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I turned back in disbelief. Yes, my eyes weren’t deceiving me: it was an open top double-decker bus loudly proclaiming its ‘Hop on, Hop off’ tour of the city. Had my worst fears been realised in the ten years since my last visit? Had Marrakech sold out to the lure of the tourist dollar? Undoubtedly there has been a huge increase in visitors yet I am pleased to say, that in spite of the influx of tourists, Marrakech has managed to maintain much of its character as is still well worth a visit.

Like any self-respecting tourist I headed to the huge square at the heart of town, Djemaa el Fnaa. The origin of its name remains unknown: it means Assembly of the dead in Arabic but as the word djemaa also means mosque in Arabic, it could also mean place of the vanished mosque, in reference to a destroyed Almoravid mosque. Never has a square been so inauspiciously nor inappropriately named.

Today it is a seething frenzy of entertainment, a cacophony of sights and sounds. Water sellers in colourful costumes with traditional leather water-bags and brass cups, Berber dancing boys with spinning hats and clanging cymbals, the rhythmic background beat of drums and blaring pipes of snake charmers trying to coax their cold, and hence unenthusiastic, charges to entertain.

Magicians enthrall bemused audiences, dentists armed with pliers await the unsuspecting, tattooists force obliging tourists to have their hands adorned with henna and peddlers of traditional medicines sit patiently among the ebb and flow. One in particular, his face dark and African, caught my attention. Not so much for his ancient array of exotic remedies – from fried chameleons to hedgehog skins, from everything to nothing – but that amongst this medieval playground he pulls out his mobile phone.

Crowds, largely Moroccan, gather around flamboyant storytellers and listen intently. They ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at the flights of fantasy and nod their heads knowingly at the denouement. The raconteurs' power is still in evidence and I loiter on the periphery of one particularly engrossed crowd. I strain to make sense of the stream of Berber words, wanting to be part of this old and mysterious world that still holds sway over the modern escapism of television and film. Reluctantly I admit defeat and move off to become consumed by the atmospheric al fresco dining of this vibrant square.

As the sun goes down, the bright white lights of the little open-air food stalls, give a fantastical air to the whole place. Salad, vegetables, spices, flat bread and an assortment of meats lie neatly stacked on each stall. Clouds of white smoke waft up from kebabs and lamb brochettes sizzling on open fires, and the smells that rise with them are irresistible. So too, the incessant and good humoured banter of the stalls, my favourite line being, “Marks and Spencer quality, Asda prices.”

It is said that Djemaa el Fnaa never empties but I retire to save my strength for what lies in wait tomorrow.

The early morning light breathes life into the quiet square, one of many interspersed amongst the souqs of Marrakech that pour through the medina in a maze of narrow streets. Veiled women sit patiently by neatly stacked piles of colourful woollen Berber hats, absentmindedly watching motorbikes putter past. Beslippered old men shuffle and hobble by. Heavily laden carts are pushed through the throng. Tourists strut nonchalantly past, hanging onto their guide’s every word. A scrawny cat rummages hungrily in a pile of rubbish.

I could sit here for hours people watching but I rouse myself from my reverie and enter the foray. In one alley, shafts of sunlight stream through from slats of wood and battered corrugated iron overhead, water is sprinkled by attentive shopkeepers to keep down the dust. Seated outside his stall, an old man murmurs to himself whilst reading from the Koran. A woman passes, dressed in white. She is in mourning and will dress in white for four months and ten days, after which time she will know whether she is pregnant and thus can remarry.

Further along, in contrast to her sorrow and the old man’s murmurings, the souq erupts into a blaze of colour and riot of noise. A kaleidoscopic rainbow of slippers, the glistening black of olives, garish glassware, patterned pottery and a tint of dyes. Here there is bustling life, everyone bargaining among the whining mopeds and handcarts piled high with firewood or goatskins. Wafts of musk, spices and soaps mingle with donkey dung, and every now and again the soaring wail of an amplified muezzin does battle with a braying donkey or the plaintive serenade of ancient ballad.

I swirl through one vortex of salesmanship after another, from the carpet souq through the jewellery souk to the souks of handicrafts and metalware. The banging, clanging, sawing, hammering and polishing produces sparks, shards, chippings and shavings. Everywhere I turn there is industry, skill, craft and ingenuity. And not just in the work. The showman is in his element, desperate to distract, keen to grab the passerby’s attention. Young boys juggle hammers, salesmen perfect their banter.

I am intrigued by one man carving the wooden handle of kebab skewers with his feet whilst his hands spin a rudimentary lathe. His skill and dexterity is captivating. He looks up at me grins and says proudly, “I’m better than Black and Decker.”

Marrakech was once a haven to flee to, an oasis to escape the desert. Not much has changed in this respect.

















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