Thursday, November 13, 2014


Three days in Marrakesh isn't a bad way to start the winter. Not least when you can get there for absurdly low prices. In fact, my housemate Colm and I were so vocal when we discovered the €60 return flights that our other housemate, Stephen, and his girlfriend, Klaudia, also penned in a trip into their yearly planners. In the event, we ended up paying €70 in the midst of inexplicable fluctuations on the airline's website. But to retain our sense of achievement, we lied to anybody who would listen that we were going to Morocco and back for "SIXTY EURO!!!"

Upon our arrival on a wet evening, Colm's negotiation with taxi drivers was an introduction to the commonly ambiguous treatment of just how much something costs. Taking place in French, the conversation evoked in me the inadequacy of only really speaking one language. For the record, apart from Arabic and Berber, the citizens of Marrakesh demonstrated proficiency in French, English, Spanish and Italian. And when we replied to one enthusiastic kid in Irish, he mistook it for Greek. "We are Moroccan" he said as he finally deduced our first language, "we are inteligente!" 

Our hotel was in the newer part of town, a cosmopolitan quarter filled with a mix of comforted westerners and aspiring middle-class Moroccans. Dress ranged between everything from Islamic conservatism to label flaunting glamour. And this occurred across lines more blurred than male, female, local or "blow-in". Actually, the area's hybrid of western consumerism and Arab tradition was among the most intriguing aspects of our visit. 

In the old town, or Medina, the situation was altogether less decipherable. Arriving in Africa's biggest market, the Jamaa el-fna, we were immediately subjected to the famously relentless salesmanship. Eating a nice meal for example, only happened after we were made feel like we couldn't really refuse.

But watching the sheer chaos of unregulated trade was enough to make amends for the incessant hassling by every second merchant. One memorable image was that of food sellers, bellowing at every tourist within earshot, commanding huge assemblies of fruit and vegetables, like conductors surrounded by their orchestras.

However, the undoubted talking point of our trip to Marrakesh was an elaborate scam, whereby Colm and I were lured into the "tannery" district for what was initially presented as an unmissable opportunity to experience authentic Berber culture. Before we knew it, we were following a middle-aged man, through ever deteriorating slums to see a tannery at work.

I didn't really know where we were going until we got there- a grimy yard where the fumes of rotting animal hide filled the air. The sight of a chained sheep awaiting its inevitable slaughter should have signaled to me that I was in one of my most dreaded places, but Colm and I could barely think as the "guide" reeled off his explanation of just how leather is made. 

Next, we were brought inside the tannery store and subjected to a showcase of animal rugs. Still unaware of our roles as pawns in an impressively sophisticated racket, we were more concerned with how we were going to tell our hosts that we weren't interested in their produce. The inevitable showdown came in the guise of a debate between Colm and the shopkeeper over how much he should pay for a belt. But the longer the discussion went on, the more obvious it became that we were negotiating the terms of our departure. 

When brave Colm eventually told him that we would have to leave without buying anything, the shopkeeper, a stocky enough man, grabbed both of us in turn and pushed us toward the door. "Hey" we exclaimed as we were ushered back into the yard. When we made for the gate, he followed us shouting: "Fuck you Man!" We were then surrounded by all the characters from the story, and it dawned on us that our whole visit was no kind of accident. It was time to pay up. 

Ten euros from each of us now seems like a menial amount for what kind of felt like a mugging. Subsequent research revealed that the "tannery scam" is commonplace in the Medina. The tactic, ever more obvious the more I think about it, is no less than the total manipulation, and intimidation if necessary, of the tourist's naive mindset. We were had. 

Still, Marrakesh was one of the finest holidays I've taken in a long time. The rough and tumble of the Medina, while not without hassle, was ultimately the most enjoyable part. Life manifests in a degree of activity that really has to be seen to be understood. It's what academics and the media might call the developing world- human beings that simply don't have time for the egotism and self-consciousness of affluence. To witness this and drop out whenever "I need to" is a privilege that can't really be quantified.

This entry is nothing but a brief impression of one Moroccan city. And just in case I haven't done its people justice, I should add that the vast majority were warm, courteous and helpful in the utmost. Add to that things like an exotic sounds-cape emitting colloquial Arabic and the regular call to prayer, Marrakesh is an unforgettable place. If you haven't already been, it's definitely worth a look. 

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