Monday, 24 February 2014

Morocco – The chaos of Marrakech

February 21-24

Bonjour! Salam! HELLO!!

Can you hear me over the noise? The shouting match between rival minarets? The clanging and banging of metal pots and pans? The desperate cries from the street sellers? The strangled screams that apparently gets sold in CD form as Moroccan pop music?

All of that. Just from our rooftop terrace in a Marrakech side street.

That last blog, when I mentioned calm and quiet? Envisage that, then picture the opposite in your mind, and you may be part of the way to understanding the attack on your ears that is Marrakech as evening approaches.

Though it may initially assault your hearing, the buzz of the main square, called Jamaa El Fna, is friendly in its nature. The 'square' itself isn't really a regular shape, more an irregularly-shaped open space, and is boxed by a variety of cafés and shops on most of its sides. One side is very different from the rest, which I will talk about in greater detail later.

Marrakech, and this square in particular, has been the target of terrorist attacks previously. A bomb exploded here three years ago, taking seventeen lives. On the whole, the city feels rather safe, though obvious precautions such as protecting your pockets have to be taken. Though you should be aware of the potential for a scam, it is also important to remember that the vast majority of the local people are inquisitive and, if they are trying to sell you something, will do so in a genial and respectful manner.

During the day the open space is occupied by a variety of performers and artisans. Some, such as the female henna tattooists, are showcasing their skills and the culture of the region. Others, including the men who drag helpless monkeys around the square pushing for photos and dirhams, show a less comforting side of Morocco. Then there are the male dancers dressed as women; frankly, I don't know how to describe them. They may look like women, but you can tell from the hands. Always look at the hands and the Adam's apple...

Much of the noise during the daytime, aside from the background hum of vehicles and people, comes from the vast array of carriages selling orange juice. The word carriage is used for a reason here. Dozens of men, young and old, sell freshly squeezed orange juice from a stall on wheels reminiscent of a Victorian coach. The fact that there are so many stalls selling this most refreshing product – for a mere 4 dirhams, or 30p, no less – means that they have to use special tactics or tricks to get your attention. Most of them resort to hollering. Loudly.

As for the juice itself – simply amazing. Perfect to either refresh you after, or prepare you for, going into the souks.

Marrakech is famous for its souks. Depending on where you hail from or have travelled to, you may know these as bazaars or giant markets. Only the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul compares in size to the souk labyrinth that engulfs the main square in Marrakech. It is certainly not for the faint-hearted.

There are innumerable entrance and exit points. If you visit you will find it very difficult, nay impossible, to start and finish at the same place. That aforementioned other side of the main square is where most travellers will enter. This approach is a sea of metals, woods and fabrics, a rainbow of colour, and one entrance to a circulatory system almost as complex as your own.

It is much easier to show you the pictures rather than use words to explain the variety of goods available. As you can see below, just about anything can be procured!

It is best to leave yourself plenty of time to explore as many capillaries of the body of Marrakech as possible. Part of the joy of ambling aimlessly around the souk is finding that special shop which has something different to the rest, or a lovely and genuine owner who just wants to chat as much as sell you that decorative plate. Besides, trying to quickly navigate your way from top to bottom simply doesn't work; you'll only get yourself stressed.

You may believe that the souk is merely a collection, albeit a massive one, of shops. Not true, folks. Exploring certain areas of the labyrinth leads you to all kinds of workshops. From men tirelessly sanding their wood to give their spoons and boards to give them the smoothest finish, to young boys smiling as they smear dye over bone-dry leather, you can enjoyably spend most of your day marvelling at the care taken to produce the vast array of products.

The Marrakech souk, particularly in the evening, can become slightly overbearing, as this is rush hour. The clanging of pots and pans, the revving of motorbikes which inexplicably attempt to zip through the narrow alleys, the mass of movement and the gentle rolling of wheelbarrows and pushchairs can induce a sense of mild claustrophobia. We were caught in a slight crush when a moped and two pushchairs, each trying to pass one another, caused gridlock within our small artery close to the main square. It soon passed, but highlighted the potential problem of crushing and pickpocketing within the souk.

After losing yourself within the heart of the souk for a while, you'll inevitably be hungry. Luckily, Moroccan food is famed around the world for its distinctive flavours. The country's two most renowned dishes, couscous and tagine, are readily available at any café, shop or snack stand. I'm assuming you will know the former, so will briefly take time to explain the content of the latter. It consists of meat, potatoes cut into wedge shapes and the local available vegetables, all steamed or baked in the oven within a distinctive cone-shaped clay pot. Very good if you find a home-cooked one; fairly bland if you get one from the square. The lower two pictures after this paragraph will show you the difference between the two.

This leads me nicely into the most fun and raucous activity you will experience in Marrakech: the evening meal. I stated earlier that the Jamaa El Fna is a vast open space. It daylight. As the sun begins to hide behind the minaret that looms to the east of the square, a transformation begins to occur. By the time the alluring call to prayer has finished blaring from the dusty red spire, the open space has changed into a mass of white in the form of tents. with light smoke billowing from within. Welcome to the food court.

The volume increases markedly as the owners of these pop-up restaurants cook whilst trying to convince you to eat at their stall, rather than the hundred or so other food joints. The measures they take to persuade you go far beyond the norm of just handing out a menu and saying 'nice price'. Each restaurant has a unique number, and the owners try to use this in the form of a snappy slogan in order to gain your custom. Examples include 'Number two: no diarrhoea for two years!' and 'Thirty-seven: cheaper than Ryanair!' They also use rivals' numbers to make you aware of their apparent flaws. 'Number seven won't take you to heaven' and 'twenty-eight, it's very late!' show the competitive nature of their business. Their brilliantly specific English is not limited to slogans. I was called Starvin' Marvin' a few times as we examined the stalls for one we wanted to eat at. You can use the competitiveness to your advantage. We were offered a free drink if we returned to #12; we were sat down two minutes later.

Many tents sell the same products but some, usually the ones packed with locals rather than tourists, offer distinctive Moroccan food. A bowl of what the French call 'escargots' went down very nicely, and the sheep head meat had more taste than the usual fare of tagine and couscous, which is bland here in comparison with the home-cooked version. However, you eat here more for the concept than the quality. It is something which may happen once a year in a Western city as part of a cultural event; here it is a daily occurrence, and people rely on the custom to survive.

Marrakech is a city of contrasts. Peace and tranquillity is often located around the corner from chaos and noise. The result is a place where you rarely feel uncomfortable or bored. Morocco's main tourist hub has yet to fully succumb to foreign cash and whims, and is all the better for it.

Love you all


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