Time stopped for me when I visited the Maghreb, especially when I landed in
Morocco – known and once feared as part of the treacherous Barbara Coast. You
see, Morocco can play havoc with your imagination; a mirage can appear in front
of you at any moment.
One day I found myself in the Atlas Mountains on my
way from Fez to Marrakech, via a shortcut through the mountains, a drive which
would save several hours of travel. The shortcut is well worth the trip, not
only because it saves time, but also because the views are magnificent. I would
observe great cedar forces, caves and gorges, my guide told me.
morning greeted me, a little too cold even for Morocco, which supports a
cultivated country of fields, farms, orchards and gardens, along with deserts,
oases and even sandstorms. So we set off, accompanied by our guide, El Kerchi
Abdullatif of Heritage Tours Private Travel.
Surprise, surprise – snow
began to fall! Not heavy, but enough to blanket the road up ahead. A thin,
wooden barrier pole came down at the checkpoint. We stopped.
kept falling. We sat on the road for over an hour, the heater barely warming us
on the backseat.
There was no letup; the snowflakes didn’t stop, and
officials at the checkpoint prevented us from proceeding onto the mountain road
to Marrakech. We detoured to the coastal road, and reached our destination many
When I returned to the US and met up with some of my
colleagues, my first words were: “I got caught in a snowstorm!” They were
Why not? It’s the unusual, the exotic, that makes a good
story of a travel vacation. Obviously, I could have done without the
Finally, entering Marrakech, I recalled a line from Paul Bowles
novel, Let It Come Down. “Do you know Marrakech? Ah, you must go.
winter it is beautiful.”
I checked into La Mamounia, the grand dame hotel
The establishment takes its name from the surrounding
gardens which were once called the “Arste El Mamoun.” The park covers nearly 20
Hotel La Mamounia is located on Avenue Bab Jdid, in the heart of
Marrakech, within an idyllic 17-acre garden surrounded by 12th-century ramparts.
Described as a palace, the hotel has 136 rooms and 71 suites. The hotel stands
as a legend, a fable unfolding timeless Marrakech. An ambitious renovation by
French designer Jacques Garcia, unveiled in 2009, has turned the original deco
complex into a lavish, distinctly Moroccan landmark, decked out with a spa, a
fitness center and a quartet of restaurants.
Marrakech has served as one
of the greatest trading centers of the Sahara, and is described as the last
large outpost this side of the snowcapped High Atlas Mountains and the desert
Some believe you don’t need a guide in Marrakech. The only
itinerary to follow is to find the next great meal, museum, outdoor market, or
cafe in this adventurous and exotic destination. Still, you should have a guide
in the souk.
As I sat in the hotel I thought of the illustrious names of
those who had stayed here before me.
Shall I start with Winston S.
Churchill? Mirage again! There he is! Winnie – a photo of Churchill standing in
the garden of La Mamounia. The great statesman’s left hand is in his suit jacket
pocket, his right hand holding a long cigar.
Another photo with no hat
on; but next to it, the famous shot of Churchill sitting in a patch of desert,
painting the landscape. He is wearing a white suit and a brown hat, a cigar held
tight in his mouth, with paintbrush in hand.
Historic La Mamounia Hotel
has been visited by hundreds of dignitaries.
Churchill himself took US
president Franklin D. Roosevelt to the hotel after the Casablanca conference in
1943. Churchill, the consummate artist, stayed at this wonderful establishment
and is reported to have said that the view from the roof was
Other stars, artists and government officials who have
stopped at La Mamounia include Isaac Stern, Yoko Ono, Sharon Stone, Tom Cruise,
Elton John, Joan Collins, and Catherine Deneuve, as well as Hillary and Chelsea
Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth II and Ronald Reagan. Also, Enrico
Macias, the famous French-Jewish international singer and musician, who hailed
from Constantine, Algeria.
Churchill had his own suite at La Mamounia,
and this writer was privileged to see it. Brightly colored furniture fills the
room. I stand by his desk, which remains untouched, and even spy one of his old
hats hanging from a coat rack. The suite is preserved exactly as it was when he
last stayed there. I went up to the rooftop of La Mamounia at dusk and watched
the sun set. Churchill was right; it is paintaceous.
“Wait until five
o’clock,” El Kherchi Abdellatif, our guide says. “I have something magnificent
to show you.”
I’m standing in the huge Djemaa el-Fna Square, the cultural
and entertainment crossroads for all of Morocco. No wonder the tour buses were
lined up around the square.
The city’s main square comes to life each
evening with acrobats and storytellers and food stalls. Djemaa el-Fna means
“Square of Execution.”
A century ago, the heads of people executed for
conspiracy against the sultan were publicly exhibited in this square. But today,
it is a huge stage for performers, outdoor stalls and cafes. This frenetic
square – said to be the greatest in all of Africa—is a sight not to be
Here, you can observe the spectacle below: costumed musicians,
acrobats, snakecharmers, fortunetellers – all practicing their
And in the square itself, for a few coins, you can take a photo
of these exhibitions. Brassware, jewelry, carpets, leather goods and pottery can
be obtained here, in and around the square.
If you miss these items in
Marrakech, you’ll have opportunities to buy similar goods in other cities. As
dusk fell on the square, the mystique of North Africa enveloped me.
city itself is expanding,” said Jacky Kadoch, president of the Jewish Community
of Marrakech, a small Jewish group – actually 148 persons – with two synagogues.
The newer, modern house of worship is located in the New Town at Boulevard
Zerktouni (Gueliz) and is visited by most Jewish tourists on Friday night and
Saturday morning and holidays, when services are held.
Men and women sit
separately in this Orthodox synagogue, which contains 200 seats. Another
synagogue is located in the Old Town, (the mellah) at rue Talmud Torah and is
Jacky Kadoch indicated that tourism is expanding, and many
Europeans, including Jewish businesspeople, are investing in this commercial
city, After all, it is a former capital, a tourist center, and a metropolis for
the High Atlas Mountains and the northwest Sahara. You can observe mountain and
desert people visiting the city markets to exchange skins, hides, dates and
animals for cereals and imported goods.
As far as the Moroccan law to
outlaw contacts with Israel, Kadoch told JTA and this writer at the end of
November that the bills have no chance of passing since King Mohammed VI “will
never allow it.”
The king is considered friendly to Israel. In a phone
interview he added that a number of Israeli groups were coming for the
Once the capital of Morocco, Marrakech has always retained its
economic importance. Indeed, it is said that from 1745, Jews lived in Marrakech
in better conditions than anywhere else in Morocco.
flourished in the city, many Jews from throughout North Africa came to study
with the kabbalists.
The guides and Jewish leaders taught me that when a
vast Jewish population existed here, many of Morocco’s educated Jewish elite
inclined toward mysticism and studied kabbala. The souks (markets) in Marrakech
are picturesque, though not quite as crowded or medieval as those in Fez. I
found bargains galore. In these markets, one is obliged to bargain. Indeed, it
seems bargaining is the most popular sport in the country. Whether in busy old
markets, boutiques, hotels, or airports, the reduce-the-price discourse comes
Before Israel’s independence in 1948, about 30,000 Jews lived
in Marrakech. In 1951, the Jewish population dropped to just 17,000, and by
1960, to only 10,000. Most went to Israel. By 1970, only a few hundred Jews
remained. As I departed this “oasis city,” I realized why many Moroccan Jews
have a special place in their hearts for Marrakech.
Ben G. Frank, a
journalist and travel writer, is the author of the just-published Klara’s
Journey, A Novel, (Marion Street Press) and The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the
Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond, (Globe Pequot Press); Blog:
www.bengfrank.blogspot.com, twitter @bengfrank