Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Glimpses of Morocco

Just back from three weeks in Morocco - and it was a fascinating visit, not least in glimpses of a different cityscape.

The European city is a city of open spaces, that don't change their character, that relate to each other logically. Since the Renaissance, there's been a rationality to the way cities are put together.

That logic doesn't happen in Arab cities. Seville, for instance, is the one city I always get lost in, even with the best map I can get.

Arab cities seem to be built around private spaces. The streets are simply the gaps between the buildings. They don't run straight - they run via crooked corners; one street near Dar Si Said, in Marrakech, goes round five right angle bends in less than a hundred yards. Where the map shows them running straight across a grid, in fact you'll find a staggered junction, with a little kink in the street.

The idea of following the 'main street' becomes ludicrous. A main street can simply filter away into tiny passageways leading to the dead ends of a kasbah. It's only wider because it leads from the individual houses to the souk - but it does not go from A to B, so to speak; it simply feeds a drainage system, so that the flood of people going down the street turns into a number of trickles feeding into impasses that contain two or three house doors, and that's all.

And you see the buildings, the real heart of the city, only in glimpses and glances. For instance in Fes, as a non -Muslim, you'll only see the Kairouine mosque or the central Zaouia through gateways, obliquely. You can walk round them and trace their pattern, but you cannot enter; and they are intended to remain private spaces, unlike the western Cathedral with its open parvis, its facade, its spires and towers, or the baroque church which announces itself with a facade that is a piece of public drama.

It's this that marks the mysterious appeal of Moroccan cities. Morocco takes this strand of Arab architecture to its extreme - far more so, say, than Oman. Everything is secrecy and indirection.

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