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MOROCCO – Big Chef

Sunset, Jemma El Fna, Marrakesh, Morocco

The Shoot:

The perfect blue sky is broken by the silhouette of two expansively winged storks that ponderously circle on a thermal. The screeching of the snake charmers’ instruments pierces the thick, hot air, swirling above the square and mingling with the smoke and aromatic scents that drift slowly from the food stalls towards the azure. A few meters above the square the smoke plumes, soaring ambitions dissipate and they drift downward, enveloping the ground in a soft, hazy shroud.

The scene is all I had imagined from the confines of my London flat. There is, however, one thing that is troubling me – the bars – not the lack of alcoholic refreshment, but the bars on the window of the police station. They do somewhat obstruct my view, as do the walls on either side of the bars. I would like to leave the police station but unfortunately I am not allowed. The exit is blocked by Abdul. Abdul is the plain-clothed policeman who kindly offered to drive me here on the back of his moped. He also kindly ignored my polite rebuttals of his offer to escort me to the police station and also ignored my increasingly loud protestations. Abdul is one of many plain-clothed policeman that invisibly guard Marrakesh. I say plain-clothed but Abdul actually sports a rather stylish, red leather jacket. Abdul is showing me his watch and demanding to see my phone, which I duly show him,

“See?” he says, obviously delighted that he has been vindicated.

Abdul wants to live in England, he has never been to England but he has heard many good things about it and, as we have just established, it has the advantage of being in the same time zone as Morocco. England does however have a draw back, it is cold, and as I discovered from the second I sat on Abdul’s moped for my enforced journey, England’s climate is of great concern to Abdul.

I am incarcerated in the courtyard of a building on the corner of Jemma El Fna. It is actually quite a beautiful courtyard. Several large shrubs live here, one of which flaunts large white flowers that are proving irresistible to a number of oversized bees. A waterless fountain sits at its centre and the sunlight dapples the far corner of the courtyard. The perimeter is lined with doors to unseen rooms; one of the doors is festooned with badly photocopied black and white images of unpleasant looking types whom I assume to be Marrakesh’s most wanted. An open archway leads to the station’s entrance where a small man sits on a grey moulded plastic chair, the sort whose natural environment is a 1970’s school dining hall. The man is wearing black shell suit trousers, a black leather jacket, a black t-shirt and shades; and he is watching another man mopping up blood.

I have had some time to survey the scene and the dynamics of my confines because this is my second day here. My first day in Marrakech had started well; I had risen early and taken my camera out to become acquainted with my surroundings. Liking what I found, I decided to try and get a few early shots in the bag. Whilst photographing an arch I marvelled at the unlikely coincidence of the only person I knew in Marrakesh cycling past me, waving. When I turned back to my tripod it was hard to ignore the large van, now parked beside me, from which policemen were alighting. After a brief discussion, seemingly from thin air, more policemen appeared. Lots of conversations ensued, followed by quite a bit of looking at me, culminating in several inquires as to my ability to speak French, followed by general disbelief and concern that I did not. Eventually it was decided I needed a permit to do what I was doing, at which point I received my first invitation to the police station.

I had not been expecting the police station to be a revered culinary institution so my interest was piqued on being told that I must see the ‘Big Chef’. I ponder this and reach the conclusion that the ‘Big Chef’ is possibly the ‘Big Chief’. The Big Chef answers to no one and is currently ensconced behind a door at the end of a corridor that leads away from another courtyard. A ‘littler chef’ intermittently opens this door and peers anxiously at us before an inaudible instruction forces the closure of the door with some velocity. This process repeats itself for half an hour before the little chef finally beckons us forth. The room beyond is dark and expansive, at one end is a long, wooden, luxurious-looking desk, behind which sits the Big Chef. He is anything but dark. He wears a bright white Jalaba; not only is it white, but it appears to be made of soft, fluffy woollen like material. He is middle aged, tall, clean-shaven and his demeanour very clearly conveys that he is right and I am wrong. His technique is to remain silent whilst his guest drowns in their own words. I am aware of this and yet incapable of halting a severe bout of verbal diarrhoea. The Big Chef is dubious as to my photographic intentions but discerns from my general ineptitude and nervousness that I pose so little threat to anything that I am granted his verbal approval. At the Riad the concierge writes me a note in Arabic to show to anyone who may ask. It expounds the contents of my meeting with the Big Chef and I am assured I will be protected from any further invitations to police stations.

I spend the next two days in police stations.

The Shot: Sometime size is an issue. In this case it was the size of my tripod. I had researched permissions for shooting in Marrakesh on the internet, obviously not well enough, and found no requirement for stills photography. This is also what I was told by every police and government department where I tried to obtain permission. I spent a total of three days either in a police station or trying to get a permit. I eventually gave up, but this had a big effect on my photography. My desire to remain outside a Moroccan jail meant my shooting was far more clandestine than I would have liked.

Technical info: Canon 1DS III, Canon 24-70mm, ISO 100, f22, 3.2 secs, Gitzo tripod, Manfrotto 405, Lowepro Vetex 300 AW, Patient Girlfriend