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Holm Marrakech

By Yasmina KHADRA Sofitel Marrakech Palais Impérial

Thirty years ago, I had come to Marrakech to escape the rat race of Paris.
I was ready to trade my array of flashy illusions for a single oasis and abandon the neon-lit boulevards for a shimmering desert mirage. Blasphemous wealth and ostentation no longer suited me. The time had come for me to stop navel-gazing, stop obsessing over the creases of my tuxedo, stop trying to second-guess what silence was being drowned out by the wagging tongues of the chattering classes. Paris was dehumanizing. I was getting lost in a blur of pretense. Amid the whirl of conquests and conceits, I was afraid of what I was becoming.
“You’re going too fast,” my father had warned. A former railroad man, his face bearing traces of a hardscrabble life, my father was used to getting by with little. “Slow down, son.”
I refused to listen. Didn’t he understand that I was avenging the miseries he had endured so that we might be spared his lot?
“I never complained about a thing,” he retorted, with the stoicism I had always despised.
“Frugality is not a fault, but a quality. You should learn to be satisfied with less.”
My father was a martyr. He was suspicious of anything that didn’t make him suffer. It had taken him forever to realize that destiny could be changed, that we did not inevitably inherit that of our parents… When I had invited him to the opening of my first store, he had been dumbstruck, convinced that it was a joke. But little by little, as I became more successful, he had relaxed a bit.
“Promise me that you’re not up to no good,” he said.
“I promise.”
He had given me the benefit of the doubt, even accepting, albeit uneasily, the extravagant gifts I offered. I think he had been happy for me. And although his reserve permitted few displays of emotion, I was quite sure that I had made him proud. But then, as my hunger grew more ravenous, he began to distance himself, rebuffing my largesse, avoiding my parties,declining my invitations to travel together. He didn’t appreciate my friends, nor did he take a kind eye to the courtesans who swarmed around me like flies.
“Who are these people?” he asked.
“Friends.”
“Where were they when you were struggling?” he grumbled skeptically.
My father was not a complicated person. His humility was his refuge. Excess frightened him as much as falsehood. My world was not to his liking. He found its showy window-display luster jarring, as jagged as broken glass. For him, my world was like a shattered mirror reflecting a gamut of deception. One night he had come to return the keys to both the car I had bought for him and the beautiful house I had had built, and he then went back to live in his same old hovel, among his fellow sufferers, a pack of wrinkled proletarians who had nothing better to do than hang out at the local bar and smoke cheap cigarettes in the shadows of their memories.

He and his scuffed up shoes never set foot again on my flying carpets. I had been so busy tending to my investments that it was only a week after his burial that I learned of his death. In his native village, the neighbors had looked upon me with contempt. They didn’t see my fast car or fancy suit. To them, I was nothing more than a parvenu who had forgotten where he came from, an unworthy son who had not been there in his father’s time of need. Burned by these searing looks in the narrow streets, I realized what a monster I had become.
After dazzling me, the limelight had become scorching. I had to get off of my cloud, come down to earth, find a semblance of authenticity in a world in which nothing was heartfelt, in which everything was calculated — alliances and connivances, opportunities and coincidences, encounters that felt like traps and head-over-heels affairs just waiting to explode. In my world in Paris, the slightest smile was an investment, a handshake contractual.
It was terrifying.
I was terrifying.

My success had left me at a loss. My profits, partners, and conquests were robbing me of what was essential, as if I had become nothing but a winning joker, a prime asset, a perfect trampoline for profiteers, a golden egg for my whores… A time-out was necessary so that I could come to my senses; I needed to get some distance from it all, from this flood that was carrying me away to who knows where. I had realized that things are not what we think they are, that we settle for whatever accommodates us, often to our own detriment.
I was young and handsome. I had a green thumb, an alchemist’s power; like Midas, everything I touched enriched my fortune. They called me Croesus. My courtesans were legion. They hovered around me with insatiable voracity. And far from disgusting me, I found their hunger reassuring. Was I not coveted like a miracle worker, as popular as an invitation to a charity ball? For someone who had started with nothing, it was nirvana. I had the legitimacy of my own megalomania and sovereignty over my own universe. From my sports cars to my toiletries, my possessions had all been acquired by me alone. I owed nothing to anyone. And I loved to throw my money around like so many crumbs. I had Paris eating out of my hand. No VIP or star could resist my charisma. I, the brave little barefoot prince who had arrived in the capital empty-handed, then climbed step by step to the pinnacle of his empire, surviving collapses and bankruptcies, I, Jean Gastel, whose name could open doors in the most exclusive quarters of the highest spheres, I sometimes allowed myself to think I was god.
A trip to the desert was in order.

Only a neutral prophet would be able to bring me to my senses. It was in Marrakech that I realized man had resolved to become rich so he could reinvent himself. It seemed clear that the accumulation of wealth is born from a mutiny against one’s self. In Marrakech, I also discovered that in poverty we are authentic… In Marrakech, people were people. Shopkeepers, traveling vendors, horse and donkey traders, shoeshine boys or barkers, they all went about their business with rare distinction. Nothing seemed to delight them more than a smile, nothing pleased them more than a greeting or a handshake. These wonderful beings were self-sufficient, nourishing themselves. They knew the art of self-appreciation, the wisdom of demanding nothing.
The change of scenery constantly brought me back to this question: And me? Who was I, in fact? A profit margin? An empty satisfaction? A trademark? A potential investment? In the company of these uncomplicated and impoverished people, who struggled to make ends meet yet exuded an air of confidence, I returned to myself and to others. I was a man among men.

A Moroccan friend had given me the use of a modest residence near the Palmeraie. It was a peaceful spot amid rustling leaves and birdsong. Dawn rose as graceful as an odalisque and at nightfall day retired gladly like a satisfied reveler. There reigned an Olympian calm. To escape from the worldly clamor, I needed only to settle in the shade under a tree. It was the stuff of dreams. A cup of mint tea, an almond cake, meat sizzling on the grill, and I almost fainted with joy… Could this be happiness?
I lived like a hermit, pleased to remain incognito. I slept so soundly that when I awoke the sun was already at its zenith. I thought about nothing, whiling away the hours. Little things — a blade of grass, a stone — captivated me. Paris was far away. Marrakech freed me. I was reborn, experiencing a pleasure I had never even imagined.

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