Drums, fire and tarot cards... 'Mab travels to Morocco - Episode VI: Marrakesh'

Morocco seems so long ago now, and it is the curse of long-distance relationships that you forget the hard truths and remember the magic, constructing your beloved out of fragments of memories, images and feelings, mementos you've collected and brought back from the days you spent together. Good thing I believe in magic. And my ink pen on yellowed pages of my journal, which always remembers all I could forget. You should see my notes on Marrakesh. Let me show you. It goes like this: red, storks, donkeys, apparently I'm wearing men's clothing - do I care - nope, souks get lost don't panic, jemaa el fnaa empty and quiet how nice, can't look at anymore Touareg jewellery, where are the galettes, storks, so many cats, red, can you drink too much mint tea, I can discuss forever can you?, lion king style sunset, jemaa el fnaa what the fuck can we stop time, I need those cards from that fortune teller, donkeys, my Moroccan drink is fanta lemon, storks, henna ladies are mean, cats, fortune tellers, drums, drums, drums, fire and tarot cards and spicy tea that burns and makes you crave sugar, it is all witchcraft, I'm staying here, red, drums, ... and then there is the diary of my days in the red city.

The setting sun left a permanent mark on the dwelling in the desert, red roofs looking over red streets, though I don't see it in colour untill the next day. When we arrive to Marrakesh, the sun is long gone, and the night blankets the streets that are strangers to me yet. Places are people, and Marrakesh is Salmane, the poet on a motorbike, the caring host and guide, and my first time ever meeting an unreliable narrator in flesh, a trickster at first careful and then bold and confrontational, and oh how we're trying to figure each other out and how much fun we have with it! He knows a lot more than he is telling, and still telling a lot, and any topic can and does turn into a heated discussion with disregard to limits of possibilities and logic. It is a delight to engage in passionate academic arguments while walking towards the casbah, somehow we got from the living room to the main square and it is midnight, and I will probably never again see it as empty as that first night in Marrakesh, drums and voices and a small circle, halqa, around the musicians... now I know it was a friendly welcome and a smug understatement of what was to come. A rare, personal and intimate first meeting with the ancient intangible soul of Marrakesh, before it put on the mask and the hat with the bells and the public persona for the masses of tourists taking selfies with monkeys and then quickly escaping to one of the cafe terraces after being grabbed by a woman wielding a henna cone like a weapon...

We play tourists for a day, finding the beautiful Riad Zinoun, where we will be starting and ending the collective week, the others arrive in a few days and we scout the places we want to show them, and of course see for ourselves. Dar Si Said with its Museum of Moroccan Arts and breathtaking mosaic walls and decorative ceilings, Palais el Badi where dozens of storks nest on the palace ruins guarding the new MMP - Marrakech Museum for Photography and Visual Arts (absolutely worth a visit!), and our ever favourite resting oasis, base of operations, library, restaurant and information point, all wrapped up in awesome art, delicious food and genuinely friendly people, Cafe Clock! If navigating the underground corridors of Palais el Badi made me feel like a time traveler and an adventurous archaeologist (did I finally get to be Tomb Raider?!), Cafe Clock made me feel like standing in a current connecting the past and the present, in awe and respect of the history, and barely contained excitement for the future. Clock is a knot of interlaced paths, leading all the right people to their doors, and leaving them happier and with a promise to come back soon. We do come back. Pretty much every day. Perfect brunch with pancakes and fruits and dips and salads, and incredibly fun music session with some rad musicians, blog writing and book reading, coffee drinking and making new friends. A compulsory stop in Marrakesh!


Next on our plan is something, or rather someone I was really excited to meet - Amanda, the MarocMama herself! Her blog was one of my favorite information sources about Morocco, and I love her writing style. She and her husband Youssef meet us at the casbah and take us to one of their favourite restaurants, right on the Rue de Casbah, grilled meat and cooked beans and yummy sauces, great food to accompany a great conversation. If you want to eat your way through authentic Marrakesh, make sure to book the food tour, I definitely will next time I'm there! Also, Amanda's Instagram is a treasured little window to every-day life in Morocco.

Then it's the day when the rest of our little adventurous group arrives! Before leaving for the airport to pick them up, our curiosity leads us to the many art galleries in the newer part of the city we nicknamed 'hipster quarter'. Beautiful and original art on the walls of small independent galleries, little cafes and restaurants, antique furniture and decor shops, calligraphy street art across the road... I could spend quite some time here, I keep thinking as we hail a taxi and head for the airport.

I am always excited to show people around my favorite places, and I found quite a few of them in Marrakech, so it was natural to join the excitement which had everyone bouncing in their seats, and we made our stop at the riad as short as possible in order to have enough time for a walk through the casbah to Cafe Clock, in time for  the special evening programm - traditional storytelling by Moroccan master storytellers and their apprentices! Tonight is somewhat special, as there are two masters present, and joining the evening as a special guest is writer Richard Hamilton, who has been collecting the storytellers' stories and brought them out in the book ' The Last Storytellers'. As once the storytellers used to enchant the crowds at Jemaa el Fnaa, now they hold us spellbound as they weave words and gestures into stories alive and funny and dramatic. Even if we don't understand Arabic, the performance engages everyone's imagination, and after the tale, one of the young apprentices translates what it actually was about as we share what each of us thought it to be and compete who was closest to the actual story. Then the apprentices take the floor, with stories translated into English, traditional as well as their own original ones, and it is clear how valuable and enriching the support of this almost extinct art is.

We leave Clock with one foot still in the storyworld, and set out towards Jemaa el Fnaa, determined to experience as much of Marrakesh as possible in our short time here. We make delightful discoveries ranging from new foods and drinks (spicy tea!) to new friends making music and playing fire in one of the circles. I enlist one of them to help me talk to a fortune teller and convince her to sell me her cards, although they both don't understand why I won't just buy a new pack at a store tomorrow. Baraka, I tell them, and it is beautiful how this explanation is instantly accepted and deemed sufficient, and I even receive the cards as a gift which makes them all the more precious. Among the snake charmers, gnawa musicians, henna ladies, fortune tellers and countless street kitchens and orange juice stands, the sensory overload gives way to content awe and wide-grin joy for this extraordinary and at the same time familiar place.

Jemaa el Fnaa, find a spot and look around. Don't move. Don't speak. Not yet. Get your coins and hold them tightly in your hand . Breathe in. Smell. See. Hear. Then follow the sounds and the sights, the smell of spiced tea and the smoke rising up from the street kitchens, and the rhythm of clapper-cymbals and drums, and the kajal-framed eyes of a fortune teller with cards in her hands, what is it you wish to know? You can search for it here. You'll probably find it somewhere else, but as a starting point, there are places like this, where you can make a cross on the map of your journeys and never forget the ground under your feet has been stood upon by thousands of seekers, just like you and me and everybody around us. I'll be back to sit on one of the plastic chairs in the storyteller's circle, listening to my future in arabic - french and trying to see behind the cards, behind her eyes, finding only mirrors, showing me what is already there.
Don't move. Don't speak. Not yet.

Photos by Birgit Mühleder, Anna Bleyer, Sebastian Buchner and myself.

This is a place of dreams... 'Mab travels to Morocco - Episode IV: Tangier the city'

Push play. Then read.

There's a timeless place in Tangier, with messages engraved into tabletops, and yellowed pictures of famous visitors hanging on the walls, with a picturesque view towards the ocean over roofs blooming in blue and violet flowers, and pigeons fluttering above the walls of the medina. The coffee there is thick, sweet and strong, the coffeegrains swirling as they are setting down on the bottom of your glass, like one of those sand pictures sold on the street markets, everchanging images of moving sand dunes and sand seas. You can find it easily, just walk past the cunning fox smoking a cigarette on the wall, walk up the sky blue stairs and greet Abdul, who takes great care to ask exactly what you wish your drink to be, and brings it to you perfectly executed. The cushions smell like candy floss and mint, the chair is swaying under your weight and threatening to throw you off till you find a balance point, and that is Tangier in its heart. Charming and playing cool, minding his own business, watching you from the side and silently urging you to work for his attention. You get small tokens of approval, like doors opening at the softest push, and fingers pointing you in the right direction, and sweet pastry form the neighbours at the coffee table. But you also get trapped and hindered, in the agitated crowd on the street, in the sugar on the bottom of your teapot, in the bank on the main square, in the blaze of the midday sun.

Tangier feels like waiting. And when you're already waiting, you could do something useful with your time. Like write a novel, or few. Like invent a new way to make coffee. Like discover new music and write new stories and compose a soundtrack to the novel of your life. A limbo of ideas guarded by their executions. Whether the good kind or the bad kind of execution, that's up to you and the street you're currently walking on. 

Tangier feels like a nostalgic movie of have-beens and might-have-beens run through a hipster filter, washed out by the sun and the ocean waves. You inevitably find yourself thinking of your own -beens, and writing letters to your past loves, current crushes and future liaisons.

Cafe Central, sunset and books. We watched 'Only Lovers Left Alive' last night, hoping that our friend Marc recognizes the places in Tangier where it was filmed, and we could try to find them the next day. A tour of places in the heart of the city, Kasbah and narrow streets of Medina, retracing the steps of movie-Adam and -Eve. Then a drive to the extremities, the light-towers in the west and the east and the construction sites and residential areas in between. Faces of Tangier, or should I say tentacles of an octopus city, crawling out of the ocean and growing bigger and longer with every passing year... 'This too, is Tangier' says Marc, and I squint into the blinding sun, following the seagull flying overhead. Soon she's joined by others, and as we climb down the rocky coast closer to the sea, they climb higher into the clear sky.

I find a little abandoned wasp nest in one of the rocks hollowed out by persistent sea waves, and it seems like such a perfect miniature representation of Tangier.
This is a place buzzing with barely concealed excitement, busy but with an easy flow of life, cars and coffee. This is the place where dreams are born. Beautiful words were written at the same table where I'm sitting now. Brilliant music was composed, inspired by the sounds of the land. This is a place of artists, and artists are dreamers.
This is a place where dreams turn to nightmares, rolled in a ball and wrapped in aluminium foil, rocking in a corner in an unlit alley. You can buy them on the street after sundown, they crawl out of the shadows and come after you when your steps slow down and your eyes are wide open but unseeing.
This is a place where dreams die. Abandoned, with bare bones sticking out of open wounds, clutching a ticket in skeletal hands 'First class' but they missed the departure by months, by years. You don't look directly at them, lest they make you unbearably sad.
This is a place that is deliciously, painfully, humanly real, and it brings tears to your eyes as every mouth around you says 'no' and every head shakes in denial, while your heart flutters and jumps in the cage of your chest screaming 'yes!', so then you are given one more day and one more night, one more beat of seagull wings over the harbor, stone's throw away from Europe.

Back at Cafe Baba. 'The best cafe in Medina' so the sign over the unremarkable door says, the door that leads to a remarkable place. Only a handful of guests are sitting at the tables now, smoking away in the late afternoon. I'd like to see it in the evening, at night. I'd like to come here often enough to know the regulars, to learn how to order coffee and tea in Arabic, to become a part of its rhythm.

After the sleepless night of the full moon, which made me grab my blanket and camp outside on Marc's terrace under the moonlight, coffee might be the only thing keeping me awake now. Coffee and stories. Tahir Shah's 'In Arabian Nights' is a perfect companion on this trip, weaving stories like a fine carpet with colorful patterns, and flying you to the fantastical world of Moroccan stories and folktales.

Walking through the Kasbah, the doors whisper to me again, half.open and tempting. These doors are huge, heavy and beautifully ornamented, they look ancient, and as I poke my head inside, two pairs of eyes look up from their work to me... and to my delight gesture to come inside and look around! They're hammering nails into what will be window frames, the building turning out to be a mosque in restoration. Engraved wooden doors lean on the walls adorned with colorful painted motifs and patterns, the ceiling is a work of art with its elaborate wooden beams and paintings. I look around in wonder, breathing in the smell of new wood and old dust, snapping a few pictures, not believing my luck.

'Mab liked doors.'

Yes, that she did,.

From the blue gate to the blue town... 'Mab travels to Morocco - Episode III: Chefchaouen'

I see blue. I see blue streets and blue stairs, winding up and down the mountainside. I see blue paths ending with blue doors, some only half-closed, whispering 'come closer' and 'look inside', but we don't, we're too polite to invade someone's home, no matter how tempting it might be to see if the walls inside are painted the same sky blue colour, and whether the tiles on the floor match the patterns on the windows.
I see lemon trees and fig trees and mullberry trees, and cats regally walking on the narrow walls of the roof terraces, all painted, of course, in blue.
I see street kitchens, with huge pots of boiled corn on the cob, and my hunger awakens from the nap we took on the bus from Fes. The mountain peaks hug the town of Chefchaouen like a favorite blue teddy bear, and the setting sun calls forward the street lanterns with their yellow glow. From the roof of our small hotel they look like fireflies, nesting all around us for the night. The name 'Chef Chaouen' in Arabic literally means 'look at the peaks', and we do that a lot the following days.
The main square is decorated with christmas lights and there is even a christmas tree in the middle, right in front of the Kasbah. While we eat dinner that we share with the local kittens, we find out that the queen visited the town a few months ago, and the decorations were just left there, because they shine so nicely.

I see blond hair and hear English, and the guys at the next table invite us to join them for late breakfast. Christa and Rig are sisters from Norway, and Daniel is from Australia. We talk to Mohamed who works at the restaurant, and at the hotel they are staying at. He wears beautiful silver Berber rings, and a henna tattoo on his wrist. He tells us about his grandmother from a Berber village in the mountains, four hours on bus and two on horseback to visit her. We agree to meet up later for a hike to the Spanish Mosque above the town, and Sebastian and me set out to buy a djellaba, the traditional overcoat of Morocco, which instantly  transforms us into almost native jedis. Chefchaouen is known for the skilled artisans and handwoven fabrics, and we pass several workshops where the striped fabric comes together on wooden weaving loom behind huge blue doors.
Djellaba might be my favorite piece of clothing. It is wearable air-conditioning, and fulfills my stripe obsession, the hood is big enough for all my hair, and I can go out to buy breakfast in my pyjamas! I am thankful for this idea to the MarocMama blog where I found a guest post about them and knew I had to get one!

A few jedi photos and one hike later we find ourselves at the edge of the city, where women bring all their household to wash and dry, stomping on the huge carpets with bare feet and washing out the soap suds in stone sinks. No pictures, one old lady says. We photograph cats instead, and boys playing in the shallow pools around the waterfalls. Then we climb the narrow alleys right to the uppermost point, where a single blue staircase leads to a single little turquoise-blue doors. The doors to the sky, and the stairway to heaven, I found the soundtrack to the pictures.

We are invited for homemade tajine to Mohamed's hostel, and meet Ossama, who is the owner, and as it turns out, also the author of several amazing photos that are hanging on the walls of the house. His cat is lounging on the ottoman and we feel the same way, tired and content from the day.

The Kasbah fortress opens its doors for visitors, and we wander through the rooms with museum expositions, traditional clothes and old photos, then up the stairs, reading the informational boards along the way, and piecing together the view through the windows of the tower. A little boy is running around, incredibly excited by the trip with his family, and his joy is so contagious that we all soon wear wide grins and laugh with him.

In good mood but hungry, we go on a hunt for galettes, potato pancakes, and buy cheese, vegetables and figs, to have a royal feast on the terrace. It is then I discover my favorite taste of Morocco - fresh goat cheese and equally fresh figs wrapped in a fresh baked galette... there is a market opportunity right there, and see if I open a small shop when I come back to Vienna, where I make exclusively this kind of  'Moroccan pancake'!

Goodbye blue town, we're off to Tangier. With love, your striped jedis.

Sleep: we stayed at Hotel Ouarzazate, 2 mins from the Bab Ain right at a small square with a lamp post in the center (Narnia!) double room 120dh
also recommended Casa Amina, 2 mins from the main square, cute little hostel with awesome english-speaking owners and international travelers.

Eat: Dalya Snack Cafe at the same little Narnia square, coffee tea tajine they have it! Coffee&Tea 6dh and you can take it to the hotel and bring the glasses back later ;) 
Ali Baba restaurant right opposite the Kasbah at the main square. Berber breakfast with fresh orange juice, coffee and yummy eggs and cheese for 30dh