The Writing Traveler: Marrakesh Memories by Martha Oates
June 23, 2021
Its streets are lined with many large palms, beautiful Jacarandas trees, and Bougainvillea in many colors.
In the late spring of 2012, my husband Dr. Arnold Oates, and I traveled with a group of educators to Marrakesh, Morocco as delegates to the 40th International Invitational Seminar on Schooling (IISS). We have traveled as IISS delegates to 15 countries on three continents since 2000.
Marrakesh (“Marrakech” in French) is located between the Atlas Mountains and the desert in the center of the North Africa country of Morocco. Marrakesh is arid but its streets are lined with many large palms, beautiful Jacarandas trees, and Bougainvillea in many colors. Ninety-eight percent of the population is Muslim and most speak Arabic and/or French. However, English is common also, especially among tourist industry workers. Most of the men wear long robes and hoods (usually white), but only a few of the women we saw wore the full, traditional burka or hijab. Many were attired in robes and scarves that were diverse and colorful.
Marrakesh is one of the busiest cities in Africa and serves as a major economic center and tourist destination.
A popular tourist area is the Medina Quarter (Marrakesh’s old city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site) built around 1122 and enclosed by 12 miles of pink walls. The centerpiece of the Medina is the 252 ft. high Koutoubia Minaret (Hispano-Moresque architecture) completed in the 1180s.
An “antenna” on top points to Mecca and can be seen from all over the city. The minaret is located in a square near a noisy and colorful local market of about eight city blocks where local craftsmen work in metal, pottery, textiles, leather, and henna art. Proprietors in the jumble of booths sell everything you can imagine. We bought saffron, Argon oil, and jewelry. In the square, we saw snake charmers, roving musicians and dancers, more sellers of all kinds of goods, and many, many people.
One highlight of our visit was touring the beautiful Majorelle Botanical Gardens and Museum that was created in 1923 to showcase both tropical and desert plants in a beautiful setting. The property was purchased in the 1980s by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé who worked to restore it.
It is now owned and maintained by the Yves Saint Laurent Association. In addition to designing clothes, Yves Saint Laurent was an accomplished artist and his paintings and fashion pieces are displayed in the museum. Although exhibitions change, large posters of his New Year’s Day cards from the past 30 years of his life were on display when we visited.
The schools we visited included Les Ecoles Illou, a private school in Marrakesh for grades early childhood through 12th. In this school, which was quite modern with excellent facilities, the children begin to learn French and English by 3rd grade. Some of the older female students wore headscarves, but many did not. By contrast, another school we visited in a rural area had very few amenities and deplorable buildings. We brought soccer balls and candy for the children and collected money for the school. Here the students were quite shy and the girls’ dress was more traditional.
One morning, we went by horse-drawn carriage to the famous Palm Grove with its hundreds of palms many of which are over 500 years old. Some of our group rode camels (actually one hump dromedaries) into the desert, but we declined. Many of the larger houses in Marrakesh and those we passed on our carriage ride are surrounded by high walls covered with large Bougainvillea.
Another day we toured the countryside by van passing Berber villages, fields with sheep and shepherds, and the snow-capped Atlas Mountains. We visited a typical country home where we were shown how to make the ubiquitous hot mint tea and were served tea and pastries. Everywhere we went (shops and other homes) we were greeted with a small slender glass of hot mint tea. Muslims do not drink alcoholic beverages, but spirits are available to others in restaurants and bars.
Near the end of our stay, we took a motorcoach day trip to the beautiful coastal town of Essaouira. On the way we saw many interesting sights including sleepy towns, camels, sheep in the fields, and goats in Argon trees eating the nuts. Argon nuts are used to make cooking oils, cosmetics, and other products in factory settings and rural homes. We stopped at a place where local women grind the nuts and make and sell their products.
After a week in Marrakesh, we flew to the Portuguese Island of Madeira located in the Atlantic Ocean about 200 miles from Portugal and 350 miles from Morocco. This is a small but very beautiful place with beautiful plazas, steep mountains, and lush flora – however, that is another story.