I have a friend who leaves Seattle annually and wanders the globe for months, eluding the dark, cold and gray of the Pacific Northwest for as long as she can. Her countries of choice are usually sunny, Mediterranean and are situated well below the 47th parallel. This year, she chose Istanbul and generously invited me to join her. I managed to schedule some time to break away, and emailed her to confirm, remembering the incredible Islamic architecture, beautiful textiles and the delicious grilled sardine sandwiches. Istanbul here I come. She surprised me by responding “I’m leaving Turkey and am thinking about going to Morocco. How about joining me there?”
The heart of Marrakech is a huge plaza called Djemma el Fna and the action kicks in once the sun goes down. It seems as if everyone congregates to watch monkeys on bicycles, snake charmers, jugglers and acrobats. There are women who will grab your hand and start tracing a henna design or wildly garbed water men resembling walking parasols trying to pour you a drink of murky water from a goatskin bag. A circle of musicians pounds on drums while a soothsayer delivers the bad news to a cluster of Moroccan men who listen gravely and then break away, shaking their heads. The backdrop to all this is equally amazing: the sun setting over the Atlas Mountains, the Koutoubia tower and a huge movie screen that is showing films for the 11th International Film Festival.
If the entertainment isn’t enough, you can always eat. Every kind of tagine, couscous, kebab, sea snail or sheep’s head delicacy that you might desire is served – look for the booths that are packed with locals. Strings of fresh merguez sausages and heaps of eggplants, carrots, peppers and tomatoes are piled high and the cooks are serious about their cuisine. They cook furiously in the smoky heat, heads down, and turn out plate after plate of delicacies. Fresh orange and grapefruit juice, figs, dates, apricots and nuts are yours for the haggling. Everyone speaks everything. I am approached in English, Japanese, Mandarin, French, Italian, Spanish, German and Arabic by handsome smiling men wielding tattered menus, beckoning toward their food booths.
Beyond the circus of the plaza and the food tents are the souks. For those of us who have been sucking up a non-consumable diet of making do and going without, the economic crisis hasn’t hit the souk merchants and they are out in full force. Entire stalls are heaped with scarves and shawls (all from India and China) and “certified” pure cashmere. Their cashmere is a dead ringer for acrylic, but I smile and chat with them anyway. Stalls filled with filagree metalwork, ceramics, turned wood and thousands of silk tassels (Moroccans love passamenterie and trim) are just around the corner.
The souk is for getting lost. We are turned around and backtrack constantly. During one wrong turn, we meet the chicken guy, a small man wheeling a bicycle laden with chickens that are very much alive and don’t seem too perturbed by their certain fate. They are gorgeous. Underneath the chickens is a crate holding two adorable wiggly-nosed rabbits. Don’t even want to think about that either except to say that the cuisine was wonderful in Marrakech, and this man epitomizes the “buy local, eat local” foodie ethic.
Next: On the way to the souk