A Stockton Woman, Peggy Ward Engh's Marrakech B&B survives a powerful earthquake. A journey of culture, business, and resilience in Morocco's historic city.
A Stockton woman, Peggy Ward Engh, owns a riad — a house with an enclosed garden — and runs it as a bed and breakfast in Marrakech, Morocco, where on Sept. 9 a powerful earthquake caused widespread destruction and killed over 3,000 people.
Engh was not in Marrakech when the earthquake, at least a 6.8 in magnitude, struck around 11:00 pm., terrifying her right-hand man, a Berber named Hamidou.
“He said the shaking was unbelievable,” Engh said. “Very frightening and loud. You could hear buildings cracking.”
Light fixtures swung to and fro. Pottery toppled off shelves and smashed. Cracks appeared in most walls.
But the riad did not fall. Riad Amirat al Jamal, as it is known, located in Marrakech’s Laksour (palace) district, boasts 6-foot-thick walls of pise, adobe mixed with brick and stone rubble, baked hard for centuries by scorching Moroccan sun.
“It can be so hard you can’t even drive a nail into it,” Engh said. “I do believe that is what saved the riad.”
Saved from destruction, if not irony, that is. Engh had recently renovated the place. “After Covid I did some repairs, which were a little premature, huh?”
Hamidou fled the riad — “Outside there was dust everywhere. People were screaming and crying” — and escaped the medina, the ancient part of the city with a craze of narrow alleys and red homes people have occupied for 1,000 years.
Police told Hamidou that he was forbidden to go back in until further notice. Hamidou slept on cardboard near the Koutoubia Mosque, along with thousands of others, as aftershocks further damaged buildings and frayed raw nerves.
Peggy, a historian — she wrote a book about the home of Julia Weber, the daughter of Stockton’s founder — and her late husband Christopher, a Stockton estate attorney, traveled the world. On a Moroccan sojourn a guide commented that Peggy’s knowledge of foreign lands and peoples would make her an excellent tour company operator.
They mulled the idea, then in 2006 Peggy founded Morocco Custom Travel LLC, offering custom tours throughout the country — and hiring as one of the guides Rachid, who had initially proposed the idea.
“I’m a Catholic female American. Rachid is Muslim, male and a tribal Berber. So I wanted to see how well we got along.” She added, “If we can get along, there should be no wars anywhere.”
They not only got along but complemented each other. “So we began our journey,” Engh said.
The company’s offerings combined standard excursions with trips to Berber villages in the Atlas Mountains, places no other companies offered, and custom tours, such as the garden tour of Marrakech curated for the Dutch Royal Horticultural Society, or the tour visiting prehistoric cave paintings for an anthropologist.
While establishing the company in Morocco, Peggy lived in a budget hotel, which grew wearisome, so in 2007 she bought Riad Amirat al Jamal. Translated as “The Princess of Beauty” — the name of the riad itself — the house is part of an Alaouite Dynasty palace. It features four floors, three terraces, and five bedrooms.
Engh replaced the previous owner’s décor with Berber artifacts — pots, rugs, old Berber doors and windows — and Moroccan artwork.
“The day after I bought the riad this English woman shows up at the door. She was a landscape gardener. She said, ‘I don’t have anywhere to stay’. I told her, ‘We’re not open’. ‘Oh, I don’t care, I won’t be a trouble.’
She moved in, my first client.”
The riad is two minutes from the Jemaa el-Fna, Marrakech’s vast, teeming main square with its snake charmers, fortune tellers, henna tattoo artists, monkey owners, beggars, musicians, photo-snapping tourists, food vendors and adjacent souks, or markets.
Peggy and her staff evidently mastered hostelry; Frommer’s Morocco guidebook gave both the riad and MCT the highest rating, ensuring their success. The London Times listed the riad as “one of the top twenty riads to stay in Marrakech.”
Engh gave an example of her solicitous guest treatment. A Russian guest, a woman with her family, wanted to visit a souk, or market, and buy 17 — count ’em, 17 — pairs of babouches, the leather slipper favored by Moroccans.
Engh, who speaks Moroccan Arabic and knows how Moroccans trade, accompanied her to a shop. “I knew this guy was just thinking, ‘Ah! I’m made for the rest of the month.’ I just turned around and slashed the price to a quarter, and said, “Don’t you even try to fool me. I know exactly how much these shoes cost, and you know that this price will be good for the customer and still give you a healthy profit. And if you want to see me again, you better listen.”
Peggy closed her tour company in 2022. She and Chris had explored Morocco on their own for 16 years: finding gems such as Tangier, the old pirate city, a surfing village near Agadir on the sea where both surfers and camels enjoy the beach, the Berber areas where people without formal education enjoy tight bonds of community and offer heartfelt hospitality.
“I have met a lot of people who have never met a Westerner before — not just an American but a Westerner — in areas with no tourism at all. And those areas are marvelous.”
Christopher Engh died unexpectedly in Tangier in April. Hamidou accompanied Peggy Engh home to Stockton and stayed for a few months to ensure her well-being.
Engh took him to Los Angeles and stayed with her brother and sister-in-law, who had worked in the film industry and got Hamidou A VIP tour of Warner Brothers onto the set of “Friends.” Hamidou the Berber sat on the “Friends” couch with no idea what it was. They later played an episode for him.
Engh is saddened that many Berber villages in the High Atlas Mountains have been devastated with great loss of life and property. Years of knowing Moroccans, Berbers in particular, widened Peggy’s horizons.
“You can meet somebody who has no education — none, never went to school — and learn something very valuable about human nature that is life changing.”
Michael Fitzgerald’s column runs on Wednesdays. His views do not represent those of Stocktonia management and staff. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis.