The magic of the casbah

December 10, 2017

Marrakesh has the bustling romanticism of the old and the sophisticated charm of the new

The magic of the casbah

In the medina time flows slowly, evident by the movement of people and goods through the narrow, congested streets. Yet, it has an air of cosmopolitanism -- locals and tourists alike merge into a confluence, some with a clear idea of where to go, others lingering and taking in the space. At the same time however it also feels like time has stood still within the confines of this space -- the walls and pathways lead to countless souks reminiscent of a city still existing in the 14th century of the Islamic world.

The reverie is suspended when you notice shops selling the quintessential item of the 21st century: selfie sticks.

Shopkeepers display wares that flow out onto the street, hindering the progress of tourists but capturing their attention. For the uninitiated the panoply of items on display -- from colourful pocket-sized coin wallets, to shoes that resemble khusas, to wooden chessboards and camel statues, ornate pedestal tables, handbags, jewellery, spices -- is enough to distract and slow them down, which shop attendants take full advantage of to cajole potential customers into buying something. And, thus, ensues the battle of wits -- the shopkeeper pitching an exorbitant price which the tourist balks at and the haggling continues until a price is settled upon.

Welcome to Marrakech.

Nicknamed as the ‘Red City’ because of the ochre dye used to colour fortifications and buildings, Marrakech is rich with culture and history. Established as the capital of the Almoravad caliphate back in the 12th century, the city has seen many cycles of development and destruction, which can be observed through the varying architectural styles of buildings that survived.

A Pakistani will immediately feel at home walking through the busy streets of the souk: shafts of light peeking through cracks in the makeshift roofs shading the streets, shopkeepers raising their voices to attract attention, motorcyclists whizzing by, cars not bothering to stop when you cross the street. The narrow streets and storefronts in the medina -- the old city -- and the atmosphere share a striking similarity with androon shehr of Lahore or Pindi. And one will find many cats lingering around, being fed by the community as they are considered the bringers of good fortune.

Jemaa el-Fnaa is the focal point of the medina. Referred to as the big square, or just the square, during the day it is littered with juice stands and numerous large umbrellas under which sit henna artists, snake charmers, monkey wranglers, teeth pullers, amongst other trades. Local cosmetics are displayed on rolled out blankets. People dressed up in colourful attire and large hats that look like the lid of a tajine walk around with brass cups and jugs dangling off of them, offering water to passersby.

French and Darija (Moroccan Arabic) are the primary languages spoken in the country. In the more touristy parts of the medina one will hear people conversing in either of these, but Spanish, German and English are also spoken by several shopkeepers indicative of the countries where most tourists visit from.

If you take a turn to a more local neighbourhood, Darija becomes the medium of expression. One can get by with French but it is more appreciated if you attempt to converse with the locals in Arabic. The assalamoalaikum and keefa haal definitely brings along a familiarity, but labays, the Darija way of asking how are you, is almost always greeted with a smile and a hamdolillah. Note: Moroccans tend to skip enunciating the ‘al’ when speaking.

In the newer neighbourhoods of the city, however, French is the language of choice.

Tourism is the likely reason for the cosmopolitanisation of the medina, bringing along with it a diversity of cuisines -- from pastas, to pizzas, to burgers, to the more local dishes like tajine and couscous. Roadside stalls offer the Moroccan equivalent of the anda shaami burger and parathas for reasonable prices. But one can also step into the one of the numerous trendy tourist spots for a refined eating experience if so preferred.

Due to the number of tourists visiting each year many shopkeepers have an aggressive demeanour while doing business. It is understandable in some ways for times are tough for them with most stores selling similar artifacts and handicrafts. Their priority is to seal the deal before losing a customer to another shop down the street. If you linger long enough and make conversation with them, a friendliness develops and the true hospitality of Moroccans becomes evident.

One element of such Moroccan hospitality not to be missed during your visit to Marrakech should be a trip to the hamaam. Located near any major junction or small market square, a hamaam is almost as frequently found as a mosque. Its use still prevalent today, it is open to both men and women -- the timings and spaces being different.

One sits or lies in a steamed room -- which looks like a cavernous shower room sans showers -- and using black soap, a kessa glove for scrubbing, and a mix of hot and cold water peel away the accumulated dirt and grime. With some extra money you can also request to be scrubbed by an attendant. But be forewarned: it will be excruciating.

Nonetheless one comes out feeling rejuvenated. The local establishments are simple and functional. Many modern-day spas and hamaams catering to tourists have established around the medina and tend towards an Orientalist view of the Islamic world, with silk drapes, intricately patterned screens, and lush décor, adding to the feeling of luxury.

The mosques in Marrakech are also interesting to note -- the minaret, a cuboid structure, is unlike the octagonal or cylindrical columns found in Pakistan. Many are somber in their ornamentation, mostly reserved for the interior ceilings and archways.

The Koutoubia Mosque is the most famous and the largest in Marrakech built back in the 12th century during the Berber Almohad Caliphate. A somber building, coloured in a sandstone hue and with little ornamentation on its exterior walls, it more than makes up for it by the sheer height of its minaret that dwarfs everything around it, and the elaborate carvings across its facade. I also noted, at least in the medina, there is a distinction between a Jami’ mosque and regular neighbourhood mosques, which are closed during Juma’a requiring people to flock to the Jami’ for prayers. And almost all mosques have a separate door and a significant sized space for women to pray.

Outside of the medina, the neighbourhoods resemble those in Pakistan. Wide boulevards and roads punctuate the urban design, connecting one neighbourhood with another. This does make the city more vehicle-dependent. Men and women alike navigate the streets on their cars or motorbikes. For riders on a budget, the city has a decent public transit system to offer. And then you have metered taxis but some drivers prefer to haggle prices the old-fashioned way. So if you want to avoid paying exorbitantly, make sure the meter is running before you are locked in a hurtling taxi.

The new city is where all the major malls and stores can be found. One will also find the city’s nightlife, the bars and nightclubs.

As I mentioned earlier, almost all the building facades I observed are painted in a similar hue as the ochre red the region is famous for, but accent colours highlight windows, borders, parapets and grills, creating an aesthetic contrast and distinction.

There is much more to the city apart from the vibrant life of the medina. If you are interested in experiencing the atmosphere of something like the Pakistani itwaar bazaar, head over to Bab al Khamees. It is one of the entrances to the medina where a flea market is set up every day. But every Thursday the space blossoms into a festival teeming with goods and people.

One can visit the Tombeaux Saadiens, the ornate tombs of the Saadi family. The Palais El Badi, a grand palace built in the 16th century for royalty, is perfect for a stroll during the day. Another palace built more recently in the 19th century, the Palais Bahia, is a beautiful experience with its grandiose courtyards and gardens, decorated by various motifs and styles of Moroccan and Islamic art.

A few lanes away, one will stumble upon the Mellah quarter, a historic district where Moroccan Jews used to live. One can still visit the Slat Al Azama synagogue to learn more about Moroccan Jewish life which existed around the Atlas Mountains that loom in the hazy distance of the city’s horizon.

The city has a considerable number of parks and gardens so when you are in need of respite from the city there won’t be one too far from where you are. Jardin Agdal, Jardin Menara and Parc Lalla Hasana are spaces open to the public where one can take a stroll and soak in the oasis-like environment. Jardin Marjorelle, adjacent to the new Yves Saint Laurent museum, is splendorous but entrance comes with a tourist-priced fee.

For those inclined to the arts or wanting to view different aspects of Moroccan and ethnic Berber culture, there are many museums and art galleries to visit. Voice Gallery and Le 18 feature interesting artists and exhibitions so if you are ever in town you should definitely visit these spaces.

And when the bustle of the city has gotten to you, which it most definitely will, you can hop aboard one of the many tours that offer an escape into the mountains or the desert. Leaving Marrakech, an assortment of daily activities are offered -- from adrenaline-filled buggy rides, to hikes through the mountains to view waterfalls, to gorges, and the more romantic camel ride in the desert.

As the sun’s descent approaches the horizon, the centre of Jemaa el-Fnaa assumes the air of a construction yard. Trucks roll in with iron scaffolding, tables, benches and kitchen equipment. Food stalls are erected for those who have built up an appetite after a long day of exploration. If you find yourself in the midst of this bustling foodscape, it won’t be long before a waiter comes your way and shoves a menu in your face. The festivity continues on till midnight where one will find an assortment of delicacies -- harira and khobs (soup and bread), grilled fish, meat on skewers, lobia, lentil soup, even goat head and tongue if you are feeling adventurous.

The surrounding square also begins to attract crowds as the heat escapes up into the atmosphere, leaving people to enjoy the sights and sounds that were otherwise difficult to bear during the morning heat. Gnawa musicians spread out their rugs and begin performing for the crowd, henna artists stick around to draw under lamplight, an intriguing game of fishing rods and coke bottles can also be witnessed. Thankfully the snake charmers slither away come nightfall.

With the coming of the dark, activity in the souks begins to settle down. The passageways, cleared of pedestrians and wares, become easily navigable again. Storefronts shuttered off for the night, garbage cleared off the streets or piled up along the side through which cats rummage for their meals, a calm pervades the once bustling streets. It is then, in the heart of the medina, one can stand still and drift away with time.

The magic of the casbah