Ben Schott

Traveller’s Notebook

Also in Ben Schott’s notebook: 6,000 years of bread, the bakers of Marrakech, and the perils of the hammam

Traveller's Notebook
Text settings

I was drinking in the bar of Manhattan’s Nomad Hotel when in snuck The Most Seen Human Ever To Have Lived. This is an old puzzle: who is the most ‘observed in the flesh’ individual in history? Since we’re discounting depictions (paintings, photographs, films), it has to be someone alive in the jet age with a sustained international career and multi-generational appeal. John Paul II — who visited 129 countries — is a contender as, to a lesser extent, are Billy Graham, the Queen, Hitler, Stalin and Mao. But, for my money, there’s only one candidate: someone who’s still zigzagging the globe after five decades, appearing regularly in front of thousands of people — albeit often at a distance. Given our new kaleidoscopic culture, it’s likely that no other human will be seen in person by so many people ever again. You’ve until the end of this diary to guess who it is.

My book of 2016 was written in 1944. Six Thousand Years of Bread is an astonishing text which vaults the ambition of its title to tell a story of science and superstition, invention and Luddism, welfare and warfare, and our eternal struggle against hunger. It was written by H.E. Jacob, a German Jewish writer who was interned at Dachau and Buchenwald before escaping to America in 1939. Jacob traces bread from prehistoric man through to the mid-20th century. His most ominous chapter covers the dark ages, when the ‘fleshless mask’ of famine haunted much of Europe. Millions starved because of political violence, extreme weather, inflation and wildfire plague; because people thought famine was supernatural; and because knowledge hard-won over centuries was temporarily lost: bolting flour, rotating crops, varying diets, ploughing furrows just two inches deeper. What shocks is that, for many, progress didn’t simply cease, it reversed at speed — catalysed by ignorance, malevolence and magical thinking. And I thought I could write this without mentioning Trump.

I was inspired to research bread by a recent visit to Marrakech. On a tour of the Medina, my guide told me that every ‘derb’ in the Old City requires five things: a mosque, a religious school, a pharmacy, a hammam and a bakery. The bakery I visited is run by Hasan Lhamed and Mohamed Toubal. Their days begin at 6 a.m. when they clean the brick oven and light the firewood, ready for customers to arrive on the 8 a.m. school run. Bakers in the Medina don’t sell bread, they sell baking. Tray upon tray of fresh handmade dough is delivered by housewives, their children or, occasionally, their husbands, and placed on the floor in front of the oven. The authorities fix the price of baking a loaf at 1 dirham, about 22p, which many bakers consider unconscionably low. (It’s for this reason Hasan and Mohamed permit themselves to be a photo-op on the tourist trail: gratuities are gratefully received.) What’s amazing about these community ovens is that bakers in the Medina can identify each delivery not by the tray, nor the covering cloth, but by the dough itself. ‘This is Fatima’s dough,’ Mohamed said, pointing to a batch utterly indistinguishable from the others. ‘But if her sister was visiting, I would know if she had made the dough.’

The only hammam I visited in Marrakech was at my hotel, La Mamounia. This awe-inspiring palace dates to 1923, but reopened in 2009 after a three-year renovation that cost $176 million. It shows. The design — a cocktail of Arabic, Andalusian and art deco — is sumptuous, the intricate local craftsmanship breathtaking, the service ever-present yet effervescent. The luxurious subterranean spa is located down a dark-blue staircase. Descending this, I navigated an elegant maze of mirrored passages, found a changing room, disrobed into a fluffy gown and padded to the steam room. After an hour alternating pore-opening heat with ice-cold showers, I retraced my steps to get dressed. I was in that awkward semi-nude state which every gym-goer knows when the door swung open and in walked a woman. We exchanged gasps of horror, before she informed me that — of all the myriad rooms I might have chosen in this lavish, five-star Islamic palace — I had decided to get naked in the female staff dressing room. Glancing around, the environs did seem a tad less opulent than the rest of the hotel but, I promise you, not much. As I walked a gauntlet of giggling staff in the spa’s reception, I recalled that La Mamounia was one of Winston Churchill’s beloved haunts. Of his famous triad, that day I could offer only sweat. And perhaps, from that unfortunate woman, tears.

Speaking of Churchill reminds me: have you guessed The Most Seen Human Ever To Have Lived? Mick Jagger.