Travel Spotlight: Marrakech, Morocco
George Beall 04.17.2017
It was my college spring break and in an attempt to avoid the usual college stomping grounds of Mexico and the Dominican Republic, I opted to visit Morocco. Many fashion and art icons such as Pablo Picasso and Yves Saint Laurent have had inspired relationships with Marrakech, Morocco and completed much of their best work either while in the city or shortly after visiting.
I didn’t know quite what to expect since I had never known anyone who traveled to Morocco, but figured that would be part of the fun. So, I booked my plane ticket and an AirBnB near the Medina (markets). This would be one of my first times traveling alone and my first trip to Africa.
Chapter One: “Come with me my friend”
As I got off the plane, I was immediately struck by just how brown the landscape and architecture was. Coming from Southern California I was used to desert environments, but this was different, the city seemed to blend into the land with the snowy peaks of the Atlas Mountains towering in the background.
The airport was an incredible piece of architecture, with modern designs and sweeping patterns. Walking out the door in awe, I hesitantly made my way to the line of taxis, trying as best I could not seem like an ignorant tourist.
When I read out the address of my AirBnB to the taxi driver, he looked at me confused and asked for the rest of the address. I replied that was all that was on the AirBnB listing. His confusion increased as he had no idea what an AirBnB was. He spoke in Arabic to the other taxi drivers and then asked if I had a phone number for the hotel.
We called the host and figured out where I needed to go and the taxi driver told me the price would be the equivalent of $25 since “it was on the far-side of town.” That seemed normal based on American pricing, so I agreed and we were on our way.
He dropped me off with a teenager who would help me navigate the way to my AirBnB and suggested I tip him afterwards. “Come with me my friend, I will show you the way.” After wandering around in the most complex route imaginable, we finally arrived at the location and the boy asked for a tip. I handed him some money and he continued to ask for more, saying 500 dirham (roughly $50) was customary. I gave him the money.
These were my first two interactions with the locals and my first two interactions getting swindled by locals. The boy brought me to the wrong address and in reality, my AirBnB was not only one alleyway from where I was dropped off, but the part of town I was staying in was the closest to the airport and could have even walked.
Chapter Two: “Ultras Crazy Boys”
I woke up early that first morning partly due to jetlag and partly due to going to bed at 6pm from my annoyance with my initial encounters. As I left, I had no idea which way anything was in the city or where I was.
Never the less, I wandered the alleyways of Old Town in search of the markets, attractions, and a glimpse of everyday life. As I stumbled through the streets it did not take me long to notice how commonplace “graffiti” was on walls.
I was hard-pressed to find a wall that did not have either some spray-painted image or random scribble. Anywhere two walls faced each other there would be 3-foot squares scrawled on opposing sides and occasionally children utilizing these artfully crafted soccer fields.
Coming from urban settings of Los Angeles and New York, I was used to graffiti being huge bubble-letter displays of hard to read street tags. These tags were usually assumed to be gang-related and painted for the purpose of marking territories.
Upon first leaving the main courtyard of the Kasbah Mosque, where my AirBnB was located, I noticed a black spray-painted face on the main archway. As my random movements guided me deeper into the slithering paths of the markets I noticed this face began to reappear frequently and immediately thought I found the marking symbol for the Marrakech-version of “the Bloods.”
Somewhat intrigued, I allowed my meandering movements to adopt the quest of finding as many of these tags as possible and try to collect them all. As I walked through the streets moving from the spice district to leather district to the textile district and in and out of the “soques” I realized this black face was the icon of the “Ultras Crazy Boys.”
Other imagery for the group includes “UCB” and “KACM” which are featured on most streets. This group is also responsible for the best large-scale murals around the city, which are all placed in the most ubiquitously discrete walls, making it an explicit task to try to find them. After leaving a museum I made a wrong turn and ended up in a residential area with one of their best pieces of work and when I tried to take a picture, the young boys sitting in front of artwork started shouting in Arabic and began to approach me. I swiftly left.
While that interaction made me fairly certain Ultras Crazy Boys were the top gang of Marrakesh, so I decided to look them up when I got wifi at the café that night. The Google search revealed they are not malicious (at least according to digital records.) Rather, they are a group of youngsters obsessed with the Kawkab Athletic Club of Marrakech (KACM), the local soccer organization.
Marrakech is lively and proud city that lives in the streets. None of the graffiti is covered up and it is treated as commonplace decoration for the people as they go about their days. Some of the street art would include children practicing multiplication, rudimentary figures, and scribbled words with various messages. The walls of the streets were a blank canvas for communal use.
Chapter Three: “Great welcome”
One of my primary objectives with coming to Marrakech was to wander the markets and bring home a selection of the artisan goods. In the Old Town, there are a number of different districts with craftsman making leather goods, rugs, textiles, clothing, wool products, spices, clay wares, and more.
I should emphasize that the Old Town does not have many “streets” and is almost solely a web of alleys and plazas with clay buildings intermingled in a collage of structures. As I walked and inevitably got lost, my purpose was to just try to go somewhere new each day and stumble upon an adventure.
Walking aimlessly through the markets resulted in the merchants heckling me and the crowds of other tourists, hoping to take our money. After my first encounters, I realized if the locals are talking to you, it is a problem. Best policy is to not respond. “Hello, Hello, Hello my friend! Say hello! Fuck you!” was a common string of phrases belted at me.
While these surface interactions were always aggressive and typically wanted to swindle me, the Marrakechi people are truly kind people. Any interaction that happened on my terms, resulted in a warm conversation, where I would be asked if I was enjoying my time in Marrakech, how Marrakech compares to the rest of the world, and sending me off with “Great welcome!”
Early on in my trip I found my way to the Royal Theatre in New Town. This iconic building for the Marrakech cityscape has a beautiful forum with intricate tilework, art displays, and cavernous domes. As I walked in to explore the entry and see if there were any shows for that evening, a guard approached me and began speaking in French (the unofficial language of Morocco).
After establishing neither of spoke the other’s language, we had a short game of charades where I realized he wanted to give me a tour. For the next half hour or so he guided me through the half-dilapidated half-functioning theatre and despite us communicating with makeshift sign language, it felt like I had a genuine conversation with him.
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