The International Writers Magazine: Marrakech
“Guided” tour of the Marrakech Medina
I had a sense of impending doom even before I exited the taxi. After having refused the driver’s offer of a 45-minute drive to some garden outside the city, the driver wanted this fare to be over so he could pick up another, more accommodating tourist. It was hot. We were dropped off nearish our destination with vague instructions about how to find it, then abandoned in the heart of the famously complex ant farm of the Marrakech Medina.
My boyfriend had taken a teaching job at a school in Casablanca, Morocco. The idea of living so far apart was sad, but as my friends and family kept telling me, what a wonderful and romantic place to visit! Ah, the exotic locale—the fragrant couscous, the ethereal call to prayer. Visiting Morocco was going to be great. I decided to visit the week of a Muslim holiday called Eid Al-Adha. No work, no school. Everyone would be in a nice, festive mood, except the sheep, that would be sacrificed by observant Moroccan families, by the millions.
Casablanca doesn’t have much Moroccan charm so we decided to travel to Marrakech. Situated at the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, Marrakech is one of Morocco’s four former imperial cities. It has an extensive walled ancient medina, home to hundreds of narrow, maze-like streets and a world-famous square called Jemaa el-Fnaa.
We found our way to the Marrakech Museum, which unfortunately, was closed until 3 p.m—it was 2:30. We didn’t have much time to think about how to kill 30 minutes because waiting for us was a “helpful” man who knew just how to fill our time.
||“I take you to the tanneries, many tourists at the tanneries!” proclaimed this spritely young man in bright orange t-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. “Come with me, you will love it!” said this cheerful young man, who had such a helpful spirit. My boyfriend and I looked at each other not wanting to be rude, not wanting to wait for half and hour in the heat and yet knowing this was not the brightest idea in the world. So our sheepishness came out (after all it was the week of Eid Al-Adha where every Muslim family sacrifices a sheep) and we went with this chipper lad. Baaa ….
Down narrow streets with fruit, flies, donkeys, small shops and studios. Squeezing around dark alleyways, no wider than my outstretched arms; turning left then right, light, dim, up a few stairs and backpedaling in a circle. At each turn he looked behind to make sure we were still following him. His gesture to stay close to the wall to avoid being maimed by a scooter was touching and perfunctory. In 30 minutes we were not at a tannery but thoroughly lost. The “guide” had done exactly what he had wanted, we were putty in his hands.
|We arrived at the tannery, and this guide handed us over to a tannery manager who promptly gave us a stalk of fresh mint. Not for the famous Moroccan mint tea, but to hold up to our noses so we don’t pass out from the stench. Because we had no choice, and because I held out the smallest hope that this man would take us back to the museum, I followed him. Up more windy stairs and onto a platform with vats of putrid liquid. It was brown day so all the sheep hides treated today would be brown. And the way they soften the hide? Pigeon poo. Yes brown liquid full of pigeon droppings, guano, shit, whatever you want to call it, thank god for the mint.
The stench was so strong my eyes watered and my throat threatened to close. There were piles of sheep skin, entrails, and curly scraps of wool scattered around these cisterns of sordid goo. I had just purchased a leather coat in Turkey two weeks before my trip to Morocco, but I wanted to experience this like I want to see the process of how my lamb chops come to the supermarket.
After a 15-minute tour we were handed off to yet another “guide” who I hoped would take us back to the museum. My head knew exactly where we were going—to a leather shop. Up more dark staircases was a small, hot showroom with walls lined with leather slippers, bags, pillow coverings and rugs. It smelled like skinned animals left out in the desert. The air was close and my mint had wilted, the displays of colorful, pungent goods swayed before my eyes.
One son blocking the staircase up and another, larger one blocking the staircase down, we were trapped.
“I always offer my guests tea,” says the tall Berber shop owner with bad teeth, an unkempt beard and wearing sweatpants. “And don’t feel like you have to buy anything, we are all friends here.” Yeah, right.
A smelly camel-skin messenger bag and 1000 Dirham (Moroccan currency) later we were released with the promise that the older son would lead us to the museum. But within 10 feet of the store waited the original “guide” who took us to the tannery. He led us to the tannery manager who demanded 200 Dirham for the tour. Then up came the guide who led us to the shop demanding yet another 200 Dirham for his services. We were quickly running out of cash. We were also still completely lost and had no desire to stay in the Medina and visit the museum. So with another promise to lead us to the main square, where we knew we could find a taxi, we were off again with the original guide. Back through alleys, blind turns, schoolyards, backyards, markets, craft studios and makeshift stalls.
We stopped near the entrance to a mosque. This was where the guided tour ended. Apparently our guide needed to pray. Here he was pious. We were nowhere near the square and only semi-near the museum.
“It is 200 Dirham for the tour, each,” demanded our guide. Suddenly his cheerful demeanor changed into all business.
My boyfriend scoffed at the price and offered 150 Dirham, total. The guide began yelling at us and another man nearby came to add to the fray. A yelling match ensued and I was sure violence wasn’t far behind. We had obviously been easy prey and now the predators had landed for the kill. Wolves to sheep, baa…
The official unemployment rate according to the CIA Factbook is 9 percent, although unofficially it may be as high as 30 percent. The Average Moroccan family makes less than $3,000 a year according to the World Bank. To most Moroccans Americans are rich. I am a freelance writer and my boyfriend is a teacher, hardly in the Trump category, but I suppose to these Medina “guides” we were rich.
A mutually acceptable price for our release was made and our guide hurried off to wash up before prostrating himself before Allah. We were still lost.
We sat a moment, caught our breath, enveloped in the aroma of camel skin that emanated from the ransom payoff. Hot, lost and frustrated we forged ahead, made some educated turns, began to see other tourists and picked a group to follow. A few misturns later and we were in view of the main square Jemaa el-Fnaa full of snake charmers, craft sellers, food vendors and most importantly, taxis.
The next day we left, heading on the highway back toward Casablanca. In all forms of transport: vans, pickup trucks, 18-wheelers, Renaults and Mercedes there were sheep going to the city for the holiday, unaware of what was awaiting them. I could relate.
Getting to Marrakech link
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