It was a muggy afternoon in Marrakech, and I was sweating slightly as I made my way through the souk, dodging mopeds belching clouds of grey smoke and flattening myself up against walls to make room for the donkey-drawn carts that kept rushing by. My purse was twisting awkwardly around me as I walked, bouncing wildly off my hip with every step, but I couldn’t stop to adjust it because one of my hands was clutching several flimsy plastic bags bulging with hand-woven baskets, ceramic bowls and more spices than I could probably ever manage to cook my way through, and the other hand was gripping an oversize antique silver tea tray wrapped in unwieldily layers of cardboard and lashed together with twine. I looked like a caricature: Tourist girl gets lost in the souk and emerges several hours later laden down with every kind of good imaginable. I almost expected a camel to trot out after me.
Nearly two and a half years after my first visit, I was back in Morocco. Back, and throwing myself once again into the spiders’ web of tiny, tangled alleys that make up Marrakech’s labyrinth of a medina.
The thing about Marrakech, the thing that had hooked me from the moment I first arrived and then drew me back again after two years, is that the city feels like something straight out of a storybook, a movie or a myth. It feels like it’s stretched between two incompatible time periods, where men in hooded djellabas and pointed leather slippers smoke and sip tea and artisans labor away in darkened, haze-filled alleys, hammering intricate designs into silver tea trays while mopeds – dusty, rickety ones from the 1970s, with pedals and bicycle-like seats – swerve their way down narrow streets heaving with activity. In some places, it’s almost impossible to stop moving; as soon as you come to a standstill, people are squeezing past you like a human river and you suddenly find yourself directly in the path of an oncoming donkey and cart.
There’s always some kind of fragrance hanging in the air, changing constantly as you walk. It’s smoke, it’s a meaty tagine simmering on hot coals, it’s raw spices, sharp and intensely aromatic, and then it shifts to something more pungent, hot metal, exhaust, something sour and animal that hits you in the back of your throat, and then smoke again. The noise, too, is always swirling around, clanking, buzzing, conversation in Arabic and French, shopkeepers calling out to passing tourists, the shrillness of a snake charmer’s horn in the chaotic Djemma-El-Fna square, and then the call to prayer, a haunting multi-layered chanting song without a melody that drifts down from the mosques and wraps itself around everything else.
I had assumed, foolishly, that it would be easier to find my way around the city this time. After all, I was staying in the same place as before – a traditional riad tucked into a corner of the medina – and my sense of direction isn’t bad at all. I had also assumed that I wouldn’t find the city so intense the second time around – that culture shock hits once, like lightening, for each place visited, and then recedes to leave a kind of calm in its wake. The thing about Morocco, though, is that the culture feels opaque and impenetrable when you’re on the outside looking in. For all the cups of mint tea you slurp down, for all the times you practice your Arabic greetings and thank-yous on shopkeepers, there is not even the slimmest chance that you will blend in. No matter how carefully you dress to avoid offending the country’s Islamic cultural norms, no matter how much you try to recede into the crowd, the truth is inescapable: You will stand out. Particularly when you’re a five-foot-nine girl (Moroccan women tend to be tiny and squat), pale-faced, wide-eyed and clutching a camera.
As I made my way down the street, I could feel eyeballs boring into me from all directions. An old man walked up and briefly touched my hair before giving me a crooked-toothed grin. Another man, swerving past on a beat-up bicycle, offered up a soft “bonjour, la gazelle” – the Moroccan version of a pick-up line that seemed to follow me around the city – before gliding around the corner. A pair of women, one in a billowing black burka and the other in a bright purple head scarf, stared at me with undisguised curiosity as they walked past. And as I trudged along, the calls of the shopkeepers, squatting outside their stores on little wooden stools, followed me.
“Bonjour, ça va? Hello! Hello! Français? English? Madam, please! Just to look at my shop, just to look! Madam, please!”
To walk through Marrakech’s medina – the souks in particular – you need to submit yourself to this kind of relentless marketing. Eventually you realize that it takes much more effort to refuse these invitations than it does to give a cursory glance to a shop’s wares, drop a few compliments, and then extract yourself, moving a few metres away before repeating the entire process all over again.
Time after time, I found myself being pulled into a tiny, dusty shop where an overly eager vendor would begin the process of hawking his goods. Everything was “very special”. Everything was “not costing very much”. Carpets were pulled from towering stacks and layered one over another in front of me until my exit path was effectively blocked with a tower of richly patterned wool. Jars of jasmine and myrrh – deeply perfumed in a heavy, ancient sort of way – were wafted under my nose, and leather babouches were pressed into my hands.
In the middle of Rahba Kedima, a sunlight-flooded square packed with merchants and fringed with spice venders, cafés and dark passages into the depths of the souk, I briefly made eye contact with a man selling woven bread baskets, which were piled behind him on the pavement in a haphazard heap of straw and bright colours. Seconds later – perhaps reading that accidental eye contact as a desperate desire to buy – he was trotting along behind me, arms laden down with the cone-shaped baskets, trying his absolute hardest to extoll the virtues of what was quite possibly one of the most simple products in existence:
“Madam, it is only costing twenty dirhams! Madam, it is authentic Moroccan way to serve your bread – no home is complete without it. Madam, your husband will surely appreciate the proper presentation of bread!”
After he had followed me around several corners and into the heart of the souk, I spun around and told him that my husband had already bought me a bread basket and had forbidden me to buy another.
In fact, this mythical husband proved himself to be quite useful throughout the week. During my first visit to the city I made the mistake of letting shopkeepers know that I was travelling alone, a foolish and naïve slip-up that almost inevitably led to some sort of offhand marriage proposal: You want these tea glasses for free? Marry me. You want to find your way back to your riad? Follow me, then marry me. This year, I was more prepared.
“My husband – he’s just a few stores away right now – wants me to search for some lanterns for our home”, I said, stepping into a tiny shop crammed with elaborately decorated lamps dangling just millimetres over my head.
“No, I can’t buy any more saffron, my husband said I bought too much already”, I replied to a particularly insistent spice vender. The word felt strange as it slipped out of my mouth, but it seemed to work – the fake husband lent a legitimacy to my presence that the identity of single girl travelling alone had never managed to.
Normally, I’m not a fan of shopping. I find it tiring at best, rage-inducing at its very worst. But shopping in Marrakech, like the city itself, was almost intoxicating in its exoticness. And so I bartered my way through the souk, sipping little glasses of intensely sweet mint tea while shopkeepers wrapped layers of newspaper covered in Arabic script around my purchases and fastened sheets of old cardboard to the sides of the gigantic silver tea tray I just had to have, covering the whole thing in a dense web of twine (“this is very good for the airplane”) before sending me on my way.
I got lost. I studied my map, then circled the souk once, twice, three times, each time ending up right back at my starting point. Shopkeepers looked surprised to see me pass by again, then amused, one of them calling out “Madam! What are you looking for? Spices, rugs? Teapots? A husband?” Raucous laughter followed. The sun was sinking lower, sending shimmering shafts of dust-infused light through the bamboo-slatted roof overhead and giving everything a mysterious, etherial glow. I pointed myself down yet another uncharted street, this one completely non-existent on my map, and finally emerged back into the familiar chaos of Djemma-El-Fna just as the sun dipped dramatically behind the minaret of the Koutoubia mosque.
Two days later, I watched as the baggage claim carousel in Rome’s Ciampino airport gave a loud metallic squeal and lurched into action. After a while, my suitcase tumbled out, bulging at the seams. A small chunk of Moroccan donkey dung was still stuck to one of the wheels. Minutes later, my cardboard-wrapped tea tray rolled awkwardly down the chute, looking out of place among a stream of black plastic suitcases. Miraculously, the web of twine had held together, proving that the merchant’s packaging methods for my “very special” purchase were indeed “very good for the airplane”.
For more photos from Marrakech, you can view the album on Facebook.