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Toronto Star (17/Feb/1990) - Jimmy, Doris and Dustin back to life in Marrakesh



Jimmy, Doris and Dustin back to life in Marrakesh


Hotel La Mamounia, Avenue Bad Djedid, is a member of The Leading Hotels of the World, (800) 223-6800 toll-free from the U.S. and Canada. Prices for the 179 rooms and 49 suites start at around $215 U.S. double.

Further information: The Moroccan National Tourist Office, 2001 University St., Suite 1460, Montreal, H3A 2A6; phone (514) 842-8111.

The average guide fee for half a day is 50 dirhams, less than $10 U.S. While you may dress as you wish, so long as you're fashionable, on the hotel grounds, both men and women should cover their legs and upper arms when walking around in town. French is the most commonly used language after Arabic; English is spoken around the hotels and by the guides.

MARRAKESH, Morocco — If it hadn't been for Alfred Hitchcock and James Stewart, not to mention Doris Day, we could have avoided that traumatic encounter with the giant cobra in Djemaa el Fna Square.

We had already told our guide, Abdul Kadar ("just remember Guide Number 225, Marrakesh") that we were in a hurry and wanted only to see certain shops in the labyrinthine souk, so he was scurrying across the huge square ahead of us, fending off the importuning vendors and would-be guides with short, pithy expressions in what we supposed was Arabic, when suddenly we both stopped short and turned to each other in delight.

"This is the place where the mysterious man came up to Jimmy Stewart to tell him something and fell dead at his feet."

"Murdered! Doris Day sang 'Que Sera Sera.' "

"Not here, that was later in the picture, Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much."


It was then, while we stood, caught up in remembering the famous opening scene of the film, that a grinning snake charmer came running toward us and began to drape an unpleasant-looking cobra around Harry's neck, and, for a moment, just like Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day and their mysterious dead man, we became a part of the famous sideshow of Jemaa El Fna.

Fortunately, the faithful Abdul was back to rescue us from the snake charmer before we were both wearing boas, and we set out again among the acrobats, storytellers, orange vendors and the water sellers posing for photographs in their bright red and green costumes. Later in the afternoon and early evening, Abdul said, there would be trained monkeys, fire-eaters and sword-swallowers, turning the whole square into a carnival.

We passed through an archway into a smaller square that narrowed at one end, lined with crumbling two-storey pink buildings, most of them shops with awnings, where old men in tipped-up two-wheeled carts drowsed in the heat of the day.

It all looked very familiar but unusually calm — what was missing was the havoc being wreaked by Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty and assorted CIA and KGB agents on a chase through the narrow lanes of the medina, in the film Ishtar, which was shot here and in the Sahara south of here.

Our progress behind the energetic Abdul was almost as frentic as theirs. He led us first into an antique jewelry shop, where the clerks were lying on the floor napping in the dark. When Abdul switched on the lights, the shopkeeper and his clerks leapt to their feet, rubbed their eyes and started pulling rings and necklaces from everywhere.

The narrow lanes of the souk were lit by dazzling displays of brass and copper, while overhead skeins of wool dyed intense red, yellow and orange dried on lines above the street. In one place men were making turned newels and spindles by hand, holding and turning the wood with their bare feet while they carved and sanded.

We pressed on through a blur of Moroccan leather bags and slippers with curved or pointed toes, bright painted plates, chunky jewelry of coral and silver, spices, dates, olives, fake amber beads, caftans of cotton and richly beaded silk, as though the desert caravans had come this far from Timbuctu and stopped in the cooling shade. The reality of the medina was infinitely brighter and more complicated than it appears in any film.

We already knew, when we went to Morocco, that two of the most famous pictures, Casablanca and Road to Morocco had been shot in Hollywood, not North Africa. And certainly there was nothing in the modern city of Casablanca that looked familiar except for some black-and-white blown-up stills from the film posted in the Hyatt Regency bar.

According to Richard Alleman's definitive The Movie Lover's Guide To Hollywood, all of Casablanca — even the legendary foggy airport scene at the end — was filmed at a Warner Brothers sound stage in Burbank, except perhaps (no one can agree for certain) a long shot of the plane taking off from Burbank Airport.

We find Alleman's books are good supplementary guidebooks to common location cities like Los Angeles and New York. Unfortunately, he hasn't written one yet for Marrakesh.

The Moroccan Tourist Office lists American films shot there since 1981 — Spies Like Us, Jewel Of The Nile, The Return Of The Black Stallion, Alan Pakula's All Over, John and Bo Derek's Bolero, and "an untitled comedy" from Columbia, presumably Ishtar.

The draw here for film people, of course, is the photogenic city of Marrakesh with its rosy ochre walls, silvery gray olive groves, tumbles of fluorescent magenta bougainvillea and feathery purple plumes of jacaranda, plus a clear dazzling light that seems to have been designed expressly for color film, and an exotic cast of un-selfconscious (and inexpensive) extras.

Hollywood people on location appreicate their creature comforts, especially in a setting like that at the Hotel La Mamounia. It's hardly surprising that Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty checked in from the nearby Sahara dunes for periodic holidays from the lengthy shoot for Ishtar.

We hope they dined in the hotel's exotic Moroccan Restaurant at one of those low tables heaped with cushions, where a silver pitcher of rosewater is poured over your hands before you dig in to platters heaped with cous cous, tajin and b'stilla.

Of course, everyone who was anyone, from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to President Dwight Eisenhower to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, has stayed in this rose-colored palace surrounded by what were once the sultan's gardens.

The Mamounia first opened as a hotel in 1923 and was extensively (and expensively) refurbished in 1986 in Arabian Nights art-deco style with intricate handmade tiles, acres of marble and handwoven carpets, splashing fountains, tiled patios only slightly smaller than the mosque at Cordoba, lavish suites swagged in peaches-and-cream Fortuny pleated silk, Jacuzzi tubs and sprays of silver apple blossoms.

By the pool, the glamorous topless sunbathers, most of them French, are discreetly screened from day visitors by a tumult of snapdragons, roses and zinnias. Churchill, who stayed here often, loved to paint in these gardens; his suite, complete with a regal bed and a life-sized porcelain bulldog, can be booked for around $1,000 U.S. a night.

Across from the Mamounia looms the magnificent minaret of the 12th century Koutoubia mosque. A white flag flutters from the top when it is time for prayers so the people far out in the fields can look up from their work and see it. On the highway, cars pull over to the side of the road and the occupants get out, unfold their rugs and say their prayers toward Mecca.

One day we stopped in the town of Ben Guerir, between Casablanca and Marrakesh, to visit a local souk similar to the camel market where Warren Beatty purchased his blind camel in Ishtar. It was a crowded, dusty place full of veiled women and men in coarse brown hooded "djellabas," some of them eyeing us with curiosity, the others ignoring us completely.

One man sat in the shade of a tent selling ropes of dates; another was holding up fragrant bhunches of fresh mint for tea. Huge portable radios, a rainbow of plastic shoes, spare parts for all sorts of vehicles, live rabbits and chickens, goats and sheep and, yes, even camels added to the barrage of colors and smells.

A few hours later, we passed back by the site again, but the tents and hawkers of the bustling country bazaar had disappeared into the dust like a Road To Morocco mirage, and there was nothing but a bare field with a couple of scruffy-looking camels tethered to a post, probably waiting for the next film crew to come along.