A couple months ago the news spread like wild fire among the American teachers (well, some of them) that Sex in the City was in town filming at one of the new hotels outside Marrakech, one of the luxury hotels—marble and Moroccan tile, boutique specially-appointed authentically-but-sparely decorated rooms, high-end hammams, bars with names like "Fandango" and "Le Churchill"—that sprout like mushrooms on a damp forest floor. Last night somebody at dinner said one of the teachers had even finagled her way onto the set. (She’s not here—neither to confirm nor to divulge.) That burns me up because I wish it had been I with my anthropologist’s notebook and fiercely critical eye poking around, demystifying for myself an industry that tries so hard to keep itself sacred—that, and unpack the fantasy we too work so hard to collude in spinning. Or at least that’s how it feels on this end of the media-whipped world, hard to avoid. Ouarzazate, 175 kilometers southeast of Marrakech, is the center of Morocco’s film industry (any guidebook will tell you—Alexander, etc.); one of Morocco’s top producers, apparently, is right here, and was responsible for the shoot. (Marrakech, someone said, was a stand-in for Dubai, where filming of such material is not allowed). That week in October, one of the teachers reported, the bus-ride to school was lined with pink signs that read “SITC this way,” acronymed so as to avoid offending the hundreds of extras arriving on-set. Another teacher’s 20-something daughter managed to get a temporary translation job on-set. Everyone all a-flutter. Pictures on the internet, on HuffPost, of the stars doing this on camera, or walking that way in that outfit, or news of their appearance at that bar, you know, the one we almost went to. Do I sound kind of snipey? Here is a slice of message I sent at the time to a friend back home:
soooooooooooo sorry it's taken me this long to confirm!! like, we totally had mint-tea-manhattans at this très chic bar right after shooting (hazel was playing with james wilkie and the twins) -- soooooooooooo super-fun and, like, the event of my nyc dreams!! sjp was, like, sooooooooooooo skinny -- she is, like, two-dimensional and, like, soooooooooo my idol. i have, like, stopped eating totally because she, like, gave me a couple outfits from the shoot, and like, it's amaaaaaaaaazing! maybe hazel can wear the size -1 sequined mini skirt if i can't stop eating, like, completely. i liked kim better, honestly, she asked about the, like, blog. cynthia was not as funny in person and kristin davis, turns out, went to reserve and played field hockey for mf! like, who knew?!! like, gotta run. hazel has a skype-date with james wilkie.
It’s an adolescent-style snark coupled with an adult apprehension of the idolatry, the collaborative myth-making, the ways in which the overwhelming barrage of images generated by this sparkly machine arrive from every corner to mold our conception of our own bodies, what’s precious and personal, what ought to be only our own.
Then there’s the paean to all things Morocco on Ivanka Trump’s diamond blog (I fell down this rabbit hole too)—where she celebrates the smells of the Marrakech marketplaces and extols the unspeakable loveliness of a sunset from the Djemaa El Fna. Does she know that people in the medina, a couple hundred yards from her vantage point, sell the crusts of other people’s already-partially-eaten bread? (Granted, it's for animal consumption, and yet...) Does she know school-age children at all hours are selling trinkets and tissue-packs in that same place? Does she know Morocco’s unemployment rate hovers around 50%? That its literacy rate (54.7%) is lower than Algeria’s (74.6), Tunisia’s (76.9), Libya’s (86.2)? I’m quoting literacy rates for “adults aged 15 and above,” my numbers from the DATABLOG at http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2009/mar/09/literacy where data comes from Unesco and the Human Development Index on literacy. Compare this to India’s (65.2), Iran’s (84), China’s (93)—or that of the US (99). Question, of course, any generated numbers anyone ever throws at you to convince you of anything.
I’m going to follow this arc of snark all the way through: a friend from home forwarded to me the content of a newsletter from Gwyneth Paltrow who had recently come to Marrakech to help fête the reopening of the fabulously expensive La Mamounia, a hotel I’ve mentioned before—where Hazel and I went (naively) to try and cross paths with Hillary Clinton, and missed by 24 hours. But here is the point—her avalanche of oohs and ahhs at the lovely things to buy (something along the lines of I could have bought the whole store) and lovely places to recover from your exertions rubs elbows uncomfortably with the reality, only partially glimpsed by me and not mentioned by her, that surrounds. For instance, the kids with brown teeth at play in the dirt alley not 30 yards from one of the chic hotels she recommends, Le Bab (across the street from our apartment). Though it has a beautifully finished first floor with a spare 70s-esque black and white aesthetic and a disco bar on display to pedestrians through floor-to-ceiling windows, its top floors are unfinished; piles of stone, sand, concrete bags and trash block the sidewalk and choke the mouth of its underground garage.
Just last night someone at dinner, a Moroccan who has spent the last 19 years away from Marrakech, said that people in these tourist-cities (Marrakech, Fès, Ouarzazate, Essaouira), those who come to make easy money off tourism, have lost their principles. He said that Marrakech has changed, just as Ghita had said in the bar that night, the four of us enacting, as I choose to define it now, an unfilmed scene from Sex in the City. (Or perhaps, rather, an unfilmed scene from an alternate-universe Sex in the City, where it's less about that, less fantasy-escapist, closer to the lived world.) There's an agreement at some level, or maybe an agreement where only one party has the leverage to set its terms—you sell, I buy. I arrive, I go. You stay. Where is the commerce between us?
So the Western stars come, sing the praises of the storied city in the shadow of the dwarfing Atlas, beam back images and narratives of themselves amidst the splendor. Mine is another slice of another narrative.
And as for the sex in the city—it turns out that prostitutes work in our building. Work? Sex-workers. On our new hall. From the beginning we’ve seen the johns hanging around outside the front gate, cell phones busy, the various women coming and going. Once, in the early days of living in the new place, I left our apartment mid-afternoon and passed an older white guy looking around wonderingly as he moved along the hallway a couple paces behind a young skinny Moroccan woman in tight clothes leading the way. We said goodbye to a departing teacher a few weeks back—she left at 3:30AM to catch her 6:00AM flight. While we stood waiting outside for the petit taxi in the hush of early morning and a slight drizzle, three women came out of the building behind us, slim this and tight that, cleavage which you never see, high heels fit for a red carpet. This you do not see ever, anywhere. Anyway. The various details sift in from other teachers and from my friend Céline. Of course, the realities of city life, of life. But this world is at odds with our own. Hazel’s warm little exhale on my cheek after her nap, the fresh fennel sliced thin and dressed with lemon juice and olive oil, laundry piled on the couch, the sound of Paul’s footstep in the hall at the end of the day—Hazel grabs a peanut and races to the opening door.