Tuesday 4 November 2008

Thinking with a Marrakechi Laystall

I recently went to Marrakech for four days as an unabashed western tourist, in a wonderfully unabashed non-western city. It was fantastic, and forced me at every turn to think hard about early modern urban history. Marrakech is not an early modern city - it is a twenty-first century city that just happens to work as a locus of craft and production; the centre of which is serviced by donkeys and human power; and whose every street is cleaned and maintained by the people who live in it. There is electricity and running water in every house, a satellite dish on every roof top, and internet cafes jostling for space with food stalls and workshops. It is a modern city, but it doesn't work like London or San Francisco.

It seemed clear, for instance, that the systems in place for organising this particular urban world were bound within a culture rather than a bureaucracy. I did not see a single uniform, or a single dustman in the city centre, and yet every street was clean and orderly, crime felt distant and unlikely, and well defined rubbish piles could be found in many corners, out of the way, waiting to be collected. In witnessing a minor traffic accident in a Souk (a teenager on a moped, clipped the arm of an elderly woman), all the mechanisms of self-policing seemed to come into immediate play. The witnesses, perpetrator and victim engaged in a long debate, about the behaviour of the teenager and the elderly women. The boy tried in vain to defend himself and cast fault on to the victim, while the woman used all the authority of age to cast him in the light of responsibility. No police were called, no punishment extracted, but it appeared to be a community entirely happy to get stuck into the process of immediate moral judgement. No fight was going to occur, no sentence carried out; instead the actions of all involved had the feel of a well-crafted process for conflict resolution of a sort that has always existed in my mind's imaginary eighteenth-century eye.

Marrakech is also a city where things are made. The Souks are full of workmen, but more importantly, every small turning was also full of craft. Every other long wall was given over to winding waxed thread for use in making leather goods; every doorway framed a worker, a craftsman, a workshop. It is easy to assume that cities are about trade and living (that is what most modern cities do), but Marrakech reminded me that cities are also about creation. The image that sticks in my mind is of a man listening to a radio, a bright electric light above his workplace, using a pole lathe powered by a strong left arm, a gouge held in his right hand, in turn controlled by his left foot. The process was as old as you like, but the decision not to attach a cheap electric drill to the lathe, spoke of a different approach to production. The other striking element was the apparent conservatism of the goods being produced. Every stall sold a profusion of things that looked precisely similar to every other stall. And while the rugs and fabrics were incredibly colourful and varied, even these followed a series of well worn patterns. We associate industrial production with the creation of uniform goods of a single standard. But we forget (or at least I forgot) the pressures felt by every craftsman, to wring the highest quality end product they could from expensive raw materials. The limits of one's own craftsmanship implies constant repitition. You can get an untrained apprentice to produce a wonderfully finished piece of work, but only by asking them to do it over and over again, day in and day out for months. Uniformity seemed to evolve not from industrial manufacture, but from the very craft process itself. And more than this, the limited variety of goods (of whatever quality or form) being manufactured, seemed to betoken the cultural framing of production that precluded innovation.

There were beggars with established pitches, and street sellers hassling the tourists, and men with carts waiting for some work. And there were mosques which defined each neighbourhood, and whose calls to prayer punctuated each working day. One can get all tied up with a self-conscious historicism, but that is not the point; and ironically, I saw not a single artefact older than a couple of hundred years. The people of Marrakech themselves seemed entirely unconcerned about the relationship between how they lived, and how it might fit into a longer term story, evidenced in carefully preserved and labelled artefacts.

In other words, Marrakech is a city on a different model, that somehow has escaped the historical narrative of urban history itself - with its teleological notion of a single evolving modernity. Perhaps I am deluding myself, but I found in Marrakech the option, the space, the opportunity, to think about early modern worlds in a different way. And while I know much of this is in the literature somewhere or other, the visceral, the personal, the quotidian, seemed to read differently.