If the Arab world didn’t have oil, Egypt and Morocco would be the dominant economic players. They have the the largest non-oil GDPs, very strategic locations and the first and third largest populations (Sudan is second). Morocco is a cultural blur, equal parts French and Arabic mixed with strong doses of Spanish and Berber (the original nomadic inhabitants).
Probably as a result of its influence from France, Morocco is noted for making Western-style economic, political and social progress, although as an Islamic monarchy, it still has a way to go. It’s about the size of California, and similarly, has a mountainous spine running through the middle, with most people living on the coast.
Marrakesh is a fantastic tourist town, although it’s very hard to explain why. It’s not anchored by a large body of water, isn’t particularly easy to get to and has no sightseeing attractions other than the marketplace. But what a market it is! You could spend days traversing the criss-crossing tiny streets, and though the selection of goods is repetitive, the quality is good. Unlike any of the other souks we visited, we have no trouble finding things to buy.
We are impressed that there is no pungent odor other than those one would expect from an open-air market in Morocco — fresh, whole fish, cooking meat and mint, lots of mint. Even Lily thought it smelled good, and I imagined that I would happily buy lamb from the butchers.
The name Morocco probably comes from the name Marrakesh, which was the capital of Morocco for most of the past millennium. Like many ancient cities it has an old city with a wall, which is now surrounded by the new city. Inside the walls, there are few hotels. Most accommodation comes in the form of riads — former houses of nobleman or merchants that have been refitted into bed-and-breakfast-type places.
Riads all generally have a central courtyard off of which are rooms or suites. Most are decorated beautifully with antiques from the region. You can get all sorts of room layouts, from a curtained bed in the middle of the courtyard, to a multi-room suite. We have the latter at our place, Riad Karmela, and it’s beautiful. The sinks have antique brass spigots and the walls are decorated in the local tile that we know globally as ‘Moroccan’ style. It’s not lavish, but it’s very tasteful and the girls love it. If you go to Marrakesh, stay in a Riad. It’s half the fun of the city.
We are hoping for a hearty breakfast, but it’s very light. We fill up on the ubiquitous yellow European cheese and good bread. Out the inexplicably tiny door of the riad, into the dark alley, we wind toward the souk in search of some emergency gear to replace the stuff in the lost luggage.
We still haven’t gotten over the frustration of losing our bags, and neither of us are optimistic that Royal Air Maroc will find it in time to take on our trip to the Sahara desert tomorrow. We buy the girls cute turquoise linen djellabas — long, flowey, traditional Moroccan outfits — for $20 each. They immediately change out of the daddy T-shirts they were using as makeshift dresses and proudly wear the djellabas for the rest of the day.
Further up the street at an antique store, I find a brass astrolabe that’s probably 100 years old for $60. It’s an item I was hoping to find for our steampunk room. The Arabs used astrolabes extensively. The souk has genuinely nice stuff. I read that tourism is down 30 percent, and there seem to be bargains if you are firm. We get most items for about 25 percent less than the opening bid.
However, it gets hot very quickly and reaches 120F by late afternoon. We aren’t yet fully recovered from the day before so we head back for long naps. Trish wakes up around 3 p.m. and goes to the front desk to receive some great news. They have found our luggage and it’s at the Marrakesh airport! She is so energized by our turn of luck that she bolts off to secure our stuff with the help of a very friendly taxi driver. Emma, Lily and I get up slowly and play cards to pass the time. Trish returns triumphantly, and it’s a huge relief to have our stuff back.
Again today we skipped lunch, and the family hasn’t had a warm meal in 48 hours. We eagerly await dinner at the Riad. It doesn’t disappoint. We all gush about the fantastic tastes, especially Lily about the warm white beans served as a mezze, which she turns into an entree. The chicken tagine has fresh green olives that aren’t briny, and there are flavorful thin strips of preserved lemon. It’s exactly how I wanted it.
Night has fallen and the souk is still going strong, minus the vegetable vendors. But the real evening attraction is the main square, called Djemaa el Fna. (Just pronounce it all together like one word.) Here the action heats up with several musical groups, a dozen henna artists and vendors of exotica like real snake skins, animal horns and various elixirs, which we presume to be for magic and medicine.
Night also brings many food stalls selling fresh-squeezed orange juice and grilled meats if you don’t mind eating from establishments that have no running water. (We do mind.) The square is famous for its storytellers, an ancient tradition of nightly entertainment that has survived the modern era. During the day there are snake charmers, but we missed them.
There are a lot of performers and artists, but the crowds are relatively thin. I take a picture of a rhythm band surrounded by a crowd and one of the members puts his instrument down, barges to the back where we stand and holds out his hat. He’s kinda rude, so I throw some small change in and he gives me some attitude.
A bit down the square, a very pregnant woman comes up behind Trisha and says, “You want henna?” Trish says, “No, thank you,” but the woman grabs her arm, raises a hypodermic needle toward her wrist and quickly squirts out a henna flower. Trish, of course, recoils, smearing the flower and henna all over. She now has a brown blotch on her arm that looks like a rash.
We walk quickly away from the drive-by henna attack, and nearly bump into a couple of Barbary macaques — grey/brown monkeys on leashes that are notoriously dirty and cranky. The owner sees our little blond girls and his eyes light up. He quickly raises the monkey onto my shoulder and says “picture, picture, picture.”
Awww, DAMMIT! Now I have Moroccan monkey ass sliding around on my arm. I try to smile for the stupid picture. The girls laugh at me. I get a decent grin off for the photo, but the monkey has the last laugh. In the photo he rolls his eyes at me like I’m the asshole. Oh well. Maybe I am.
Despite the incidents, the square is kinda fun, especially if you like fairs, festivals and parades. Djemaa el Fna is interesting because it’s not just for tourists. Moroccans come here too, although they probably know how to avoid monkey ass.
We find a cafe and get some ice cream. Emma has an inexplicable little breakdown of tears. The food situation in Morocco has been most difficult for her because she is a very picky eater. I think she’s a little hungry, and it’s been a long trip. But we get a laugh out of her when we discover the funny picture of Daddy and the monkey on the camera.
It’ about 11 p.m. and we head back to the riad. The souk is finally closing and we drift off to sleep knowing our next destination is far, far from the bustle of the city. Sahara, here we come.
[Photos by Trisha Creekmore]