Marrakesh at first glance doesn’t seem to have changed much at all since I was last here, 25 years ago. I expected more cars and fewer donkeys, but it is the same jumble of horse carts, vegetable wagons, calèches, and donkeys laden with brush and swarms of bicycles that it always was. Olive groves line the boulevard, and in between their silver foliage, sheep graze and men squat in groups playing cards. Lone squatters are apparent in the midst of great empty, rocky fields, and at intersections. The traffic circles operate on the old French system--those entering have the right of way. No "vous n’avez pas la priorité" signs here.
We turn off the boulevard and head behind the walls of the old city into the old medina, the Jemaa el Fna. The congestion on the narrow street is astonishing, with vehicles of every description coming within fractions of an inch of one another as they maneuver through the crowds.
The street is lined with a hodgepodge of narrow, dark shops, each overflowing with high piles of goods: grocery shops with shelf after shelf of candies, teas, paper goods, spices, and whatnot, with a booth-like front. There's a young boy who will run up a ladder to get you your prize and a rug shop with rugs draped over the doors. Inside there are stacks of rugs in all sizes and colors; a mattress shop; a furniture shop where the workers have set up sawhorses on the sidewalk and are carving a headboard amid the throng; shops with used appliances; shops selling fabrics; bakeries; tool shops; and, yes, an Internet café. Cats are everywhere. Dust is everywhere. And then our car stops at an alleyway leading off from this swarm of sight and sound, and we are ten paces from our destination, La Maison Arabe, our oasis.
One of the enchantments of this part of the world is the way its architecture is so protective and inward-looking. There is a feeling of sanctuary within the walls and courtyards of every dwelling. The Maison Arabe has perfected this notion. From the airy reception area, with its antique stone oven and enormous carved banc, one descends into a calm of intertwining courtyards, sitting rooms, and alcoves, as mysteriously laid out as the medina itself.