A Snake in Marrakesh

Marrakesh… The name evokes images of the craziness that is supposed to be Morocco, with this city at the centre of it all: steaming food stalls and street performers converging on Djemaa el-Fna at night, artisans and shouting vendors crowded into the souqs. “Don’t walk across Djemaa el-Fna,” we were advised, “you won’t get across the square without being hassled a million times.” And on top of that, “il fait chaud!”, Moroccans of other places say to us wide-eyed, warning that Marrakesh is 10 degrees hotter than the rest of the country. “And watch out for the snake charmers, they’ll put a live snake on you and refuse to take it off unless you pay them money!”

We arrive in Marrakesh on the eve of my birthday, expecting to be thrust into a city of furious but fantastic chaos and hassle. But, something is wrong. It’s not that hot (just 37 degrees Celsius – hey, it was 50 degrees in Sudan!). It doesn’t feel that crazy, either. And nobody puts a live snake on us. Somehow, we feel slightly blasé about the famous Marrakesh. Babouches, mosaics, rugs, small streets, dates, mosques, spices, “my friend! my friend!”, artisans, donkeys, etc… They leave us, during our first walks, with a sensation of “so what?”

Perhaps after six other medinas (Tangier, Chefchaoeun, Fes – especially Fes, Meknes, Rabat, Casablanca), after the hustlers of Ethiopia and Egypt, and after the heat of the Danakil Depression and Sudan, we have become (sadly or not) slightly accustomed to the overwhelming feeling of chaos that Marrakesh may often evoke.

We observe the craziness and within it, we find small spaces of wonderfulness. Our guesthouse host brings us on a tour of the medina, and we see the artisans producing beautiful dyed fabrics and brass lamps in the souqs (only the slightest pressure to buy!). We find a quiet space in the Maison de la Photographie, with its rooftop terrace one of the highest in the medina. We pay the entrance fee to the Medersa Ben Youssef and spend some time sitting in the cell-like rooms of the pupils, looking at the light filtering in through the small windows. We go to watch the hordes of worshippers streaming to the Koutoubia Mosque for the nine o’clock prayer, as police direct the flow of traffic (and take turns going to pray), and the worshippers slowly crowd out of the mosque grounds and onto the sidewalk, their bottoms raising high in the air when they bow down to pray.

The snake charmers, the street performers, and the steaming snails emerge at night to take over Djemaa el-Fna. The jingle of the donkey’s bridle is a startling contrast to the shriek of the motorcycle’s engine as they zip past each other, dangerously close. The sound of all these things creates the buzz of Marrakesh. These things are still weird and wonderful. Marrakesh is still crazy. And maybe next time, somebody will put a live snake on us.