It’s Sunday brunch time at the Fellah Hotel, a 20-minute drive outside of Marrakech, and the scene is lively. Guests are lounging around the pool on sun beds made from local woods with rough, natural cotton cushions. Drinking coffee in the open-sided restaurant, which spills toward the pool, is the Fellah’s owner, Redha Moali, with a shaved head and harem pants. He’s with a Spanish academic and a Parisian curator. Other artists, writers and Casablanca socialites, dressed more Acne than Hermès, snack on Moroccan food cooked up in a poolside shack by Touco and his wife, Bahija, locals from the adjacent Berber village, Tassoultante. None of the staff wear uniforms; Touco has on old Ray Bans and, at 53 years old, looks insouciantly hip. Beyond the pool is the hotel itself (plain architecture with traditional tadelakt plaster walls, wood fires in suites, vintage furniture left over from when Morocco was still a French protectorate) and its gardens (austere, peppered with cacti, with donkeys and goats occupying wooden corrals). Farmland surrounds the property’s 11 rural acres.
The scene bears zero resemblance to the clipped lawns in the Palmeraie palm grove, on the other side of Marrakech, or the opulent pool at La Mamounia, where the comfortably chic have always gathered—men in their Vilebrequin bathing suits, women reading Paris Match from behind large Perrin frames. But then the Fellah, which translates as “peasant,” was built with the notion of upsetting Moroccan cultural clichés. “Modern Morocco is totally different from the Orientalist tradition,” says Moali, “even if the tourism industry likes to support that impression.”
A former banker of Algerian descent raised in Paris, Moali is using the Fellah to illustrate the energy of a 21st-century Islamic country for what it is, as opposed to souks, belly dancers, Islamic fundamentalism and the fit-for-royalty ambiance of the Palmeraie.
For the Fellah is more than a hotel. It is a place where artists from all over the world come to work on five-month residencies through Moali’s establishment of UNESCO-supported Dar al-Ma’mûn, a nonprofit arts center that occupies one of ten villas on the grounds. During their stay, artists are given access to Dar al-Ma’mûn’s contemporary glass-walled library of some 9,000 texts. Locals pop in to learn to read. There are visiting lecturers who deliver weekend sessions in multiple languages in subjects ranging from poetry to the influence of the diaspora on North African art.
While Moali’s cultural efforts are admirable, for service-sensitive guests, there are, admittedly, elements that grate. The policy of 100 percent local employment in the hotel is commendable, but it means the polish is hardly Swiss. The design has some oddball feng shui in the high-ceilinged suites. And in the land of slow-cooked meats, the almond tagine, more crunchy than succulent, tastes like a misfire in “contemporary Moroccan cuisine.”
But these are kinks, and Moali, who lived in Geneva for ten years, is enough of a sophisticate to work them out. Our advice therefore is to take the Fellah on its own terms—a place where the on-the-ground community, from the local village to the Moroccans who drop by, is learning to embrace the new Maghreb, the thinkers, critics, contemporary artists and photographers who create the Fellah’s particular, and convincing, personality.
Rooms start at $195; Route de l’Ourika, Tassoultante, km. 13; 212/5250-65000; fellah-hotel.com.