Desert Dreams
Evanna Ramly 
Rafiee Ghani is inspired by Morocco’s landscape, culture and people

Classic films set in Morocco such as Casablanca and The Mummy have long teased the imagination of audiences, as have more recent ones like Babel and Alexander. Riveting images of its rugged mountains, enchanting deserts and picturesque coastline along the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea seduce travellers to explore all that the land has to offer.

It is more than geography, of course. There is the historically rich culture derived from the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb in the 7th century, fuelled from the 11th century onwards by the vibrant Berber and Sharifian dynasties, followed by the French and Spanish protectorates from the 1800s through to the 20th century. The migration of tribes as well as the thriving sea trade of the era also enriched the culture.

Major cities such as Marrakesh, Tangier, Salé and Fes continue to draw countless tourists year after year, making tourism the second largest foreign exchange earner in Morocco after the phosphate industry. The country had set a goal of 20 million tourists by 2020 and having reached 10 million by 2013, it now seems well on its way to achieving that aim.

Today, popular destinations include the Djemaa El Fna, Marrakesh’s main square filled with snake charmers, acrobats and musicians; the Ali ben Youssef Medersa, the Quranic learning centre that was once the largest in North Africa; the Erg Chigaga, the largest sand sea in Morocco; the Bahia Palace with its soaring cedar ceilings, woven-silk panels and stained glass windows all lovingly crafted by skilled artisans; and, of course, the famed Jardin Majorelle that was a gift from the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé.

It is here that one may tuck into succulent lamb or chicken tajine cooked in earthenware pots, fluffy couscous of semolina, zaalouk salad of warm aubergine and tomatoes, hearty harira soup of tomatoes, lentils and chickpeas, spit-roasted sheep or lamb, known as méchoui, as well as pastille, the traditional Andalusian savoury pastry.

After a day of sightseeing and feasting, it is a joy to retire to an elegant riad with an interior courtyard. Usually featuring a fountain surrounded by orange or lemon trees, it is ideal for quiet reflection. Take in the beauty of its walls, adorned with tadelakt plaster and zellige tiles or Arabic calligraphy, and bask in the glory of a bygone era.

The Tale of Rafiee Ghani’s Moroccan Journey follows the artist on his exotic sojourns

Open sesame

According to Saint Augustine, the world is a book, and a good place to start would be The Tale of Rafiee Ghani’s Moroccan Journey, which chronicles the Malaysian semi-abstract artist’s sojourn through the North African wonderland. The 174-page book captures the country’s natural beauty as well as its storied cultural heritage, documented through mesmerising sketches, paintings and photographs.

“I’ve been to Morocco many times and this book was inspired by my latest trip, which was three years ago,” says Rafiee. “I drew a lot of sketches and took plenty of photographs, and we decided to portray the spiritual journey I experienced while I was there.”

While Rafiee has always been inspired by travel, this particular trip was a catalyst for his creativity. Everything he observed, he felt compelled to record.

“It was very inspiring because the country is beautiful, the culture is incredible, the people are amazing, and the landscape is awesome. My favourite place is Merzouga, a village in the south-eastern Morocco desert.”

He hopes to return to Morocco soon to learn more about its fascinating culture. “It has a very unique heritage, which is deeply rooted in Islam along with some influences from the French. There is the desert culture in the south and an almost European culture in the north, and the difference is remarkable.”

When asked to describe his most meaningful experience, Rafiee replies that it was all about the new friends he had made. “I met many lovely people in Morocco, all of whom were very helpful and generous. The local villagers are only too happy to assist you on your journey, even going as far as to accommodate travellers and offer food for free. You will meet a lot of nice people along the way.”


Canvas to coffee table

Earlier this year, Vallette Gallery held a solo exhibition featuring Rafiee’s watercolours inspired by his 2012 trip to Morocco. Titled Adventures in Wonderland, the vivid showcase captured the eyes of art enthusiasts who relished the artist’s unique blend of realism and phantasmagoria.

Otherworldly paintings such as Medina, The Blue Kasbah and The Red Kasbah are hypnotic in their kaleidoscope of soft pastels, punctuated by bold touches of darker hues. They call to mind the magic of sunrise and sunset, bathing the golden desert and its bordering villages with changing light.

These colourful works were subsequently recorded by Prof. Dr Muliyadi Mahamood in The Tale of Rafiee Ghani’s Moroccan Journey, alongside an interview with the artist himself. A visual feast strongly drawing from the very same philosophies behind each of Rafiee’s creations, it becomes even clearer why Morocco was chosen as the theme, and for fans of his work, it is a delight to be able to relive that spectacular experience outside of the gallery.

“Nowadays, Morocco remains an essential inspiration for many foreign artists,” says Patrice Vallette, founder and curator of Vallette Gallery and Visioncy, who is the publishing partner of the Malaysian Institute of Translation and Books. “Numerous people travel to Morocco to revitalise themselves, to be inspired, or to imbue themselves with the artistic life of the country. Their affection for Morocco is sustainable, gaining further depth with time.”

Vallette is honoured to contribute to the long relationship between Morocco and art through the book’s publication.

“Rafiee’s photographs and sketches reveal a profound attraction, a special relationship that links the artist with the country. As passionate about his work as in his travels, it is through his tales and images that we have tried to translate for you this loving relationship,” he says.

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 261.