A stroll through the souks of Marrakesh’s old city, or medina, keeps you fully alert to what’s coming your way. The thoroughfares are so crazily crowded that you have to laugh. Every few seconds, you’re forced to get out of the way of a motorcycle or a bicycle; they stop-start through the throng as fast as they can, which can scarcely average faster than walking. Moments of paralysis occur when a hand-pushed cart carrying goods to a shop meets another carrying bricks or long pipes.
Medinas filled my childhood imagination. Even the word pleased me; it sounded so full of longing. I grew up mostly in raw new suburbs of the Midwest, in ranch- and colonial-style houses with large front yards. But my mother’s stories of Tripoli, which she’d visited before she got married, stirred my fancy. Instead of the mall, I wanted the ancient walled cities with their souks, fountains and mosques. Not to mention robed natives in interesting headgear and shopkeepers hawking handwoven carpets, exotic spices and delicately embroidered slippers.
Let’s face it: The lives of others often look more charming and interesting than our own.
Morocco’s medinas — the old, walled parts of the country’s cities — all have distinct characters, but a quality they all share is timelessness. We sampled several of these cities, as Edith Wharton had 95 years before, in 1917. According to her book “In Morocco,” the Moroccan city has no age, “since its seemingly immutable shape is forever crumbling and being renewed on the old lines.”
Marrakesh’s medina revolves around the Jemaa el-Fna. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the square is a public space like no other and is less like a “square” than any other. Once used for public executions, it’s huge, and its shape can be described only as a spiky amoeba. Blocks of shops stick out into it; you go around corners, and new spaces open up.
We’d opted to stay close to the Jemaa el-Fna. Taxis can get into the square but no farther, and we would never have found our way to Riad Itrane if the owners hadn’t dispatched someone to lead us there. We walked a short way along one of the crowded streets, through an archway, and then turned into an alley, or derb. Here, the doors were wide apart; some were masterpieces of decoration and iron-studded strength.
The French owners, Patrice and Charlotte, greeted us with glasses of mint tea and briefed us on the city in Franglais. Outside our rooftop room, we could look up at the stars (which is what Itrane means in Berber) or down at the courtyards below, the vast roofscape — and a host of satellite dishes, which seemed to gaze up at the Atlas range to the south.
“Riad” means garden, but in Morocco it has come to mean a traditional city house with at least one interior gardenlike courtyard. Many have now been converted into guesthouses of a gentler and more colorful kind than hotels. Patrice and Charlotte had enlarged theirs by acquiring two other houses at the back and side. Thus it had become a complex of courtyards in various relations, connected by pillared spaces and laced with winding stairs and balconies and with extra apartments on the flat roofs — a maze, pleasantly decorated with Moorish mosaics and wrought iron and rugs and arches of the Moorish shape, like a round head on square shoulders.