Nostalgia: Tea in the Sahara

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Set against the majestic Atlas Mountains, Marrakech is the capital of South Morocco and its character is diverse enough to be both African and Arab, modern and traditional, oriental and European. Known as the “Red City”, owing to its cluster of mud brick houses, Marrakech is possibly one of the most exotic cities in the world for its potent mixture of cultures. Over a thousand years old, it has long been a mecca for charmed circles that include artists, journalists, aesthetes, fashion designers and socialites. Think of Paul Bowles in his novel The Sheltering Sky portraying the mystique of an Islamic culture that exists only for the privileged few. Photographer Cecil Beaton mentions the city in his diaries with bold-faced names such as Gore Vidal, Anais Nin and Truman Capote of those times in idyllic tones. British writer and aesthete Osbert Sitwell called Marrakech the “ideal African city of water lawns, cool pillared palaces and orange groves”.

It was in the year 1966 that culturati Pierre Berge and fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent had arrived in Marrakech. They had stayed in the grand dame of hotels, the Mamounia which at the time evoked an old world charm. In Mr. Berge’s terms, it was the concept of pure luxury that proved to be its fatal attraction. Not long after that the couple chose Marrakech to be their second home. Those years have become pivotal to the cultural identity that Marrakech has until today. Pierre Berge’s account of this rarefied life with partner Yves Saint Laurent was what drove my imagination to a frenzy.

Last summer, I had the sheer luck of being invited to Marrakech to find out for myself what made these influential people succumb to its fabled charms. The city itself is split into two distinct areas; the traditional walled medina and Gueliz and Hivernage both of which occupy the French-built Ville Nouvelle. I arrived in the sweltering heat of North Africa with two travelling companions in tow, a low-keyed interior decorator and a famous bag designer on the last day of Ramadan. Nothing could have welcomed me more.

We checked into a riad at the Royal Mansour in the center of the medina. The scent of jasmine and orange blossoms wafted as we entered our luxurious private quarters. I fell into a deep sleep after a three-hour ride from Mohammed V International Airport in Casablanca to Marrakech and woke up to the sounds of muezzin prayers to usher the end of Ramadan at dawn. It was like entering that same twilight that could’ve easily been the subject of Eugene Delacroix’s orientalist pantings. Thus began my journey to the Sahara desert and back to Marrakech in search of paintings by Claudio Bravo in the Khalid Art Gallery in Dar El Basha. To my dismay, the collection had already been shipped to Tangier. My heart skipped a beat from the disappointment. Fortunately, there was high tea at the Mamounia to settle my nerves down.

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