While there, I didn’t write about Marrakech. It was just too overwhelming, and like a strong drug, could not be discussed until its effects had faded. Now I’m in Casablanca airport, awaiting my flight to NYC, and it seemed like a good time to reflect.
Marrakech is called the Red City, constructed of the red, red mud of southern Morocco (though these days concrete block is the building material of choice, rather than adobe.)
A diversion… when it rains, the traditional mud homes of southern Morocco bleed red. They are eroding. It’s just something they do. If they are not repaired regularly, they return to the earth.
Another diversion… before this trip I had heard the terms ‘kasbah’, ‘medina’, and ‘souq’, but didn’t really know what they were. Consider this paragraph the educational portion of this email. A kasbah is a fortress. It’s the last refuge in the case of attack, and is built to withstand an attack. A medina is the walled section of a city. Since most medinas were built before automobiles existed, the are navigated through narrow, winding passages, and goods are brought in and out by cart or donkey. A souq (pronounced ‘sook’) is a market. It may be a region in a medina, or it may be a courtyard surrounded by shops. Often vendors of a particular type group together, so there may be a jewelry souq or a vegetable souq. The meat souq smells particularly interesting.
In each of the cities I’ve visited in Morocco, the medina is where I felt the most alive. In the medina, you never know where a passage will lead, or even which direction you’re heading. The passages twist and turn around homes and the sky is a narrow strip two stories up (or sometimes not there at all when the passage is covered for shade or living space.) One passage may lead to a string of restaurants serving fried sardines, while another may lead you towards the leather district. Unless you’re accustomed to the medina, every turn brings a surprise.
In early evening, when the air is cooler, the alleys are filled with people doing errands or shopping. Occasionally you need to step aside as a moped scoots by, or press yourself to a wall to allow a donkey to pass, laden with herbs or cement blocks. A westerner catching the eye of a shopkeeper is as likely to be greeted with a brilliant smile as indifference. The occasional tout will latch on, promising a tour of the medina, or to show you the best silver available anywhere. A firm ‘La!’ (no!) will often send them looking for other potential customers.
Wander the medina and within an hour you’ll come across the Djemaa el Fna, a large public square. The djemaa comes alive at night. The center is occupied with food stalls selling traditional moroccan tagines, tangias, and couscous. Some stands sell only harira, a hearty soup that makes a cheap and tasty meal. (I recommend stand #5!) Others sell boiled sheep’s heads, from which you may request the tasty tongue, cheeks, or brains, to be scooped up with pieces of bread as an evening’s meal.
On two sides of the food stalls are juice stands, selling orange and grapefruit (pamplemouse!) juices, freshly squeezed. Lit by strings of white bulbs, the fruit glow brightly, drawing you closer while the juice men beckon like sirens.
On the third side of the square, and occupying nearly half, are the performers. There are fortune tellers and story tellers. There, a man sits on a rug with two cobras rising hooded and swaying before him. Pause too long and you’ll find another snake wrapped around your neck, placed there by his accomplice, who motions for you to kiss the snake on the mouth for barakah.
If you wander too far to one side you will enter the realm of the monkeys. Flee. Men carrying sad, abused monkeys approach and try to get you to pay for a photo with a monkey on your shoulder. These bitter apes are more likely to take a chunk from your ear or fling feces as look cute on a postcard.
Pause too long at a performance (a berber singer, a man juggling tagines) and you will be hit up for compensation. Make sure that the money is being collected for the performer. (Some guys simply circle a crowd, asking for money and gesturing at the performance, with which they have no affiliation.) But if it’s a valid solicitation, pay. Your imagination has been massaged, your Arabian Night fantasies have been made flesh. A few dirham is a small price for such service.
P.S. Pamplemousse! Pamplemousse!