Trouble in Marrakech
Gerloff and Esrin Gozukizil
||Here are the expectations I had for a recent trip to Morocco:
exotic, sand swept topography, dunes as high as a skyscraper,
camels filling the roadway, belly dancers serving food, sunrise in
a sultan’s tent. Unrealistic? Sure. And when
you never leave Marrakech, impossible.
Marrakech is a bad city for a traveler, or I should say a
tourist. I make no bones about my status; I am a tourist. I
like certain amenities. When my wife and I travel we like to eat
good food and see interesting sights. It’s what makes a vacation a
vacation and not just another boring day at the office.
Unfortunately, in Marrakech, there isn’t a lot to see, food and drink
are hard to come by, it isn’t cheap, and pushy carpet sellers constantly
harass you. To go anywhere, it’s best to hire a guide, and to get
anywhere you’ll also need to hire a driver. Pretty soon you’ve
built up a whole retinue.
Sure, you can find old Morocco, quaint and charming just like in a
storybook, but in Marrakech it’ll be protected behind a well-fortified
wall with an armed guard outside (a ceremonial saber is still armed in my
While in Marrakech, we stayed at the famous 5-star Hotel La Mamounia.
It was voted best hotel in Africa and the Middle East by the people that
vote on such things. The room was beautiful—high ceilinged, big
firm bed, well appointed bathroom, satellite television and air
conditioning on the fritz. What? What! It was over 100
degrees outside and hitting 150 sweltering degrees inside. You could
cook a lamb on my forehead. So like most locals, and for the very
same reason, we left our hotbox of a room and ventured outside.
The main attraction in Marrakech is the Djemaa el-Fna. Think of
Venice Beach in a parking lot, double the crowd, add a couple of
hair-patched monkeys, and you get a good idea of the place. It’s a
short walk from the hotel and you don’t need a guide.
The Djemaa el-Fna starts forming for real in the late afternoon under
the watchful presence of the Koutoubia Mosque. All varieties of food
vendors set up shop, storytellers weave their tales, musicians bang out
tribal rhythms, and belly dancers gyrate. Snake charmers can be seen
during the day when the snake is lethargic with heat prostration, or maybe
that was just me. The place is packed with people gawking at it all,
forming loose circles around the performers. It’s alive with
wonderfully exotic sounds and colors. Be warned, it’s mostly for
the enjoyment of the locals.
In the Djemaa el-Fna, a tall Anglo with a non-chadored wife stands out
like a sore thumb. And when the story is done being told, or the
music has stopped, or the belly dancer’s hips have ceased gyrating,
it’s time to pass the hat for donations. Where do you suppose they
go first? It doesn’t matter if you’re in the first row or are
the ninth one deep, they come straight for you like a heat seeking change
maker. You better have some coins ready because these people do not
take no for an answer. I had the misfortune of having an angry belly
dancer stare me down when I couldn’t fork over the requisite
patronage. I was just as surprised when she turned out to be a he as
when he said, ‘go get some’. And he wasn’t kidding.
The Djemaa el-Fna is not only a locals-only hangout, but it’s
predominantly men (about 80-20 men over women). Many of the women I
saw were wearing traditional chador. The remaining women who
weren’t covered, like my wife, got a lot of hostile looks. I
couldn’t tell if they wanted to rape her or tear her apart by quartering
It’s best to hire a guide if you’re going to see the outlying
sights or to the souq. Here’s why: out on the street, just past
the entrance to the La Mamounia, something goes on that I called the
Carpet Surveillance. Across the street sits six or so local men,
innocently shooting the breeze with each other. But as soon as a
guest walks out, probably on their way to the Djemaa el-Fna (where else
would they go without a guide?), they spring into action and initiate
surveillance. Whosever turn it is amongst them follows discreetly
from across the street. Once the target gets past a predetermined
point, they cross over, but still follow from behind at a safe
distance. They are assessing your clothing, your jewelry, your
watch—but not to steal.
They are out to steer you into the souq to sell you a carpet. If
another person attempts to horn in on their prey, which is more than
likely, or at the first stoplight, whichever comes first, they make their
move. They greet you warmly and ask if you remember them. What
a coincidence they say, but they just happen to work at the La Mamounia
too. You remember them, surely. They work in the garden, at
the pool, by the bar, whatever innocuous position they’ve designed for
themselves. And maybe you know their uncle too, he works there as
well. Small world. Then they ask if you are going to the
Djemaa el-Fna which is such an amazing coincidence because he happens to
be going that way as well and he’s more than willing to show you the
way. But that’s not all, it just so happens to be the best time to
see the souq, you are very lucky indeed, because the Berbers have come
down from their mountain retreats and are only there today (we were just
as lucky on subsequent strolls because the Berber women happened to be in
town. I’m sure on other days the Berber children and their farm
animals would have been there).
So you talk to your newfound friend and savior and, before you know it,
he’s strolled you away from your destination and towards his. Be
warned, enter that souq and you’d better leave with a carpet because if
he takes off on you in a huff, you’re toast.
The next day we hired a guide. The hotel arranged for it from a
list they keep. The guides are state regulated and near at
hand. A half-day excursion will run you 150 dirhams (about $15) plus
the cost of a taxi to get around.
Our guide was named Bush-something and he walked through the streets of
Marrakech like Hannibal Lechter through Florence. Dressed in a
cream-colored tailored linen suit, complete with fedora, he acknowledged
acquaintances and admirers alike with a small wave of his hat, strolling
along without a care in the world, especially whether or not the two
Americans trailing behind kept up. He knew the streets of the souq
like the back of his hand. The souq is a large complex of narrow
alleyways selling all sorts of tourist trinkets, clothing, shoes and
scarves. You could get lost after the first turn.
But as they say about all roads leading to Rome, all souq alleyways
lead to, you guessed it, a carpet salesmen. Hey fellas, do you enjoy
buying floor covering with your wife? Well, just combine that
experience with all the fun of buying a used car from a really, really
(really), pushy salesman. That’s what it’s
Our salesman pulled out rug after rug while we implored him to stop,
told him we weren’t interested, begged him to let us go, pleaded, shook
our heads, wrung our hands. But our carpet salesman was persistent,
and if you believed what he said, not interested in whether we bought
anything or not. Huh. But of course if we did like a certain
carpet, how much would we be willing to pay for it, even if we weren’t
going to buy it. During all of this, Bush-something cooled his heals
with an ice-cold soda, idly flicking flies away with his hat. They
finally got the idea that we were paupers and threw us back into gen-pop.
Bush-something stomped off ahead of us, clearly displeased that no
commission would be forthcoming from his cut of the action.
Do you know who the most useless man in Marrakech is? It’s the
cop standing on a busy street corner trying to bring order to an
intersection. The streets of Marrakech aren’t like anything
you’ve ever seen. At night, not only does everybody go outside
until their homes have sufficiently cooled off, but everybody goes out
onto the street. Imagine a river rushing by in one direction, and
right next to it is another river rushing by in the opposite
direction. Those are the cars. Now imagine an army of ants
coming to those two rivers from opposite sides. They stall, unsure
of what to do. Meanwhile the ants in back are stacking up behind the
ones in front until they are forced to move forward. Those are the
pedestrians. The streets are busy with thousands of petit taxis, the
little four door death boxes that run about $2/trip. Mopeds buzz by
and fill in any gaps in the traffic while slower horse-drawn carriages and
bicycles stay close to the curb. People are walking and crossing
every which way.
And there stands that lone cop, in full uniform, white starched wrist
puttees and official-looking hat, seemingly impervious to the heat.
No wonder he seemed so angry, indiscriminately handing out tickets to
unwary violators. I didn’t want to cross the street let alone get
in a rental car and drive through this madness.
Know who the most resourceful man in Marrakech is? The one who
gets his whole family of three—wife and child—onto one moped.
Not a scooter, not a motorcycle, but on an old Motobecane moped that I
haven’t seen in production for years, sold by the thousands here,
cruising around like it’s the family station wagon.
After two anxious days trying to make a decision whether to go out to
the countryside or leave the country altogether, we decided to
leave—I’d had enough. Faced with limited resources and limited
time, I didn’t want to gamble the rest of the trip by taking off towards
destinations that might have been better, but could just as easily have
been worse. And once we were on our way, there was no going back,
because the places we were headed wouldn’t have airports. Like I
said, I’m a tourist and this was not like The Sheltering Sky.
So I called the airline and they informed me that any changes to my
tickets would nullify them. I’d have to re-book, which meant I’d
have to buy new tickets. The airlines toll free number quoted me a
price, let’s just say for the sake of this story, $350/per. But
they couldn’t book it over the phone; we’d have to go to the ticket
agency in town.
Once there, the not so helpful woman behind the counter clicked away on
her keyboard, looked at us like a couple bank robbers, clickity-clicked
some more, then informed us that there was no reservation for us nor any
room on the plane. You have to realize that everything in Morocco is
a negotiation, and that getting anything done is like pulling teeth.
Upon a second or third check, yes it turned out, there was a reservation
for us but it was at $450/per. I explained that we already had a
quote for $350/per. After some more one-sided haggling, where she
held all the cards and knew it, we took the seats at $450/per. I
just had to pay for them over at the cashier who would issue us our
Mr. Cashier also tap-tap-taped away at his computer and voila!
Two tickets to Paris for $550/per. What? Yes, so sorry, the
prices are not set until I call them up on the computer, and of course the
exchange rate is set by the bank and can fluctuate wildly you
understand. Oh boy. I felt like I was in the middle of a Marx
Brother routine—I was waiting for him to charge a handling fee for
passing them over the desk to me.
We finally escaped Marrakech and headed back to Paris. The third
world does not hold any charm for me. On our bus ride back to the
airport there was another American family traveling. The father
looked mysterious and we tried to guess whether he was with the State
Department, the CIA, or was a TV anchorman. He summed it up pretty
well when he said, “They just have a couple of problems they’ve been
trying to work out…for the last thousand years.”
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Gerloff and Esrin Gozukizil are a husband and wife team specializing in world travel and fine dining. Jon is a writer currently working on his second novel. Esrin works in television development for a major production company.
You can reach the authors at: JonGerloff@aol.com (Jon Gerloff and Esrin Gozukizil)