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The Allure of
MARRAKECH
by Stuart Haggas

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How can a city have earned its place in history for being one of the world’s legendary gay destinations, yet simultaneously be a place where homosexuality remains illegal—a crime punishable by a prison sentence? This question was at the forefront of my mind as the handsome and charming man from my hotel drove me from the chaotic airport into Marrakech.

Marrakech’s reputation as an alluring destination was established in the 1920’s, when it attracted such luminaries as Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rita Hayworth, and Charlie Chaplin. It was not until the 1950’s, however, that Morocco began to gain a reputation as a hedonistic gay hotspot.

In the years that followed the end of World War II, the bohemian mystique of Morocco drew many artists and intellectuals to the country. This particular influx of expatriates tended to favor the city of Tangier, which post-World War II was designated as an International Zone under the administrative control of nine foreign powers, including the USA, Britain, and France. Tangier thus brimmed with a colorful cast of characters worthy of an Agatha Christie novel—from the eccentric British aristocrat regimentally taking afternoon tea, to the swarthy French mercenary, to the handsome American ex-serviceman with an eye for adventure. Morocco became a unique place where different cultures, aspirations, and religions met; a place where some went to cling to their past, while others endeavored to fashion themselves a new future.

American expatriate writer and composer Paul Bowles came to Morocco in 1947. Here he wrote his best known novel Under The Sheltering Sky, and Morocco remained his base until his death in 1999. The Bowles household was awash with creative and sexual ambivalence, often veiled by a cloud of kif (cannabis) smoke. For while he nurtured the artistic aspirations of his young Moroccan lover, Ahmed Yacoubi, his American wife Jane enjoyed her own dalliances, including one with a local peasant woman, Cherifa. This ambiance evidently had an effect on some of their literary houseguests: when William S. Burroughs visited, he spent much time enjoying the company of young men and working on his drug habit—although he did manage to complete his acclaimed novel Naked Lunch.

Elsewhere, American playwright Tennessee Williams wrote an early draft of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof during a sojourn in Morocco, and British playwright Joe Orton, lured by stories of easy drugs and risky sex, enjoyed a promiscuous hash-fueled three month holiday here in 1965. He labeled the place “Costa del Sodomy” and returned for two subsequent summers.

When Morocco became independent from France in 1956, the international focus switched back to sultry and seductive Marrakech. French fashion icons Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Balmain bought houses in Marrakech’s ancient Medina, as did American oil heir John Paul Getty Jr., and the city became a fixture on the jetset party circuit, attracting hard partying rock stars like Mick Jagger, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney.

Alongside the exotic allure and spiritualism that appealed to many foreigners, there were more blatant erotic attractions. The city’s gay brothels were infamous, and to this day there are whispered tales of the handsome Arab men who’d work in them, of how they’d train themselves to give pleasure by practicing with corks of increasing girth. Such colorful urban legends ensure that Marrakech retains its place in gay history.

Fifty years later, while the rest of the world has changed dramatically, Marrakech seems untouched by time or progress. Now, today’s fashion superstars like Jean Paul Gaultier and John Galliano have second homes in the Medina, while contemporary rock stars like Sting and Diddy jet in to party. Although the brothels have faded away, today’s gay scene can best be described as an alluring but illegal subculture.

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The most vibrant place to begin exploring is Jemaa El Fna. Meaning “Assembly Of The Dead.” Referring to its former role as venue for public executions, today this sprawling square is an assembly point for Marrakech lif\e in all its diversity.

Here you’ll encounter a circus atmosphere, with troupes of muscular acrobats performing backflips in exchange for a dirham or two, snakecharmers bewitching their lethargic looking boa constrictors, gaudily dressed musicians, magicians, fortunetellers, and other carnival amusements. Among these frivolities are more serious tradesmen like herbalists, scribes, and even dentists—yes, that aching tooth of yours can be pulled on the spot if required! As midnight approaches, young men selling hash or sexual favors emerge from the shadows and join the throng.

Hustlers aside, I find Jemaa El Fna particularly evocative at night, when clouds of charcoal smoke rise from the griddles of makeshift kitchens, set up here each evening to cook everything from kebabs of kefta or merguez sausages to boiled sheep heads. Those with a less robust constitution might prefer a nearby restaurant instead, in which case Chez Chegrouni and Marrakchi are recommended. The former is an unpretentious budget option. The latter takes a traditional Fez tiled interior and adds modern touches like chic black furniture, subtle lighting, and belly-dancers gyrating to funky Arabic beats. The tajines and couscous are delicious, and, unusual for Marrakech, you can order a la carte—most other restaurants favor a set menu format, turning dinner into a course-after-course endurance test.

To the west of Jemaa El Fna is the city’s principal landmark, the towering minaret of the Koutoubla Mosque. To the north are the souks, a maze of stalls selling embroidered slippers, kaftans, carpets, brassware, essential oils, even magic potions. It’s compulsory for every tourist to get lost in these intoxicating but bewildering alleyways, whether they want to or not. As haggling over the price is also compulsory, you might prefer to visit Ensemble Artisanal or Centre Artisanal, two vast state-sponsored shops where prices are fixed and the quality is guaranteed—although saying that these Moroccan handicrafts are of the best quality, sometimes antique, is a claim made slightly ridiculous by the fact that both shops also sell fake Gucci and Louis Vuitton handbags and other counterfeit western goods.

Rue Dar El Bacha provides more upscale browsing, with shops crammed with antiques and objets d’art. Among the treasure laden cabinets of Zimroda, I spied a photograph of Naomi Campbell beaming brightly with an armful of antique Berber jewelry—proof that you’ll be in model company if you shop here.

Well placed between the Sahara desert and the Atlantic ocean, Marrakech prospered throughout history as a trading post—shopping for something unique in the souk remains a principal lure for today’s tourist. Another reason why Marrakech appeals to travelers is because this is a city that lives and breathes on the glossy pages of Vogue, Architectural Digest, and Condé Nast Traveler. It’s a reputation enhanced in recent years by a phenomenon known as the riad hotel.

Well-heeled visitors used to hang out at the Mamounia, a former palace of the crown prince of Morocco that the French administration turned into a luxurious hotel in 1923. For many, the Mamounia was Marrakech, despite the fact that what transpired within this gracious colonial-style hotel had little in common with Marrakech’s other dust covered diversions. Wealthy Moroccans followed suit, abandoning traditional ways of living in favor of modern apartments in new European-style neighborhoods like Guéliz, leaving the ancient heart of Marrakech, the Medina, to fall into disrepair.

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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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