A Year in Marrakesh

Peter Mayne


A Year in Marrakesh

Peter Mayne


Having learned to appreciate Muslim life while living in Pakistan, Peter Mayne settled down to live in the back streets of Marrakesh in the 1950s. Rather than watch from the shelter of the hotel terrace, he rented rooms, learned the language, made friends and became embroiled in conspiratorial picnics, hashish-laced dinners and in the enchantments and misunderstandings of the street, with its festivals, love affairs, potions and gossip.

By turns used, abused and cherished by his neighbours, Mayne wrote their letters for them and captured the essence of their lives in this affectionate and hilarious account.

‘Few writers have evoked the spirit of place as brilliantly as Peter Mayne, who was to Morocco what Norman Douglas was to Capri and Lawrence Durrell to Greece.’ - Tatler
‘Captures the very essence of the place with an easy, natural style that makes it completely compelling.’ - Yorkshire Post
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A Year in Marrakesh
ISBN: 978-0907871-08-8
Format: 192pp demi pb
Place: Morocco


Author Biography

Peter Mayne was born in England in 1908, one of four children. His father was an exotic sort of school master who specialised in the sons of the ruling princes of India and was principal of the Rajmakur College for twenty years. Later he served as guardian to the young Maharajah of Jaipur. When Peter Mayne had finished his education in England, he went out to Bombay at the age of twenty and worked as an assistant in a firm of merchant-shippers. He was a failure as a businessman, though his father's many friendships with his ex-pupils permitted him easy access to Indian society. At the time of the partition of the Indian Empire he was in Kashmir and the new Pakistan Government invited him to serve as deputy secretary to the Ministry of Refugees and Rehabilitation. After two years had passed, and the tension had eased, he resigned from Government service and moved to Morocco to write.

Though the novel he then wrote was destroyed, his journal from this period won great acclaim and was translated into many European languages. First published by John Murray as The Alleys of Marrakesh, it was reissued by Eland in 1982 under its American title, A Year in Marrakesh. Peter Mayne later moved to Athens where he wrote The Narrow SmileThe Saints of SindThe Private Sea and Friends in High Places (1975). The latter was a very personal account of an extended visit to see Jagut and Mussoorie, two old friends from his youth in Bombay.

He died in 1979.


Extract from Chapter One

I AM A STRANGER in these parts and Tangier feeds on the flesh of strangers. This is what they say, but no one has yet had so much as a bite out of me because I have sat myself behind carefully-chosen defences from which I shall slip unnoticed and be gone an hour from now.

At the table immediately in front of me are a big Spanish woman, three children and a man with blue-black hair. The children have been elaborately dressed for the occasion and are slapped when they fidget. ‘Ignacio! Concepciôn! Tomás!’ To left and right of me are other people at their tables – Spaniards, Moors, nondescripts – and every one of them is engrossed in the spectacle of the Sunday-evening paseo.

For better or worse, we are all gathered in the Socco Chico which is a plaza in the Moorish part of Tangier. Hundreds of us are immobilized thigh to thigh at café tables. Hundreds more are pressed still closer together on the little open plaza itself, where under the influence of some cosmic necessity they ebb and flow and sway, like algae in the shallows. Amongst them are creatures that dart about in the manner of fishes and smile with their teeth.

Anyway, here I am. My back is against the wall, or rather against a cast-iron grille which ventilates the interior of the café. There is a Cinzano on the table beside me and a siphon of aerated water. I am at a loss to know how ants have got into the siphon. Neither the ants themselves nor the people who filled the siphons can have intended this.

‘Is it not rather warm,’ people are asking themselves in their various languages, ‘for the time of year?’ It is spring and it israther warm.

Sometimes a little breeze springs up and some of it is sucked into the café through the grille. At such moments the big Spanish woman tweaks at her corsage, and I think I feel cooler also. I have an hour in hand, my luggage is safely deposited at the terminus and I have escaped molestation hitherto, but I begin to fear that there is something behind that grille …

As I say, I am sitting in a little barricaded world of my own, here in the second row of café-terrace tables, and if the Tangier people suppose that I too am admiring them and their Sunday-evening walking-clothes, I would like to tell them that I am doing 

nothing of the sort. My eyes may be open, they may glint like little chips of coal, but it is not with desire. I have chosen to focus upon infinity, and for me infinity excludes Tangier and the present time and begins tomorrow at Latitude 31°40’. The Tangier people can look that up in their atlases, and they may sink or swim for all I care; they may send out distress signals or invitations to the valse, but they have no power to melt my heart or fascinate me. My eyes are open but unseeing. My ears are deaf, or nearly deaf … but if there really is someone behind that grille, then it is his voice that hums around the edges of my consciousness. I shall take no notice.

I am still sitting behind my defences, and there is now no doubt at all that an ill-wisher has discovered a chink in my back-plates through which he is repeatedly hissing a demand. He refuses to be ignored. He is saying –

‘…vous avez du feu, m’sieur, s’il vous plaît?

I passed a box of matches backwards over my shoulder without looking round. It was taken softly through the bars as it might be by a well-mannered parrot.

‘Merci, m’sieur. Tiens! ce sont des cigarettes anglaises que vous avez là? You are English? If you wish I will try one. I am often glad to accept an English cigarette, pour changer, n’est-ce pas?

I made no move. Someone put a handbill on to my table, leaning forward over the Spanish lady to do so. It said: HOY! HOY! TODAY! TONIGHT! LUCHA LIBRE. SO-AND-SO, THE BLACK MARVELLOUS! SO-AND-SO THE LOCAL SPLENDID! COME, COME, COME! My enemy must have paused to read it too.

After a brief interval the voice said, ‘Ah. All-In Wrestle.’ It paused again. Then, ‘Sir. I have something to say, something you will wish to know.’ There was another pause and he repeated the last sentence.

I did not look round. Instead I said clearly in French, because it seemed more impersonal, ‘There is nothing that one wishes to know.’

‘I have been watching. Guarding over you, sir, from theintérieur. I have seen all! That girl, for example – the girl in thecostume aux paillettes. Sir! I implore you!’

I said, ‘Leave me in peace.’

‘You do not know! You are strange to Tangier. I know. I have seen the regards exchanged, the balancing of the haunch. Sir, that 

girl will destroy you in a twink!’

I pretended to have heard nothing.

‘Sir, look at me! Turn and look! You will find that I am a nobleman of Morocco. I love your country England and, as my brothers, I love your countrymen English whose language I have learned so fluent from a Swedish gentleman now dead (rest in peace). You risk to suffer because of your strangeness. This I willnot see. If you should be heated, then let me advise and assist.’

Had the Swedish gentleman really spoken English like this? I turned slowly and looked at the speaker. He was about twenty-five, brownish and shabby. It was not a bad face – round, with big, black, startled eyes, and when he saw me looking at him he smiled socially and said: ‘Let me present myself. I am Moulay Hamed – or, as you would say, the Seigneur Hamed. I have theentrée into all the houses because of my nobleness. You will kindly tell me your name and business and permit me to lead you to some private place where each of the girls is beautiful – and blood-tested by physicians. By diploma’d physicians.’

The language and the prospect were equally fascinating but I said coldly, ‘If you do not leave me, I shall leave you.’

‘But we have only just met!’

‘The meeting will do no good to either of us.’

‘Listen! You are strange here …’

‘I am not in the least strange anywhere. I was quite happy till you came to pester me.’

I had turned round on him again and spoke with an indignation that must have shocked him. He seemed crestfallen. He was obviously a very unsuccessful guide. You had only to look at the others with their flashing self-confidence to know that this poor creature was a failure. I even felt sorry for him.

He then said, ‘Please remain seated. I come to sit at your table.’

‘Now you listen,’ I replied firmly. ‘I am a mad person who does not think it strange to be alone and to know nothing, and within a few minutes I shall be gone from here, and I am praying that where I am going I shall find a world where guides are born with the mark on them, so that –’

‘Going? Where? Oh, sir, where?’ he broke in.

‘– so that they can be identified by their mamas and strangled before –’

‘But where are you going, sir?’ he broke in again, excitedly.

‘I am going to Marrakesh. By the night train.’

Insha’Allah,’ he breathed. Then his face widened into an ecstatic smile. ‘What! To Marrakesh, you say? Sir, I have a cousin in Marrakesh, equally noble as me, with whom it is possible to lodge for he is propriétaire of hotel! Very select. Look! I have a photograph of my cousin dressed in Arabic with his friend before the Bureau de Poste of the Place Djema’a el-Fna at Marrakesh. You wish to see?’

And suddenly I found myself with his wallet in my hand and Seigneur Hamed no longer behind the grille. I knew then that I had been mistaken, that the Seigneur was after all at the top of his profession.

* * *

Is it a strength or a weakness, not to know when you are beaten? I did not know yet. Instead I temporized. An Arab hotel? It would be an appropriate start. I told myself that I needed just the sort of help in Marrakesh that the Seigneur or his cousin could provide. I saw no point in going there to live the life of a European tourist. I also told myself that I was perfectly capable of defending myself and that the boredom – the ineffable boredom! – of half an hour with the Seigneur could be turned to account. I allowed him to join me at my table and the first few minutes were spent explaining why I would not take him with me to Marrakesh. I said that this was not just an excursion but – but he could not understand the distinction I was trying to make. How then could I hope he would understand the whole truth, that I was on the eve of a personal rebirth at which his presence could serve no purpose? So I didn’t speak of this. I merely said that I had barely enough money to support myself, let alone to fill two stomachs. While these facts were taking root in his mind, I allowed him to show me the contents of his little plasticportefeuille. First, the photograph of the cousin. I was asked to admit that his cousin was handsome and I said yes willingly enough, though the photograph showed nothing so positive. Most of the picture was taken up by a decorative mount – camels, palm trees, a representation of the famous Koutoubia minaret and other emblems of the south. There was not much room for the two little heads, one in a tarboosh, the other in a skullcap and both so sadly blurred. Nevertheless I admired both the young men. Then I admired photographs of the Seigneur himself.

‘You consider good?’ he asked doubtfully. ‘I consider that I am made to appear less well than real. The photographer is not good. Next time,’ he added, putting the pictures reluctantly aside.