First, you will try to remind your friend that at first encounter you had agreed there would be no fee. You had set on the table that you had no dirham to give. He had insisted no payment was necessary.
When that conversation leads nowhere, you will be followed for 30 seconds or so while your friend plays beggar.
“I’m sorry, I have nothing on me, I’m sorry. I told you no money, I’m sorry”
If the crowd is thick, you will be called “bad” in English, and I couldn’t tell you what in Arabic, and that will be the end of it. If you are unfortunate enough to be in a desolate area, you will be followed until a crowd appears with fingers grabbing at you and hands in your face insisting on payment.
My worst encounter – one that actually made me fear for my safety – was Tuesday evening.
Still waiting for Alexander to arrive from London, I spent the morning through the souks taking photos when possible and at small art history museum. After a rest at the riad I walked to Jardin Majorelle where I spent an hour or so under shade, peace, and quiet. Sitting on a bench near the entrance, an American asked me to take a photo of him. Obliging of course, we got to talking and, as we were both traveling alone for the moment, we ended up spending the rest of the afternoon together. He has extraordinary travel romances and is a genuinely interesting person to talk with. After a break in our respective riads, close to 10pm I opened the door of my riad to find Jim on schedule for dinner and surrounded by two (three?) young boys.
Oh boy, here we go.
Winding down alleys towards the main street we were hassled for coins. Already feeling uncomfortable, even with a six-foot guy by my side, after long enough I finally turned and gave a stern “no” senza smile, and the verbal abuse commenced. The more passive “no” I’d been giving in the prior days didn’t seem to work, so I thought one with more conviction one would do the trick. In this case, I was wrong. I didn’t need to know French, Arabic, or English to understand that we were being called every name in the book. I didn’t even need my hearing to know I was being verbally assaulted. And so we walked, with their sinister tones trailing behind.
Since that night I’ve been on watch for those boys. It still irks me.
That night, combined with the morning when a young girl followed me to the museum and insisted to its gate keeper that I need to pay her because she gave me directions (yeah, and I’m Michele Obama), and recounts from other travelers, have really made me mindful of the “kindness” shown by many of the boys men in the tourist-centric areas of Marrakech.
I could give you ten other first hand accounts of the same nature, but as I reflect on them I feel torn. I really love Marrakech. There is an indescribable energy that I am really taken with. But life in the souk is hard. And many of those you encounter in the souks – who will go so far as to physically pull you into their shops or to sit at their restaurant – are desperate for your business. Everyday they are in competition with one hundred other shops offering the same items, and they must make an impression.
So while stopped on the road side in the Atlas Mountains, and you have ten men selling identical necklaces and bangles that will turn your wrists green, try to put yourselves in their shoes. Its 40 degrees and (as every other day) they are standing around a bunch of smelly camels waiting for vans of tourists to stop in their vicinity for an opportunity to make a few dirham. Their desperation was made clear to me when at this particular stop in the span of four minutes a man had lowered his asking price from 200 dirham to 20.
Regardless of your opinion of yourself or your economic status, as a tourist in Marrakech you are seen as a person with money to spend.
But this is just Marrakech, and really it’s just the men working in the souks, and those young boys and sometimes girls who fill their days lying in wait for a lost traveller to take advantage of. Hillary and Lyndon spent two days in Essaouira and loved it, raving about the different pace of life there.
And here’s the true Gem:
H&L and G&A (from Portugal) happened upon a little studio shop selling hand woven carpets and tapestries and in its doorway a huge loom where the father has been making the most exquisite pieces since the 1950s. After meeting up with them for dinner in dJemaa-el-Fna we were guided back to the shop where father, Muhammad, and son, Abdul, greeted us with smiles, handshakes, and mint tea.
What a change of pace. Away from the souks, not once did they try to sell us anything. Abdul graciously unfolded any piece we asked to see, and in his sharing of the details and materials that go into making each throw or carpet, I could see he had pride in his work – something that had been missing elsewhere in the souks. His father was so proud of the pieces he has spent his life creating. After admiring a green carpet and expressing to him how beautiful I found it, he reached for an envelope from which he pulled pictures of his most extraordinary works.
And the prices were unbelievable. An 8×6 foot hand woven rug for 800 dirham is a steal. It took every bit of me to resist purchasing the most beautiful white carpet hanging modestly on the wall. My heart is full thinking of it now. Aside from its esthetics it carries with it history and love.
In the end I’m taking home a huge, beautiful cotton throw woven by Muhammad and Abdul. And now, every time I look at its intricacies and feel its detail in my fingers I will think of father and son, of Marrakech, of Hillary, Lyndon, George and Anna, of Jim, of Clara and Georg, of the Berber woman in blue, the smells, the prayer calls, the Ourika Valley and the Atlas Mountains, and of the love I will hold for this city.
Counting the months until my return. Thank you Marrakech. When all is said and done I am truly blessed to have had this experience and I have valued every minute of it.
All photographs copyright 2011 NicoBPhotography