I have a love-and-hate affair with Marrakesh, as with Fez, Meknes, Tangier, and for that matter, every city in Morocco with a medina (the old quarter).
There are always bazaars (‘souks’ in Arabic), in the medina of these cities. Walking in the souks is like getting into one maze after another. Above all, the one in Marrakesh is the most notoriously cunning. One cannot help but feel that the layout of Marrakesh’s souks is one grand plan solely purposed to trick visitors into getting lost. The vendors of the shops and stalls, and everyone you meet in the souks, are conspiring as accomplices of this grand plan.
As a traveler with a below-average sense of orientation, I am bound to have a natural resentment towards Marrakesh.
I walk into a section of the grand souk. Shops and stalls jam-pack both sides of the walkway. Bountiful colours, smell, light and sound blend together. A formless, nameless and indescribable mixture of something, or everything, envelopes me. Like particles, they seep into every pore of my body and stimulate my nerves and senses. Never in my life had I been immersed in an atmosphere as magical and as complex as this. Every step I take brings me before one unique scene of a ukiyo-e style painting, a ‘painting of the floating world’ in Japanese. Only each painting here is soaked with a North African accent so intense it is almost suffocating.
One by one, the scenes rolling before me in the souks blow me away.
The souks’ charm intrigues and ensnares me. Now I can only admit that I can’t bear to hate Marrakesh. Quite the opposite, I fatally fall in love with it, even if I know she will never pity a traveler who perpetually gets lost; even if I know she will seduce me into traps and dead ends time and again.
Marrakesh’s souks is a femme fatale that makes every traveler her captive.
With this strongest-ever contender of one’s sense of orientation and visual memory, a traveler’s best bet is not to try to resist, but to succumb.
Have no fear. Just loosen up on yourself and be dazzled by the sight of confusion, and be devoured by the consuming colours, smell, light and sound. Stop using reasons. Stop analyzing. Stop using the brain. All the images you try to remember along the way will burst in your head and will only add to more chaos and panic.
When you stop your futile resistance and finally throw yourself willingly into her arms, your brain will suddenly become peaceful in her bittersweet embrace.
Like, falling for a passionate but dangerous lover.
I only knew this later. On the first day in Marrakesh, I made a futile attempt to strike a resistance – an incompetent David trying to challenge an artful Goliath who has set up a devious course in his giant maze for his contenders to run around.
The starting point is Jemma el Fna, the grand square in the medina. I take a deep breath, close my eyes, feeling ready to jump into the enormous ocean of the souks. Wait. I open my eyes. There is something wrong here. Spread before me are more than several narrow alleys opening up from all directions to the souks. They are like different springboards on the edge of the ocean. I am confused already. Which one should I pick, at a start?
No bother, I am telling myself. The ocean is one single body of water anyway. So I jump, and a minute later, I am drifted away and feel my body drowned in the majestic ocean.
Floating in the same boundless ocean every day are other travelers from all over the world. The drifts are abound with dried fruits, spices, rugs, pottery, metalwork, silverware, rattan goods, leather goods, daily necessities, and an abundance of argan oil.
Naturally, the floating travelers feel an urge to cling on to something that they can get hold of in the swirling waves. Before long, some have already grabbed a Berber rug or an shiny brass lamp from among the drifting items, and hold them tightly as if they have found a treasure. Self-assured look returns to their faces. The rest who have not settled on anything continue to follow the flow, keep looking. But soon the drift they have been following forks into several currents. They waver, feeling uncertain as to which flow they should go along.
A traveler or two who want to take control crane their necks from the turbulent water. They want to navigate by themselves. They try to find out where they are by checking the tiny official signage that tucks away in one shadowy corner. It is of little help. The sign only offers two directions, Jemma el Fna or one Riad Laarouss. Travelers are left as clueless as before as to where the wave has taken them.
If a particularly persistent traveler does not give up and tries to look for cues from other signs that are around, he would only get spinned into a twirl that drags him further down into troubled water. Apart from the official signage, every riad (guesthouses converted from traditional townhouses), every shop, every restaurant, literally every establishment in the medina has its own signage and pointer in different styles. If the traveler has in mind a certain destination, and feels lucky to have found a signage that points to that destination, he would soon feel beaten again as, after a few confident strides, he gets stranded in front of five forks, with no more signage around to give more hints as to which stream ahead would take him to the destination.
Sometimes, the official signage points left to Jemma el Fna, but on the wall right next to it, a huge arrow in blood red paint directs people to turn right. The seasoned traveler, without a moment of hesitation, feels that the only sensible choice would be to follow the official signage. After 15 minutes of winding along the alleys, corridors, and side streets, Jemma el Fna is still nowhere to be seen. The traveler starts to get irritated with himself, and goes over one of the many self-denial processes throughout the day in his head. He must have made a wrong turn somewhere, he would think. But no matter how hard he tries to retrace the steps in his cognitive map, he is not able to figure out exactly where things started to go wrong.
If the signage is not something travelers can trust, try the people. There are helpful people everywhere in the souks. The instant a traveler pauses at a junction, not even quick enough to show a look of lost, a young boy who seems to have been standing there all his life cannot wait to offer the traveler a helping hand. ‘Where are you going?’, he would ask in the most concerned tone. As the traveler does not really have any idea which way he should be going, he is speechless for a second. But the young boy is too impatient to wait. As if capable of deciphering the signals in people’s heads, he is hurrying to recite his next line. ‘That way is closed’, he would say. The traveler is dumbfounded, not even knowing which way exactly the boy is referring to. He does not need to know, though. The boy is already walking in front of him to lead, and would, by coincidence, pass by the rug shop of an ‘uncle’ along the way so that the traveler can stop by and shop.
Swarming together with other travelers in the grand maze, I whirled around the souks non-stop. Local guys came to me every now and then and enthusiastically offered to show me the way to the tannery. As it happened, the tannery was the place I least wanted to go. With a condescending smile, I declined them all, and walked the way just the opposite as they intended to take me. This would bring me away from the tannery, I thought. But I kept whirling and whirling around, and, after one final turn, arrived just in front of the tannery. I almost bent on my knees before the tannery, on the verge of breakdown. I felt weak, stupid and helpless in the souks.
At the end of the day, all my hard work only confirmed something I already knew – that my sense of direction is good-for-nothing. How could I be so naive as to believe that I would stand a chance of winning over the mighty Goliath and get away from his grand maze without getting lost? I was doomed to get lost, a lot. End of game score: I got trapped in the maze for nine hours in my first-day adventure in the souks.
The next day, when I stood again in front of the entrance of the maze, I solemnly pledged to myself that there would be a few things that I would not do again – I would not reach for the map. I would not look at the road signs. I would not ask anyone to show me the direction. I would just walk wherever my heart and feet take me to, and would not bother about directions. While the world is round, I should have faith that I will get back to the same place where I started, some day, somehow. Eureka!
Magic happened from this little moment of realisation. Once I stopped orienting, the question of disorienting did not bother me anymore.
Perhaps, the same applies to life too: giving up your control over things might be fearful. But do not let this inner fear reign you. Real freedom can only live within us when we allow ourselves to be unhinged, and surrender ourselves to the flow.
So I was there facing the enormous ocean of souks again. I just jumped, let myself float freely, knowing that the drift would bring me back to where I started, sooner or later.