by Beth Arnold
An ongoing series about uprooting our lives in America and moving to France. For what's happened before, see previous Jours of Our Lives entries here.
THE IMMENSE MOUNTAIN that juts out of the Pyrenées-Orientals, Le Canigou, was magnificently robed in ermine snow with billowing white and gray clouds hovering over her. Canigou is usually our first sign of home, but this time she was our portent of leaving. We were racing up the highway to Toulouse, on our first big trip since returning to France—our first voyage for which we’ve had to leave our good dog Snapp (he’s being attended by our new American friend, Rachel).
We were pursuing another important passage in the chasing of Henri Matisse—I’m speaking of Morocco, where the scenes, colors, light, architecture, dress, and physical mannerisms of the people captivated his imagination and resulted in an important series of paintings. Our first stop from Toulouse was Amsterdam, and if you look at a map this makes no sense at all—but KLM offered cheap tickets, so we were flying to Morocco through the Netherlands.
Porte de la casbah, Tangier, winter (1912-13), The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, (photo of painting from book).
Morocco had always been part of our plan in chasing Matisse. There was no question that this North African country inspired Matisse’s vision and art. But when the Iraq war erupted in the spring of 2003, we backed off. Right or wrong, we were afraid it wasn’t a good time for Americans to go. After returning to France in January 2004, we changed our minds, and I emailed Mr. Bennachir Akli at Olive Branch Tours, the company that had provided terrific escorted excursions when I’d made my first trip to Morocco five years before. I knew their expert services and wanted the guidance of Olive Branch again.
The next morning, Aziz gave us a full tour of our teal Mercedes van that was loaded with amenities: DVD player, fold-out table, refrigerator, and roomy, comfortable seats—a luxurious ride for two travelers who had rocketed through France on their own steam. This was Jim’s first sojourn to Morocco, and he didn’t have to drive! For once, he could observe, take notes, and savor just being there. He could experience and process in real time without being burdened by logistical responsibility.
We glided through Casablanca on the Mercedes cloud while Aziz pointed out the attractions of his home town. First stop was a tour of the enormous Hassan II Mosque, which is situated right by the Atlantic Ocean. The glorious mosaics of blues, greens, ochres, and golds gleamed in the sunny sky with the sapphire ocean lapping below. This is one of few Mosques that non-Muslims can visit, and it’s more beautiful than I remembered. The colors were already calling Jim, and he had the space to “see.”
After that, we headed to Rabat. It was a smooth, beautiful ride with the blue Atlantic always in sight, and seaside villages popping up between long stretches of wild coastline. Whenever we were far from a city or town, we would see groups of two or three people just sitting beneath trees. We also noticed people hunkered down on almost any green space available—in the middle of what looked like pastures or empty urban lots. Jim said Matisse had painted people doing just that—but what was that they were doing? I asked Aziz if these areas were like parks, and he answered in the affirmative.
Café marocain, Tangier, winter 1912-13, and/or Issy-les-Moulineaux, spring 1913, The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, (Photo of painting from book).
We were trying to understand this seemingly strange phenomenon, but it was several days before my “pasture sitting” theory took shape. Historically, there must have been little need for parks. Men lived their lives outside, but women were concealed behind the plain exterior walls of their houses to live, work, and raise their children. A public social life was an oxymoron for the female gender. Their entire world was literally the interior, and most gardens occupied this space. Color, beauty, arts and craftsmanship in tiles, mosaics, fabrics, rugs, carved woods, plaster, even the garden plantings—all of it was only to be enjoyed by those invited inside. I’ve since read that the contrast between plain exterior and rich interior of the traditional houses indicated the sharp distinction between public and private life in Islamic society. Also, courtyards provided light, air, ventilation, and a place for protected activities in the hot and dusty climate. In other words, my theory wasn’t half-bad. But with the difference between then and now, there is a niche for public green (or desert-flowered) spaces and urban landscape plans.
After a good lunch of lamb tajine and chicken couscous, we met our guide in Rabat, Mr. Ahmed Saadi, who speaks many languages fluently, is well educated and well spoken, and is insightful about his country’s history and culture. He showed us the royal palace, the Tour Hassan, and the rapturous energy of an unfinished mosque. When it was begun by the sultan Yacoub al-Mansour in 1195, it was meant to be the largest mosque in the western Muslim world; but when the sultan died four years later, the work stopped. The unfinished shell remained a structural ghost until 1755, when an earthquake took down most of it. The tower, a chunk of wall, and the silent columns are all that remain. They spoke to us with what I believe was mythic power. Is this a typical tourist reaction? I have no idea.
Our final stop was the Kasbah. Who doesn’t want to be taken to the Kasbah? Yet this voluptuous word is a trick, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Kasbah’s definition is a fort or citadel, so I have corrected this unjust wrong and devised my own meaning. To correct your old dictionaries: Kasbah is a dreamland with cool ocean breezes, lush gardens, sumptuous palaces, and huge lounging chairs covered in filmy canopies. While mesmerizing music floats through the scented air, the healing gurgle of water runs through marble fountains. It is mandatory to relax in silken robes as comfy as pjs, lie on your chaise lounge, and read a good book while sipping mint tea.
Our actual stroll through the Kasbah was a breath of fresh air. We followed the path through a sensual garden, perused the shelves of a boutique selling books and art (a literary salon on some evenings), and relished the streets of houses painted blue and white for the union of sea and sky, their separate elements being fused in watery air. The doors made me happy. Most were painted some hue of blue but were also patterned with flowers and geometric shapes in purples, pinks, reds, oranges and other tones of sea and land. Many were decorated with the open palm of Fatima with fingers pointed up, which is a symbol to keep the powerful evil eye away. Who couldn’t use one?
I think Ahmed might’ve been a little put out with silly us. I’m sure there were other objects or places of import to which we should’ve been paying more attention, but it was the vibrant Moroccan colors that had called our names so many years before, just as they had called Matisse. One Christmas, long before this project had entered our heads, Jim and I surprised each other with books about Morocco. Perhaps a wise purple and fiery red had foreseen our journey and were cabling us a preview?
March 26, 2004
Unless otherwise indicated, photos by Beth Arnold. Not subject to use without permission.
Beth Arnold lives and writes in Paris, where she produces her "Letter From Paris" new media project.
Jours of Our Lives illlustration by artist (and couturier) Elizabeth Cannon. To find out more about her, click here.
You can find the Chasing Matisse book by James Morgan here at Amazon--or you can find it in or order it from your favorite book store.
If you'd like to start at the beginning of Jour of Our Lives, click here