“Enticing and intimidating in equal measures, the souk thrills the senses and jangles the nerves” – Lonely Planet, Morrocco.
I sit in the courtyard outside my room, sipping mint tea and chewing on a sweet, oily pastry. It is my first day in Marrakech and I’m trying to summon up the courage to leave the oasis of calm that is my Riad hotel, steeling my nerves for the thorough jangling which the Lonely Planet warns they are about to experience.
The maps in my possession offer little in the way of reassurance. Two or three main thoroughfares are labelled north of the place Djemma El-Fna, but from what I saw when the owner, Hamid, met me at the taxi rank and led me along a warren of tiny, unmarked passageways to the hotel, there are literally hundreds of snaking alleyways joining the dots. How I’d scoffed at the guidebook’s recommendation to bring a compass. Now I can’t help thinking I’d have done well to take it more seriously. Strolling aimlessly, surrendering all sense of direction can be quite liberating sometimes, leading you to places off the beaten track, revealing gems you wouldn’t have otherwise seen. But somehow doing all of this alone is less attractive. And more panic-inducing.
The heavy door swings closed behind me and I look back at the entrance, searching for distinguishing features. There is a number 8, but no name. I retrace our steps with care, trying to memorise the route I’d trodden with Hamid half an hour earlier. The passageway snakes left, under a dark tunnel, then right, left and right again. On the wall there is a phone number, an English mobile number it looks like, with the words “poute” below it. A misspelling of the French pute? A girl who led a local on, perhaps? I’ll never know but it will useful later. A marker showing me I’m on the right track home. Finally I’m delivered, blinking in the harsh sunlight, onto what I think must be the rue Mouassine.
My modest aim for the afternoon is to find my way to the Ali ben Youssef mosque and medersa, the Musée de Marrakech and the 12th century shrine which are huddled around a square to the east of my hotel. My destination should be only a five minute walk away, but I’m daunted all the same. And with good reason.
As I plunge into the narrow passageways my nostrils are assaulted by a million unfamiliar odours. Leather, scented wood and incense, sewerage, donkey droppings and spices. The heat and blinding light of the open alleyways give way to cool dimness; light filters through the woven ceilings in dusty diagonal stripes. The stalls are covered with a profusion of goods of all colours, shapes and sizes. They are grouped by trade, and I pass through the slipper souk, the jeweller’s souk, the tanner’s souk and a square where spices are sold and chameleons and tiny tortoises roam in cages. Through doorways I can see woodcarvers, blacksmiths and dyers at work, a man deftly gripping a chair leg with his toes while he files with his hands. It’s a sensory overload, a fascinating glimpse into a world which seems to have changed little through the centuries. If only I felt comfortable enough to linger, take pictures and soak up the atmosphere.
Sadly, I don’t. I move quickly, eyes hidden behind my sunglasses to avoid eye contact with the stall owners. “Some vendors are aggressive to the brink of assault”, claims the Lonely Planet. I wouldn’t go that far, but the constant onslaught of attention is exhausting, intimidating. As a tourist, and as a lone woman I am seen as a soft target, an easy prey. I can’t move an inch without someone trying to solicit my attention. The catcalls vary from friendly to impatient to annoyed if I don’t deign to stop.
“Bonjour la gazelle!” “Hello!” My carefully calibrated smile is intended to seem friendly, but disinterested. “Venez par ici…” “Non, merci, je me balade seulement, je n’achete pas aujourd’hui…” “Mais venez quand même, regardez un peu…” If I pause for long enough to take a photo shawls are wound around my protesting head, bracelets slipped onto my reluctant wrists, handfuls of dried flowers held up to my nose. Browsing without intent is not a concept the sellers want to understand. Every passer by is an opportunity to be seized. Tourists are fools who can be cajoled, badgered, even bullied into parting with their cash.
At first I’m blithely unaware that I am being followed. But when I turn, I see the boy who’d muttered “fish and chips” as I crossed the carpet souk square. Wrinkling my forehead as I study my map, trying to understand just how it is I’ve managed to walk in circles for the past fifteen minutes without getting any closer to my destination, he circles like a vulture.
“Where you want to go? I show you.”
“I’m looking for the medersa. If I take this street will it take me there?”
“I show you.”
“You don’t need to take me, it’s fine.”
“It okay. No guide. Lovely jubbly.” He scampers off, looking back over his shoulder and motioning to me to follow. I’m still smirking at his odd vocabulary, but this isn’t what I wanted at all. What appears on the surface to be gallant assistance for a damsel in distress will probably end with a request for a tip. But I’m all souked out, I need to find a way out of the chaos. I can spare a few dirhams if need be.
If I’d studied my guidebook more carefully, I would have seen the oldest trick in the book coming sooner. I follow the boy into a shabby courtyard, home to a modest looking scarf shop. Powdered dyes in wooden bowls are spread across a low table, and the vendors make a great show of asking me to guess the colour of the dye before they wet a piece of newspaper and dip it in. A green powder is violet, a deep red powder produces indigo. Every time I turn to leave they block my way. “Why hurry? I show you… You on holiday.”
“I need to go now,” I say firmly. “Thank you for showing me this, but that really wasn’t what I asked for. I don’t want to buy anything today.”
I turn, brush of the restraining arms and walk away.
“You give me twenty dirham? For guide.” He follows, overtakes me, blocks my way.
“You said no guide.”
“Ok, you give me kiss.” He gestures at his unappetising, pock-marked cheek.
I shake my head, push past him and turn on my heel, heart beating at a hundred miles an hour. I fall into step with some tourists I don’t know from Adam, finding their presence oddly reassuring. Turning the next corner, stepping out of the path of a speeding scooter just in the nick of time, I see a sign for the Musée de Maroc. I head towards it, gratefully, losing myself in the tourist throng.
Marrakech, I think to myself as I flop down in the museum café and order my second mint tea of the day, is not for the faint-hearted.