Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Penguin no. 1230: The Alleys of Marrakesh
by Peter Mayne

I am resolved never to run, to walk always with a slow measured tread, and that when I choose, or am actually compelled, to look to right or left, I shall do so calm and tranquil. I shall gear down my jittery European reactions to those of a Blueman riding his camel across the Mauretanian deserts. I shall refuse to be hustled - why hurry? All the evidence about me points to the fact that it is for ever NOW. You can't go skipping into the future, however much you hustle. I shall be content, as the Moors are, with me in the centre of my universe and leave the universe to do the spinning.

Peter Mayne is never very clear on why he chose to travel to Marrakesh. When anyone puts the question to him he avoids answering it, reluctant to admit that he allowed chance to decide, choosing his destination using a pin and a map. But when the question is really pressed, he reveals it had something to do with a feeling of being over-civilised. He is seeking some respite from what he perceives to be the constant Western emphasis on progress and achievement, and he believes he will find it living amongst the Moors. As he makes clear in the passage quoted above, he wants to learn to live in the moment.

He travels to Marrakesh with an idea about the kind of life he wants to live, but with no clear plans as to what to do when he gets there. An unsought encounter in a cafe in Tangier en route provides him with the name of a hotel owned by Moulay Ibrahim. (In a different context he notes that a Moulay is someone descended from the Prophet, and therefore a person of some importance.) It is to this hotel he heads with a letter of introduction when he gets to Marrakesh, but it is a journey he makes with some difficulty, for he cannot read the address which has been written in Arabic, and his victoria driver cannot read at all. They find the hotel eventually, with the assistance of a passerby: it is located down an alley within the historic centre of Marrakesh. His room comes with no facilities for washing, and as a Christian he is not permitted to use the communal baths.

Peter Mayne plans to write a novel while living in Marrakesh. He also keeps a record of the small incidents of his daily life there, and it is this journal which forms the basis of this book. During his first months he passes his days in a cafe writing, his evenings taking lessons in Arabic, and his nights walking about the Djema'a el-Fna, a large irregularly-shaped courtyard which in earlier times was used for the display of salted decapitated heads. The courtyard's name translates as Congregation of the Departed, but the decapitations ended when the French established their Protectorate in 1912. By the early 1950s it had become the crowded home of storytellers, singers and snake charmers, and of an ostrich who pecks around amongst the beaks and bones of his former companions.

Peter Mayne finds that the locals observe him silently at first, but gradually they acknowledge his presence in their world and he begins to form friendships. He finds much to admire in his Moorish friends and acquaintances: they are generous, they seem incapable of feeling malice, and they never become aggressive when consuming alcohol. He also notes the complete absence of any concern for the future, which derives from their belief in the omniscience of God. Every tentative plan is accompanied by the words Insha' Allah - if God wills; should anyone forget, the words will always be spoken by someone close by. It means there is no call to feel pride on account of achievement, or disgrace on account of poverty: nothing reflects on the individual because it is all the will of God. It is this quality which enables Mayne to feel such contentment in living amongst them.

In the end he learns to live in the moment a little too successfully, and he finds the life to be incompatible with writing; while he intends to work, he can always find a reason not to. Instead he publishes this account of his year in Marrakesh, which he readily acknowledges as biased. He had no interest in providing a survey of the city, telling of its history, or providing descriptions of the cultural treasures of the type which could be found in any guide book. His interest was always in the local, and it is the everyday happenings which he uses to build up his picture of life as it is lived in the alleys of the older parts of the city, concentrating on the habits and superstitions of his neighbours and friends, both expatriate and local, and telling of the small incidents in their lives.


  1. I enjoyed reading this one a few years ago. It was very anecdotal, but I got a feel for the place and for the relationships he built up with the various characters

  2. I read this a while back and remember enjoying it, but being a teeny bit frustrated by his laissez-faire attitude and how easily he slipped into a slothful kind of life. But a good read nevertheless!



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