The Purgatory of Yves Saint Laurent’s Marrakech Wonderworld

By William J. Furney

“If you say you’re a writer, they’ll follow you everywhere,” my driver and guide, Younes Saghir, told me as we drove through the wide-boulevard streets on the outskirts of Marrakech on a mid-morning in late September. Government officials would want to know where I was going, what I was saying and, ultimately, what I would write about this cultural heartland of Morocco, and perhaps even the wider country. 

What were they afraid of, and what did they have to hide? 

The last time I heard something like this was when I moved to the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, decades ago, when the dictator Suharto was in power.

“I didn’t say I was a writer,” I said to Younes. I’d said I was in public relations, which I also am, but the surly passport control man didn’t seem to know what that was.

And it was fortuitous that when the officer asked for my address, the Belgian woman who owns my Airbnb had put the wrong flat number on the listing, I later realised; so if the Moroccan feds came knocking, they might end up carting off the wrong person. 

It had taken just an hour to fly from the Spanish island of Gran Canaria to Marrakech, and instead of a “Welcome to [insert country name]” that you might get on arrival in warm-hearted places like Ireland and even the United States — where a beaming officer said to me, “Welcome to the United States!”, after a long queue in Los Angeles — there was a gruff demand: “What is your job?”

That was after around an hour standing in a slow, snaking line as passport officers spent eons hounding their computers for info about arrivals, before almost reluctantly thumping passports with a stamp, in thunderous fashion. By the time I got to the arrivals hall, it was almost empty, and I was sure my driver had given up and left. But there he was, smiling and holding my name aloft, just outside the door — an altogether better Welcome to Morocco. 

A Lush Moroccan Oasis 

After a day relaxing at my penthouse place overlooking the oasis that is the Majorelle Garden on Rue Yves Saint Laurent in the fashionable and upmarket Gueliz district near the centre of Marrakech, Younes took me for a drive around the city. A Moroccan woman I knew in Malaga — a mine owner — told me several years ago that Marrakesh was “the best place in Mocorro”. Up to now, I had only been to the frenetic port city of Tangier, in the north, and it had none of the bohemian vibe said to be pervasive in Marrakech (but plenty of chicken, hidden deep down in a vegan salad I ordered for lunch). 

Younes took me to all the usual spots — crumbling and official palaces, the mediaeval Medina that resembles scenes from either the Life of Brian or Star Wars, or both, and the central World Heritage Site of Jemaa el-Fna, a kaleidoscopic square where I took photographs of a monkey and gave its owner 10 dirham (about €1). The air was heavy with the smell of pepper, and the high-pitched din from snake charmers’ traditional music added to the disorientating sense of the surreal. 

Outside the Medina’s walls, camels and their expectant owners — hoping for tourist treks — lurked at spots along the city’s baked thoroughfares, and we drove on and out to the most salubrious area of Marrakech, Palmeraie, a palm oasis where more somnolent dromedaries were dotted around enormous villas of the extraordinarily wealthy. Here is where the likes of Madonna come to party; and it’s where, Younes said, former French prime minister Nicolas Sarkozy and rapper Gims own expansive pads. 

I liked that, all around Marrakech, mobile phone masts were disguised as palm trees; in places, large birds sat in nests they’d built atop the towering, fake trees. 

For the Birds: Metal palm trees, concealing mobile phone equipment, provide a nesting ground for local wildlife. (Photo: William J. Furney)

Fractious ties between Rabat and Madrid warmed earlier this year, after Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez backed Morocco’s autonomy plan for the disputed territory of Western Sahara, a desolate place under United Nations guardianship amid a revolt by Polisario Front rebels seeking their own nation, and a  flare-up in violence. 

I asked Younes what the most pressing issues of the day were for ordinary Moroccans, and other possible troubles, like how did they feel about the royal family, under King Mohammad and his 19-year-old, Instagram-posting crown prince, Moulay? Was there growing unease, like in Britain, now that the queen is gone? Did people want a republic?

No, he answered, saying Moroccans generally like and revered their monarchy. “We’re worried about rising prices,” said Younes. The cost of everything in Morocco, from food to fuel, is going up, he said, echoing similar situations around the world as countries struggle to rebound their economies following the covid pandemic and spiralling costs associated with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

“The official basic minimum monthly salary is around €300; but in reality, it’s more like €150,” said Younes, a father of two young children who has never been out of Morocco — “It’s hard to get visas, and it’s expensive, unless you’re rich and well-connected” — but would like one day to visit England. 

Morocco Madness: The writer and his driver, Younes. (Photo: William J. Furney)

We passed sweaty workers building and repairing structures at the sides of the busy streets, casual labourers who earn €7-8 a day, Younes said. And while people like me — tourists, with money — shop at French supermarket Carrefour in the city, locals still buy from street vendors whose prices are mostly remaining stable, he said. 

At Carrefour Gourmet near the city centre, I paid over €1 for each of the four small purple potatoes I had in my trolley, although if I’d known the price I wouldn’t have. The sizable basement store, in the glitzy Carre Eden Shopping Centre, had large meat and seafood sections but no vegan products; it also had an impressive alcohol alcove, whereas other Carrefours in the city don’t sell booze, but you can get it at specialist stores that call themselves mini markets but only have alcohol and water. 

Wines in Marrakech are priced higher than in most European countries, and Moroccan wines fill the shelves, with only one or two Spanish and French choices; I tried several Moroccans, which I was told were produced at vineyards just outside Marrakech, and found them barely palatable: a chore, best avoided.  

Red City Desires

A long, slow-moving queue formed outside my penthouse balcony soon after eight every morning and lasted until late evening, a languid line of pale-skinned foreigners eager to amble among the lush vegetation set over a hectare and view Berber artefacts in what was French painter Jacques Majorelle’s studio. 

That was until Majorelle and his wife divorced, in the 1950s, and he was forced to sell his cubist-Moroccan villa and growing garden — snapped up three decades later by rising fashion-designer star Yves Saint Laurent and his business and sometimes life partner Pierre Bergé, who then refurbished the property and grounds. 

I had no need to queue for this, one of Marrakech’s top tourist attractions, because I could see it all from the vantage point of my flat. Every day, I watched the visitors make their way around towering palms, phallic cacti and brightly flowering shrubs. The garden’s cerulean building, housing The Pierre Bergé Museum of Berber Arts, stands out among the ochre of all others in the Red City, as Marrakech is known, and abuts the Yves Saint Laurent Museum, one of two dedicated to the legendary designer and his works (the other in Paris). 

Waiting Game: Tourists line up outside the Majorelle Garden and its bright-blue cubist-Moroccan building, in this view from the writer’s flat. (Photo: William J. Furney

Saint Laurent, who was born in Algeria and died in 2008 aged 71, of brain cancer, visited Marrakech in the 1960s and was immediately besotted by the place. “In Morocco, I realised that the range of colours I use was that of the zelliges, zouacs, djellabas and caftans. The boldness seen since then in my work,I owe to this country, to its forceful harmonies, to its audacious combinations, to the fervour of its creativity. This culture became mine, but I wasn’t satisfied with absorbing it; I took, transformed and adapted it,” he said in 1983. 

The YSL Marrakech museum opened in 2017, and Bergé, who died the same year, aged 86, said: “When Yves Saint Laurent first discovered Marrakech, in 1966, he was so moved by the city that he immediately decided to buy a house here, and returned regularly. It feels perfectly natural, 50 years later, to build a museum dedicated to his oeuvre, which was so inspired by this country.”

Does YSL and Haute Couture Fit Morocco?

I arrived at the YSL Museum — a stylishly designed, ultra-modern building just a few steps from my flat — on a hazy Sunday afternoon, and an employee, a man with heavily slicked-back, black hair, approached me and asked if he had seen me in the garden. No, I explained, because of the view from my flat, opposite. “You look like someone else,” he said; and then: “You’re beautiful”, and I laughed, embarrassed, and went in. 

One room housed a temporary exhibition of Moroccan travel books, maps, photographs and a sextant, while a larger, more dramatic space was given over to ostentatious displays of YSL’s creations — more resembling gaudy costume pieces than actual frocks — as well as drawings, his history and a giant photograph of the man, in pensive pose, on a wall that dominates in a God-like, omnipotent way. An auditorium showed a film of the designer’s journey through the years, and there’s a private library that’s only available to “researchers”. 

My fellow visitors appeared mainly stylish and slim French women and men, apart from one fat and loud British man with his equally vociferous, rotund wife; I felt like telling them to shut up, with their roaring that was disturbing the otherwise pristine peace of this high-fashion Mecca. I didn’t see anyone who resembled a local. Later, I asked the museum’s press office if many Moroccans visited the museum, but after an initial reply, they didn’t say. 

The 100 dirham fee (40 if you’re Moroccan) to view what is essentially a bunch of showy gowns and an homage to YSL in one room is a bit much, and it felt like walking into someone’s outsize closet. The small garden charges 120 dirhams (40 for Moroccans) or a combined garden and Berber visit for 150 dirhams (50 for Moroccans); students get discounts. And with the hundreds of tourists I saw swarming about all three places, they’re surely raking it in. 

Marrakech was YSL’s indulgent refuge, and far from his sole creative influence, as his clothing drew on styles from around the world, including the cultures of Japan, India, Spain and China. So it’s something of a fallacy to suggest that all the ideas solely sprang from here. 

The dusty city was a respite for YSL, an exotic getaway not far from Paris, a rich and heady wonderland to frolic in, just as it is for celebrities everywhere. But the reality between the gilded residences of the well-heeled globetrotters could not be any more stark. Because Marrakech, with a population of just over 1 million, is a gritty city full of desperate people, and you only have to walk outside your door to see the overarching, heartbreaking hardship. 

Scavenging, in the Race for Life 

Amid brief flashes of beauty, Marrakech is a hell on Earth — or, at the very least, a purgatory in which you’re awaiting a better life. There is little beauty in it, and any boho experiences seem scant. 

I ran most days in Marrakech, through narrow and cobbled streets, along main streets and anywhere I could find away from polluting traffic and could sprint. I only saw one runner, a local man, in the week I was there. 

One morning as I was running past the YSL Museum, tourists pointed expensive cameras and snapped the only runner on these hot streets — me, having become an attraction for people seeking anything out of the ordinary to help jazz-up their prosaic lives. Others clapped as I raced past. 

I was glad of my oasis, my own Moroccan spot of respite amid the harshness and cruelty of life beyond. Down the street, a policeman and two burly soldiers with machine guns stood guard outside the garden entrance, providing reassurance to delicate European visitors. Like something out of the fantastical works of Hieronymus Bosch, these porcelain-skinned folk were carted around in gaily decked-out horse-drawn carriages, like they were kings and queens, smiling inanely and almost royal-waving at passersby in streets lined with parched Moroccans who can barely keep flesh and soul together as they scour overflowing, fly-strewn rubbish bins for something, anything, to sell so they can buy a morsel. 

One evening I watched, transfixed, as a well-dressed and clean-cut young man went through the rubbish bins on my street, picking out plastic bottles and other discarded items he could get a few dirhams for. I wondered what he thought of the haute couture beside him — if he even knew about the museum — and what YSL would have made of him and his impoverished plight. 

Because they are two worlds, and each hardly knows the other exists. 

If, like me, you assume a mobile boarding pass will work at Marrakech Airport — so close to the city centre that you can see the Medina mosque from it — you’d be wrong. This is something I realised, via my airline’s app, as I was leaving for the airport, and with not a printer in sight, it was a dash to the Medina to find an internet cafe — a rarity anywhere these days. My driver found one, and the Arabic keyboard, with keys missing, was almost impossible to use. Even though you may have checked in online, you still have to queue and check in again at the airport, which, according to reviews I’ve seen online, leaves many people frustrated. 

  • Title image, of a local man walking past the YSL Museum in Marrakech, and slideshow photography by William J. Furney.

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