Maroc: Living in Days of Blood and Starlight

I will unabashedly admit that my entire Moroccan experience last June was most definitely inspired by Laini Taylor. Largely, by her Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy. Much like Prague had been (which I talked about extensively some years ago!). Once I read about Arabian sunsets and camel-rides in deserts, once I got a taste of what it felt like being in souks and medinas, once I started to question what kasbahs truly looked like (giant sandcastles, essentially), I knew Morocco was going to be a stop on my ever-large travel bucket list. But then again, this wasn’t a hard decision to make, since Laini Taylor ALWAYS gets me moving places with her beautiful, beautiful words. (I even SAY Morocco would be one of my next destinations!)

I am priestess of a sandcastle
in a land of dust and starlight.

Once I’d finished Days of Blood and Starlight, the second book in the trilogy, it was a done deal.

So when the opportunity arose, I took a tour group vacation to Morocco, and was actually stoked that my tour included many of the locations I fell in-book love with when I was reading Laini’s work.

But first, I wanted to go to the origin of why Morocco in the first place: Marrakesh.

It was hard to be glum in such a place. In some derbs, as the wending alleyways were called, the world seemed draped in carpets. In others, freshly dyed silks dripped scarlet and cobalt on the heads of passersby. Languages crowded the air like exotic birds: Arabic, French, the tribal tongues. Women chivvied children home to bed, and old men in tarboosh caps leaned together in doorways, smoking.

A trill of laughter, the scent of cinnamon and donkey and color, everywhere color.

Such was the city center of Marrakesh, Jemaa el-Fna. This is practically where Karou and Akiva meet for the first time in Daughter of Smoke and Bone and it’s certainly not the last. I loved the description of the medina, and I can very much visualize now the chaos of that moment in DoSaB, Akiva displaying his fire wings, and Karou jostling the people around her just to escape from the super-killer malak.

Karou made her way toward the Jemaa el-Fna, the square that was the city’s nerve center, a mad, teeming carnival of humanity: snake charmers and dancers, dusty barefoot boys, pickpockets, hapless tourists, and food stalls selling everything from orange juice to roasted sheep’s heads. On some errands, Karou couldn’t get back to the portal fast enough, but in Marrakesh she liked to linger and wander, sip mint tea, sketch, browse through the souks for pointy slippers and silver bracelets.

There were snake charmers and dancers and hapless tourists (hah). There were more than likely pickpockets (I was fortunate not to have encountered one), there were markets for everything (didn’t see any sheep’s heads…but there were certainly camels and donkeys…), and there was definitely a plethora of mint tea. Marrakesh was a fleeting stop in the grand scheme of the DoSaB trilogy, but it’s always referred to constantly within Blood and Starlight.

It takes some 70 pages before we actually get to Karou’s location, and in her cryptic email to Zuzana, she’s not very forthcoming to where she could be found. “Priestess of a sandcastle in a land of dust and starlight” were the only telling parts of her whereabouts. The best part was that Zuze would stop at nothing to find her best friend, and eventually she realizes where Karou actually is: Morocco. Specifically the southern part.

The kasbah was a castle built of earth, one of the hundreds that studded these southern reaches of Morocco, where they had baked in the sun for centuries. Once, they had been home to warrior clans and all their retinue. They were primeval fortresses, proud and red and tall, with crenellations like the hooked teeth of vipers, and arcane Berber patterns etched on the high, smooth walls.

In many of the kasbahs, small clutches of warriors’ descendants still eked out lives while time worked its ruin around them. But this place, when Karou found it, had been left to the storks and scorpions…

It was gorgeous: embellished with scrollwork iron window grilles and carved wood, jewel mosaics and soaring Moorish arches, jade-green roof tiles, and the white plaster lacework of long-dead craftsmen.

The kasbahs I went to were definitely breathtaking, and while most of the scenery described pertain to southern Morocco, there are hundreds of kasbahs littering the country, many are in ruin, while others with a few people still living within their walls.

Kasbahs did look extraordinarily like sandcastles. Too bad there were, like, fifty million of them scattered over hundreds of miles.

Now, as far as the description of the places went, a lot of it is in Karou and Zuze’s eyes. By the third book, much of the story takes place in the Otherworld, so Morocco (and Rome eventually) take a secondary seat to Eretz. But it’s great that we see a lot of Morocco in Zuzana’s eyes, especially when she manages to make her way to Ouarzazate after solving Karou’s message.

And then she came across a travel blog a French guy had written about his trek in the Atlas Mountains. It was only a couple of days old and mostly it was just landscape pictures and camel shadows and dusty children selling jewelry at the roadside…but then there was this one shot that caused Zuzana to set her teacup aside and sit up…it was the subtitle that got her.

Don’t tell the angel chasers, but they have some seriously big night birds down there.

A land of dust and starlight! Though I did not have a picture of starlight, since my camera cannot exactly take star pictures…you really have to experience it there yourself. It is magnificent.

“In real life, fool city folk never die in the desert and turn into bleached skeletons–”

“Or be crushed under the hooves of camels,” added Zuzana.

“I don’t think camels have hooves,” said Mik, sounding less certain.

“Well, whatever they have, I would kiss a camel right about now. We probably should have gotten some camels.”

Oh yes, camels are very useful. Especially if you’re trekking dunes and rocky desert lands.

Eventually Zuze and Mik are kicked out of Karou’s “monster castle” and back in Ouarzazate, and thankfully for the reader, the journey in Morocco doesn’t end there! Oh, no, Zuze stays put in Ouarzazate and refuses to leave without her best friend.

“Why are we still here, Zuze?”

“Here” was Ouarzazate…looked like a film set for The Mummy or something, which it probably was, seeing as how it was a movie studio town at the edge of the Sahara Desert.

Fun fact: The Oscar Hotel and Atlas Studios looked like an entire movie set from miles away, and I was told it was constantly being added to whenever a new film was being shot there. Ouarzazate also boasts one of the famous kasbahs, Ait Ben Haddou.

Ait Benhaddou was the most famous kasbah in Morocco, much bigger than monster castle, though lacking the zest of monsters. It had been restored by World Heritage funds and movie money–Russell Crowe had “gladiated” here–and it was sanitized and set-dressed for tourists. Shops in the lanes, rugs draped over walls, and at the main gate, camels batting their astonishing eyelashes as they posed for photographs–for a price, of course. Everything for a price, and don’t forget to bargain.

We can even add Aid Ben Haddou as the location where they filmed Yunkai from HBO’s Game of Thrones series. Oh yes. I was actually a bit excited about that. Go figure I’d get excited over visiting the slave city of Yunkai…but there it is. (As a side note: I also walked the Walk of Punishment in Astapor, which was in Morocco’s Essouaira, so that’s a plus.)

Side note: scaling to the top of Ait Ben Haddou was WORTH THE AGONY. I cannot continue to rave about what I saw at the top and how amazing the experience had been. Thanks mostly to Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Days of Blood and Starlight, I gained a great deal of perspective on the other side of the world. Also, this marks my first visit to Africa, and my first visit to a desert. The trip was worthwhile, and I’m glad I went when I did, even in the blistering–but dry–100-degree heat.

The only thing I was missing throughout this entire trip? The angels and demons.

 

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