It may be a chaotic city, but a quick jump through a doorway or a turn into a quiet street always reveals something beautiful.
The airport doors slide open and my senses are bombarded. It’s utter chaos, a combination of children crying and adults screaming in Arabic. I swear I hear goats. Car horns sing, and there’s a weird whizzing sound that I can’t quite figure out; almost like the car from ‘The Jetsons’. This was supposed to be an escapist holiday, a getaway to celebrate my partner Damian’s 40th birthday, a world away from the circus that is our home town of Los Angeles.
Eventually, we find a cute Moroccan guy, holding a sign with our misspelt names on it. He seems excited to have found us and leads us to the pick-up area. I relax momentarily and let my guard down, but then he says goodbye and leaves us with another hip local. They banter somewhat aggressively in Arabic. I’m nervous and my guard is right up again, but I shrug it off and get in the van. If it comes down to it, we’re two Angelinos against one Moroccan.
A few minutes later we’re on a giant road heading for the Medina. It is dark out, but the roads are terrifyingly busy. I recall driving through Tijuana, Mexico as a child with my parents; we’d spend long weekends on the beaches of Baja. In the 90s, Mexico didn’t have the prestige it does now, but nevertheless my flashback calms me – nothing went wrong back then, so why should it now? I identify the mysterious whizzing sound – I discover small motorbikes are the primary mode of transport for locals. They envelope our minivan, weaving in and out of the increasingly dense traffic, some carrying livestock, others whole families on a single bike.
Our driver is lost. He circles around a few times before finally pulling up to a cul-de-sac and mumbling something we assume to mean, “be right back.” Adrenalin flows through my veins. He fetches an old man, casually lounging next to a wheelbarrow, and returns to the van saying, “we are here, I cannot go any further, this man he will help you.”
We step out of the van and the majesty and chaos of the medina unfurl before us. However, we quickly note the old man is carting our luggage away in the wheelbarrow. I may have lost my patience, but I’ll be damned if I’m going lose my suitcase too. After half an hour’s search, the old man stops and shrugs. “Riad Al Moussika,” we keep repeating to this makeshift porter, but, unable to communicate with us he enlists a group of young guys loitering outside of a hammam. Here we go, I think to myself. We’ve walked straight into an obvious tourist-fleecing situation. People had warned me against asking for directions from men hanging around the Medina. Inevitably, you’ll be relieved of a dirham or ten for the pleasure, as they lead you somewhere you didn’t want to go, like a cheesy gift store or smelly tannery tour.
A good-looking, young man who speaks English approaches us and asks us if we want a massage. For a second, I think he’s getting fresh – but he can’t be, not out in the open like this, in a Muslim country with a pack of brutish-looking men behind him. The young loiterer beckons us to follow him around the corner; offering us a well-rehearsed menu of tours he could offer. but walks us right back to where we started. I’ve had it. He senses my discomfort and stops in his tracks and asks for some cash. Right there, I imagine things getting difficult. “Listen,” I say; my irate American starting to show, “all we want to do is to get to our Riad. Al. Moussika. R-i-a-d.”
He laughs, steps aside and pushes open an intricately carved wooden door. He shrugs and says, “it’s ok, a tip is not obligatory,” and leaves us at the door, waiting just long enough to eye-roll the old porter before skipping off into the night.
Inside the Riad Al Moussika, everything changes. The man checking us in is incredibly sweet; he pushes the doors shut to silence the chaotic Medina, and pours us Moroccan mint tea. Considering my experience so far, I appreciate the gesture much more profoundly than expected. The Riad is beautiful, like something out of a storybook. They’ve reserved us a secret room with tons of privacy. With no elevator, we carry our baggage up three flights of stairs, across a gorgeous terrace and down three narrow winding flights. He opens a pair of antique French doors onto a lovely boudoir, with a King bed – a good sign. I had prepared an alibi in case we were asked why two clearly unrelated men wanted to share a room, but thankfully, I didn’t need to use it.
In the morning, I wake up questioning my decision to visit a country that criminalises homosexuality. I am relieved to feel welcome in the Riad, and reassure myself that if all else fails, I would be happy staying in the safety of the gorgeous property for the entire trip. But Damian is up early, ready to explore.
At this hour, the Medina is serene, a stark contrast to the previous night. The shops have rolled up their metal gates to reveal beautiful windows and artisanal crafts. Children and women are strolling, people are smiling, motorbikes are weaving through crowds, and the vibe is fantastic. We wander around all morning, happily half lost.
By lunch, the Medina starts to heave, and we come across Dar Essalam: a restaurant decorated like a palace. Every inch of space is covered in intricate tiles, Moroccan lamps and ornate textiles. We share a selection of vegetarian appetisers and a Bastilla, a traditional, stuffed puff pastry. Our server tells us it looks just as it did in an Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’.
I’m getting into the flow of the city. It seems a quick jump through a doorway, or a turn into a quiet street reveals something beautiful. The El Badi Palace and Saadian Tombs are great examples, as are the Photography Museum and Ben Youssef Madrasa.
One afternoon, we set up by the Riad’s pool to recharge our batteries. We get chatting to another guest, Diane, an artist from San Francisco. She asks us if any of men in the Medina have propositioned us yet. I chuckle and shake my head; although I did question that experience with the young loiterer. “Proposition us with what, exactly?” we ask.
“Sex!” Diane blurts out in laughter. “You know man-on-man action is fine here, as long as it is kept behind closed doors. It has been like that here for centuries,” she whispers as we part ways.
By now we’ve become quite familiar with the ways of the red city: haggling with playful vendors for argan oil, handwoven camel hair rugs and Moroccan lamps. I’m ready for some time away from the hustle (oh, it’s one big hustle) and bustle so we head for the Jardin Majorelle, once Yves Saint Laurent’s private residence. The spacious botanical garden with giant succulents and palms is arranged around a vibrant blue house, that reminds me of Frida Kahlo’s La Casa Azul in Mexico City.
After a few hours in the garden and the Berber Museum, we make our way to the YSL Museum. I am unprepared for how much this place will move and inspire me – unapologetic and candid about the gay fashion designer’s life. Galleries are filled with mannequins dressed in YSL haute couture and each exhibit serves charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent. I am transfixed by documentary footage of Saint Laurent’s life, including jaw-dropping archival runways and unedited footage of his lovers. No one bats an eyelid, in fact, other visitors are seemingly queening out alongside me. Diane’s voice plays in my head, “behind closed doors.” Back at the Riad, I ask her to recommend a hammam experience.
“Private or public?” she asks. I’m confused by the question, but I discover that a private hammam is a spa and a public one, where locals go. Obviously, I choose the latter for an authentic experience. That evening at the 16th-century Hammam Mouassine I strip down to my undies and a muscular masseur escorts me to a shower where he lays me down on a mat and washes me with black soap before bringing me to a massage room. He massages me with rhassoul clay – which feels amazing – before rinsing me off with cold water. I sleep like a baby that night.
I return to Hammam Mouassine every day thereafter, not just for its healing properties, but for the ritual. On the last day, I realise I was stood outside this very hammam on the first night, searching for the Riad. I can’t help but laugh. What a difference there is between the edginess I felt then and now, where I’m voluntarily feeling my oats behind the doors of this ancient building.
This contrast encapsulates my visit to Marrakech, and it transpires, the experience of so many others I’ve spoken to about it since, not to mention ol’ YSL himself. At first, it’s an absolute culture shock; you’ll wonder what on earth you’re doing there. But soon, that feeling of uncertaintly will wear off and before long you’ll fall deeply and madly in love with the place, its culture, its stories, its people; so much so you won’t be able to bring yourself to leave.
Words by Agustin Cruz
Photography by Martin Perry, Art for Stock and courtesy of Riad Al Moussika