Saturday, 19 September 2009


We've got friends who've been to Marrakech who really rather enjoyed the experience, though after a few days living there ourselves we found it difficult to see why. Our main reason for coming to Morocco was to meet up with my missionary companion and his wife, Jacob and Kalli, who had stayed with us for a while in Leeds. We also thought it might be nice.

Our taxi driver was pretty grumpy that Sally had talked his mates down from 60 to 50 dirhams for him, even though the maximum charge for a petit taxi is 15. When we got to the main square, jamaa el fna, we had a friendly duo mount the pavement on their scooter so they could show us the way to our riad. Unfortunately for the lad who did all the walking, presumably while his mate went looking for more fresh meat, he didn't get chance to take my mobile number, and I don't think he wanted to ask for money in front of the bloke that runs the hostel. Jacob got himself out of a similar predicament by telling his youthful guide that if he didn't get lost he'd crush his head. Jacob later met said guide by chance outside a small store, and apologies were exchanged on both sides.

Without enough of a budget to join Jacob and Kalli on their camel trek, something I mourned bitterly, we were destined to soak up the culture with a tiny tourist sponge. It sometimes makes me wonder why residents of tourist areas don't hold a more sympathetic attitude towards holidaymakers who are, for most of them, their major source of income. Then, they are probably only reciprocating the kind of attitude they have to deal with on a regular basis. I don't think I'd be nice to tourists if Leeds became a haven for foreigners trying to talk down to me and treat me like I didn't have a clue what I was doing because my country isn't as advanced on one level or another as theirs.

A berber latched onto us at the entry to one of the medina's endless alleys, recounting all the places he'd been to in England (Portsmouth, Brighton, Birmingham - I didn't tell him his mother wouldn't be proud of him if he knew what he was admitting to). He then got me into his stall and had me in an all-singing, all-dancing, 'air-conditioned' tunic.

"Balak!" (Get away!) he ordered when I said we might come back later. It wasn't my fault I looked like a spanner in his clobber.
"What, you think we wait 12 month for you to come come back? Balak! Get back to your own country."

And it got worse. I was greeted with an F*** you and a middle finger from a couple of orange juice vendors I turned down as they were selling at over 3 times the normal price.

One shining light was our hostel: Amour de Riad. The staff couldn't have been more friendly, it was the cleanest place in Morocco and when we wanted to stay an extra night and they were fully booked they offered us a night on the terrace for 10 dirhams each. I was gutted when they had a couple pull out, leaving two free single rooms and leaving us feeling like we ought to pay for them, though they'd proabably have been fine with it if we hadn't.

When Jacob arrived his attitude made a huge change. He would reply to frantic gestures to come and buy tat with ridiculous gestures of his own. We discovered that a code name for hashish is chocolat and once we'd learned that the fun never stopped as we played thick and genuinely asked the sly marijuana peddlers for a bar of Nestlé. Every time a black-burka-clad woman ran up to one of the girls, snatching a wrist with needle aloft hissing "A gift for you", Jacob would whip out his black felt tip and start giving them the tattoo they were trying to sell us.

Some of it was very inventive, some of it was the kind of thing I'd probably get my head kicked in for, but Jacob can get away with quite a lot of things that normal people can't. One night he was accosted by three men who tried to stop him in his tracks so they could show him their menu. One took him to an empty table and started to arm wrestle, vowing to get him a free meal if he won. He didn't even need to try, and his opponent was as good as his word.

At the palais royal the police showed us their version of frantic gestures: not only did they want us to know that the palace wasn't open to the public, but also, apparently, that we weren't to come within 100 yards of where they were sat. Mocking the unnecessary nature of their bizarre signals, Jacob got his ridiculous arm movements out, to which he received the puzzling reproach, "You shouldn't be doing gestures: it's ramadan."

To be fair on the Moroccans ramadan does mean no eating, no drinking, and, even worse for some, no smoking from dawn til dusk. It's normal that they'd be more prone to outbursts of anger. Sally saw one full-on fist fight. And they weren't all idiots. Jacob could not praise enough the courtesy and generosity of the people of Ouzazarte: not-for-tourists to such an extent that his host laughed out loud for a full two minutes when he announced that they would be staying for a month - "What are you going to do here?"

I thought that the Moroccans had an incredible ability to destroy your faith in humanity and then to immediately restore it sevenfold. The richer ones were no problem. A man in Fes would later give us a lift to the station in his 4x4 just because we asked him what direction it was in. But even beyond the tough exterior of those to whom foreigners are either a threat or a walking dirham sign lies just as selfless a centre. Speaking French and visiting the gym was a massive eye-opener for Jacob and I, because we got to see the people as people and not cut-throat bandits. They let us use the gym for free twice, and complimented my mediocre football ability.

For Sally and Kalli, neither of whom speak French, neither of whom joined us at the gym and, greater crime, are women, there was very little hope of an enjoyable experience. Had us males been able to speak Arabic I'm sure we would have been even better off and able to positively enjoy living amongst the Moroccans, but I would entertain no such hope for us wives.

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