Our taxi slows to a stop.
“Is this the hotel?” Billy asks with a note of concern.
From the back seat we get an initial glimpse of Marrakech. A rare, rainy day has turned the earthen floor of the medina to mud. The scene outside is eerily quiet. Along the street, crumpled tarps act as makeshift awnings to protect the goods on display, but there are no vendors or potential buyers in sight.
I smile. “Just trust the process.”
A well-dressed gentleman greets our driver as we exit the taxi. He must be from the riad. The two unceremoniously toss our group’s luggage into a metal wheelbarrow. We make the rest of the journey on foot, weaving through passages lined with a variety of small shops. Caged chickens squawk for salvation. Hanging hunks of mystery meat give off a formidable odor. Stray kittens scurry across our path.
Finally, we reach the nondescript door of our riad. Just as we approach, the door opens, emitting the faint smell of jasmine. An entirely different world awaits within.
To Go or Not To Go?
Morocco has long been on my list, dear Reader. Offering an intriguing blend of European and Moorish cultures, the country is a study in juxtaposition. From opulent palaces to humble Berber homes made of pisé, I couldn’t wait to explore this crossroads of people and ideas. Also, living in Europe affords us the ability to get to Africa in just three hours. Three hours, you guys. To Africa.
But we had hesitations too. Several people told us harrowing tales of female harassment, theft, and general grunginess. Most of this I took with a grain of salt, chalking it up to overwhelmed and somewhat inexperienced travelers. Still, I couldn’t pooh-pooh the issue entirely. After all, I’m a wife and a dog-mom now, there are other people involved. If we were going to go, additional precautions had to be taken.
That got me thinking, dear Reader, are there fears that keep you from traveling to certain places? Let me know in the comments.
Though tempted to spend the afternoon basking in the tranquility of the riad, our curiosity gets the better of us. Billy and I are standing outside with Alexis and Triven, our travel companions, waiting for our tour guide to arrive. The souks, or markets, of Marrakech are notoriously difficult to navigate and we could use a little help.
We’re soon greeted by Mustapha. Tall and slim, he wears a laminated official tour guide card around his neck. He displays it proudly and we all shake hands.
“THIS is Marrakech!” he says with a wide sweep of his arms.
Oh boy. We have a showman on our hands.
Mustapha begins by giving us the lay of the land, explaining the ancient medina is surrounded by several miles of walls punctuated by 20 gates, or babs. Made of clay and other natural materials, the walls are famous for their pink hue which prompted Marrakech’s nickname: The Red City. Locals speak a mix of Arabic, a Moroccan-Arabic dialect, and French. (Remember: the French protectorate in Morocco didn’t end until 1956).
Mustapha pauses a moment, letting this sink in before declaring suddenly, “COME! To the souks!”
I struggle to catch up to his long legs – I already have questions! The rain has subsided, and the locals are out in full force. Mustapha leads us single file through the fray, our group struggling to keep up while dodging pedestrians and the occasional donkey. People often call out to him or come over quickly to shake his hand. It seems our guide is a real man about town.
Dead Camels and Dumb Questions
Selling everything from carpets and slippers to leather and lanterns, the souks are a labyrinth of treasures. Grouped by trade, we make our way through each one, admiring the handicraft happening right before our eyes. Mustapha generously points out the very best shops, and the man has good taste, I had to give him that.
I’m admiring a gorgeous dresser with bone-inlay when the seller approaches.
“A very nice choice, very nice choice indeed. This is camel bone, madame.”
“Ah, yeah, that makes sense,” I say, lightly running my hand over it now.
“For you, friend of Mustapha, I give a very special price. And free shipping anywhere in the world,” the seller continues, sweetening the deal.
“Wow!” I reply, now more seriously considering the purchase. I’d seen similar products in the Anthropologie catalog for three times as much. And yet, the bone gave me pause. “The camel bone, is it… ethically sourced?”
Dear Reader, I have no idea what I was thinking when I asked this question. Did I expect this gentleman, in this poor country, to tell me that yes, in fact, all bone-inlayed products were made possible by the generous contributions of camels that had passed on after living long and fulfilling camel lives?
It was a dresser made of dead camel and I just couldn’t do it.
I thanked him for his time and showed myself out. Though embarrassing, this exchange does underscore how privileged we can be, even in our concerns. Conversely, since the camel was dead anyway, maybe patronizing this man’s shop was the kinder thing to do? In any case, traveling makes me more thoughtful about where my money is going and who is likely to be affected by it.
Black Magic Woman
We’re on the street again, racing to the next shop. Without warning, Mustapha stops and turns around so abruptly that I nearly walk right into him. (This happens all day).
“Do you have any interest in… black magic?” he asks slyly.
An absurd question because obviously I have an interest in black magic. (Don’t you?)
Instead I say, “Is there such a thing? I thought the only good or bad was in the heart of the witch?”
(Initially I thought I read that somewhere, dear Reader, but turns out it’s just a line from 1996’s The Craft with Neve Campbell).
“Rahba Kedima is world famous for its ingredients. And Morocco for its sorcery,” Mustapha says, covering his tour guide card with one hand – something he does when his commentary is anecdotal.
Ah, now the name of the square sounds familiar. Rahba Kedima is indeed known for its specialty ingredients including dried scorpions, leeches, snails, and lizard skins. I’m intrigued, but also know Alexis is on the hunt for a dress, so I tell Mustapha we can skip the square.
“You are sure then? You have no need for these items?” he asks one last time.
I assure Mustapha, I do not. Though, I’m strangely flattered he thinks I may be a sorceress looking to conjure a curse or two.
“Okay then. THIS is Marrakech! Ha, ha HAAAA!” He exclaims wildly. “COME!”
In Search Of A Jebala… Or So We Think.
We’re in a clothing shop now and Alexis is perusing the dresses while Billy is off… somewhere (this is usually Billy’s location at any given moment).
“The call to prayer,” Mustapha says, pointing to the sky. We’re standing in the shop’s open doorway as the call emanates from mosque loudspeakers across the medina. “It happens five times each day.”
I nod, knowing the call to prayer sets the rhythm for life in Muslim cultures.
“How much time do you have to get to the mosque after the call?” I ask.
“Ehhh. You have time… but twenty minutes is best,” he says.
We can assume Mustapha is referring only to the medina where there is a mosque in each quarter. In other circumstances, you can pray on-the-go, even shortening the prayer as needed. Allah understands you have things to do.
“It’s not for Him you know. The prayers,” Mustapha continues.
“For you, then?” I ask.
He nods. I suddenly remember, having read parts of the Quran, the prayers aren’t meant to praise Allah, but rather to provide meaningful pauses throughout your day. It’s a nice idea – or another five things to do every day, depending on how you look at it.
“Are you very devout, Mustapha?” He furrows his brow and I’m not sure whether he’s struggling with the translation or wrestling with the question. I try again, “Do you take a lot of pride in your faith?”
“Ehhh. It’s like this. I believe. Of course.” He puts a hand up and the other to his heart.
“Of course,” I echo, knowing I must.
“But… also I think it’s good to always be wondering things… in your mind.”
I smile and nod. Because my mind is always wondering things too.
We’re interrupted by my husband, who has suddenly reappeared.
“I want to get a jebala (jah-bah-lah). One of the robes with the hoods,” Billy says.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Mustapha slip away. I wonder if he’s off to prayer.
“Everyone’s wearing them.” Billy continues.
And it’s true. Everyone in the medina of Marrakech was.
“Okay. We’ll keep an eye out,” I say, though I’m not sure how much use he’ll get from an article of clothing that resembles a wizard’s cloak.
“I want a nice one too,” he says. “I’m not afraid to pay a little more for it.”
It’s evening now and we practically beg Mustapha to end the tour. Our close-talkin’, fast-walkin’, tour guide extraordinaire has worn us out. He suggests we take a selfie and I hand him an envelope with his pay for the afternoon.
He brightens. “No one has ever given me an envelope before. I like this very much. Thank you.”
He then carefully smooths the envelope and, with great flourish, puts the envelope in the inside pocket of his jacket.
“Just like the movies! Ha, ha HAAAA!” he says.
With one last enthusiastic wave, he’s off, disappearing into the masses.