Sultana's Dream

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Sultana's Dream
May 2011

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Postcard from Morocco: Bustling souqs and silent deserts 

I could hardly believe my good fortune when I was told that I’d received a Rotary scholarship to study Arabic in Morocco. Before we knew it my husband and I were jetting off for what would be an unforgettable year long adventure centred around Morocco, Syria and Spain. This piece is drawn from just one of the many stories of our time away…

The life and energy of the Djemaa el Fna Square in Marrakesh never failed to amaze us on our evening visits. Snake charmers rested on carpets, while on the other side of the square monkey handlers placed their pets on tourist shoulders to pose for photos. The hum of Qur’anic verses playing on CDs sold by a young Moroccan man floated above the noise of the crowd, in competition with the cries of water-bearers in dazzlingly multicoloured outfits spruiking their wares. Men, women and children crowded around traditional story tellers, entranced by tales of times gone by. Meanwhile, owners of open air stalls lined up glasses filled to the brim with mint and hefty blocks of sugar, hoping to tempt passers-by with their sweet tea and harira soup. Others proclaimed the superior quality of their freshly squeezed orange juice and nuts, while across the way vendors vied for the patronage of snail eaters from around the world. Berber women wandered through the crowds painting intricate henna designs on the hands of tourists, with other travellers emerging from the covered maze of the souq, fresh from testing their bargaining skills. Towering above the incredible buzz of life below, undisturbed and serene, was the beautiful minaret of the twelfth century Koutoubia Mosque.

Only at prayer times did the square seem to pause, as shopkeepers and passers-by were drawn into the mosque at the heart of the square for a moment of calm before being exhaled back into the rush of life, newly refreshed and energised. At these moments of tranquillity our senses were drawn back to recent memories of the Merzouga Desert where we had experienced calm on an entirely different plane.

***

Driving through the snow capped peaks of the High Atlas mountains we stopped for our first Moroccan mint tea of the day before winding our way down the luscious green mountainside. As the temperature slowly began to rise, the edges of a rocky desert emerged and we settled in, not expecting to see much else for the next three days.

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At first this rocky expanse appeared endless, broken by little more than the occasional gnarled tree or ancient rock formation. Every few hours we would notice a solitary figure against the horizon, appearing as if from nowhere riding their bike or walking along the desert path. Among the intermittent signs of life a small stream of water, stubbornly cut its way through the dry earth. As we turned a corner, bushes by the waters edge became palm trees and whole crops of vegetation appeared. Before our eyes the arid landscape was transformed into a swathe of luscious green, with mud-brick houses spreading outwards on its sides, only to be swallowed up moments later as the rocks and sand reasserted their presence. It was as if Sunday School stories of the early life of Jesus and Islamic descriptions of a desert refuge had come to life.

The open expanse of the desert silence was broken, if only for an instant, by the life of the oasis, just as the day before when the call to pray had spread a momentary, unexpected calmness through Marrakesh’s chaotic square.

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 On returning to Marrakesh, we returned to the noise and energy of the Djemaa where we soon began to miss the peace and quiet of the desert. Trying to recapture some of that peace, we retreated into the heart of the old medina or city. Winding our way back through the maze of streets to one of the medina’s many riads, we entered the traditional Moroccan house where we were staying.  Marked only by an old wooden door in an otherwise featureless brown wall, our riad was hidden down a tiny back street. Once inside we sat in its tranquil inner courtyard, looking up towards the sky. Surrounded by the incredible colours of intricate mosaics interspersed with old wooden carvings, we were brought back to the tranquillity of Merzouga.

Having experienced the ancient peace of the desert, the magical energy of the Djemaa Square and the hidden beauty of our medina riad, we had a sneaking suspicion that we might enjoy our time in Morocco.


Brynna Rafferty-Brown

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