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  • Writer's picturePaul W Furmański

Musings from Morocco 1: Marrakech

Updated: Apr 5

Burnt ochre landscapes punctuated by small towns and mosques having signature square sectioned minarets signalled our approach to Marrakech Menara, where the terminal's modern geodetic dome belies the city's architectural roots dating back to the 7th century. Ali, my taxi driver soon to become friend, drove me through the busy streets and dropped me off on the outskirts of the Medina, leaving me a five minute walk to my lodgings through labyrinthine alleys where locals asked "Where are you looking for?" almost as frequently as the passageways changed direction.

Marrakech had still not emerged from underneath the shadow of a tourist quelling pandemic so I was more self-conscious about blanking the approaches of well meaning locals seeking a few Dirham in guide tips, and never more so as I walked past the door of Riad Bohemia before getting directed back a few metres by one such helpful Marrakshi.

I settled into the Riad's utopian courtyard, registered my arrival and enjoyed a typically amiable welcome accentuated by Moroccan tea; an enticing mix of green tea and mint necessarily poured with precision at some height to the cup to bring out its best flavour. Captivated by the sense of peace and wellbeing I had in my surroundings, I considered my good fortune in having chosen wisely while silently revelling at my aversion towards expensive hotels. This, after all, is a large part of why I love travelling and the experience of being genuinely touched by another culture and a different expression of humanity is high in such an environment. Geometric Islamic art abounds in the walls, flooring, structures, artefacts, glass and textiles of this traditional home dwelling turned traveller's lodge and, once unpacked and rested, I wasted no time in exploring my temporary home which was already promising to be a list topping stay. Vistas into the forecourt through windows and over walls compelled me to walk the stairs ever higher towards the upper levels where attractive semi-ornate furniture nestled in a corner, filtered from full sunlight and inviting thoughts of lazy breakfasts in warm weather.

In complete contrast to the calmness, my walk into the centre of the 'Red City' that afternoon meant navigating the bustling Souks to the north of the famous main square, Jemaa el-Fna. As I prepared to leave the Riad I reflected on the saying that we never really visit a place until we get lost in it, so my first move once outside was to walk in the 'wrong' direction. My suitcase had now been replaced by my enduring travel companion over my shoulder so the opening gambit was almost invariably "Hello, where are you from?" but, this time, I wasn't trying to find anywhere in particular. The absence of cognitive dissonance meant that I had every opportunity to engage with the invitations to converse while remaining open to capturing the next alluring image and, as the narrow passageways ebbed and flowed through arches and around corners, I engaged a group of young lads assembled at a corner shop. Raising my trusty companion to my eye with a facial expression which raised the question "Can I take your portrait?" produced an obvious pleasure in my subjects who now sensed that they were important to this fleeting visitor. Relaxed and calmly proud to be the focus of my attention we vetted the image in the viewfinder before I voiced my best "Shukran" and recommenced my wanderings, eventually turning south towards my main destination.

Some time later I reached the main road, Trik Jazouli, where my senses fed off the vitality of people going about their daily business. Motorcycles, cars and donkey carts shared the road while a tourist received animated instruction from a bearded man at the front of his bicycle shop. I made my way towards the Souks; a veritable Aladdin's Cave of foodstuffs and goods ranging from teas and spices to bracelets and ornamental plates and, as would become obvious, a place which demands an altogether higher dimension in navigation skill. Business owners and runners alike would greet me so frequently that it was often difficult to gauge the liminal space between affability and sales technique and I wondered if visiting at a time when there were not so many other potential customers that could be diverted towards their wares and uncle's carpet shops or wool dyeing businesses "just around the corner" made my hit ratio into an outlier datapoint.

I found myself saying "Get lost"... to myself, once again, as I settled down to enjoying the experience on the basis that I had already decided to spend a certain amount to support these personable, hard working people in a time of relative trade famine. My decision served me well as I engaged in the ubiquitous Moroccan social game of negotiation, the first of which landed me an attractive man's bracelet at a price both I and the store owner were happy with. Much of the value I have in wearing that wristband today has become the memory of the shared pleasure of our conversation and negotiations which, at one point, had me wrapped in an attractive cobalt blue Berber's head scarf. My eyes have never looked so mysterious as in that moment. In and of itself, my circuitous route to and through the Souks might well be described as nomadic and my favourite colour doesn't get any better than cobalt, but I declined the headscarf and continued on Shanks's Pony rather than dromedary. I emerged from the covered passages into Jemaa el-Fnaa and immediately checked my bearings so that I could get off to a good start later, when I would have to navigate my way back through the Souks to the Riad. I stopped a while where I stood, to simply contemplate the intimate sense of being in a place I was vicariously familiar with but which I had hitherto never personally experienced, while simultaneously scanning myriad possibilities of capturing this UNESCO recognised central hub of trade, social life and culture through the lens. The hours pass easily in such a vibrant place where textiles and chinaware, spices, freshly made fruit punches and street food stalls are found all around and where the sight of monkey handlers and snake charmers are juxtaposed against the sounds of the charmers' hypnotic mezmars and the polyrythmic Gnawa drumbeats, but a stop in Arset El Bilk park on the southwest corner of the square slowed the pace and afforded me the luxury of just being and watching as a nearby tea seller sat on his bike waiting for his next customer.

I was to undertake another soiree into the Souks in the coming days, on my second jaunt to Jemaa el-Fnaa, but I augmented these enthralling pleasures with those gained traversing some of the wider areas of the Medina where I would share each and every path with the ubiquitous red toned buildings, donkey carts, street markets and two-stroke motorbikes. There's something immensely satisfying about ambling around an unfamiliar area while tuning in to the heartbeat of the local culture and its ambience. Light, shade and texture in the passageways seemed to reflect the comings, goings and rhythms of life of the city's folk like different movements of a symphony while, all the time, I was enveloped in a banquet of possible images which presented themselves to me in the contrasting scenes of bustle and peacefulness around each new corner.

Marrakech is most certainly a vibrant and enchanting place but its also perfectly situated for excursions to the Sahara and the Atlas Mountains where the country's indiginous people, the Berbers, still trade in caravans across the dunes and live in towns and villages among the hills. Before leaving southern Morocco I was to undertake the arrangements I had made with Ali for a trip up into the mountains where I sought to immerse myself in a greater understanding of this engaging land and its people while searching for those quintessential photographic rewards that a region such as this promises.

Sharing the pleasure of those experiences with you will be my pleasure but, for now, I hope this blog has given you much pleasure and encouraged you to travel. Please do check out other blogs on the Blog page and make sure you check out other images from the Portfolio page.

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