Marrakech Journal - Day 2

10 Aug

The default sound of Marrakech is the motorbike. The persistent, alto growl is everywhere as the motorized burros speed around in all directions. They are a primary mode of transit, but they're also a defining factor of youth identity (like the American car, the means to get away from watchful eyes) and work as pack mules as well. The small motorcycles can be seen pulling wooden carts packed with good for distribution moving through the winding, narrow roads of the casbah.

The noxious fumes they spit out are also a defining part of the Marrakech sensory experience. While the walk from the casbah through the medina to the Djemaa el Fna is visually stunning – a wash of coral and tan walls and blue and white painted signs with swirling Arabic calligraphy – it's tempered by exhaust fumes and horse dung. But the short walk comes to an end with the sound of the drums, wailing vocals and amplified strings that resonate through the Place 18 hours a day or more. The motorbike din works like a curtain, opening slowly to the sounds of the square.

The trance of Marrakech is not drug induced. Alcohol isn't even served at the Djemaa el Fna souks. It has to do with ecstatic devotion, but it's not unaffected by the hallucinatory effects of the heat, where a liter of water can be gone without notice under the midday sun.

Under a canopy made of five large umbrellas a band of three drums and a double-reed flute plays loud, looping music. A half dozen large vipers sit coiled in front of them, a black cobra the most active of them. Knotted in a nest under a burlap sack are dozens of smaller ones. One of the drummers pours water over the burlap bag every so often. He takes out an egg, makes a hole in it and pours the yolk out on the street. Then puts the shell down and takes a smaller snake out and sets it in front of the egg. The snake puts his head through the hole and out the other side of the shell, and ends up wearing it like a necklace – or a neck brace – after looking for the innards to eat. The drummer selects another small snake to take out to the assembled crowd, kissing it and touching it to peoples' foreheads, for good luck and for a small donation. The hypnotic music entrances me, but it's the motion of the musicians – and everyone else – that the cobra is reacting to. Movement seems to make him crazy. When he gets too excited, hissing and making small, warning strikes at the drummers, one of them places a frame drum over him to calm him down. In the background, another performer saying “Give me money paper! Give me money paper!”

My sandal breaks while I'm leaving the Place. At first I take is as an excuse to go back to the my air-conditioned room at the riad where I think I can fix it with the ring off my keychain, but I decide to persevere and head to a block where I noticed some mechanical repair shops, thinking they might have a ring of some sort. I pass a man at a sewing machine and show him my shoe. He smiles and shrugs – a non-English-speaking non-cobbler.

Then I pass a row of souks making and selling rugs and mats. On the ground amidst all the other refuse I spot a small length of thread loosely looped together like it might have been the end of a spool. I pick it up, there's maybe 36 inches. This should work to tie the two parts of my shoe together. I keep walking and pass a riad with its door open, the air coming out of the unlit hallway noticeably cooler than that on the street. I walk in and ask if I can sit in the front to fix my shoe. Part of me is happy to be the American who didn't just throw it away and buy a new one.


The shoe holds together quite well. I walk through the medina into the casbah. The casbah here is huge, much bigger than in Tangier or Rabat and with many more dead ends, which means more opportunity for people to jump in and be tour guide. “C'est fermé,” they say helpfully, then, “I'll show you.” Sometimes they show you without asking for anything, sometimes not. Many Moroccans are genuinely friendly and helpful, and no doubt proud that they can negotiate the walled labyrinth, even if the demands of self-employment in the tourism industry involve a bit of hustling. (The average American or European tourist spends in a week what the average Moroccan makes in a year, although my presence is probably hemming that ratio in a bit.) So I walk into the casbah and if “lost” isn't quite the word, I'm still heading in a direction that will get me nowhere. A young man, a teen probably, offers to help me out. I keep telling him “Thank you but I do not need a guard. I do not need a guard.” He says “no fee, no money,” but I know that means no charge but a tip is expected and then haggled over. And the truth is, getting lost is part of the game.

He takes me to an exit from the walled city and tells me to go up to the next entrance and go in to get to the palace. I thank him and he asks me for something for his trouble. I take out a few coins. If you take out your wallet, they inevitably look in it and adjust their pitch. He says to me, “No, that is like nothing,” and then from nowhere another young man walks up and says “Please, a donation for my brother for all his work.”

“Thank you, my brother,” says the first one with excessive humility in the face of the injustice being done to him.

Then, from a different direction of nowhere and every bit as suddenly, five policemen on scooters drive up on the sidewalk. They two youth run – fast. Three of the cops go off on their way again, one blocks the other entry through the wall and the other goes in after them, revving his engine like he's trying to scare cats from his driveway. It's too crowded inside, not worth the disruption of a chase. But he gives them a scare, judging from the looks on their faces.

King Mohammed VI, from what little I know, has been an interesting ruler. Along with slowly divesting the throne's power to the Parliament (he is an avowed anti-monarch), he has pushed a zero-tolerance policy on harassing tourists. I wasn't really being harassed, but the kids weren't waiting around to explain.

It was a bit of a relief and even a little comical watching them leap and the scooters circle, but it was also a bit chilling. While traveling I'm reading A Life Full of Holes, an autobiographical novel dictated to Paul Bowles by Larbi Layachi using the name Driss Ben Hamed Charahi. In it, Layachi recounts a childhood (it's unclear whether or not it's his) spent in and out of Moroccan jails for petty crimes and false accusations. Assuming the protagonist is the same age as the author, the story is set in the 1950s. Things are far better here now. But I couldn't help think about it.

I also can't help but think that Moroccans must think there are far more hippies in the US than there actually are, based on the tourist profile I see here.

I'm writing this sitting at a cafe at the edge of Jemaa el Fna, having coffee before I finally answer the call of air-conditioning and go have a nap. On either side of the cafe are little souks selling CDs of popular Arabic and American music. They alternately blast samples for customers out on the square a dumbek player plays full tilt and in another direction a flutist wails hypnotically. Somewhere a cell phone plays a Mozart riff. It's an insane amount of sound, mixed with the sharp horns of motorbikes and the music of a language I don't understand being spoken all around me. Still, there's a sense that it's quiet now in the afternoon heat. Tents are being erected for the night time. It's like a brief inhalation during a centuries-old song. For the most part, the sounds intermingle oddly well, broken only by the piercing volume of the snake charmer's flute. Slowly it calms down while I sit, although “calm” is hardly the word. It settles, maybe I'm settling, sitting for more than a few minutes for the first time in seven hours. And maybe with the settling I am relinquishing the need to frame – or have framed. If only out of sheer exhaustion, I am simply letting the sound in. It still makes no sense – it's utter cacophony, so far beyond the madness of free jazz or free improv, where the players are still occupying the same space and are to some extent aware of each other. This is a musical tradition filled up like paint balloons and thrown at the wall.

How much does the one-legged man love his motorbike?


Flipping stations on the radio in my room. Is it possible I heard John Lennon's “Woman is the Nigger of the World”? I flipped back and it was over. “We make her cover her face and dance”?


Went to the supermarket in New City and bought 2 liters of soda (an apple thing and a lemon thing), a bag of some kind of peanut snack, four small bags of olive mixtures, a bag of raisins and a bag of figs, all for $5 American.

I shall now write about my exercises in commerce.

Bought some finger cymbals for 37, a shirt for my sister, a wallet for my dad, a carved cat for dad's ladyfriend, a hat for myself (still haven't found any vinyl, though), maybe something else, but what I mean to get to is this: I bought three small paintings from a wonderful fellow in the casbah this morning.

I was walking past a short row of souks where men were making small paintings on wood. They're for tourists. Often the same cartoonish pictures are repeated from one painter to the next. But one guy had a painting of two Gnawa musicians playing back to back. They looked to me like they were rocking out. It made me laugh, then double back because it seemed like a good gift for 37, plus no one else seemed to have that particular design. When I got back to his souk, he smiled and greeted me. Probably saw me the first time, but there was something that seemed genuine about him, something I liked. Nour-eddine Boukheir didn't have that mix of servile pushiness that I'm not comfortable interacting with. He asked if I'd like him to explain Arabic calligraphy to me, which was as easy a question as if he'd asked if I'd be drinking 8 liters of water today. Why, yes! I was having trouble following him because of his accent (although his English was quite good) and because it was so hot in the little stall that I was soon dripping sweat. After a short while he instructed me to turn on a small electric fan and offered me a glass of mint tea, then proceeded with the lesson. In short, it's about symmetry. If one side (top/bottom or left/right) of a character takes up 1/3 of a circle imagined around it, the other side should be twice as big, filling the other 2/3. He drew letters for me with his hand-carved bamboo pens, dipping them in ink and then drawing circles around them, then making 12 precise points horizontally and vertically to show that they were balanced. He then transliterated my first name into Arabic “as a gift,” carefully painting decorations around it and signing his name. Having already decided I was going to buy pictures from him eased the conversation for me. I showed him the one that I wanted and he told me the price. I then picked out two more and he wrapped them up for me and offered to write the names of the people I was giving them to. Instead I had him write the names of my niece and nephew. Seeing more words written raised more questions for me about how it's constructed, which he seemed to appreciate. We were having a very nice time, laughing and telling each other about ourselves. Then I asked him for the total and panicked when the number was right but I thought he said “Euros,” which would have made the price well more than ten times as much.

Inside the souk was Boukheir's “real” art, some of which was quite nice. And we'd been having a friendly time. I didn't want to insult him but I also didn't want to pay what he might have just asked for. I gave him 25% over the dhirham amount (which is what I was going to do anyway) and asked if it was OK. He said “thank you, it is not expensive,” which I didn't know what meant. I asked again if it was OK and he said it was so I thanked him and left. Later realized that the price in Euros would have been preposterously out of scale, and that “Euro” and “dirham” sound similar in the Marrakech accent. Fiendishly so, perhaps.


Back at the Place, one musician is playing an 8-string instrument with a flat body. It looks like a mandocello, but maybe it's something more native. In any event, it's another instrument in the role of the oud. It's sound is distorted to unbelievable levels through an amplifier made from a portable speaker and probably a radio or boombox hidden under a blanket (the usual setup for amplification). He plays in short bursts, frantic lines with long, open spaces between before a frame drum starts setting a driving rhythm. It's not so different from the Velvet Underground. Another drummer makes the rounds, holding a hand drum out for donations. It really is only the white people they ask. Moroccans will give money, but they don't get asked. Maybe that makes sense. Janquis with cameras are especially targeted, which also makes sense. All the white women have painted hands.

There is probably no city in the world with as many tenor banjos per square foot as Marrakech. The banjos are strung with heavy very heavy strings and played with a plecturm. I don't think they're modified in any other way, but it's a different instrument. Maybe in keeping with the mores of the incestuous string family it should be called “banjoud.”

In another circle a banjoud player is playing with seven percussionists (hand cymbals, floor tom, frame drums and someone playing a row of three dumbeks with sticks). This is seemingly more organized than many of the groups are, with a lot of vocal interplay, although surely many of them all know the same songs. One of the drummers is trying to get Arabic women in the crowd to dance but none will.

Each “stage” has a lantern in the middle. At the center of the square are the food stands, which string lanterns overhead, so the who square is mostly dark with lit areas surrounded by onlookers and a blinding glow in the center obscured by smoke pouring off the grills.

After I leave the square I stop by a nightclub on the way to the hotel. They play the entire Lady Gaga CD while I sip an ice cold Casablanca lager.

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