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Friday, 02 May 2014 11:52

A Day in Marrakech

Written by  Cindy Ross

Africa-MoroccoThe time is 5 a.m. The city of Marrakech, Morocco is breathlessly quiet. Suddenly, chanting begins to resound from a nearby mosque. Within moments it is followed by a chorus of guttural voices, emanating from over 100 minarets. Asleep on a rooftop terrace I am jarred awake by the thunderous Call to Prayer. This is my Moroccan alarm clock.

My family and I are spending several days exploring the markets of Marrakech. From our rooftop terrace we have a sprawling view of the city. The markets form a web of convoluted streets; alleyways thatched in bamboo and hopelessly tangled. From the central plaza, the streets radiate outward in a labyrinth capable of making anyone feel directionally challenged. In the distance loom the snow-capped Atlas Mountains.

Departing from our rooftop we gravitate towards the plaza. By the time the sun had ascended, monkey-handlers and snake charmers are already welcoming the day. However, the cobras do not appear too charmed, their mouths sewn shut to prevent them from spitting venom. The skirl of shrill pipes is enough to make the most tolerant people insane. I pity the snakes that are subjected to it.

After breakfast in the plaza we take the plunge into the markets. Everything is rich in color - vibrant scarves, jewelry, teapots and tasseled rugs. Tables are heaped with camel-leather saddles, daggers, spices and fresh produce. Our personal favorites are the stands piled in figs and dates. In the center of the stands are holes where Moroccans pop up to collect our order, reminiscent of prairie dogs emerging from their burrows. Most people in the markets are Moroccan salesmen. In order to grab our attention they try everything.

“One moment please!” they shout, beckoning us as if they are providing shelter from a tornado. “Just look, no buy! You like? It’s like free!”

Most of the women are mummified in shawls, looking like sacks of potatoes with eyes. People were everywhere, filthy children, wizened old folks with canes, teenagers swerving erratically on mopeds, and beggars shielded under cardboard. Young boys wear their hair gelled in spikes and when they swagger past my sister they holler, “!”

Animals are also numerous. Donkeys haul carts containing every product from Coca-Cola bottles to propane tanks. Cats wander the streets, scavenging bits of meat and gnawing at fish bones. Roosters peck at the ground.

We wander between cracked, sunset-colored walls until we detect the stench of the tannery. The tannery is an open area with vats of water made milky with pigeon droppings. Workers slosh in the rank broth in nothing but shorts, laboring to tan sheep leather.  It looks like a vast honeycomb, where men hang skins to dry and mangy cats wander the rims. We are handed sprigs of mint leaf to sniff to dull the stench.

Across the street is the building where the leather is made into cushions, purses and other accessories. A salesman removes nearly every cushion from the wall, just to convince us to purchase one, and then begins unrolling carpets and tapestries in desperation.

We leave the scene and plod onward. Five times a day we hear the Call to Prayer. From various mosques around the city, chanting and music resound for worship. Lunch calls for overpriced tea on a terrace. The tea is choked in mint-leaf and so sweet I can feel cavities forming after the first sip.

At the dyer souke, pieces of cloth are hung from lines and lifted with hooked poles. The colors are striking and vary from crimson to turquoise and cobalt blue. We climb up a spiral staircase to view the scenery from the terrace. Somehow, we find ourselves bargaining with a man who offers 8,000 camels in exchange for my sister.

By nightfall the plaza is a hive of humanity. Like moths to a flame, we are attracted towards its lit center. Men wheel in food carts and cooking tents, banishing the snake charmers and their repetitive song. Soon pungent smoke clouds the air. Small greasy chefs busily fry small greasy sausages. Buckets of snails entice the passerby. Determined tattoo artists pursue us with syringes of henna, while we pursue the aroma of frying food.

One has to be aware while roaming the plaza. The traffic is chaotic, mopeds swerving around bewildered tourists. The whine of motorbikes pierces the air. Pickpockets steal up behind us,
without success.

“Where you from?” inquires a fruit salesman.

“The United States.”

“A thousand welcomes,” he exclaims, grinning gleefully. We smile back.

From dawn to dusk the markets have ensnared us. We realize a week would not be fully sufficient to see all its wonders. Returning to our rooftop terrace, we hear the fifth and final Call to Prayer, while below us drummers pound out the heartbeat of Marrakech.

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