A Year in Marrakesh  – ★★★
This non-fiction book is Peter Mayne’s account of his life in Marrakesh, Morocco in the 1950s. Mayne recounts his bewilderment and mishaps as he tries to live the life of a local in a country that is very different from his own. He tries to learn Arabic and make friends with local people only to find that his attempts lead him to the myriad of unsaid etiquette rules and cultural intricacies still to be learnt. Though Mayne tries his best to capture the mentality of people living in Morocco and their culture, his account turns out to be predictable and exasperating, though with welcoming doses of humour.
The story begins with our narrator being accosted in one café by a native Moroccan who suggests that he stays at his cousin’s hotel in Marrakesh. “I saw no point in going [to Marrakesh] to live the life of a European tourist” [Mayne, 1953: 11], says Mayne, so the invitation to stay at a hotel frequented by Moroccans is an appealing invitation. Mayne ends up drinking lots of mint tea, and frequenting all the touristy spots in Marrakesh, including various “tiny shops, epiciers, barbers…bazaars”. He also cannot get enough of Djema’a el-Fna (Jemaa el-Fnaa), a market place in Marrakesh, where there are fire-eaters and charmeurs-de-serpents, experiences the full effects of the sherghi (chergui), a continental easterly wind, and has his pleasures in a public hammam, A Turkish bath. Part of the fun of the book is that the narrator is very ignorant about many things in Morocco and his trying to get an authentic experience of Marrakesh often results in curious situations. “I am losing all sense of direction and all sense of time in this city”, confesses Mayne; he soon realises that “Marrakesh lies outside normal rules” [Mayne, 1953: 31-32].
In just one year, Mayne moves houses three times and tries to make friends with local people, mingling with them and trying to engage in conversations using their mother tongue. He is soon invited to their parties and finds his world diminishing once again: “Everybody knows everybody else in Marrakesh. At least everybody knows everyone who lives here – the tourists who come in for a look at the city and a taste of its delights don’t count, except to have franks taken off them” [Mayne, 1953: 62]. The major weakness of Mayne’s account is that insights and valuable observations are few and far between in his book, and there are some controversial episodes inside which would never now form part of any travel book. The only interesting observation is probably to be found in these lines as the narrator compares his own countrymen to the people living in Morocco: “…[Moroccans] don’t have to strive for success, and this is what makes living amongst them such a wonderful relief. For them, none of the things that befall you can be disgraceful because, good or bad, everything comes from God. With us, it is somehow disgraceful to be poor, no matter how we protest to the country, because poverty suggests failure…in Marrakesh, you can be poor and rich in turns and nobody seems to notice the difference except in unimportant ways” [Mayne, 1953: 85].
Peter Mayne is a talented writer, but there is nothing remarkable about A Year in Marrakesh. Perhaps it is one of the travel books of the 1950s that has not aged well. It definitely should be seen as having lost some of its credibility and entertainment factor, for example, due to the fact that much more knowledge on Morocco is now widely available and actually possessed by people.
The Eland books are meant to revive great and iconic travel-writing that has fallen out of print, see my other reviews of this series of publications: A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Odyssey and The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut.