Collected Works: Literature
The Voices of Marrakesh: A Record of a Visit
by Elias Canetti
An old, blind beggar is handed a coin. Unable to see the gift, he pops it into his mouth, apparently testing it by taste. Rolling the metal around with his tongue, he licks his lips and sloshes his spit, before depositing the money back into his palm. Though the ritual may seem idiosyncratic, the figure is a marabout, a holy man, who here claimes to enhance the spiritual value of almsgivers’ generosity. In doing so, he reminds us that the mouth is a mysterious, physical space capable of creating meaning beyond vocalisation.
The marabout was one of many characters whom Elias Canetti met during his few weeks in Marrakesh. During that short spell, the city etched itself into his conscious: the smell of the spices, the sight of the scribes, the sound of the souks. Unusually for travel writing, it is the third of those senses that Canetti prioritises: his ability to hear. The bustling marketplaces form the primary soundscape, as centres of trade, society, and tourism, but the author is keen to explore further, wandering with both ears open.
Human voices are interspersed with the outcries of other mammals. One passage depicts the harrowing shrieks of a camel heading for the slaughterhouse. Another is an expression of admiration for an ageing, yet remarkably concupiscent, donkey. Canetti encounters not only new sounds, but also old sounds anew. When he hears his name carefully pronounced by an elderly man, the familiar syllables pulled gently apart, the result is ‘more substantial, more beautiful’ than he knew possible.
The prose paints Marrakesh as a vibrant, heterogeneous hubbub of activity. Canetti does not know all of the cultural norms that underpin the residents’ actions, but nor does he claim to. Instead, he theorises thoughtfully and learns attentively with each new piece of auditory information, and encourages the reader to do the same. Thanks to its unique approach of complementing sightseeing with its lesser-known sibling, ‘site-listening’, The Voices of Marrakesh is a resounding success.
Words by John Wadsworth
More to discover
You can read an excerpt of the book here, a short biography of Elias Canetti on Encyclopaedia Britannica, and an obituary of the author by James Kirkup for The Independent. Roger Kimball has written about Canetti for The New Criterion, as has Susan Sontag for Granta Magazine (paywall).
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