Morocco (2016)

Marrakech and the Medina

We explore Marrakech: we visit a bakery, a former slum and attempt not to get lost in the souk.

Swipe left and right to browse through the photos.

We woke up quite well after a full night’s rest. Well, full… it took some time to get to sleep, as the hotel is situated on a main thoroughfare, which remains active until quite late, and the hotel window is about as effective in blocking out sound as a piece of cardboard. In addition, Geert has put together a schedule that involves getting up at 7.00 am every day, which has led some to question whether this was supposed to be a holiday or a bootcamp; it does, however, grant us plenty of time to see Morocco. Oh, and of course there is also the Koutoubia Mosque next door, which starts its loud call to prayer at 5.00 am. It turns out I would make for a pretty terrible muslim, as I sleep straight through the call, unlike most of the rest of the hotel.

After the—again elaborate—breakfast buffet with breadrolls, cakes, and pancakes, we made our way onto the hotel’s roof terrace, for a fresh lecture by Geert on Marrakech. From the terrace, and especially from an even higher elevated roof, we shared an amazing view over the city with the broken furniture and hotel chairs, which were apparently stored there. After the lecture, our bus with driver Mohamed (Mahmed for short) and assistant Youssef drove up to take us on a tour around the different areas in Marrakech. And when I say “different”, I really do mean that. The difference between the affluent and the poor areas is enormous, sometimes only divided by a wall and a few hundred yards.

The Marrakech bidonvilles

Marrakech has a number of slums, consisting of small, self-built houses belonging to immigrants from the mountain regions (Morocco does not actually have a lot of non-mountain regions, for that matter) who have moved to the city after the breadwinner has found work there. They are usually small, clay houses, which are expanded as the needs and, more importantly, the family’s income increases and enough money is saved up to buy new bricks, doors, windows and other construction materials. Some of these slums have grown into regular boroughs in this way, which is a process called ‘slum upgrading’ (as you can see, Geert’s lectures are taking effect -ed.). The Moroccan government supports this way of getting rid of the slums with several programmes that allow people to convert their dwellings into proper houses more easily.

What do they need all those stylos for anyway?

It still feels quite strange, however, to drive through a slum, turn a corner, and find yourself on a large boulevard with plants and trees, flanked by small palaces behind large gates. It is also noticeable how expansive Marrakech is, and how much empty land there is in the city. Also, how much waste there is: pretty much every single empty lot, as well as the currently dry riverbed, is covered in shards of glass, plastic, pottery, and so on. Developed areas, especially the wealthier ones, seem meticulously clean and spotless, however; Marrakech is clearly a city of contrasts.

We alight in two places. At the first, we visit a small bakery where the entire neighbourhood has its bread baked; “has baked”, for the inhabitants actually make the bread themselves. They carve a sign into the dough identifying the family, and then bring it to the baker, who bakes the bread, after which it is picked up again by the family. Quite handy! The second stop is in a borough which is currently changing from a slum into a regular borough. On the clearly older ground floor levels of the houses, you usually see two very new, unfinished, floors being built. Our group quickly got the attention of the locals, for it did not take long before we were followed by a horde of children, varying from shy and curious to brazenly begging (seriously, what do they all need all those stylos for?).

It was quite nice to see such a borough in the middle of its development, and the hospitality of its inhabitants was made apparent as Martin accidentally cut his foot on a piece of stone. Immediately, a man came out with a bottle of water to wash the blood away, shortly followed by a Moroccon woman who offered aid and plasters in fluent Dutch (the Dutch really are everywhere). As the bus and first-aid kit were near, however, no aid was required and after a short and expert treatment on board, Martin could continue without leaving his trace all too literally.

Hairdressers, con artists and artisans

After having returned to the hotel for the lunch, we had the afternoon off and Vonne, Martin, Jos and myself headed into town. Martin had already previously convinced me to visit a hairdresser in Marrakech, but had decided to wait until the last day of the vacation. As I was eager to get rid of my wild manes, I opted to find a barbershop first. Jos was quite eager to see the snakes on La Place (as the Jemaa El Fna is known in common Marrakech parlance) and Martin wanted to check out the Ensemble Artisanale, a compound with shops made by local artisans at fixed prices.

We decided that this order of business was also the most convenient. In a street with shops nearby, we found a somewhat hidden barbershop where I could immediately sit down and have my hair cut for only 70 dirham, or about 7 euros. That seemed quite fine, and under the watchful eye of the audience (consisting of Vonne), the amount of hair on my head was quickly reduced to something managable and useful. Other than the moment that a seemingly random Moroccan entered and started talking to the barber, after which they started searching all the cabinets and drawers in the barbershop, until the Moroccan looked into a vase, removed two large feather dusters from it, pulled out a baseball cap, put it on, put the feather dusters back, and left, after which the barber continued his work, it was not particularly eventful. But then, who among us has not stored someone’s baseball cap in a vase under two feather dusters?

I told him he could go and climb up a palm tree and walked off, ignoring him.

From the barbershop, it was only a short walk to The Square. In contrast to the somewhat shady figures you can find there in the evening, in the afternoon it is filled with men in traditional clothing who will take pictures with you for money, women who will paint your arms and hands with poisoned henna, and snake-charmers. Entirely different story. It did not take us long to be accosted by one of the young men in the traditional garments who very cheerfully tried to persuade us to take a photo with him, even to the point where it was entirely free. I somehow knew that that was not going to be the case, but as he had already swapped headgear with me and I was curious to see what I looked like in his tasselled hat (and with the motto “Oh well, we are on vacation!”), I allowed Vonne to take a picture of us, which very quickly led into a series of photos along with another one of those guys who had appeared out of nowhere. After several pictures and swapping of hats, the subject of payment did of course come up. The “no money” bit was conveniently forgotten, and of course both him and his companion had to be compensated for their extensive services. Unfortunately I found that I only had 100 dirham bills (or a single 10 dirham one, but that would not have led to a happy ending for anyone), so one had to be sacrificed. Of course photo guy #1 took off with that, suddenly disavowing any acquaintance with photo guy #2, leading to me having to listen to that one’s complaints that he had not been paid yet until I told him to go climb up a palm tree and walked off, further ignoring him.

We saw Martin a bit further up dealing with the exact same situation. When he headed in our direction and along the way got a random snake draped around his neck, Jos decided to go and rescue him from the square-men, and we made our way to the Ensemble Artisanale instead. Again, large contrast: unlike in the souk, it was lovely quiet here and we had the opportunity to walk around and see all the wares on offer without being continually bothered by the salesmen or other entrepreneurs. We sat down for a drink and then headed back to the hotel, as Geert was going to take us on a tour through the medina. Once again across the square, the lively heart of Marrakech, we followed him into the bowels of the souk.

The Marrakech medina

If we thought yesterday that we had seen a good bit of the souk: that was nothing! For over an hour, we followed Geert through the most intricate maze of streets and alleys, filled with a thousand small shops. I have had spaghetti on my plate that was more orderly than the layout of these streets. Had I thought that our experience with the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul would give us an advantage: I was sorely mistaken. Keeping an eye on the group member in front of you, hoping that you did not lose sight of them as another handcart or scooter tried to pass through, and praying that this person also managed to follow the person in front of him or her so that everyone actually kept following Geert, was pretty much the sole concern. Geert who, seemingly blissfully unaware of the complete disorientation and confusion behind him, made his way at a good pace from one location to the other in this tangle. The Square of Herbs, the Musée de Marrakech, the Madrassa, a bathhouse, a dilapidated caravanserai where immigrants had (and possibly still have) a small workplace and attic to live and work at. Whenever he held up and the group could reassemble, he would say things like “you should definitely come back here”, or “try to visit this place again next week”, when all the rest of us could think was “but where are we?”

Had Geert labelled the Jemaa El Fna a ‘microcosm unto itself’, the medina has to be an entire universe. I am confident that some of the shopkeepers and workers are former hapless tourists who went into the area and never made their way out again. After the march had continued for some time, we turned around a corner and found ourselves suddenly back on The Square. Through some form of divine intervention, we had actually managed not to lose anyone. If you ever find yourself in Marrakech, do absolutely visit the souk; it is beautiful and worth every minute, but make sure that you have one of the following three with you when you do: a very long piece of string, a gps receiver, or a Geert.

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