The libraries of the desert route. Part I
It was in a trip from Marrakech to Gambia across Sahara Desert till sub-Saharan black Africa. As a librarian I knew about the existence of hidden private ancient book collections in family houses in the middle of the Mauritanian Sahel. Those books had been passed from generation to generation since medieval times along the caravans way between Toledo and Timbuktu. Once upon a time those paths to the south (that used to be more than one simple route) made a network of ancient cities in the Middle Ages from and to the Spanish Muslim territory called Al-Andalus.
Fez, Marrakech, Chinguetti, Wadan, Tirjchit, Walata… continue to keep their charm, to emanate still today their splendor of the past and to guard those amazing collections in private houses, in homemade conditions. To reach this territory is not easy even nowadays. It’s not possible to flight directly there, there are no trains neither fair roads, you may need to jump into vans, trucks and even walking on the desert sand along long kilometers. But that was my plan, an adventure that started crossing the southern gate, to get into Marrakech.
Marrakech is a reference; besides the Moroccan northern and western coast cities is the most important hub in the country and the gate to the desert, and from there to the rest of Africa. The city has gone through all the historical vicissitudes of Morocco itself where Portuguese, Spanish and French arrived eager for the control of its natural wealth and privileged location.
I made to the city from the airport by bus. This is the most convenient transport. There are a lot of taxi drivers and you might will be told about the bus is not working anymore; your hotel has been destroyed by an earthquake and many other stories to smile with. The bus (lines 19 and 11) works from 06.00h to 23.30h and it can drop you in Jemaa El Fna in the heart of the Medina, the old quarter.
In 1911 the capital of Morocco became Rabat and Marrakech was pushed to the background. Today the city has left behind its conflictive past from before the Moroccan independence in 1956 and lives mainly from tourism, from canned agricultural products and fresh vegetables and it is the commercial center of its region for transportation of Atlas minerals. In spite of that Marrakech’s essence is trading, small commerce, the every corner’s tiny shop.
Surrounding the Medina you may find a small version of Casablanca new quarters converting this city or trying to, at least, into a fashionable metropolis that has inspired the world of haute couture, designers, magazine publishers and some top models. Nevertheless in the Medina the time seems to be stack some centuries ago. This is the most interesting part for tourist and Jemaa El Fna is the soul of the old town.
I arrived there in the morning and they were setting the things up, preparing the mobile orange juices shops, combing animal’s hair and showing the first snakes for pictures. A lot of sellers, tricksters and friendly new friends tried with me. Then I got lost in the narrow streets under the colorful hanged sheets covering the eternal shinning sun and I didn’t trust an old man, the only one at the moment, who showed to me the correct way to somewhere.
The walls were paled red and the smells were, good or bad, bloody intense. I stopped twice for orange juice and mint tea and I decided that the terrace of Kif Kif Café on the border of the Medina was my favorite in town.
At dawn, tired of walking around all day with a full backpack upon my shoulders, I got back to Jemaa El Fna. I climbed the stairs of and café and for some dirhams I ordered a new tea on the terrace. Out there the crowd played cards, had there conversations and filled all the places available but one. On the corner it was a free chair with amazing square views ready for my own special sunset. Down on Jemaa El Fna the sellers seemed to be reconverted into waiters and plenty of simple restaurants have come up by magic. A lot of people were eating and drinking. From the distance up there I finished my tea choosing one for dinner. I had still time. After, a bus would have been waiting at the bus station for a long night trip. I checked the ticket I got. The southern gate had been opened for me.