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Morocco—and an ode to ordinary beauty.

August 11, 2010

Un Voyage Marocain. A Moroccan Journey.

Un Voyage Marocain is a limited-edition photography book by Eric Mannaerts. A book that depicts Morocco in a different light. A discrete light. A simple light.

A light that captures only the ordinary, and with that, the real beauty of Morocco. That beauty that many times is not seen. That beauty that goes overlooked, disregarded to the eyes that don’t look carefully beneath the illustrious colors of this land that never ceases to amaze.

The beauty that is found while choosing the best loaf of bread at the corner shop. Or while bargaining for the acceptable price for fresh fish at the port. Or in every sip of the tea you make with the mint you choose at the market. Or when you take a leisurely, unrushed stroll through the medina, and you are able to see the traces of everyday life…without being blinded by the wonderful colors of Morocco. Those colors that, with their magic, hide the ordinary beauty of life in this country.

The foreword of Un Voyage Marocain was written by Tahir Shah, who always writes about the details of life in Morocco, and how they shape his own experience. He wrote about the ordinary beauty of Morroco, and how to find it.

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The other day a man approached me down at the port.

I was waiting for a friend, a friend who is always late. As someone who moved to Casablanca from northern Europe, I find it near impossible to be late myself. Punctuality is quite unfortunately in my blood. So whenever my friend and I arrange a rendezvous, I always spend half an hour or more glancing at my watch, fussing at his tardiness and at my inability to learn from the past.

So I was standing there, a little on edge, and a little irritated at what I imagined to be a waste of time, when a short stout figure in a tattered jelaba staggered towards me. On his cheeks was a week’s crop of tattered grey beard, and on his feet were a pair of grimy baboosh slippers.

When he was close, his face fifty centimetres from my own, he put down the basket of fish he was carrying, cleared his throat, and began to laugh.

As I had the time to make use of my curiosity, I smiled politely, and enquired what the man found so amusing. He didn’t answer at first. He was too busy wiping his eyes. But then, taking his time, he pressed his hands together, palms followed by fingertips.

‘To understand the extraordinary,’ he said all of a sudden, ‘you must learn to appreciate ordinariness.’

I asked what he meant by what seemed to me like a random remark. The man touched a calloused finger to his cheek. Then he smiled. It wasn’t a big toothy smile, but rather one that was soft, gentle. It filled me with a kind of warmth, as if something unspoken was being passed on. For a split second I thought the first remark was about to be followed by another. But the man’s mouth shut tight, and the questionable dentistry vanished. He lifted up his basket by the handle, shooed away a pair of cats that were now sitting before it optimistically, and he strode off towards the old medina.

For an instant I considered going after him. I sensed my weight shifting forward from my back foot. But then, in the moment before stillness became animation, my friend arrived. He spat out an excuse, something about his mother in law and a kilo of lamb, and we went for tea.

For an hour, as my friend rambled on about the challenges of his life, and as the waiter circled our table like a tired old shark, I thought about the man with the basket of fish.

I couldn’t get him out of my mind.

At length, when our meeting was at an end, my friend and I exchanged pleasantries once again, good wishes for each other’s families, and we parted. But I was on auto-pilot, because still, all I could think of was the man and the fish, and what he had said: To understand the extraordinary you must learn to appreciate ordinariness.

I have spent twenty years in search of the extraordinary. I’ve written books about my quests for it, and have made television documentaries about it too. I have ranted on to anyone prepared to listen about the glorious energy, the sheer intensity, of the unusual and the unexpected. I’ve risked my life in the mountain ranges of Afghanistan, and in the jungles of the Upper Amazon, and have surmounted all sorts of difficulties, on the trail of oddities and the bizarre.

Through each of those years, the extraordinary has been my currency, one that I have hoarded and squandered, and enjoyed with every breath. And in all that time, the months and years in celebration of the peculiar, I have never given any thought or time to considering the exquisiteness of the ordinary form. It had always seemed like comparing consumé to goulash, a delicacy unlikely to satisfy the appetite of a starving man.

But the stray remark at the Casablanca port changed my outlook in the most unexpected way. It coaxed me to appreciate a secret underbelly of ordinariness, a layer of existence so profound, that it is extraordinary within itself.

I have come to believe that we receive things when we are ready to receive them. Like seeds falling on arable land, the right conditions must be present for them to germinate and prosper. Our ability to appreciate takes place in very much the same way. We see, really see, when we are ready to, and not a moment before.

What I find so bewitching is the way the world slips you a jewel when it knows you are prepared to recognize it as a jewel. Equally, you could say there are jewels all around us, but ones that will only be activated for our particular perception in days and years to come. And that’s the spirit in which I find myself, with regard to Eric Mannaerts’ photographs of Morocco.

I encourage you to move slowly through the pages you hold between your hands. Spend as much time as you can on each photo, observing from different angles, questioning what you see. Ration each one. Allow your mind to soak up the scenes of a magical land, a land that is a canvas for an artists’ genius. These pictures do not feature the grand monuments, or celebrities, but they are a Twlight Zone of reality, a perception that is utterly familiar to anyone who has lived in Morocco.

The amusing thing for me is that, these days, glossy style magazines the world over devote acres of space to their fantasy of Morocco. It’s a destination that’s regarded as wildly exotic, rapturously appealing because it mirrors – or surpasses – our own imagination. But most of the time the media’s fantasy doesn’t echo the genuine article at all.

To understand this extraordinary kingdom, you must understand the ordinary, and hold it tight to your heart. Three rusty chairs on a terrace by the sea, the shadow of a man moving quickly across warm tarmac, a fragment of graffiti on a mottled old wall: this is Morocco, real Morocco, the place those of us who live here yearn for when we are gone.

On my travels I have crisscrossed this country. I have visited desert shrines and mosques, palaces, bazaars and citadels. And in the wake of those journeys, I have regaled my audience with tales of colour and mystery. But I have never told them of the silent moments: endless meals alone with a paperback, beaches naked of footprints, railway platforms in the rain. It’s those moments that remind me of these photographs because they are so private they are impossible to fully explain. Such subtlety is rewarding beyond words if you can catch it, like a whisper on the wind.

This morning when I went to meet my friend, the one who’s always late, I asked him something. I asked him to describe the beauty of his land to a person who had lost the power of their sight.

My friend thought for a long time before answering.

He seemed a little nervous, as if I were asking the impossible. Then he glanced out at the street.

‘The real beauty of Morocco,’ he said pensively, ‘can only be seen from the inside out. Search from the outside in and you will never find the truth or the real beauty.’

This book provides a keyhole into the Morocco that touches my heart, and shows the kingdom I love, from the inside out. The pages bear fragments of reality that all together form a carpet, bejewelled and magical, that has the power to transport us to another world, to the land of our dreams.

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All photos are from Eric Mannaerts’ Maroc Collection. To see the rest of the photos, click here.

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