The cab from the bus depot to our riad wound through busy lamplit streets, past the king’s home, in a land that looked like Aladdin. The driver asked where we come from, and after we told him California, he said approvingly, “Oh, the Eagles.” Funny what sticks. Then he dropped us off and gave us tenuous walking directions. His car could not enter the medina.
It was dark and our riad, Les Oiseaux, was tucked deep inside the medina on a quiet residential side street. All the streets in the medina seem to be side streets, most big enough only for single-file pedestrian traffic, none large enough for more than a small sedan. We plodded along the dusty cobblestones with a wheeled suitcase. A little girl stood in the doorway of her home and waved at me as we passed.
We found the riad by some grace I can’t remember, the kind that looking back always amazes me, however simple, like finding the way back to a hotel in a foreign city night at 18. After pounding on the large door, about a foot thick and short enough to make us both stoop, someone let us in. The open-air roof, common to all riads, was covered with a green tarp, giving the place a swampy light and a claustrophobic feel. In the morning we climbed to the roof terrace to orient ourselves but found that the walls were so high we could only make out the satellite dishes of the neighboring buildings. There were no other guests, and the place felt almost like a strange dream. The family who lives there is large but amorphous—everyday we saw new faces that bore little resemblance to the others. The mother and father ignored us, while the children tended to us with varying degrees of civility. It was less a riad than a home stay with a dysfunctional family. We felt like an inconvenience and were not given keys to the door.
We set out on our first morning in search of the big square, with no map and only the street name to find our way back. A young man, Mustapha, sensed we were lost and offered to take us to the square. On the way he showed us a Berber pharmacy (a spice and herb shop, where saffron was $2 a gram) and a shanty village behind the pharmacy where men dye sheep’s wool and cactus fibers that are woven into scarves and rugs. The burly men working the hot dye vats shooed us away but Mustapha insisted we get closer and take pictures.
From there he led us to a palatial building near the Ben Youssef Mosque where thousands of Berber rugs and kilims were for sale. A German couple sat on poufs drinking tea while strong men threw open rug after rug, hoping to make a substantial sale. The four-storey building seemed to be carved from a solid block of marble, cool and dark. Berber women in full hijab worked at looms, covered but for their eyes and nimble hands. A salesman led us through the building, showing us the differences between wool and silk rugs (silk, obviously, being more expensive). In his office hung a beautiful silk piece that covered an entire wall. It was the first one we’d seen that I really liked. The asking price was 210,000 MAD, about $25,000.
When we left the rug shop Mustapha led us down the road, gave us his phone number, and demanded 300 Dirham for the service of not taking us where we were headed. Between us we only had 140MAD. His pimpled face implored our bewilderment. Trust no one. Turns out he was 15.
We finally made it to the square by two. It looked like a stadium after a concert. The evening rush hadn’t begun and all that was left from the day were dried fruit and nut stands and row after row of fresh squeezed orange juice carts, the concept of supply and demand imprecise.
We sat at a roof terrace restaurant (the sign above the stairway read: Obligatory Consumption, if there was any doubt) and drank lemon soda and ate fries and took in the panorama. A lot of dusty orange buildings, which may be very old but didn’t look it, and a thousand white satellite dishes, all ensconced in a view of what I imagined were the Atlas Mountains.
In the square below, an incessant oboe picked out a tune supposedly to charm the cobras, though Ben thinks snakes are deaf. We were both fairly certain that the ones in the square, coiled on a little cloth in front of the charmer, within striking distance of any sandaled tourist foot, were old, de-fanged, and probably drugged.
Tribal men in colorful robes clack castanets and bang drums and twirl the tassels hanging from their hats. They follow tourists to get money for this performance. Nearby, an umbrella shades a few men, two dressed in jeans and motorcycle jackets, the third in white robes. They hold monkeys in diapers on leashes and casually toss them into the arms of unsuspecting passersby, then demand money for unsolicited photographs. Ben and I were both reminded of “Outbreak.” Everywhere is noise and exhaust and cigarette smoke and something unusual, like the “dentist,” a man dressed in Tuareg blue with an extensive collection of human teeth. He charges on a sliding scale for photographs.
The big sheep festival we’d heard so much about fell on a Friday. The streets were quiet, except for a pair of aggressive street urchins, brothers maybe, the older no more then 6 or 7, who wouldn’t stop following us and demanding money. The medina was nearly empty, but for tourists, all the shops closed. In the tranquility Marrakech was almost beautiful. But Eid-al-Adha is bloody. Discarded pieces of flesh left on doorsteps for feral cats. Blood running through the gutters in the street. A couple of boys pulling long strands of entrails from a dumpster.
We walked through a square where boys were roasting a blackened sheep’s head on a large impromptu grill over a raging open fire. The oldest boy prodded the skull with a stick and motioned at me not to take pictures while the younger children approximated a game of soccer nearby, almost unaware of the fire pit. We passed a woman carrying two pink buckets: one full of raw meat, the other holding a sheep’s head. A moped roared toward us from up the street and I quickly stepped to the side, silently cursing the driver. But it turned out the boy, wearing a freshly pressed white dress shirt under a brown hooded robe, was Mustapha, our 15-year old hustler. He gave us directions and Insha’allah-ed us before zooming off to his family’s celebration.