The Real Morocco

Trip Start Sep 12, 2005
Trip End Dec 12, 2005

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Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Ah, mystical, magical, mesmerizing Marrakech. I would have loved to have come here 20 years ago or back in hippie era when it was a popular hangout (though I would have only been a kid). Although it still retains much of that magic, Marrakech, in many ways, has become a modern city. Its moderate climate and direct flights to Europe result in it being a prime destination for tourists and it has become very touristy.

Our guidebook describes Marrakech (population 970,000) as the "lodestone" of Central Morocco; the oasis was the finest many traders had ever seen. Although many of the streets and the central square have now been paved, it still remains a uniquely African city, very different from other Moroccan cities. At its heart if the Djemma el-Fna, the huge square in the medina from which offshoots the great souqs. Until French occupation in 1912, the square was a slave auction; it was also known as the "Square of the Dead" as the heads of executed prisoners were displayed there on pikes. Day and night, it is filled with vendors and performers: orange juice wagons, sellers with various exotic medicinal cures, snake charmers, musicians and dancers, acrobats, storytellers and actors. Some of our group even spotted male belly dancers whom the other men were watching in shock and disdain. The animal acts (snakes, Barbary Apes) are pitiful to watch and we were strongly discouraged to pay them no attention. Everyone visiting the square needs a pocketful of small change to fend off the entertainers.

And what would a trip to Marrakech be without spending a few hours in the souqs? We dawdled away a lot of time there, getting lost in the labyrinth of streets and haggling for Moroccan souvenirs: leather slippers and bags, lamps, striped silk scarves and bedspreads, silver jewelry, shishes (waterpipes), brassware, wood products, pottery and jellabas. And, no matter where you go in the souqs, the smells of various spices such cardamom, cinnamon and allspice waft through the narrow lanes.

The vendors there are a tough bunch and you have to bargain hard to get a good price. Several, after we had negotiated a price would ask for a gift from me, of either money or a pen or something I had on me. I was not feeling charitable, though. Several of the woman on the tour received various proposals from men working in the souqs - offers of Berber massages and rendezvous. Kristy was quite insulted that on one hit on her, though unwelcome solicitations can be unpleasant (but also amusing). I was told I had nice eyes by one young man; another one that Arlene purchased a bedspread from asked me to come back and stay with him. Hee.

Because we all had Canadian flags on our daypacks, everywhere we went the shopkeepers would call after us, "Canada! Keebek!" We would try to explain to them that we lived a long ways away from "Keebek", though they would retort "same thing". To this, Jon would demonstrate, with this hands where Quebec was relative to British Columbia, then compare it to saying that Egypt and Morocco (probably the same distance apart) were the same thing. It left them completely dumbfounded.

Somehow we didn't spend all our time in the souqs, though Shannon, Arlene and I might have given half the chance! (Neither Martin nor Jon list shopping as one of their favourite pastimes.) Other sights we visited included the Saadian Tombs and the Palais el-Badi. The Saadian Tombs was the original privileged cemetery for descendents of the Prophet Mohammed. While the infamous Moulay Ismail systematically stripped the Palais el-Badi of all its grandeur for his own palace in Meknes (the only thing worth seeing there now are the nesting storks), he was a superstitious man who was afraid of disturbing the dead so he didn't touch the tombs. Rather, he had them buried under tons of sand. They were not rediscovered until 1917 when an aerial survey of the area showed something there. The Palais el-Bade was built between 1578 and 1602 and was reputed to be one of the most beautiful palaces in the world, known as the "Incomparable" - that is until it was plundered by Moulay Ismail. Also of interest in Marrakech is the Koutoubia, the largest and best preserved minaret in Morocco.

While touring Morocco, I have been humming tunes that I can't get out of my head: "Rock the Kasbah" (The Clash), "Midnight at the Oasis" (Maria Maldaur) and "Marrakech Express" (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young). They're just so appropo for travelling here!
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