground floor, a nice Moroccan family – you can ask to see it, it’s the more elegant part of the building the rest is a simple boarding house which is clean and paired back but no frills. Jack Kerouac stayed in Room 4 apparently, we stayed in room 8 which looks out onto the terrace – bathrooms are shared but its not a real problem they’re very clean.

This part of the city near the port is a bit more run down than others, although the port is being renovated and there is a marina now. Beneath our hotel was the Tangerinn a local bar which is popular with the local Moroccan hipsters and was also a favourite haunt of the Beat Generation. Outside there is the occasional noisy argument, racing moped or football game in the street. But there was a sadness about the El Muniria I felt, which was matched by the grey and rainy weather perhaps, I was reading about Burrows and I sensed the kind of seediness that surrounded his life of drugs, the death of his wife and his sybaritical liberal lifestyle in Tangier. This is the side of Tangier which while famous and part of a bigger story about the Beat Generation is for me a bit dark and not for everyone and it leaves it’s shadow on the city which you can feel when you’re there, the Mohammed Choukri kind of Tangier.

Just down the hill around the corner of the harbour from the hotel are steps up into the old town which you can climb to see the Hotel Continental, another favourite hang out on the literary trail. It sits on top of a hill and looks out across the harbour, I get the feeling very little has changed in the hotel for many decades and the dining room in particular reminds me of days gone by where you can imagine travellers from the 40’s and 50’s pitching up once their trunks had been disembarked and taking their first lunch off the boat. Walking around the city walls in a clockwise direction you then find the renovated sand coloured stone of the Kasbah which is home to many beautifully restored buildings, the Hotel Tangerina is a lovely family owned hotel which was renovated to incorporate a polished kind of Victorian Grandeur – rooms are very reasonable for the level of luxury and there are stunning views from the roof top. There is a special kind of light in Tangier that painters talk about because it is one of the few places where there is a confluence between the Med and Atlantic which apparently causes the effect, Richard told me one of the only other places which features light of this kind is an Island in Denmark. It must have been this light which attracted painters like Matisse and Francis Bacon along with the general artistic vibe and liberal atmosphere of the place.

The Kasbah houses many cool places to visit: Le Sable Bleu for lunch and dinner, El Morocco a restaurant, café, restaurant and bar just within the gates of the Kasbah inspired by the original El Morocco club of New York with photos from the original club in the coctail bar. There is a Spanish designer concept store ‘Las Chichas’ and just a short work away along the sea walls is Café Hafa, a 1920’s café with a sea view, which is popular with the locals and has many stepped terraces with tables and chairs where you can bring your own food down from the bakery or restaurant above, and strong and sweet mint tea is served in glasses for 20 dirham.

Further downtown the Grand and Petit Socco market squares are surrounded by narrow medina style streets, with busy local markets where you can buy healthy oils and spices, fresh fish, and traditional cheese made by the Rif mountain ladies which they sell wrapped in palm leaves, while dressed in traditional striped Rif dress. On the Grand Socco you will find the landmark Rif Cinema a renovated 1930’s cinema which shows the latest films and has a great cafe bar attached, a place to see and be seen with a great vantage point onto life in the square. There are also a few art galleries, and a cafe and shop above the cinema called the ‘Dharma Woman’s Refuge’ for lunch and a browse, the organisation funds work with single mothers and struggling women giving them a place to stay, purpose and school for their kids.

Not far away from the Grand Socco is the American Ligation. Tangier was one of the first places to recognise the American Independence with this elegant building, there is a great art collection inside as well as a museum dedicated to the writer Paul Bowles. I actually heard a story about Paul Bowles from my cousin’s husband, his friend was a fan and managed to get one of the last ever interviews on film of the writer after travelling to Tangier and bumping into Bowles’ former Moroccan lover who took him to him. Returning home he decided to have friends round and after imbibing perhaps a bit too much and deciding to cut what he thought was a video of Moroccan dancers, found he had cut up this last ever interview instead by mistake! I thought wryly of the ‘cut up’ technique the beat generation were famous for and wondered if it was in fact a wry joke played on him by these famous ghosts of the past!

Dotted along the streets of Tangier, you will see glimpses of faded grandeur, like the old Spanish Pavilions now a bit run down and rusty, the ‘Grand Teatro Cervantes’ with its cigar label signage stands out, as well as the old cinemas and local street cafes. It’s a treasure trove for art photographers with no end of material to keep you involved and inspired to tell your own story of Tangier.

In the evenings we often visited Hotel El Minzah a classic style 5 star hotel with a piano bar overlooking the hotel pool and gardens. The experience was made even better by one of Julia’s friends who had been gifted with the voice of Frank Sinatra, he slid up to the pianist and belted out Frank numbers with such rich warm tones that for a moment we were transported back to a time of dinner dances and celebrity crooners. A Moroccan boy was filming the scene with his jaw dropped in amazement at the spectacle that had been created that night, it was heartwarming to see his passion for these old numbers belted out by our Frank impersonator.

And Tangier is like that a mix up of happenstances, small vignettes which when glued together create a rich tapestry of experience that you want to crawl over again and again. There is so much I could write that this feels like a glance across the top of the trip, so I will write more I’m sure.

They say about Tangier that ‘you arrive crying and when you leave you cry’ I can see that, its an emotive place that doesn’t have the immediate impact of Marrakech but slowly reveals itself. There is so much to discover when you start digging that you will want to return again and again just to see the place in different lights and seasons and soak up the atmosphere.

Book suggestions:
‘The Sheltering Sky’ – Paul Bowles
‘Naked Lunch’ – William Burroughs
‘Tangier From the Romans to the Rolling Stones’ – Richard Hamilton
‘Tangerine’ – Christine Mangan
‘In Tangier’ – Mohammed Choukri

Marrying a Younger Moroccan Man

Our Honeymoon

Even writing the title of this blog I know that some people will already be waiting to read about some gruesome detail of being tricked out of money or romanced for a passport – these stereotypes are unfortunately hardwired in Western consciousness. And in all honesty it can happen to some people, so I can see why.

Well, it’s one year on since we had our wedding at Riad Ilfoulki in Marrakech, and 3 years since we first met, and we’re moving forward all the time. When I met Ali, I was happily single, I had a good life, great friends and support networks, there were no gaps, I wasn’t looking to be loved, I just met a guy (on holiday) that I cracked on with who spoke about interesting stuff that a lot of English blokes tend to shy away from; – life, the Universe and which flavour cheesecake you like the best! With Ali over time, getting to know each other better, I felt I had found a companion in life who wants the same things, and understands the bigger picture, comes from a place of having to fend for himself from an early age and has values and principles I admire. But I need to talk about how it feels to be on the receiving end of prejudice when you’re living a life which can be seen as a cliche, a huge risk, simply unusual or breaking unspoken cultural rules.

I was surprised at the feelings that ran through the expat community here when I arrived to explore a life out here with Ali; ‘I’ve never seen it work in all my time here’ was one comment, not a great foreboding of a positive future. ‘I’m glad I wasn’t one of those who met a Moroccan guy – I’ve done it on my own’ was another comment from a woman who lives in Morocco on her own, without thinking about my own situation – a clear signal that you have ‘sold out’ if you didn’t tough it out without a local bloke.

Well I am ‘one of those’ and I think that I’m lucky for many reasons, actually being with a Moroccan gives you a deeper appreciation of the culture here than you would have if you ‘did it on your own’, but more than that, I like the sharing, the shouldering of support, the fun times and silly things we laugh at, having a best friend and a confidante by my side. For me finding that kind of human relationship with a significant other is the real stuff of life, as much as achieving your dreams or personal ambitions. I don’t feel less for having done it, I feel more – but I also know I would have been ok on my own.

Ali seems to take all this in his stride, perhaps having worked with some Internationals who call him ‘Ali Baba’ and who are used to being waited on by brown faced people has created a state of unwitting acceptance, and for him I think he doesn’t care what people think which is a great gift in life if you can attain it – he is extremely positive as a person and focussed more on who he is and how he show’s up in the World than how other people are to him.

But I do get a bit weary of the looks, pauses and underlying patronising comments which can follow your announcement that you’re married to a Moroccan, especially when you say he’s younger. You can hear the cogs turning ‘sold out’, ‘how long until she divorces’, ‘she’s taken the easy way of living in Morocco – not toughed it out’, ‘why would he marry her?’.

I must admit that it’s taken me a long time to get over these voices in my head myself, the internal and external critics. I didn’t tell a new employer that I was going to marry Ali when I went for the job because I knew that they would see me differently – not the independent, intelligent and experienced person I am, but a quirky creative woman who’s ‘one of those’ who came over and fell in love with a handsome smooth talking muslim boy. It’s not how I want to be judged, for my relationship – I want to be seen for who I am, so I’m still careful about how I bring my situation into conversation, and maybe sometimes don’t help myself with a lack of confidence about talking about it.

Reading about prejudice it comes from several places; one is stereotyping and negative storytelling in society which people use to make quick decisions about another (a human way of quickly navigating around people and groups) these negatives can be combatted by changing the stories; another is the ‘them and us’ dynamic which is neatly expressed in the cartoon below – (us = the puritan imperialists with money, them = the barbarians who want to steal our resources) when you cross these boundaries you play with peoples understanding of social identity – hence the ‘he wants her passport, or money’ kind of thinking, finally prejudice is more likely to come from Authoritarian Personalities – these people tend to be hostile to people they see as inferior, and obedient to those they see have high status, rigid in beliefs and upholding of more traditional values (people from our older generations often seem to sit here, although it’s more about personality than age). If you want to read more you can here.

When we’re together (reaching across the water) I know Ali’s a great guy, I’m realistic that with any relationship there is a meeting of needs, ours is no different. It is difficult not being from the same place financially as it is culturally but Ali makes it so easy, he never really spends on much, he’s a dab hand at getting great second hand clothes that he looks a million dollars in because he is naturally stylish, he is ecologically conscious anyway so doesn’t believe in buying lots of new things when you can get good quality second hand that is often better made. He spends all his own money on other people, his mum whom he supports, our food, and with just a bit left for him he makes the most of it. I bought him clothes once from England and he made me take them back – ‘don’t do that again’ he said. And he looks for ways I can save money on things like bills – putting in a gas water heater and getting rid of the electric one, he’s come from a place where money was scarce, I’ve come from a place where you don’t always look at receipts you just buy – a throw away, instant gratification kind of society.

He wants to spend as much time with me as possible, and that also creates a bit of conflict as I like to explore, travel, meet friends for dinner – we’re used to having all those freedoms in my world. In a typical local Amazigh marriage from his town things are a lot more home based, there are roles for everyone, and people don’t eat out – he’d never been to a restaurant with a woman before he met me. However Ali is emotionally intelligent, he has got his own head round the fact that us English types like ‘experiences’ and ‘events’ and ‘eating out’, that our life experiences are different, so we find a way to compromise on those things, which gets easier the more we know and trust each other. However as a true warm hearted Moroccan, he also reminds me that sometimes the most valuable times are actually quiet times with good food, and the people we love and care about (in our case the trio of Ali, Me and Ruby – our dog) that you don’t need a lot of outside whizz-bang stimulation to be happy – that happiness comes from the inside and doing things for others like cooking nice food and showing love. When I met him I’d had many years of that external stuff spending long days at work and rewarding myself with nights out, so part of what attracted me was the desire to get back to something more real and meaningful, the pivotal moment was when I was in a belly dancing restaurant in Marrakech the owner of my riad recommended I visit, and I just felt I’d much rather be having a proper conversation and a giggle with Ali at home than in this restaurant with dressed up people spending too much on dinner and ogling girls in glittery bikini’s. Ali for me represented what’s real and good in the world not the stuff we get excited by and doesn’t mean anything really, I think that you learn something from everyone you meet – we have many teachers.

One of the sweetest things Ali has done, which is quite natural for him because it comes purely from his heart, is to send in a picture of both of us to National Geographic for a competition – it was to illustrate the possibility of love across cultures and ages he said, he had written ‘look at me and my wife, different cultures, different ages but we still love each other’ it really touched me that he would think of doing such a thing so proudly, it’s a shame it didn’t get published so I’m publishing it here.

My wish for the next year is that I find ways of communicating the positivity of our situation to others to help alleviate prejudice which may be founded on old stories, and not wait for the put downs, and that I can continue my work on being a better human being, guided by my lovely muslim, moroccan, 32 year old husband.

Wish me luck!

Magic, Genies and Marrakesh

When I was growing up Magic was Paul Daniels on the TV pulling rabbits out of hats with Debbie McGee on his knee and Genies were the things that granted you 3 wishes and could be summoned by rubbing a lamp.

In Morocco these mean completely different things, its an ancient and magical land and Islam also is full of stories about the ‘jinn’ which are nothing like Genies although they sound the same. There is also the underlying threat of black magic or the ‘evil eye’ with most people knowing of someone who has fallen foul of another’s bad wishes. I’ll tell you the stories I’ve heard, but recently I’ve also had a bit of a close encounter which makes me more aware that there may be indeed some things that aren’t so easy to explain logically – but then again life itself is a bit bonkers if you really think about it.

The ‘Jinn’ are spirits the concept of which existed pre-Islam and come in three forms angels, jinn and demons. Jinn are a collective and the roots of the word are to hide or conceal as well as a type of ‘Jinn’. They are believed to inhabit dark, desolate and unclean places, deserts or drains, there are Jinn who inhabited the world before Adam (stronger and faster humans who have the same need to procreate and eat, have longer life-cycles but may be invisible to the human eye) and those who operate more like heavenly beings good or bad. All in all its not entirely clear, Ali tells me that they believe that God put a screen on our eyes which means that you can’t see these beings, in Quaranic verse they are referred to as ‘smokeless fire’ which could mean a kind of energy. Mohammed was said to have made revelations to the human type Jinn. According to scholars such as Ibn Tayymia the Jinn were believed to be generally “ignorant, untruthful, oppressive and treacherous”. He held that the Jinn account for much of the “magic” that is perceived by humans, cooperating with magicians to lift items in the air, delivering hidden truths to fortune tellers, and mimicking the voices of deceased humans during seances.

It all requires a bit of imagination, and to some extent historic understanding of the context from which these things arose when there was no science as such so people needed ways of understanding where disease and misfortune might come from. So on to the stories;

1. The girl who can’t get married because a ‘Jinn’ has blocked her.
This is a story about a girl I know of who believes that a Jinn saw her while cleaning the loo at her brothers house (inhabiting dark and smelly places is the favourite pass time of the Jinn remember) and decided she was beautiful and wanted to keep her for itself. She is still not married and she is attractive, so she goes to a Fquih (said Fkir) (someone who knows all the Black Magic stuff) for help with breaking the bond. Even more scarily I have heard that if you wake up with henna on your hands, that’s it you’ve been married to a Jinn. Eek!

2. Couples breaking up
I’ve heard a few stories about magic being used to break couples up from some quite reliable sources, one story was of a young French couple who came to live here and hired an old maid to help them with the house and cooking. The story goes the husband fell for the maid and was utterly infatuated, he left his pretty young wife and their baby to be with her even admitting he felt like he had no control over his emotions, he was literally singing outside the window of the maid in a kind of delirium. The person who told me the tale, told me to watch out where you eat food and who prepares it because they can add in spells to your food to create a break up (or to make you like them). Another way to create issues with a couple is to do some nasty black magic thing with a cat where the cats mouth is sewn up – I can’t remember the details but it makes the couple literally fight like cat and dog.

3. The Jinn in the cupboard
This is my story so we have been noticing some funny things in our house, toilets not working, light bulbs going, mice ..you could put that down to normal stuff, or bad luck. But then over the past 8 – 10 days we’ve had a friend in the wardrobe, every night between 2 and 4 the wardrobe doors start to move a bit to make the jewellery hanging off them swing and clatter against the wood. The first night or two I thought it must be a cat, or a mouse, or the wind – but I checked all options looking inside, closing all windows etc and with no other explanation, it happened again from once to 4 times in the night. Then one night I looked over from my bed and I saw a really brighter than Halogen white light shining through the crack in the cupboard doors, it was so bright it was shining through my red glass beads on the door to create a beam of red light. Clearly at this point I grabbed the dog and my bed cover to sleep downstairs. I thought everyone would think I was mad (or madder than usual) when I told them, but they have believed me in the main and offered advice. Ali also heard it so it helps (although he’s still keen to see the bright light!).

The advice I have had has ranged from making sure you close the loo at night, putting the Quoran and some salt under your pillow, playing Surat (Quoranic prayers) on You Tube and making sure you don’t have anything in the house that might connect you back to someone who might want to still keep hold of you. One friend who I was surprised was well up on Astrology told me that Mercury is in retrograde so lots of things can happen (especially if this happens in your sign) including technology going wrong, it apparently causes havoc with computers – she said wait until Dec 6 and things will have moved on. There is also the thought that we might be located on a burial site and that these sites are probably very old.

So – not sure I’m fascinated but I know that it doesn’t any of it make logical sense! But then a lot of straight up people have told me stories before. I checked some old maps on line and one from 1886 does seem to suggest that where we are, just outside the medina wall is in fact an old Cemetery site.

Well it will either pass on the 6th, or we’ll move – let me know your own stories!

The Hidden Beauty of Goulmima

These days everyone seems to want a new experience that isn’t ‘touristy’ and is ‘off the beaten track’,the town of Goulmima in the province of Errachidia is a real tropical desert oasis the home of an old Berber Judeo Ksar in agricultural land fed by the Wadi Gheris and overlooked by the High Atlas Mountains. You won’t find much on the internet about this place which is part of it’s charm, it is waiting to be rediscovered.

I have been lucky enough to visit twice, and as a place to stop on the way to desert adventures it beats the most popular stop Skoura hands down (unless you have the money to stay at Dar Ahlam of course – but even then, I still prefer Goulmima). So why is it so great as a little town, well you get the full experience if you stay with a Berber family, as this is the home of original Berber tribes who still live in many ways like they did centuries before with the same cultural traditions.

One thing you notice straight away are the tribal shawls of the local women called Taharouyt, every woman has one, embroidered black material, often with additional mirrored features or foil coins sewn onto the edges for a tinkling effect – there are new designs out every year so if you are young woman you want to have the latest thing (a mix of tradition and modern consumerism!).

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The people are so lovely in this town, warm-hearted Moroccans to the core, and the best cooks – food and fire is the centre of life here, the baking of daily bread and Moroccan pancakes a common ritual and many houses have their own livestock, sheep fattened up for Eid (the main festival that follows Ramadan), chickens and a couple of goats. I was staying with family there over Eid, I found the preparation and respect given to the animal the night before slaughter quite touching; although seeing the killing was daunting, friends and neighbours come to help with the laborious process of butchering and preserving the animal. I was told a common chat was to ask what you found inside the sheep, the answer usually includes some ridiculous element, a fridge, an oven, a boot, a million dirham…sadly inside our sheep was an undigested plastic bag, a sign of the times.

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If you are lucky like I was, you will be invited to a Berber wedding – now this is something else, usually at least 3 days long. The bride and grooms family begin separate celebrations, with a Henna night for the ladies which includes the main females at the party, and features along with henna a big meal of roast chicken and lamb tagine with prunes – ensure you have a kaftan with enough room for expansion! With Moroccan weddings (like my own) everything is arranged pretty quickly, its not like English weddings which require at least a year’s planning, a Moroccan wedding can be turned around in days with a few friends and phone calls to arrange bands, music and a tent.

The stand-out feature is the singing and drumming, the singing ritual involves the women singing on one side and men singing and drumming on the other, this goes on at times throughout the wedding, and creates a kind of euphoria, you don’t need alcohol – you get high from the drumming and energy around you. On the day of the wedding, all the men are invited to eat, and then the women separately – while they are waiting the women sing and start dancing, tying their scarves or Tahrouyt just under their bums, this has the effect of creating the need to wiggle. Big and beautiful shimmying bottoms if you know anyone in Morocco are seen as very attractive – my puny white bum just doesn’t cut it I’m afraid.

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All this goes on at the Brides house with her friends and in parallel at the grooms house with all the friends, family and hangers on gathering to enjoy the feasting and dancing. The band gives way to a DJ playing ‘Tschk Tschk music a kind of eletronic arabic beat’ this is a signal for the younger girls decked out in Kaftans to join in the fun. Then at some point in the night well after midnight, there is the dancing of a suitcase, this case is then driven to the brides house to pick up her belongings (and dowry), arriving at her house I saw a girl with her face covered kissing goodbye to her father (a real tear jerker) then we brought her back in a motorcade for a ritual which involves the application of henna to the hands of bride and groom.

We left it there – about 5am after everyone had surrounded me as the stranger for more singing, dancing and drumming, I was suprised it was 5, it didn’t seem so late!

Apart from the local customs and rituals the beauty of Goulmima’s date palm groves is worth witnessing, you can walk for a long time without seeing buildings or from one house to another. This is where the most prized dates are grown and food and fruit are in plentiful supply. You can also explore the old Ksar the origins of Goulmima where many local families began their life here in small dark thick walled houses, now these families have been given land to build houses near the tropical gardens. A short trip from Goulmima there are many nice places to visit; an outdoor Oasis pool between Goulmima and Errachidia full of kids in the Summer, a thermal natural Hammam on the road to Fez, and the Mountains and river for sunset views and picnics.

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This is the real Morocco for me – the rural places far away from the main cities and the tourist trail. If you want more tips or a place to stay, tap me up.

Ramadamadingdong

This is my first Ramadan, I’m not a muslim but I’m keen to be empathetic and understand the concept of going without – sounds like a good idea in our modern age of excesses I thought.

So here I am a week in and these are the things I’ve noticed (bearing in mind I’m not praying so I can’t comment on that aspect and what it might bring to the party).

1. Feeling hangry
Yes the first few days are hard, you do feel a bit hungry and angry at times – but it gets a lot easier as your body gets into the rhythm. Your stomach shrinks so you can’t actually manage as much food when it comes which is a disappointment when you finally ‘break-fast’ in the evening!

2. The joy of food
The joy of food as the sun-down prayer is called is kind of off-set by the lack of joy in the rest of the day, you realise how much you depend on those small moments of pleasure brought by a cup of coffee and a biscuit, or a nice breakfast. Its not that you miss the food itself, you can get used to not having it, its more the emotional and psychological benefits food brings in terms of reward, comfort, sociability etc that you miss. Sweet things tend to be the go to pre-Iftar purchase, you can see the fevered hands of staff piling up boxes of sweet treats at Pain Quotedienne in Marrakech after 5pm, it’s these sweet treats which mean that most people don’t lose weight during fasting!

3. Mental effects
You feel more sedate – things aren’t as exciting, and you get a slight dizziness and fatigue. The calls to prayer start to mean a lot more if you’re not a muslim (time to eat, time to stop) and sound a bit more haunting than usual – I think they are more passionately sung. There are more outward shows of prayer in the streets which creates a kind of hysteric atmosphere I think. People seem to change their mood also, just before the Ftour in particular the guys seem to get more combative and provocative in the street, kids become more energetic. Women, they look tired no doubt from cooking up a storm every night!

4. Goodness effects
Thinking of others is a key part of Ramadan, however of course we should do this all year round. I have noticed a bit more empathy but funnily enough less to the people more to innocent animals. I don’t know if it was an effect or coincidence but we adopted a small black kitten that was screaming with runny eyes in the Jamal Fna – it was a funny moment as we’d just watch the mass prayer and had a conversation about actually what believing in God is – about what you do not how many times you pray, and hey ho we adopted a kitten.

Health wise it is meant to be good for you fasting, however, the lack of water is an issue – surely your organs need water it’s our life force, its that I’ve missed most – even down to having drier eyes and not being able to see so well at times. Water also is a great energiser, it makes you feel less tired, so fatigue is of course a side effect which is a problem if you have a busy job – I can’t imagine how people with hard manual jobs fair.

I’ll update this article at the end of Ramadan with the ding dong which is Eid, now – where are those pastries…

The Children of Tamesloht

It’s hard coming from a privileged society to reconcile the tension between the innate push to realise your own potential as an independent thinker with possibilities, with the knowledge that people just down the road find it almost impossible just to eat and get through each day. This became even more evident to me during a trip with Epic Morocco to learn more about the Children of Tamesloht, a small village just outside of Marrakesh that has many rural attractions, but which was hit by an earthquake which wreaked chaos and created many difficulties for the children that lived there.

Luckily for these children, two Dutch women who were working with the women in the local co-ops on artistic ventures decided they could do something to help – it wasn’t easy they say, you have to be a bit crazy to even try but the rewards are great. Fiers et Forts is a wonderful refuge and development centre, each child here has a story and one which is known intimately by the carers, and any one of these stories will make you cry.

Dorine the director of the centre told us one such story about a small boy;

‘For the first three years of his life he followed his naked foraging mother like a feral animal, trying to avoid the stones she would throw behind her to drive him away’

Its hard not to be jolted into another’s reality when faced with such a tale. However, rather than depress you with other sad stories, Dorine painted us a picture of a gentle, safe place situated in beautiful gardens, a place which is full of light and laughter where children find safety, make friends and develop to be their best selves, in spite of what has happened to them.

There are many success stories; a boy who trained in the Royal Mansour kitchens through a mentoring programme and is now a pastry chef, another who now runs two Riads – both are financially independent and doing well.

I was struck in conversation by a common theme of seeking out and nurturing the talents, passions and strengths of each child whatever they are. It’s this dedication which has helped one of the boys who is extremely bright to focus on a journey to becoming a vet, inspired by the animals around him.

Children selected for help at the centre are the most needy, usually they are a ward of court, and in a life threatening situation. When accepted by the centre, each has an individual development plan, and a ‘teacher/carer’ is responsible for their wellbeing and development. There is a psychologist who provides advice to the staff and even an on-site dentist. A small holding with chickens and farm animals provides opportunities for having a go at nurturing and the lovely ‘Nus’ a loving Labrador who roams the site has, we are told, been privy to many a child’s sorry tale as they start on a journey of trust.

‘This girl is 17’ Dorine tells us pointing to a small girl who looks no older than 13, her brain has not developed to the extent that she can learn in a class room, therefore the centre is teaching her life skill’s, ‘we made her director of chickens with the job of counting the eggs’.

The centre is supported by sponsors such as The Royal Mansour and very soon Epic Morocco, but the bulk of the funding came from a high profile art auction which gained international support and funded the building work. There are many opportunities for hands on team work and getting involved, for instance the Hammam was designed and created for the children by student architects with a passion to get off paper and create something tangible to bring to life the theory they are learning.

There is of course a need for ongoing support, they cook 140 meals a day here and have 94 kids to care for of which 36 are boarders. There is a sponsor a child programme however even if the basic overheads are met, there are always ‘surprises’ which haven’t been accounted for.

‘This boy has just had a second operation 3 weeks ago to remove a brain tumour’ Dorine points to a smiling boy with a baseball hat playing table football with other boys.

‘He’s very brave, obviously we didn’t account for the extra cost, there is another boy who needs a new leg, and another who underwent a lot of surgery following a road accident’.

The children here have a strong bond with each other, they are like family and even those who have left come back to see their ‘brothers and sisters’.

It must be hard to leave such a sanctuary, but Dorine and the team are putting in place plans for a half way house to create a bridge for those older children moving on into the cities and world at large to learn independence while maintaining a connection to their ‘home’.

Fiers et Forts and the village itself are well worth visiting, there is an old Kasbah there and weaving and ceramic workshops which create lovely pieces designed to suit the European taste. Certainly they are not open to bus tours, but families, individuals or small groups will, I know, find the visit inspiring. It helps to contextualise things with visits like this – it’s easy to live in a tourist ‘bubble’ but this is about an aspect of real life here – not dressed up, but gritty and real.

If you want to visit, or to donate you can contact Dorine Eijakman at Fiers et Forts or Carla at Epic Morocco (they can tailor-make a village visit).

Morocco – the birthplace of man?

My best read over the holiday was ‘Sapiens – A brief history of mankind’ I’ve yet to finish the second book ‘Homo Deus – A brief history of tomorrow’ but I can’t wait. This is the right time to take a look at our distant past and evolution as a species as it helps us to contextualise the massive transformational changes we are experiencing today by putting them in a wider evolutionary context.

So imagine my excitement when I returned to Morocco after the break to find that we are now home to the oldest Homo Sapien finds in the World. Previously, as most of us know, it was thought that the first examples of our closest ancestors came from East Africa then migrating into Europe and eventually America, the East etc. This new find throws that theory into doubt.

Morocco is a magical place and there is an ancient feeling here, a ‘natural energy’ as I’ve mentioned before, so I wasn’t surprised about this find. This is the place where we first foraged, the original Eden, and personally I’m enjoying the chance to experience and relearn the ways of the past while staying part of today’s digital generation.

For more information on the fossil find click on the link to read an article from the NY Times

To order the book I was mentioning click on the link to check Amazon.

Young Creatives in Marrakech

Hassan Hajjaj, currently showing at Somerset House has done a lot to create a hub for the creative community in Marrakech. I visited his atelier and ‘home’ installation on Rue De Yugoslavie, Gueliz. This is an apartment and creative space housing a gallery and lounge for guests – everything is for sale.

Hassan Hajjaj studio and gallery in Gueliz

Whilst I didn’t bump into Hassan himself (although I hope to interview him when he’s back from his tour) I did have the pleasure to meet one of his friends Meriem, who has her own practice in the studio space.

I was struck by the big hearted nature of this young Moroccan lady who is inspired to tell photographic stories about the hurt she feels inside for the impoverished elderly and abandoned children who can be found in the streets asking for money and food. ‘I ask myself – what if it was my Mum’ she said.

I talked to Meriem a bit more about her work in the studio, over a cup of mint tea and piece of pear and apple cake. It is her first interview to camera in English and I think she did pretty well!

I hope to work with Meriem on a project for a local Children’s charity, if the founder is accepting. Her biggest hurdle is finding good quality printers here who can handle large scale photographs – if any locals have a recommendation, let me know!

Listen to Meriem talking about her work here…

Meriem_AtelierHassanHajjaj_SM from Sara Marshall on Vimeo.

Vanessa Somers Vreeland

On Sunday night I went to the opening of the Vanessa Somers Vreeland exhibition at Galerie Re, which was hosted by her family and friends as a tribute.

Beyond the glittering beauty of the mosaic artwork itself what struck me was the verve with which this lady seemed to have lived her life – which we discovered during speeches by her family and friends. She was it seems a fearless and beautiful lady who ran away from home at 17 to go to Paris, struck a modelling deal (some of her portraits are showing at the exhibition), married a multi-millionaire and travelled the world.

Vanessa’s Mosaics

She married twice and lived with her second husband Frederick ‘Freck’ Vreeland (the former US Ambassador to Morocco) between Italy and a house in Le Palmeraie (an oasis so named due to the numerous palms said to have sprung up from date seeds buried by soldiers in the area during the Almoravid Empire). The house was designed detailed by a friend of mine, architect David Kitt. The day after the exhibition opening, I had the chance to visit this house and another Vanessa and Freck had commissioned in the Atlas before Vanessa died.

As with much of art a true appreciation comes not just from hovering around the work itself glass of wine in hand, but understanding where it came from. It was therefore a privilege to feel like I was getting closer to Vanessa, what she was inspired by and how this was reflected in her mosaic work during these visits the following day.

The Le Palmerie house features some of Vanessa’s mosaics on the interior walls and a stunning large piece which adorns the swimming pool. Visiting the house you feel like you are tripping back to a different era in Marrakesh, it feels both bohemian and idiosyncratic. There is a maze, and in the old days the family had their own camel tethered in the garden for rides at the house. The house comes in two parts the ‘dollshouse’ and ‘the big house’, when it was first built it stood on its own, now it is joined by some wealthy neighbours.

Mosaic at the Palmaraie House

Finding a quiet and scenic spot for a second house on the Ourika Road on the way to the Atlas unearthed what is now an architectural dig at Aghmat as important as Volubilis, which with funding will be accompanied by a museum telling the story of the 1000 year old space which housed a mosque, hammam and palace and was said to be the original 1st City of the Almavoid Empire and home to famous queen Zainab before the waters there dried up.

Palace at Ahmet

To find out more, visit Gallerie Re and immerse yourself in the inspiring story of an adventurous and creative Marrakchi.