[This book has been translated into English as The Voices of Marrakesh.]
In Die Stimmen von Marrakesch (1967) Elias Canetti (1905-1994) takes us into the bazaars and alleyways of Marrakesh with his typically quiet and intensely observant manner. Visiting Marrakesh for the first time, he has deliberately made no preparations to learn about the city and its inhabitants. He wants to experience it all with as much innocence as is possible for an elderly man of the world.
That isn't the way I travel, but to enter a city like Marrakesh with no preparation is to experience it as a mystery of the unexpected and the unusual. And so he does. Canetti's carefully chiseled and deceptively simple prose pulls the reader into this experience compellingly. So we wander through the ancient walled city sharing his wonder and his occasional discombobulation and anxiety.
For me, the most striking of the 13 sections of this text described his visit to the Mellah, the walled-in Jewish quarter.(*) From the bazaar at the entrance, so much like those of the North Africans and yet so different, he penetrates into the quarter and finds a packed courtyard full of little boys memorizing the Hebrew alphabet at the top of their lungs; their proud and poor teacher has his best students read for his foreign guest. He locates a square near the center of the quarter where he feels so much at home, feels such a sense of warmth and life that it is extremely difficult for him to leave. Each time he recommences his explorations he is drawn back to the square of bliss. After noticing the absence of beggars in the Jewish quarter (they are everywhere in the Arab portion of the city), he stumbles upon a desolate Jewish graveyard and discovers the entire flock of Jewish beggars gathered and prepared to descend upon him. But you must read it in his words.
Perhaps another reader would prefer the holy beggar who thoroughly sucked on each coin he was given, which riveted Canetti in place for so long that the surrounding shopkeepers, for whom the sight was normal, began to consider Canetti to be just as strange as he thought the beggar was. Or perhaps, instead, the woman who stood without facial veil at her second floor window murmuring phrases of love and affection into the street, directed at no one. Canetti was so disconcerted and intrigued that he began to attract the less than benign attention of the neighborhood. But, again, I am picking out curiosities which struck me the most. There are many others - small matters that shake us a little out of our assumption that the life we know is the only life possible.
And, as always, Canetti's understated and transparent prose is such a pleasure to read.
(*) Canetti is a Sephardic Jew born in Bulgaria, a polyglot who chose to write in German because it was the "private" language between him and his mother. Canetti wrote one of the finest memoirs I have ever read, and the first volume, Die gerettete Zunge, about his childhood and adolescence, is magical.