Moroccan cities and their markets, like many across North Africa and the Middle East, are notoriously difficult to navigate without receiving unwanted attention. Failing that – on the off-chance you’d be lucky enough to meander through without a trader blocking your path – they are tricky to navigate, full stop. Moroccan soukhs are almost, by design, the absolute opposite to the shopping malls and high streets of other western countries. Add to that the diversity of colours, spices and specialities on show and you have a delightfully interesting maze, but a maze nonetheless. It’s no wonder the tourist knows only how to get lost in such a place.
By our fourth and final day in Marrakech, we were confident in passing through the soukhs successfully. We knew our path from our riad to Djemaa El Fnaa square like the back of our hands.
So, to round off our trip, a visit the Palais Royal seemed fitting. It was only a short walk down the busy but straight main road. What could go wrong? And, after dodging a few street vendors and crossing a couple of perilously busy streets, it seemed that nothing had. The palace and its imposing clay walls stood in front of us, but the area seemed unusually quiet.
We walked right, seeking the entrance.
A call stopped us. Then another.
“It’s closed. Hey, the palace is closed.”
Practiced as we were in declining any offer in English, we shook our heads.
“No. We’re fine, thanks.”
I looked at my watch. It was late afternoon. Up ahead the doors looked shut. We started to dally.
“Maybe we should just go back.” I voiced.
“Let’s just go up and have a look,” my other half added, always the keener one to venture forwards.
But it was too late. If there’s one thing you should never do when walking the street in Morocco, it’s stand in one place for too long. A young man, smelling our confused vulnerability, moved in.
“Hi.” He smiled ingratiatingly and shook both our hands (as lovely and hospitable as many Moroccans are, a handshake between a local and a tourist is almost always a bad sign). “The palace is closed now. It closed at four.” Convenient for some. “But you want to see the Jewish quarter!” It was more a statement than a request.
We mumbled something, but confusion had tampered with the resolve in our negation. Already, he was off.
“Don’t worry. It’s free.”
There would be an interruption here, if this story were narrated by a Lemony Snickett fella. A short interlude about how, in Morocco, the phrase “it’s free” is never true; how, in fact, it could mean you’d be expected to pay more than any price you’d originally anticipated paying. But I’m not Lemony Snickett, and I don’t have a wise, slightly overbearing narrative watching over my daily life. Even so, I dug into my pocket as we walked into the Jewish Quarter and felt for a 10 dirham coin, just in case. At least, I figured, it would be enough to buy our way back out of the Quarter, which was turning out to be (again, conveniently) high-walled and labyrinthine.
The young man talked enthusiastically at us, with the false exuberance of a local swindler ‘lubing up’ a tourist.
“You’re English, yes?” Something to base the rate of extortion around. “Who do you support?” The presumption that everybody English knows and follow football; an attempt to get on side. “This is my home. This one here.” How very open and trusting – I was starting to feel like I knew this guy!
And then came the real jangler, smacking the alarm bells into life. “Today we have very special Jewish market. Everything is fixed, low price. Fixed price only. But low price. Very low price. Today only.”
That would explain the business. As we turned our final corner, I gawped at how empty the place was. The roofed market looked almost shut. A few stalls stretched out on either side and locals conversed quietly in small groups, but there was hardly anybody in sight. There was, however, some business for the day. And we were it.
This story continues in part 2, coming tomorrow.