I went to Jnane Tamsna for the first time a fortnight ago. It was for AFreeCulture, the annual creativity event organised by three women: Meryanne Loum-Martin, Mashariki Williamson and Roberta Annan. It was held in Meryanne’s boutique hotel and I wanted to find out more about her background. Browsing through the hotel’s guestbook, I found such names as Giorgio Armani, Jean Paul Gaultier, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Hugh Jackman, Brad Pitt and even Caroline of Monaco. I was delighted to see a black African woman succeed in getting the world to come to her hotel.
Hello Meryanne Loum-Martin; could you introduce yourself to our readers?
Hello, my name is Meryanne Loum-Martin. I live in Marrakech, where I’ve owned and run a boutique hotel called “Jnane Tamsna” for almost 20 years. I was born in Abidjan of a West Indian mother and Senegalese father. Childhood, adolescence and professional life in Paris, with some time spent in London and New York. I was admitted to the Paris Bar as a lawyer, winning the “Prix des Secrétaires de la Conférence” award. I come from 4 generations of lawyers.
How does one go from being a lawyer in Paris to owning a boutique hotel in Marrakech?
I actually always wanted to be an architect. I obtained my baccalaureate at 16 and then studied at the Beaux-Arts fine arts school. Despite very good results in architecture, less impressive results in maths and physics stopped me going any further. So I studied law and passed the Paris bar exam – but I always knew I’d build something eventually.
Why did you choose Morocco for this project?
I specifically chose Marrakech, an inexhaustible source of inspiration at the crossroads of different cultures and styles, a real treat for creative people. A year before discovering Marrakech, I’d been on a trip to India that changed my life. However, having a home there was difficult because of that country’s distance from Europe.
When I discovered Marrakech in December 1985, I fell in love with the place straightaway. I’d found my India just 3 hours from Paris!
How did you become the first and only black woman to own a boutique hotel in Morocco?
A combination of circumstances, intuition, creativity, determination and unwavering energy. I simply saw in 1985, before the wave of boutique hotels that would follow, an obvious niche that nobody else could see. CNN said of me, talking about the Marrakech boom, “it all started with her”… When I started, I honestly knew that it was bound to be a success because the potential was obvious, but the idea of being a pioneer was neither something I was thinking about nor something that mattered to me.
Before I began the construction of “Jnane Tamsna”, first I built my parents’ holiday home in Marrakech. To my immense surprise, that house appeared in all the magazines in the early 90s. So I persuaded my parents to transform this project into a business and create something bigger. We were thus the first to take onboard the design concept, boutique-concept, and especially a tourist establishment on a human scale integrated in the country’s cultural heritage, a luxury hotel based on the concept of rental homes. At the time, I was still a lawyer but, as the project was a big success, I left the Paris Bar in 1992 and settled permanently in Marrakech in 1996. In 2000, I bought the land on which I built and opened Jnane Tamsna in December 2001.
What are the challenges and sacrifices behind all these projects?
The initial challenge is being the first person to do something that nobody else has thought about but that you think is obvious. I’ve undertaken other projects that were just as successful, but people thought I was crazy. The challenge is also to be realistic whilst remaining innovative. And then there’s the challenge of obtaining funding. As a woman, even if you present proof of your expertise, vision and market knowledge, when you talk to bankers you unfortunately often fall on deaf ears. If that wasn’t the case, I’d have got a lot further and all the loans would have been repaid.
Another important component is having a team that understands your vision and helps you execute it. But from a creative point of view, I was able to build my hotel in just 11 months and 3 weeks (a record), because I had a very detailed vision and didn’t change my mind once during construction. The key is having just one person at the helm working with people who are all the best in their fields of expertise.
Who are your clients?
My customers are mostly Americans, Brits and Australians. In general, very sophisticated people who enjoy simplicity and our gardens. By simplicity I mean sophistication. Nothing ostentatious here. Our customers want to experience an architecture and lifestyle in Marrakech. These customers include very well-known people from show business, aristocracy and finance, but also a lot of anonymous people. What they all have in common is a fondness for our tranquil haven just 15 minutes from the walls of the Medina quarter, the sound of birds singing, the gardens, our excellent fresh cuisine that uses produce from our organic vegetable garden and of course the private home atmosphere that prevails in the hotel.
They say about us that it’s the “cool, chic and elegant” place to go. There’s an overwhelming feeling of freedom here. The customers chat to each other as if they had been invited to a weekend at a friend’s house in the country.
With 24 rooms on 3 hectares of land, there’s a lot of room to isolate yourself, but also a lot of freedom to meet up with others over tennis or drinks.
As an African, I suppose you must be a little disappointed there aren’t more tourists from this continent staying at the hotel.
I’m not disappointed because the market didn’t exist. I’d have been disappointed if the market existed but nobody came to stay… But then people like to travel, so Africans may currently prefer the US or Europe to staying on the same continent. Or maybe they prefer being in a city centre or staying at a well-known 5-star hotel, which are of course wonderful! I also think that I suffer from a lack of visibility on this continent. I’m intent on adding more and more African creations to my Jnane Tamsna boutique hotel.
I have a 200 square metre loft that I’m currently transforming into a gallery that will include the best our continent has to offer: furniture, jewellery, clothes. We’ll highlight African designers such as Kenya’s Adèle Dejak or Senegal’s Aissa Dione. I draw, the furniture, lights and decorative objects.
What’s your next project?
I’m currently writing a book, a coffee-table book that will be published in New York by Rizzoli. It’s about the fascination foreigners have had for Marrakech since the start of the 20th century, and the homes and gardens they own there… So the book will reveal some gorgeous houses and very private gardens.
You should never see an obstacle as something that can’t be overcome, but rather as an opportunity to be more creative.
What advice would you give a woman who wants to give it a go?
You have to know what your areas of expertise are – and aren’t. You should never see an obstacle as something that can’t be overcome, but rather as an opportunity to be more creative.
What are certain African destinations lacking that would enable them to become tourist hubs like Marrakech?
In my opinion, confidence in our own culture. I was recently talking to someone from Nigeria about tourism in her country, and she said to me: “Don’t worry, soon we’ll have Four Seasons hotels everywhere”. I told her that’s not what’s needed; we have a rich culture and fabulous aesthetics. We need our own architects, designers, who understand global travellers’ expectations and the importance of emphasising African culture. I’d be delighted to develop hotels on this continent.
A final word?
As Taiye Selasi said at my place last week during the creation of AFreeCulture, the annual creativity event: “We are the wealthiest continent. Not because of the cobalt, diamonds, oil and gas; our main wealth is Africa’s men and women”. There is so much energy here in every field: cinema, literature, art, fashion and photography.