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Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Thursday, 16 June 2011

June 16th: Marrakech

On June 16th 1977 I was in Marrakech.  It was hot, it was the beginning of the European holiday season, and I was beginning to find that although Marrakech seemed more open than Fes it was no easier to access.

The Djemaa El Fna was the centre of activity and there were even one or two spots where you could sit at the edge and watch the action albeit at a distance: acrobats, story-tellers, sooth-sayers, magicians, musicians, snake charmers, a strange act with pigeons I could never follow.  None of this had anything to do with the tourism industry, it was purely Moroccan.  Some fancy cafes overlooked the square on the first floor.  Behind the square were the souks, attractive and possible to find your way around, and the streets of the old town, alleyways that you knew would lead to houses beautiful on the inside only, sudden glimpses into courtyards full of goods being stored or traded.  I wrote this in my notebook in the square one day trying to sum my experience up: 
Hot midday in Djemaa El Fna, for yoghurt in the hustlers' cafe, everything really quiet, no entertainers in this section now; the souvenir sellers under parasols on the ground, the boutiques open as always, some hustlers look hungry but they know me now, leave me alone.  Not even many beggars now, kids hanging around, older men walking singly, and tourists.

Picturesque it is, Marrakech, the world of the Medina, the clothes of the Berber women and their independent smiles, the men sitting in the shade of a wall with their djellabahs pulled around them and their pipes.  Hard, dry country.  And interesting it remains.  The closed in, intense way of life turns tourists into an outcast caste.  To be treated as a tourist always, that is hard, to be an object of derision for teenagers, to be treated as a friend only for the money, to be pestered and hustled at every step.

Marrakech Medina: My picture
A city of pink washed walls, fortified, standing on the edge of the desert, like the meeting point of mountain and Sahara culture, a huge square as the centre of entertainment and all the life of the city, the focus of it all, a paradise for eccentrics and hustlers.  Seven blind beggars and a lady from the Club Med in a see-through saffron djellabah, who strolls across the square as all eyes follow her.  A snake charmer and a mixed-up boy with four golden teeth.  Beyond  are rich souks and dusty living blocks, the Mellah, the Kasbah, the different districts around the gates, I've had happy times wandering in these areas, finding my way through the labyrinths. A peaceful afternoon in a French garden, a drive to a watery valley in the mountains.  I sat this morning in the animal market watching the camels, men practising trying out a donkey, seeing if they want to buy, putting a horse through its paces.  Hours of sitting in this cafe or another.  Talking, sitting, watching.  Crowds of people passing, sometimes as dense as I've seen anywhere, India included, sometimes escaping the heat of the sun, bikes and mopeds, pushing, pushing, airless, the heat pushing these people into the hard surface of the Djemaa El Fna.
And some weeks later, returning to the city from the south and west:
Djemma El Fna:  My picture
Having an evening theiere with dates at the cafe by the date stalls.  There's a little clothes market going on, of the impromptu  kind I've seen all over Morocco, but they must have fixed days of the sort I don't know.  Mostly men selling clothes exclusively for men, they don't look like the poorest people either.  I can see smart Berber clothes and some of the slick kids, they have motos or bicycles and a briefcase or suitcase laid across the handlebars to hold the jeans or trousers or djellabahs or track-suit bottoms.  Now I've seen a woman selling a djellabah, she's with a guy perhaps they're regulars.  The tourist season is at its height which means the square is very busy, particularly the food stalls and the clothes booths and all the kids and beggars and touts and vendors, all the people who live off the vitality of the square.
Animal Market in Marrakech:  My picture
The hotel I stayed in was near the square; an old house down a brown anonymous alley, the ground floor tiled in blue and green and white.  You could go up to the roof and look over the city across other roofs where the local people also came up to hang out their washing or to relax or to look out over the roofs.  But the hotel, like most of the cheap ones, also had its resident hustlers.  I remember one here, who liked to be called Le Chef, in his twenties, partly educated.  We played cards and talked.  As I got to know him I asked him why he hustled, and he gradually explained; he resented the foreigners for their money, for their opportunities, and he was very happy to take anything away from them that he could, feeling no guilt for that.

Paul Bowles describes Djemaa El Fna in an essay published recently in Travels.  Elias Canetti's The Voices of Marrakesh is also good, especially at the animal market.  Both predate my visit.
Workshop in Medina:  My picture

Marrakech Medina:  My Picture

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