words & images rosie garthwaite
When you think of Morocco, even if you have never been before, you probably think of it as a place full of romance and golden hues, pinks, bright blues, and sunny yellows. Of the snowy mountains, the tight higgledy-piggledy streets of the cities stuck in a time warp, and long empty white and windy beaches. If you have been, you might think about its friendly and damn good-looking population who seem to all speak at least three languages each. A square packed with storytellers and snake charmers and just plain old normal charmers who will tell you their tale and make money flow out of your pocket. Souqs with enough choices and prices to guarantee that you need to buy an extra bag before heading home.
People have been writing up Morocco as a perfect holiday destination for hundreds of years now. By the end of the nineteenth century, people started warning about the dangerous influences of Western tourism on the country. Talking about the city of Fez in 1930, a man called Josef von Sternberg wrote, “The scum of European barbarism obtrude on the senses at every step. Many modern buildings…spoil the harmony of this Arabian poem in stone.” We—the foreigners—have always liked Morocco the way it is. A few more hand towels here and there are nice and a flushing toilet or two have been much appreciated. Your poof may fall apart on landing. Your carpet may shrink upon unwrapping but we forgive everything because that is what we expect from Morocco. Well, I am here to tell you that our romanticization of the country and its own assertion of an identity wrapped up in an ancient aesthetic and standards almost led to the loss of everything. By the end of the twentieth century, the world’s standards had gone up and Morocco’s had stayed put. The exports slowed and the import of tourists was stagnant.
The French realized they were onto something when they took Morocco as a part of their empire. They never really let go. When the country’s economy was unravelling in the late '80s and ’90s and the artisans and artists were slowly closing up their apprenticeships and turning to more mundane, reliable work, the French bought up the beautiful spots, the city riads and the coastal villages in their dozens. Then, slowly, they started to restore and renew and demand better and more beautiful. Nowhere more so than in Marrakesh.
The mosaic makers and lamp metal workers and wall makers came back to work. But, until recently, that artistic renewal had been kept behind closed doors and was accessible mainly to outsiders or to the mega-rich. Now the king is on a mission to bring the rest of the country up to scratch: to make Morocco a place of high standards, higher prices, and a better all-around economy for his people. And he has set his own, very extraordinary example, in the building of the Royal Mansour Hotel. It took five years to complete, and more than 1,500 artisans from across Morocco worked on this masterpiece. It opened five years ago and every artisan I met in the nearby souq feels that they were a part of it.
Every last detail of this extraordinarily luxurious hotel has been thought of. The chiaroscuro effect of the metal work and lights and water across each and every wall is a treat for the eyes at night. And in the daytime a delicate mosaic that would have made Romans weep with delight is revealed. It is a city within a city but without the hustle-bustle (all the staff travel through underground corridors that are modeled on an ancient palace system). Privacy is matched with familiarity; all roads lead to the central courtyard and friendly faces are there to help you decide which delicious meal you are going to have next. The wit of the head chef, Yannick Alleno, with his edgy, performance-driven versions of classic dishes literally made me laugh out loud and grin through every mouthful.
I have been to Morocco four times but only discovered that they had wine worth drinking—really stunning wine—here in this hotel. But that is not surprising. Staying in the hotel was akin to the king himself putting on a show for me and all my fellow guests, each minute of the day; at every turn the hotel subtly says to all your senses, “Try me, I am very special, and I am Moroccan.”
Tourism accounts for 8% of the economy right now, but the plan is to double that figure in the next five years. Take a walk into the souq behind Jamaa Al Fna square, looking for signs of this renaissance rather than the old familiar and you will find it. Above the tinkle of the snake charmer’s bells you will hear the tap-tap-tapping of the mosaic makers.
Bachir started out as an apprentice at twelve years old and quit school to go full-time at fourteen. He shows me his bible-sized photo book of completed works and I can see the development of his talent writ in the patterns of his life. Each square meter of even the moderately complex designs takes a week. He shows me one that he has called “Zeillig” which translates as “The Confuser of Brains,” and lingers. It took him time to make it. He can’t remember how much. Lots of people want him to repeat it now. He has been working for 26 years but almost had to stop ten years ago. “We could not afford the apprentices,” he said. “The work was too simple, too crude, and there was not enough of it.” But he says business is booming now. He barely pauses from his work to talk to me. "Has he worked for the king?" I asked. He smiles, turns his eyes to his work, smiles bigger, pauses, and nods.
Each courtyard and narrow route is a hive of industry. Some are mass-producing, two-dollar sequined slippers. But others are proudly trying something new. Even the people feeding the artisans are picking up their game. As I tiptoe past the roasted lamb feet hoping not to catch anyone’s eye, I spy a chef’s hat sparkling white in a small patch of sun. Chef Bakchich has half of a Ratatouille sticker on his hat. He laughs as he tells me about his children, insisting that he is not a cook at all; it is a mouse of Disney fame that does it all. I notice a cat nearby sitting in a human pose waiting for his plate. However he does it, the food Chef Bakchich makes is light and fresh and different from everything else I have seen in the more touristy areas. Celery, olives, and chicken in a light broth. It is yummy and as much something to remember as the Michelin-styled dishes at the Royal Mansour.
The clay tagine pots are ubiquitous but what is under them varies wildly, from the horribly average tourist tagine pap to the spicy individual flavors of the nation’s proud dish well done. The best I had was half an hour outside the city in Ourika, nestled at the bottom of the Atlas Mountains. I was at an organic garden called Naturome to see how the oils and perfumes of the Royal Mansour were made. At the end of my walk through the gardens, crushed herbs running through my fingers, they bought me a chicken tagine and fresh salad made with ingredients grown just meters away, and we sat under sweet jasmine, surrounded by lavender, meters from an Argan oil tree, and ate and were happy. Given that the prices here were the same as the souq’s dodgy-looking lotions and potions I would highly recommend the visit.
Dive farther into the mountains and you will find family factories dotted along the road. Mohammed and his young daughter and apprentice son are sitting in the sun keeping an eye on their drying pots; they are inspecting each of them for imperfections. Their whole world is within a few meters of this spot. The clay comes from the land behind them. They bash the air out of it in their workshop and ready it for moulding. Mohammed is in charge of the wheel, whipping out three perfect cups within a couple of minutes. They dry and then they go into the kiln. They make and sell hundreds a week. They say that Moroccans have always been fussy, but even tourists are demanding perfection now. Business is good and his children will join the business after they have finished school, even though they are working the day I visited, the weekend. My Berber guide is impressed with Mohammed’s foresight. He had to leave school early to feed his family.
With a little bit of determination you will stumble upon modern design boutiques in the souq. The process of finding these rare gems is a joy in itself.
Outside the souq, modern art and artisanship are finding room to breathe in the new part of the city, Gueliz. It is there that you will find the gallery of Yahya, a man whose very DNA is a representation of formulaic Morocco and perhaps some of the reasons behind its artistic success as a trading center of the world. Yahya’s mom is Catholic, English, German, and Irish. His dad is a Moroccan Jew. Yahya is a very British recent convert to Islam, and a proper gent. His work is one of the defining characteristics of the design of the Royal Mansour. He has taken the Moroccan lamp—the ones he used to sell by the shed-load to the Fez Club chain in the United Kingdom—and given it a facelift. His work is everywhere you look in the hotel, shining carefully designed light across the beautiful interiors of each room. The perfect and imperfect shadows they throw are more enveloping than any I have seen before.
Yahya’s techniques are so intricate that some people accuse him of using lasers to cut his lamps. Something that Yahya says is absolutely untrue: “all the work is done with jewelers’ blades and saws, carefully used by expert craftsmen.” The uniformity Yahya has worked to achieve with his team is the key to his success. His designs look nearly impossible to reproduce by hand. Yahya employs 300 people in his workshop, is already in many palaces, hotels, and homes around the world, and is hoping to take his brand global with other shops in major cities in the next few years. All this from a man who only discovered his “artsy side” about a decade ago when he “fell in love with light” watching his toddler son quietened and fascinated by a sparkle on a wall. His latest challenge, and a totally new direction for him in terms of design, is to place a seven-ton chandelier over the dining table of a client, safely. He explains the story of Akbar the Great, a sixteenth-century Indian Mughal emperor who wanted a giant dome built on his palace. In order to test it he asked that elephants be walked across the roof, and it caved in, killing a lot of elephants and men. The next time he asked that his architect ride the elephant across, and that time, it was fine.
If Marrakesh continues in the direction it is going, it will be a design center of the world in a few years’ time. If it is good enough for the king, then it is good enough for everybody.
Ed Note—Correction: the print version contains an error about Yahya's use of laser cutting. All his lamps are handmade. "Royal Renaissance was first published in [wherever] number 5.