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november 25, 2004 -> Souk and Ye May Find in Marrakech: morocco

Tourists try not to consult their maps, but in the souks (markets), a moment's hesitation at a confusing intersection is all that it takes to acquire a ‘guide,' who will first lead you to a commission-paying shop, and then perhaps to where you want to go.  Unfortunately, an air of confidence in one's location and destination is almost impossible to pull off.  If you are a tourist, you are lost.  And you do not get lost, you start lost.  The locals must find it hilarious.  Several times I waved off a guide only to pass by him a few minutes later.  The best approach to the souks is to accept the utter hopelessness of your situation.  If you wander randomly for long enough, you are bound to find the places that you are looking for, though not in the order that you intended. 

The shopping is incredible in Morocco, and the selection (though not the prices) is best in Marrakech.  The souks may be daunting for unprepared tourists, but they are nowhere near as treacherous as the guidebooks make them out to be.  Though as a matter of common sense, one should never, ever think about walking into a carpet shop.  Strangely, the best guide for the souks was a Bulgarian Jew, Elias Canetti, whose collection of essays “The Voices of Marrakech” still captured the essence of the place despite being written in the 1930's.  A lot has changed in Morocco since then, but not, apparently, in the souks. 

“It is spicy in the souks,” he wrote “and cool and colorful.” 

Like us, Elias was incredulous at the rows of shops offering exactly the same products: 

“The leather handbag that you want is on display in twenty different shops, one immediately adjoining other.” 

And he delighted in witnessing the products being made in the various quarters: 

“In addition to the booths that are only for selling, there are many where you can stand and watch the things being manufactured.  You are in on the process from the start, and seeing it makes you feel good.” 

And he was spot-on with his analysis of bargaining (which I loathe): 

“In the souks, however, the price that is named first is an unfathomable riddle.  No one knows in advance what it will be, not even the merchant, because in any case there are many prices.  Each one relates to a different situation, a different customer, a different time of day, a different day of the week.  There are prices for single objects and prices for two or more together.  There are prices for the poor, and prices for the rich, those for the poor of course being highest.” 

And most frustratingly:

“It is desirable that the toing and froing of negotiations should last a miniature, incident-packed eternity.”   

If one successfully escapes from the souks, one is likely to debouch into the Plaza Djemaa el-Fna.  During the day, the Plaza is an uneven expanse of gravel, barely suitable for a soccer pitch.  It has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the natural question one asks is “Why?”  Apart from the clattering horse-drawn carriages, and people heading somewhere else, the place is empty and unremarkable.  At night, however, the Plaza transforms into a chaotic din of restaurant touts, storytellers, snake charmers, street buskers and chattering passersby.  Rows of improvised restaurants, distinguishable only by their assigned number, serve up couscous and tajines to locals and tourists, while steamed snail vendors make a tougher pitch from their floodlit pedestals.  There is hardly space for the ragged, crippled beggars who have somehow managed to pull themselves into the center of the Plaza. 

Unlike Chinese ‘go-downs' (where the store owner's family lives above the shop), or close-to-the-office flats in London or Manhattan, Marrakech's early merchants had the sense to protect their homes from the clamor of the marketplace.  Wrapped deep in the insulating embrace of convoluted walls, the silence in the courtyard of a riad can be absolute.  Once again, Mr. Canetti perfectly captured the wonder of these oases of silence. 

“You walk up and down and breathe in the silence.  What has become of the atrocious bustle?  The harsh light?  The harsh sounds?  The hundreds upon hundreds of faces?  Few windows in these houses look onto the street, sometimes none at all; everything opens onto the courtyard, and this lies open to the sky.  Only through the courtyard do you retain a mellow, tempered link with the world around you.”   

It thrilled me to suddenly veer off the busy, tourist-clogged Rue de Mouassine into our curvy little lane.  I imagined the shocked looks of other tourists, amazed by our apparent mastery of the souks.  We would pass under a low arch, turn right at a tiny kiosk, then left at a dead end, and continue straight on through a narrowing passage that seemed barely capable of holding back the high walls rising on either side.  Repetition was the key.  Wooden doors with ornate knockers and polished studs suggested comfortable, colorful, even luxurious homes behind the humble brown walls.  On the left just beyond the second archway, was the door to our riad, Dar Jamila, which means “beautiful haven” in Arabic. 

There were four orange trees in the tiled courtyard, and a small, octagonal pool in the center - little lamps sat at the vertices.  In our room, a dado of diamond-shaped tiles formed intertwining star patterns, and a Moroccan lamp hung from the ceiling, shedding rectangles of colored light.  Up three flights of narrow, vertiginous stairs was the rooftop terrace, as high as the city itself.  Far away, the snow dusted Atlas Mountains rose above the arid plain.  We loved our riad, and spent a whole afternoon visiting other riads, many of which have been converted into elegant mini-hotels.  We never lost that “Alice in Wonderland” excitement of passing from a dusty alley into these cool, luxurious havens.  Some were very modern, with pools and chic furnishings; others stuck with traditional motifs; some courtyards had huge palm trees; most had one or more elaborate, tiled fountains. 

Marrakech embodied exoticism, at its most strident and most tranquil.