Inside Marrakech

Christopher Hirsheimer

''Think of Marrakech as an oasis in the pre-Saharan desert. Warring nomadic tribes, armies of traders and invaders—every culture has left its mark. The Arabs brought our religion across North Africa around A.D. 700. The Almoravid princes who built the walled city came north from the Senegal River in 1062. The Spanish were ever present. The French protectorate lasted from 1912 until 1956. And each wave of conquerors had to contend with the local Berbers, the tribal people from the mountains who were here first. My father was a Berber from a remote village in the High Atlas Mountains. He had two wives and 24 children and lived to be 103.''

Ahmed Zaidane Lasry is talking. He has been talking since he met us at the airport with a lipstick red silk foulard poking from the pocket of his immaculately tailored Italian suit; his whispered Arabic chirps are all it takes to slip us through customs. He is driving us to his home in the medina (the old city) of Marrakech, his well-used BMW negotiating the narrow alleys and almost brushing the burros they were built for—and it has become clear to us already that Lasry is a wall of words, a river of them. He went to school on life and came out a well-connected guide. ''Besides Arabic and Berber, I picked up English, Italian, Dutch, and German. But mon français est correct. Tres correct.'' To begin to understand Marrakech—its traditions, its food—people rent houses, spend years. But we don't have houses or years: We have Lasry.

We have Wolfert, too. For an American cook, there's almost nowhere you go with Moroccan food that Paula Wolfert—who published Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco in 1973, and has defined Morocco's immensely sophisticated cuisine for us ever since—hasn't been. Much from that seminal book remains with me, especially her description of the country's legendary hospitality: ''…an embarrassment of riches, total satisfaction, abundance as an end in itself and as a point of pride for the host.'' That, and the memory of some convincing meals at a Moroccan restaurant in San Francisco (where I recall the cozy community of shared eating as much as the sweet and savory food), had left me longing to visit Morocco. Last spring, I hook SAVEUR executive editor (and star photographer) Christopher Hirsheimer on the adventure, and she immediately lures to our office a group of knowledgeable Moroccans, whom we pepper with questions: ''Should we go to Fez or Marrakech?'' we wonder. ''Fez is more refined and sophisticated,'' our guests reply, ''but less has changed in Marrakech.'' Done. ''Is our idea of Moroccan hospitality just a romantic sentimentality?'' I blurt. ''Does it still exist?'' ''Yes,'' they reassure us, eyes twinkling. ''It still exists.''

Lasry's house is full of women. Through what looks like just another door off just another noisy and crowded street, you enter a courtyard—the heart of the Moroccan house, the real living room, where polished rituals and messy intimacies alike take place. Written in Arabic over the double-height Moorish arch are the words ''Whatever God wants. There is nothing stronger than God.'' Lasry breathes in slowly: ''Now I am calm.'' On a banquette in the spring sun, Lasry's mother, Lalla Aicha Bouziane, almost 90, smooths her beautiful traditional skirts. Through a bedroom door off the courtyard bursts Lasry's daughter (from his first marriage) Myriam, 24, in jeans, just back from a business trip to Geneva. Lasry's wife, Asma Zaidane, about Myriam's age and pregnant with his son, fusses, along with Saadiya, the cook, over the salads we are about to eat. We have been promised the preparation as well as the meal. Lasry turns to us. ''You are not guests; you are at home here. You do what you want.'' Proverbs flow like honey: ''My father would say: 'He who comes into my house is a friend; he who does not is a villain.' And 'A piece of bread with a glass of tea and a smiling face is better than a whole lamb on the table and a frown.' My father was a pious man. When we moved to Marrakech, he opened his house to students of the Qur'an who came from the mountains to study but had no food. Now, every Friday, 20 poor people from the mosque come here and eat dishes like seven-vegetable couscous. They know my door is open.''

Lasry's whole house is open—to the sky! Only a peaked roof three stories up shelters the courtyard from rain. Birds fly in and nest in star-shaped holes in the walls. His house is open to the world as well, we learn. ''People come, and someone must be here, because if people visit and no one is here, they'll stop coming. If they come, that means they like you. And everybody has a story. It's how we get the news.''

Asma carries into the room a low round table laden with ingredients for the cooked and raw salads she is about to assemble. We review the recipes in French and I try the few Moroccan ingredient words I've learned. As Saadiya chops parsley for the salad of cubed cooked potatoes, I venture: ''M'ednus?'' ''M'ednus,'' echoes Lasry's mother with a radiant smile. Asma sprinkles minced garlic, then cinnamon, on rounds of boiled carrots. ''Tuma,'' I chant, and ''Qer.fa.'' ''Tuma!'' repeats the mother, like an incantation, ''Qer.fa!'' Baby zucchini are always dressed with kamun (cumin), and grated-carrot soup is invariably made with orange juice and orange-flower water. These are the defining flavors of iconic recipes. No freewheeling ''creativity'' can screw this up.

Lasry has quietly slipped into a long white djellaba, a ruby fez, and those funny flat leather slippers—and in so doing, has slipped back a couple of hundred years. Except, that is, for the Ray-Bans he puts on to announce that, until lunch is ready, we're going out into the market streets.

''Dark, fierce and fanatical are these narrow souks of Marrakech,'' Edith Wharton wrote in 1919. ''Marrakech is the great market of the south...not only the Atlas [Mountains]; with its feudal chiefs and their wild clansmen, but all that lies beyond of heat and savagery: the Sahara of the veiled Touaregs, Dakka, Timbuctoo, Senegal and the Soudan.'' Maybe. But Lasry walks the packed, dusty alleys of his neighborhood like the local mayor. We run to catch up as a shopkeeper selling wild artichokes actually kisses his robe. In a butcher shop raised from the street like a stage, a whole cow's head hangs, its tongue lolling. A holy man from the mosque where Lasry prays five times a day carries a great bunch of mint, and its scent lingers on the air as he embraces Lasry. We ogle olives piled mountain high and bowls of the preserved lemons indispensable to Moroccan cooking.

'Look, please!'' Lasry cries, as the streets act out their dramas. ''It is like in a movie.'' Men sit curbside beating out the soundtrack on hand drums—pam, pam, pam-pam-pam. We pass leather workers tooling their famous skins and suddenly Hope and Crosby ride into my brain on a camel, singing: ''Like Webster's dic-tion-a-ry, we're Morocco bound.'' Women in djellabas and veils chatter with girls in tank tops and leggings. ''Look how relaxed the dress code has become,'' Lasry enthuses. Still, it seems women like djellabas for the same reason their men do: They hide everything.

Back inside the house, Asma has thrown a cloth over a large round table pulled into a corner. I count five different mosaic tile patterns on floors and walls, highly colored like their design antecedents, the patterned rugs that hang at the sides of Berber tents to keep out the desert winds. Through the open roof come the sounds of the city. At 12:30 p.m., the muezzin calls the neighborhood men to prayer from a loudspeaker on the mosque next door: ''God is most great. I witness that there is only one God and that Mohammed is the prophet.''

Lasry sits between his mother and his daughter. ''You see?'' he says, grinning (and showing off a bit). ''This is how we eat lunch every day.'' We begin with the salads, a mosaic themselves on the tabletop, each with its distinct, bright flavor. We eat as our hosts do, with the first three fingers of the right hand, sometimes dipping with good, grainy wheat bread. Lasry cautions not to mix the flavors, to keep the salads separate on the plate. We drink as they do—Coke from big glass bottles set on the table. Asma goes to the kitchen—just a hallway with sink, burners, and more little low tables—to get the pressure cooker in which her lamb and green olive tagine (named for the pot it's traditionally cooked in) has been simmering. For form, she transfers the stew to a terra-cotta tagine for serving. Lasry's fingers find just the piece of gristly lamb his mother likes, and he offers it to her. The sauce is famously rich; its complex, spicy aromatics stretch a little meat a long, long way.

The next day, back in Western attire, Lasry meets us at our hotel, the Palmeraie Golf Palace, set in a 12th-century grove of soaring date palms. (The Almoravid rulers once hunted here; captains of industry now play golf here.) Captive in the BMW, we speed past jacaranda trees, all bright purple blossom and no leaves. We're heading, it seems, to have tea with a woman Lasry just remet after 33 years. ''I once had a bike. They rented it from me. I never saw them again until last week at the airport.'' At some point we just give up trying to picture this happening at home.

Lalla Koute greets us in an open courtyard many times larger than Lasry's. It is a garden, really—its quadrants thick with orange and lemon trees, a fountain in the center, and long salons at each end. In the kitchen, surprisingly unadorned for a house this grand, Koute, in a fawn-colored djellaba, welcomes us in good English: ''Any time is teatime in Morocco.'' (It turns out she's been to UC Berkeley.) We follow her through the garden to a salon and, removing our shoes as she does, join her husband, Said, a policeman, and a young student named Mohammed Sebti. Koute brings us plates of homemade pastries—crescent-shaped hlal, or moon cakes; smid, topped with sesame seeds; feqqas., which look like biscotti—and bowls of mixed dates, figs, walnuts, golden raisins, and peanuts. Then she twice pours the tea into a glass and back into the pot and finally, from a height of two feet, into our decorated tumblers. We sip the minty warmth of its welcome. ''We did not do this especially for you,'' she explains. Lasry elaborates: ''You prepare these things every day for guests, and every day someone comes. In Morocco, you never ask why. We are here for reasons we cannot explain. God will never let me meet bad people. I met these people last week because I wanted to show you something.'' After an hour, Koute sprinkles our hands with orange-flower water from a silver ewer and bids us good-bye. Inexplicably, Mohammed joins us.

It is night in the medina. Magic and mystery. Lasry's car stops at the dead end of an alley. We descend to a scattering of little boys who are not so much begging as curious. A tall man in an elegantly flowing white djellaba meets us. Lasry utters only the restaurant's name: ''Yacout''. The man nods, we follow. He knocks at a heavy wooden door. It opens. Another beautifully robed man leads us down a hallway lit only by candles in silver-and-glass lanterns, past a courtyard with an exotic tree-lined pool, and up a narrow curving staircase. No one speaks as we climb three stories onto the roof for a drink. As we look out over the roofs of the low-lying city, we hear the drumming, always the drumming, from the streets.

Soon, another white djellaba comes to lead us down to our table. It is set for four, but Lasry, all graciousness, suddenly disappears, leaving us with Mohammed—and something of a language barrier. From our low banquettes, we are only vaguely aware of other guests as our dinner proceeds. We never order; we float, wanting for nothing. Salads arrive, nine in all, riffs on those at Lasry's house: silky roasted green pepper with cumin; artichokes and baby zucchini; cubed fried calf's liver; lamb and quince. Two waiters carry in a giant leather tagine and uncover it to reveal three whole chickens with preserved lemon and green olives. The tender flesh is deftly loosened by a waiter, then left for us to eat with our fingers. It is one of the lushest things we have ever tasted.

Another tagine, this time of lamb and green beans in succulent sauce, follows. I'm vaguely aware that the idea of pacing oneself has fled altogether. Then, like rice at an Asian banquet, there is couscous to end this one—a classic seven-vegetable couscous. Finally comes a dessert bestila (often spelled besteeya or pastilla), a delicate pie as big as the table, with many flaky-leaved layers of pastry and a cream filling scented with orange and roasted almonds. Somehow I am not surprised to learn, when we return to visit Yacout in daylight, that the restaurant is a large private house, with only a house-size kitchen, where each pains-taking step of preparation is a deliberate celebration of the cuisine's glorious traditions.

Another night, we slip away sans Lasry to check out the stuff of legend at La Mamounia, the 1920s hotel set just inside the medina's walls. Wandering its splendid gardens in the moonlight, admiring its Art Deco interiors, it's easy to imagine when this was the only luxurious doorway to the Sahara. In the elegant traditional Moroccan restaurant, with its ornate pierced plasterwork, we revel in the earthy authenticity of mhammar—braised lamb.

''Bismillah _[On God's name],'' murmurs Lasry as he starts the huge Ford Explorer we've rented to drive the Ouarzazate road into the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains near the Berber village where he was born. _''Mahi mushkila? [No problem?]'' I ask. ''Getting this car we had plenty mushkilas,'' he laughs. In the back is…Mohammed. We sense he's been adopted, somehow, and don't ask. Leaving town through perfect groves of olive trees and vast fields of poppies, we try explaining to Lasry why it's funny that we're bringing Mohammed to the mountain.

''Here is every climate in the world in one wonderful country,'' says Lasry, becoming all guide. Quickly the red villages appear, nestled into hillsides waving with wheat. Women cut sheaves and load them into baskets on donkeys' backs. This is where the couscous begins, I think to myself.

Villages become tightly packed and isolated as the grade increases. ''Look, please!'' and we stop for a bunch of kids by the roadside; a 6-year-old leads a cow. Lasry speaks tenderly to them in Berber. Long, deep valleys luxuriate between red hills and the ancient high towers of casbahs (medieval fortresses). Patterns repeat: square brown houses with flat red roofs, courtyards noisy with roosters and children. We're now on roads the Explorer has no business exploring—with drops so terrifying that with each ''Look, please!'' from Lasry, Christopher and I giggle harder.

After two hours, in the tiny town of Taddert we marvel at the Berber tagines—smooth mounds of saffron yellow potatoes, punctuated with strips of pepper, topped with tomatoes—cooking over coals at roadside stands. ''Berbers are healthy,'' Lasry informs us. ''They eat a lot of fresh vegetables, couscous, and only a little meat.'' An hour later, we arrive at a high flat place where the road seems to end. ''Down there is my town, Anmeter, where 24 families still live.'' We look at the village in the valley, trying to place Lasry in his Adidas running suit in this 16th-century setting, still a two-hour donkey ride away. Lasry spares us the donkeys and we turn back to have lunch at an informal restaurant in a heavy woven-wool Berber tent at the mountain outpost of Telouet. We're offered tea, a tomato salad, and a jewel-like Berber tagine, just like the roadside version. As we eat, I think that if, as has been said, Morocco (like Provence) is a cold country with a hot sun, it is true, too, that Morocco is a poor country with a rich cuisine.

For days, Lasry has promised us a woman who makes warqa, the pastry leaves, thinner and more delicate than Greek phyllo, used in bestila and other Moroccan pastries, and for days, no one appears. Embarrassed, he explains that people don't make warqa anymore; they buy it. But on our last night, in the kitchen of our hotel's excellent Moroccan restaurant, Lasry produces three home cooks who enthusiastically take us through the complex steps of making bestila—this symphony of Moroccan cuisine. Then Lasry, the man who unfailingly makes his monthlong pilgrimage to Mecca every year, steers us to (go figure) a karaoke bar. He turns suddenly serious. ''I feel that God knows me. He gives me what I ask for and what I don't ask for. I am 57. All I can ask at the end of my days is to be in a small village and call people to prayer.'' Then, just as suddenly, he grabs the mike as the Blues Brothers appear on screen and belts out loud with them: ''I'm a soul ma-a-an.''