A story from my growing collection of tales from my recent Moroccan journey, this one : Marrakesh and the Jardin Majorelle.
This piece combines all the genres I have been writing in lately: a bit of travel, a bit of memoir, truth blended with fiction, all mixed with the feeling of being distinctly in-between myself and my past selves. Morocco did that to my words. And people who go there come back--if they come back at all-- sometimes changed, comfortable inhabiting the place in-between.
First the story. I'll follow it with a bit of history. Enjoy!
To enter the famous Jardin Majorelle in Marrakesh is to walk into a parted sea of bright cobalt and goldenrod on a raft of red. Chest expanded, back arched, arms extended into miniature forests of bamboo, cactus, and palm.
Each door acts as a holy gate, each archway a love song from Solomon, lifting me into Eden.
Everything here is designed to please, to cast me in my temporary new roles as both artist and muse. Windows reflect my beauty, fountains comment on my grace, benches invite me to pause and absorb Paradise.
Here I am, a cactus flower blooming its hot pink bloom for the first time in thirty years. Here I am, a sudden flash of orange scales in a koi pond, glinting. Here I am, a warbler-bird, casting my song from my nest of palm. Here I am, the leaves of bamboo, sharp-edged and green. Here I am, ivory filigree surrounding this window colored like the sun, perfect, symmetrical, smooth.
This garden does not care who I am outside of its walls. And once I enter it, I find myself lost, without directions back to who I just was.
This is the garden of forgetting.
I come from a long line of people who forget. We take to forgetting as if it is our native tongue, an easy language.
Forgetting is taught early in my family, its importance vital to the survival of the bloodline. Taught to us while crawling, crying, sleeping, dreaming, until memories are slips of paper, folded into pockets, forgotten. Tossed in the wash. Wet. Blurred. By the time we are seven or eight, we have forgotten our history, the hurt that we have done to one another.
On my mother's side, there are memories, all around forgetting: My grandmother came to the United States from Italy after World War two. She forgot her family, left them behind. She forgot what she'd done for a living in Italy: in some stories she danced on tables, in others she was a milliner. She forgot who she'd loved, my mother's father, and that he was married to someone else. She forgot the war, being shot, earrings pulled out of her ears by the Nazis. She wore her hair just curled over the sides of her face, slit-ears hidden. My real grandfather I never knew. He forgot my mother and went back to his family after the war. I have only a single story about him from my mother: she met him and he gave her a bicycle. Or maybe that story is one I have imagined, just to be able to tell a story about him.
The only man I ever knew that took the title, grandfather, happily, was married to my grandmother late in life. Knowing my bloodline's dislike of remembering, he kept all of his memories locked in a trunk in the basement, and once, when I was a young girl, he opened the trunk in front of me. He cried as his hands shook, unfolding an American flag, his yellowed fingers opening a manila envelope of photographs of people, smiling and fuzzy.
My mother was a rebel, tall, a baton twirler, big boned and full lipped. She left home as soon as she could, anything to get out, to get away. My grandmother's idea of home was part shrine to my mother and part shrine to the lies my grandmother told about who she was before America. It was place of false memories, new and old, which pressed my mother through a sieve and left its mesh-marks on her body. She would have run from her mother if she could have, but she did what women did of her era to escape. She married.
My father's parents: I recall only names, a memory of ambrosia salad in the summer, the smell of cigarette smoke. My father? He was tall, with dark hair and green eyes. Or were they blue? To tell the truth I have only a single picture of him, and that is the image I think of when I try to describe him. He's standing near a lake, wearing blue jeans and a green shirt with sleeves that are too short for his long arms. Other than that photo, what can I say about him? I have the stories I can tell you that were told to me, or I could tell you the truth. Or I could tell you a mixture of both.
He was kind. He secretly loved Moonpies, and would buy them at gas stations. His pockets always crunched with candy wrappers. He smelled of pipe smoke, apple wood. His feet were long and flat, perfect to stand on and be carried as he walked long strides. He tried.
He was cruel. He forced. Thinking of him hurts. Sharp.
I'm different than the rest of my family.
Sometimes I forget, yes. But most of the time, I remember.
Standing on the red painted walkway of Jardin Majorelle, I am relieved to be standing in a garden which has the fullness and presence of a person, but unlike people, it asks nothing of me. No questions about my family life, my parents, my sister, my brother, where I grew up. No one wants to know if it is hard to cut your family off, if it hurts, if it's lonely. No one wondering what I do on Christmas, no overly polite invitations given for Thanksgiving dinner. No comments, no opinions. No questions about family love: if I miss it, if I know what it is, if I'll ever have it. No scripted replies, no bright smiles, no wonderment over Norman Rockwellian family reunions.
Here I am able to forget.
Jardin Majorelle is so saturated in blue that the color slides over me. Blue that pours over my feet, moves up my legs, between my thighs, over my too wide hips. Blue that circles my breasts, rubs into my shoulders, kisses my elbows, wraps around my wrists. Blue that covers my head, drips into my ears, trickles down my neck. Blue. Majorelle blue.
Now gold. Gold the color of the sand in the Sahara. Gold, ancient, dignified: the dust of Marrakesh, powdered and rimming my nostrils. Metallic.
My head feels thick, crowded.
Moving slow motion, my feet stumble past orange flower pots and tree orchids dangling, through palm frond fingers, stopping under a lime green archway covered in a magenta crushed velvet mantle of bougainvillea.
Under the blooms, I find myself packed next to people, waiting for something: they wait in designer scarves, striped linen suits with bow ties, too-short shorts, floral dresses thin like rice paper. Here are people wishing to be looked at, wishing to be caught, wishing it so badly they stand in line to take photos in front of perfect backdrops. Cameras everywhere, all photographing one another in front of same cactus, the same doorway, the same purple leaved plant, its leaves glowing black against a peeling golden pot. I get in line too. My camera moves without my asking, taking the same photographs.
I walk through a bamboo grove, three stories tall. The bamboo is etched with hasty graffiti, abbreviated manifestos of love and self, covered by a liquid green canopy.
Alain loves Michel.
Sophie and Petre.
I was here. Maxie.
J.P. Yves. Amour.
I could sit on a teal bench the color of Monet's lily pond, watch the day slip by, just breathe. I could enjoy forgetting. Forgetting me. Forgetting you. Forgetting them. Free.
Instead I go in search of a knife.
Where to find a knife? The café.
I'm here with a friend. She's in the museum. Act quickly.
The outdoor café steams. Full of people, sweating in the heat, drinking wine and eating too-hot tagines, carrots and couscous glowing orange. I step in.
A family is just leaving, meal half eaten, tossed across the table like a messy still life. Bread. Pottery. Tangerines. A wilted green. Meat and crepe, gristle and sugar. No knife.
It's then I remember: my pocketknife in my backpack, red handled, reliable, small.
I walk out of the café, circling around the garden, past the fountain, through a circle of orange lilies, into the bamboo grove.
Is anyone watching?
I reach for my pocketknife. Don't fumble, I tell myself. I don't even know what I'm going to carve on this bamboo stalk. Then it comes to me:
Thank you. Gigi.
The bamboo is tough and stringy, my scratches barely readable. But it's there.
That's all I have to offer this place, my thanks for the gift of forgetting.
Just for a little while, lighter.
Amy Gigi Alexander
A Bit of History on the Jardin Majorelle:
Painter Jacque Majorelle arrived in Morocco from France in 1919, attracted by both the idea of Africa and the climate, which was supposed to be good for his fragile health. But Majorelle also had a very domineering father, and he wanted to live a life free of his influence, to unremember, to find solace. He found it in the Atlas mountains and the filtered yet bright painterly light of Morocco.
The garden was borne out of this first taste of forgetting, leading him to create an environment which excluded his past. Majorelle bought the property over time, eventually expanding it to more than three acres, employing eight gardeners and several architects, while he curated it with an almost obsessional attention to Moorish and Berber design. Deciding he was not just an artist, he began to call himself not a gardener, but a gardenist.
Majorelle's garden was his palette, and it was within it's tall walls that he painted the majority of his life's work, guided by an astute sense of order and color. Every palm frond, every stalk, every pot had his handprint on it. The garden features in much of his artwork, a fastidious yet wild backdrop.
An artist heavily influenced by Orientalist movement and Art Nouveau, his art and garden were environments which allowed him to push the boundaries of exoticism to the extreme. We can look at his some of his portrayals of African culture and identity much differently now, but keep in mind: he was a by-product of his time: a man of (comparative) privilege in an era of rampant colonialism.
Gardeners uniformed in blue meticulously raked gravel with a Zen precision and trimmed bamboo while Majorelle's models posed on the grounds for his paintings, sometimes clad only in a belt of yellow bananas:
Or paired together, on blankets against the famous wall of Majorelle Blue:
But one senses a shift from the relaxed informality some years later: the garden changes, and becomes something more visceral, larger than Majorelle's vision. A live and reaching animal:
The duality of the financial strain to keep up the garden and his dream to share his inner sanctum as his greatest work of art led to Majorelle to open part of the site to the public, in 1947. Now the garden becomes wild and unruly in his paintings, no longer solely his retreat:
Soon Majorelle was forced to sell parts of the site to pay off debts, and after a tragic car accident in his beloved Atlas mountains which led to the amputation of one his legs, he abandoned his garden and returned to France. He died alone shortly thereafter.
The garden, as it is now, has become a shrine to Yves Saint Laurent, a fashion designer who saved the site from destruction by purchasing it with his partner, Pierre Berge, in the late 1980's. Saint Laurent had lived in Marrakesh in his boyhood, and had been attracted back into it's waiting arms in the 1960's by the free expat lifestyle and the visual smorgasbord that defines the city which is very French and very Moroccan at the same time. He and Berge lived in a villa near Jardin Majorelle before purchasing the estate.
Saint Laurent and Berge took the crumbling garden and turned it into an escape for Saint Laurent, who was, by that time, suffering from mental problems, drug addiction, and a distinct dislike of social interaction. But the couple remained true to Majorelle's original vision, which is what you see today:
Saint Laurent retired from the world of fashion and became something of a recluse, hiding within the walls of Jardin Majorelle from a world that possibly expected too much. He died there in 2002 of brain cancer, and his ashes are spread in one part of the site. The garden has become a place of pilgrimage to visit his memorial under the palms.
A garden of forgetting that chooses to remember.
Amy Gigi Alexander
(Yes, leave a comment! There's a new comment feature to make it super easy. Just look below for the word "comment" and click. Don't see it? Click on the title of the piece above and then it will appear below. And don't forget a "like" or a "share. Thank you!) All images of Jacque Majorelle/paintings belong to the estate of Jardin Majorelle.
Want to see more of Jardin Majorelle? Of Morocco? Here's a slideshow: Moroccan Sojourn.