Marrakech is a crazy place. This sounds like a big cliché, I am aware, but it’s true – I had no idea what I was in for. First off, Marrakech has two very distinct faces. There is the new town, the area called Gueliz around the 16th of November square that commemorates the return of the royal family from exile in 1955. The new town is not too exciting but you can find some good restaurants, bars and general shopping, including, surprisingly to me, the likes of Zara. In fact, if you stand between two shopping blocks and happen to only see women dressed in clothes you are used to, of whom there are many, you may think you are in one of many other cities in the world. People go by, cars go by, the sun shines with scorching heat over you, the bareheaded tourist. The only thing that might strike you as different here, if you haven’t gotten used to it by now, is the rosy red color of the buildings. Marrakech, the Red City.
We went to the new town on day three to take a breath from the madness that goes on behind the walls of the old Medina of Marrakech – the original city built by the Arabs in 1062. The Medina is a labyrinth of narrow streets and red stone buildings, built purposefully to conceal the life inside from the heat and dangers outside. On these narrow crooked streets we found ourselves constantly competing for space with countless scooters, motorcycles spitting fumes and bicycles ringing their bells barely just in time. There are no signs, no speed limit, no streetlights and no rules. Between motorcycles, bicycles, donkey or horse-drawn carriages, industrial looking vehicles carrying rubble to unknown construction sites and human beings going on about their business, it is every man and woman for themselves. Gratefully, we managed to leave Marrakech intact and whatever negative impressions we had, they were not at all founded on physical accidents (mostly they were of olfactory or hygienic nature, but that is to be expected from the likes of us). Svetla and I even rode on the back of a scooter on the way to a hammam, each of us holding on to the man in front with various degrees of fear of falling back.
On the second day we took a walking tour of the Medina with a guide named Mohamed, who showed us “the hidden sights”. It was then that I realized that staying in these old streets sent us back in time.
In old Marrakech each neighborhood has a mosque, a baker and a hammam. Every mourning at 4:30 am the imam starts the day’s first call to prayer and many voices mingle in the air, raising traditional Muslims to meet the day.
The neighborhood baker plays a similarly central role in the community. Each family’s bread and baked goods pass through his hands – kids bring in the dough in the morning and he sits upright in a dark basement you would never find if you didn’t know to look and pushes round fragrant breads in and out of a stone oven where a twig fire burns on one side. “This is how you know if a family is big or small,” our guide explained. He also said that besides his obvious function as a baker, the baker is something of a matchmaker, whom young men go to for advice before proposing marriage. Apparently he has veto power.
The hammam is the traditional public bath, also known as a Turkish bath, where people go to get thoroughly scrubbed and cleaned for the holy day, Friday. As Mohamed explained,
“On Friday we wake up early, we go to hammam, we go to prayer, we have couscous.”
One of my favorite moments in Marrakech, besides actually experiencing the pleasure of hammam, was discovering that next to a public hammam there is an adjacent basement where a sooth-covered man throws twigs, discarded wood, plastic and any other rubble into a fire that warms two big cauldrons that produce the heat and steam for the bath rooms. There is a community where human touch powers every function, product and service. Human voice wakes you up for prayer, human hands bake your bread, warm the water for your bath and scrub the dead skin off your body so you can greet your higher power with a clean body and a clean soul.
Mohamed took us through the souks, where we had already gotten lost the day before. These are the markets, labyrinths within the labyrinth designed to get the unsuspecting tourist (invader) lost. The souks are a splendidly confusing mess of colors, smells (not all of them pleasant: manure, spoiled food, sheep and goat skins left out to dry, “second-hand” items for sale, including bread) and hand-made products you can buy for any price if you argue long enough. All the above-mentioned vehicles and means of transporting goods and materials pass through the souks as well, adding to the general commotion. As a female tourist you have a great advantage in the souk – you get stared at, yelled at, sold to, your arm is often grabbed, your attention is in very high demand. But we found that as long as you dress appropriately (conservative shirt, pants or skirt below the knee), you don’t have much to worry about. The other thing that made an impression to us in the souks was the amount of food, both raw and cooked, sitting out in the open, freely visited by flies and bees. Every place has its own germs, but it was these sights of raw meat hanging on hooks under the sun and of intestines being cut and carried around in hands not too clean that turned us off the dinner items offered at Jemaa el Fnaa, the Big Square. We ate delicious Moroccan food in touristy restaurants and wonderful home-cooked dinner and breakfast at our riad, and it felt authentic enough.