Morocco is something of an enigma for gay tourists. Its reputation precedes it. It was, after all, the long favoured haunt of such diverse queers as Kenneth Williams and William Burroughs. Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell spent many reputedly scurrilous moments in Tangiers during the sixties with Orton dubbing it the ‘Costa Del Sodomy,’ while, more recently, the leader of Italy’s gay literati Aldo Busi took a tour of the country that he later chronicled in his picaresque books Sodomies In Elevenpoint and Uses And Abuses. But it was the American writer and composer Paul Bowles who became the country’s best-known chronicler (at least of Western origin) when he went to Tangier on the advice of Gertrude Stein and Alice B, Toklas in 1931. His travelling companion was fellow composer Aaron Copeland, and whereas Copeland grew sick of out-of-tune pianos and the constant pounding of Arabic Drums, Bowles fell under the country’s spell returning at the first available opportunity, once he’d received a commission for his novel The Sheltering Sky.
Despite this debauched past and Morocco’s apparent blindness to wanton decadence homosexuality is criminalised under section 489 of the penal code. The guidebooks aren’t much help; most describe the ambiguities of the culture and imply that same-sex sexual encounters are ‘commonplace’ with locals jumping on you at every available moment – wanted or not. What is clear is that in a country where over half the population live below the poverty line, sex for sale (in all its manifestations) is going to happen, but when a local jumps on you he is as likely to want to sell you a carpet or a large ceramic pot, and the aggressive selling of a rug carries a far less punitive threat than prostitution. Single men on their own are the most likely targets for the sex trade, but go in a group and you may just leave oblivious to this ‘commonplace’ activity.
Nervous tourists have noted that Morocco is a flood with hawkers, beggars and predators and on my first visit to Marrakech ten years ago I saw nothing to disprove this. It’s dependency on tourism has given rise to a band of tourist police patrolling the main tourist traps with orders to clamp down on any market trader trying to flex his muscle and mint-tea a bit too assertively.
There is a more relaxed attitude around the old walls of the Medina in Marrakech than in the past, and this despite some unfortunate post 911 tensions.
Having evaded colonisation far longer than the rest of Africa and the Middle East, Morocco succumbed to a mix of French and Spanish rule in 1912, but it didn’t come without resistance. The effective sale of the country by the ruling Sultan to the French led to a revolution in Fez and the brief capture of Marrakech by a tribal warlord called El Hiba who vowed to restore the country to a pure Islamic State. He had a lot of support and it took a deal with an even more ferocious warlord from the Atlas Mountains for the French to restore order. Thami El Glaoui’s rule brought both corruption and cruelty for locals, but his love of everything European led to an influx of the international jet set keen to attend his lavish parties. One feature of his iron-grip was his control of some 27,000 prostitutes in Marrakech and the brothels became internationally infamous attracting the sexually free-spirited long after independence and the tyrant’s death in 1956.
Then came the hippies as liberal attitudes and the ready availability of kif (hashish), gave Morocco a reputation for romance and exoticism. Bowles was an early victim of a post-Independence clampdown on decadence when he became embroiled in a scandal involving a local youth and had to flee to Portugal. Today, while the consumption of kif is readily acknowledged amongst locals, some 500 plus Europeans languish in Moroccan gaols on cannabis-related charges. Be warned!
Ever keen to distance itself from the excesses of the past Morocco has announced an ambitious plan to increase tourism dramatically from around 4.5 million visitors a year to ten million by the end of the decade. This will include the building of six purpose-built beach resorts, the first of which lies nine miles north of Agadir. But if the majority of visitors come to Morocco to lounge on the beaches of Agadir, if you crave a more authentic taste then you should head for Marrakech.
Known as The Red City due to the raw earthy colour of much of its architecture, in the right light Marrakech is actually bright pink; a big fat pink plum of an oasis in fact, set in the middle of the desert surrounded by the snow-capped Atlas mountains and dominated by the majestic Ben Youssef Mosque. It has taken over from Tangiers as Morocco’s modern tourist Mecca, beloved by fashion editors and designers (Yves Saint Laurent has a magnificent garden here, well worth a visit) and the latest hip destination for the ‘lifestyle set’. It can give Marrakech a schizophrenic air.
Out on the dusty streets of the souk and in the main market square of Djemaa el-Fna you feel trapped in a kind of medieval time warp; a bustle of heat and noise and frantic trading grabs your senses while all around are acrobats and snake-charmers and story-tellers in vivid coloured robes vying for space amongst the aromatic smog of a hundred food stalls and spice sellers. The sun hammers down as hawkers squat on their haunches casting hungry eyes at your wallet and donkeys push by with as much alacrity as motorbikes.
Yet behind many of the burnt, ochre facades lie blissfully tranquil riads, Morocco’s latest cultural attraction, awash in cooling mosaic tiles, fountains and frilly palm fronds. Many of these houses have been turned into hotels offering a more authentic stay than the business hotels outside the walls of the Medina, and in the absence of any gay scene they are often more relaxed towards gay tourists than the chains.
Not that the big hotels will roll their eyes at same-sex couples and many hotel workers will even give you a wink as the tourist industry proves a relative safe haven for local gays. If you don’t stay at a riad you can still escape the mayhem of the Medina by visiting one of the many restaurants trapped down any of its dusty alleys. There are those who swear blind, until their blood turns to clotted cream that the French have a monopoly on fine cuisine but I don’t believe they have ever tasted a proper Moroccan tajine. This slow-cooked stew is the national dish, primarily made of lamb or chicken and vegetables, though given its unique character by the addition of preserved lemon, olives, almonds and prunes. It may sound like a hot-pot disaster, but when done right it is several notches up the scale from delicious.
Outside of Marrakech, lovers of extreme (and camp) spectaculars should head to Chez Ali. This has been going for over 25 years and offers dining in a 27 acre plot on the road to Casablanca. Crammed between each course you are treated - if that’s the right word - to a smorgasbord of traditional dancing, singing and drum-beating entertainment. And that is just a prelude to the main event when an utterly unbelievable flying carpet tests your ability to suspend disbelief and dashing horsemen charge you into submission. As tourist traps go it’s a full furlong ahead of Trooping the Colour but whether it is worth the trip depends on your taste for kitsch spectacle.
If Morocco’s Vision 2010 tourism programme is primarily aimed at visitors with money to spend on riads and rugs than hash brownies and a romp in the sand there is still magic to Morocco that defies marketing ploys and despite its limitations as a ‘gay resort,’ I was enchanted by the incessant drumming, the relentless chatter of trade and the melancholy call to morning prayer. It’s a world away from the obvious pleasures of the Canary Islands (though exactly the same flying time) and as an introduction to North Africa and Arabic culture it is without peer.
British Airways flies to Marrakech from Heathrow. www.ba.com / 0870 8509850
Amro Holidays offer stays at the gay run Dar Joannan. www.amroholidays.com / 0870 990 7404.
For package tours try www.panoramaholidays.co.uk / 0870 7582 518.
Moroccan Tourist Board www.visitmorocco.com
Travel Advice www.fco.gov.uk