“Come with me to the Casbah” is the famous pickup line that we all think came from a movue. It was in fact never spoken in a movie– it was in the trailer of the 1937 movie Algiers (Heddie Lamar and Charles Boyer). A casbah is a high walled fortification without windows, and it is here we began our explorations of Morocco. The entire area behind the walls is called the Medina, which is the oldest part of Marrakesh, while the market areas within are called souks.
The Almoravids, a Berber tribe, built the city in the 11th century and ever since there’s been a whirlwind everywhere. Narrow alleys lead to more, not even those born here escape without at least the occasional bout of befuddlement. Small motorcycles and scooters, not to mention the bikes and the principal delivery transport, donkeys pulling carts, wiggle through somehow yet no one is run down nor even has their toes smashed while we were there. The only incident we encounter involves two boys wrestling, one having a choke hold on the other who apparently knocked his load of bread to the ground. A kaftan wearing older male was breaking up the fight with remarkable patience. What a kind soul he seemed.
Delightful aromas abound, coming mostly from the vast mounds of spices and if not from them then the vast quantity of fruit. An exception is the area where they slaughter the chickens. The foul fowl odor stuck to my nose for much too long.
Along the way we came to the university, which claims to be the world’s first (so do universities in Fez and Timbuktu). It had 900 students at one point but is no longer in use. There is exquisite decoration thanks to Unesco although the rising damp from underground waters continues to cause problems. These extensive waters are what gave rise to the city- they giveth, they taketh away.
The souks (market) of the Medina make any Walmart tiny by comparison, as its surrounding walls measure 12 kilometers in length. There are shops by the thousands, most run by 1 or two people, and manufacturing zones as well, leather production among them, where workers still use plant dies and pigeon poop in the process.
Souk Semmarine sells everything from brightly colored bejewelled sandals, slippers and leather pouffes, to jewellery and kaftans. Souk Ableuh has lemons, capers, pickles, chili peppers, and olives, as well as mint, which they use in cooking and the sweet tea you find everywhere. Souk Kchacha specializes in dates and other dried fruit and nuts. Rahba Qedima has perfumes, hand-woven baskets, scarves, knitted hats, scarves, and the skins of alligators and iguana. Famous for jewelry is Souk Siyyaghin, while Smata it’s belts and babouches, a slipper with no heel. Cherratine has leather while Belaarif has modern consumer goods. The Haddadine has ironware and lanterns.
The intense activity and I suppose all its newness tired me out and I was glad for the quiet of the lushly appointmented restaurant where we enjoyed the fabulous Moroccan “salads.” More of this anon.