Saturday, August 29, 2009

Blue in the Red City

We went a couple days ago to the Jardin Majorelle, an oasis of cool blues and greens hidden away from the dusty red city on the other side of a surrounding wall. Once upon a time (in 1923) the French painter Jacques Majorelle came to Morocco, settled in Marrakech to convalesce from tuberculosis, and built himself a villa surrounded by gardens and pools, decorating its various features in a color he coined Majorelle Blue—an intense lapis-cobalt-just-at-deepest-dusk hue. Here and there throughout town in front of shops and cafés you see plants in pots of that same vibrant blue. (The color reminds me of the evening sky in a Maxfield Parrish painting called Hilltop Farm, Winter.) Marrakech, incidentally, is called the Red City because so many of its buildings, new and old, are either painted this deep ochre color or built from the earth on which the city is founded—and the earth here is red. We saw a huge back hoe the other day gouging out enormous mouthfuls of rust-red earth from a narrow lot while a crowd of us watched, intent as Hazel on the carefully articulating "mah-sheen." The French, while in power early in the last century, laid down an ordinance that mandated all new buildings follow this already-established color scheme. Yves Saint Laurent eventually bought the Majorelle villa and gardens and studio, and the gardens continue to be open to the public. 

So we walked the 20 minutes from our apartment—paid our 60Dhs and, backing away from the sellers of silver baubles and leather belts, slipped through the door and past the first fountain in blue and green tile (though Hazel went back and back to it before we could move on), fell into the cool bamboo and palm shade, listened to the running water, and generally disappeared from the hot afternoon on the other side of the wall. Red brick and polished red concrete walkways pull you through the arching green, make you pause at the side of lily pools to look down at carp and turtles (who gather beneath you looking up for food—it's a heavily traffic'd tourist destination), invite you to sit, breath, be still—or caper about through sun and shadow if you're 2. Because of the cool blue and water-green, maybe because of the YSL connection the place draws a healthy crowd—we heard by turns Italian, German, French spoken by Belgians and French (we talked to one such couple) and others not of European descent, and British English spoken by a couple with their four blond kids in tow. On the streets, in the souks, in the gardens, there are plenty of people from elsewhere here, but perhaps especially in the holiday month of August, even despite the fact that this year Ramadan straddles both August and September.

Before we made it into the garden, I'd told the guy trying to sell me a silver necklace that what he held in his hand was beautiful indeed, but maybe later, not now. And an hour and a half later as we left, there he was, offering, asking, showing, pleading as we walked the 50 yards back out to the main thoroughfare. "My wife at home, please, Madame, 50 Dirhams, 40, 30—20," he said finally. $3.50 for a silver-studded necklace of turquoise and jet-black beads? Who knows who made the necklace, what the materials or value really. He was slight, dressed in dusty pants and jacket, his face browned and wrinkled beneath the curled brim of hat. He wasn't smiling or jibing with humor. "My wife at home," he repeated, tilting his head to one side. When it was clear the three of us with Hazel (in her expensive British-made stroller) had no intention of being persuaded, he turned away not with disdain exactly—was it resignation? or a mixture of disgust and disappointment?

There's a great disparity here between people who have money and those who don't. I saw an older woman curled up sleeping on the street the other day as we walked back along Mohammed V. She lay on her side on a length of cardboard at the base of one of the columns of the arcade there, hands palm-to-palm beneath her head, grey hair close-cropped but matted, her knees tucked up, naked and dirty cracked feet together, dressed in filthy white shirt and colorless pants. I saw another woman again this morning while Hazel and I were out for a walk, tall, dressed in the same tan pants and navy blue jacket, the same zip-bag over her shoulder, greasy henna'd hair bunched in the same way at the nape of her neck, hand out-stretched, palm up as she moved against the main flow of pedestrian traffic. There's a crippled man we saw again today too who sits at the base of another column further along the avenue—he smiled broadly just as he had the other day, "Ca va, madame?" he asked just as before. By contrast, the towering glass-walled stretch of the Spanish Zara store, also along Mohammed V, contains 2,000 Dirham duvet covers and pewter pitchers for 229 Dirhams, approximately $250 and $30, respectively—and spanking white Mercedes and flashy BMW roadsters tool about the city among the donkey-drawn carts, the many teams of horse-and-carriage, the endlessly dodging scooters. Again, a disparity not unlike any other city, right? 

Yes, and no. All I manage to see right now is the uneasy relationship between a French colonial past, a further past of Arab influence, and a past beyond the past of Berber independence. (In general, the Berber term for themselves is Imazighen, the "free people.") Maybe this story of the powerful and the powerless is universal, especially now that industrialized nations stretch their long and indiscriminate arms virtually anywhere on the globe. And white as we are, walking along the streets, it feels like we are perceived only as the face of that double-edged global reach—maybe only as an immediate source of potential gain. I'm reading Beryl Markham's West With the Night, her 1942 chronicle of British East Africa in the 19-teens and '20s. The writing is lyrical in an old-fashioned sense, her descriptions lovely, her turns of finely wrought phrase and her use of metaphor a pleasure. But she is also of her time; she writes of one of her dearest Nandi (native Kenyan) employees and friends that he would touch a horse "with animal respect for animal dignity." But what am I asking of her? Maybe Markham's frame of reference, the way she sees black and white—sensitive and thoughtful as she is—has poisoned, or over-sensitized, how I'm able to see the world around us now in 2009. So I find myself anticipating real conversations with people who are from here who could counter some of these post-colonialist preoccupations of mine.

The Majorelle garden, this beautiful island of rippling blue calm, is a product both of the European fascination with the exotic and its supposed dominion of it—or at least ownership. First the Frenchman Jacques Majorelle, then his countryman Yves Saint Laurent, then the rest of us. Beautiful, blue, even so.

1 comment:

  1. Love the view of your new space and parenting in a new land--shades of Tunisia and appreciating (again) how our parents managed with (or because of?) small children in a new culture. Virginia is still a bit esoteric to me--torrential rains and thunder that makes me startle, but Ellie and Isabel will grow up thinking it perfectly normal--the mugginess, the over-the-top green, the wide spaces between houses, the cicadas.