Marrakech: A brush with the stars

Stephanie Cavagnaro of the UK’s Nat Geo Traveller heralded Mustapha’s quippy tour this week!
Marrakech: A brush with the stars
Artisan carving a Hamsa Hand motif into a tile. Image: Stephanie Cavagnaro

“This is the crazy place.” My guide, Mustapha, grins at the scene: hooded men in djellabas (robes) swoop between shaded alleys; Yamaha motorbikes hiss and pop through throbbing crowds; rust-coloured cats dart between zelije-tiled doorways. People pulse past gilded goods like blood through veins. The morph and muddle of colours and movement evokes a Jackson Pollock painting.

“‘What a souk’ means ‘what a mess’… like my children’s room,” jokes Mustapha. When he smiles, he smiles big, showing a neat row of white teeth that match a short white and grey beard.

We met at Almaha Marrakech, my riad, before exploring Marrakech’s squeeze of souks. Despite a slight limp, he quickly weaves between donkeys (“local Mercedes,” he quips), carts piled high with watermelons and men running with bulging bundles of curled leather.

Golden light seeps through a slatted roof and onto the crush of people moving down the too-crowded Souk Semmarine. Mustapha swings left and we make our way towards an area crowned with copper and brass lanterns, casting rainbows on dark-brick pavement. “When I was here with Alec Baldwin, he told me this is like a movie,” Mustapha nonchalantly offers. “He loved it. He bought one door.” I laugh at the idea, but Mustapha explains: “He was here for Mission Impossible.”

He knows he’s impressed me, and quickly adds: “I’m also a friend of Maggie Gyllenhaal,” before producing his phone and showing me a series of images: one with Maggie and her family, another with a towering Alec, and a third showing a glowing Mustapha sandwiched between Mark Strong and Daniel Craig.

He smiles big, starts to sing Another Brick in the Wall, and hurriedly limps off. I follow him to the quieter corners of this maze, where men are huddled over bags, darkening fragrant leather with oil and carving patterns into shiny silver trays. Others sip mint tea between bouts of embroidering vibrant ottoman poofs with long needles. “We don’t make Mercedes in Morocco, but we make beautiful decorations,” says Mustapha.

I’m lost in the labyrinth, but Mustapha seems to know every inch of this place. We stop before a shrivelled old man crouched in the doorway of a cluttered workspace. He’s sifting through a pile of change when Mustapha speaks to him in Arabic. “We call him Omar International Bank,” Mustapha explains, pointing to the pile of copper and silver coins Omar uses to decorate belts and bags. Omar finds 10 pence, and shows it to me proudly. I nod approvingly, and we move on.

Further along, a yellow-slippered foot bobs from between a doorway. It belongs to a man dressed in all white — skullcap, trousers and loose cotton shirt — who’s sitting cross-legged on a stool. He’s absorbed in concentration, carving a Hamsa Hand motif into a tile, and doesn’t seem to notice us watching.

Along these narrow streets, there’s a hum of artisans hammering, welding, carving and sculpting. Mustapha’s tour beyond the main streets of shops and shouting has me impressed. I only have enough dirham for a handmade ceramic bowl, but if I were Alec, I’d have bought a door too.

the cerulean Marjorelle Garden


Mustapha checking out Majorelle's Giverny-esque water lilies
Mustapha checking out Majorelle’s Giverny-esque water lilies

Mustapha often takes his clients to Jardin Marjorelle, a residence and botanical garden owned by French designer Yves Saint Laurent (who was actually born in Oran, Algeria) and his partner Pierre Bergé since 1980.  The buildings (which include a Berber museum) and various structures on the property are characterized by an electric – almost messianic – cerulean blue.    Yves died in 2008 and his ashes we scattered in the Jardin Marjorelle.

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“Yves Saint Laurent a passé une grande partie de sa vie au Maroc. Il terminera là, dans un pays qui l’a beaucoup influencé, beaucoup marqué ; il finira dans le Maghreb dans lequel il est né”, avait souligné Pierre Bergé lundi devant la presse.

According to La Depeche, Yves and Bergé were joined in a Pacte civil de solidarité (a French same-sex civil union) a few days prior to the designer’s death



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1977 Persepolis-esque tableau in the garden’s museum


-Paige Darrah

diverse exhibition



Hivernage Art Gallery in the trendy Hivernage neighborhood of the Nouvelle Ville has a new exhibition through 30-July featuring contemporary artists from Morocco and beyond.  Mustapha suggests popping over on your way to Yves Saint Laurent’s Jardin Majorelle.

One of the paintings with French colonial flavor that’s on exhibition at Hivernage:

David Arbus 2012, acrylic on paper

everyone loves Mustapha!

Here’s a lovely note from Lauren Godfrey transposed from the ‘Experiences’ page…

From Lauren Godfrey on 31-March, 2015:

Mustapha is such a beautiful and kind hearted person. From the first time I contacted him months before the trip, he was incredibly responsive and warm. I went to Marrakech with a group of 12 women and Mustapha not only kept us completely entertained with some of the most incredible shopping and cultural destinations, but also with his jokes! We told him we wanted to have fun in Marrakech and he never let us down! We spent our final day in Marrakech without Mustapha as he had been booked by another group, but even though he wasn’t with us, he was still looking out for us. He texted to let us know that the time was changing in Marrakech that night, so to be extra aware as to not miss our flights. We would have had no idea if it wasn’t for Mustapha!

Our time in Marrakech was made so much better thanks to you Mustapha. I can’t wait to come back and see you again some day!



What’s a Fondouk?

Before the 20th century, a Foundouk was a sort of mixed-use commercial property for travelers and merchants who came from across North Africa to trade – a hybrid of hotel and stable in the medina where animals (camels, donkeys, etc.) slept downstairs and people slept upstairs.

‘These were zero star hotel during the day, but at night they turned into 500 stars hotel when you looked up to the sky,’ Mustapha said. ‘These Foundouks turned into artisan workshops today – there are at least 50 in the medina. I have friends in these workshops; one man I know is making shoes more than 60 years in the same shop. I’ve learned a lot from them. They told me about the time of the French in Morocco.’

There aren’t any middlemen in Foundouks; you deal directly with the artisan and pay less than than you would in the souks. One example is Foundouk Sarsar on Rue Mouassine (pictured below).

‘there used to be camel parking in the courtyard’ -Mustapha
This babouche maker sold me a pair of sky blue babouches I never wear.


The Gordon Family

I love the way this American family described their experience with Mustapha:

He is master of his craft.  Here this man dressed in a manner so different from anyone we know connects with us immediately. He is warm. He has a sense of humor. He understands our culture yet emanates a traditional love and respect for his. He has so much integrity. No one dared bother us in his presence. He doesn’t over stay or over talk at sites – just perfect for our family. We were never bored. We saw so much. We meandered to parts of the Medina where we felt completely at home without another tourist in sight. I loved his passion for workmanship. We saw where and how things were made. The focus was not on shopping – we went to see artisans making their crafts. Rugs, oil, leather, lace, intricate painting and carving, communal bread ovens… He seemed to know everyone. We were allowed to really experience – smell, taste, hear, touch….. He met us for our initial orientation and it lasted half a day. He had all the time in the world for us.

Camels In Ciel d’Afrique

5h40 is indeed early, but try not to think about that too much.  Think about the North African sunrise, think about the Atlas mountains, think about the glorious photos you’ll post on Instagram.

Ciel d’Afrique – Morocco’s oldest hot air balloon* tour company and recipient of Trip Advisor’s ‘Certificate of Excellence’ 3 years running – recently began offering a post-flight camel transfer from your balloon’s landing site to the berber breakfast tent.  Mustapha and I suggest you ask for Isham – a professional, charming pilot with some well-rehearsed hot air balloon humor.

Here’s how it’ll all go down:
The hot air balloon people will pick you up from your hotel or riad** at an unGodly hour and drive you to the launch site. Yes, it’s unfortunate, but hot air ballooning is a sunrise activity (for fancy aerological reasons). You’ll see Marrakech waking up during your 20-minute drive to the outskirts of town. You’ll see the agriculturally inclined Moroccans coming out of their mud huts to pick vegetables and hang out with their goats.

You’ll arrive at the launch site in time to watch the pilot and his crew prepare the balloon for flight; it takes shape as the pilot squeezes a lever that throws loud fire (and, by extension, hot air) into the balloon. You’ll hop into the basket and then – for a few minutes during your ascent – you’ll get a voyeur’s aerial view into some of Marrakech’s open-air residences. But the details on the ground will quickly blur and you’ll shift your gaze over to the Berber-populated Atlas Mountains because the sun is rising up alongside them and you don’t plan on getting up this early again for a long, long time.

About 50 minutes later your pilot will instruct you to brace yourself for touchdown by holding on to the basket’s handles. You’ll be nervous about the landing and curse yourself for not googling ‘hot air balloon accidents in Morocco’ before you left.

Upon landing, the balloon will drag the basket across the rocky terrain for a few seconds until its momentum is depleted. You’ll try to reconcile this experience with what you remember from your 10th grade physics class.

Then the dromedaries (one-humped camels***) will mosey over to scoop and carry you back to Ciel d’Afrique’s launch site where you’ll install yourself under a large Berber tent. Then you’ll be brought 3 varieties of Moroccan pancakes that you’ll dip into honey and olive oil.

After that and for reasons that are unclear, Isham will present you with a certificate stating that you:
a) flew in a hot air balloon. And that you did so
b) before an admiring crowd (remember the Moroccan farmers from earlier?).

You’ll pay the crew 2,050 dirhams (which is about $220 or 190 euros) in cash and they’ll take you back to your hotel.

The addition of 3 dromedaries to Ciel d’Afrique’s team presents a viable alternative for those of us who’d only briefly entertain the relatively impractical option of driving 7 hours to ride camels in the dunes of Moroccan Sahara. Now we can synthesize our camel and hot air balloon ride into one morning’s excursion, leaving the afternoon free to get lost in Marrakech’s souks and haggle for a carpet.

~Paige Darrah


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mint tea anyone?

$220 per person for an hour long hot air balloon flight, which includes the post-flight camel ride to the breakfast tent, breakfast, and round trip hotel transfer in a scrappy 4×4. (011 212 52 443 2843,


* Linguistic sidebar: our French-speaking Moroccan friends call them ‘mongolfs,’ short for montgolfières.

** Mustapha defines a riad as ‘a house with a garden in the middle.’

**You’d be hard pressed to locate a two-humped camel in these parts, but don’t worry – one hump is more than sufficient.

Bird Cages and Billowy Pants

Here’s Mustapha looking pensive as he considers a bird cage purchase:

MC birdcage
(photo courtesy of Jenna Davey-Burns)


Here we have Mustapha and Jenna Davey-Burns of Australia standing in front of Koutoubia Mosque’s minaret in August.  I like Jenna’s flowy, billowy pants; they’re Aladdin-chic pants:

mc with a lady in billowy pants
(photo courtesy of Jenna Davey-Burns)