We step out of the taxi that has driven us into the Jemaa El Fna, the grand plaza of Marrakech, inside the great walls of the medina (old town). It is said to be the largest square in Africa. This plaza used to be the site of public executions. Now it is the thumping heartbeat of Marrakech – a marketplace, a circus, a marvel.
The fiery sun beats down upon the surrounding red sandstone buildings (hence the moniker “Red City”) and pavement amplifying the heat. It’s 108 degrees. My sweat glands seem to be vying for some sort of world record in moisture production. As the taxi speeds away dodging pedestrians, we are assaulted by the sights, sounds, and smells of Marrakech. It’s as if all of my senses have been jolted out of a coma.
There is a cacophony – pungis and drums, the clomp clomp of horses pulling caleches, the beep beep of mopeds, shouting in Arabic, and vendors yelling about their goods in various languages. And, since Morocco is a Muslim country, those sounds are drowned by the mesmerizing calls to prayer that echo over the city five times a day. The noise is both unsettling and exhilarating.
My nostrils fill with the smell of Marrakech which is, as far as I can discern, a combination of mint tea, argan oil, amber soap, bubbling tagines, the tanneries, raw meat, horse pies and, maybe, cinnamon or cardamom. And body odor. Probably mine. You’d think it would be an awful stench, but it’s not. It’s a wonderfully odd, exotic aroma that awakens your mind and sets your heart apace. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
We amble along the perimeter of the Jemaa El Fna unable to decide where to begin. Snake charmers have set up camp under tents in the center of the plaza. They blow their pungis, a recorder-like instrument, to charm (more like irritate) the coiled cobras that are listless from the heat and to attract tourists. If you move too slowly, they’ll drape a snake over your shoulder and charge you to remove it. There are lines of carts with oranges stacked high where you can get fresh-squeezed juice. Other carts offer dates, nuts, spices, and olives. The vendors shout “Bonjour” “Hola” “Hello Lady” and “Welcome, welcome” as you pass, hoping to land on your language and in your wallet.
We weave through the plaza and pass veiled women sitting atop milk crates, needles in hand, ready to apply henna. They are aggressive hustlers, and the following day I made the rookie mistake of saying aloud to my friend, “We have to get henna tattoos!” Upon hearing these magic words, one jumped from her perch and began to follow us. She ignored our repeated No thank yous and stayed in pursuit. She grabbed my arm and pointed the needle to my skin. If ink gets on your skin, you’re paying for a tattoo, so I yanked my arm from her grasp. She then grabbed my friend’s arm. She shouted “no” and “enough” in Arabic and we escaped. This was the first lesson that knowing a few words of Arabic will serve you well. There would be more.
More wanderings lead us to a table with a “dentist.” He is a wizened old man with a card table beneath an umbrella. On his table are pliers, sets of false teeth, and scores of extracted teeth. The locals actually use these services. In the plaza. Without anesthetic. Appreciate your dental plans, people.
We came upon a nearly toothless man (the dentist’s customer?) with a monkey. He was one of many men cajoling tourists into holding monkeys for a few dirham. We decided that we must also hold a monkey. At first I thought it was shameful to participate in the exploitation of primates, but the grabby little thing put a furry paw on my boob (and then my friend’s) and I realized that we were the ones being exploited. I also realized that it was the most action I’d seen in a very long time, but that’s another story.
We made our way into the souks, a vast labyrinth of shops packed together like tiny boxes. Each souk is filled to overflowing with things like lamps, jewelry, leather goods, ceramics, spices, poufs, metalware, shishas (hookahs), caftans, rugs, djeballahs, pigments, and fabrics. The souks are generally arranged by product, so that in one area you’ll find spices and in another lamps, and so on. The vendors wait outside their souks like fisherman waiting to hook a trout. “Bonjour. Hello. Welcome, welcome. You like? I make good price for you.” The slightest look toward an item invites them to approach and pull you into their souk.
Once inside you are never left alone. The vendors chatter about the quality of their products, present many items, and ask where you’re from. The answer results in political commentary: “America? You’re Obama babies. Will you have a lady president next? Three Bushes is too many. Trump is a bad man!” Yep, even Moroccans know Donald Trump is an idiot. It also reminds me, as I am reminded every time I travel, that Americans generally pay little attention to world politics, yet the world pays close attention to ours. It’s an embarrassment. While I did know that Morocco is governed by a constitutional monarchy, I could not name a single leader without my trusty friend, Google. Photos of King Mohammed VI adorn the walls of most establishments.
After the small talk and items have been chosen, the haggling begins. Haggling is an art form here, an inelegant dance of wills. The better dancer you are the better your price. I found it difficult to get into the right rhythm at first. It feels somehow wrong to two-step over what amounts to sometimes only a few dollars, but it is expected and necessary, lest you pay three times what you should. You will be told stories about where these products come from. This is Berber! This is Tetuoan! You will be offered mint tea or water and elaborate overtures will be made. You should learn the walk-away-with-eye-roll technique – it’s amazing how fast the price drops when you take flight and feign disinterest. Some vendors followed us down the street, prices plummeting with each step. At last you’re asked to name your best price which elicits a Moroccan eye roll then acquiescence, usually. A friendly handshake seals the deal.
We purchased goods from one souk and the vendor, seeing us as good marks and game shoppers, told us to follow him “just two minutes away” to his cousin’s store (there is no end to “cousins” in Marrakech) which he said was a “very special place.” Two minutes away is a long time in the souks, and my friend and I exchanged wary glances, wordlessly considering the safety of following some random dude to unknown streets. But we shrugged and followed him, silently agreeing that we could outrun this man if things got sketchy.
We followed him down tiny streets, turning finally onto a dusty byway that no longer had any souks. We came upon huge wooden double doors with metal spikes. No signs, no windows. The man opened the door and beckoned us in. We looked at each other, mumbled what the hell, and entered. There was a moment when my belly clenched and I wondered if we were being foolish. Who enters a windowless building on an unnamed street in a foreign country with a strange man? Fools or adventurers? As we crossed the threshold we laid eyes upon an enormous space with many rooms adorned with the most beautiful items I’ve ever seen. I think I heard a choir sing. There were elaborately decorated urns, vases, and lamps. Antique tagines. Magnificent tables and mirrors with intricate carvings and inlaid bone, metals and tiles. The artistry of these objects was other worldly. My credit card began to vibrate.
There were no other tourists there at that moment just several men, a couple of whom scooped our bags out of our hands and scurried about offering us mint tea and water. You know you’re staying awhile when they abscond with your packages and the beverages arrive. I admit that I was having conflicting feelings: urgent desire to explore this vast expanse of treasures and niggling fear that we’d just made a critical mistake by being with several men trapped behind closed doors where no one could hear our screams.
One man, who appeared to be the boss, noticed my furrowed brow. He said, “You doubt, I can see. Come. Samuel L. Jackson has shopped here.” He took us to his office and showed us photos of, sure enough, Samuel L. Jackson and him, Jessica Simpson, other celebrities, and heads of state who’d shopped in his store. I’m not as badass as Sam Jackson, but if he can shop here, so can we. Urgent desire now trampled the niggling fear and we succumbed to Shopping Fever, the only known cure for which is repeated applications of American Express.
We were mesmerized by all the shiny objects, like toddlers or squirrels. Look at this! And this one! I want that! We darted about, the men keeping a watchful eye as they followed us from room to room. The haggling was intense yet good natured and after enthusiastic double-handed handshakes we came away with beautiful treasures. The men who had made me nervous upon arrival were, in reality, lovely and ready with smiles and jokes. Our adventurous spirits paid off, and one day my credit card will be paid off, too.
The narrow streets in the souks are not marked and I never saw a map of inside the souks, not that they would be of any help. The streets wend and twist so that it only takes about a minute to lose your bearings. But, for the most part, I like getting lost when I travel, because that’s when you discover the most interesting things. Shortly after we’d lost our way, we happened upon a djeballah-clad man who claimed to be a prayer caller. He cautioned us about going the wrong way, about hustlers out for our money, offered us directions, and shuttled us into his little shop with Oxfam posters on the wall. At first we were entertained and grateful for the tips. He made big gestures and belly laughed. He said that his was the voice that we heard calling prayers that day, that he inherited the job from his father. He also said that he tripped over a cat during the morning’s call to prayer and “isn’t that funny, you could hear it” or something like that. We did not, in fact, hear a cat or a mistake in the prayers, but how would we really know? He urged us to donate a few coins to Oxfam or to buy a small object. When we declined he said that we were typical, awful Americans. He became upset with us. We scampered out of the shop, his insults trailing us. Alas, adventurous spirits don’t always pay off.
Back in the souks on a following day, we were more savvy hagglers. I began to use a couple of phrases I had learned from my Moroccan Arabic phrase book and from my friend, Sue, who knows some Arabic from her years living in Egypt. I was in awe of her ease and I mimicked her phrases. It is clear that most tourists don’t bother learning any words, so uttering things like labas (hi), salaam a lekum (peace be with you) Kam (how much?) and chokran (thank you) or la (no) go a long way. Eyes light up and eyebrows rise. Smiles fill up faces. They lean in closer and put a friendly hand on your shoulder.
A word here about language: though I know very little Arabic (exactly 8 words), one thing is clear: Allah is always on the tongue. Every other sentence, it seems, ends in insha’Allah or God willing. (Which I remembered by my silly mnemonic “enchilada.”) “I’ll see you tomorrow insha’Allah.” “This will arrive at your home in six weeks insha’Allah.” When our plane landed the flight attendant said in Arabic, “We have arrived in Casablanca, thanks be to Allah.” We use God in English as well, of course, but apart from our thank God, oh my God, and God forbid – which aren’t really literal for most of us – our language is not suffused with religion as much as it is in Arabic. I am fascinated by how words can be manifestations of culture, and it is especially so here.
Although we spent an inordinate amount of time in the souks we did venture further afield. We explored the Mellah, the Jewish Quarter, the presence of which may seem odd in a Muslim country. But, as we were told and is evident, Jews and Muslims have resided together here peacefully for millennia. The Mellah is near the Kasbah where there is a mosque and the Saadian tombs, a walled burial space that contains the remains of the family of the Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur. This is worth the visit, as it only takes about ten minutes to see all of the elaborately decorated tombs. Nearby is the Badi Palace, also built by the sultan. We weren’t able to enter as we were there during prayer time, but I hear it is also worth your time.
In the Kasbah is a no-haggle-zone craft market. Go here if you are timid about haggling. It costs only a few dollars more for goods than in the souks. It’s a massive store with everything from shoes to tagines, including a section of soaps and teas that claim to cure everything from acne to lung ailments to a variety of “lady problems.” I cannot elaborate without embarrassing myself. Or you.
On another day we trekked to the Medersa Ben Youssef, a former Islamic school. We initially could not find it and our faces wore expressions of confusion that were noticed by a tall, thin man smoking a cigarette in a doorway. He asked what we were looking for and we told him. First he pointed, then began walking and asked us to follow. I had read
that “guides” pop up every where and for a few dirham they’ll show you the way, past their cousin’s shop, of course. So we followed like ducklings. And followed and followed. Soon it was evident we’d gone in a circle and we tried to take leave of him, letting him know we were onto his ruse. It was then that he finally led us straight to the doors of the Ben Youssef and I gave him a few coins for his “trouble.” Although the route was circuitous, the truth is we wouldn’t have found the place without him. The Ben Youssef is beautiful and is said to be the best example of Arabic architecture in Marrakech. It’s worth the visit, but add in time to be lost.
We visited the Majorelle Gardens which is a literal
oasis amid the chaos of the city. It was built by the French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 20s and refurbished by Yves St. Laurent in the 80s. It is packed with beautiful trees, cacti, enormous jade plants, and has a serene lily pond. There is a gallery of some of St. Laurent’s art and a few works by Andy Warhol who was also enchanted by this space and a friend of St. Laurent. This is a must-see destination and you will be amazed by the vibrant blue – called Majorelle, of course – with which the buildings and pots are painted.
Non-muslims are not permitted to enter mosques (unlike in other cities, such as Istanbul), so we could only enjoy the Katboubia and Kasbah mosques from the outside. But they are beautiful structures and the Katboubia gives Marrakech its distinctive skyline, looming as it does over the reddish sandstone buildings around it. Surrounding the Katoubia are lovely gardens worth taking a stroll through.
On the third night we ventured back to the Jemaa El Fna as the sun was setting to get a feel for this famous place at night. What is already wild during the day becomes a carnival on steroids at night. The crowd increases by what feels like thousands. There are acrobats, transvestite dancers, street games of chance, musicians, and more. The stalls that are empty by day become makeshift restaurants at night offering everything from lamb or chicken tagine, snails and frog legs (evidence of the former French protectorate), pastillas (meat pies), harifa (soup), and couscous. Dysentery is not officially on the menus but you can get it for free. While we would follow men down deserted streets, we did not partake of the street food in spite of intense invitations to sit and eat. We have some sense. But DO eat the local food in an established restaurant – the food is delectable and inexpensive. A typical meal for two was about 10 bucks.
The Jemaa El Fna is wild and intense at night. It’s also rife with pickpockets. Just as we were arriving back at our hotel, Sue reached for her wallet and realized it was missing. We sped back to the Jemaa El Fna, hoping to find that she had accidentally left it on a table in the souks where we had purchased souvenirs. It wasn’t there, of course, and the vendors were offended by the insinuation that they might have taken it. We apologized, they apologized that it had happened and all was well. Except for the missing wallet.
We set about retracing our steps and came upon a group of policemen holding machine guns. It’s daunting to approach a line of armed men with I-can-shoot-you faces, but we decided to tell them of the lost wallet anyway. The conversation went like this:
Sue: Do any of you speak English?
Handsome Armed Man: I do.
Sue: My wallet is missing. I think it was stolen here.
HAM: How much was in your wallet?
Sue: What does it matter? It was stolen.
HAM: But how much money was in it?
Sue: All of it. And my credit cards.
HAM: How much money, though?
Sue: That doesn’t matter! A lot!!
Another Armed Man approaches HAM and he explains to his colleague in Arabic. AAM says to us, “How much?” We dissolved into laughter which confused them. How much was more important to them than the fact that it happened. They direct us to the police station a few yards away.
So we go the station, encounter more men with guns at the door, and explain. “How much?” is the first question and they are confused by our nervous laughter. One policeman, who is actually kind to us in spite of his perseveration on the amount, leads us down a dank, dark cement hallway to a room full of young men who are at once agitated and bored. (My heart was pounding and I kept thinking of the movie Midnight Express, but didn’t voice my rising panic.) The chatter stops as they all turn to look at us out-of-place American women. They exchange amused, wondering glances. Sue and I exchange holy shit glances. There is one man at a computer. The policeman tells us we must wait here to make a report to the man at the computer. We say, “All of these people are making complaints?” He chortles and says, “No no no, these are the thieves!” He left us to wait there. We slink out of the room and discuss our options in the smelly hallway. Sue decided that it was futile to make a report, so we left. I was quietly relieved that we didn’t spend any more time getting to know the Moroccan justice system. I have to hand it to Sue. I would have been freaking out to have lost my cash, credit cards, and driver’s license, but she held it together like a boss.
The next day we fell victim to the siren call of the souks once again. We found a souk with dazzling Berber jewelry. “Welcome, welcome” was our greeting again. The owner of the souk, Omar, took a fancy to me. He was a short, nine-fingered man missing teeth who was in desperate need of an Altoid. Apparently, that’s the kind of man I attract. As we admired the jewelry and picked out items, he began his brand of sweet-talking which included referring to us as family and offering us the “sister price.” His eyes twinkled as he showed me jewelry, putting a missing-digit hand on my shoulder. I moved away. I overheard him say to Sue something like, “How many camels for your friend? I have three camels. I will take her in marriage.” She laughs. She tells him I’m married and I’m grateful for this half-truth. He doesn’t seem to care. I don’t know whether to be flattered or appalled. We do a little tango on the high wire between being offended and angling for a good price. We are able to haggle him way down – I got about $400 worth of silver jewelry bedecked with lapis lazuli, coral and turquoise, for $140 – and Omar and I are both happy with the price, camel offer notwithstanding.
It is custom to for vendors to give gifts when you make a large purchase. Usually you are handed a keychain, good luck hamsa, or small trinket. Omar, who probably was angling for more time with us, said that he would make us each a necklace. It’s rude to say no to this offering so we waited as he put beautiful pendants on a leather strap, fashioned the clasp, and chattered about his Berber (a North African tribe) roots. At long last, he finished the necklaces. We took photos with him and then he insisted on embracing me and giving me a halitosis-laden kiss on each cheek before we left. While our interactions with Omar were interesting and uncomfortable (good taste only allows me to tell part of this story…), it was also hilarious. In his own way he was kind to us. And, one day, when I’m slurping Soup for One surrounded by cats, I may just regret the day I ignored an offer of marriage for three camels.
On the last evening, we went to our hotel terrace bar (at the fabulous Four Seasons) for drinks and dinner. The skies had begun to cloud over earlier and we were grateful for the respite from the oppressive African sun. Suddenly, the skies turned a hazy yellow-orange and the wind kicked up. Sue recognized what was happening from her days in Egypt. “A sandstorm is coming!” I thought it couldn’t be possible, but as soon as she uttered these words the wind became ferocious, the sky deepened to a rusty color and sand flew in our eyes. Our drinks and food flew off the table. Lanterns and giant potted plants blew over. Being the adventurers (morons) we are, we stayed outside to capture the storm with photos, laughing at the incredible scene. The waiters (who had no doubt we are morons) hustled us through the kitchen into another room for protection. This wildness lasted about half an hour, then the skies returned to normal. Just like that. And here I thought Marrakech couldn’t get any crazier.
In spite of the hustlers, pickpockets, sand storms and scorching heat, Marrakech is one of the most fascinating cities I’ve ever visited. It is certainly the most exotic. It is both cosmopolitan and primitive. It has both European and African flavors, but is a city unto itself with its own personality. While there were some moments of discomfort, I never felt unsafe, although women should be cautioned against traveling alone here. The people are kind, hospitable, and stunningly beautiful. They are eager to strike up conversation and share their city. While a few are jaded by tourists, most sincerely mean “welcome, welcome” and their tradition of offering mint tea is a charming example of their desire to make a friend. (And, if you’re a cynic, make a buck. I’m not a cynic.)
I have left out many stories – of non-forcibly-applied henna tattoos, of the traditional Moroccan massage (which is, um, thorough), of incredible meals, of stand-up public toilets, of the ever-present possibility of death by moped, of open air butcher shops emitting a stench that will melt your eyebrows off, and of clay that can be used as lipstick, to name just a few.
I highly recommend a visit to this extraordinary place on the planet. If you plan a trip to Marrakech, remember to bring these most important things: a few words of Arabic, a friend, and a sense of adventure.