An initiation into the sights and sounds of the Red City
Author: Paul Costianes
Images: Anastasia Prokofyeva & Paul Costianes
“It’s a madhouse, of course. A complete, utter madhouse. I only hope to God it remains one.”― Paul Bowles, Let it Come Down
We touched down at Menara Airport in Marrakech at dawn after a long but uneventful day of travel, which included two connecting flights through Detroit and Amsterdam. As the plane taxied across the runway, a vibrantly earth toned countryside presenting a mix of desert vegetation and multi-hued soil passed by the plane. We angled our bodies and craned our necks like children to peek through the small windows in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the local terrain. After several minutes of maneuvering, our plane came to a halt around 100 yards from the terminal.
“So close, yet so far away,” I said to my wife Nastya. “Apparently our flight money runs out here. They’re going to make us walk the rest of the way.”
“Well, at least they got us this close,” she responded with a grin. “I’d prefer this walk to having to get out while the plane is still moving.”
Emerging onto the stairs from the climate controlled chill of the plane, we were immediately greeted by a blast of warm morning air, already thickening with heat as the sun sat low on the horizon. Rising in front of us was a strikingly designed terminal that immediately inspired many in our group of plane departees to brandish cameras and begin frantically snapping images from the tarmac. The blending of modern architecture and design with traditional Moroccan cultural elements is impressive to behold, and provides a snapshot of the way cultures have mixed over time, developing Morocco into the society that it is today.
Entering the terminal we were greeted by a rush of cool air and modern, expertly managed in-processing that reveals the city’s deep experience in the tourist trade, with the airport handling nearly 3 million arrivals in 2018. Passport Control lines queue and move efficiently, currency exchange and ride stands bustle with activity and convenience stands are plying their wares to wide eyed travelers. We stepped into one last line for a final bag scan before departing the airport and all was smooth sailing as we passed through the scanners. Turning a corner, we saw a slim, black suited man holding a sign with Nastya’s name on it.
“Hello my friends, I am Omar. I will be your driver for today.”
He’s immediately friendly and forthright, asking about the quality of our travel and taking both of our bags for transportation to the car. I noticed a bank of ATM machines and remembered that Morocco is a cash driven country, with a currency that is restricted for conversion beyond its borders. I need cash.
“Omar, I need to drop by the ATMs to grab some cash on the way out.”
“Of course my friend, but don’t use those. Their fees are outrageous. I’ll take you to a proper bank on the ride to the riad.”
At this point I learned my first of many lessons in Morocco: follow the age old rule and ask a local. In Marrakech, the locals have always “got a guy.” The people of Marrakech are incredibly friendly, helpful and deeply understand the labyrinthian city that, while welcoming to outsiders, only truly opens up to those who are from it. It is a city where residents survive and thrive based on the strength of their connections to others. They are more than willing to point you to their favorite restaurant, shop, hotel, or whatever you need, usually owned by a family member or acquaintance. This practice not only benefits the traveler/tourist looking for something, but the local trade and merchants as well.
“Marrakech locals have always “got a guy.” The people of Marrakech are incredibly friendly, helpful and understanding of a labyrinthian city that, while welcoming to outsiders, only truly opens up to those who are from it.”
Omar loaded our bags into his Mercedes tour coach and us into the back seat, jumped into the driver’s seat and fired up the engine. Expertly maneuvering the large black van through incredibly tight spaces packed with high-end vehicles, he quickly threw us into traffic, bobbing and weaving like a true professional while beginning a narrated tour of Marrakech, including a deep commentary on its current state of socioeconomic affairs.
“All of these apartments are brand new within the past 5-years” he stated, pointing to row upon row of multi-story apartment complexes located across a river from the airport. “They are all unfinished, but are full of people, so are now stuck in development.” It’s stunning to see the sheer number of apartments at various stages of completion being occupied by families living out their daily lives. I noticed construction materials piled on many of the rooftops as we drove by.
“It looks like some of these buildings are still being worked on. Are the developers trying to finish construction?” I asked.
Omar flashed a smile at me in the rear-view. “They are doing it themselves. Moroccan ingenuity.”
As we continued to weave through traffic we passed massive modern apartment and shopping complexes packed with chic stores and mega-markets and sprawling 5-star hotels. This opulence underscores the juxtaposed living standards that stratify resident groups and tourists. The city and its issues are complicated, but its beauty is captivating at first sight.
“It’s a clear day. Look to the right. Those are the Atlas mountains,” Omar says, “you have to see them if you have the time. They are very important to Berber culture.”
We looked out of the van windows to see the Atlas mountain range, purple in the distance and rising up above the red buildings of Marrakech. The combination of colors is breathtaking. The Atlas range stretches across Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia and is still home to many traditional Berber villages whose residents are keepers of the indigenous ancestry of the region. We had planned to depart for a day trip to the Atlas range on the following afternoon, but as we crossed through the gates of the medina it became apparent that we should let the city dictate the itinerary.
The medina is a densely packed beehive of activity that is an assault to the senses of the uninitiated traveler when you first enter its walls. Streets become extremely tight. Crowds become more dense and are a mix of lost tourists, local merchants attracting customers and local residents trying to go about their work. Scooters and three-wheel driven carts reign supreme and are constantly buzzing past and pushing by in shoulder-to-shoulder crowds of people, leaving clouds of engine exhaust that hang heavy in the hot afternoon sun.
As Omar expertly navigated through the twisting side streets leading to our riad, we watched daily life pass by outside of the windows. Children walked to school in the white coats of their uniforms, men worked in shops to create building supplies by hand, particularly the tadelakt plaster and tile that is now ubiquitous in Marrakech, Morocco and the world over. There was a stunning amount of activity happening in alleyways, small shops, and on the street that hits the nervous system like a haymaker as the jet lag of a multi-leg flight sets in.
“There is a stunning amount of activity happening in alleyways, small shops, and on the street that hits the nervous system like a haymaker as the jet lag of a multi-leg flight sets in. “
As abruptly as it began, our ride was over. Omar had brought the coach to a halt in a small town square busy with stands, taxis and men sitting around the edges, shading themselves from the rapidly advancing sun. We were surrounded on all sides by alleyways entering the square at various angles, leading to the medina and the souk. Watching me as I surveyed the scene with an uncertain look on my face, Omar smiled and said “Hassan will meet you at that alleyway,” pointing to a sunlit alley to our right.
“Ah, perfect. Thank you so much for the ride and tour,” I murmured.
“It was my pleasure. Please call if you plan to take any day trips or need a coach. I’m always available,” said Omar as he extended a business card between two fingers, leaped back into the driver’s seat and rolled away into the morning heat.
“Now we just have to find Hassan…” said Nastya as we started to walk, our rolling bag wheels screaming “tourists” with every step. A man in a Yankees ball cap, smoking a cigarette near an entrance to a slim medina corridor watched us walking slowly towards the center of the square and began to move towards us. He nodded his head as if he knew us, raised his hand to get our attention and began to say something. Suddenly looking to his left, he turned on his heel and hurriedly strode back to his perch near the alley.
“Welcome to Marrakech!!!” came a ringing voice to our right. Hassan, the manager, accountant, mâitre d’, ringmaster, Renaissance Man and professional tourist wrangler for Riyad Al Moussika walked towards us with open arms and a big smile, shaking both of our hands and greeting us with pleasantries.
“I’m sure it’s been a long flight. Let’s get your bags back to the riad. You will have some mint tea and cookies, relax in the shade, do your check-in paperwork. Then you can have a shower and I will give you a map and some directions to get you exploring.”
This represents another lesson, not just in expert level customer service, but in longevity: the skill of pacing. Moroccans value communal experiences, such as long, elaborate, family style meals and tea service, focusing on mint tea offered with a selection of outstanding pastries.
The modus operandi for my wife and I when arriving in a new place has been to hit the ground running – flying in, quickly dropping our bags at the home base and flying out of the doors to explore the city, usually walking for hours before returning to settle in and prepare for an evening meal. This would inevitably lead to collapse at some point early in the journey.
Instead we relaxed. We sat at a beautiful old Berber inlaid wood table next to the mosaic-covered pool surrounded by trees and fragrant flowers in the middle of a traditional Moroccan riad. We sipped mint tea and ate patisserie. We wrote, talked and quietly explored the nooks and crannies around the riad, taking in the views from its rooftop terraces. As the sun began to move towards its peak, the noises of life outside the walls of the riad began to beckon.
In short, Hassan’s suggestion forced us to stop, rest and reset within the silence of the riad before jumping into the melee that was the medina, the souk and Jemaa el-Fna. Breaking the journey up, particularly on the first day in a new locale, has since become an essential step in our pace setting practices, particularly when traveling with kids. Relaxing and normalizing in a new location allows us to reset our minds to a new pace of life and is key in preventing early burnout.
Back in the foyer of the riad, Hassan masterfully described directions to traverse the medina and the souk to us while drawing lines through the maze-like streets of a tourist map that he was using as a visual aid. “When you walk out of the riad, follow the alleyway back to where you came in, take a right and walk through the main archway. There will be a young man standing there wearing a hat. He will tell you that this entrance is closed and will offer to show you the way. He may be very forceful in his speech, but not in his actions. He is lying to you. The archway is open and he is just trying to get you to follow him a long way so that he can demand tour money from you. Ignore him and walk through the archway. If you want to see the souk, take a left at this street. Going to the right will take you more directly to Jemaa el-Fna.”
“Aggressive in speech and not action? This sounds suspiciously like the attributes of a kung fu master. My moves aren’t as snappy as they used to be. Should we go a different way?”
Hassan laughed and waved me off saying “He won’t be physical, just aggressively friendly.”
Leaving the riad, I am struck by the soulful beauty of this place. It’s very very old and has a vibrancy and lived-in grace that can only come with time. The sun plays with the red color of the buildings and creates a sense of warmth, a connection to earth that underpins the culture of the city.
Arriving back in the small square we turn right towards the archway recommended to us by Hassan and see our man in the ball cap once again. He perks up and comes our way, delivering the lines that Hassan warned us about word for word. “HEY!!! My friends! You can’t go that way, it’s closed. Follow me this way.” He’s aggressive in speech, but never gets close enough to us to feel threatening – aggressive in speech, not in action. We say “no thanks” and continue on through the archway as he walks away to try again with the next set of tourists.
Walking the alleyways of the medina and the souk in Marrakech for the first time feels like a shotgun blast to your nervous system. Scooters, three wheeled trucks, donkey-driven carts and various other modes of transportation squeeze their way down the middle of the narrow alleyways. Hearing the buzzing of these engines eventually leads to a Pavlovian response that pushes humans tightly to either side of the streets to allow for the vehicles to fly by at rocket speed, throwing exhaust into the air to be inhaled by those traversing at a slower pace. Business owners stand outside of their shops and restaurants, watering the dust in front of their entryways, beckoning you to come in and try their tajine, check out their Berber jewelry or leather goods.
But somehow the whole system works, primarily due to the spirit and consideration for fellow humans that I witnessed. The vehicles swerve and maneuver around carts, food stands and people with few incidents. Shopkeepers, while pushy, are always polite and when declined will quickly back away with a wave and an “as you wish” or other similar salutation. We watched a massive (for Marrakech) box truck attempt an incredibly tight turn and nearly get stuck in a crowded corridor of people. The shopkeepers working the streets quickly folded up their stands and moved everything to clear additional room for the driver, who expertly angled the truck through that gap to applause from the shopkeepers. Once past, shops and carts moved back to their normal spots and resumed business. The scene was repeated again, as locals rallied together to pick up and move an elderly woman sitting in the path of a vehicle trying to make a turn, and returning her to the spot once the road was clear. This is my third lesson from Marrakech: taking the time to help others can feel like a minor inconvenience, but at the end of the day, a little help makes everything run more smoothly for everyone.
The streets and alleys of the souk wind for what feels like miles, past shops selling everything one could imagine, from newspapers to rugs and antiques, leather goods to snacks. It’s breathtaking to experience, but began to take its toll as the temperatures soar and exhaust inhalation creates a low grade buzz of burning brain cells.
“I’m feeling a bit light-headed, maybe it’s the heat? Or the fumes? Or a combination of both?” I said to Nastya.
“You’re such a diva. I’m starting to notice certain…traits about you: ‘It’s too hot. The fumes are too heavy.’ It’s like the time you insisted on wearing my purse during our trip to Moscow…”
She is of course referring to the time that I carried her preposterously heavy camera that was kept in her shoulder bag as an act of kindness and affection.
“That was a camera bag, not a purse. In fact it was YOUR camera bag, so if it’s not stylish regardless of gender affiliation, maybe it isn’t so stylish after all. Pair me with the right piece and it would’ve been ‘HELLOOOOO Russian GQ,'” I reply.
It is immediately after saying this that I realize that she has walked away from me.
“Let’s find Jemaa el-Fna and grab a drink. I want to try the famous orange juice,” she replies over her shoulder, walking towards the low level hum echoing from the alleyway marked with a “Jemaa el-Fna” sign.
As the sun approached the horizon and the sky began to display the vivid colors of sunset, we emerged from the alleyways of the Marrakech medina into Jemaa el-Fna and were gobsmacked by the scene ahead of us. This massive, sprawling, open square is the geographical and spiritual center of the medina, filled to the edges with throngs of people and stands for shopping, eating and various forms of entertainment. It was like nothing I had seen in terms of its sheer size, density of humans and it’s CACOPHONOUS noise level. We stood for a moment examining the crowd and attempting to orient ourselves to what was happening around us, walking a path which allowed us to survey the market from its edges. Spotting an opening, we dove into a gap that led through the banks of food stalls that line the square, following the smells of cooking smoke and roasted meat.
The scene within the square represents a major confluence of the various facets of Moroccan culture that we had seen throughout the day. Numerous musicians of varying backgrounds congregate in groups to play Gnawa and Berber tunes, each group playing different songs at the same time, creating a vertigo inducing overlap of sounds that resonate across the square. Snake charmers and animal handlers present their animals to you, offering the chance to hold one of their pets for a photo op, at a bargain priced fee, of course. Attendants of food and juice stalls step in front of you to offer menus as merchants and street performers of various disciplines vie for your attention. Some of these vendors are doing big business, particularly those with buildings around the square. Many of the men, women and children setting up blankets to sell food or small trinkets in the square are hustling to pull together enough money to feed themselves and their families, and there are days when they just don’t make enough to accomplish that.
Amidst all of this revelry and struggle, there is a specter of tension that can be felt across the square, primarily due to a bombing outside of the Argana Café in 2011 that claimed the lives of 17. There is a heavy patrol of armed guards keeping watch on the square who are present at various points throughout the area, respectful, courteous and vigilant. Shops and restaurants occupying buildings within the square require customers to pass through metal detectors upon entering, and surveillance cameras can be throughout. It’s comforting to know that the Moroccans are protecting their way of life, but an unfortunate sign of the times that this type of vigilance is required in areas where many people congregate.
Twilight had taken over the sky as lights began to spring to life, illuminating the stalls and buildings around the square. We angled through the mass of people and emerged to be greeted by a view of Koutoubia Mosque rising in the distance down an avenue choked with people and cars. At this point it became apparent that a musical hum was rising above the amorphous noise of the crowds. After a moment of wondering if we were hearing things, the sound developed into a singing voice. It continued to rise in volume and clarity, as a second and third voice joined in echo. We stopped to listen to the speakers booming from rooftops around the square and across the city. They were the voices of the Muezzin, the appointees of the mosques who coordinate the daily prayer schedule, singing the Adhan, a call to prayer that occurs five times a day in Islamic countries. This particular call was for the Maghrib, an evening prayer that is performed just after sunset.
We stood still, silently taking in the resonating, melodious voice as it reverberated the prayer in Arabic around the square and turned the roar of the crowd into a humming backing track. It was a disorienting moment of stillness amidst so much frenetic action. A moment that was very much indicative of modern Marrakech interlacing an ancient holy practice with the scenes of modern commerce happening across the square. It was a profound experience and a moment that will stick with me for the rest of my days.
As the call to prayer subsided we turn a knowing glance towards each other and retreat in the direction of one of the many alleyways lining all sides of the square. It is time to once again traverse the beehive of activity within the souk and return to our riad in time to relax into dinner and drinks. Weaving our way through the bustling crowds of passersby I suddenly remember that we forgot something.
“Do you still want that famous orange juice? I hear it’s best…” I ask Nastya, a smirk growing across my lips.
She appears to ponder the question for a moment while her feet continue to slowly pace towards the alleyway, then pauses to reply.
“Nah, after that I think I’ll have a beer. Besides I can’t be seen in public this long with you carrying that clashing purse.”
As she walked ahead, I stopped to look at the weight that had been added to my right shoulder without my knowledge. I had been obliviously carrying her flower covered backpack with the same preposterously heavy camera for an unknown amount of time, duped once again by her expertly delivered slight-of-hand while gawking at the scene around us.
I paused, watching her as she strolled leisurely ahead of me towards the winding alleyway, gracefully picking her way upstream against the tourist hoards as she sauntered towards the riad.
Taking one last look around at the bustling square, I adjusted the bag across my shoulder, took a deep breath and said to myself “Hellooooooo Moroccan GQ,” as I dove into the crowd to follow her.
Jemaa el-Fna is in many ways the center of Marrakech and a microcosm of the broader city. It is the place where all of the alleyways that wind throughout the medina eventually lead, where the multitude of cultures that have made their way to Morocco throughout history combine and intermingle in a gloriously chaotic, yet somehow organized, mixture of commerce and humanity. There are examples of the many facets of Moroccan society on display across the square, showing their capacity for love, peace and empathy. It is also a reminder of how hard life can be and how easily some people can be overlooked or forgotten.
At the end of the day, the scene at Jemaa el-Fna is not just a glimpse into the vitality and complexity of Moroccan culture or the lessons that we can learn from observing from a distance. It is an experience that forces me to examine my own humanity, and the decisions we make when confronted with the opportunity to help those who need it.
© 2019 55 Cities
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