“Stall 25 or 32?” my husband Gary asks. We’ve narrowed our choices from the seemingly hundreds of nightly dinner options at the Marrakech Bazaar down to two.
At the bazaar, restaurants spring up like magic every night, and makeshift chimneys blacken the sky with spicy smoke. Each one has a number, and owners shout at the crowds urging people to stop and eat. By daybreak, they disappear.
“The guidebook recommends 32,” our daughter Lauren chimes in. Lucky for us, she’s adventurous even though she’s only 12. We’ve been traveling for a month, and remarkably, nobody’s sick. I’m not sure I want to tempt fate on our last night by eating in the souk, Marrakech’s rambling outdoor marketplace.
The heat that day is oppressive, radiating off cobblestones and the walls of the city. Then the impossible happens — rain, a phenomenon so rare even locals take photos. Minutes later, it’s over, and we make our way to Jemaa el-Fnaa, the town center.
“Are you looking for dinner?” a stranger asks. We eye him warily. Everyone here has something for sale. “Restaurants will open late because of the rain. You should visit the tannery and come back later.”
He explains that Berbers bring skins down from the Atlas mountains and use the tanneries for three weeks at a time. “Today is their last day,” he tells us. “In fact, they’ll leave in an hour.” He points in the direction of the tannery, but all we see is chaos — monkey trainers, snake charmers, baskets for sale and henna tattooists. We’ll never find it.
“Oh look, I know that guy,” our stranger says, pointing to a weathered man in a gray t-shirt. “He works at the tannery. Follow him.”
We wonder if we’re being scammed. In Marrakech, the maze-like passageways of the souk are impossible to navigate, so strangers volunteer to show the way. After a while, they say they have to go and want payment before handing you off to friends who do the same thing. It can cost a lot of dirhams to get more lost than you would be without their help.
Even if you say no, these scammers walk with you anyway, and before you can part company, they hit you up. Sometimes we wait until they’re distracted, then hide behind merchandise until our unwanted guides seek new victims. It’s a cat-and-mouse game that becomes part of the experience.
Gary, Lauren and I look at each other and then take off behind Gray T-shirt. He’s walking fast, and I’m afraid we’ll get lost, or worse, separated and lost. Gray T-shirt turns and turns and turns.
“Peanut butter mode!” I yell to Lauren, my eyes on her pony tail bobbing up and down. It’s our code word to stay together when we’re in crowded places; Mom and Dad are the bread, she’s the peanut butter and has to stick close in the middle.
I’m trying to memorize landmarks so we can find our way back, but we have to look at our feet too. The cobblestones are uneven and black puddles are everywhere. Gary is near Gray T-Shirt, and I see him taking photos, trying to capture a record of our twisting route.
I focus on my feet and the pony tail. After three quick turns, Gary puts his camera down. It’s futile. These ancient corridors are packed with people, merchandise, donkey carts and motorcycles.
We descend deeper into the medina than we’ve ever been, and I’m aware that it’s going to be dark soon.
Should we turn back?
Around another corner, the smell changes. It’s like the rat that died between the walls in my apartment back in college. I can feel stench of decaying animals cling to my hair and skin and realize I’m the only woman around without a headscarf.
Merchandise hanging from walls looks sparser and cheaper, and bystanders guard their space more carefully. Overhead, the sky turns pink with wisps of streaky orange. I sense this is not a good place for a tourist at night.
The smell becomes unbearable. How much longer until we arrive?
Finally, Gray T-shirt disappears into a nondescript door. We follow, and a fistful of mint meets my nostrils. I breathe in deeply, in sweet relief, before looking up to see the new stranger who handed it to me. “You must hurry,” he says.
Zipping up a crumbling flight of concrete stairs, the man introduces himself. “I am Hakim and I will show you our work.”
I see a vat of foul liquid and the torso of a wet man holding a pole. He tells us the vat is filled with lime and that their strongest men wrestle skins to extricate hair and dirt. We watch the worker pull a corner of the dripping pelt and scrape it with a blade.
Berbers, Hakim says, take on the largest skins, like camel and horse. Arabs use the facility too, but they bring smaller animals like sheep and goat, and not until after the Berbers leave.
Though the stench stings my eyes, crawls into my throat and prickles my skin, I can’t look away. The spectacle fascinates me. From above, it looks like a foul-smelling patchwork quilt, the square vats of colorful fluids forming a pattern outlined with cement walkways.
“After the lime, skins go into that one,” Hakim points to pigeon excrement, and a teenager shoulder-deep pounds something beneath him with his feet. Repulsed yet transfixed, I clutch mint close to my nose and wonder briefly how they get all that excrement. How many pigeons must it take?
Next, Hakim tells us, the cleaned and softened pelts get plunged into dye, vats of vibrant red, yellow, purple, green, and blue, a flattened rainbow squared off in a grid.
On our way here, I’d seen shops filled with herbs and flower petals. Now it makes sense. Other than the brilliant blue which comes from cobalt, these dyes are all plant-based, and burlap sacks of herbs teeter against the walls here at the tannery. In the last step, the skins dry in the sun and we see many splayed out, reminders of the animals they once were.
From the time dirty, hairy skins arrive by donkey cart from a village in the mountains to the moment when they are clean, tinted and ready to use, twenty days have elapsed.
Hakim takes us up more treacherous stairs. I watch my footing, knowing a misstep could plunge me a long way down into something nasty. It’s a bird’s-eye view of a walled-in labyrinth with a single rectangular structure rising from its center — the Koutoubia, Marrakech’s oldest mosque. We watch the sun set over a skyline unchanged since the eleventh century.
I want to linger, to take in this incredible moment, but I’m worried about getting out of this neighborhood and back to the safety of the square. When we first arrived in Marrakech and took in the chaos of the main plaza, I never imagined I would yearn for it, that it would represent a sanctuary. Vendors there grabbed at my daughter and one of them put a poisonous snake around my husband’s neck. Now, though, in the seclusion of this untraveled spot with darkness falling, I wish I could transport my family there.
“You must see our showroom,” Hakim says. It sounds more like a command than a suggestion, and Gary and I both know we are expected to buy something in exchange for this tour. We’ll make it fast, I think, and without exchanging a word, I know Gary feels the same. I wonder how much it will cost to extract ourselves from the shop, and mentally I calculate how many dirhams we have left.
When we left for dinner, our plan was to spend the last of our currency. Although you can buy as many dirhams as you want when you enter Morocco, you can’t sell them back when you leave. It’s a one-way exchange policy, so we fine-tuned our spending to have just enough for our last meal. Now I wish we weren’t such tightwads.
We scramble downstairs, sidestepping a young man with a bucket of slime and follow Hakim to an elaborately carved door, the wood thick and ancient. He holds it open, and filth gives way to glistening marble. Clean, cool air bathes my sweaty face, and I breath in the filtered goodness. Astounded, we see a shop equal to any on Rodeo Drive, luxuriant leather next to fine Arabian art. We’ve stumbled on five levels of retail opulence, a jewel in a neighborhood of squalor.
I pick up an exquisite suitcase, expecting it to be heavy, but it’s light as a whisper. “Camel skin,” Hakim explains. “Watch.” He crunches handfuls into his fingers. The case unfolds perfectly, returning to its lovely shape and texture. “This bag will never wrinkle, will only get better with time.”
I want to stay, to run my fingers over the rows of babouche, the pointed leather slippers in brilliant yellow worn throughout Marrakech. But I’m anxious about the encroaching darkness outside, about being in this hopelessly foreign place without the security of daylight. “We must go,” I say out loud, addressing our guide, my husband and myself. “We simply must leave now.”
Moroccan merchants, particularly in the Marrakech bazaar, are renowned for their persistence, but we know that these shopkeepers want to leave too. Upstairs, we can hear chairs being dragged across the floor, lights being turned off. It’s time for everyone to go home.
Gary takes out his wallet, hands currency to Hakim and says we’re sorry but we’re out of time. Then, we dash out the door to heat and stench and twilight.
“This way! This way! This way!” young Arab men shout at us. They want to guide us back to the square, but we can’t afford to be led in circles. We decide to take our chances and try to find our way back on our own. I feel eyes following our movements, watching.
After a couple of turns, we sense we’re walking in circles. “I’ve seen these moccasins,” Lauren says. She points to a row of colorful slippers that looks exactly like every other row of colorful slippers I’ve seen since our arrival in the medina.
But her memory is remarkable and we trust it. While we stop, three young men catch up with us. “You need to pay us for your visit to the tannery,” they say. We’ve never seen these guys. “Everybody has to pay.”
We don’t want any trouble. “How much?” Gary asks. They train their eyes on my husband. It’s like Lauren and I are not there at all.
“200 dirham,” they say. My rough calculation puts that at 20 dollars.
“100, no more.”
They go back and forth. I feel the minutes. “We have to go,” I mutter.
They settle on 115 dirham, approximately $12, and we’re back on our confounding route, edging into the tide of people. Nothing looks familiar.
Finally, an old woman catches my eye. She’s covered from head to toe in black, a tiny slit revealing elderly eyes. I pray she’ll see my dilemma and take pity. “Jemaa el-Fnaa?” I ask, my face a question mark, my fingers pointing in the direction which I think is the square. Next to me a child teases a soccer ball with his bare foot.
An exchange ensues, the old woman pointing at us and pointing at the little boy. I can’t make out a word, but the kid motions us to follow him and runs, zipping in and out of crowds, past gatherings of people eating cactus fruit from plywood tables and bakeries swarming with bees.
Finally he points to an arched doorway carved into a stone wall, behind which a long corridor stretches with merchants crammed into stalls on either side. I recognize a mark on the stone that looks like a hieroglyph, and all at once, we know where we are.
The little boy and his soccer ball disappear in the opposite direction, and we manage to master the remaining convoluted route just as the evening’s final call to prayer reverberates in the air, beckoning the faithful. Oddly, it feels like home.
“Stall 25!” Lauren shouts. We’re starving, and black smoke billows into the night.
It smells of meat and exotic spices, ancient flavors of France, Arabia and Spain. The makeshift kitchens are back, impromptu restaurants stretching into the horizon. Cauldrons of snails and barbecue pits and orange juice vendors vie for our remaining dirhams.
We take a seat on a long bench, our last night in Marrakech. Gary points to a dish at a nearby table that looks delicious, and a few minutes later, one just like it arrives for us, eggplant and peppers and food we don’t recognize.
Clinking bottles of Fanta, we toast. A perfect day at the Marrakech bazaar.
We didn’t use a tour, but the owner of our riad (small hotel) provided transportation from the airport. Riads are small inns, sort of a cross between a beautiful home and a luxurious hotel. Brice, the owner, also helped us arrange several outings during our stay. I highly recommend Riad L’Emir. Brice, couldn’t have been more accommodating, and Amina, the chef, made every morsel we ate an exquisite pleasure. https://www.facebook.com/riademir/
Packing Essentials: Be sure to pack zip lock freezer bags or plastic containers with lids. You’ll want to shop for spices while you’re in Morocco, and the fragrance will knock your socks off. Storage containers will make sure your suitcase and everything in it won’t smell like an exotic meal.