If you type “Marrakech” in Google images, most or maybe all of the pictures in the top two rows will be photos of the Jemaa El-Fna square, possibly with the minaret of the Koutoubia mosque in the background. Jemaa El-Fna is THE place, the nerve centre of Marrakech and, alas, terrorists were well aware of this in April 2011 when they blew up the popular Argana Cafe there, killing 17 people, mostly tourists.
Well, fresh out of the stylish Marrakech Menara airport, at 10 in the evening we descended from our taxi at the edge of Jemaa El-Fna. From there we would walk for about 10 minutes, through the square, to a pre-booked ‘riad’.
It was wild! Our luggage was loaded from the taxi into a cart, together with that of another family who looked as bewildered as we must have been. A young Moroccan man pulled the cart behind him by hand, while we two bewildered families walked behind in single file, holding onto each other for dear life. Around us, a mass of humanity, shouting, lights, percussion instruments, flying toys with coloured lights, men carrying monkeys, orange juice kiosks, barbecue kiosks, clothes, souvenirs, metalware, snake charmers… The cart boy was not discouraged by the crowds and maintained a strong pace. Further into the medina from the square the street becomes narrow, with more shops, stalls, street food, motor scooters whizzing by, and people. So many people. It was, quite simply, mind blowing.
Then, we turned into a side alley and the noise quickly subsided. To have a “true Moroccan experience”, we had opted to stay at a riad inside the medina. Ah, the wisdom of hindsight!
The Riad Les Hibiscus was okay. An oasis of silence in the midst of mayhem. Well, most of the time. It hosts about four families in large (certainly not brightly lit) rooms surrounding a central courtyard with a small pool. Young boys would sometimes be heard shouting as they played football outside in the alley, late into the evening… but that’s okay too. Boys will be boys. Eventually they go home to sleep. Then, a few hours later, early in the morning before the break of dawn:
“Allah hu akbar…. Allah hu akbar…”, followed by less internationally familiar phrases of religious significance. They really do try hard to drum this idea into your mind. It’s a silly practice, if you ask me. If you think that God is great, you don’t need anyone to tell you this through powerful loudspeakers. If you disagree, no amount of chanting will convince you otherwise. In fact, if it wakes you up from a deep slumber, this may inevitably be counterproductive and lead you to entertain some rather heretical thoughts. There were several mosques within earshot inside the medina (the loudness of the speaker and the stillness of the night renders the ‘shot’ very long). The chanting is synchronised to the second, probably through automatic means, and the different distances from loudspeaker to eardrum creates an eerie multiple echo effect. Remember, it’s still practically the middle of the night, and the quiet of the (briefly) empty streets emphasises the weirdness of the sound.
I promise. I will yet write positive things about Morocco. We saw some beautiful places there, which I’ll be writing about in future posts, but I need to get a few gripes out of the way first.