Reading the blogs of people who have spent time in Marrakech is fascinating, and I would have been lost had I not done my research before visiting the city, but something that I have noticed is that a lot of the writing out there doesn’t really get to the point. People wax lyrical about having to bargain in the souks, and about how aggressive the henna ladies can be, but it all reads in a light-hearted, ‘Oh, isn’t Morocco so funny?’ tone, whilst failing to acknowledge the bigger picture.
Sure, Marrakech is a buzzing hub for tourists and it makes a great holiday destination, but the insistence of the street vendors isn’t just a quirky cultural commodity put in place to make Marrakech seem crazy and eccentric and fun: it is an unfortunate necessity. It is impossible to spend any length of time in the Medina without smelling the desperation in the air. Everybody, and I mean everybody is hustling to make a living, and nobody is really your friend.
On my first night, I admit, I was swept up in the sights, smells and sounds of the Jemaa el-Fna. I was captivated by the hypnotising tunes played by the snake charmers, the billowing gowns of the henna ladies, the calls from the vendors selling fresh orange juice and the cute puppy-eyes of the kids selling tissues and light-up plastic toys. Marrakech seduced me with its charm, much like it had seduced so many before me, and I was enchanted by it.
However, by day two, the reality of the Medina was becoming clear: nobody is happy. Nothing is genuine. The woman promising a gift of free henna because she ‘likes you’ will turn nasty if you truly don’t have any money, the men asking you to pose for photographs with their monkeys think nothing of leaving the poor animals in the blistering heat all day with no water, and the comatose snakes that are supposedly entranced by their charmers are much more likely to be high on opiates than music (never have I seen animal cruelty quite like in Marrakech – don’t get me started on the mistreatment of the horses).
The first time you walk by the homeless woman and see her son, a tiny, docile boy with no eyes, you feel sorry for her and give her all of your change. However, the next time you see her, dragging him around and slapping him if he can’t walk quickly enough, you realise that the Madonna act is all a lie and the poor boy is nothing but her next meal ticket, a child probably not even her own.
The funny guy that jokes with you every day suddenly becomes a lot more unfriendly when you refuse to go into his restaurant, and when you point out to the waiters that they have gotten your order wrong, expect no apology. The guy that, one day, proclaims his love for you, will be offering you 70p for sex and hurling abuse at you the next. The gang that says hello to you every morning on your way to work will have no issue with pickpocketing your friend a few days later. The friendly man that hands you a leaflet for a bar or massage parlour will swear at you if you don’t want a massage RIGHT NOW, and the butter-wouldn’t-melt street kids’ mouths will quickly turn foul if you don’t want to buy a packet of old tissues.
No matter how modestly you dress, being a white woman in the centre of Marrakech is akin to being a prostitute, and no Moroccan man has any respect for prostitutes. Growing up in a world where the only women they see are either in full traditional dress with everything covered except their eyes, verses the vast array of free online pornography that teaches them about sex, white women are seen as promiscuous whores, and nothing that you can do or say will change that.
However, all that said, there is still a lot that we can learn from Marrakech. First, the importance of letting children be children. Of course, the city clearly has a problem with street kids, but the youngsters found in the schools, daycare centres and orphanages are some of the most intelligent, accepting and appreciative people that you will ever meet. 12 and 13 year olds are content with colouring in and playing catch – a far cry from the spoilt brats that we see in the UK! They also have respect for their peers as well as their elders, and it is rare to see a child misbehaving or being rude to a teacher.
Second, we Brits need to learn not to be so damn polite! The first time I told a henna lady to ‘fuck off’ I felt awful, but it quickly became apparent that this direct way of saying no was far more effective than the typical British way of apologising and smiling. Yes, you will get told to ‘fuck off’ if you don’t want to buy anything from a street vendor, but they don’t really mean it and it works two ways! It is far easier than fannying around trying to politely decline an offer that you have no intention of taking!
Faith is also a prevalent theme in Marrakech, and whatever people will say about how ‘all Muslims are terrorists’ and ‘religion is evil,’ yada yada yada, it is actually quite beautiful to see people leaving work to pray in the middle of the day, observing Ramadan even in the scorching summer heat, and to see disadvantaged children growing up with the absolute belief that God is glorious and will provide.
It is also wonderful to experience a culture where pleasure is not derived solely from alcohol, and where most teens are still innocent when it comes to sex and drugs. Happiness is derived from reading and singing and drinking mint tea in the sun. It is derived from working hard and spending time with ones’ family and in having faith. This, I feel, is one of the greatest lessons that we can learn from the people of Marrakech.