Back from under the Sheltering Sky

Jamaa El Fna

Now I will finally try to put together my thoughts and impressions from my trip to Marrakech with my brother which was also my first trip ever to Morocco or to the African continent for that matter. I have already told the story of Casablanca, so now to Marrakech. I suppose that I could summarize Marrakech in three parts: (i) full of fascinating people, (ii) amazing tones of red and orange under a sky whose blue is spectacularly infiltrated with streaks of these same reds and oranges as night falls, and (iii) a place that I could not fully enjoy until I had departed from her. If interested, here is my explanation:

The Marrakech Sky

My brother had come to Madrid to visit me, and together we had wanted to take a short trip somewhere a little different (or Ghetto as the Comment Killer would label it). Because of a limited amount of time, our choices were either somewhere in Eastern Europe, Turkey, or Morocco. After having had plenty of problems finding reasonable flights and hotels, we decided upon Marrakech. We had read up on Marrakech, and I had spoken with many friends and co-workers who had spent time there (special thanks to Sergio for his insight). Apparently, Marrakech has become a very fashionable place for Europeans to travel. In fact, the city is now full of many resorts, trendy restaurants, and even a Pacha nightclub. I can testify to the fact that the city’s outskirts are full of new hotels and homes in construction. Notwithstanding all of this, one is to be on alert to safeguard against stomachs ill-accustomed to the local nutrition and water. I, having a particularly sensitive digestive system, was particularly conscious of this.

We arrived at midnight and left the airport to catch a taxi. We had also been informed that all prices had to be negotiated. This was just another factor that made acclimatization difficult. Our taxi driver was very friendly and pointed out the names of streets and a few landmarks. One thing that we immediately noticed was the overbearing stench of the car fuel (definitely not healthy for the driver). Instead of staying at a posh hotel (which would have been comparably cheaper than one of its counterparts in Europe), we stayed in something more modest for around $30/night.

A quick word on taxis: amazing. These guys were driving like a pedestrian in a hurry negotiating his way through a New York City sidewalk in heavy traffic.

The hotel was a dump, but a dump with some charm. It looked like it would have been a beautiful place, say 30 years ago, but was now decrepid and in poor maintenance. Nevertheless, the shower and toilet worked fine even if the other amenities didn’t. It also had a wonderful interior patio and a bar hidden in the back. Apparently, drinking alcohol by locals in shunned upon, so most bars have covered windows, are hidden away, and are almost exclusively frequented by men. On our second and third nights, we went to the hotel bar to have a few beers and unwind. Strangely enough, this bar was a gem. The majority of the people were local and there was an oud player. As he sang, two men sitting in the table next to him sang along passionately and bought him orange sodas. Every once in a while, a European tourist would stop in and have a quick coffee or beer and then leave. The locals never even appeared to notice their presence (or ours for that matter), with the sole exception of a quick glance at any female that entered.

Marrakech: Hotel Corridor

On our first morning, we got our taxi and negotiated the price ($2) to take us to Place Jamaa El Fna, the central square from which everything happens. There one is bombarded with everything. There are orange juice stands and ladies who push henna tattoos on you. There are also a variety of performers from monkey trainers, snake charmers, story tellers, what appeared to witch doctors, and other singers and instrumentalists. The constant sound of the flute was omnipresent. At times it was overbearing and annoying, but at other times I could hear distinctly the influence it must have had on John Coltrane. As a matter of fact, the first thing I did upon returning to Madrid was to play Coltrane’s “Ole”.

Back to the square. From the square, you can go into the medina or old city filled with its narrow and winding alleys. Towards the north, you have the souks where merchants sell almost everything. Towards the south, you have the casbah, the Royal Palace, and the old Jewish mellah. And to the west, you have the Koutoubia Mosque (almost identical to the Giralda in Sevilla). Walking through the tiny streets of the Medina was an experience. At first, it took a long time to find our “comfort zone”. You really have no power of discrimination to judge whether to go forward, backwards, left or right. Or whether you are safe. The first times you venture down the streets with merchants, you feel like you are being heckled. Shopkeepers try to get you into their stores or to make a sale. On the other hand, in the casbah, no one paid any attention to us at all. In the casbah area, the streets were less well kept, but they were more charming and felt more authentic. People just went along their own business. Every once in a while we’d get lost, and ask for directions. People helped out and no one asked for a hand out.

On our first trip through the souks, we were dragged into a rug makers, where they made (obviously) rugs and blankets out of camel wool (actually, they are dromedaries) and cactus silk. We got the whole show from a man from southern Morocco and a younger local. We got the tour of how everything is made, a picturesque view from the rooftop and then a display of the goods. After the show comes the “democratic” part where you bargain for those things you want. During this whole process, they are incredibly nice and friendly. But, once you have made the purchase, they act defeated and a touch whinny. Anyways, back to the streets.

Throughout these tiny streets, you constantly have to maneuver through heavy traffic of motorbikes, push carts, and donkey driven carts; not to mention all of the odors and scents from donkies, pastries and species, perfumes, produce and butcher shops, and worst of all — tanneries. The problem that we encountered was that entering these allies was like going into the ring. You go in, take a few punches, and then need to get out of the ring for some air. The place to get air was the Place Jamaa El Fna. The problem was that the square did not really give you much of a break. Once in the square, people tended to nag you more. Instead, we would retreat to one of the roof top cafes for a tea and to watch over the city. In the distance, you can see the Atlas Mountains and the crowd slowly growing as the day moved on.

Place Jamaa El Fna with the Altas Mountains

Then comes the sound of prayer over the speakers and night falls.

After finishing our mint tea, we generally didn’t really know what else to do. We had spent all day on our feet and were pretty exhausted. Nevertheless, going back into the allies at nightfall is also enjoyable. The merchants are also tired and less aggressive. As a matter of fact, once you have gone into the ring a few times, you realize that it is perfectly safe and above all incredibly fascinating.

And then the party and the food stands come to life. What is quite peculiar is that the entertainment is completely for locals. Although tourists love to see the snake charmers (etc), the crowds that filled the square in the evening were all locals. And there was no (apparent) drunkards.

Overall, though, what caught my attention the most were the people. We definitely got the feeling that George Lucas had come to Marrakech to get inspiration for Star Wars (even though I believe it was actually Tunisia). The ethnic and cultural richness and diversity were incredible. Unfortunately, I simply do not know enough about Morocco and its neighboring countries to fully comprehend everything that I saw. I do know that the majority of Moroccans are either Arab or Berber or a mixture of both. There were also plenty of people who seemed to be racially from Sub-Saharan Africa. You also had people from other areas who had come to Marrakech for work and to trade like the Tuareg. And then you had all different ranges of religiosity. You had women who wore head scarves, were total covered in black without even their eyes showing, very modern dressed people, and then these guys dressed like Obi-Wan Kenobi. No matter where you walked in the city, be it the center or in the outskirts, everyone was always either very pleasant or totally indifferent to your presence.

Ironically, in Spain the Moroccan immigrants (derogatively called moros) are regarded as untrustworthy and are discriminated against; whereas, my experience here was that people were kind and always wore a sympathetic smile. I loved watching the school kids walking down the streets together. You had kids playing and laughing together that came from all of the different degrees of ethnicity and religiosity. Although Marrakech seemed poor, it seemed like a good place for child to grow up. The US could learn a lot here.

Finally, on our flight back to Madrid, we passed through Casablanca’s airport again. This time, though, the airport seemed like a refugee camp, more so than even JFK or Heathrow. One whole section was full of women dressed in white robes with indigo blue scarves over their heads. Many tourists took photos, but I thought that was probably inappropriate. We guessed that they were probably also Tuareg from Niger or Mali but were not sure. It seems that Casablanca is a hub for flights throughout Africa, and there were flights to incredibly interesting places like Congo and Gabon. Meanwhile, we were going back to a cold and unusually rainy Madrid.

Unfortunately, it took some time to find that all important “comfort zone” which allows you to truly enjoy the trip. Furthermore, my French is very limited and my Arabic is non-existent. Nevertheless, Moroccans are very good with languages, so we were able to communicate in either English or Spanish. At the end of the day, our trip to Marrakech was one of those things that we didn’t fully appreciate until a few days after our return and are still absorbing. Hopefully, I will try Fez some time soon and then even beyond (stomach willing). I guess it’s the same old story: the more you see, the more you have to add to your to-do and to-learn lists.



Filed under Digressions, Friends / Family

4 responses to “Back from under the Sheltering Sky

  1. TheCommentKiller

    I have very similar sentiments and this blog serves as a pretty good travel diary.

    I really enjoyed Morocco and my whole trip (visiting Eric in Madrid). Morocco was a bit overwhelming at first, but as Eric concluded, I am now anxious to travel somewhere even more exciting and different.

    I have many impressions of Morocco, but one thing that stands out is the lack of socio-economic inequality and how that seemed to have a positive effect on society.

    anyway… i really enjoyed my trip. i feel like i got to know my brother better and feel closer to him. I hope i didn’t get on his nerves too much or overstay my welcome.

  2. eric

    Comment Killer,

    I think it is very hard to measure socio-economic equality or harmony when there are so few things that from the outside I understand about the people. There is definitely gender inequality, although not to the degree that we think from the media. Also, we don’t know whether certain professions (say running a farmacy vs. working in a tannery) indicate social status or intermingle on a social level. I also imagine that there is a huge gap between those with and those without. Nevertheless, it appeared that all interacted well.

  3. TheCommentKiller

    i agree my inductive reasoning is may be incorrect. That being said, compared to the U.S. there is certainly much less apparent inequality in Marrakech than in just about any city in the U.S. In the U.S. I am almost immediately aware when i am in affluent neighborhood or a low income neighborhood, but that was not the case in Marrakech.
    And i agree that was apparent inequality between men and women. However, it did seem that one of the more lucrative and modern restaurants in town was a women’s only co-op. Anyway.

  4. TheCommentKiller

    Also, last night i saw: Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets. A great movie which takes place in Casablanca is like a Moroccan version of City of God; actually it is probably the other way around as Ali came first and was likely an influence on the latter Brazilian film.

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