The Casablanca airport was crowded, noisy and chaotic. Nearly half the inhabitants of this much-romanticised city, who had gone on a Haj pilgrimage, returned home the very day I landed in their favourite place on the earth. Baggage was tossed around, queues for immigration blurred, sparking testy fights and arguments. Officers on duty chatted away blithely, testing the patience of tired passengers. Sandwiched between tall Moroccan men in their white robes, I fumbled my way out of the airport.
Once out, I realised the number of people waiting to receive the Haj-cleansed pilgrims easily outnumbered the passengers and all the people put together in the airport that day. A taxi driver who could see utter desperation and irritation on my face took a chance and tried his luck, perhaps on seeing my luggage tag: Delhi. He shouted from a distance, followed by a familiar wave. I nodded. From that moment, he took it upon himself to express his undying love for India, a country he had never been to, but had known intimately through those larger-than-life movie stars he had only seen on DVDs. Shah Rukh Khan topped his list of favourites. It wasn’t the three hour’s drive on that smooth road from Casablanca to Marrakech that was killing; it was the driver’s incessant chatter on India and Bollywood that jangled my nerves.
But then, it wasn’t just that driver who was obsessed with India and its film stars. Nearly everyone I met and who knew where I was from was quick to rhapsodise their inexhaustible love for India. In thrall to the magic of Bollywood, they seem to know a lot about India through the movies they saw on DVDs with subtitles.
It could get jarring at times, but Bollywood turned out to be my charmed ticket to the hearts of Moroccans. Luckily for me, I was in this city just a few months before the 12th Marrakech International Film Festival. Moroccans seem to have marked the festival in their mental diary. The very thought of seeing Bollywood stars kept them in a state of delicious anticipation. If I got a discount at the spice market, it was because I was from India. If the concierge at the hotel preferred to give me a handful of tips on the city, it was in exchange of Bollywood trivia that I would feed him with.
But it isn’t just Bollywood that binds the Moroccans, in a strange manner, to India. Strangely there are common traits that Indians and Moroccans share. For instance, their genius for nagging tourists. I spent most days at the Jemaa el-Fnaa, one of the most famous squares in the city. I strolled to see and feel the place come alive. Tarot card readers, tattoo artists, clowns, musicians, magicians were all at work simultaneously.
Not a day would pass trying to wriggle out of their nag or pester me get my future predicted. If I made a mistake of inquiring the price of an item, there was no escape. I steered clear and was careful not to even have an eye contact. Berber men dressed in their traditional gears waited to be photographed; they roamed around looking for easy preys. Even if, by mistake your camera focused on them, they would run to you and demand cash. Just around the Square are kiosks selling the best of Moroccan dates and nuts. Bargain hard to strike the best deal.
Once at a nearby souk, I asked a stranger the way to a particular spice shop. That was just enough for him to stick around for an entire afternoon. He offered to take me to the best shop and get me a good discount. Jesus would have been happy to see so many Good Samaritans roaming around the bazaars of Marrakesh! He told me he had an uncle who sells the “best, authentic” spices. Later, down the road where there were rows of spice shops, I realised nearly every shopkeeper turned out to be his uncle!.
Perhaps, it is this laidback unruly charm of the old and fortified city that makes it so interesting. Away from the madness of Medina, Marrakech also offers another flavour that’s modern and stylish. I had heard of many riads, old homes that are converted into restaurants or luxurious resorts. In fact, there are over 900 odd riads that are discreetly tucked away across the city. Though some of them are listed in the tourists guides, not many know of the really good ones that are restored to old world grandeur. And food they serve is simply heavenly. One of the most exclusive and well-known riad that has morphed into a restaurant is where I headed for dinner one evening. Called the Dar Zellij, tucked away inside a meandering alley where even a GPS would not locate, I found myself ushered from my car by a robust man in white robe who appeared from nowhere and led me with an umbrella through a very winding and narrow land. I walked through puddles, little street urchins, shops and windowless homes that looked like water tanks. Inside a fortified wall is another world replete with aroma form scented candles. Seated in a courtyard, the chef began to regale me with anecdotes of the 600-year-old riad. Live Berber music accentuated the mystery of the place.
Colourful Moroccan lamps suspended from the ceiling and walls adorned with tadelakt plaster or a neat waterproof lime plaster which is very specific to Marrakech and old zellige tiles (terracotta tile work covered with pretty enamel), transported me to another world. I soon figured why I got so much attention. The waiter whispered something into the chef’s ear. The magic word was: INDIA! Hence, a platter of dessert…On the house!
- Hoihnu Hauzel is a Delhi-based freelance writer. She writes on travel, food and lifestyle.