The only time I ever thought about Morocco was when Casablanca was on Turner Classic Movies or someone mentioned Bogie and Bacall, but that changed abruptly when I was offered an opportunity to participate in a leadership retreat in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco.
My journey began in Marrakech. I flew Royal Air Maroc, traveling on a fresh-off-the-assembly-line Airbus. Very new. Very big. Very full. With only 36 hours to explore Marrakech, I immediately searched out my hotel, the Riad Balkisse (4 Derb Charij Riad El Muhka, Tel: 212-5243-81998. www.riadbalkisse.com), which was admittedly not luxurious, but clean, hospitable, extraordinarily affordable, and located within Marrakech’s red-walled medina, a fortified labyrinth built by the Berbers in the 11th century. Originally intended to keep invasive marauders out, the walls can no longer contain this thriving urban center of nearly a million residents, plus many more tourists.
Marrakech is a mix of ancient and contemporary influences. A university student told me that the dominant attitude throughout the city is “open Islam,” which accepts many Western ideas about other religions, human rights, women’s rights, education, and sexuality. Residents and tourists in mini-skirts and designer jeans engage with women in veils and men in traditional fezzes. Music is a mix of world, Western, and Berber rhythms and instruments. Architecture blends ultra-modern with classic Moroccan elements like tiles, interior fountains, and lavish textiles. Outside the medina, streets are congested with cabs, scooters, and buses. Luxury hotels and over- priced restaurants are crammed along main traffic arteries along with trendy boutiques, banks, and the ubiquitous Starbucks.