Sam and I spent our first morning in Morocco breakfasting on the roof terrace. The view wasn’t exactly grand, but it was certainly alien: stacks of rooftops, all at different heights, all unfinished. Each building was the same: rising sturdily from the clamour of the streets below, only to peter out suddenly, as if the builders had lost interest the minute they thought nobody would see their work. Each terrace adjacent to our own very lovely one was a jumble of breeze blocks and empty paint cans and broomsticks, with stray cats prowling the rubble.
Jamal served us the breakfast that was apparently included free with our apartment. He only repeated one phrase the whole time he served us.
“Merci,” we said, as he poured the coffee.
“Avec plaisir,” said Jamal, with a little smile and a nod and a soft laugh. With pleasure.
He said this every time we thanked him for anything, which of course was every five seconds, because Sam and I are deathly afraid of appearing impolite for even a moment. Breakfast was huge, and consisted of coffee, a variety of interesting fruits, an omellete, fresh bread, honey, jam, a slice of cake, and a bowl of face-shrinkingly potent black olives, for some reason. We sat and gorged and planned our day, using a tourist map we’d picked up at the reception. The map showed various points of interest, but gave no indication of what each thing actually was. Still, it gave us something to do.
We thanked Jamal for the breakfast and headed out for the day. Remembering the previous day’s hassle, we did our best to decline anybody’s offer to guide us on our way, even as dozens of people offered as we wound our way through the crowded streets.
“This whole city is one giant market,” I said to Sam, as we navigated yet another covered souk.
A souk, to the best of my knowledge, is simply a Moroccan market. There are some touristy ones, which sell trinkets and tat, and there are some which sell food and pharmaceuticals. These tend to be the less pleasant ones. We saw bare-arsed chickens in rusty cages sat on top of one another, flies crawling over fruit and veg piled high on display, and more of the sawed-off goat heads that were quickly becoming ubiquitous. We passed an upright donkey with its tongue hanging out, half dead; its eyes were covered, and its feet were tied together so it couldn’t wander off. Scruffy kittens lay on sacks of flour and in plant pots, sleeping, while unseen cockerels crowed.
We reached the first stop on our list: a photography museum. We looked through the door and decided against it; the photographs they were displaying inside were apparently of Marrakesh a hundred years ago. We both felt doubtful the city would look any different, and decided that rather than pay to see a few dozen black and white photos of it, we could simply wander around a bit more and get the real deal.
It was shortly after the photography museum, as we were attempting to find our way to an ornate Islamic school we’d heard of, that a man on a motorcycle came sweeping down an alleyway to our left. He nodded at us as he passed, and laughed to see us hop out of his way. He slowed to let others pass him by, and while waiting, he leaned over. He was dressed well – fitted shirt, clipped beard.
“You okay?” he asked. “You know where you’re going?”
“Yeah, we know where we’re going.”
“Alright!” he smiled. “Well, enjoy Marrakesh.”
He went to ride on, then appeared to think better of it and turned back.
“Actually, if you want to see something really Moroccan, I can give you a suggestion.”
He seemed an ordinary guy; we said we’d be happy to hear it.
“Alright, so once a month there’s a festival here. A master tanner, a leather maker, comes from far away to visit the city. He’s here today – I’ve just been there. It’s pretty cool, you might like it. It’s like, five minutes from here.”
We said we’d think about it, and thanked him. Then, just in case, we asked directions to it.
“Okay,” said the guy, hopping off his motorcycle to properly show us, “it’s a right down here, then a left, then you go straight for maybe- oh! Here, this is easier.”
He pointed to a small man in cargo shorts who had just passed us by on the left, engrossed in his phone. He was carrying something in his right hand.
“That guy – see what he’s carrying? That’s leather. If he’s going to the tannery, you can follow him. I’ll ask him for you.”
The motorcycle guy yelled a few words in Arabic, and the passerby looking from him, to us, and back, then shrugged and said something back in Arabic.
“He says it’s fine,” said the motorcycle guy. “He’s headed there, so you can just follow him.”
We thanked the motorcycle guy and followed the leather man away down an adjacent alley. He walked a good five metres ahead of us, apparently disinterested. He didn’t even look back to see if we were still following him. We followed him for five minutes, then ten.
Alarm bells first started to ring when we appeared back at the souk we’d passed through fifteen minutes earlier – the one with the bare-arsed chickens and the dripping goat heads. Not exactly landmarks you forget.
“We’ve just been through here,” murmured Sam.
The next alarm rang when the leather guy slowed his pace and began to point out things in the market, like a tour guide.
“See this? Mint. We use it at the tannery. You put it to your nose so you don’t smell the leather, very smelly.”
I nodded to the guy, and looked at Sam questioningly. Why would a passerby be giving us culture lessons?
We passed through another market – this one with a lot of fruit and a lot of flies and a lot of rivers of water pooling in the cracks between the cobbles – and turned down a spartan alleyway. We’d not passed another tourist for a very long time.
“Sketchy,” said Sam.
“We’ll just see where he takes us, we don’t have to go inside,” I said, striving to be optimistic. “It still might be legit.”
I told Sam about the time I’d been hustled in Cuba – taken into somebody’s dingy upstairs living room by a gold-toothed shyster named Julio. He and his friend had tried very hard to sell me cigars, and I’d had to argue the toss to get out of there without spending any money.
Finally, the leather man turned through a large iron gate, which was open for our arrival. There was no sign of the ‘festival’ the motorcycle man had mentioned – there was just a large courtyard which smelled like dead things, covered in two dozen cow skins, stretched taut on the ground to dry out. The leather man went straight on by, into the back, and told us to stay put. Half a second later, a tall man in a gown strode over to shake our hands. He had a lot of gold rings on, I remember noticing.
“Hello my friends!” he said, beaming. “You are come to see the tannery? Here, we will show you all wonderful process here today. Take this, it is mint leaves, we call it Moroccan gas mask.”
He handed the pair of us a bushel of green leaves. They smelled nice.
“Come, you follow me inside, and we show you everything,” he said, waving us after him.
“What you think?” I said to Sam, quietly. “Get out of here?”
We stayed rooted to the spot, and the tall man looked back and stopped.
“My friends! Follow! Follow!”
“Yeah, nah thank you man,” I said. “This is very nice, but we need to go now.”
“But you haven’t seen inside! Is very beautiful.”
“Yeah, that sounds nice, but we’re going to go now.”
“But my friend –”
“See you later. Cheers.”
We handed back our mint to the visibly wilted man and left the stinky complex, the sounds of his disappointment ringing after us.
All the way back, we discussed whether we’d been too hasty. Maybe he was genuinely a master craftsman, seeking to show us his process. Maybe we’d been rude, and mistrusting. Were we bad people?
This question was answered five minutes later when, upon passing back once again through the bare-arsed chicken market, we saw the motorcycle man and the motherfucking leather man leaning together against a wall, chatting. Suddenly everything clicked into place like an M. Night Shamalan twist: I pictured myself and Sam from a third person viewpoint, sauntering down the street, chatting, glaringly blonde and European. I pictured leather man pointing us out subtly, and motorcycle man setting off in the opposite direction, riding around a whole block so as to emerge beside us, not behind us as the leather man had done, thereby removing any possible suspicion that they could be in cahoots.
We were incensed to have been so elaborately tricked, but elated at having figured it out before it was too late.
We were in a weird mood after that; it’s not pleasant to feel the locals are eyeballing you, picking you out as a mark as you pass by. It makes you feel watched, like prey.
We sacked off the Islamic school, because there was a man outside beckoning us to go in with a toothy grin. Marrakesh hustlers don’t seem to have quite grasped the concept that the worst possible way to get someone to buy something is to stand in front of it yelling at them to buy it. This is, like, sales 101, people.
We’d only been out of the hostel for an hour, and already it felt like a very long day. For some peace and quiet, we headed to a botanical garden, which was very calm and pretty. They had turtles there, and we watched them swim. After, we sat in a café for a coke and a coffee and a water – you have to keep on top of your hydration at all hours; you’re in a desert, after all. You need these quiet moments in Marrakesh; you can’t just wander the streets all day. You’d have an anxiety attack and collapse – you’d be wheeled out on the back of a donkey cart.
When we’d recovered enough mental energy to continue, we hit the streets once more. We got harassed a couple more times by street hustlers trying to guide us into their shops, and made our way back to Jemaa el-Fnaa. It was quieter by daytime, with most of the locals having vacated to avoid the searing midday heat. We passed a snake charmer who picked up a cobra upon seeing our arrival and began to advance on us with it. We beat a hasty retreat.
“Let’s get out of here. I’m in no mood to have a snake waggled in my face,” I grumbled.
A sentence I never thought I’d say, but hey: that’s Marrakesh.