I was really excited about Marrakech. I’d heard plenty about it, seen pictures of the medina, and it seemed an interesting, exotic place to explore. I couldn’t wait.
I wasn’t prepared for a massive bout of disappointment. Dear Marrakech: Epic Fail.
Sure, it’s relatively exotic, with little winding alleys full of shops, hidden mosques that are off-limits to foreigners, and explosions of colour everywhere you look. Fragrant pyramids of spices and pigments greet you on every corner; Berber ‘pharmacies’ with headache remedies like pouches of cumin and jars of unrecognisable yet pungent herbs pop up between stores selling brightly painted tagines, and the slightly less pleasant smells of a city with insufficient plumbing and refrigeration provide a constant and foreign assault on your senses.
The problem, however, is that Marrakech is full of young Marrakechi men.
After travelling through the Middle East and Egypt, with the associated hassle and proposals, I had imagined that I was well prepared for Marrakech. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In Syria and Jordan, as well as Egypt, behind the hassle was a bit of fun: glasses of sweet mint tea, a cigarette and a few bad jokes in a sometimes incomprehensible mixture of languages. Most of the time, you felt welcome. Not in Marrakech. Within about fifteen minutes it becomes abundantly clear that the people here – at least the people who are trying to sell you something, which comprises every person in the city who will speak with you – are interested in one thing and one thing only: money. The dollar [or dirham] signs flash in their eyes as they call out to all the walking ATMs wandering in Djamaa el-Fna square. Now, I don’t like being rude to people when I travel. I enjoy the game, chatting with people and taking advantage of what may be the single most useful Arabic phrase – insha’allah – when asked to promise to return and buy only from whoever has enticed me into the shop at the time. Here though, the game is nasty. Maybe there are some nice shopkeepers in Marrakech – to be fair, I did meet one person who understood that I’m on a budget and can’t afford to buy or carry seventeen pairs of adorable turquoise leather shoes – but experience proved this man to be the exception rather than the rule. If I tried to explain that I really didn’t need another scarf, as I only have about two hundred at home [not, unfortunately, much of an exaggeration], I didn’t even get a smile. Instead, the response would often be a ‘fuck you lady.’ Maybe there is something a little wrong with me, but that certainly doesn’t encourage me to look in someone’s shop. Nor does ‘Hello my lover’, ‘Hello my baby’ or ‘Hey beautiful, I know what you’re looking for – ME.’
I’m not a fan of being unable to walk down the street without attracting shouts from men along the lines of ‘I love your breasts’, ‘I want to fuck you’, or ‘Come and make the sexy with me’. Nor do I appreciate being followed when I walk past a shop without entering it, or when I refuse to acknowledge someone’s insistent request for unappealing carnal activity. Coupled with the ever-present and overzealous groping – both for fun and with the intent of locating cash in back pockets – my experiences in Marrakech led me to the conclusion that young men there fall into three categories: they’re either rude, aggressive or sleazy. Being capable of multitasking, many of them manage all of these at once.
Unfortunately, you also can’t even take a photograph without having twenty people jump out of the woodwork demanding money. Whether you were even taking a photo of them bears no relevance. It doesn’t help that there’s not a lot to do in Marrakech if you don’t want to shop. I don’t think they can comprehend someone not wanting to buy an ugly t-shirt with a line of camels, or a giant tagine weighing ten kilograms. I did give in and get some henna though – I didn’t have much choice, the woman literally grabbed me, pushed me on a stool and started!
The one thing I would have bought, had I been able to find one anywhere, is a tshirt proudly proclaiming ‘I HATE MARRAKECH’. Going by the reactions of numerous other tourists I met to the nightmare that is this particular city, this would be instant best-seller. Maybe I should start my own shop there? The problem with that would be a need to return, and that’s not something I’m willing to subject myself to. Retreating to the peace and quiet of the riad was a welcome escape from the hell of the souqs – the wonderful staff at Auberge Riad Douzi managed to salvage my perspective of the city and quell my growing prayers for an earthquake to swallow the city, denizens and all.
As I’ve said, the best part of my time in Marrakech was getting the hell out of there. First for a few days out to Ouarzazate and Merzouga, and then to Essaouira.
I signed up for a three day tour that a bunch of other inhabitants at the hostel had recommended, deciding at about 11.30pm the night before that I just needed to get away. I don’t regret it in the slightest. It was a great trip, aside from the driver lying to us about ‘broken’ airconditioning in the minibus up until two hours before our arrival back in Hell, when he admitted that it cost too much and basically he’d rather pocket the extra cash. Yet he had the audacity to act shocked and angry when most of the group on the trip subsequently refused to tip him. Turns out that $10-$15 he saved in petrol money wasn’t such a good idea after all – isn’t it amazing that fourteen people, squashed into a minibus driving through the desert, might be upset when the promised airconditioning is refused?
Still, the trip remains my Morocco highlight so far. A few days removed from the constant harrassment endemic in Marrakech, with good food [mostly – there was a particularly memorable soup] and good people was exactly what I needed. And, as it turned out, was what everyone on the tour needed! Marrakech wasn’t the most popular place in the country amongst the group. We explored the rose-red kasbah of Ait Benhaddou, better known for being featured in such Hollywood films as Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator, accidentally wandering through people’s gardens to find the river crossing.
We splashed through the refreshing cold water in Todra Gorge. And we had an amazing camel ride out into the Sahara, rambling in between sharp golden sand dunes and the occasional murderous-looking spiky shrub in the evening as we made our way to our camp site in time to watch the sunset.
Most of us chose to sleep out in the open rather than inside the tents, so we dragged out some thin mattresses and squashed onto the rugs under the open sky. A night under the stars, with deep and meaningful conversations about cannibals, serial killers, being shown on TV chasing sheep while naked and particularly disturbing internet sites, was just what the doctor ordered. And who can complain about watching the sunrise from the back of a camel?
After a long, hot and sweaty trip back to Marrakech through the Atlas mountains, I decided that the coastal town of Essaouira was exactly what I needed following the incessant dry heat of the desert. The next morning I was on the first bus headed there – and I’ve found that it’s the perfect antidote to Marrakech.