The Magic of 1001 Nights
Anyone who does not believe time travel is possible simply has to visit Marrakesh, the “Pearl of the South”. It is the city of raconteurs, snake charmers and fortune tellers where a visitor can be transported from the 21st to the 19th century in ten seconds or less. Read More
THE MAGIC OF 1001 NIGHTS
Anyone who does not believe time travel is possible simply has to visit Marrakesh, the “Pearl of the South”. It is the city of raconteurs, snake charmers and fortune tellers where a visitor can be transported from the 21st to the 19th century in ten seconds or less. All you need to do is walk through one of the 22 doors in the old defensive wall to discover a mystical, fairly-tale world. This clash of eras, of the traditional and the modern, is what makes Marrakesh so special. It is hard to imagine another city where you can experience opposites so up close and personal. In the heat of the city centre, life pulsates with a hectic pace, while all around are rolling, impressive landscapes and a sense of quiet peace.
The magic of Marrakesh lies in the labyrinth of Medina, the city’s ancient core. Getting lost in the tiny allies without names is one of the best adventures Marrakesh has to offer. There is something new just waiting to be discovered around every corner. On the “main streets”, mopeds speed by donkey carts. And since cars are now allowed in Medina, every now and again one of the narrow streets is turned into a cul-de-sac by two cars that have gotten themselves wedged in in an attempt to pass one another. In the side alleyways at the heart of Medina, you will encounter the world-famous hospitality and openness, wonderful hidden architectural gems, mosques and people with time on their hands.
Medina demands you open yourself to the experience and fall in love with the quarter – which will love you back and open avenues and insights into the culture, the people and its very big heart. Wandering through the straw-covered alleyways in the cool shade under a burning midday sun amid the tiny rays that push their way through the straw to become a play of light and shadow is simply wonderful.
Marrakesh lives mostly from tourism – and this, of course, shapes the city. In the souks – the word ‘souk’ refers to the Berber/North African traditional markets – there are holders in every stall looking to hawk their wares. This active sales approach is simply the way things are done here: from the initial approach through the haggling to the final dramatic showdown, where the seller laments the poor deal he is about to make before accepting the proffered price. And if laughter is involved, so much the better. Very sweet mint tea is always at the ready – with practically enough sugar to keep the spoon upright in the cup.
Personal contact is very important here. Moroccans are very proud – and if they feel someone is not respecting them, they close off. Once, when I was trying to find my way in a rush and asked a stall holder “Can you tell me how to get to … please?” he answered “Good day. There is always enough time for a ‘good day’.” Then he very politely gave me the directions I was looking for.
Time takes on another dimension in Marrakesh. It does not run in a straight line; its importance is relative and it comes and goes. It is impossible to have a quick meeting in Marrakesh. People want to get to know each other, ask about your family, drink a cup of tea, or even share a meal before getting down to business.
If you dive even deeper into the world of the souks with their market stalls, you will discover the “boutiques” tucked away from the avid eyes of the tourists: studios just 2-3 square meters in size where old master craftsmen still cut, hammer and sew. This is where the lion’s share of the goods sold in “front” is produced. It is fascinating to see what is still made by hand using traditional tools and without electricity.
Just 200m away as the crow flies the millionaires sit with a gin and tonic or champagne around the pool and have themselves chauffeured through the city in their big SUVs. Traditional and modern – only a few metres separate them here. This comes at a price though: the craftsmen are being inexorably pushed out as rents rise and space is needed for market stalls to sell things to tourists. This is the other side of this wonderfully magic world: Many unemployed and day workers struggle to feed their families.
We tourists love the authenticity, the magic of Marrakesh – but we also want to get a good deal and are largely responsible for the fact that a lot of the wares now sold in Medina are imported from China. Wouldn’t it be nicer to pay a little more for something “genuine” while giving the people of Marrakesh a way to make a living?
The New City
But Marrakesh is not just Medina. When you touch down at the airport for your first visit to the city, wide avenues welcome you. The city is amazingly clean, lavish and well-cared for – exactly what we expect from a royal city with over 1.2 million inhabitants. Large construction projects for 5-star hotel chains are going up around the edge of the city where they plan to open their resorts complete with golf courses. To date there are seven around Marrakesh.
The “New City”, as Gueliz is called, was built over the past century and offers everything an urban dweller’s heart could desire: from Zara to Louis Vuitton, from the coolest clubs (such as North Africa’s biggest dance club) and ritzy restaurants to art galleries and – lest we forget – chaotic traffic. If not for the fact that every house is red and a veiled woman crossed the street every so often or a donkey cart ties traffic into a knot, it would not be immediately apparent that you are in Marrakesh at all. There is no bartering in the modern shopping mall and the prices are reminiscent of Europe.
As a European, if you live Marrakesh for a while though, you are sometimes very grateful for the New City and the almost European air of some parts of it. You can get soymilk in the supermarket and find an exceptional sushi restaurant. The modern is inescapably moving in, and that is a good thing, because the construction is not limited to just hotels. Schools have also been built in recent years that offer young people a chance to study here – from design to the natural sciences, almost all subjects are covered.
The young Moroccan women in particular have succeeded in changing both the city’s image and their own lives in recent years. There are a lot of active, involved young women here who, with or without headscarves, account for at least half of all students. A generation is coming into its own that is working for equality, enjoying life, and does not back down easily. Marrakesh has a female mayor, for example, who is not yet even 40 years old.
Wandering through the streets of Marrakesh, you might get lucky and see a veiled mother standing waiting for the light to change hand in hand with her daughter in high heels and a miniskirt. These are the images that make Marrakesh so special – and cause you to reflect…
Marrakesh is certainly the perfect place for travellers, explorers, and people who like to get to know other people. The people of Marrakesh are open, friendly and proud. They enjoy showing off the beauty of their culture and when you enter the city with openness and curiosity, you’ll leave it again somewhat tired, but full of faces and fascinating impressions.