On a recent trip to Morocco, I read the book ‘In Arabian Nights’ by Tahir Shah.
Through this remarkable book, many of the things my friends and I were noticing about the culture we found ourselves experiencing came into focus.
Marrakesh feels like an assault on the senses. Every narrow alley and bustling square is filled with market stalls, donkeys, motorbikes, and every kind of person. From gormless tourists to hippies, traditionally dressed bedouin and berber to innumerable Moroccan traders seeking to entice everyone else into their shops crammed with goods.
It can be an uncomfortable place – squeezing through impossibly tiny spaces, having menus and goods thrust at you, not to mention the catcalling my female friends experienced. In his book, Shah talks about the formidable Moroccan women who rule the roost at home, but it’s an unpleasant realisation that many men see western women as completely different.
Interestingly, the favourite name that the sellers called at me was ‘Ali Baba.’ For a rather pasty Englishman I found this quite hilarious. Ali Baba is one of the characters that we in the West associate with the ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ – the collection of tales told through generations in the deserts of Arabia and North Africa.
In legend, these stories would be told around the campfire to keep the minds of shepherds and merchants alert as they travelled the trade routes and pilgrimage trails, all the way from Baghdad to Timbuktu. Each story is viewed as a vessel for some lesson or message, passed on from a time before writing.
The historical art of storytelling still holds sway over many in Morocco. You can see how the past in much closer to the surface in the crumbling, donkey-filled streets of Marrakesh. We are very good an sanitising our cities in Europe. In some ways, the markets of Morocco have not changed for a thousand years. The goods made and sold, the leather and metal and wood, have been made for generations.
‘In Arabian Nights’ is in part the search for the story ‘in the heart’ of the author. It is also a panorama of life in Morocco for an outsider, albeit one who speaks the language. You can see in its pages the way that superstition and stories permeate the streets of this ancient kingdom, like the sun streaming through the geometric roofs of the covered markets.
One of the highlights of our trip was a tour with a local guide to the local countryside. We visited the High Atlas mountains and the desert, rode on camels and wandered through abandoned villages. Talking with our guide, we learned about how Moroccans pride themselves on their religious tolerance, as well as their Muslim heritage. Our assumptions were challenged, even as we were acutely aware of our whiteness and foreignness.
Shah discusses the phenomenon of mass tourism in his book. How the locals are very happy for the money tourism brings, and thanks to the high value they place on hospitality, are wonderful hosts. Our riad had it’s own cook, who was one of the most wonderfully kind and caring people we met. She prepared us delicious food and copious amounts of refreshing mint tea.
I can’t help but worry that Morocco is being spoiled by tourism, yet at the same time something about the country seemed remarkably ancient and unchanged. Shah talks about ‘rivers of words’ flowing below the streets and the sands of the country, deep enough that they are untouched by the modern world. These rivers link Moroccans together and back in time to their ancestors.
The love that bonds the people to each other, to their community, and to their past, goes beyond our Western conception. It is tied up with obligation and family in a way that our individualism has turned away from. Undoubtedly their are negative aspects to this and it was very noticeable how different, often negatively, gender relations were on our short visit. Yet the bonds of love and community seemed so much stronger, so much deeper, than we experience. It got us thinking about how new our ‘western’ way of life is. How so much has changed so fast. What have we lost?
I can’t recommend this wonderful book highly enough, but you should be sure to read it in Morocco. Let the rivers of words and the ancient charm wash over you and see what you learn.