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Marrakech Express
by Peter Millar, published by Arcadia; ISBN 978-1909807594
Published in TLS, November 21, 2014

This book of travels in modern Morocco grabs your attention with its first chapter, an immediate and intense immersion into an intoxicating mix of blood, guts, piety, hashish, cocktails and family values, all skillfully wrapped around the events of the Day of Sacrifice in a provincial northern town, awash with cockney-accented migrants. But having set up such wonderfully high expectations of engagement with contemporary Moroccans, Peter Millar then slips into neutral for the rest of his book, churning out chapters that keep to the rat-run of tourist monuments, a packaged-tour cultural circuit of the great cities of Marrakech, Casablanca, Rabat, Meknes, Fez and Tangier. Indeed at times he seems to descend to a Pooter-like self mockery of the lone middle-aged travel-journalist hack, not especially interested in anything that he sees, but dead keen to trap the reader, like the leaden-eyed travel bore you misfortunately sit opposite on a train, who proceeds to tell you how he got lost due to a muddled-up address, how he stumbled along a dark street, how to bargain with taxi drivers, what to wear in the hammam, and which train route to take when heading west from Oujda.

Now and again, Millar shows you his skill with a pen and the accuracy of his palate, such as when eating snails and sheeps’ heads, and when he searches out an excellent new winery on the plain outside Meknes, and he is always funny, observant and accurate about bars. His descriptions of Marrakech’s perpetually gloomy Tazi Hotel bar, of the double fake ambiance of Rick’s Bar in Casablanca, of the excellent tapas served at Dean’s Bar in Tangier and of the midnight transformation of drab-looking bars (in both Casablanca and Oujda) into extravagant musical dives, happily tallies with my own experiences. Elsewhere facts are not so dependable. The Koutoubia of Marrakech is given a ‘red-brick’ minaret, a bougainvillea is appreciated for its scent, while a five-pointed star does not always indicate something Jewish in Morocco (the seal of Solomon is, after all, on the national flag). Nor did the Emperor Diocletian withdraw the legions from Britannia, Kairouan is certainly not an alternative name for the city of Tunis and Casablanca has indeed got its own Arabic name.

That said, there are half-a-dozen first-rate bar tips.

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