“My name is Mustapha, I come from the Sahara, I am a Saharawi. Please, please come see the textiles woven by my women”.
Mustapha might really be a Saharawi, it’s been a long time since the plight of his people has been of any interest for the world, especially now that we’re so morbidly hooked on the ISIS and its faithful North London butcher. What’s sure is that either his women are as productive as Chinese textile workers, or actually are Chinese, based in some sweatshop in the Guandgdong. His shop is packed to the rafters, shelves squeaking under the weight of hundreds of brightly coloured (and suspiciously industrial-looking) cloths. I politely decline in French, claiming that a meeting at the airport, with the plane taking me home, looms. La prochaine fois.
Goods for sale at a local épicerie
Mustapha is only one of the many sellers on the lookout for potential buyers in the Mellah in Marrakech. The old Jewish borough is undoubtedly less touristy than the Medina proper, but it’s fair to say that every two workshops there’s a tourist trap. Scorn as you might at the sight of these establishment, but should you live in a country whose GDP per capita is $5,500 and you see tourists clutching cameras worth more than that, wouldn’t you try and benefit as much as possible of their wealth? I certainly would.
Dressed in old, faded trousers, dusty trekking shoes, modest hoodie and nondescript t-shirt I attracted a lot less attention than those donning Barbour field jackets and leather boots. Few people looked a me, and even fewer offered me to sample their merchandises. He’s a tramp, or at least looks like one. Why bother?
A grocer. With moped…
Undisturbed, I moved freely around the maze of ochre-painted mud walls. The sun gave me an indication of where West was and, also, of Djemaa El Fna. A few big arrows had been painted here and there and, should I ever gotten completely lost, I knew that 20 dirhams would have sufficed for a local youth to get me where I needed to be.
The roads changed character with the same suddenness of a bipolar’s mood swings. Hectic shopping arcades, shaded by a bamboo canopy stretched from one side of the road to the other, gave way to tranquil passageways where palms flourished in terracotta vases, where the only noise was the skylark of old men dressed in djellabas.
I found losing myself in the Mellah an overwhelming experience at first, but it soon became highly addictive. The noise of the mopeds, the occasional bray of a donkey, the stomping beat of a Moroccan song blaring from an old transistor radio, the rhythmic clangs of metal being worked in workshops all conjured into creating a dub that made the passer-by walk as if dancing, me included.
Smells, though, often weren’t as savoury. Bodily fluids reeked from the corners where men and beasts had been relieving themselves, and the nauseatingly sweet smell of decaying fruit whiffed from every greengrocer’s backdoor. Sometimes, however, the cones of liquid soap and the vast sacks of spices refined the atmosphere, giving the streets a feeling of a bygone era, until the arrival of belching scooter didn’t cover everything in unburnt octanes.
On my last tour, before walking back to Djemaa El Fna and to the awaiting bus, I found myself circumnavigating the Badi Palace, a grand compound sitting behind high walls, built with the ransom levied to the Portuguese to return the shattered remnants of an invading army, a senseless endeavour that costed even the life of the Portuguese king.
Its surroundings have undoubtedly gone down a notch of two from their glory days. Dust covers the once elaborate gates, a few houses have been flattened down and what appears to be a wood-fired boiler for a nearby hammam – or so I interpret it – engulfs the whole area in a thick, miasmic smoke. Above us, built on the ramparts of the Badi Palace, are crane nests, with the magnificent birds standing, watching us down below. As a kid I used to marvel at these migrating birds, wondering what they nests would be like, where they’d be, in the countries where they used to migrate. Now I know.