susys running away to sea

"The rigors (sic) of an expeditionary lifestyle"

Monday, February 18, 2008

An Arabian Night

It's my last night in Marrakesh, and I'm taking myself out to dinner. Not far - I don't want the hassle S and I had, wandering around late the evening before. Already I've had to rather sharply tell men to 'Go away and leave me alone', which changed one murmured, but persistent invitation to a 'Fuck you' drifting in dusty air behind me.

On my way down the alleyway to the outside world, I'm about to pass the bloke in the cloak, standing outside a nondescript door in a dark corner. We'd seen him on the two previous nights, when candle lanterns had also been placed from the arch over the alley entrance down towards the door. I had wondered what he was doing there, swirling his black cloak impressively, and returning our 'bonsoirs' courteously. And then the brain clicked - the Riad Alida was said to be opposite the restaurant Dar Marjani, of which there was no sign...

'C'est un restaurant ici?' I asked the bloke in the cloak, who immediately opened the door, and ushered me into .....

Well! No - far more than just a restaurant!

I walked into a massive courtyard, dark, lit only by myriad candles. There was a colonnade around a great circular marble fountain, pink and white roses floating at its edge. White divans were arranged around tiny tables. Beyond the candlelight, rose the thick trunk of a palm with huge overarching fronded leaves, and surrounding it, fruiting orange trees. And above me, way above, was the night sky. It was dark, mysterious, oriental. I'd walked from a tatty back alley, literally into a 19th century Arabian Night palace.

Waiters walked around softly in loose-fitting, deep red, black braided uniforms. And presiding over everything was an impressive woman in a kaftan, quite heavily made up, not young, her long hair unusually loosened around her shoulders. I was ushered to a seat at a low table and invited to have a drink - in a muslim country? Yes, again they're quite relaxed, at least for visitors. Beer? I asked - and was given Moroccan beer. At the next table were a Japanese couple, resolute in not catching my eye - but they were drinking something pale blue, and I asked for a glass of this, too - a cocktail on a fig liqueur base. As I listened to a musician sing and play his stringed guitar-type instrumet, and nibbled on olives, walnuts and popcorn, another couple were shown in to the divan beyond. They smiled at me and shortly after, invited me to join them for dinner - well, yes, of course! I don't mind my own company, but they looked fun. The only thing I was really sorry about, was that S was missing this astonishing experience!

P and F are Australian - obviously my weekend for Aussies! - and it's their 30th wedding anniversary. They've lived in various parts of the world, including Shanghai - and as my eldest daughter is about to go there, I'm interested in what they have to say - all very reassuring, as it happens, which is excellent news.

All too soon, we're all ushered through a pair of tall dark wooden doors on the other side of the fountain, into a smaller, high ceilinged room. This is where we are to dine - on padded, circular, cushioned sofas around large round tables. On each white clothed table red rose petals are strewn, and the initials of the customers are spelled out in scarlet sequins ... Again, it's lit by candles. I'd been told a couple of times, rather anxiously, it had seemed to me, that the menu was fixed, rather than a la carte - which I'd said was fine. What I had completely failed to realise was that a fixed menu meant course after course, wonderfully presented under conical straw hats! I can't remember the order our food was presented - it just kept coming! There was beautifully fluffy couscous with vegetables, melting lamb, pigeon under thin pancakes, a crispy-grilled fish, chicken, circles of filo pastry with honey and ground nuts, sprinkled with milk, and to finish, delicious palate refreshing wafer-thin orange slices in syrup and cinnamon...

And all the time, we are entertained by a couple of musicians playing and dancing (yes, I was pulled up to dance with them) the mystical gnawa music of the mountains. Finally - this makes the men sit up - a smiling belly dancer - the most beautiful young woman in gold-sequinned bra and diaphanous skirt - able to articulate parts of her body I could never dream of attempting .. Several of the men, P included, slip money into the low waistband of her skirt, which she transfers deftly to her bra, without interrupting her dance. In that atmosphere, of good food, good local wine, pooled candlelight and dark shadows and mesmeric music, we are all entranced...

I bid goodbye to P and F, thank them for their great company, and the bloke in the cloak escorts me along to the front door of my riad. I knock, and it's opened by the porter, who assures me a taxi has been ordered for 4.45 in the morning. The evening has been the most astonishing, unexpected finale to a truly foreign country.

And so to bed.


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