Marveling In Marrakesh And Feeling My Heart Beat So Fast

“You Who Enter My Door May Your Highest Hopes Be Exceeded”

This is the quote written above the door as one enters the Ali ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakesh, Morocco, but I would dare say the same could be true for my entire experience in Marrakesh. From the time our ever so small prop-job of a plane left Madrid it felt like I was flying to a world far away, passing over the sliver of water I never could have imagined was so narrow that divides Spain and Africa. It awed me; for a moment I thought it was a lake we were flying over. Then over golden dunes of sand and sparse earth below before landing in a city that is completely made of pink; seriously, there is an ordinance and the city of Marrakesh is almost entirely pink in color.

From my first walks down winding streets that promised and succeeded in confusing and losing me in their inner labyrinths, I knew this was going to be a place far from anything I had ever experienced. From the man who met my car outside the Medina’s (old city) walls with a cart and happily piled my luggage in and led the way through crowded souks and narrow alleys, the entire way speaking French and Arabic and pointing out “hamam, hamam, café, square, hamam” as if my mind could remember or comprehend any of the activity that was happening faster than I could even take it in. Shop keepers called to me, a man tried to sell me chickens just killed with the feathers still on, another man offered spices, and yet another jewelry. Where had I landed?

That is how Morocco welcomed me—an over stimulating trajectory into what became a time spent fully alive. And all of this on the way to my Riad. The noise, the smells of incense, spices, wood burning fires cooking food, dirt, and yes, donkeys crowded the streets as we walked along deep into the maze like confounds of the Medina. It was hectic and confusing and then we arrived at a big black gorgeous door. There was a man who was ready to receive me having somehow been called by this peculiar man with a cart. Before any business of checking into my riad I was offered tea, which I accepted happily, ready for a few moments to adjust. And then within the walls of the riad, the door closes behind me and mysteriously in a sanctuary a world away, the noisy street disappears, the smell becomes one of fresh water from the inner courtyard’s fountain, and flowers blooming, incense, and mint; so is the world inside the pink walls of a riad in the inner Medina, and I found over my time so is the way inside many walls in Morocco a secret is hidden within. Like the desert it resides in Morocco holds a million secrets, there are oases I could never dream of lingering behind a bustle of activity I could never understand.

On my first days whenever I would venture out of the safe walls into the bustle of the immediate souks and city life I would feel a strange pounding, a beating, and fluttering in my chest and stomach that felt almost palpable. To the sound of snake charmers’ music and the call of vendors for orange juice, water, dates, nuts, or the men with monkeys, I could feel the exhilarated pace of my heart. I felt like Morocco put a spell on my first days. I walked through Djemaa el-Fna, the main square, I marveled at the Koutoubia, I tried intrepidly to not get lost down the winding lanes that all lead to dead ends (I almost never succeeded but was always met with a person who happily would show me the way out for a small gift). I woke early to sunrise and the first call to prayer as a pink sky met the pink buildings of the city.

As I was in Marrakesh for a yoga retreat I did move to a lovely place outside the city in a more quiet and remote location, the blissful and truly oasis like Peacock Pavilions. We ventured into the city for visits to the Badi Palace, and Jardin Majorelle. The colors of doors and mosaics were like the fine masterpieces hanging in museums around the world. We went for a day to Essaouira along the coast and rode camels at sunset along the Atlantic Ocean.  I spent a day in a hamam and had a woman scrub more of me clean then ever before in my life.  We dined on the most delicious food – tagines, couscous, goat cheese, and tomato tarts all infused with spices to the point of delicacy. Mint tea flowed from endless streams of high pouring teapots.

But all of this is not what I took away from Morocco; all of this was lovely and it felt like gilding to a deeper place. The people were the kindest and happiest. The smiles and welcomes and cajoling presses to enter their shops all with a grace and openness. There were the calls to prayer that wafted through the air.  And there was this deep sense of being alive and being present. As we drove through the city one afternoon our young and hip driver Abdu, he couldn’t have been more than 27, with French Hip Hop playing or Modern Moroccan Rock on the radio gently turned the dial on the volume down. It was imperceptible if you weren’t paying attention but sitting right behind him I noticed, and then I noticed through the window the faint chant from the mosque I had become acquainted with. Then just as imperceptibly he turned the radio back up when the Adhan was finished. No cars stopped, no one bowed on the streets, but when we asked our driver he said, “I take notice when I hear it, I do not need to stop in my day, I just become aware.” I loved that, I loved it the entire time I was there hearing this call in the early hours of morning, through the afternoon, and again as the day closed. It made me think what if throughout our day whatever we believed or didn’t believe we took notice, what if we stopped and breathed if nothing else 5 times a day consciously and then what if it all happened together? It moved me more than I could ever say and more than I ever imagined but it did because it made me pause and think about my own days and the activity that inhabits them much of the time. Perhaps my days are not filled with donkeys and mopeds at fast speeds, there are not shop owners calling and pulling towards me but my days feel hard at times and what if I just stopped 5 times and breathed, I took notice of myself, and I said there is something I am not sure what but something larger than just me here.

I understand the world is at a hard place now; you can’t travel and not notice the warnings and the news briefs. But I also know I am not ready to stop traveling yet. There are more places to discover, people to meet, cultures to be introduced to. I have found the best way to know myself is to see myself in these different places and to take a piece of them with me. I wanted desperately to spend more time in Morocco; I am determined to go back. I wanted to learn more Arabic and refine my very rusty French. I saw in my confusion and my fast beating heart that there is so much more to learn and discover in the world. But more importantly I saw that as fast as my heart might race, I can pause in my day I don’t have to do more than that, I can take a moment and I can find myself perhaps again.

Shukran to the marvelous people of Morocco for sharing a part of your world with me.


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10 2012

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  1. Beth Shirk #

    Wow, RA. When I read your post I was first blown away by your stunning images, but then as I read of your connection with the people, I suddenly began to hear the voices and sounds of the donkeys and people, and smell the intense aromas. Wonderful post.

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