As part of Indagare’s Global Conversations series, Melissa Biggs Bradley talked with hotelier and entrepreneur Meryanne Loum-Martin, who Zoomed in from her boutique hotel, Jnane Tamsna, which she has designed, along with a café and concept shop featuring work by local artisans and the nine-acre garden created by her husband, well-known ethnobotanist and cultural anthropologist Gary Martin. Meryanne is credited with ushering in the transformation of riad-style guesthouses in Marrakech in the late 1980s, after turning a family retreat into a villa-style hotel, the first of its kind. The hotel and garden have also served as the backdrop for exquisite candlelight dinners, as part of our Insider Journey to Marrakech. Here, she talks with Melissa Biggs Bradley about her international childhood, how she landed in Marrakech—and why she never really left—along with her newly launched cultural collective of artists and arts and culture enthusiasts: AFreeCulture is a non-profit supporting literary and film events and celebrating Africa/Diaspora Creativity. The conversation began with birdsong from the garden and ended with a serendipitous call to prayer in the distance.
Tell us what it is like in Marrakech during lockdown…
“It’s wonderful that this strange job of having a hotel makes me meet amazing people—probably more fun than if I were still a lawyer in Paris. I am in my garden in my hotel, which I built around the trees that existed. My husband is a keen botanist. He designed the garden. I designed the architecture around it. It is just our family. Our house is on the other side of the property from the hotel. My husband is currently diving into producing organic vegetables—he wants to start an organic food movement in Marrakech. He is very active right now in helping to deliver vegetables to people who can pay and bringing vegetables free for poorer people in need. Our son (29) and daughter (26) and my father, who is 96, are here also—we had a confinement birthday party with him nine days ago! We feel extremely safe here. The government took the right measures. They arrest people if they don’t respect the curfew and social distance regulations. We have 1,800 percent less cases than the U.S. Everybody seems to be respecting the guidelines., though I think the difficult thing for people is going to be during Ramadan for families and friends getting together.”
How did you get to Marrakech?
“I am a fourth generation lawyer on my father’s side and on my mother’s side, I am second. They were French lawyers in Paris. They met in law school—my father was teaching my mother. He had studied law and did a doctorate in political science and my mother had studied law. They got married and moved to the Ivory Coast, where he started his law firm, and where I was born. When the African independence happened in the Sixties, the government asked him to join the foreign affairs, and he joined the Senegalese government because he has a Senegalese name. It totally changed our lives, and I think I am what I am because of the childhood I had. He had the chance to be posted in key places, Ghana was the big leader of the independence, and my father’s first ambassadorship was in Ghana. We lived also in Moscow for three years and then we lived in London for three years. He had always said to the Senegalese president, I will stay in the foreign affairs as long as it’s fine for my children’s education.
We lived in Moscow from the time I was seven to 10. It totally changed my life. I had a very intelligent mother. She was living a different life than she expected, but she had the intelligence to make the most of it. Every morning my mother would tell me: ‘open your eyes and your ears and remember everything.’ I was the oldest of three. I grew up under Communist Russia. The other diplomat kids were living in a bubble, but my mother organized a little school room with a blackboard in the embassy. She managed to get Russian kids to come. I learned Russian. She put me in a Communist youth house with cultural activities. I had the brown uniform of young Communist children, with a little beret and a brooch and a little scarf. I was learning balalaika, the little Russian guitar. I was living in three worlds. I could see the communist world where there was no access to culture at all except a very directed culture. Then I was living our life as diplomats, where we would have food being shipped from Germany, because there was really no food. The third world was going to France to be with my grandparents, where suddenly everything was free and you could go and buy a chocolate cake and go to the cinema. Since I was seven, I realized that culture is really something that is taken for granted in the western world.
I remember when Kennedy was assassinated and the driver put on the radio. I understood enough to know that Breshnev took over for Kruschev when I was there. It was wonderful to be able to catch it….Being black in Russia, we were less in the bubble and the only thing we could do was go to the Bolshoi. And my mother would say, ‘it doesn’t matter if you have seen the same thing 10 times, think about something you didn’t notice the first time.’ We were always the only black people anywhere, also because there were very few African embassies. We would get questions like, ‘oh, you must be happy to be here, because in your country you still live in trees, don’t you?’ People didn’t know anything, and they had access to nothing. It went on and on.
I remember in Paris years later, when I was 22, a friend from when I was in school in Russia one day told me there were a bunch of Russians coming for lunch. They were scientists who had found a way to get out. One asked the other, how is your wife, and he said she still has five kilos to lose. I didn’t understand. Later, I asked my friend, and she said it is by the weight that some people can get out of Russia. So the husband was already out and the wife was on a diet to get to the point where he could pay her passage out. Isn’t that crazy?
My father was ambassador in London, and he wanted more stability, so we moved to Paris and I went to school there and my father restarted his law firm. (Three years ago he actually won a medal because the French bar went around to see who had been sworn in 60 years before and there were like two people left, and he was one of them.) I went to school in France, and I wanted to be an architect, so I went to architecture school and everything went extremely well, except to get into the third year, I needed minor credits in math and physics, which was difficult for me. So I had to stop, and I went to law school.”
How did you meet your husband?
“Gary is American, that’s why my last name is Martin. I met him in Oaxaca, because I had taken the New York Bar and it was intense and I decided to treat myself to the closest country I didn’t know, so that was Mexico or Canada—and obviously I chose Mexico, which is a bit more exotic, and I just met him by coincidence at a café. Well, let me start by saying I can’t imagine some of the children of my friends saying ‘Oh, I met this wonderful boy, but I don’t want to get into a long distance relationship. He’s in England and I’m in France.’ Well, Gary was in Mexico and I was in Paris, and we would only see each other every six months for two years, and we wrote to each other. There was no way we could talk because he was in the forest working on his Ph.D. for Berkeley, and there were no faxes or Facetime. If we can make it, I think young people can make it, too, with all this technology.
Anyway, I was in Paris, a frustrated architect, and because my mother was from the West Indies and my father, Senegal, and we were living in Paris, they started saying we should have a holiday house, which would not be as far as our countries of origin, maximum three hours flight, so we can go there for the weekend. I would hear this and after a while I told them look, you know that I am a frustrated architect, if you’re serious about this project, I want to find the land and be in charge of the project. Three hours’ flight, you want sun, you want culture, you want excitement… it’s probably Marrakech. We didn’t know Marrakech, but what we knew was that people who could choose anywhere in the world already had a house there—Yves Saint Laurent, five people who were trendsetters—there weren’t many, you could count them on one hand. By chance I had a close friend who was in the first circle of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. I called him to say I am considering looking for land. And he said I will open doors for you.
I fell in love with Marrakech from the moment I landed on the tarmac. I knew it was the place for me. It’s wonderful to have a place where you recreate your own home, and Marrakech was very much this. I came in 1985, fell in love with it, came back with my parents. They bought a piece of land and while I was doing the house for them, I realized that there was something strange here—there were no accommodations matching the expectation of the people. You had fabulous big hotels like La Mamounia, but a hotel is not a private experience. But the hotel catered to a particular experience. After coming many times with friends, I thought, I should try to integrate the real experience of the culture into accommodation. So I did a little survey with my friends in Europe and I went back to my father and asked, shouldn’t we buy another property and set up an experience-based property with good food and service and allow people to be connected to the culture of the country and have a real experience as if they have their own house there? We opened in 1989 and no one was doing this here, people were skeptical of the small experience. We opened anyway, and if the internet existed then, we could have said that it went viral, because it was so busy all the time. It’s quite rare to do hospitality as if it were your own home—usually it’s somebody in finance hiring designers and architects, but I designed these places as if they could be my own home, which is why people liked it. Tom Cruise tried four times before we could find space for him. With all of the good press we were getting, I eventually had to quit the bar because France strictly forbids you from having a job on the side. I was moved that CNN said everyone started with this woman. I started in 1989 and now there are 1,500 [riad hotels]…. In Marrakech, a traditional house in the medina is called a riad. It has a courtyard, because life is indoors, because of Muslim women. The Jewish Quarter is called the Mellah. There are windows on outside walls. You know it is Muslim, when you see the walls. You can be sure it is a Muslim house. When foreigners started coming it was wonderful for these families and for them to be able to capitalize. Before, these houses were built for one family. Three generations later, there are 50 people. Morrocans were not interested in buying these houses at that time, so this actually helped with the growth of Marrakech.
Right now, I think the cultural thing happening here is very strong, thanks to Vanessa Branson, who started Arts in Marrakech, International Biennale. We had a movement—a lot of people coming to Marrakech just for the Biennale. For 10 years. We had 154, the contemporary African art fair. Last February was the third time. And the Contemporary Art Museum and the YSL museum. Galleries have started. I started my own event, AFreeculture a salon celebrating the creativity of diasporas, literature, cinema; there is @afreecaculture on Instagram covering Justice, culture art. We have a lot of exciting events lined up.” For more information, go to afreeculture.org.
Tell us about your new book…
“My book is called Inside Marrakech (Rizzoli). It is an homage, a celebration of Marrakech by foreigners. It features about 30 houses and nine gardens, and the idea is to say thank you, Marrakech for being such an inspiring and creative place, where we can all create the houses of our dreams. There are some British houses, Belgian, French, Italian and every one, you can see it is in Marrakech.”
Is there a charitable organization you feel connected to? “My husband has the Global Diversity Foundation, it’s a nonprofit in the U.S., and they do a lot of things to allow people in the mountains to move towards organic farming. They are also providing food to people who cannot afford it anymore.”
Meryanne In Brief
What are you reading right now: “I’m reading Anarchy by William Dalrymple, and I’m speaking with William about being one of my hosts on my Afreeculture Forum. The book is thick, I just started, and I think he’s one of the best historian specialists of India. His books are riveting—like a thriller—the subject of this book is the East India Company.”
What are you watching? “We just finished watching Uncorked. It’s on Netflix, and it’s very interesting, because it’s about this African-American family and the son is obsessed with becoming a sommelier, but the rest of his family doesn’t even know how to pronounce the name. His father has a barbecue joint and they feel that they have achieved something, and the son can continue it, but he’s only interested in becoming a sommelier. My family is interested in stories with a clash of culture. We were joking with friends in Nigeria and Ghana, sons of immigrants—you are only allowed to be doctor or engineer. Art dealer, architect? Now it is changing—second generation. It is very interesting to see how parents have ideas.”
Favorite memento from a trip? “I think it’s probably books, because the first thing I do when I travel is go to a bookstore.”
Favorite destination for relaxing? “Mountains in summer, in Europe.”
Favorite destination for exploring? “India, always. If reincarnation exists, I was Indian in another life.”
What’s always in your carry-on bag? “Good books. I take a thriller for the plane and then an interesting book on history for when I arrive.”
What’s the first place on your travel wish list, when this is over? “I would love to go to Sri Lanka.”
What’s next? “The project of my life: Langkawi Datai—we are going to build on an island with an incredible forest. The architect I have been lucky to work with on the project and I want to create a model of social and sustainable integration—the best impact for the local population. It will have green architecture—green roofing, waste water gardens and we will grow our own food. Another project is the Rockefeller wing at the Met, creating a venue that would be celebrating the impact of the diaspora, where people can go for the day and have a cultural experience.