“Travel with an open mind, open eyes and a willing smile and many doors will open for you”
The souks are almost certainly one of the main reasons people decide to travel to Marrakech. Vibrant and colourful, sights, sounds and smells seductive and totally alien. There is little that can prepare anybody for the full on assault to the senses that an afternoon spent browsing the various stalls of the numerous souks will provide.
The largest market of its type in Morocco and surrounding the main meeting hub, the UNESCO recognised Djemaa el Fna square; the souks are the lifeblood of the medina. Tourists, traders and locals all hustle and bustle their way through the winding narrow streets, completing their business, either buying or selling the myriad of items available.
The maze of backstreets, small stalls and tiny nooks and crannies require some fleet footed stepping aside due to the constant flow of scooters and donkey carts. The souks can seem to be totally chaotic, therefore it maybe surprising to discover that they are organised into districts; each selling its own specialised wares; leather, ceramics, jewellery, rugs and colourful dyed cloths.
A nose for exploration
Exploring some of the more out of the way areas of the medina, can certainly be worthwhile. There will be opportunities to see skilled artisans working on their products. Skills that have been passed for generations still being practiced by young and old alike. There are a plethora of lovely items being manufactured and sometimes it is even possible to get an extra special bargain direct from the creator.
Finding the tanneries is a sure sign that the furthest reaches of the medina have been discovered, they are not at all easy to find. The smell will certainly help once anywhere in the vicinity, especially if the wind is blowing in the right direction. The smell is pungent to put it mildly almost eye wateringly so. Although they are not comparable in size to Fes it is still worth taking the time to take a quick tour.
The offering of mint leaves by the manager upon entering to help deal with the stench is very welcome. The manager will go onto explain the process, pointing out the vats and skins being dyed or hanging out to dry. Sheep, camel, goat and cow skins that are being worked on, which includes ‘rasping’ with a shovel to soften them. This ensures they are pliable enough to be made into the various items for sale on the stalls of the souks, bags and sandals being the main items produced.
Another great reason to head into the deepest darkest depths of the medina is that the food is often much better here. It is generally produced for the artisans themselves, it is much better value therefore and finding a great little tajine seller can make the exploration worth it simply for that.
The only downside is that the souks can be intimidating. Whilst there are now laws which protect the traveller from over aggressive ‘marketing’ it does still happen. Shopkeepers now usually wait until the shopper ‘initiates’ the sale, but this interpretation can be pretty loose, just pausing momentarily can sometimes be the catalyst for some ‘hard’ bargaining.
Even the most cursory wander through the medina can result in several encounters with willing guides, offers of assistance and invitations to enter several shops. The more observant will also notice that there appear to be a number of shell-shocked, battle weary and outright impatient Westerners fending off their would be suitors and almost ‘swatting’ away the countless children selling their wares.
Well aware, well guided
It should be realised that this is a totally alien culture to the ones which most of us are accustomed. Agreeing to be shown around the souk or even to the spice stall just around the corner is basically an unwritten financial agreement. Insistence that no money will be exchanged is actually irrelevant; as soon as an agreement is made to accept the services of a ‘guide’ it will be anticipated that they will be receive some remuneration for their assistance.
The best course of action is to simply refuse any of these offers of assistance; genuine free acts of generosity are very rare here. Remain polite, but firmly refuse the offers, with an obvious shake of the head and continue walking, do not pause as again it is likely this will be misread.
Of course it is possible you may actually want to take advantage of the services of an impromptu guide, in which case keep a pocket full of small denomination notes to pay for these. Remember however they will probably be on some form of commission from the shops, so they may not necessarily take you to the best ones!
If the services of a guide are essential it is likely that the Riad or hotel which you are staying at will be able to recommend a more reliable one. This can also prove beneficial as it is possible to specify what you actually want to see more of the souks or the monuments and other places of interest around the city. Agree a price before starting out and make it known this is dependent on actually seeing what was specified.
It is possible however to have a very successful day or more exploring the city and souks independently. Remain confident, sunglasses are not just useful for keeping the sun out of your eyes, it avoids contact with storekeepers until you want to attract their attention. Always remain polite, but also firm, there will be a few that are still persistent, but eventually even these will leave you in peace. Ignore any obviously inflammatory comments, it just is not worth the bother.
Don’t be shy
Haggling is part of the whole purchasing process, so be prepared to barter for that must have souvenir. Set a price you are willing to pay before inquiring with the trader and be prepared to walk away if the price seems excessive.
On my visit I wished to purchase a traditional Berber garment, a djellaba; a long loose fitting robe. Trying one on in a stall the merchant when prompted informed me it would be 920 dirhams. Removing the garment I politely informed him we would not be doing business, and later purchased one for 150 dh! However the same merchant literally jumped out on me at least five occasions at various times of the day and in different areas of the souk asking for my best offer. Each time I politely refused.
Do not spend too long shopping in the souks in one session, set aside an afternoon to do so, and even then enjoy a break enjoying some mint tea, Moroccan coffee or an excellent tajine from one of those backstreet stalls. There is much to see in the city, there is even a completely new city which is a world apart from the medina, with McDonalds and a Haagen Daz! You’ll come back refreshed and ready to tackle whatever the souks may throw at you!
There are many people that will tell you no end of ‘horror’ stories about being hassled in not only Marrakech but throughout North Africa. Travellers should be prepared for this so that it does not come as too great a shock. The guidebooks and magazines all warn of it, it is after all a different culture, and that is part of the attraction.
Do you have any tips or advice to pass on to those planning a trip to Marrakech in particular or North Africa in general. Should visitors be more sympathetic of the ‘hassles’ due to the obvious poverty? What do you think?