Marackech the Moorish jewel
When you arrive in Marrakech, it will most likely be at night because that’s when the flights usually come in. As you drive in from the airport, along the dark, palm-fringed roads, past the massive, silent bulk of the city walls, as you approach the medina, the ancient Arab quarter, slowly you will become conscious of a noise. This noise, so slight at first that you wonder if perhaps you have imagined it, begins as a low hum, as if, in the distance, many bees are buzzing; then, as you penetrate the medina still further, it rises to a roar, to what one writer described as ‘a frenzy of sound.’
The source of this cacophony is the Place Djema’a el-Fna, the great, unruly square that lies virtually at the centre of the medina and is the physical and spiritual heart of the city. Djema’a el-Fna is undoubtedly the tourist attraction of Marrakech, yet it remains curiously uncorrupted by tourism and no aspect of it is more careless of the hoards of foreigners who throng the square than the storytellers. After midday, these tall, bearded men, striking in
As you drive in from the airport, along the dark, palm-fringed roads, past the massive, silent bulk of the city walls, as you approach the medina, the ancient Arab quarter, slowly you will become conscious of a noise their long robes, (there are, unsurprisingly, no women story-tellers in this Muslim society) begin to arrive in the square, to take up their places where they will stay till late – in the summer sometimes all night – and to draw large crowds.
Marrakech, known by early travellers simply as ‘Morocco City’, is an extraordinary place. Snuggled into the foothills of the Atlas mountains, encircled by red walls, made from tabia, the red mud of the plains and dominated by the twelfth-century Koutoubia Minaret, the most perfect Islamic monument in North Africa, which, at nearly seventy metres high, is visible, on a clear morning, for miles, Marrakech has, at first and even second glance, none of the usual trappings of a European or even a modern city – though there is, in fact, both a modern and European city in the shape of Gueliz, built by the French, who ruled the country as a protectorate for the first half of this century.
The largest city in Morocco after Casablanca, Marrakech is actually more a conglomeration of villages than an urban community; Gaston Deverdun, in des Ses Origines 1912, described it as oœan immense market without bourgeoisie. Unlike, say, New York, it’s a flat city. When you climb to the top of the Cafe de France, once the grandest of the cafes in the medina and still the best place for an aerial view of Djema’a el-Fna, you are struck by how low Marrakech is. People say that you can hardly see the city from the air; because it is made largely of the same red clay as the plain, it blends in with its surroundings. I wouldn’t know – the night or clouds have always obscured my view.
Marrakech developed as the metropolis of the Atlas tribes: Mahgrebis from the plains, Saharan nomads and former slaves from Africa beyond the desert – Sudan, Senegal and the ancient kingdom of Timbuktu – and has Berber rather than Arab origins. It is and always has been the great marketplace of the South (and the gateway to the Atlas mountains). The touts in the souk would have you believe that it is crammed with genuine Berber artefacts (‘Berber market, come this way’, they whisper softly, as seductive as concubines in a harem). In fact, much of the merchandise is new, but it is still a major trading centre, which accounts for at least part of the Wild West excitement of the place.
It is said that Djema’a el-Fna has existed as long as the Koutoubia. It is also said that it is never empty; it’s true that I have never once seen it empty. Even at that hollow moment just before sunrise (one year, when I was young and very poor, I stayed at the Hotel CTM, above the old bus station, and got up for an early bus to the coast), there were a few stragglers, some of them asleep curled up in heavy, woollen djellabas against the dawn chill.
But Djema’a el-Fna, which is usually translated as ‘assembly of the dead’ (probably because public executions were once held here), is at its most alive, its most enchanting, at night when the air is filled with the sounds of bells and drums and guitars and pipes. As the sun goes down, the lights of the little open-air food stalls, once small oil lamps, now strings of fairy lights connected to generators, give a magical air to the whole place. Clouds of fragrant steam rise from huge saucepans, full of chickens stewed with preserved lemons and turmeric, lamb scented with cardamom, cumin and coriander, mounds of couscous, salad, fresh herbs, vegetables and flat bread stacked in heaps. There are whole tables piled high with oranges.
It’s a wonderful, fantastical place, with all the atmosphere of a medieval fairground (or what one imagines that to be), offering a grand spectacle of snake charmers, jugglers and tumblers, fortune tellers, men with little monkeys on their shoulders, dentists prepared to yank the teeth from your mouth then and there, and fakirs selling cures for everything and nothing. It’s a place where you can buy a perfect ostrich eggshell for 100 dirhams (about £7), a place where fortune-tellers, musicians, scribes, interpreters of dreams and story-tellers carry on their business late into the night – as they have done for centuries.
Nothing changes. There is a timeless quality to Djema’a el-Fna. The crowds still gather round the story-tellers, still listen, still ooh and aah at the flights of fantasy, still nod their heads knowingly as the punch-line is delivered, the denouement reached. The raconteurs’ power is still in evidence. Television, videos, and magazines – all of which are available locally (though not as cheaply as this form of entertainment): none of these have managed to diminish the appetite of the Marrakeshis for stories and storytellers.
As you stand there, understanding nothing but listening intently, as if by the very act of concentrating, the fog of words will suddenly dissolve and reform themselves into something meaningful, you feel both a part of something old and wonderful and mysterious and, at the same tine, totally excluded, a stranger in a strange land.
NB: Some first-time visitors to Morocco complain of being hassled. I always think this is a terrible pity, not least because it implies a profound lack of understanding of where you are. Bear in mind that bargaining and trading are part of the culture of the country and therefore second-nature; secondly, for all its polish, its Frenchness, Morocco is a Third World country and desperately poor. The boy who accosts you in the Place Djema el Fna and offers to be your guide in the souk undoubtedly has no other source of income. Unless this is your twentieth visit – in which case you won’t be reading this – you will invariably get lost without a guide, so find a young man whose face you like (consult your hotel), agree a price or tell him what you are prepared to pay and trust in God – or rather, Allah. You are much more likely to be cheated if you expect to be and the souk is full of entrancing bargains. Moroccan carpets lack the distinction of Turkish ones, but they can be very pretty; pottery, glass and leather goods are all good buys. Your guide will inevitably take you to the shop of his ‘friend’, but bargaining is not a frightening or unsavoury business (the English seem to find it particularly distasteful), though it can be rather exhausting, and the rules are simple enough. Decide what you can afford, do not buy anything you don’t want, do not be bullied and do not be rude. Remember it is a game as Mustapha says.