«       »
August 15th 2008 by Tina

Posted under Morocco

After the decadence of the French Riviera, the parched Moroccan desert was a climate and culture shock, even for us. The arid desert air made us miss Arizona. We had booked three nights in a riad – a traditional Moroccan home – near the kasbah in Marrakech. Janice, the quirky English owner, gave us a warm welcome and was a wealth of information about Morocco. Three well-appointed guest rooms occupied the ground floor of the riad, surrounding a tiled open-air courtyard. A Spaniard named Juan was staying in one of the other rooms and invited us out for an evening walk in the Djemaa el-Fna, and although we were overcome with exhaustion from the day’s travel, we could not resist the allure of one of the world’s greatest spectacles.

The Djemaa el-Fna is a huge open square in the medina (Arabic old town) that explodes with colorful chaos at dusk. Open air food stalls serve up escargot, fresh seafood, skewered meats, tapas and tajines (traditional Moroccan hot pot stews). Diners squeeze in wherever there is room among the long, crowded picnic tables. All of the servers are male, a reflection of the 99% Muslim population.

Away from the food stalls, the remaining area of the square is utterly consumed by the equivalent chaos of ten circuses operating simultaneously in the dark with crowds of spectators gathered around each one. The performers – all men – make music and dance, perform plays and acrobatics. Within a twenty foot radius, you can get henna-painted hands and feet, watch snake charmers, get a custom-mixed herbal remedy for whatever is ailing you, and pose for photos with a monkey on your head. The days are so oppressively hot that seemingly everyone comes out a night – old women, families pushing strollers, and young boys – to witness the grand festivities. The air is bursting with music, laughter and energy. Your heart begins to race along with the tempo of the drums. It is madness!

After dining in one of the food stalls and a lap around the circus, fatigue finally overcame us, hindering our ability to see or think straight, and we followed Juan back through the desert pink maze of unmarked corridors to our quiet little street. The breezy desert night had caked our already travel-grimy skin with dust. Too exhausted even for showers we washed our weary faces and fell into a deep sleep.

When we finally resurfaced around 9:30 the next morning, we lazed around the riad, lingering over coffee and long showers, and mentally preparing ourselves for the hassle and hustle of the Third World. As we have learned in our travels through Africa and India, you must be sharp. You must constantly be on guard for everything is a negotiation – everyone wants your money and they’re not shy about asking for it: beggars, hustlers, taxi drivers, fruit sellers, and random people on the street who offer directions and then demand a tip. You must have your game face on at all times or fall victim to the hustle.

Hunger finally pulled us from our quiet oasis and into the streets. Walking toward the Djemaa el-Fna, we found a restaurant with shaded outdoor tables and a decent-looking menu and sat down for lunch. During our one-hour stay, no less than six elderly beggars approached our table with their hand out. Poverty is rife in Morocco with the average daily income around US$3.25, but the faces of the people – indeed the only visible part of the body through the traditionally conservative Moroccan dress – possess unexpected warmth. I had anticipated the fierce, penetrating, mistrusting eyes that dominate my memory of the conservative Muslim Egyptians but, in the eyes of Moroccans, I sensed none of the contempt or suspicion that made me feel so unwelcome in Egypt. Not everyone has the same experience however; a sweetly naïve young British girl on holiday with her boyfriend reported that a burqa-clad woman pulled aside her face-concealing veil and spat at her on the street.

We spent the afternoon checking out a few of the sites around town, the most fascinating of which were the Ali ben Youssef Medersa (aka madrassa – a venue for teaching theology, law, and Arabic literature) and the Musee de Marrakech, a beautifully restored 19th century palace turned museum. Both buildings displayed traditional Moroccan architecture with open-air courtyards and stunning artwork: Colorful zellij (mosaic tilework); rich woodcarving; linen-colored stucco carved into patterns of fine lace with Arabic calligraphy embedded in the designs; ornate arched doorways, water features, and opulent painted ceilings. The sights had a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere. Once you paid your admission at the entrance, there was no one inside but other giddy tourists, exploring the artfully decorated and extraordinarily photogenic nooks and crannies.

On our way back to the riad, we wandered into the souk – an enormous, maze-like bazaar adjacent to the Djemaa el-Fna – but quickly realized that we didn’t have the energy to get lost in that dizzying world of “Come look my shop! What you want? I have it! Special price!” Instead we walked “home” through the big square – a much tamer animal by day – and soaked up the quiet of the riad for a few hours before charging back into the irresistible madness of the Djemaa el-Fna for dinner.

By our third night in Marrakech, we had the medina and the main square pretty well figured out. We took in a few more sights around the kasbah and regrouped at the riad. We were joined by the young Brits whom I mentioned earlier and Juan who had returned from a camel safari in the outlying desert. Janice, our lovely hostess, had generously sent down a couple half-bottles of surprisingly delicious Moroccan wine which warmed our spirits for our final night out in the Djemaa el-Fna. Wandering through the intense revelry, I strained to memorize every sight, sound and smell. Clouds of smoke from the grills billowed through the night air, blurring the bright lights, burning my eyes, filling my nose with tantalizing aromas. The beating of the drums folded into one unified rhythm. It felt like a wild dream.

The five of us unwittingly sat down at the end of one of the long picnic tables edging the walkway between the food stalls. We ordered calamari, meat brochettes and greasy French fries. The foods are all prepared ahead of time, piled high under a big awning, so our order was delivered in less than five minutes. As we ate and conversed, young beggar boys approached, pointing at our meat. When we shooed them away, they snatched meat from our plates and ran. Across the walkway, I watched an old woman and two teenaged boys hungrily devouring the remains of someone’s tajine, sopping up every bit with bread. At the end of our meal, another old woman asked for the two rounds of bread left untouched on our table, which I happily gave. I had offered them first to one of the little meat thieves but he’d had a one-track mind. While our meal on the outer edge was more disrupted than in the buffered interior, we were reminded what a privilege it is to enjoy such a meal. Some boys endure their entire youths without ever tasting the luxury of meat outside of that which they manage to snatch from someone’s plate in the market. It reminds us to be thankful for what we have and gentle with those who have not.

To be honest, I was dreading this brief return to the Third World after indulging in the comforts of Europe, but Morocco has already begun to win my heart. From the art and architecture to the fantastic chaos of the Djemaa el-Fna to the muezzin’s five-times-daily call to prayer echoing through the stucco walls in the maze-like medina, Marrakech is full of life. With adventurous spirits and open hearts, we dove in and immersed ourselves in its wild, colorful, chaotic charm.

1 Comment »

One Response to “Marrakech”

  1. Andrew Leonard on 18 Aug 2008 at 9:36 am #

    How was it? Marrakech is on the list…..need the full insight! Was there a McDonald’s? 😉