Sunday, April 5, 2009

Public Squalor, Private Splendor (4 of 7)

Trucks in Morocco tend to be decorated. Not as much as Pakistani or Indian ones, but it's a cool personal touch.
One of the sadder public spaces.

These hats are just for tourists. I never saw a Moroccan wearing anything but subdued, neutral colors.
Walking through the souks, I was constantly removing and replacing my sunglasses. And the cats are everywhere.
In Marrakech, and in the Maghreb in general, there’s a tremendous contrast between people who have and people who don’t.
Most of the population is very poor. Many beg on the streets, especially women whose husbands have died or left them. Children in the Medina are put to work as soon as they’re able to carry a load, instead of going to school. Everywhere men are idle on streetcorners and squares, wearing rags and looks of desolation.
The state doesn’t spend much on infrastructure, either. The cracked and broken sidewalks, the trash accumulating under every bush and all along the streets, the dirt everywhere: all contribute to making the city look uncared-for and broken. Construction is shoddy, with plaster flaking off façades before buildings are even finished.
Yet in the midst of all the squalor, behind high walls in the Medina or in gated neighborhoods, are oases of luxury.
Open the door to a hidden riad in the Medina and step from a world barely scraping by to the tinkling of fountains under the shade of well-watered palms, couches piled with heavily brocaded cushions. The houses in the rich areas rival their wealthy American counterparts.
My host, on Wednesday after a session of going over the family data and pinpointing what needs to be done (I’ll post about the thesis tomorrow), took me to see her future new house, now in its third year of construction.
Our way there is along a potholed and trash-lined boulevard. When we turn off into the nice neighborhood, still nobody picks up the trash along the public street, but the new houses loom huge and perfect behind their high walls and lush landscaping.
BB’s yard has been planted with fruit trees, but as yet nothing else because of the work still in progress. The structure of the 4-bedroom house is complete. It’s now a question of finishing work - installing sinks and light fixtures and banisters. Another six months, perhaps, maybe more at the Moroccan pace. Inside I see why it has taken three years already and the place is not yet livable. The ceilings are masterworks of traditional hand-cut plasterwork designs such as you see in all the pretty picturebooks of Moroccan style. There’s a central light well illuminating the three stories. Every door and windowframe is hand carved from top to bottom. Colorful tile designs line the bathrooms and floors. Everything has been made by hand, here on site. Two men are working on a pair of carved slatted closet doors laid out on benches in the garage. No buying machine-tooled fixtures from Home Depot around here. The artisans are hard at work.
Perhaps the populace as a whole isn’t so very poor. Certainly many live in shacks and can barely feed themselves, but there’s a whole society of artisans and taxi-drivers and grocers who are doing alright. Not the same standard of living as in the US, but living alright for Morocco.It’s the tragedy of the commons that perhaps makes things look worse than necessary. It’s the trash everywhere. The crumbling buildings, the derelict wrecks, the potholed roads. The green spaces look so inviting from afar, but closer up you see the old bottles and papers and homeless men in every direction, and the stench of decay hits you and the beauty and peace disappear. Only inside the private spaces are things cared for and clean.
Too bad I didn't have the camera with me for this visit! But after hauling it around all morning through the souks, it just seemed so darned heavy. In the post after-next I'll show you the luxurious side of Marrakech.


marc aurel said...

you don't need a camera. That was great seeing and great describing

Si's blog said...

Agree with Marc. Can see it all.

Difficult for those of us accustomed to democracy and capitalism for generations to understand the civilizations that were feudal just a few years ago. That is the trouble with Iraq and so many of our international relationships. Such as with Bush and Cheney.