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The International Writers Magazine

Honeymoon, Hammam and Hucksters in Marrakech
Charlotte Turner

For me, Marrakech evokes images of shopping in moonlit markets, eating lots of couscous, and its liberated shenanigans of the swinging sixties and seventies.
It was not our first thought of destination for our honeymoon; we explored lots of options including the Caribbean and Southern Europe. In the end, we settled for Marrakech as a first tentative step into Africa.

The hotel itself included a roof terrace, which was the main attraction for me as it was a sunny and quiet place to spend the morning rather than by the poolside which only had six sun-loungers for a five storey complex. It was disappointing that the hotel did not resemble the pictures on the website at all and was actually quite misleading when describing its facilities, such as the gym which was locked for the entire week and the sauna that you had to pay a minimum of 60 Dirhams, about £5 to use. Both the sauna and the gym were locked rooms in an unlit basement that did not look particularly appealing even in daylight, despite the hotel having received good reviews on a popular tourist website.
After this rather inauspicious start at the hotel, we swiftly decided to take a wander and try to get our bearings. Our hotel was located in Gueliz, the ‘new’ city and was about a twenty minute walk to the old city, the Medina. In retrospect, the Medina was a much nicer place to stay, although everywhere we saw was booked at least six months in advance. After wandering rather aimlessly in the midday heat for about an hour, we eventually found, totally by accident, the heart of the new city. We realised that this was what we had stumbled upon by the increasing number of cafes advertising pizza, pasta and hamburgers in neon on every street corner. We found ourselves fending off increasing number of locals avidly extolling the virtues of ‘Mont Blanc’ pens for 300 Dirhams, (about £18,) and genuine Prada purses and belts, readily bargaining down to 50-100 Dirhams at the first sign of a disinterested back turning toward them. Gueliz teemed with fast food restaurants, taboo alcohol-selling bars and European clothes shops. This was not really the culturally rich, exotic Marrakech that we had come to see. We carried on walking.

We approached the old city of the Medina on a different route to most of the other tourists, but when we reached the city walls, we knew we couldn’t be too far off. We passed through the archway, and were immediately greeted by a friendly local asking in French if we needed any help. I was a bit wary as the guidebooks warn of locals who ‘adopt’ you and then proceed to demand money ten minutes later after having shown you precisely nothing, but with our quizzical expressions and map held before us like a protest banner, we were hardly in a position to refuse his kind offer. He did not ask for any money, so I took his kind offer to be a genuine gesture of hospitality and we headed in the direction he pointed.

The first sign that we were in an area not often frequented by tourists was the distinct lack of women in the street. Whereas Gueliz attracted women clad in skinny jeans, tight tops and high heels, the only women apparent in this new part of the city were veiled head to toe or sitting on the curb begging. I admit to finding these male dominated street gatherings quite intimidating. We turned into a narrow alley and started to wind away from the city walls, in the belief that all roads, in Marrakech at least, lead to the Medina.

We trailed through alleys clogged with smells of raw meat, spices and diesel fumes spewing from motorbikes that seemed to be aiming for us until we reached a sign directing us to, "Big Square." This must be what we are aiming for. The souks sucked you almost into a vortex where you can hardly see the sky though the thatched reed roofs designed to keep the alleys cool, and where the promise of more crafts on offer right in front of your nose forces you blindly onwards. I felt the power these market stalls had over me and made the decision not to buy anything on that first day in case the urge to shop took over and I ended up spending my whole holidays’ budget on a whim.

When we eventually made out way past the scarves, wicker baskets, musical instruments and cashew nuts out of the maze, we were greeted by the sight of what must be the most sociable town square on the world. It felt like everyone in Marrakech must have been there, all at once, right at that very moment. In the ‘Big Square,’ all the smells that had been so powerful in the alleys drifted into a potent background and took second place to the din of noises jostling for attention. There were drums and maracas being played by busking musicians in full tribal dress, monotonous calls to prayer from the Mosque that opened out onto the square itself, and, if you weren’t careful, a cheery greeting of, "Welcome to Marrakech," whereupon you swiftly got a monkey placed on your foreman and a hand held out asking for money. It overwhelmed all my senses at once, and without realising, I found myself in situations I hadn’t anticipated and saw those hands creeping towards me. However, the ‘monkey on the arm’ scenario was a lot more pleasant than the alternative ‘snake around the neck’ scenario that I witnessed a few of my fellow travellers get accosted with, an experience I narrowly escaped.

We headed away from the main alleys towards the north side of the square, and the action quietened down a little, and we found a place where it was possible to survey the surroundings without being perpetually harassed. Remembering this feeling, a few days later we started our day by wandering up an alley that still promised shopping, but seemed a little less crowded and a lot less noisy. In reality, I was on a vague mission to track down the Hammam featured on a flyer that had been thrust into my hand as we careered into the main square aboard a pony and trap the previous day. It promised a deluxe beauty spa offering traditional Hammam for only 50 Dirhams, and sounded too good to be true. When we arrived, it was quite what we were after, as it offered a pseudo-traditional experience of bathing with your own toiletries in a Hammam individually or with my husband. As local Hammams normally involve a social side of bathing with your friends, this seemed to have the worst of both worlds by the lack of both luxury and socialising. Call me a philistine, but I struggled to see how this was hugely better than showering at the hotel.
No, I was after pampering.

After a little more investigation, we found a place that offered my husband and I the experience of being washed with coal soap and exfoliated together. I had to try this. From my earlier foray into guidebook territory, I joked to my husband that it sounded as if someone was getting to get in the bath with us. Turns out, I wasn’t that far off. My first fears were realised when, as we were undressing, the lady who was about to pamper us instructed me that I was to go into the Hammam naked. I conceded the bikini top but resolutely hung on to my bikini bottoms. The process involved lying on a heated stone floor, having warm water poured all over my body and generally being exfoliated, massaged and scrubbed. It was heavenly, if not slightly uncomfortable at first. The whole process lasted for an hour and cost 120 Dirhams each, approximately £8.

My final thoughts on Marrakech are that it seems like a crass mixture of modern consumerism and traditional conservatism. Nowhere was this more apparent than in a main square of Gueliz, Place du 1 Novembre that lay at the heart of Avenue Mohammed V. The square was full of western fast food and designer labels, with the image of a western woman clad only in lingerie sitting neatly in the shadows of an imposing minaret. As local women tottered past in their burkas and high heels, I couldn’t help wondering what I would find if I were to revisit Marrakech in a few years time.

© Charlotte Turner July 2007

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