I have been waiting to share this vignette for a good while, and I sure hope I do it justice. It all happened in less than a half hour, and I may remember it for as long as I live.
After a short nap, Jan told us that he wanted to escort us to Jemaa el Fna (the main square in Marrakesh, and a place populated by snake charmers, towers of fresh pomegranates ready to be juiced, seducing rows of sweets, and a cascade of exotic sounds) so that we may know how to come back home that night, without getting lost. This sounded like a darn good plan to me, and I was ready to pay close attention.
I had no idea that what we were about to see before reaching Jemaa el Fna would be one of the most memorable part of our short stay.
Closing the door of his oasis of a home behind us, we made a left turn into a small street, where I immediately noticed a woman carrying a plate on her head. On the plate, there seemed to be a few loaves of flat bread. Seeing the question in my eyes, Jan explained that every morning, the women make bread dough at home, shape it into loaves, then “sign” the bottom of the bread with their own mark, before bringing it to the community bakery’s ovens to be baked. Around 2 in the afternoon, they go back to the oven to pick up their loaves, hot and ready to serve to their families. Trying to grasp this concept as fast as I could, inhaling the Essences of Community, Baking/Nurturing all in one breath, something in my heart melted a little bit. Even weeks later as I write this, I can feel how big hearing this was for me. The daily routine, the time spent making the dough, all these loaves having been shaped in separate homes and now being baked together in the same fire before going back to their own homes, ready to nurture families. It got me.
A few feet later, we turned right out of the small street, and officially entered Jan’s neighborhood, ready to follow our blond, blue eyed guide wherever he wanted to take us.
As my mind was trying to not jump out of my head, while bidding my eyes to not miss a crumb, I was listening to Jan, who was walking fast, talking the whole time and explaining that his neighborhood was one of the last really authentic, fully non touristy areas of Marrakesh. Here, he said, you get to see the real life of Marrakesh.
It was bustling, the daily market was closing, and there was so much to take in. I felt as though in a short few hours, we had landed in a completely different world. Carts pulled by donkeys, with their owners sitting high up on top, sometimes talking on a cell phone. Piles of mint leaves on blankets, kids laughing and playing soccer, the sun’s heat, mountains of fresh dates, mopeds coming in both directions, cats, smells, women in their hijāb chatting with each other, men sitting on door stoops, sipping mint tea, and everywhere, the most beautiful faces - which I was told I would not be allowed to photograph.
Suddenly, Jan pulled us into a small doorway and instantly away from the sounds of the street, we were inside a dark space, with steps to our left leading down to a large underground oven. Hypnotized, I made my way down the steps and stared at the fire, and at a man who was feeding massive amounts of shaped loaves of bread into this oven, carved out in the underbelly of the building. This was a bakery (not the community one), and just as we do in France and in many countries all over the world, bread gets baked. I was transfixed and I wanted to just stay there and watch. Really, I wanted to cry and I still want to cry when I write this. I cannot explain why, really. Something about the raw, down to basics, simple and so very important act of baking bread, always touches a tender part of me. Baking bread for families, for children, for older people. Taking flour, water, a bit of yeast and then human hands and fire to create sustenance. Wherever it needs to happen, however it needs to happen. Since we had to leave, I asked if I could take a photo, and was told that no, I could not. The photo lives in my heart and I hope you can see it, feel it.
We had not left the house more than 15 minutes ago, and my cup was already full.
Back up under the bright sun of the street, we walked past the retail counter of the bakery, where mountains of the small loaves were being sold. We saw and ate lots of these loaves over the next three days, and each time, my heart was filled with gratitude for the privilege of having been invited into their birth place, to have been allowed to get that close.
Following Jan closely, looking everywhere, the moment demanded our full attention, and there suddenly seemed to be no room for anything more than being there, completely present. There was no room for comparison, for explanation or opinion. It was for me a deliciously pleasant and restful experience - even in the midst of the intensity - and it would happen a lot during our time there.
Next, Jan was leading us through another doorway, this time on the other side of the street. From the outside, it looked like just one more small stone opening in a wall, and there was no way to guess what was inside. Many times over the next days, we walked past it again on our way to of from the square, and each time we marveled at how blessed we had been to have been invited to enter, and how easy it would have been to miss it.
A few feet from the entrance, in the semi darkness, a man sat at a low table, cutting small pieces of meat and vegetables. To the right of the table, way down below, was a huge pit. In the pit, was a roaring fire being continuously fed pieces of wood by a man. There were no steps leading to the pit, just a crumbly path made of stones. A hand got extended to me, and I quickly found myself at the bottom of the dark pit, right by the fire. Not being a big fan of anything underground, I realize now how odd it was that I did not even think about it, and just walked down. Like I said, a lot of opinions seemed to have gone to sleep, during that trip. From up above me, Jan explained to me that the fire was kept burning in order to heat up the water for both the men’s and the women’s hammams, in the street (hammans seem to be everywhere, and they are bathhouses consisting of multiple rooms - dry and steamed - for cleaning the body and soul according to a traditional ritual) Then the man feeding the fire showed me a small clay vase about to get placed at the bottom of the fire, and Jan explained that since the fire was burning so hot, they also used it to cook a dish made of meat and vegetables, which explained the table upstairs.
Again, our minds were turned around. Someone spends their whole day underground, in this dark, crazy hot underbelly, in order to make sure there is hot water for baths. It makes sense, it makes no sense ... sense no longer mattered.
Eventually we made it to the square and sat down at a café with Jan to drink some fresh squeezed orange juice and strong coffee, while he went through the directions once again, to be sure we would know how to get home.
Then he left us to experience the rest of the day, as the mosque did a call to prayer and we looked at each other, in awe.
PS: one thing that kept coming up for me, was how thankful I was, once again, for Airbnb. Having read the book of their inception, this past summer, I was awed at how they were reaching their vision and transforming the world, one stay at a time. How else would we have met Jan, stayed in a real home, and experienced what we had already experienced?