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The Allure of
MARRAKECH
by Stuart Haggas

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(Page 1 of 2)

When the country’s popular young king, Mohammed VI, ascended to the throne in 1999, one of the most significant things he did was to do away with much of the red tape to make it easier for foreigners to acquire property. This paved the way for many of the Medina’s crumbling riads—a traditional style of house built around a central courtyard, and often incorporating decorative architectural elements like fountains, ornate arches, and extravagant mosaic tiling—to be acquired by intrepid and stylish foreigners and transformed into luxury guesthouses.

Each riad has only a handful of guestrooms. As the owners are frequently on-site, you’re guaranteed a plethora of personal style and an exceptional level of personal attention. Thanks to the rise of the riad hotel concept, there are possibly more boutique hotels per square mile in the Marrakech Medina than anywhere else in the world.

One of the most luxurious is Riad Farnatchi, with its unflinching contemporary take on the Arabesque aesthetic. Originally destined to be the private vacation home of acclaimed British hotelier Jonathan Wix, it became a deluxe riad hotel in 1999. With a courtyard plunge pool, private hammam, an array of massage and beauty treatments, vast guestrooms, and bathrooms that boast sunken bathtubs, underfloor heating, and Philippe Starck fittings, it has all the facilities of a five-star hotel, yet accommodates just a handful of guests. You’ll get a level of service here to which only superstars, presidents, and billionaires are accustomed. In fact, the only inconvenience you’re likely to incur at this and other similarly upscale riads like Riad Enjia and Villa des Orangers, is that Annie Leibowitz could be shooting the cover of Vanity Fair outside your bedroom door.

Art aficionados and foodies favor Riad El Fenn. Co-owned by Vanessa Branson, sister of Richard of Virgin Airlines and Records fame, its walls are adorned with an impressive collection of Brit Art by the likes of Bridget Riley. The organic food served here is grown at the riad’s very own farm in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. A fashionista favorite, Riad 72, is Prada-style uptown chic, with a muted palate of creams and grays, and just four guestrooms—no prizes for guessing that it’s Italian owned.

Although the website http://www.gay-provence.org primarily promotes properties in Provence in the South of France, a couple of gay-owned and operated riads in Marrakech are also listed, including Riad Dar Kh’missa, Riad La Terrasse des Oliviers, and Riad Mehdia, all of which are incredibly friendly and remarkably affordable.

As Marrakech is short on conventional sights and tourist attractions, I’d recommend you dedicate time to figuring out which riad is perfect for you—choosing the right place to stay is likely to make or break your trip. For although Marrakech is deservedly a city that exists on glossy magazine pages, the flaw that’s so often airbrushed out by the style arbiters of Madison Avenue is the fact that Marrakech itself is a dry, dusty, and chaotic city in northwest Africa.

Cast off the chic, protective cocoon of your designer riad, and the reality of Marrakech will viscerally challenge all of your senses. Your lungs might breath air that’s lush with the scent of rose petals, spices, and incense so fragrant you’ll want to inhale another heavenly lung full, but around the next corner you may catch yourself holding your breath to avoid the sour stench of rotting trash. The manic disorder of every thoroughfare—an eclectic mix of pedestrians, mopeds, and flybitten donkeys pulling overladen carts—might give you a thrilling adrenaline kick, or it might fill you with dread as you mentally focus on not getting lost or pickpocketed.

In fact, whether you love or hate Marrakech probably has a lot to do with how you stand on the “half glass” debate. When you’re halfway through your favorite cocktail, do you optimistically view it as half full, or are you the pessimist who regards your glass as half empty? The optimist will see his bravado pay dividends—behind the closed doors of the Medina are a plethora of hidden shops, exotic restaurants, secret courtyard gardens, and all kinds of unexpected adventures. Meanwhile, the pessimist was last seen anxiously sprinting back to his hotel. Of course, as the hotels are fabulous, both optimist and pessimist can love Marrakech, but for different reasons.

Despite laws criminalizing homosexuality, same-sex couples visiting Marrakech will feel remarkably comfortable. Although Muslim culture disapproves of unchaparoned mingling between the sexes, it’s not uncommon to see straight Moroccan men holding hands.

Should you want to hang out in places where gay Moroccans are known to frequent, head to adjacent Guéliz where a couple of continental-style pavement cafés attract a gay clientele.

With its formally attired waiters, Café les Négociants harks back to the days of French colonial rule. It’s popular with European expatriates, wealthy Moroccans, and a discreet smattering of cute gay locals. I’m told you should leave a packet of opened cigarettes in view on your table to encourage approaches. Directly opposite is Café Atlas, one of the few places in Marrakech to serve alcohol. It therefore has a slightly seedy reputation. One guidebook entry I read mentioned the precisely groomed and scented local gigolos in snug-fitting white trousers who can be found here—alas, I saw no such evidence, but did enjoy the rare treat of a cold beer on a hot afternoon.

Similarly attired gigolos were promised at Diamant Noir, the basement discotheque of nearby Hotel Marrakech. This neighborhood peaked in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and Diamant Noir today is a kitsch step back in time. The tiger-print lounge décor is somewhat dated, the DJ’s penchant for mixing Arabic beats and American R&B with Sylvester and Sister Sledge can only be described as eclectic, and the permatanned Donatella Versace clones in white leather miniskirts look like they’ve been in situ since 1976. It’s a lot of fun—so pack your dancing shoes.

Those eager to delve into the Marrakech gay scene don’t need to delay, because the most accessible place to meet gay Moroccans is online via French-based chat portal http://www.cybermen.com. It’s a clumsy and cumbersome site, so contacts rapidly exchange hotmail addresses and continue chatting via MSN Messenger. Should you not possess a decent knowledge of French, you’ll need help from an online translator like Google Language Tools. As each online seduction blossoms, you’ll be amazed by the extent of Google’s vocabulary.

While chatting, it’ll become apparent that what the average Moroccan is looking for online is “passif avec local.” After further discussion you’ll learn that avec local (i.e. a place to go back to) is the only thing that actually matters.

Just because no eyebrows were raised when you checked in with your lover, don’t assume a similar welcome will be extended to a new Moroccan friend—not even if your riad is gay-owned and run.

In 2006, eleven Moroccans and two Frenchmen received sentences ranging from six months to six years imprisonment when caught making gay porn films in Marrakech. A third Frenchman, the owner of a riad used as a location, was acquitted, but the authorities closed his establishment. Although in my eyes the only crime committed was the fact that the Moroccan porn actors were paid a pittance, this incident resonated through the Marrakech gay community, and riad owners were reminded that they could be accused of running a brothel should the authorities catch a foreigner and a Moroccan sharing a bed.

According to article 489 of the Penal Code, homosexuality in Morocco is illegal and can be punished with anything from a fine of between 120 to 1,200 Dirhams, and a prison sentence of between six months to three years. Nevertheless, this law is seldom enforced. However, I’m told that it’s not uncommon for police to arrest Moroccans seen with foreigners late at night on charges of prostitution, with the foreigner being given nothing more than a lecture on the dangers of such a liaison—so the key is to be discreet, more for his sake than yours.

The most notable exception in recent years was in 2004, when a 66-year-old British tourist was arrested in Rabat for having sex with two Moroccan males. Both he and the eldest Moroccan, aged 18, were sentenced to a year in prison; the younger Moroccan, aged 16, was considered a minor and released.

As well as challenging your senses, Marrakech may challenge your ethical compass. Should gay tourists boycott destinations like this? Or should we show our support and solidarity with local gays and lesbians by visiting and seeking out gay-owned or gay-friendly hotels, restaurants, and businesses? Ultimately, it is a personal judgment. Morocco is one of the more open (or at least, less repressive) countries, and the “gay rights” agenda (like the gay scene itself) is somewhat underground but alive and growing. I shared my ethical dilemma with Stephanie Willman Bordat, Morrocco-based Country Director for the US human rights group, Global Rights. She confirmed that Moroccan groups such as the Morroccan AIDS organization are active and progressive on a variety of human rights issues, while the website http://www.kelma.org—despite the beefcake—is surprisingly serious on Magreb-based gay issues. Although it is a personal choice, support and solidarity for these emerging human rights groups can only be a good thing.

Thanks to an ordinance set down during French rule, new buildings in Marrakech must be painted pink so they match the earthy pink tones of the old Medina. In time, perhaps this pink ordinance will cross over to political attitude.

Until then, the secret to enjoying Marrakech is not to try too hard. Chill out, take your time, and adventures of all sorts will come and find you.

[Published: April, 2007]

Continued
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just need to specify that Jamaa el Fna doesn't mean “Assembly Of The Dead.” but rather "The Glorious Mosque". Trust me .. I live here ...
- Kevin Tortosa , Marrakesh Morocco

Great lines, very well described. Cant wait to visit this magical place again! Thank you!
- Alex , London - United Kingdom

just remember that all intermezzos are with payment in one form or another. dont go in dark alleys to play. be careful to not share too much info about you, it will be used against you to threat you to pay more money. Be VERY VERY careful or dont do it at
- fernando , madrid- spain

Fantastic article! Thank you so very much for taking the time to write such an insightful and thorough feature. I am planning a trip to Marrakech in about 3 months and I will certainly use this story as a referrence. Thanks again!
- Jeremy_MacKay , Toronto, Ontario, Canada


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