A year-long diary set in LONDON
Travelogue set in Morocco (“It’s not a real souk unless it sells men’s underwear”)
11th July 2015
Marrakech Express by Peter Millar, travelogue set in Morocco.
“Nothing in the world is quite like Morocco. Research for Marrakech Express took a year and covered everywhere from the Algerian border to magical Fez, cosmopolitan Rabat and crazy Casablanca, not to mention Eid el Adha in Larache” (Peter Millar on TripFiction Facebook)
I wished that this memoir/travelogue had been available when I visited Morocco a couple of years ago. However, reading it now, and having visited the country, it brought my own trip back to vivid life and gave further insights into a culture I really only managed to skim. Peter’s writing is succinct, humorous at times and piercingly observant of life around him.
Peter was inspired to visit Morocco – and specifically Marrakech – because of the earworm song Marrakesh Express recorded by Crosby, Stills and Nash in 1969. It is hard to think of the city without the strains of their ‘foot tapping anthem‘ buzzing around one’s consciousness. And so he takes up the invitation to visit a family in the provincial town of Larache at the time of eid al-Adha (eid al-fitr marks the end of Ramadan, the former occurs 40 days later). And from here he sets off on his journey.
Oddly, Time Out Magazine says of the book: “…this book smells of train travel and will appeal to wanderlusts as well as armchair train buffs“. Unless huge chunks were edited out of my copy (the picture of a train of the cover notwithstanding), there are only tiny sections of the book devoted to actual train travel (we learn the Moroccans are, however, incredibly quiet passengers). It is very much a given that he travels between the cities by train – Marrakech, Casablanca, Fez, Tangier (you choose if you want to add an “s” on the end or not), Meknes, with a few detours along the way (usually by petit or grand taxi, not train) – but his acute observations on terraferma are what really sustain the book.
In Marrakech he is determined to search out the traditional slow-cooked tanjia (not to be confused with tagine) and does so with the help of Café Clock and Cooking School – the ingredients are sourced in the souk and the whole pot cooks slowly in the furnace that fires up the communal hammam and bakery. ‘The square’ (that is Jemaa al-Fnaa) is the focal point of the city for tourists and he writes: “It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer sensuousness of the experience that is Jemaa al-Fnaa. It is unlike anywhere else you have ever been and are likely to be, a blend of the oriental, the One Thousand and One Nights vision of the Arab world, with the sounds, rhythms, and colours of sub-Saharan Africa mutated into something quintessentially Moroccan, a fusion of cuisines, cultures, con-men and cupidity” (couldn’t have put it better myself!).
If you want to find little gems of information that will enlighten, then this is definitely a book to source for your trip to Morocco. The Berbers for example are thought to derive their name because the Greeks understood anything other than their own language as Bebebebebe, and the name stuck. Or, if you are a man, notice the wry smirking smile of the vendor when you buy red babouches (red is for women, it was Moulay Ismail who decided yellow was for men… choose your colours carefully).
He takes a side trip to Volubilis, a Roman city on the south western edge of the Limes (the Roman imperial frontier) and also a World Heritage Site (I have never heard of it, but would now, after reading this book, choose to visit). There is not only history, but also sampling of the Volubilia Wines and Olive Oil (the latter was the 2006 winner of The Best Olive Oil in the World!). To be honest, there is a thread running through the book and that is Peter’s quest to find alcoholic beverages – and not so hard in Morocco, although it is not served within sight of a Mosque (and usually hidden away from eyes who would find it offensive).
But if it is not Casablanca, Stork or Flag beer that takes your fancy, then there is always the temptation to indulge in the ubiquitously served mint tea, stacked full of unhealthy sugar. Diabetes consequently is rampant in the country. And remember, this is the country that brought you the film: “She is Diabetic and Hypertensive and She Still Refuses to Die“. Oh well, just go easy on the mint tea and enjoy the alcohol (when you can find it).
Tina for the TripFiction Team
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