Marrakech Market

Hanging on the studio wall above my computer is a pencil drawing by the late Terence Cuneo of child beggars in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. For many years, he followed in his father’s footsteps working for the London Illustrated News, producing drawings and paintings from lands distant and exotic for a readership living in the sceptred isle.

My painting of a children’s clothing shop in Marrakech strikes me as other worldly. To be sure, children’s wear is a common, ordinary classification of merchandise, but set in the streets of this Moroccan city churning with humanity, this everyday subject takes on a new perspective.

Our ship stopped at Morocco as part of a relocation cruise from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Barcelona, Spain. We chose a day-long bus tour from Casablanca to visit Marrakech. We could have toured all the Hollywood related sites but chose instead to spend most of the morning driving through arid landscape that was only occasionally animated with a few goats and a herder.

We did have one rest stop along the way where it was necessary to purchase toilet paper by the square from an attendant. Strangely, the tourist place where we broke our journey looked new and almost American in style. There was no trace of the traditional architecture which features arches and much intense painted or tiled decoration.

When we arrived in Jemaa el-Fna, the main square in Marrakech, a huge space the size of two football fields, we were told to be alert as pickpockets made a good living from the tourists, and the local authorities were not very bothered by this, thinking, I assume, that rich tourists were fair game.

Following a guide, we visited the much celebrated labyrinth of shops called the souk in the medina or old town. Over 40,000 artisans toil in small, poorly lit stalls in this vast complex. “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it” seemed to be the attitude, as the range of merchandise from live animals to spices competed shoulder to shoulder with rugs, clothing, housewares and motorcycles. The noise of the crowds punctuated by the cries of the merchants, music from various stalls, and throaty bark of motorcycles added to the general sense of chaos. The smells of animals, cooking food, and dusty heat combined with gasoline fumes and eastern spices to make for sensory overload.

After the heat and confusion of the shopping area, we followed our guide through a small archway into a cool, dark restaurant. Sitting in a room with twenty-foot ceilings, we feasted first on the tiled décor. Intense repeat patterning in strong shades of blue, green, gold and pink were lit subtly by clerestory windows that surrounded the huge banquet hall.

Our meal of Moroccan chicken and beef stew in couscous was complemented by cabbage salad, cucumbers, figs and oranges. Marilyn wrote in her scrap book that this was the best meal of the whole trip. In fact, Moroccan chicken has become a great favourite at our house. Surprisingly, we also had wine and beer. I didn’t know if in that Muslim country alcohol would be permitted.

After the meal was completed, a band of six musicians playing drums, tambourines, flute and triangle led the procession around this cavernous place, followed by a dancer who certainly put the belly in belly dancer. Photographs in this restaurant were encouraged, while on the street, picture-taking was discouraged until a fee was paid.

I was pleased to visit this exotic place, one of those spots that we are acquainted with, but few have the chance to visit. With television, movies and books, our mental world is studded with buildings and views that we all know but will never really see.

My late friend, Terence Cuneo, has added to the picture library in my head, and perhaps I have brought something to yours.