Chaos in Marrakech, Morocco

October 29, 2014 |
By Sadiq Samani

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We left Barcelona (read all about it), arrived in Marrakech and headed to the immigration line to obtain our visas. When we reached the front, the next available officer made a gesture with his hand asking us to step to his booth. Both of us approached, and then he motioned to my girlfriend to step back so he could chat with me.

He requests my passport and entry card, and starts looking through the paperwork. He looks up and asks, “Where your grandfather is from?” I take a moment to think, “Pakistan.” Right after I said that I realized that my grandparents were probably from India, because that’s where my parents were born, even though my parents eventually moved to Pakistan and conceived my brother and I. Plus, when my grandparents were young, Pakistan and India were both one country. I never knew any of my grandparents, so answering a question about them wasn’t something that I was quick with. It didn’t matter anyway, it’s not like he could check.

He then stares at my passport picture, glances up at me, then back at the picture and up again. “You look mad in your picture, but in person you are smiling.” I chuckled and responded, “You’re not allowed to smile for your US passport photo.“

Then out of left field, he says, “You’re Muslim?” “Yeah I am”. Now, I was raised Muslim, but technically I’m an Atheist, but I wasn’t going to say that to him. How would that look, “Nah man, I’m an Atheist. Fuck God!” I wasn’t going to just say that to the immigration officer, in a Muslim country. I’ve read what they do to Atheists.

All of a sudden he became really nice to me, the most pleasant an immigration officer has been, even after I claimed that I was Pakistani and a Muslim. It was the opposite of what I was accustomed to in the US. I started liking Morocco already. I was thinking I need to visit more Muslim countries to experience this hospitality, then I paused and realized, if I did that, US Homeland Security would think I’m part of ISIS or something.

He went on, “Why do you have the piercings, you know Allah said to take care of our body.” “I understand, but I’m a good person and that’s what matters, right?” “Yeah but is not good you know!” “Hey, if I meet god one day, he’ll be cool about it, because I take care of my self, my family and I’m, like I said, I’m a good person.” “You pray?” Of course I don’t, but again, I was caught of guard, “well…sometimes”. He was shocked. “You pray???” He didn’t think I was the type of person who prayed. Which is true. “Well you should not just pray sometimes, you have to pray all the time, okay? Always pray to Allah, 5 times a day and life will be good.“ He had a big grin. To him, he had just given me life changing advice. Though, what he didn’t know is, that even while being “godless”, I still have a great life. I was on a trip to Morocco. How many Americans can say they’ve even left their state, let alone our country? I smiled back and said thank you, grabbed my passport and tried to get the hell out of line before I burst out laughing. He seemed like a nice guy, but the entire situation was a bit uncanny.

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Our driver took us to our riad in the Medina, which is a walled city and the main area of Marrakech. Riads are quite common in the Medina and other parts of Morocco. They are similar to a bed and breakfast, but with Moroccan flair. We stayed at Riad Mariana, which had 6 rooms, a lobby and a rooftop. Of course, you had a free breakfast in the morning too, true to it’s bed and breakfast roots. It was located about 10 minutes walking from Jemaa el-Fnaa, the city square. The location was in a quite part of the neighborhood, but if you just walked a block you would hit the main streets.

Streets of Chaos

We got there in the afternoon, so we checked in at the riad, had some complimentary mint tea, and headed out. As soon as we hit the main road the chaos started. The streets were all narrow with pedestrians walking, scooters and motorized bicycles whizzing by, and donkey carriages, the fucking donkey carriages! All this is happening fast, Jade and I are trying to take everything in, while trying not to get run over by a scooter or a donkey. Many of the women were in burkhas, the men gawking the white skin of my girlfriend. The side of the street was lined with vendors serving street food, juices, and all types of items from handbags, to hand-me-down junk toys. All the merchants, noticing that we are tourists, hollerin’ at us to come look at their merchandise. Note, we live in New York City, with 8 million people, and yet we still found all of this to be bonkers.

Jemaa and the Souks

The closer we got to Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square in Marrakech, the larger and louder the pandemonium. We saw snake charmers, monkey handlers, palm readers, gypsies and freak shows. Since it was still the afternoon, the area was tame. When we came back at night, it was a packed house.

Next to the center were the souks. Hundreds or even thousands of little shops accessed through winding alleyways laid out like a never ending maze. Merchants selling leather bags, shoes, clothing, spices, meats, jewelry, lamps, and everything else.

They all speak multiple languages, so while walking every few feet, a merchant will call you out, inviting you into their store based on the language they believe you may speak. “Bonjour!” If you don’t answer, they’ll try another, “Hola…Hello! Welcome welcome, cheap prices!” Now that’s a salesman! When we were hanging with a friend we had met at the riad, someone said to him “Konnichiwa”. He’s Chinese, but Moroccans talk to every Asian like they are Japanese.

The entire concept of shopping is based on haggling. They will try to ridiculously upsell and you have to negotiate the price down. You have to be prepared to walk, even if you like an item, because chances are, they will meet your demands. Worst comes to worst, if they still don’t sell to you, just walk down the street and you’ll find another person selling the same exact item at another souk.

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For example, my girlfriend was looking at a winter cap, and the merchant wanted 200 MAD ($23) for it. Now, she doesn’t really care for headwear, she’s never found anything that appeals to her. So she would never pay that, but the merchant was persistent. When we refused he cut his price down to 100, then 80, and then finally I told him, I will pull a bill out of my pocket and whatever that bill is, you accept, otherwise we walk. He said fine, so of course, being the smart haggler that I am, I already had  20 MAD as my first bill and pulled it out without looking. He looked at us, shook his head saying he couldn’t do that. He went down to 40 MAD. I reminded him of the deal and said no thanks, we don’t want the hat. He shakes his head, extends his hand, and says “give me”. He started with 200 MAD ($23) and ended up at 20 MAD ($2.50). Though, to his credit, he probably sold at a much higher price to many westerners because they were too uninformed to realize you can negotiate that low.

Tagine and Cous Cous

Most of the food you’re going to have there is tagine, cous cous and other mediterranean inspired foods. There will be some variation, but mostly that’s what you’ll find. The goal though is to go further away from the center, otherwise the prices will seem like a rip off. We ate at a restaurant close to Jemaa and our tagine and cous cous cost 200 MAD ($23) for average food. However, a few blocks away, down a non busy street we had a tagine, 2 salads, drinks, mint tea, great service and we paid 73 MAD ($9). It makes a huge difference when you’re on vacation and are trying not to spend like MAD.

Berber village in the Atlas mountains

Up the Atlas

The most memorable part of our trip was going up to the Atlas Mountains, which is located 50 minutes south of Marrakech and has an indigenous population called Berbers living there. Actually, many of the products that are being sold in the souks were made by the Berbers. They live in villages of 15 people up to a couple of thousand, with communities scattered all throughout the mountains. They build their homes so that they could stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer and can survive through earthquakes or snow fall. They also flip western culture on it’s head. The women are the ones that run the house. Women farm and herd and make household decisions, while the men shoot the shit. The only thing the women lack in their dominant role is a money shot.

Even with how little they have, the Berbers seem happy, and it puts our western lives into perspective. We have everything that others strive for, yet we still behave as though we have nothing.

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Marrakech doesn’t entirely look like a third world. For those that want to stay in a modern environment, but still close to the Medina, there is an area called Gueliz, just northwest of the Medina, which is much more western. Kind of like a safe zone in cities like Cancun. Upscale hotels and shops. McDonald’s, Starbucks, H&M, Louis Vuitton.

However, if you’re in Marrakech, why would you stay in the area? That takes away from the entire experience of the city. You might as well just go to another western country if that’s what you’re looking for.

We did get a chance to hang out in Gueliz for a night. After several days of the third world, it was nice coming to the first world and getting pampered. We went to Azar, a Mediterranean fusion restaurant. The food was delicious! Even though it was the most expensive meal we had at about $100, we ordered tons of food, drinks, tea and the entire experience was spectacular. I don’t think you would find such quality in NYC for that price and probably not in most other American cities. Plus, there was also a live Moroccan band playing background music while women belly danced. It’s pleasurable to watch belly dancing in America, but it’s much more authentic to enjoy it in an Arab country.

Cats Are Rats

Barcelona had dogs roaming around without leashes, Marrakech had stray cats everywhere. You don’t see too many during the day, but at night they all come out in droves and eat up all the garbage and crap people litter on the streets. They serve a similar purpose to pigeons or rats in major metropolises, except the cats look all cute and shit. If you’re a cat person, I would stay away, because they aren’t pets, they are rodents without any vaccinations!

Women, Beware

The city is relatively safe, but I don’t recommended for women to go there alone. Nor would I recommend two women or even three going together. Four may be acceptable, but I would say if you don’t want to get harassed, either go with a man or wear a burkha. I don’t think your life would be threatened, but you’ll definitely get stares and minor harassment if you stroll by yourself and especially if you don’t know the language. They’ll know you’re not from there. It’s this paradox of a world, where tourism is fine, but yet it still has it’s conservative Muslim roots.

Research, Then Go

If you are planning on going, which I definitely recommend, I would do a lot of research before going to Marrakech. Even though it’s mostly safe and non-threatening, it’s still a different world. I don’t believe I’ll ever go there again, because I’ve seen whatever they have, but you should go at least once. I’ve travelled to 45 plus cities throughout North America and Europe, and nothing compares to the experience in Marrakech. It’s just too crazy, chaotic and unique.

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