MORE THAN 20 YEARS AGO, when I first went to Morocco, I detoured to Tangier to visit Paul Bowles, author of "The Sheltering Sky." Bowles, a cult figure long before Bernardo Bertolucci made his best-known novel into a movie and an expert on Moroccan music and mores, sat cross-legged on the floor spooning hashish-laced candy into his mouth while I asked what he would recommend to a newcomer driving south to Marrakech.
"Make sure you have insurance," he said.
In my youthful exuberance, I regarded this as a wonderfully romantic remark, a promise of mystery and menace. But the danger, I soon discovered, was of a different sort. There was less chance of my being kidnaped by marauding nomads than of my being dazzled by the scenery and running off the road.
From a distance, Marrakech resembled some dreamy mirage. Massive white clouds seemed to tower above sun-pinkened hills. But coming closer, I saw that the clouds were actually snowcapped mountain peaks, and the pink hills were the high walls of the old city. This was the first in a series of trompe l'oeil that has been the hallmark of all my trips to Marrakech.
A thousand years ago, the city began as a cluster of tents inhabited by tribes from the Sahara who had crossed the High Atlas range, then settled close to the mountains to catch water trickling down from the melting snow. Although the area wasn't a natural oasis, the tribes cultivated palm trees, and eventually a vast splurge of green spread over the arid, sun-baked plain.
By the Middle Ages, Marrakech was surrounded by ramparts that bristled with watchtowers and parapets. Picturesque as they now appear, these served a practical purpose well into this century. The wealthy imperial town was often occupied by invaders.
In 1912, the French imposed a protectorate on the country, and colonial bureaucrats based in Marrakech tended to settle outside the walls in the Gueliz, or European quarter, where the boulevards are lined with cafes and shops, villas are shaded by lush foliage and courtyards are cooled by fountains and scented with jasmine and orange blossoms. Foreigners lived well and cheaply here, and the city became a haven for artists with an eye for vivid colors, writers excited by exotic experience and theatrical types who appreciated both the dramatic landscape and the equally dramatic local residents who had a high tolerance for other people's idiosyncrasies.
Today, decades after Morocco's independence from France, the center of the city remains in the medina and in Jemaa el F'na, a huge piazza that quickens with activity late every afternoon. Drummers pound out rhythms for dancers and tumblers; blind beggars chant verses from the Koran; snake charmers uncoil cobras from raffia baskets. Then, in the evening, as the wind courses down from the mountains and cools the city, lanterns are lit, and people crowd around braziers and caldrons that give off the aroma of food spiced with cumin, saffron and coriander.
Loosely translated, Jemaa el F'na means "meeting-place of the dead," a most unlikely label for a spot so full of life. But years ago, the severed heads of criminals and the pasha's enemies were displayed here. These days, a severed head is perhaps the only thing one won't see. Everything else is available in abundance--beggars, cripples, con men, acrobats, Muslim preachers, palm readers, storytellers and a benign-looking boxer willing to take on any challenger ready to pay the price. All around there rises a racket of voices and mufflerless motors, the beat of drums, the clinking of finger cymbals and filigrees of flute music.
The buildings lining Jemaa el F'na are a sundial of sorts: Their colors change according to the hour, going from gold to ocher to rose-pink. As the crowd wheels from one performer or point of interest to the next, the shadows lengthen and interlace, forming patterns that cannot be rivaled by those found on Oriental carpets.
In the medina, the illumination is more muted and eerie, the distances distorted, and every random glance into houses suggests an enigma only a surrealist such as Max Ernst or Giorgio di Chirico could decipher. Bobbing along on a flood tide of Arabs and Berbers, one has the feeling of riding the crest of a wave, bodysurfing past a profusion of merchandise--acres of fresh fruit and vegetables, hand-loomed rugs and painted leather work and gaudy souvenirs. In the meat market, cow and goat carcasses swing on chains like macabre mobiles. At some stalls, camel heads hang from hooks. Skinned down to meat and muscle, they still have their eyes and appear perfectly content, as though unaware of what has happened to them.
Olives soak in buckets of brine. Dates, nuts and figs form waist-high walls. In pastry shops, fruit tarts attract bees that, drunk on sugar, eddy through the air like windblown yellow feathers. Lively barkers hawk false teeth, light bulbs, corroded batteries, expired license plates, and an astounding variety of amulets and good-luck charms: snake skins, flattened lizards, dead scorpions, rodent fangs, crab claws and philters that can be fed to a lover to keep him faithful.
While it would be ludicrous to claim that Marrakech hasn't been changed by tourism, it remains very much a North African town. In an earlier era, Berber tribesmen traveled there to sell gold, incense, ostrich feathers and slaves. Now traders are more likely to arrive by bus or motor scooter than by camel caravan, but the men still have daggers dangling from their belts, and they look regal in their turbans and djellabas. The women are even more majestic. Tattooed with cryptic blue markings on their chins, foreheads and cheeks, their eyes rimmed with kohl, they gaze at the world with the cool imperturbability of icons in Byzantine churches.
BERBERS AREN'T THE ONLY ONES WHO regularly return to Marrakech. The international set migrates here every year, its numbers reaching a critical mass at Christmas and Easter. While real nomads stay in caravansaries or camp in tents outside the city, the beau monde resides in splendor at Hotel La Mamounia. Perhaps best known from Winston Churchill's paintings or from Alfred Hitchcock's movie "The Man Who Knew Too Much," which was filmed there, La Mamounia is an oasis within an oasis, a walled enclave within the five-mile circumference of Marrakech's walls.
In 1986, the hotel was completely renovated. Employees speak with pride and no little awe of what was accomplished. In less than six months, with 1,900 people working around the clock, all the rooms were stripped and redecorated. Like Egyptians recounting an ancient tale about the construction of the Pyramids, hotel officials rattle off statistics about man-hours, raw materials, and the number of trucks, cranes and artisans it took to reincarnate La Mamounia.
The result, to paraphrase Marx--Karl, not Groucho--demonstrates that a change in quantity is indeed a change in quality. But it would be difficult to say whether the new La Mamounia is better than the old. It's simply different--bigger, brighter and less intimate. The original lobby with its beautiful beamed ceilings, hand-carved columns and arabesque tile work has been renamed La Salle d'Honneur, a room for cocktail parties and receptions. The official entrance is an elaborate affair of fountains and pergolas and a broad driveway that resembles the showroom of a Mercedes-Benz dealer. Every model, from the 190 to the armor-plated stretch limo 600, is on display.
La Mamounia boasts a casino, a disco, six restaurants, six bars, a beauty center, a fitness center, a billiards room, a hot tub, two squash courts and two clay tennis courts. All 179 rooms and 50 suites have television sets that, via satellite, bring in programs from Europe. Video channels broadcast movies in Arabic, French and English, and there is, depending on your point of view, something deliciously decadent or deliriously disorienting about watching an Eddie Murphy film while the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer.
In a sense, life at La Mamounia is like a cruise on a luxury liner. But for those who don't care to sign on for an imaginary ocean voyage, other fantasies are available. The Winston Churchill Suite has the look of an English gentleman's library with wood paneling, leather upholstery, a statue of the great man and a large ceramic bulldog that squats as if ready to sink a fang into any interloper's leg. Or for truly creative daydreamers who reach Morocco only to realize that they would rather be riding the rails over the Simplon Pass through the Swiss Alps, there's the Orient Express Suite, which is an uncanny imitation of a wagon-lit .
Outside in the garden, three large bungalows are barricaded behind walls and thick vines. Each has a patio, its own hot tub and separate wings for guests from countries where it is customary to keep a retinue of women away from the men. Underground tunnels connect the villas with the hotel, serving as emergency escape routes for the heads of state whom King Hassan II routinely puts up at La Mamounia.
Several years ago, at the apex of the spring tourist season, Presidents Abdou Diouf of Senegal, Paul Biya of Cameroon and Francois Mitterrand of France moved into the villas with their advisers, wives and bodyguards for a series of conferences. This made for some extraordinary scenes of cultural dissonance around the swimming pool, where people from wildly dissimilar backgrounds gathered each day for a buffet lunch at Les Trois Palmiers. While the Europeans gloried in the sun, and most of the white women wore bikinis or went topless, Moroccan security men with walkie-talkies prowled the area wearing penitentially starched shirts, dark suits and ties. Deep in the shade of umbrellas, black women with the Senegalese and Cameroonian entourages sat swathed in yards of bright fabric shot through with gold thread, their faces veiled, with only their eyes and hands exposed.
ATTRACTED AS MUCH BY MARRAkech's street life as by its social high life, some visitors to the city jump ship and go native. Yves St. Laurent keeps a house here, as does French actor Alain Delon, who bought a place that once belonged to Paul Getty.
In a corner of the palm grove, a gate of corrugated tin opens onto a Xanadu-like pleasure dome that Kubla Khan might have decreed. In fact, Freckie Vreeland, son of the late Vogue editor, Diana Vreeland, built this villa and has, for years, been adding eccentric touches that incorporate ideas and objects he has collected during his travels. The entrance is a replica of the famous Borromini trompe l'oeil perspective at the Villa Spada in Rome. The 17th-Century columns in the courtyard come from Spain. Many of the carved wooden doors are Balinese. One bedroom resembles an ornate Chinese box. In another, the bed swings from the ceiling by chains. When Vreeland is away in Italy or the Far East, he has, on occasion, rented the villa to those who are curious to see these wonders.
Marrakech supports a multitude of French and Moroccan restaurants, but foreign residents and regular visitors favor one of the town's few alternatives to traditional fare--Giancarlo Terzaroli's La Trattoria. Before his death, the deposed Shah of Iran often ate here, but he was far from La Trattoria's lone illustrious customer. Members of the Moroccan royal family, Guy and Helene de Rothschild, the Count and Countess de Beaumont and French fashion designer Jacqueline de Ribes all seem to love Giancarlo's pasta. As he says, not immodestly, "Some winter evenings, there are so many fur coats in my cloakroom, the hangers collapse."
Deep in the medina, Bert Flint lives on the far side of the city and at the opposite end of the social spectrum from Terzaroli. A Dutch scholar, he has been in Morocco for 30 years, studying the country's Andalusian heritage. His special interest is in rural art forms, and his goal is to "promote the creative continuity of Moroccan textiles." He has collected samples of the best work from the past. Pointing to his favorite Berber carpet, he remarks, "Aesthetically, it is the equal of a Paul Klee painting"--and he pays women in remote villages to produce weavings that express the full range of their talents, without regard for what will sell to tourists.
Flint is also concerned about the preservation of the medina. Recently Marrakech has experienced a population shift away from the center, out toward the fringes of town, where the middle class is settling into new apartments and villas. Eventually, people may want to return to the heart of the city, but Flint fears there will be nothing left. The houses, constructed of hand-molded mud, deteriorate quickly unless they are replastered and painted.
The notion is as intriguing as it is troubling--the idea that Marrakech might crumble like a sandcastle and dissolve into the earth from which it was constructed, that for all its ferocious energy and fierce color, it is as fragile as a desert flower.
GUIDEBOOK: MARRAKECH, MOROCCO
Getting there: Royal Air Maroc flies direct from New York to Marrakech, also direct to Marrakech from Paris, as does Air France. Other carriers connect to Marrakech through Casablanca. A U.S. passport is necessary, but no visa is required.
Where to stay: Hotel La Mamounia, Avenue Bab Djedid, Marrakech, Morocco, $145-$380 per night for standard rooms, $455-$700 for suites; from the United States, telephone 011-212-4448981, or fax 011-212-444660. Other recommended hotels include Hotel Tichka, about $80 per night; Hotel Semiramis, $60-$80, and Hotel Atlas, $55.
Safety: A State Department travel advisory, issued during the Persian Gulf crisis after a pro-Iraq demonstration in the capital of Rabat, was canceled when the war ended.
For more information: Moroccan National Tourist Office, 421 N. Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills 90210; (213) 271-8939.