Mystified in Marrakech

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Africa has been the setting of so many of my happiest memories, from laughing with my cousins at Victoria Falls and chasing leopards in Botswana, to watching the sunrise from a hilltop mosque with my best friends in northern Morocco. I think of Africa and I smile.

My memories of Marrakech are different. They are blurry and incomprehensible; colorful and chaotic.

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As soon as I left the airport, I knew the southern city was going to be different from the white and blue villages of the north that had welcomed me two years before. The city was at once more modern and ancient than anywhere I stopped in the north. Wide, paved roads were jammed with traffic and hastily constructed horse-drawn cabs. The old medina’s walls closed off the souks and tiny alleyways from centuries before and our cab zoomed past it as we headed into the new part of the city.

Everything was so much more commercialized. Billboards, big storefronts and racks and racks of clothing contrasted with the hooded men carrying live chickens by the dozen and veiled women wrangling hordes of playing children. My brother elbowed me and pointed out the family of four, newborn included, balancing precariously on the moto ahead of us. The chaos of the city overwhelmed our senses before we even stepped out of the car.

While the tranquility of the northern cities and the openness of its people helped me to look inside and reflect, Marrakech started off as an out-of body experience. I had never seen, or felt, anything like this before.

When we got to the Palmeraie area where we were staying, my heart started to calm. Out in the desert, surrounded by palm trees and open sky I breathed in the fresh air and relished the silence. The sky sparkled with stars and I felt a familiar feeling wash over me. I have always said that staring at the African sky makes me believe in God, be it at sunrise in the Kalahari or sunset over the Atlantic in Asilah. For something that beautiful to exist, there must be a divine creator out there watching over us. I went to bed with renewed hope and energy for the city.

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We wandered the souks under the hot late-morning sun, and I felt the anxiety from the evening before return to my body. I had been in markets like this dozens of times before, why was this so different? I didn’t understand. People were blatantly trying to rip us off, even as we bargained. They made fun of us and cat-calls awaited at every turn. I enjoy haggling, and have become very used to cat-calls from the streets of the Bronx to Madrid. I can always ignore it.

In Marrakech it bothered me deeply. I never felt comfortable and welcome like I did in Rabat or Chefchaouen. I was so grateful to return to our little oasis in the desert that afternoon.

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I spoke with an old friend from Granada whose family has Moroccan origins. He explained to me that in Marrakech people tend to be much colder than in the north, as they know tourism is always a sure thing. People become hardened by the groups of privileged travelers and learn to take advantage. Hostility is palpable.

I was disappointed. My mom and brother were disappointed. We had all heard so many positive things about the city, and wanted to be able to see that part of it too. We vowed to try again, this time in the new part of town. We wandered and shopped and dined with the locals, but simply never connected. People continued to treat us coolly, and the city never seemed to calm.

I know that so much of what we saw is cultural, while most is not a representation of the people of the country. We stayed in the desert and drove in daily, so we never had the chance to really immerse ourselves.

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I still found the colors, the food and the rhythm of the city fascinating. I still think that Islam is an incredibly beautiful religion. I am still in love with Morocco. And I would love to go back.

If I could do it again, I would stay in the old medina. I would wander the streets on foot and be more prepared. I would try to chat with more locals, as that made all the difference in the north. I would try to learn more helpful phrases in Arabic.

I absolutely enjoyed my time with my family in Marrakech, though it was not what I expected. It was stimulating and thought-provoking, and at times scary. There was something mystifying about Marrakech, and I’m determined to go back and solve that mystery.

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17 Comments on “Mystified in Marrakech

  1. I’d love to go some day, definitely going to my bucket list.
    I love the colours of you photos. 🙂

  2. As always, I loved your photos, Julia! I never made it down to Marrakech when I was in Morocco as we stayed in the northern parts. It’s too bad that Marrakech wasn’t as welcoming because all the contrasting colors make it so beautiful. Hopefully, it will be better a second time around. It’s certainly a place I would like to go,. Maybe this next year!

    • Thanks, Mike! It is really very beautiful, and looking back at my pictures makes me remember it a bit differently…like little peaceful moments without the chaos. You definitely should go, I’d love to get another perspective!

      • I love to go to Marrakech. If it works out, I’ll give it a whirl when I’m in Spain!

  3. “from laughing with my cousins at Victoria Falls and chasing leopards in Botswana, to watching the sunrise from a hilltop mosque” Well, aren’t you exotic!! I want to do these things!!

    Your posts make me want to reflect and “feel more” when I travel, thus I am trying to do so. Thanks for the inspiration, always. Let’s be struggling artists in our free time forever (or just the continuous near future). ❤ ❤ ❤

    On another note, I hear Morocco can be ROUGH. I'd like to go, especially because everything is so photogenic, but I think it would be a struggle to not get angry about how the men treat women.

    • Hahaha, ok miss 6-months backpacking through South East Asia! I wouldn’t mind gettin’ in on some of that! I’m always down for an Africa trip and we should probablyyyy take advantage of its proximity to us 🙂

      Ohhh that makes me feel so nice, thank YOU for the kind words. Struggling artist is absolutely in my career plans. Let’s go live the bohemian life and write and read poetry and drink vino in the sun and philosophize in Granada this Spring pleeeeease!

      I truly loved my experience in Northern Morocco, I think you would enjoy it. Things are much more tranquil, especially along the coast and in the mountains. I have seen things that made me question the stereotype about the treatment of women in Morocco and muslim countries in general, especially with my host family in Rabat and the families of my ex’s friends, but I also spent time at a women and children’s NGO there and saw the other side of things. I think it’s definitely worth it to go see it with your own eyes, talk to the people and form your own opinion. Remind me to tell you about my experience in the North this weekend, I have so many stories!

  4. Beautiful! Love the photos- and I spent this spring living in Cape Town- Africa, too, makes me smile and feel strong and hopeful about so many things! Keep up the great posts 🙂

    • Thanks so much, Erin! Ooooh I want to go to Cape Town so badly…lucky you!

  5. I had a similar experience in Marrakech, and afterwards I had a difficult time sorting through my feelings about the city. It was hard for me to put into words – but I think you described it perfectly. The constant sensory overload was overwhelming. After all of the chaos, I left with a bitter taste in my mouth. That said, I’d love to go back to a different city in Morocco for a calmer experience, so I may have to pick your brain about Chefchaouen 🙂

    • I absolutely loved Chefchaouen! It’s so beautiful and I found everyone to be incredibly kind 🙂

  6. I went to northern Morocco about this same time last year—Fez, Meknes, Chefchaouen—and really enjoyed the trip I took through that part of the country. But I avoided Marrakesh because of similar bad experiences I had heard about. Your story makes me still uneasier about checking the city out, especially since Fez was a sensory overload as it is!

    Anyways, great post, appreciate the honesty about your feelings toward Marrakesh, and I love the last photo of the car against the wall ^_^

    • It was almost humbling how overwhelmed I got. I’ve found that the more I travel the more I find myself ignoring the warnings, thinking “my senses could never be overloaded!” It’s good that you’re aware of your limits because Marrakech brought me back to earth by reminding me where mine are haha.

      Thanks, Trevor! I love that photo as well 🙂

  7. I love your photos. The colours that you found fascinating really do come across beautifully in the photos. I’ve not been to Morocco but I’d love to go someday.

    • Thank you so much, Joella! That means a lot. You absolutely should 🙂

  8. One of the first things that have always attracted me to visiting Morocco was the mix of European, Middle Eastern and African culture and flavors — Marrakesh is like a city of legends to me..Sorry to hear about your not so fabulous experiences with the locals. I don´t know, maybe spending that extra money and hiring a licenced guide from your accommodation provider for the first couple of days would be an answer..

    • We actually did that and it was one of the worst parts of the experience! He only took us to places where he could skim some money off the top if we bought stuff. Such a disappointment!

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