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Happiness is disappearing through a hole in the wall

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I am sitting in the piano bar of the La Mamounia in Marrakesh listening to a bowlegged American pianist playing to an empty room. The place, once the haunt of Winston Churchill, is not only an oasis but a retreat.

This city is full of retreats; without them you would be exhausted by the non-stop bustle of bartering and people wholly employed in making, selling and surviving.

The streets are not loved and not beautiful, yet everywhere there are wonderful secrets.

Those who cannot afford to occupy the beautiful places are called to prayer in another retreat five times a day. For them, religion is the 'other' place. The religious and sacrilegious, rich or poor, disappear through doors to a place which is not the city. If there was such a thing as urban design here, the basis for it is completely different from our models. No vistas, avenues or piazzas, only routes.

This lack of urban sensibility is overlaid by a structure of family organisation within the houses. While wandering around the Medina (old town) I was invited into the house of a man called Jonathon. He was born in Australia, moved to London and now lives in Tangier. He bought the house in Marrakesh after a boozy lunch a year and a half ago, and now wants to sell it. For £150,000 you can buy not one house but two. Within this urban oasis with its double-height courtyard is the dowager's home. The granny flat is part of a concept which allows the family to remain together and continue a cyclical occupation of the oasis on a generational basis.

It is not as in England, where the extension is built and justified as a useful addition to the house after Granny's death; this sometimes results in impatience for Granny to depart a little earlier than she otherwise might.

Behind the chaos of the public space is a clear idea of peace, retreat, family and faith.

The mosques take an important role. Many of the smaller ones are integrated into the urban fabric where they become as invisible as the other beautiful spaces. People disappear through holes in walls to other worlds to become spiritually cleansed and ready to face the challenges of everyday existence. These places are not like the churches in Western Europe, which occupy prominent locations.

Christianity is highly visible, awe-inspiring and intimidating. Often in European cities the siting of the church structures the city or town plan. In some cases, such as St Paul's Cathedral, the protected views severely curtail the natural evolution of commerce, living, cultural and institutional life around the historic edifice.

A separation between church and people has emerged, which relinquishes faith to the realms of its own protectors, namely the rich and the guilty. In Marrakesh there appears to be no concept of aesthetics within the 'public' spaces. This is reserved for the private zones tucked away behind unassuming walls. Why are so many people in love with this city?

Some, of course, simply enjoy a kindly climate and others are drawn from some sense of romance. But I think by far the most compelling reason is the presence of what, to me, seems to be very 'happy' people. They talk about being happy in an open and natural way that any English person would find embarrassing. They live by proving that their lives are structured and to be experienced with vitality and verve.

The pianist has just finished playing As Time Goes By , which allowed Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman to transcend their difficulties.

Marrakesh is like the song he is now playing - Making Whoopee .

WA, the piano bar, La Mamounia, Marrakesh, Morocco

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