The mere mention of “Morocco” alone is sufficient to ignite our boundless reverie. In my perception, Morocco embodies a tempestuous maiden, swirling in a wild dance. Every time her skirt ascends, the yellow sand twirls in sync with her silhouette. Whether she be a speck of desert dust or the object of a fated admirer’s gaze, she serves as a portal to bygone eras.
Throughout my ten-day sojourn, I traversed several cities akin to Elias Canetti, including Fez, Chefchaouen, Ouarzazate, and others. Amidst the ancient city walls, I immersed myself in a symphony of diverse sounds, endeavoring to decipher the dissonant and boisterous undertones concealed behind the limited phrases that vaguely allude to literary realms.
In 1981, Canetti was bestowed the Nobel Prize in Literature for his expansive vision, profound cogitation, and artistic prowess exhibited in his works. Amongst the British literati, he composed the most extraordinary chronicle of Moroccan travels, aptly titled “Listening to Marrakech.” While George Orwell also penned the famed prose piece “Marrakech,” replete with metaphorical splendor, Canetti’s depiction of the city enthralls the contemporary voyager through its ability to engage the senses. Indeed, the peculiar individuals he etched upon his narrative canvas remain as vibrant today as the ancient edifices of Marrakech, perpetually adorned in their rosy hue.
Canetti’s journey led him to ancient camel markets, where he absorbed the plaintive calls of destitute beggars and beheld the storytellers within bustling bazaars. His words resonated with a rich sonority. As one trails these characters through the labyrinthine and arduous pathways of the old city, or amidst the enclosed marketplace redolent with the scent of exotic spices, a resonant voice echoes from the depths of antiquity. Even when one’s ears are obstructed, this voice persists, seemingly emanating from the depths of the heart, flowing effortlessly and unabashedly.
The writer’s travelogue frequently references Djemaa Djemaa, the iconic landmark of Marrakech. On one occasion, he rendezvoused with acquaintances atop a café’s rooftop, gazing down upon the diverse throngs inhabiting the square.
Canetti’s almost calligraphic expressions delight me immensely. He deftly sketches the vibrant and picturesque tableau of storytellers, street performers, beggars, and itinerant vendors populating the square.
In the present day, most cafes and restaurants within the square are situated adjacent to one another, with the uppermost floor of the French café often serving as the preferred gathering spot. Gradually and deliberately.
Truth be told, when the square teems with activity, the top-floor establishment solely caters to three distinct libations, and photographers scarcely savor the mint tea’s flavor. Instead, they diligently set up their photographic equipment and eagerly train their gazes through the viewfinders, capturing the sun’s descent behind the distant Atlas Mountains.
I venture to surmise that this was the very location where Canetti would pause to observe. From dusk until nightfall, Djemaa Square assumes its most captivating demeanor, mirroring the celestial dance of the sun and the moon.
Standing in Canetti’s stead, I scrutinize the countenances of those assembled in the square. Among them are snake charmers, narrators of tales, performers with monkeys, fire-breathing artists, and juvenile jugglers, burdened with ladders and satchels fashioned from sheepskin. A crimson-clad water peddler, a Moorish dancer adorned with silver beads and a black veil—these individuals deviate from ordinary hawkers who vociferously lure potential customers. Instead, they exude an air of enigma and concentration, their eyes lost in contemplation, attentively observing the serpents, simians, and trinkets on which their livelihoods depend.
Even the storyteller appears to converse with ethereal beings, at times eloquent and animated, at times obscuring his eyes with a robe, clandestinely peering at those who fixate their gaze upon him. I surmise he seeks out foreign patrons within the audience, contemplating the prospect of soliciting alms. However, I have yet to encounter the same pride that Canetti perceived within these wordsmiths, who possess an unparalleled mastery over language.
Intermittently, men garbed in Jerabas traverse the bustling crowd, exemplifying the quintessential attire of Moroccan Berbers. These garments, crafted from thick felt cloth, comprise a pointed cloak cap and a robe that extends to the feet.
In an era consumed by the allure of jeans and T-shirts, only the elderly don Jerabas. They navigate Djemaa Square with measured steps, transforming the expanse into a chessboard, and the aged individuals, donning sheepskin slippers, become the pawns in thisintriguing game of life.
Silently, I observe the myriad spectacles unfolding upon the square. Each individual is condensed into a miniature drama, claiming their rightful place within the corners of the grand stage. In a tranquil manner, they kindle the flames of destitution against the vast nocturnal canvas. At the farthest edge of this flattened stage, the Koutoubia Mosque stands tall like a beacon, its resounding voice lingering overhead—a shared experience between Canetti and myself.
As a Jew, Canetti did not dedicate ample time to unraveling the mysteries of Islam. Instead, he found himself captivated by the local Jewish community. When the writer traversed the community’s landmark square, he felt as though he had finally arrived at his destined destination, a deep-rooted connection spanning centuries. “When I stand here, I become the square. I believe that I am forever intertwined with this square.” Perhaps, every journey represents the process of reaching an illusory homeland.
Coincidentally, should any Chinese readers harbor emotional sentiments towards Morocco, a distant North African nation, it is likely due to the renowned wordsmith San Mao from Taiwan, China. By mere chance, she chanced upon a photograph of the Sahara Desert, and an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, as if rooted in past lives, enveloped her. Thus, inexplicably and unreservedly, she surrendered herself to the North African desert, relocating there alongside her beloved Jose.
Thanks to San Mao’s influence, a multitude of travelers now perceive their journey to Morocco as an odyssey in search of the enigmatic San Mao. They yearn to reach the Sahara Desert and partake in the untamed yet tender experiences portrayed by San Mao.
Yet, the territory of the Sahara Desert where San Mao and Jose once resided has perpetually been embroiled in the contested expanse of Western Sahara. The Aayoun (Ayong) she called home remains an arid, impoverished, and militarily controlled town, devoid of allure. Were it not for the No. 44 former residence of San Mao, scarcely any tourism-related resources would be found here.
Despite being aware that San Mao’s Sahara lies hundreds of miles apart from Morocco’s Sahara Desert, literature enthusiasts often find solace in the belief that every grain of sand within the Sahara possesses vitality. Whether positioned in the north or the south, the sands remain akin to those of yesteryears. The sand, slipping through the fingers of the trio, carries the same ethereal essence. Thus, the untethered sand embodies the novel North African civilization yearned for by both San Mao and ourselves.
Accordingly, we bid farewell to Canetti, departing from Marrakech, and embarked upon our pilgrimage to the Sahara. While some opt to make a detour to Casablanca initially, visiting the famed “Rick’s Cafe” for a cup of milky coffee, others are aware that the movie “Casablanca” was filmed in Hollywood studios and not in Morocco. The so-called Rick Cafe merely pays homage to the film, a commercial imitation. Consequently, they prefer to traverse the Atlas Mountains at an elevation of 2,260 meters, winding amidst the crimson Gobi and the ochre sand desert, ultimately arriving at Ouarzazate, the gateway to the desert. Here, they find respite awaiting the Sahara.
Venturing forth from Ouarzazate towards the desert, crossing the ancestral village of Ait Ben Haddou, inhabited by the Berber people for generations, one encounters the most renowned cinematic and literary attraction in Morocco.
A millennium past, to safeguard the trade route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Sahara Desert, individuals selected this gilded hill near the main road, erecting houses crafted from crimson clay. These dwellings were assembled one upon another, interconnected, completely cloaking the hill. Beneath the hill, a city wall with arrow towers stood sentinel. Locally, this type of earthen architecture, serving defensive and residential purposes, is termed a kasbah (fortress, watchtower). From an external perspective, it resembles an extraterrestrial base or a majestic honeycomb.
Naturally, such a peculiar landscape beguiles films that prioritize grand narrative effects. It becomes the desert battleground in “Lawrence of Arabia,” the African village in “Gladiator,” the Egyptian village where camels are traded in “The Mummy,” and even the city of Yunkai in “Game of Thrones.” The city’s appearance is too extraordinary, almost alienating emotionally, yet we cannot resist the allure emanating from this enigmatic scenery nestled deep within our hearts. Whether in the realm of cinema or reality, these desert-edge towns persistently furnish writers with opportunities, while abandoned villages and houses become fertile breeding grounds for countless tales.
Residing on the periphery of the Sahara Desert, we encounter numerous tour groups offering camel rides to witness the sunset. Moreover, there are two-day desert crossings, single-day fossil expeditions, and desert sprints, among other endeavors. In my estimation, these activities bear striking resemblance to those offered in Dubai, Cairo, or even the western deserts of my homeland.
Opting for a small group camel excursion to observe the sunset, our trio embarked on an off-road jeep, tracing the footprints of those who came before us. We journeyed across the undulating sands, strewn with gravel, until we spotted a cluster of camels patiently awaiting our arrival.
Several men, veiled and leading the camels, emerged—quite possibly the legendary Tuaregs known for preserving the tradition of men donning veils. The majority of these veils are blue, earning them the local moniker of “blue people.” It is said that Tuareg men never remove their veils, even when slumber beckons.
However, the men before me occasionally unveiled themselves, engaging in hushed conversations, seemingly murmuring about mystical matters. As the sun neared its descent, the resplendent golden-red hue of thedesert waned, enveloping the surroundings in a profound silence that inexplicably unsettled certain tourists.
The men once again concealed their faces with veils, gesturing towards the distance, uttering unintelligible words. However, the direction indicated by their fingers was unmistakable—an ethereal mirage materialized before us, resembling a tranquil blue lake emerging from afar. Its hue mirrored the veils of these men and evoked memories of the blue city of Chefchaouen we had passed days prior.
In that moment, San Mao’s words sprang to mind: “The love for foreign cultures arises from the vast disparities between them and myself, bestowing a profound beauty and resonance upon the soul.” Profoundly moved, we succumbed to the allure of continued exploration.
As twilight cast a gilded arc upon the desert’s edge, all tales of the Sahara, as well as the encounters between humans and the landscape, culminated in the resplendence and smiles of that luminous arc.