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, which isn’t so pretty.
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 or beating them, 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).
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 and perhaps even disabled by her own hand.
The funny guy that jokes with you every day suddenly becomes a lot more unfriendly when you don’t want to eat in his restaurant, and 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 hang out outside your accommodation and say hello to you every morning will have no issue with pickpocketing your friend just moments after laughing with him. 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.
Talking of street kids, they are victims of human trafficking, forced to beg on the streets or beaten. These kids don’t go to school or home to loving families. They are modern day slaves who will likely be exploited for the rest of their lives.
No matter how modestly you dress, being a white woman in Marrakech will never see you treated with any kind of respect. Western women are looked down upon (a theme we often see in Islamic countries, such as with the ‘Dubai Porta Potty’ phenomenon in the UAE).
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 ripe for the picking, and nothing that you can do or say will change that.
With all that being 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 forced begging but the youngsters found in the schools, daycare centres and orphanages (I was part of a volunteer project when I visited Marrakech) 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.
Faith is also a prevalent theme in Marrakech, and while Islamic nations often have a way to go when it comes to human rights, it is 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. From working hard and spending time with family and loved ones. It is having faith. This, I feel, is one of the greatest lessons that we can learn from the people of Marrakech.
Marrakech is a magical city and one that I can’t wait to revisit and rediscover all over again, but it isn’t without it’s problems, and I’d be lying if I said they weren’t apparent.