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The International Writers Magazine: Marrakech

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Madness in the Medina: a week in Marrakech
Lisa Cordaro
If you want to get a decent night’s sleep, don’t visit a city with 500 mosques. So began our visit to Marrakech, with the muezzin calling the faithful from a highly efficient loudhailer a few hundred yards away at 5.30am. The first call of the day says, encouragingly, ‘Prayer is better than sleep’, but as a secular infidel, I’m afraid I respectfully beg to differ – earplugs were definitely in order.

Our riad was stunning: a peaceful, whitewashed haven of a dar in Mouassine, an up-and-coming area only a stone’s throw from the souks (the roof terrace gave a superb view of the Koutoubia Mosque). We were woken each day by the lively chirrup of tiny songbirds rising from their roost on the orange trees in the fountain courtyard, and came down to a luscious breakfast of flatbreads, French preserves, zingy fresh juice and tea.

medina However, the serenity ended there, at the very moment we stepped out into the Medina. Put simply, Marrakech is a crazy place: the bottom line is that you have to be prepared for its sheer noise and pollution and to go with it, or you aren’t going to enjoy being there at all. Very few of the streets are signposted, and the first thing that will happen to you on arrival is that you will get lost, even if you have a map.

Mopeds and bicycles in various states of unrepair zip assertively along the narrow derbs, threatening to knock you over if you’re an inch away from hugging the kerbside; men with donkeys tethered to carts whip their animals into a jog alongside the moving traffic; and humans somehow find a way to stay in one piece without being transported, dazed and confused, to the nearest clinic.

We realised quite quickly that the way to survive the city is to go up or inside. Most cafes have roof terraces, and the inner sanctums of riads offer calm respite from the madness outside. Dar Cherifa, the oldest riad in the city dating back to the 16th century, doubles as an art venue and café; Bougainvillea, in the souks, with its zellij tiled courtyard, is a tranquil space in a bustling area. Also 16th-century constructions, the Ben Youssef Medersa, a former Koranic school, and the Saadian Tombs, a mausoleum for the family of the sultan Achmed Al-Mansur, are indescribably beautiful examples of Moorish architecture. And the storks (considered to be holy birds in Morocco) nesting on the high walls of the ancient Badii Palace look down languidly on the pandemonium below, no doubt gratified to have such a literally elevated position in society.

Mint tea, like orange juice, greases the wheel in Muslim countries, and sampling some is not only essential in terms of revitalisation but enjoying traditional hospitality. I returned with a set of jewel-coloured glasses, teapot and tray. I also returned with a soft linen djellaba from a delightful store in Mouassine, where the host showed us pictures of his wife and son after whom the shop was named. Throughout the Medina I also failed to resist the endless racks of brightly striped silk scarves, all handmade and intricately worked. A fashion mecca, Marrakech has been an essential destination for trend-seekers and design inspiration ever since Yves Saint Laurent adopted the city as his ex-pat refuge in the 1960s.

Those of us on a less glamorous budget content ourselves with the souks and, like all souks, you must have a sharp business head to bargain – I have to say that the Marrakeshi traders make the ones in Tunisia and Egypt look like amateurs. Clearly, the Moroccan government’s recognition of tourist hassle and attempts to prevent traders from being quite so forward has had little effect. The constant cries of ‘Have a look!’ become swiftly wearisome, as does the incessant intrusion of underemployed hangabouts attempting to ‘guide’ you somewhere – usually where you don’t want to go – because they’re receiving kickbacks from traders or are after some baksheesh.

Nonetheless, there was clever humour in the derbs. On becoming confused in the labyrinthine alleyways, we stopped to look at our map and my partner said to me: ‘Which way: this way or that?’ A ceramics seller responded quick as a flash with a cheeky smile, ‘This way’ – pointing straight into his shop. Another, a textile merchant, attempted to draw us into his luxurious, tented den with a devilish ‘Look at these, aren’t they beautiful!’, stroking the fabric as we strolled past. ‘Sorry, I already have some,’ I replied in French. ‘Ah… you speak French!’ he replied, encouraged. ‘But you know you can never have enough… 50 Dirhams to you, madame!’ I declined politely (as I really had bought those scarves only the day before), and we both enjoyed the joke before parting. Marrakech is the only place I know where you could shake hands with Faustus before lunch and probably get away with it.

We found ourselves dragged into an ad hoc reflexology session one lunchtime by Mehdi, a healer practising in the souks. He was pretty accurate – and slick at parting visitors with their money. I have to say I found myself feeling light but sad after the experience. Healers have every right to expect recompense for their work, but the way it was done here seemed to me to be so against the fundamental philosophy of this kind of profession that it made me feel somewhat uneasy.

mellah A more willingly engaging experience of Moroccan trade was to be found in in the foundouks, the former merchants’ hostels converted into artisans’ workshops, where we watched the woodturners, metalworkers and weavers. However, my favourite was the Mellah, the former Jewish quarter resting at the side of the Kasbah, flanked by the terracotta walls of the Badii Palace. One of the most deprived areas of the Medina, its dug-up streets, dust-covered cars and simple stalls of fresh produce, household goods and spices are a world away from the brash, shiny, touristic hard-sell of the souks.

It reminded me of the jumbled London street markets I’ve loved visiting over the years, and its random busyness of vehicles, animals and humankind in all shapes and forms struck me as both gritty and touchingly honest.

The main square, Djemma El-Fnaa, is said to be the heartbeat of Marrakech and a mystical, fairytale area of storytellers, letterwriters and street performers. It is an experience that all travellers to Morocco should have – and then discard. If you enjoy sensory overload, or are backpacking on a budget and enjoy playing Russian Roulette with your stomach by eating sheep’s head stew at street stalls, fine – you’ll love it. I didn’t.
Djemma El-Fnaa

Water sellers in triangular, psychedelically bobbled hats wearily dispense their wares from beaten brass bowls; the many groups of gnawa musicians only feet away from each other drum a dissonant cacophony; and the treatment of animals – which include cobras repeatedly provoked into action by snake charmers and monkeys dragged around mercilessly – is little short of upsetting. For me, this heartbeat was more of a unpleasant, throbbing palpitation.

Still, I came away from the trip feeling positive, despite seeing some of the city’s dark side – as all cities have. Marrakech is such a paradoxical place: stylish houses rub shoulders with hash dens; grey, beaten-up beggars rub shoulders in the street with fine-featured ladies in sparkly djellabas and babouches; and peace rubs shoulders with complete and utter chaos. Somehow it works its way under your skin without you quite realising it. Our way to experience Marrakech was simply to allow the city to reveal itself gradually and to make sense in our minds. Struggle with it and you’ll have a seriously frustrating time; accept it and you’ll find your way.

Like the scores of travellers who have visited this imperial city over the centuries, relax, put away your map and hit a café for some mint tea. Watch the world go by – for there’s quite a lot of world in Marrakech. You may just find yourself on a very rewarding trip.

Lisa Cordaro travelled independently from London to Marrakech with EasyJet airlines and stayed at the Riad Dar Sara, Marrakech (
© Lisa Cordaro, March 2010
lisa.cordaro at
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