Africa’s first cultural capital for 2020, is the city of Marrakesh in southern Morocco which brings visitors year after year from all over the world. The old city, where Jemaa El Fna Square, houses traditional Moroccan art, ancient palaces, and museums.
Noise is everywhere, a crowd of people, languages, and smells: the call seems to come from the largest platform in Marrakesh from which it welcomes the visitor; Jemaa El Fna Square, the beating heart of Marrakesh in the middle of the old city is built in the form of a maze that devours the new visitor. Clowns, sellers of Moroccan spices and artifacts compete for the attention of passersby. And in the center of this scene, some monkeys who are used to taking souvenir photos with tourists and snake tamers, push the cobra to dance.
For centuries, storytellers here, with ancient legends and tales, have been trying to bring visitors – an art that today faces extinction. And the Jemaa el-Fna square, where the heads of the murdered prisoners were displayed, is a place where the opposition met, as historian Ahmed Skounti says: “This place has a reputation as an execution ground, a military parade ground, and a show of force in the the various eras of Moroccan history. This square has always had a controversial reputation among the residents of Marrakesh. Until the twentieth century, the picture was negative: the square was a place of decay, where freedoms spread, corrupt language prevailed, and ugly jokes were told. A place of practices and outcasts.
These particular descriptions made Jemaa el-Fna a meeting point, as Sconti says: “It is at the same time a place of integration that continued until the 20th century – different groups, languages, traditions, and cultures joined together here – and this gave a flavor to the city of Marrakesh.”
Jamaâ El Fna Square and the old city are considered a cultural heritage of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and this is also the reason why Marrakesh was chosen as the first African cultural capital, according to Awatef ElBaradei, who is from the committee that will accompany the cultural program of Marrakesh. “Marrakesh has always been an oasis in Morocco, in the west and the south of the Sahara. It is a wonderful city thanks to its natural beauty – and here we have a great diversity of plants. We have desert and snow.”
Marrakesh was chosen as the first African cultural capital because the city is a window to contemporary urban Africa and at the same time represents the diversity of African culture. Throughout 2020, many fairs, festivals, and other events will reflect this facade. And Marrakesh annually attracts millions of visitors from around the world – and tourism is one of the important economic branches.
This has also turned into a problem because Marrakesh is booming like real estate prices. This is not only due to the large number of tourists who want to stay overnight in the old city but also to wealthy foreigners and Moroccans who have bought homes in it. Ordinary Marrakesh residents live and suffer from the city’s prosperity at the same time.
From the old medina, the heart of the oriental and traditional Marrakesh, we are only a few steps away from modernity. Even avant-garde art meanwhile finds a home in Marrakesh: on the other side of the city walls are exhibition halls, beautiful boutiques, and art shops. Amine Bendriouche represents these two worlds because he combines traditional Moroccan dress with bright models with futuristic designs. Amin is a young, successful, and multi-award-winning designer who sells his art pieces in New York, Paris, and Casablanca and works for the biggest designers in Morocco.
He says he learned sewing from his grandmother. His love for fashion showed when he was sitting with his family in front of the TV: “I grew up next to the Majorelle Gardens, and then I learned that it belonged to the famous fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, who participated in a kaftan show in Marrakech and had a fashion collection. And that was the first time I met her. directly through television on his art, and when I later became interested in design, it was obvious that I became interested in his art.”
For her, the French designer was an inspiration and supporter of the culture in Morocco. The famous Majorelle Gardens, discovered by Yves Saint Laurent and his friend Pierre Bergé as an oasis worth saving from damage, is today open to visitors – more than 800,000 people visit it annually. In 2017, a monument was inaugurated in Marrakesh for Yves Saint Laurent, where a museum was opened in his honor, with the participation of the king’s wife, Lalla Salma, who appeared in a dress designed by the late artist.
Months later, the original clothing is replaced with another to protect it, and visitors can discover new things. Here, it goes beyond the world of fashion, says museum director Bjorn Dahlström, who emphasizes the environment in which the art arose. Yves Saint Laurent loved Marrakesh, as he is the only artist whose name is associated with the city. “The city gave Yves Saint Laurent the necessary inspiration. It’s a place to live and work for an artist who remains to some extent a son of Morocco, and I think Marrakesh people associate things with it.”
The museum was thus designed as a meeting place for people and cultures, says Director Dahlström. On an area of 4,000 square meters, there is room for an exhibition hall, a research library, and a lecture hall.
And Marrakesh is also the city of music. In Jemaa el-Fna or during the various music festivals, the city is never calm. And in the evening in a festival hall in Marrakech, a band from Israel plays on the stage. Singer Nita El Kayam closes her eyes while she sings, wearing traditional Moroccan Jewish dress. The singer evokes in her songs the lost homeland and nostalgia in the Moroccan dialect. “It was the language of my childhood. I grew up close to my grandmother who always symbolized a strange and strange place. She was different from me and I don’t know why. She didn’t speak Hebrew very well. What she connected with her Moroccan neighbors in the neighborhood was darija – and I grew up in that embrace.”
The Israeli singer traveled to Marrakesh to participate in a film festival, and she plays a major role in the film. In this documentary, Nita El Kayam sets out from Israel in search of her Moroccan roots. She traveled to Tinghir, her parents’ home city. Nita El Kayam is looking for documents of her dead grandparents in local administrations and knocks on neighbors’ doors.
Nita El Kayam lives in Jerusalem and was born in Israel. And her ancestors hail from Dar Al-Bayda and Tinghir in southeastern Morocco. With the establishment of the State of Israel, they immigrated in the fifties, like the bulk of Moroccan Jews. These experiences and nostalgia are used by Nita to sing to build bridges between her grandparents and her private life.