Marrakech is a lot of things; an exotic, bustling city with a maze of alleyways and souks waiting to be lost in. An flurry of colourful and pungent spice smells that assault on the senses. A frustrating, strenuous place where you spend more time avoiding being hussled than enjoying yourself.
The sights, sounds and smells can be overwhelming, to say the least. The culture shock when you weave through the labyrinthine Medina, dodging donkey carts, scooters and hustlers take a hold on you and it’s easy to fall head over heels for this pinky orange hued gem of a city. However, spend a few days wandering the streets and you may also find plenty to irk you.
I have always loved the idea of Marrakech – Seeing it depicted in those grainy technicolour epics, the kind that air on a lazy Sunday afternoon showing adventurers weaving through the souks surrounded by snake charmers and pyramids of colourful spices. To me, Marrakech has always seemed like one of the most exotic places on Earth. With this in mind, I was not disappointed.
We were woken on our first morning by the muffled sounds of the adhan drifting over to us from the minaret of Koutoubia Mosque, a sound that I always love, even at the break of dawn. As we passed through the fading pink painted city walls I felt like we were stepping into another world. Arabic music played from all directions, street hawkers shouted above the crowds to peddle their wares and the colours of the fabrics, spices and food on display were a sensory overload. We exited the souks and into the famous Jamaa el Fna, Marrakech’s main square, where music was being played, the smell of the food stalls drifted upwards into the balmy Moroccan air and snake charmers blew their pungi to their captive and hypnotised audience.
In this way, Marrakech was everything I hoped it would be.
However, as the title of this post suggests, I was equally infuriated by my time in the city.
Do the Hustle
As well as being an assault on the senses, Jamaa el Fna was an assault on my sense of personal space. I had read a lot of the hustlers and scammers of Morocco but even marching through the crowds, head down and avoiding eye contact, I was unable to avoid them.
“Hey, how are you?”, “Hey, Are you English?”, “Hey….[add any attention grabbing phrase]”. It can be hard to enjoy a place when you are being constantly being hassled – you get the impression that foreign visitors are just seen as an opportunity for a quick buck, like walking ATMs. Wander through any souk and you cannot avoid being hassled by vendors, dragged into shops and made to feel like you can’t leave without making a purchase. Taxi drivers want to rip you off. Have the audacity to take a photograph? Five people will pop out of nowhere to demand payment even if you didn’t take the photograph of them. I am usually good at dispersing unwanted attention but in Marrakech, this seems harder than in most places. At one point my travel partner had her hand grabbed and hennaed before she had a chance to stop the perpetrator – when we realised and stopped them they demanded money for the job they did but weren’t contracted to do, even enlisting the help of surrounding locals to demand the money. Thank god there are tourist police wandering the square. having a half finished henna tattoo covering your hand is not a good look.
As a man travelling there are some benefits that women can’t enjoy. Men are everywhere in Marrakech, gathering in cafes drinking mint tea, hanging in groups in shops or loitering on street corners. This is more apparent due to the comparative absence of women. This wouldn’t normally be an issue but in Marrakech, it takes on a sinister edge. I’ve heard of female tourists being propositioned, groped and harassed. If you want to walk down the street without young men leering at you and shouting inappropriate requests then this may not be the place for you. Even as a couple I couldn’t help but notice men’s heads turning, wolf whistling and lewd comments being said in our direction.
There’s part of me that can understand the hostility to visitors though. The standards of living are fairly poor in parts of Marrakech, and government restrictions on new construction (to maintain an ‘authentic’ feel for tourists) keeps their standard of living low. People take whatever opportunity they can to make some money.
Getting Lost in The Labyrinth
There’s something romantic about getting lost in the exotic maze of the Medina surrounded by the sensory overload of colours, smells, and sounds. This is partly true as the souks can be a joy to explore – until you want to leave. We spent the evening eating out only to try to find our way back to the Riad – a beautifully ornate palace hidden behind a wooden door that looks like every other door in the city, on a street that is equally indistinguishable. Map of the medina in hand and armed with the phone number and address of the Riad we thought this would be easy. I couldn’t have been more wrong. After an hour and a half of aimless wandering, following signs that seemed to have the sole aim of leading you back to your starting point I began to settle on the thought of sleeping rough. The owner of our accommodation wasn’t answering the phone and our map was as good as useless, not worth the envelope it was scribbled on the back of. We had heard that local kids would escort you home for an extortionate tip and as frustrations grew I began to warm to the idea. As I showed the nearest teenager the hastily scribbled address he smiled and led us to our in less than five minutes, before waving off my attempts to tip him. I was so relieved to have a bed for the night that I forced a crumpled note in his hand as he looked at me with a bewildered expression. Turns out that there are good people in this city.
“Mister, are you English? David Beckham? Ali G?”
“Italiano? Come stai?”
Whenever I said no, I was met with a new, more obscure language.
“Estonian? Ma ei oska eesti keelt?”
I found this frustrating but you have to admire the temerity of someone that learns dozens of languages in order to hassle tourists more efficiently. Although the way all Moroccans seem to think of Ali G as the epitome of Englishness is baffling.
After a day I was beginning to tire of Morocco. I was even beginning to hate it.
I stopped noticing the smell of exotic spices and began inhaling the smell of drains and donkey shit.
Drinking just an orange juice in Jamaa el Fna can leave you bed or toilet ridden for days.
Getting lost was no longer exciting, it was incredibly frustrating.
Whatever people say about Moroccan food, having the same chicken tagine for dinner even though you’ve ordered otherwise is tiring.
You’re constantly dodging mopeds – the traffic and pollution play havoc with your lungs.
Sick looking kittens are everywhere, ignored by everyone when they’re not being kicked out of the way.
But in all of this, I kind of love the place.
Although the walls of the city are dilapidated and the palace museums are crumbling, the architecture is magnificent. Every nook and cranny of the buildings are covered in ornate mosaic or carvings.
The touts are annoying but the atmosphere in the Medina is something I have never experienced before. Where else do you get the mix of snake charmers, street dentists, story tellers and musicians all in one square performing for people as they eat at Jamaa el Fna’s food stalls giving a unique ambiance.
The Medina is a heaven for photographers – I worked my way through numerous SD cards just snapping the cobbled streets.
I was sucked in by its exoticism, enraptured by the beautry and enthralled by its personality.
Marrakech, I kind of hate you, but I’ll definitely see you again soon.
What do you think of Marrakech? Leave me a Comment Below.