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Feature: Chic of Araby

Jack Smith

It is late afternoon in Marrakech, and the Djemaa el Fna, the Place of the Dead, is jumping. The former execution grounds, now a vast market square surrounded by a high mud wall, teems with humanity: acrobats and belly dancers, stilt walkers and musicians, Saharan tribesmen stained deep blue from the indigo of their robes, slender young shop girls with henna tattoos adorning their forearms, locals in djellabas, and wide-eyed foreigners in safari gear. At its center the square is strewn with carpets populated by snake charmers and cobras, veiled scribes kneeling beneath umbrellas as black as death, and holy men shrouded by the smoke of incense burning all around them. Trained monkeys leap, unbidden, onto the shoulders of affluent-looking passersby and cling there, screeching until their handlers extort a 10-dirham fee (about a dollar) to retrieve the animals. Overhead a flight of African storks—birds with wingspans of 8 feet or more—sweeps low over the square before alighting on the roofs of surrounding cafés and shops, casting silhouettes like those of pterodactyls over the chaos below.
 

The scene is phantasmagoric, an easy thrill for travelers bent on a rush of the exotic. Their appetites for adventure thus whetted, they plunge into the souk, the labyrinth of shops that winds its way like an adobe duodenum into the inner city. Wares of every description spill out from the shops: embossed leather saddles, hammered brass lanterns and chandeliers, fragrant cedar chests, antique scimitars, embroidered slippers, bowls of herbs and potions, fine silks, and carpets and tapestries of every imaginable color and pattern, their acrid aroma a reminder that North African weavers often blend their dyes with camel urine.

 

Farther along, however, the crowd thins, and the shops give way to a series of narrow, shadowy corridors, featureless but for a few small crude doors, high grated windows, and waist-high tunnels leading to gloomy subterranean corridors. The entire quarter appears to be a deserted maze, the last place a stranger might care to tarry. But in Marrakech, things are never quite as they seem.

“There’s not a lot of curb appeal here,” I observe as my guide, French architect Jérôme Vermelin, stops in front of one of the doors and takes a key from his pocket.

“Curb appeal?” he responds with a laugh. “There’s not even a curb.” But as he reminds me, his clients have all that—imposing townhouses or estates with sweeping grounds—at home in France or England. “They come to Marrakech for something different.”

So saying, he swings open the door, and a pale green glow flows from within. The Frenchman steps inside, and I follow, finding myself in a garden courtyard, where songbirds sing from citrus trees and whitewashed walls glimmer from the sunlight reflecting off the mosaic bassin at the center of the yard. The scene seems surreal: On the other side of the door lays squalor, and here on this side is the Riyad el Mezouar, a Berber palace.
 

Riyad el Mezouar is not an especially large residence as palaces go, no more spacious than a Las Vegas casino’s high-roller Ali Baba suite. Except, of course, that the real thing is far more elegant, with its columns and Moorish arches and the intricate mosaic floors surrounding the central pool. “It’s an 18th-century riyad built by a branch of the Moroccan royal family,” says Vermelin. “Until 1945 it belonged to the descendants of Hammadi El Glaoui, caliph of Ouarzazate.”

For the past seven years, the palace has belonged to Vermelin and his French business partner, an artist and former lawyer. “It’s one of 10 palaces we’ve bought and restored since 1999,” he continues. “We’ve sold the other nine but keep this one to rent out as a maison d’hôte.”

 

As such, the riyad offers more than ancient splendor. Along with the full array of modern amenities and plush furnishings, its guests can enjoy breakfasts and dinners prepared by a gourmet chef who once served the sister of the late King Hassan II, aqua-fitness in the pool with a personal trainer, and a massage, or they simply can explore the side streets of the medina, being careful to leave a path of bread crumbs behind them. “We paid attention to restore the architecture of its time, but the furnishings are contemporary,” says Vermelin, leading the way through the first-floor salon, lounges, and bedrooms, all handsomely furnished with masculine-looking divans, settees, and banquettes.
 

 

On the second floor, another columned arcade leads past a library, lounges, bedrooms, and baths. We continue our ascent and emerge into a bright, sunlit landscape of contiguous flat rooftops. From here it seems possible to navigate all of Marrakech without once setting foot on the ground two stories below. “A cat burglar would love it,” I tell Vermelin.

 

“Perhaps,” he says with a Gallic shrug. “But you know how wealthy Americans dream of having a château in France? Wealthy Frenchmen dream of having a palace in Marrakech.”

In french fashion circles, it is de rigueur to own a Marrakech palace; Pierre Balmain, Jacques Bergé, Hermès, Yves St. Laurent, and Jean-Paul Gaultier are just a few of the style-setters who have set up housekeeping in the medina. But this is no less the rage in London or Brussels or Rome, where nothing says status like owning a pied-à-terre in the North African inner city. As a result, riyads that were once ghostly shells in the midst of poverty have been transformed into luxurious private residences, or exclusive hobby hotels run by and for the international crème de la crème, or cozy bed-and-breakfasts replete with zellij, the kaleidoscopic tile work, and partitioned by mashrabiya, the carved wooden screens once used to keep women out of sight.

The vogue for Moroccan palaces hit France about 10 years ago, says Vermelin, but the avant-garde’s infatuation with Marrakech is nothing new. For more than a century, adventurous Americans and Europeans have traveled to the Red City—so called for the glow of its earthen city walls in the sunlight—in search of the surreal and the sensual. It was the point where Africa, Asia, and Europe converged, the nexus of trans-Saharan caravans, and the onetime capital of a regime that extended from Spain to Senegal. Beyond the city walls, the landscape was colored by oleanders and roses and the air perfumed by jasmine and honeysuckle. Within its thousand-year-old medina were soaring mosques, gardens irrigated by underwater canals dating to the 11th century, ancient dynastic tombs, and, of course, the Djemaa el Fna and its myriad diversions. In his memoirs, Winston Churchill described Marrakech as “the last paradise on earth,” and from the terrace of La Mamounia, he painted the famous Art Deco hotel’s garden of orange trees.

 

When French occupation forces departed the city in 1956, it became the world capital of bohemian chic, a never-never land where drugs, gambling, alcohol, and illicit sex officially were suppressed yet available at every turn. For such writers as Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Paul Bowles, and Allen Ginsberg, Marrakech was a vision quest as much as a destination. They roamed the medina stoked on hashish, an itinerary reiterated during the 1960s by rockers Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles, and legions of hippies seeking the meaning of life or cheap drugs, whichever came first. But the city assumed an entirely different dimension of style with the arrival in the 1960s of a tall, slender interior decorator from Memphis, Tenn., named Bill Willis. As Vermelin says, reverently, “In Marrakech you feel the shadow of Bill Willis everywhere.”

An invitation to a party at Willis’ palace is one not lightly spurned, and so six years ago I found myself in front of a rusty steel door in the inner city. A servant appeared and wordlessly bade me follow her up a dimly lit stairway to a domed anteroom, where Willis, in flowing robe and eyeliner, awaited. The other guests had not yet arrived, so Willis sipped a gin and tonic and recalled how it all began. “In 1966 I was living in Paris and got a phone call from my friend John Paul Getty Jr.,” he said. The oil heir had just married and was calling with a proposition: How about joining him and his bride, Talitha, in Morocco? “So off we went on our honeymoon à troisto Marrakech,” Willis said with a wry smile.

 

While exploring Marrakech, Getty took a shine to a 19th-century palace he was shown, one of hundreds of riyads built in the medina from the 17th through the 19th centuries; the property, which once was home to the brother of King Hassan I, had been on the market for 16 years. Like most riyads in the medina, it represented the polar opposite of a European palace. “All you could see from the outside was the door,” said Willis. The floor plan’s focal points were four so-called light wells, smaller courtyards that enabled residents to enjoy the sun during the day and natural air-conditioning at night. The most elaborately decorated surfaces were the ceilings, which could be admired while you reclined on pillowed settees.

For generations, residences such as this had been occupied by wealthy Moroccan families; the riyads were a symbol of national identity during France’s occupation of the country. But when the French decamped, those Moroccans who could afford to abandoned their old-fashioned dwellings and migrated into apartments in the former European quarter outside the city walls. “All those old palaces were just gathering dust,” said Willis. They were until the oil heir had a crazy idea. “Getty bought the old royal place for $26,000 and asked me to restore it completely.”

Once Willis had finished the project, Getty did what anybody with a palace might do: He celebrated. “The 1960s were wild here,” said Willis, looking out the window to a nearby mosque. “There was always lots of rolling around on the floor.”

The Gettys favored parties that went on for days at a time. The January 1, 1968, entry in John Hopkins’ Tangier Diaries reads: “Last night Paul and Talitha Getty threw a New Year’s Eve party at their palace in the medina. Paul McCartney and John Lennon were there, flat on their backs. They couldn’t get off the floor let alone talk.”

Meanwhile, Willis had begun work on his own palace, the former harem quarters of a larger 18th-century riyad. “It was a mess when I found it,” said Willis. “No water, no electricity, and just a hole in the floor for a bathroom.”
 

By the early 1970s, however, Willis had transformed his riyad into an Arabian Nights fantasy that oozed seduction and intrigue from every tapestry, jabot, and swag. After it appeared in a couple of high-profile magazines, the once-clandestine palace became an international must-see. Britain’s Prince Charles, a noted art and architecture buff, stopped by for cocktails; Mick Jagger came for dinner, as did countless more celebrities from the worlds of fashion and cinema, with many deciding that they, too, had to have a home in the medina.

Today, of course, Marrakech is no longer the secret playground of the very wealthy and adventurous, nor is it the dusty, backward place presented in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much. Throughout the city, sleek new villas, condos, and resorts are going up and reinterpreting classic Moroccan themes. Boutique windows are full of exquisite crafts and fashions, and Berber shop girls are more likely to wear Prada than veils. The Marrakech International Film Festival, now in its sixth year, is a glitzy, star-studded event that draws Scorsese and De Niro as well as Belmondo and Deneuve. Golfers travel from far and wide to tee off at the Palmeraie, the former oasis that now is home to the city’s world-class golf course and country club. King Mohammed VI—affectionately dubbed “M6” by his subjects—jogs around Marrakech in designer sunglasses, tank top, and Nikes. In the medina, the alleyways resound with the sounds of workmen installing Jacuzzis, high-speed Internet connections, and plasma TVs in palaces that were built for 17th-century pashas.

 

Six years after we last met, Willis tells me the city has become so popular that everybody is buying a palace in Marrakech. But he does not sound especially happy about having his status as a trendsetter validated. “A whole new crowd has moved in. I feel as if I don’t know anybody,” he says with a there-goes-the-neighborhood sigh. “Marrakech has become too commercial. Imagine, B and Bs! It’s not like the old days.”

Of course it isn’t, says Meryanne Loum-Martin, a Parisian lawyer and art dealer who composed the foreword to the book New Moroccan Style (Clarkson Potter Publishers, 2003). Nevertheless, she expresses great respect for Willis. “He’s the father of design in Marrakech,” says Loum-Martin, a petite brunette. “He has fantastic taste. But that rich hippie scene of the 1960s is over. Nowadays the driving force in Marrakech is art, not decadence.”

Although it may disappoint those baby boomers who get a faraway look in their eyes when they hear Marrakech Express, the zeitgeist is producing a whole new culture. “For most of the 20th century, Marrakech was not a family place for Europeans. It was the opposite,” says Loum-Martin. “In the 1960s there were perhaps 10 European families who led grand social lives here. Today there are hundreds.”

Most of these families are not moving into the medina. Instead, they are building lavish new residences in the Palmeraie, now known as the Moroccan Beverly Hills. Here, a new generation of wealthy expatriates lives behind high earthen walls in sprawling villas with domes, turrets, reflecting pools, and terraces. “The medina was fine for adults,” she says, “but the Palmeraie is a much better place to raise children.”

Most of these families are not moving into the medina. Instead, they are building lavish new residences in the Palmeraie, now known as the Moroccan Beverly Hills. Here, a new generation of wealthy expatriates lives behind high earthen walls in sprawling villas with domes, turrets, reflecting pools, and terraces. “The medina was fine for adults,” she says, “but the Palmeraie is a much better place to raise children.”

In the summer of 2003, Loum-Martin and her husband, ethnobiologist Gary Martin, built their current home, Dar Ilane, a 16-acre compound. In the tradition of the inner-city riyads, the design suggests two separate structures facing each other across a reflecting pool. Though Dar Ilane is not large, the impression it makes is palatial: The main sitting room is cavernous, lit by a huge wrought iron chandelier that hangs from a cupola. The furniture is largely African and the walls are covered with modern art and antique tapestries, a striking mélange of the primitive and the contemporary.

Besides Dar Ilane, the Martins own another villa here at the Palmeraie and one within the medina, both of which they rent out. “It’s considered quite chic in Paris to rent out your riyad or villa in Marrakech,” she says. “Everybody wants to come here. It’s hard to define exactly why. Part of it is the city’s history of tolerance. Part of it is the way the light filters through the air. Part of it is the sound of the name itself: Marrakech. It’s a magical place.”

Then, as I prepare to leave, Loum-Martin asks if I had seen any other riyads in the Palmeraie. Yes. I had visited one nearby that resembled a kasbah by Mondrian, with sharp-edged geometric forms outside and an interior that evokes the narrow, shadowy alleys of the inner city. A cactus garden out front creates a strange, tortured-looking landscape.

“Oh, that one,” she says. “Some people here just get carried away.”

Of course they do, and with good reason. Anywhere else, getting carried away would raise eyebrows. Here in Marrakech, it is tradition.

Riyad el Mezouar
+212.44.38.09.49
www.mezouar.com

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