Monday, August 12, 2013

Memories of Marrakech

This was many years ago, but I was recently digging around in forgotten corners of my brain in an attempt to reconstruct a journey I made in the summer of 1987, and the memories of Marrakech were especially clear, and they seem worth writing here even now.

The train from Tangier as far as Casablanca was very modern and comfortable. Someone said that the French railways had given Morocco a number of disused or never-used trains and they ran on the long distance lines. (The others we took were much older and much worse.) The station I remember as open and sunny, with a number of platforms and lines. It was early afternoon and very bright. The journey was extremely enjoyable, and I remember it especially well because the railway line is very close to the coast most of the way. For much of the time you could actually see the beaches and the sea. I watched the shorego by, the beach, the sand, the sea, the people walking, playing, swimming, and the sun shining brilliantly down on it all. It is just over 300kms, the journey took maybe 6 hours, and I recall that for much of it we were looking at dunes and people and water. I’m sure I remember only the best bits but there were certainly a lot of good bits.

The next morning we went to Marrakesh on an older, more cattle-like train. It stopped at all the villages and people kept getting on with baskets full of fruit and vegetables and chickens. It got very full.

 We went to the bazaar or souk (I don’t know if there’s a difference), a collection of covered alleys full of stalls, open alcoves, really, where they sold carpets and clothes and ornaments and household things and accessories and doubtless a lot of other things too. They drank a lot of tea, calling it down from the tea-shops that were part of the life of the place. I imagine the sellers must be there six days a week and their life is very much bound up with it, so their friends and their rest is there as well. I bought something, I don’t know what, for which I paid with money and a half-smoked packet of black cigarettes. The deal was done. So, I expect, was I. There was lots of colour and life and smell and facial hair.

The thing I remember most was the market square, not the only one, but the main square of Marrakesh. It was large and open, with a road around three edges and building only beyond that road. It was clearly an important centre of commerce. During the day there were stalls, where those who were there every day had their produce and their lives organized. It was mostly fresh fruits and vegetables on the stalls. I don’t remember much meat, and in fact I don’t think they ate much of it, and there was no fish, of course, that I remember.

There were other sellers who mostly seemed to be Berbers come down from the mountains for a few days to sell what they had. Craftwork, non-perishable produce, maybe some longer-lasting stuff but I seem to remember objects rather than food. They had it all laid out on a carpet, and in the evening when they had sold all they were going to sell that day they told stories with what they had left, and left out a bowl for donations. The children were not expected to pay, and they were sitting on the ground all arou
nd the rug. Adults came and went. I understood nothing, but I got the impression there was magic and spirits involved.

Around the edge were a number of stalls, vans I think they were, selling fruit drinks, cool but not very cold, and very sweet. One was from a green fruit that I didn’t know and can’t remember the name they gave it.

Around and about, I remember them as being at the opposite side of the square, near a colonnade, there were remolques which consisted of a large board with bowls of different kinds of food, a light, a flame for cooking, a space for the owner/waiter/cook, and benches on the sides that folded down to sit on. They were towed in in the morning by car, and towed away again at night. An efficient and popular way of providing food to the people, the sellers and the customers. You sat down, ordered what you wanted, or in our case pointed to it, it was put together on a plate, heated as required, and you ate it. There was couscous and some kind of meat (rabbit) and vegetables and a lot of stuff that you couldn’t identify. I just pointed at a few things and ate what I got. It was ok. I assume there was drink as well though I don’t remember it.

Also in the square were snake-charmers, photographers, guides, and others who live, honestly or less so, from the tourists. I took a picture of a snake, or with a snake, possibly. For some reason those photos were never developed. I bought a camel-skin handbag for my mother which she used for years, and bracelet in the form of a snake for someone or other. I bought it from a man who seemed prepared to throw in his sister to clinch the deal. I may not have understood the fine print.

On the train back to Tangiers we met a couple of lads in camel-skin hats, like the Arabs wear. They were sheepish about it but in the end they told us how they had been persuaded to buy Arab cloaks so they wouldn’t look foreign and people would leave them alone. Needless to say, it didn’t work. They were blond Scots, but even had they been darker they would obviously have stood out. It is easy to spot a foreigner by the body language and the guides and beggars are very used to it. When they saw it didn’t work they persuaded the seller to swap the robes for hats, which were at least interesting and could be worn back in England. We joined indulgently in their laughter at themselves, and kept our mouths firmly shut. We, of course, had not done anything remotely as silly...


James Higham said...

Wonderful - just has that aura of the exotic.

Brett Hetherington said...

Reading your account of that part of Morocco, it doesn't seem like it changed very much in the ten years following then when I visited there and travelled around for three weeks. I've been to quite a few different countries and for me Morocco was, and still is the most interesting, the most stimulating place out of all of them. I would not want to live there though.

In fact, in Morocco I had the most amazing night of my life, despite not being superstitious or religious at all. I tell about it in the first genuinely serious piece of writing I ever did here:

CIngram said...


It still is the most exotic place I have ever seen, I think, in the sense of being both fascinating and completely beyond any experience I had had or imagined at that time. Those memories are 25 years old and I can smell the smells, see the details of the colours, identify buildings and waggons and products, mentally reproduce the light and the horizon and the clothes and the smiles of the girls and even the whiskers of the men.

When I set out to write my memories of that trip, which was mostly around Spain, in fact, I was stunned by the recollections of Marrakech that came to my mind, and the clarity of them. Which is why I thought it worth blogging.

Many thanks for the link, by the way. (Rolls up sleeves in preparation for traffic.)

CIngram said...


A remarkable story. A quite different experience from mine but recognisably the same place.