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 many souks will offer.
“Travel with an open mind, open eyes and a willing smile and many doors will open for you”
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 need some fleet-footed stepping aside due to the constant flow of scooters and donkey carts. The souks can seem totally chaotic, therefore it maybe surprising to discover that they’re 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 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 found, they are not easy to find. The smell will certainly help once 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 also explains the process, pointing out the vats and skins being dyed or hanging out to dry. Sheep, camel, goat and cow skins, working the skin includes ‘rasping’ with a shovel to soften them. This ensures they are pliable enough for making 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 better here. It is generally produced for the artisans themselves, it is also better value and finding a great little tajine seller can make exploration worth it simply for that.
The only downside is that the souks can seem 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 is 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 are 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
This is a totally alien culture to any which most of us are accustomed. Agreeing to guidance around the souk or even to the spice stall just around the corner is basically an unwritten financial agreement. Insistence that there will not be any payment is actually irrelevant. As soon as the services of a ‘guide’ are accepted, they will be expecting payment for their help.
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 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. 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 the places requested.
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 purchasing process, so be ready 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 planned to buy 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 that can recount no end of ‘horror’ stories about being hassled in not only Marrakech but throughout North Africa. Travellers need to 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?