Sunday the 17th
Muslim Marocco was dotted with mosques, and today we were in store for the famous Koutoubia Mosque with its grand speakers perched at the top of the towers. This technological innovation removed the requirement that worshipers attend the daily readings for instead the words of each sermon resonated through the city from these speakers to the locals so joined in prayer at their location of convenience. This short stop was followed by a tour around the King’s Palace in Marrakech. It was the namesake of his favourite wife and home to the Prime Minister. The rooming quarters of the 24 concubines and office of the secretariat were also located here. Built before the time of electricity, each room contained mirrors in order to reflect the light of the oil lamps and the natural light, which through stained glass windows painted a pattern of colours across the room. The palace had many water ornaments and fountains, but was lacking in running water due to the retirement of the venue from official duties as well as the scarcity of a resource which attracts many disease carrying insects. Decoration was almost bland were it not for the architectural features built into the palace, such as the tiled ceilings shaped to mimic an Arabian tent or the sculpted doorways which reminded me of the paper crochet cut-outs we did when we were children.
Africa has forever been renowned for its history of trade through which civilisations and their empires came to flourish. Extensive routes throughout the Sahara facilitated the spread of Islam and the Arabic language with teachings of the Koran, the first movement of which was initiated by the Berber merchants of West Africa. My group of fifty were made to sit together to experience the modern manifestation of spice trading at the Berber Pharmacy. The complex female beauty ritual was explained with the show of products: rosewater to clean the face; the black soap which we had sampled at the hamam baths days earlier opened pores for the thorough cleansing of the skin; argon oil was then applied to both the hair and skin; henna was used as a hair dye; mixtures of argon and green tea or rose were applied as facial moisturisers which prevented ageing and the pigmentation of dark spots; a natural black liner for the eyes was used to give the impression of mystery and elegance like a gazelle which doubled as an antibiotic for irritation caused by sandstorms; musk as a natural deodorant stick which simultaneously repelled mosquitoes… We were invited to purchase the organic products and natural remedies on display.
When travelling, you have good times and bad times, but every time is an experience! Getting henna art temporarily tattooed on our arms today was one of the latter, but I will credit this event as one of discovery nonetheless. We bartered for the price of 35 dirham and tried to shimmy underneath the skimpy parasol out of the burning sun. I tried to pull out my purse to pay the artist, but she grabbed my arm and began drawing a crooked line at the crook of my wrist. She continued with a thick line that joined with another at my middle finger and billowed into loopy semicircles back to the initial line. It was sloppy and quite ugly. My roommates and I had chosen to get the same design to commemorate our friendship which looked something like a glove. Although it did not look quite like the image advertised, we were not unsatisfied due to its connotative significance. But the worst was not yet over for as soon as we went to pay the agreed price, the women cried in outrage that we had agreed on the currency of euro instead of dirham! What a scam! She was aggressive in her demand to the extent she pulled money out of our purses. Her companions surrounded us, they refused to let us leave by holding onto our arms and belongings. Ashamedly, the girls and I caved to the pressure and payed the beggars. Aghast and upset, I wanted to wash the pathetic scribble off my arm. Our experience was not unlike many others in the group. After a walk around the square we returned to its centre where the henna artists reside in time to witness the same scam being played against another group of girls. Luckily, they had our trip manager Mikael at their aid yet still this was not sufficient for one girl had her tattoo wiped from her arm and another had received a mouthful of spit to the face. It took our local guide Hassan, arriving at the perfect time to save the day, to tell the women he would go to the police if she did not honour her initial agreement and continue to hassle us. The warning we had received regarding bartering culture could never have prepared us for the reality of the marketplace. To put our financial losses into perspective, it was small change out of our pockets compared to a years earnings for those living in near-poverty. These people needed the cash more than we and at least they would also be eating a feast for dinner this evening. On the flip-side, where does bartering and scamming coincide with the lessons taught in the Koran? It may be stated that livelihood must be earned by means necessary, but when does repenting lose its Saving Grace? The subjective adaption of religion into lifestyle creates another dimension this foreign Arabic culture – I think my friends and I can agree we have experienced enough of this today. I’m going to try scrub this stain off my hand.
Henna Tattooing in Marrakech by Caro MG
The Devil’s asshole is where one our most authentic Moroccan experiences happened; by Devil’s asshole I mean in one of Marrakesh’s most famous markets and by authentic Moroccan I mean haggling prices and failing. Talk about a cultural experience. We had been warned about being firm about the price that we were willing to pay but even the warning and the previous experience in Fes didn’t prepare us for this. We were after henna and these women were after our money. And here I thought the lady from the pharmacy was a hustler, these women were the embodiment of hustling and we got hustled—their technique: pressure and yelling in their native tongue *Cue Under Pressure by Queen Ft David Bowie*. The guy that I had was “nice” I tried to relay the emotion but mine was just as fake as his, it takes two to tango, but I got the short end of the stick. Watching as my friends and I were struggling to get what ever money we had left out in order to pay sucked—they would watch us like hawks scavenging for money yelling out prices and demands. It was all just a cluster-fuck of sparkles, euros, claims of dirhams and yelling, lots and lots of yelling, to say the least it will certainly be an experience that will forever live between us four. Some times frustration and culture shock go hand in hand; or at least in Morocco it does. But hey, it beats getting spit at.
It was 8:00pm when we reluctantly returned to the Jamaa el-Fna Square. It was still 48 degrees but slightly more pleasant than the afternoon due to the absence of the direct sun rays on our tender pink skin. The fading light had attracted both more people and businesses to the square than earlier this morning so the prospect of getting lost in the crowd became a confronting likelihood. We had arrived at this destination by horse and carriage! In a booth of four we trotted amidst cars and motorbikes letting the cool breeze relieve our sweaty bodies. Our contiki company attracted a lot of attention, and not because we were riding in a hansom; predominantly white and scarcely clad, I imagine our kind was not often seen around this area and especially not in such large numbers! The tired animals were parked at a water station and we followed Hassan into the medina. Clusters of tribes were represented across the square, each specialised in a particular craft. There were monkey bearers, story tellers, musicians, fortune tellers, henna artists, snake charmers, watermen and countless stalls selling traditional cuisine. Our group of fifty waded between the locals who weren’t subtle about their curiosity and even obstructed our way to get a better view. They inched closer, slowly encroaching upon us. They leered and they hollered, “such beautiful white meat”.
I was pleased to step out of the hot atmosphere and into the restaurant for dinner, where we were formally greeted with a Burber Yodel. Our table consisted of the rowdy group but at least we had learnt from previous meals not to jump the gun on the bread meant for the tagine. The four courses were served in large dishes to share with the table starting with a variety of spiced vegetables, a lamb with fig tagine, a main dish of chicken saffron couscous and finally a flakey pastry topped with smooth cream. We were entertained by a live band and several acts including a belly dancer dressed in belts of tassels with a candelabra skilfully balanced on her head. She twisted her hips without the platter teetering. Suddenly, I was pulled of my chair and the headpiece was on me! We drank wine and danced to the Arabic tunes. Our celebrations continued late into the night on the rooftop terrance of a cocktail bar where we drank two-for-one for the rest of the evening.