Marrakech is like a woman behind a veil – mysterious, removed, enigmatic. It can be difficult to get beneath the skin of this city, visiting Marrakech just for a short time, I found it a challenge to really understand the Marrakshis, and by extension, Marrakech. The Red City has moments of deep beauty but they are unexpected, and lie hidden.
Visiting Marrakech: first impressions
The air outside smells acrid, and it is a few days before I realise what it is – fumes from the traffic. Our driver is there to meet us, and we’re off, into the darkness. The area around the airport is all flat, straight roads, but we are soon inside the medina, and our taxi jostles for space alongside donkeys and pedestrians and motorbikes. A porter leads us to our riad, an establishment called Riad Ariha, the luggage sitting snug in his barrow. He is a youth, young still, and when we arrive at our riad there is a moment of embarrassment when we realise that we do not have the coin to tip him.
Our room is the douriya, a room accessed by a separate staircase, traditionally the bedroom for the eldest son and his wife, after his marriage. There are cool white walls, a tall ceiling, a glass lantern throwing fantastical shapes of light and shadow, and a low bed. The bathroom is made from tadelkadt, a polished plaster, painted ochre and sculpted by hand; the shape is organic and smooth.
There is a rooftop terrace, a tent underneath which lie sunbeds, and where we have our breakfasts on most mornings. From here we can see the Atlas Mountains, shimmering white and blue in the far distance. The minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque is also visible from here, and one early morning I watch the sunrise as the calls to prayer sing out from the many nearby, hidden mosques in the area, each call overlapping the other in a strange, almost-familiar beauty.
Organised chaos in the medina
The next morning we venture out; we have plans to meet friends at another riad, closer to the city centre. The streets of the old medina is not a relaxing place for a stroll! It is chaotic and dusty; traffic follows no rule and all kinds of transportation jostle of space and right of way. In the narrow, winding streets of the medina there is no respite. Small cars, donkeys with carts, men with carts, zooming motorcycles, bicycles and little children run helter skelter. You need eyes at the back of your head to avoid being in a pile up!
There are shouts of “balek! balek!” or “attentionez!” – Arabic and French for – “Get out of the way!”
The Djemaa El Fna, or Assembly of the Dead, is the large square in the heart of old Marrakesh. In the day it is filled with hustlers, snake charmers, henna tattoists, musicians, performing monkeys; be warned when visiting the square – as Marrakesh’s major tourist attraction, the site is filled with touts and hustlers.
In medieval times, decapitations used to be carried out here, in lieu of modern entertainment. Not so different from the gladiatorial combats of ancient Rome; but these days the only bloodying that is done is by touts and hustlers milking tourists. My advice for surviving Marrakesh is to have spare change, be prepared for some unpleasant altercations, and be firm. When all else fails, mention the police and walk away.
Running the gauntlet
North of the square stretches a labyrinth of narrow streets that form the markets and souqs of the city. Maps are useless here; far better to orient yourself using landmarks, or by using a compass. Goods line the edges of the narrow pavements, and the inside of low-lit shops beckon invitingly. In some parts, there is a roof, of sorts; bamboo slats tied together that let in mellow, golden shafts of light.
The light here is moody, beautiful, smoky and translucent.
But there is no time to look around; as we run the gauntlet with determined vendors – the second we look even the least bit lost, we are pestered by “guides” and children who want to show us the way out, all expecting a tip in return. The aggressive sell of the vendors also took some getting used to. It is a barrage of phrases and greetings in all sorts of languages that they have learned from the tourists. We learned not to even look or make eye contact with anyone or anything, be it man, teapot, silk scarf or rug, in case mint tea and a hard sell was pressed on us.
[blockquote]In the souqs there are workshops – we saw the metalworkers area, where men were polishing and cutting metal, the market, where live birds and fowl and lamb were being butchered and sold to the locals. There was the dyers souq, where wool and silk were cast into bubbling pots of dye, then hung up in rainbows of colour on the rooftops to dry.[/blockquote]
As dusk falls in Marrakesh, the Djemaa transforms itself into a smoky, noisy free-for-all. There are mostly food stalls, with story tellers and fortune tellers and magicians plying their trade in the dark edges of the circle. We stood along the edges of a group of local men (it is always men) watching a storyteller spin a tale; they all speak only Arabic.
The smell of food was everywhere, and so were the hustlers that belonged to each stall, all of them in our faces, waving menus, shouting out greetings, standing in our way as we walked through. It was like an obstacle course, dodging them. We chose a stall whose workers were all too busy serving customers to hassle anybody and ordered sausages (the other speciality of Stall #31 was kefta, or minced meat), kebabs, a lemon chicken tagine (that had come from another stall), flat bread rolls and salsa. We were warned about using the utensils available at the stalls; all of the locals eat with their fingers, and so we used our bread to pick up our food, following their lead. Halfway through the meal I looked up, and through the smoke from the barbeque, a ring of people surrounded the stall, all putting in their orders for takeaway sausages.
Marrakesh: City sightseeing
The next day we visited the Medersa (madrasah to any other Malaysian) Ben Youssef, resplendent in plaster and wood carvings, with the three Moorish arches motif in every wall. You can see how the 800 students used to live here, an ascetic existence governed by no time save the five daily calls to prayer. There is some lovely tilework, but having been to Granada, the Medersa is a quiet, less subtle, less airy precursor to the Alhambra, which was built after.
There are the Saadian tombs, gold gilt and with opulent cedar and plaster stele dripping from the ceilings, where the Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur, his sons and numerous concubines lie. There is the Badi and Bahia Palaces; we unfortunately fell for the trick some locals have of saying that a place is closed – find out for yourself if this is true, because most of the time all they want to do is to distract you into going somewhere else, like a tannery/spice market/ceramic factory/teapot shop that their brother/cousin/uncle owns – and so did not manage to visit the famous stork nests of the Badi Palace.
The Bahia, on the other hand, is quite lovely, but only a small portion of it is open to the public. Two courtyards, where imagination must supply with the royal harem, the smell of incense, the trickle of water from the central fountain and the languid, luscious passing of golden time.
On Christmas Day we explored the YSL gardens – all beautiful Majorelle blue and bright yellows. It was a very peaceful, tranquil place, miles removed from the chaos and bustle of the medina. In the evening we visited
Le Bains de Marrakesh, a tourist hammam, where for 2 whole hours (and a price!) no one harassed or hassled us, and we had a 45 minute traditional steam room, black soap scrub and exfoliation. And then a one hour full body massage. It was pure bliss.
Later on we go for dinner at Le Foundouk , after enduring a hair raising ride in a grand taxi, squeezing its way through the medina. The driver spoke no English, and I speak far too little French to understand him, only enough to tell him where we wanted to go and how much we were willing to pay. After we told him the address, which, in the medina is not really an address at all, more an indication of the general area where a venue is, we were off.
As we got out of the cab, the driver pointed off into a street, too narrow for him to traverse. A Marrakshi man, in the traditional djellaba and wearing glasses, offered to show us the way to our restaurant. He spoke very little English, but enough to ask us if we were enjoying our trip, and to laugh about how confusing the winding streets were in Marrakesh; how different the city was from anywhere else in the world. He was one of the few good interactions we experienced with the locals and remains one of the highlights of my trip to Marrakesh.
Our last day in Marrakesh, before heading to the airport, was a flurry of shopping. We spent some time with the owners of Freres Benaara (“All sorts of Artisan articles” is their byline, located at No. 23 of Souk el Kimakhine, next to the Souk of Musical Instruments), were lovely and polite and warm. The opening price on the lanterns I wanted was not ridiculously exorbitant, nor were they ever aggressive. I purchased two glass lanterns from them for 250dh, and we stayed to have mint tea with them, while the English-speaker of the two regaled us with tales from his youth, spent studying in the US, working illegally as a pizza boy, being found out by Immigration and then deported. He was quite genuine, and it was with smiles all around that we said goodbye to them, pleasantly surprising them with our (limited) Arabic.
Marrakech’s best moments come when we are not looking for them. At sunset, the medina turns a rich, dusky rose red, lit by the sun. The Koutoubia, the grand mosque of Marrakech is backlit by the yellow rays, and the azaan sings out, for the second last time. The melody is familiar, but the words are not, yet we grasp their meaning. The Djemaa is just waking up now, the smoke from the many cooking stalls billowing into the darkening sky.
A beautiful strip of gold lies still on the horizon, the only thing left of the fiery sunset; and then the first star appears. A cacophony of cooking utensils, the shouts of the men hustling for customers, the smell of charred meat, the quiet circle of dramatic storytellers, lit only by lamplight. If I half close my eyes, stay still for a minute, drop my shoulders and surrender to the city’s insanity; the donkeys, the traffic, the haggling, the dust and smoke – for a minute, through half closed eyes, Marrakesh gives up a little of its magic.