Marrakech, the Ochre City
Marrakech greets you like a blast furnace, a riot of heat and colour. It was a less than genteel 39˚C in the sweltering July summer and everything looked to be a never-ending expanse of a million shades of brown from the plane. As if the desert had formed itself into various buildings, clustered haphazardly together, before flattening out into the surrounding countryside again. Scattered about the brown sandy landscape though, were lush oases of date, olive and orange groves, and coming from the tropics, a vista exotic as I have ever seen. Blending arab and african culture with a strong European influence, Morocco is a place unlike any other. Marrakech, or the ‘Ochre City’, is the capital of Morocco and its cultural and financial nucleus.
Djemaa el-Fna and the Souk
Marrakech is home to the largest Souk or traditional market as well as the famed Djemaa el Fna, both translated as “gathering place of the dead” or a more prosaic “mosque with a courtyard in front”. Either way, it is the cultural heart of the city and it certainly seems like half the population gathers there in the evening. Describing Djemaa el Fna as an interesting place would be akin to calling the Hindenburg “a big balloon”. A constant throng of activity and people, it is a open air market in the day, with all manner of herb doctors, contortionists, acrobatic performers, snake charmers, story tellers, henna tattooists and the ubiquitous orange juice stands, selling the sweet refreshing nectar to everyone parched by the relentless heat of the midday sun.
Those wanting to escape the heat of the open square duck into the labyrinthine maze of the Souk, perhaps one of the greatest markets in the world. It is so big it is organised (if such a word can be used to describe it) into ‘districts’ selling different wares. Dark, sometimes narrow and winding, the Souk holds its secrets close to its heart, seducing those who enter with its exotic offerings within. Hidden gems of silk babouche slippers, dyed leather and wool, antique jewellery, beautiful inlaid cedar boxes and 200 year old antique furniture are to be found there, or equally likely, a poor fake patched together that very morning. Walking through the maze of shops with all manner of wares hanging from the rafters, with shafts of sunlight streaking through gaps in the ceiling, it is easy to be transported into a different era, a terribly romantic notion of nostalgic adventure, until someone shouts ‘Konichiwa! You Japan? China? I give you good price!’
As the late afternoon sun retreats and dusk falls, a dramatic transformation starts to take place back out in the square at Djemaa el Fna as countless food stalls are set up, bellowing smoke and myriad intriguing and sometimes unidentifiable smells. The sounds of the Gnaoua drummers fill the air, and belly dancers and Berber musicans add to the din. Hungry diners start streaming into the square, looking for tagine or roasted lamb’s head. The resulting sights and sounds are nothing short of amazing, the atmosphere is alive and practically crackling with energy, not unlike the vibe before a football match. The entire medina of Marrakech has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its not hard to see why.
Morocco has fortunately been left relatively unscathed by the Arab Spring. Whilst there were protests to air grievances and to seek increased rights for the people, the government, headed by His Highness Mohammad VI, in contrast to other rulers in the region, did not resort to violence and repression to quell the uprising but instead took small steps towards redressing some of their complaints. The darkest hour was a terrorist bomb in Djemaa el Fna, which made international headlines. Apart from that, it remained relatively peaceful. Whilst the system is far from perfect, it remains intact.