Running with Gazelles in Morocco
By Janis Turk
Days passed in a whirlwind of happiness — much like one’s wedding day — a blissful montage of memories all mixed and muddled and rushing by. I could sense them running alongside me, blurring the scenery, panting as they ran, protecting and delighting me.
In the marketplace, huge honeycombed dye pots for leather steep color into my spirit. Before dawn, the sound of prayers and tolling bells creep into my semi-conscious state like tigers into a forest. There are teapots and bracelets, hammams and hennaed hands, donkeys as Coca-Cola distributors in the marketplace, mosques and music — all balm for secret wounds.
But as Paul Bowles writes, “The sky hides the night behind it,” and soon my heart clouds with the fear that I will soon leave the sun-baked walls of Fes and return to the darkness that I saw my life at home to hold.
On my last morning in Morocco, I wander in the souk of Féz Medina. In this mystic labyrinth of wending passageways and streets so narrow, I know it is possible to get lost and never find my way out again.
An old man with a basket of rose petals sits on the ground. Another man has big yellow barrels of jasmine honey for me to taste. Silver sardines gleam in baskets at my feet. Boys tap intricate patterns into brass plates, chickens are decapitated before my eyes, hides are scraped with butcher-like blades, and bits of blood and hair cake on my sandals. I don’t care. There is music. There are people. There are smells. There are prayers. There is light.
I turn corner after corner, moving through the crowds, through a growing heat coming from within. Deeper and deeper I go, I feel myself vanish into Morocco and my memories. The more lost I become, the more I know where I am.
Maps, poems, stories, secrets, wishes swoosh and swirl around me. Baskets hang from doorways. Carpets sit in stacks. It is glorious. Completely overwhelmed, surprised by joy, I lean against big brown doors leading to ancient inns. School children sing in French as they run past me. The Medina engulfs me, and I am woozy with the heady perfume of this place.
That afternoon, I visit a strange spa in the hills outside of town — a retro place with a bizarre Road to Wellville feel. There, one of the more peculiar experiences I have is a kind of massage by massive fire hose — a young girl stands me against a wall and hoses me down.
It hurts and tickles all at once. At first the pressure slaps hard and stings. Then I feel as though I were a child whose brother will not stop squirting her with a garden hose. Baptized in a wash of childhood memories, I am cleansed in a way that simultaneously hurts and feels good.
Next, the girl leads me to a makeshift hammam — a drippy green and black cave with a strong smell of sulfur. Wearing plastic flip flops and a tattered terry-cloth robe, I wander deep into the long, narrow darkness. In obscurity at the end of it all, I sit in a plastic chair as the cave fills with steam.
Slowly, in the distance a luminous figure emerges. I see a beautiful young woman coming toward me in the glowing sulfur vapor. Surrounding her in the clouds of steam, I see them, too — tan and beige bodies, lithe, forceful, strident; white tails leaping, horns curving around her cleavage, gracefulness galloping, gathering her up in their herd. She is lovely and naked, protected, regal, unafraid. I smile to recognize her at last.
Yes, she’d had to disguise herself for a while to live among men, but now she will reveal her true identity to them. At first they may be startled, afraid or simply mesmerized — but those who truly love her will be happy to have her back.
WANT TO GO?
Marrakech’s Plaza Djemaa El Fna is the throbbing heart of Morocco’s most famous city, and who knows what wild and amazing thing you’ll see there. Vendors roll out their carpets and carts, musicians beat drums and play lutes, and street performers — snake charmers and men with monkeys — will lure you like a cobra from a basket.
In the shadow of the mosque, the plaza is a cool chaotic place where merchants hawk everything from turtles to T-shirts. Mules and motorbikes rush by, disappearing into the dusty souks.
Reminiscent of a Moroccan riad, or guesthouse, La Maison Arabe is an exquisite luxury boutique hotel in Marrakech with a dark well-stocked bar, fine restaurants and an extraordinary spa and hammam. Visit the hotel’s “country club” — with its large swimming pool, fashionable lounge and bar areas, cooking class kitchens and dining areas — including an exotic carpet- and drape-filled Bedouin tent.
Both the Amanjena Luxury Hotel and Resort and the elegant Jnane Tasma resort offer luxury to the discriminating traveler, as does the stylish guest house with its magic carpet and rooftop tent, Riad AnaYela.Or take a hard-core adventure trek at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, sleep in a Bedouin tent, try a ropes course and Zip-line, ride a mountain bike, and sit under the stars at Terre d’Amanar (www. terresdamanar.com) a Moroccan adventure camp. With nice indoor suites, too.
Feel the dizzy wonder of skinny streets and dark passageways in the magical city of Féz, one of the most well-preserved ancient cities in the Arab world. Enlist a licensed guide to help you through the mad maze of the souks, and visit the Tannery Chouara where leather hides are dyed.
Bono recently stayed here, and you’ll like it too at Sofitel Fes Palais Jamaï. Once the residence of the Grand Vizir of Jamaï, today this Moorish palace is a popular hotel in the Medina. Or enjoy one-thousand-and-one nights at Riad El Yacout, an affordable magnificent traditional Moroccan guest house.
Mouley Yacoub is the name of the unusual hot springs village “thermal station” where I visited the old-fashioned spa. It rests just 20-30 minutes outside the city of Fez in the hills. Take a taxi or rent a driver at your hotel to take you here.
Since the cult movie Casablanca debuted in 1942, this modern coastal town has been synonymous with romance. There, visit the real Rick’s Cafe set in an old courtyard-style mansion. Rick’s is sophisticated, casual, classic and contemporary — a place you’ll remember as time goes by.
My first taste of Morocco was Tangiers. I stayed at an old, historic Hotel Minzah with its courtyard surrounded by grand arches. While in Tangier I visited a delightful small hotel called Le Mirage on a cliff with view of the coastline. There I was lucky enough to have lunch with a lovely expat American who had lived in Tangier for many years.
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