Morocco is a country of great spaces. Whether these are winding mountain roads or straight roads across semi-desert, you expect to spend several hours in a car to get from one destination on the map to the next. Yet many traditional Moroccans live in casbahs – walled enclosures built by one or more family groups. From the outside they look like abandoned desert forts, except there are no battlements or defensive works. Inside, they are packed tight with narrow roofed alleys and houses, a dark labyrinth of firmly closed front doors. These are very private places, where the visitor sees virtually no sign of people, even though there are hundreds close by.
Partly it’s because of the heat of the sun and the amazing cold of the desert night. These places must have a much more comfortable temperature range than a nomad’s tent.
Partly it’s because of Morocco’s history: a succession of small scale conquests and reconquests, where Romans are succeeded by Vandals, Vandals by Caliphs, Caliphs by a bewildering list of would be dynasties, Almoravids, Almohads, Sadis, and finally the Alawis, who still rule the country in the person of Mohammad VI. Under the Alawis, however, there was a succession of colonial fix-ups, during which the local man was king in name only but did what a colonial power (mostly France, but occasionally Spain or Britain) told him. The Mahgreb, or land of the setting sun, was the most westerly part of North Africa; beyond it was only the impassable Atlantic. There was little wealth here, before phosphates and tourism were discovered in the 20th century, so attempts at conquest were fitful and half-hearted. A recurrent theme in Moroccan history is discussion of the rights and duties of a ruler. Under Islamic law, can an unjust ruler be deposed? What is justice?
But the main reason for the Casbahs, it seems to me, is the tyranny of great spaces. Standing out there in these huge flat semi-deserts, you feel psychologically small, endangered. This vastness is greater then you, you cannot contain it, you cannot leave your mark on it. You do not even know what is in it or what bounds it – mirages make the borders shimmer and change. Inside your casbah, and behind the door of your house within the casbah, you can make a space your own, and control it. You are not always reminded of just how far you have to go to get to anywhere else, and just how short your life is compared to the distances you would have to travel if you were to understand and know the world.
An example are the casbahs at Rissini. You go inside one, which houses 65 families. (It used to hold twice that number, but many have left to go to the cities.) This casbah is poor: there is no running water, and the sole well outside the main gate is padlocked for all but two hours of the day, presumably to prevent it drying up.
Nearby is a slightly wealthier casbah, and on the edge of this some handicraft shops for tourists, efflorescences of colour and life on the featureless external walls. You are taken in and given tea, and a talk about the handicrafts they offer. This is so much more civilised than the aggressive salesmanship you find elsewhere. Carpets, for example, may take 12 months to weave. They are so finely woven that each woman (women do all the weaving) can only make three carpets in her life before her eyesight deteriorates. This is a sales pitch, to be taken perhaps with a pinch of salt, but it’s a good story. The use and meaning of nomad crosses is explained, a mediaeval GPS system as the salesman phrases it, as well as a rosary and a good luck charm.
Marrakech itself is much larger than Rissini, but 35% of its people still live in the old Medina (a larger casbah, with wider streets and more entrances.) Marrakech Rouge, as the French colonialists called the old city because of the pink/ ochre colour of the walls, also contains a large suk or bazaar, in which you can buy not only tourist artefacts, but also spices, everyday household goods, and traditional style slippers emblazoned ‘Arsenal’ or ‘Bayern Munchen’. Men – and even once I saw a woman – ride motorbikes down impossibly narrow streets, hooting constantly.
In the restaurants, giant TV screens show football matches. We have retreated into our own confined spaces, and now we can watch people from the other side of the world on a screen. Distance is contained within a box, and we can switch it off if ever it gets too much for us.