I’m writing this in the foyer of a hotel in Marrakech (get me!). The plush chairs overlook an enclosed courtyard set with blue-tiled fountains and planted with rose bushes.
Like most of the hotels and kasbahs we have visited on this holiday, the exterior of this building is relatively plain, its flat, terracotta frontage revealing nothing of the treasures inside.
Leading us from room to lavishly-decorated room in the Grand Vizier’s palace (pictured), our Berber guide explained this:
In Moroccan buildings, what matters is what is on the inside – and not everyone gets to see it.
The areas for special guests were the most elaborately decorated – the floors geometrically patterned with tiles, the walls adorned with verses of the Koran our prayers for blessings, and the cedarwood ceilings intricately carved and richly painted.
The palace’s private areas were more sparsely decorated, and here even some of the beauty was functional: the mosaics at the doorways, rising to around three feet from floor level, were provided so that when you rested your hand on the wall to take your shoes off on the way in, you wouldn’t leave sweaty marks on the plaster!
I wondered whether this style of building provided an insight into the Moroccan character itself. Could it be that Moroccans don’t give much away to the outside world, saving the riches of their personalities for closer friends?
There are certainly cultures like that (including much of British culture, particularly towards foreigners), where the surface relationship is quite cold and formal, and it is not until a certain level of warmth and intimacy has been reached that friends are invited in and begin to discover who you really are. Even then, there are deeper areas still to which only a privileged few are allowed access – the inner workings of our lives, whose purpose is primarily functional, though may also be beautiful.
On our holiday,we also drove past a huge film studio, and paused to take pictures of it. We could see some of the sets: towns and temples, vast castles and exotic palaces. We could also clearly see, however, that even the most elaborate of these frontages was simply that, a front. The crowded city was simply a flat painting, the palace nothing but a plywood facade propped up by rough wooden A-frames.
These sets reminded me of another type of person, one who puts all their beauty on the outside. Their face to the world is highly decorative, designed to advertise, not conceal, their wealth, taste and standing.
All too often, however, when you do break through the surface of people like this, the reality inside can be dry and bare, the exterior adornment nothing but a carefully-constructed veil covering an aching emptiness. The tragic death of Robin Williams, news of whose suicide reached us during our travels, reminds us of how a smiling, bubbling exterior can so often conceal a heart filled with loneliness and despair.
I don’t know whether either approach to life is any better or worse than the other. Of course, I’d love to think that it was possible for all of us to live with a level of acceptance of ourselves and each other that meant that we could all make our outsides match our insides, so that what you see really is what you get, but I think that’s probably a pipe-dream, at least this side of heaven!
Until then, my wonderful, exotic Moroccan adventure will have to serve as a reminder of a simple truth: never judge a book, a building or a person by its exterior; you have no idea what’s going on inside.