By air or by land, now or a couple hundred years ago, the approach to Marrakech is stirring. After miles of barren hills and small dusty villages, a red city emerges, bold against the yellow of the land. In the 11th Century that red city started with the orange colored ramparts, a 12 mile long wall surrounding the Medina. Nowadays, the old town sits among hundreds of large, red, apartment buildings, the modern part of the city and remnants of French colonial rule.
We land and fight our way through customs. In the airport lobby, a driver is waiting for us, to take us to the place we are staying, a riad in the Medina. We pull out of the airport and onto a main street. I've seen this scene before, it is the movie journalist/traveler/government agent's introduction to the Third World. It is cars swerving in and out of traffic, with little recognition for rules of the road. It is scooters cutting off cars and mopeds transporting families. We pass one, two, a dozen donkey carts on our way into the city. The closer we get towards the center of town, the thicker and more diverse traffic gets. The streets narrow and we now share them with bicycles and pedestrian. We pass three women in burkas, riding on a moped together. A man on a donkey slows traffic until our driver, Sawad, honks and is waved forward.
We stop and wait at an intersection, the Place de la Liberte. I notice that there are no traffic lights. Cars, moped, scooters, and donkey carts build behind us until we reach critical mass and, as a group, force our way into traffic. Sawad maneuvers his small Renault to the edge of the street and after a series of jags, we are running parallel to the ramparts. We pass through the gate Bab Doukkala, past the high, orange walls, and we are in the Medina.
Now in the old city, everything compacts. The streets go from two lanes to one in each direction. Soon the streets shrink to fit the width of a car and a half, then to a single car, barely. Shops crowd the street, many of them spilling onto the byway. Everywhere there are people - on mopeds, on scouters, on bikes and on foot. Sawad keeps a consistent speed of 5 - 10 mph, weaving in and out of people, between vegetable stands and "sidewalk" salesmen. The only times he stops is to let a donkey cart pass and to give passage to a group of women, totally cloaked. The radio is blaring Moroccan music, he waves at people he knows. That he is able to navigate this maze, at this speed, while greeting his friends is amazing.
The sky disappears. Sawad has taken us down a covered street. Above are thatched straw mats, designed to keep the sun at bay. The light flickers above and then comes back, then dark, then light. We pass so many things that it is impossible to keep track, though in the coming days, through our wanderings, I recognize different shops, hammams, workshops and mosques. Or at least I think I do, so much looks the same. So much looks different. We go through an arched gate, past a crude wall painting of school children. It is a landmark that we will use to find out way. I see a huge carpet hanging from a building. Another landmark. We pull into a small opening, what locals refer to as a square. The minaret of the Ben Youssef Mosque looms above.
We take our suitcases out of the cab. Sawad leads us down another street, though in Western terms we would call it a passageway or even a tunnel. The street is no wider than five feet and still we hear the sound of an oncoming moped. We push ourselves to the building wall as the rider passes. Though it seems much longer, for three minutes we twist and turn, in dimness to total darkness, past huge ornate doors and chiseled out entrances. Finally the street ends and we are standing in front of a beautiful wooden door. Sawad slams the iron knocker a couple times and a French woman slowly opens the door. Susan greets her and some words are exchanged. We pay Sawad. He leaves and we are lead into a courtyard garden and shown our room.
After hitting the bathroom, we kick back on a carpet in the courtyard. In Morocco, it is tradition to greet people with mint tea and we are people in need of greeting. Susan and I have spent the last 16 hours or so in cabs and on planes, flying from San Francisco to New York to Madrid and to Marrakech. We are pretty haggard and it is time for a break. However, it isn't time to sleep. It is only 1 p.m. Moroccan time. We've got some exploring to do.
After tea, we leave the riad and find our way through the tunnel to the square. We try to memorize all that is around us. As soon as I look at the map to get oriented, someone offers to guide us. It is the first of over a hundred offers and not the first time we say no. I see that we just need to take one turn and we are at the Ben Yousseff Madrasa and then a few steps from the Musse de Marrakech. What street we are headed for I don't know. The map doesn't say. The map doesn't mark other streets and pathways we come upon. It doesn't take long to find that the map is an outline at best. Getting around Marrakech will be largely backtracking, taking chances, memorizing landmarks, and being willing to get lost. It will not be about asking locals on the street for directions, as that is a costly, no-win game.
We pass the madrasa and the museum and in five minutes we are in the souks. The souks are a covered maze of small shops. Each souk specializes in one type of good. For a couple blocks there are nothing but slipper salesmen, shoes hanging on the walls of their shops, top to bottom. Beautiful tea sets adorn the metalware souk. The spice souk is famous for its mindblowing smell and the pyramids of spices. In the pharmaceutical souk are dried lizards and piles of dried roots and herbs. Every once in a while we stumble on a shop dedicated to some random product or nothing in particular. We pass one with a few records. I look at a half dozen Eurovision 12"s and some chipped 78s. These are the only records I will come across in Marrakech.
The streets that make up the souks are small; few can accommodate more than one car (though none allowed in the souks), some are no more than six feet wide. All the streets are packed with people. Donkey carts loaded with merchandise push their way by. Mopeds and bicycles, many with more than two people on them, stream through the crowd. Linger when you hear a "beep beep" and you stand a chance of getting knocked down.
Though we are in the souks for more than an hour, we don't step into any of the shops. To step into a shop is to start the process of haggling over something that you might or might not want. The shopkeeps are aggressive in their salesmanship, calling out to you as you pass. "Bonjour! Best price!" "Hola! Cheap!" It is curious how the greetings are always in an European language but the pitch is in English. The shopkeeps do not assume we are American - we are told not many of our ilk visit Morocco, but know that the language of commerce is English and that everyone understands "Best price" and "Cheap."
We pause in front of one of the CD shops lining the Place Bab Fteuh. A tall, skinny Moroccan emerges from the store and in French, asks what we are looking for. "Disques" I reply. He waves us in. I say, "No no. Disques," and make a large circle with my hands. He looks puzzled. Susan says "Thirty-three" in French and he understands. He leads us to another shop, but they have no records. He tells Susan that he is positive the next shop will have records and he darts off. We rush to keep up with him. We make it to the next shop. More CDs, no records. He shrugs. Susan gives him 10 durham (about a euro) for his efforts. He thanks us and splits. We have no idea where we are, but, really, we had no idea where where we were when we started this hunt - this is just another opportunity to explore. After about fifteen minutes of wandering we walk past the egg & poultry market and into the Place Jemaa el Fna.
In most cities, the space which makes up the Place Jemaa el Fna is little more than an empty town square. Perhaps on weekends, it turns into a flea market or farmers come and sell their produce. In Marrakech, the Jemaa is the living, beating heart of the city. Starting in the morning, the orange juice carts roll in, followed by healers, snake charmers, dentists, and fortune tellers. As afternoon comes, these people are joined by a few musicians and story tellers. In the evening the food carts start setting up. As night falls, more musicians show up. For most of the day and night the Jemaa is a cacophony of sights, smells and sounds.
We pass a cart piled high with oranges and wind up facing a man with a monkey on a string, wanting us to take a picture with his primate. Ten steps further and we are staring at a card table piled with human teeth. Sitting behind the table is a dentist, pliers in hand, ready to extract a bum tooth. Turn around and, spread out on the ground are neat piles of herbs, live lizards in cages, healer sitting on the ground, smiling at us. We hear music, the sound of a Moroccan shawm accompanied by a drum, wander to it, and look down. There is a pile of snakes, some coiled, some slithering around. We hear someone shouting and turn to look. There is a crowd of men surrounding a lone figure, a storyteller. The saw of strings cut through the air. The sound takes us to a Berber quartet, decked out in kaftans, jamming on a folk tune. A couple kids are boxing for a crowd of men, for money. The smell of roasted meat drifts through the Jemaa, smoke swirls into the sky. This has been the scene at the Place Jemaa el Fna for the last two thousand years.
Though one might think that the Jemaa is just one big mob for the tourists, it is thoroughly Moroccan. The storytellers tell their tales in Arabic. Marrakeshis are the main customers for food stalls. No one but a local is gonna get a tooth yanked in the town square. And though you are constantly hit up for donations from the performers (it is how they make their living), there isn't a hint of commercialism anywhere. We spend a couple hours walking around the Jemaa, get some bad food at one of the cafes that line the square, and head out for another walk through, winding up in front of the Kharbouch Mosque as the call for prayer sounds. This time I record our journey.
After the call to prayer, Susan and I head back into the souks. We pass the olive souk. A row of merchants stand behind pyramids of olives. It is a glorious sight. One the way back, we pass through the antiques souk, the leather souk, then onto slippers. We come to a fork in the road. Straight ahead is a street only 4 feet wide, lined with slipper salesmen and their wares. Though the street is only about 40 feet long, you can't see its end. The other way is wide, something that actually looks like a street. We take the small street. It will be only one of two times that we hit the right path to the square in front of Ben Youssef. The second time we hit it right is our last night in Marrakech. Every other time we opt for the "real" street, a series of "S" turns which takes you to the mosque square but only after you have convinced yourself you are hopelessly lost.
We find the entrance to the passageway that takes us to the riad. Inside, we unlock our room and collapse on the bed. Marrakech is wonderful. The sights, the sounds, the smells...It is so exciting to be somewhere so unlike home.
There are two samples below. The first is a long one. It is of the last stroll through the Place Jemaa el Fna on our first day in Marrakesh. You will hear the sounds of snake charmers, story tellers, Berber bands, water sellers, orange juice hawkers, fortune tellers, mopeds, people in conversation, and competing calls to prayer. Please download the track to listen to as not to eat up my bandspace. The second track is a musical excerpt of the first. Specifically it is a four piece Berber band. During it you will hear someone say "Merci". That is the voice of the one non-instrument playing member, whose roll seems to be shouts of encouragement and collecting money, kinda the Flava Flav of the band.
A stroll through the Jemaa el Fna, September 25, 2009
An anonymous Berber quartet (excerpt from above)
No commercialism in the square? A McDonalds/Starbucks-free zone? Didn't think there were many of those left in the world.
Any food dos/don'ts? I worry about my squeemish stomach. (Squeemish Stomach - now there's a band name.)