The Spices of Life
Aman News, 2006
The scents, perfumes and street odours of Marrakech are such a vital part of the experience of the city that without them, however stylish the photographic collection, however well-paced the documentary, however brilliantly composed the sound track, it always fails the subliminal test. When I step down from the airplane onto the streaked tarmac, the coded scents in the air bring back decades of experience in an unexpected emotional rush.
How could you ever prepare such a scent? In the far distant background you would need a suggestion of burned-out midday desert air, a chill from the forested Atlas mountains, some ozone from some sea-assaulted limestone cliff, an element of that warm patina of herbs given off by the goat-grazed maquis hillsides in the mid afternoon and some rich must from recently ploughed red earth in winter. Onto these back notes you would apply a suggestion of orange blossom in March, the smell of fresh baked bread in the morning, cedar wood shavings being burned in the furnace of a hammam, the nutty tincture of olives being crushed at a mill in September set against the darker smells of diesel exhaust at a roadside cafe, donkey droppings, hashish and just the very slightest hint of an open-air tannery - in order to capture the eternal duality of Marrkach. You can only fully appreciate the shelter of the shade when you have been burned by the sun, or find delight in the sweetness of mint tea when you are hungry and tired, just as you can only fully appreciate the opulence of an enclosed courtyard after first becoming irritated by the jostle and squalor of a public street. It is just so with scent. You first need the reek the corruption before you can make frankincence smell truly divine.
But it is only the outsiders; the travellers, emigrants and dispossessed who are truly aware of its power. I still vividly remember the day at Taroudant (the quiet twin sister of Marrakech the other side of the Atlas mountains) when the whole earth seemed possessed by the ecstatic odour of orange blossom, when a local man confessed that the locals have all lost the power to fully smell it, as it creeps up on them over the spring and becomes unoticeable.
Is it the same with those other great sights, scents and smells of Marrakech? Is it true that it is us travellers that can best appreciate the gorgeousness of the grocers pyramids of pickled olives, each pile adorned with a different flavouring and colour but all-alike in their glistening light-reflecting oils? Yet while we might marvel most intently at the display, we know little of the millennial oral tradition of herbal cures, cosmetic adornment, culinary skills, flavours, spells and ointments. Here one is but a child in a new world, admiring but only partly comprehending the jars of pickled lemons, preserved garlics and peppers, sprays of different mint leaves, corianders, fennels and parsley. There is Rembrandt-like array of dark browns assembled by the sellers of a dozen different qualities of dates from the Saharan oases, varieties of almonds gathered from hidden groves in the Anti-Atlas and walnuts from the valleys of the High Atlas. (They can be found just before the entrance of the covered souk at the Bab Semmarine entrance) Or the contrasting cones of colour at the spice merchant’s stall, little rippling peaked dunes of red hot harissa, paprika, ginger, saffron, cinammon and of course that defining Moroccan spice –cumin. Grown in the south, and once known as the pepper of the poor, it is the elemental flavour of the street-kitchen: sprinkled on a boiled egg, enriching an omelette, deepening a tomato and onion salad or flavouring a kebab, but also ubiquitous in the festival and palace traditions of tagines, salads and pastries. Then there are the scent merchants and dealers in incence usually clustered in the pretigious streets immediately around the mosque and slightly further away will be the cosmetic stalls selling kohl (ground antimony) for the eyes, little pots of rouge, ghassoul (a brown mud for washing), gum, tooth-cleaning twigs, rose water, dried pink rose-heads from the Dades valley, musk and of course henna as a leaf or as a green powder with all the instruments and accoutrements of its application. Most dazzling and bewitching of all are the traditional apothecaries, where serpents, dried bird wings, hedgehogs, salamanders, not to mention rare skins and porcupine quills are on display alongside herbal teas and simples. The west face of the open Place Rahba Kedima (pretty much bang in the middle of the covered souk) is the centre for these triumphantly mysterious stalls - so much so that my friends habitually know it as the magic market. Around the Rahba Kedima you will also find dealers in cosmetics, though a second centre has also opened up in the streets around the Ben Youssef Mosque.
It takes a lifetime to enter this world of charms and cures. It is not all about rarity. The dried flour of Carob beans is used for curing chronic stomach upsets as well as helping the obese. Figs are used as a softener, a laxatif and a stimulant and the white sap can charm away a wart. A hot bath steeped with live-oak leaves and young twigs cures dandruff and smelly feet. Cumin, as well as its vast application in the kitchen, is made into a medicinal tea in the company of aniseed, coriander, fennel and a twist of lemon. There has also been a renewed interest in the medicinal oils of Morocco as the arts of the hammam have revived on the back of a worldwide interest in spa culture. Moroccans have long known that Argan oil (extracted from the olive-like fruit of a very tough thorn tree that only grows in south-west Morocco) is an anti-ageing agent which repairs skin damage, over exposure to the sun and is even an aid to fertility for both men and women. In the dry rived beds of the desert south, the Oleander shrub can often be found which alone has the courage to produce a bright pink flower during the dog days of the summer. It is traditionally considered to have been created from the tear drops of Fatimah (the Prophet Muhammad’s youngest daughter) when she heard that her beloved husband, Ali was thinking of taking a second wife. A concoction can be brewed that is of use for certain heart conditions and the dried leaves can be used as a rat poison though is generally considered to belong to the arsenal of the sorcerer not the healer. A local shepherd warned me that you can get a skin disease even from sleeping in its shade and that you should not even drink water that has flown through its roots. The exotic shape of the datura flower – a great silk-white handkerchief – makes it easy to identify. In the hands of a highly skilled healer mild datura-extract doses can be used to help asthmatics and as a sedative for nervous conditions though again it has a fearsome reputation. It can tranquilize an enemy or in sufficiently strong doses, permanently derpive someone of their sanity. Henna is another of the near-magical plants of Morocco – which is grown in the southern oasis valleys but has entirely feminine and life protecting associations. Alongside its role as a hair-colourer, it is also the script of the illiterate, for a henna drenched right hand will leave a calligraphic imprint on a wall that calls out ‘Allah’ – the divinity. It is also used as a paste to tatoo the exposed (and vulnerable parts) of women; the hands, feet and face. During marriage its role is so vital in dispelling the harmful effects of the evil eye (which can be cast unwittingly by the envious) that a whole day is reserved for applying it in the week-long catalogue of traditional events. I have also witnessed a scene of heart-breaking domestic sincerity, when a mother led her son across the threshold of her house, where a brazier was laden with henna, providing a screen of smoke under which she murmured her prayers to God to watch over him.
I often imagine that scent will have stayed with him, and protected him against harm in the bright lights of the northern city where he labours as an emigrant worker. When he comes back he will be rewarded for living so far from home by the sweet perfume of the orange blossom.
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by Barnaby Rogerson