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Sampling the souks


Music, yelling, singing, more music, chanting and then the inevitable hustler whispering in my ear, “You want henna”. “Here look”, as I get handed a small photograph album. “Cheap, I’m very cheap”, continues to assault my ears. “Cheap, always cheap,” is my reply as I try to escape through the bustling crowd. The hustler, not a teenager in jeans and t-shirt, but rather a baby-carrying woman, in a bright green djellebah with a black veil covering her mouth and nose. Dark brown eyes peer out through the narrow slit.
This is the enigmatic Djemaa el-Fna, the focal point of Marrakesh for both tourists and locals. This Moroccan sensory overload continues in the narrow souks of Marrakesh and Fez.
Narrow flagstone alleys flanked by shuttered two or three storey buildings feel almost claustrophobic with the metal grilles on the windows adding to the prison feel. The earthen colours of the walls blend with the uneven cobblestones whilst the colours of the first storey shops provide the contrast - the green of herbs, rich reds and yellows of spices and a vivid array of fabrics for the traditional robe - the djellebah.
Visit the herb shop and sample the local henna lipstick, green in the tube but turning pink once placed on the lips. The longer it is on the lips the brighter pink it becomes. As no vehicles are allowed in this maze of alleys it is donkeys that are the danger.
“Belay, belay”, means it is time to move quickly or be squashed by a laden donkey. A doorway provides sanctuary and the baskets either side of the donkey graze the walls as it passes by.
Assaulting the senses is the moth-watering aroma of freshly cooked bread. Here bakeries cook the bread which the women make in their homes. Leaving the bakery are young girls using cloth covered wooden boards to carry the cooked flat bread home; on their heads.
Around the corner are piles of crisp and colourful fresh fruit and vegetables. The extensive range includes tomato, apples, pears, capsicum, barbary figs (off a cactus), bananas, oranges, carrots, onions, plums, peaches, nectarines and grapes. Be prepared to bargain although some do have prices here. In between are stalls of lush, moist dried fruits featuring dates, sultanas and even more dates.
Near one of the entrances, with indigo water flowing along the gutter is Dyers Square. Here old clothes are re-dyed so that they looked like new, a new uptake on the regular change of hair colour. Workers hands and feet are stained blue as they wring the clothes out by hand in the adjoining open drains. Only natural dyes are used - poppy for red, saffron for yellow, indigo for blue, mint for green and henna for brown.
Even in shirt and long pants I feel under-dressed compared to the local women, most of whom are dressed in the traditional djellebah, some with a scarf over their heads and odd ones with a veil covering their faces. Their individuality is expressed through the range of colours and designs worn. The older men tend to wear the white djellebah which would be much cooler in the extreme Moroccan climate than the jeans of the younger generation.
Central to the Old Town is the tannery, a series of large cauldron-like holes each about two metres across. Some are white, containing lime for the initial processing of the skins, while others contain colourful dyes. A man stands in the vat to mix the skins or pieces of cloth. On removal they dot the rooftops to dry.
To escape the pressure of the well-practised souvenir sellers, we lunch at the Palace Mneembi. What a gourmet delight with Moroccan salads, Pastilla Pie, couscous - a huge pile artistically arranged pile decorated with carrots, then dessert - slices of orange topped with a slice of banana, cinnamon and icing sugar. It is easy to imagine it was once a palace, walls covered with tile mosaics in a myriad of colours accompanied by a smattering of golf leaf. Escape the high pressure sales pitch? The end of lunch was simply an invitation for the carpet sellers to strut their stuff. Certainly there are some stunningly beautiful designs covering all colours of the rainbow for those whose pocket is deep enough or the will power is not strong enough to outlast their continual patter - “You like this? If not we have red or blue, cotton or silk? How much you prepared to pay?”. It goes on and on.
As does Fez itself. Outside the hustling, bustling souks of the Old Town, a highlight is the Royal Palace. Even though the interior is off limits the huge entrance gates are a spectacle in themselves - very ornate with a combination of stucco, cedar, bronze and tiled mosaics made from minute tiles arranged into geometric designs. There are seven doors because seven is their lucky number. Through the crack between the doors there are a mass of brightly coloured flowers blooming in the garden. One can only imagine the opulence of the palace itself after seeing the gates.
Such a contrast to the Jewish quarter opposite. Here wooden buildings with ground floor shops sell goods ranging from flowers to food. Wool, direct from the sheep, cascades out of an overflowing bale in one shop.
Back in Marrakesh the contrast is dramatic. With wider alleys than Fez, the noise of cars and motorbikes shatters the silence. Only the occasional donkey is seen. Scattered light splatters the displayed goods as it passes through the bamboo thatching topping the labyrinth of alleyways. Outside the tourist area, away from the touts and guides there is an opportunity to experience the quiet pace of local life. Then again it is too hot to move too fast. Here charcoal sellers, mosques, bathhouses, fruit and vegetable stalls, are scattered amongst the houses and shops dominated by ornate doors and archways. It is a photographers delight. Watching the dying of wool and scarves there is no hassle to buy. Instead a friendly smile brings a similar one in response. Also inside the medina with strong links to the Imperial past of Marrakesh are the Saadien Tombs. Many of the royal family are buried here, with the most important ones in the large and fancy, mosaic and stucco decorated enclosure. Other tombs, outside in the garden, are topped by rectangular mosaics. Every mosaic has a different design which identifies the “resident” rather than using names. Even though not all the mosaic tops face towards mecca, due to space restrictions, all the corpses underneath do. Lying buried since the early 1700s these tombs were not rediscovered until 1917. Today the local cat population also finds sanctuary here.
Fascinating as the souks are, the Djemaa el-Fna remains the focal point of Marrakesh. During the day a mass of orange juice stalls border one corner of the large square. At night it becomes a swarming throng, a kaleidoscope of swirling colour, discordant sounds and continual action. On a Sunday it is a challenge to simply move through the cluttered crowd amongst the circular audiences surrounding the many activities. Acrobats balance on shoulders three high but watch out for the “cashiers” who head straight to tourists demanding a donation. Listen to the story teller, try fishing for soft drinks - like a side show at country shows, have your fortune told, try the spice sellers, traditional medicine sellers, listen to the musicians and singers or, admire from a distance, the ubiquitous snake charmers.
Wandering between the food stalls, with their smoke rising and mouth-watering cooking smells emanating outwards, are water sellers dressed in red with animal skin bags (containing the water), brass cups and multicoloured hats. Try a local mint tea while sitting back and watching the world, well the Marrakesh world, go by. If you are brave, instead of sausages why not try a stuffed sheep's pancreas. Then again maybe providing my arm as a canvas for the henna lady is a better idea.

Article By Heather Farish

souks, Djemaa+el-Fna, Marrakesh, Fez

WordCount: 1327
Published: 3/14/2016 8:43:25 AM

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