“Take the train from Casablanca going south, blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth. Colored cottons hang in the air, charming cobras in the square. Striped djellabas we can wear at home” - CSNY
It’s been over 44 years since Graham Nash rode that train and wrote those lyrics about what he saw in Marrakech and not much has changed in the medina. In fact, with the exception of electricity and plumbing, I’m not sure that much has changed in hundreds of years. I am staying in a riad, a traditional Moroccan guesthouse, deep in the old city derb. The guests who were in the other two rooms have moved on and I currently have the entire place to myself, including the orange and lemon trees growing in the open central courtyard. It is a very welcome and peaceful oasis from the absolute chaos of the souks, which wind their way along hundreds of paths and alleyways through the medina in no discernible order.
It’s a very good thing that alcohol is in short supply here, as you need to be sober and alert to avoid being rolled over by beasts of burden hauling carts or motor scooters hurtling at too-fast-speeds through narrow winding passages filled with locals and tourists. There are merchants at every turn selling spices, silver, ceramics and anything else you can imagine.
Give me a break - SwissAir lost my pack
and I was having a bad hair day!
The Marrakchi are very pleasant for the most part, and even when they seem unpleasant (like those darn taxi drivers) it is only part of their negotiating game and once the deal is done, their innate Moroccan charm generally comes out. Of course, I’m only speaking of the men, because with the exception of the young lady who grabbed my hand in the square and before I knew what was happening had already half-completed the drawing of a henna scorpion, the women don’t seem to interact with the tourists. Almost exclusively men work in the shops, and like the Turks I met in Istanbul a few years back, they can be very friendly, often persuasive and unbelievably persistent. The women just go about their lives in the derb, shopping the markets, looking after the children and their homes. You see them wearing all forms of Muslim dress, some very conservative, some not so much, some with headscarves, some without. Occasionally you’ll even hear the click-clack of high heels on cobblestone beneath their kaftan robes. For the most part though, everything is surprisingly relaxed amidst the chaos. Still, after my first day getting lost in the souks, I half expected (hoped?) to hear a small boy behind me shouting “Dr Jones, Dr Jones – this way!”
The epicenter of the medina is Place Jemaa el Fna, the main square. During the day, faux guides/touts, monkey handlers and snake charmers ply their trade in return for a few Dirhams. In the evening, the place absolutely teems with life and I can easily see how it might be a little overwhelming on the senses for many Westerners. It felt very exotic last night, as the sunset turned the terracotta colored Minaret at the back of the square a rich golden red. Tribal drums beat constantly, intermingled with the rhythmic, whining wail of horns played by the snake handlers and the putt putt vroom of those ever-present, exhaust-spewing mopeds. By sunset the food merchants had set up their carts and the square became a medieval midway of sorts, with all manner of hucksters, storytellers, tooth-pullers, henna artists, and kif dealers offering their services throughout the square.