Marrakesh: 'Saint Tropez Minus the Yachts'

Salma Hayek is one of the first to arrive. In her black sling pumps and shoulderless Gucci dress, she ascends the marble steps to the lobby. There, she passes by buckets of white roses, a map of North Africa from 1923 and anterooms full of plush velvet sofas before stopping beneath a hand-painted wooden ceiling.

"Wonderful!" Hayek says, stretching her arms out. "There's so much history everywhere!" Then she explains how she has now installed a Moroccan parlor in one of her homes.

It's November 2009, and the occasion is the gala re-opening of La Mamounia, Marrakesh's historic luxury hotel. Hayek has flown in from Paris especially for the event, where she joins Juliette Binoche, Jennifer Aniston and Paloma Picasso.

At a piano in the wood-paneled bar downstairs sits Adrien Brody. Orlando Bloom is kissing his girlfriend outside by the pool. Sarah Jessica Parker is also expected to arrive at some point, as the "Sex and the City" crew is filming in the city. José Carreras is scheduled to sing.

Marrakesh -- the ancient desert city that attracted hippies and the international jet set in the '60s -- is celebrating its phoenix-like resurrection.

Playground of the Rich and Famous

Since 9/11, Morocco has been a part of the world that America and the rest of the West feels threatened by. On April 11, 2002 -- seven months to the day after the attacks on the Twin Towers -- a suicide bomber blew up a synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba. In May 2003, Salafist jihadis set off a series of bombs in Casablanca, Morocco's largest city, killing 33 civilians. In January 2007, Salafists set up the terrorist group "al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb," which German intelligence services and those of other countries are keeping a close eye on.

But there's something about Marrakesh that allays the anxiety and vague suspicions about the Muslim world. And rich Westerners are now flocking to the city in search of something they can't find at home -- a genuine, vibrant atmosphere -- as if they were hoping to fill some void in their lives.

When you're in the Mamounia, Marrakesh looks exactly like it does in all those picture books that have been weighing down European coffee tables for years. Winston Churchill lived at the hotel for a period. Alfred Hitchcock shot scenes for "The Man Who Knew Too Much" there more than 50 years ago. Rita Hayworth and the Rolling Stones have stayed there. And one French foreign minister even caused extensive damage to one of its suites during a lovers' tiff.

The former royal city also houses villas belonging to Madonna, Kate Moss, Gerard Depardieu and Richard Branson. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are rumored to be looking for something suitable. Celebrities travel to Marrakesh with empty suitcases, go shopping in the souks and then rave about the city's sensuality and authenticity the next day while having breakfast by the pool. Naomi Campbell recently celebrated her birthday there -- complete with 5,000 roses, belly dancers and Berbers in traditional dress. In fact, today's Marrakesh looks as if the art director of Elle Decor had taken a stab at redecorating the Arab world.

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