Berbers, spice stalls, carpet sellers, hashish, red sandy walls, Premier League shirts, medinas and dates. Nights in Marrakesh are where the budding traveller with bulging bags and wallets will spend their most memorable experiences.
This is a city that follows a nocturnal sleeping pattern. The most famous of these nightly haunts is the majestic Jemaa el-Fnaa, which you will most likely recognise whether you can name it or not. The name of the square refers to a ‘congregational mosque’ and that is exactly what it has become. Monkeys perform tricks for ogling German tourist groups, Italian waiters on holiday suspiciously spy the speed and dexterity of the pancake makers of the square, likely lads are offered what has attracted the beatnik since the sixties. A modern congregation of the faithful, traveller, peddler and businessman.
Marrakesh is often cited as a melting pot, as so many other cities in the world are, however it is a dish in its own right.
Leading off from the square are hundreds of the tributaries that form the conduit through which the pulp of the pedestrian mass is strained. A man-made ceiling of houses and shops each with a fading sign and wary eyed owner. On one street you can see the scene of the stabbing in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. In another you will find the entrance to an exclusive bar with entrance only permitted to the ‘right’ kind of people. The city used to be divided into specific areas with a sector for retail, pottery, carpets, leather, jewellery, carpets and rugs, with this general distinction still being in effect today.
Marrakesh is often cited as a melting pot, as so many other cities in the world are, however it is a dish in its own right. Of course one can identify foreign influences, whether it be the high degree of French signs, Berber architecture, dress and speech or the Arabic language that is itself so different from its homologues on the other side of Africa. Take for example the still standing old city walls and gates, built in the twelfth century by the Almoravids, the characteristic colour and feel gave the city its nickname the ‘red city’. Red is not only a colour on the Moroccan flag but at the very heart of the country, mirroring the red of the sand and hills that surround and encompass it.
While the majority of travellers will spend their time in Marrakesh or Tangiers, some will venture through the winding passes of the Atlas mountains, and head further south to the coastline of Essaouira. This is a European Mediterranean city in all but name, language and constituents. The white walls that circle the city seem to have protected it from the ravages of time. A port thick with sea birds and restaurants, with the midday sun highlighting the cragged features of the fisherman and their boats. This is an ideal site to experience the fabled Mediterranean lifestyle without the equally infamous price tag. The two colours that are imprinted in the visitors mind is a clear washed white and deep azure blue, these are ubiquitous throughout this city of Dutch, French and Portuguese influence.
On the political stage, Morocco is often seen as both an exception and alike the other systems of Middle Eastern government. Islamism is a given in any Arab country, but under the liberalisation of King Hassan II in the mid-1990s many Islamic parties were formed and currently enjoy electoral success. This structure of Islamism being informed by the state, as well as vice versa, is one of the exceptions in the Arab world. At its core though, Morocco is still an authoritarian constitutional monarchy that derives its own power from Islam through the citing of the King as a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, in Arabic a sharif. Three types of Islamist movement developed in Morocco each with separate roles for the monarchy. First were the Qutbists, second the Abdessalam Yassine movement and thirdly the Party of Justice and Development. The battle between Sufism and Salafism is as present here as it is in other parts of North Africa.
Morocco is the gateway to the east, as it was the gateway to the west for the Moors. As such, those travelling to Morocco and wishing to find adventure and change will not be disappointed. If you are thinking of a place to visit, book a flight, car or ferry in April to early June or September through November and you will not be disappointed.