All roads in the Medina in Marrakech lead to the big square, the Jemaa el Fna. Specifically, the road from my Riad. “Turn left at the mosque and keep left”, said Said. “About 20 minutes”. Despite this instruction, it took me about a day and a half to make it.
This is why it took so long: on every corner, and in every shop, there are men. Each is eager to direct you to “big square, big square” and no two of them suggest the same way. Of course, those not tethered to their tills will be happy to walk with you on their suggested route “Marrakech very hard”. When you smile and say thank you and point out that you know where you are going, they earnestly explain that they live along the road they are insisting upon, and are going that way anyway. You assert that you have no cash, and advise them not to waste their time. They look sorrowful and say “I am good man” or “I am student”; ” I only want to walk with you, and show you big square”. All of this is very time-consuming, but not actually harmful, provided you treat it like a game.
One man yesterday, let’s call him Mohammed (almost certainly his real name), employed an original and effective tactic: he convinced me it was too early in the day to get the full big square experience, and that I would be better to walk with him to the Berber auction. He took me off in a direction that at least three other men had suggested was the best route to the big square. At first he wheeled his moped, then he suggested that I become his pillion passenger. This I declined. Along our route through almost deserted back streets, we bumped into some of my previously disregarded escorts, busily taking other people God knows where. They looked at me as though I had cut the heart out of them. “This way to the big square” each of them said, windmilling crazily in any direction we were not going.
Mohammed asked me my name, if I had a husband and children, and where I was staying. I gave him all the info requested. As soon as I mentioned my riad–and perhaps a little too quickly–he immediately beamed. “My sister Fatima works there. She cooks in the kitchen”. Imagine that? A man called Mohammed with a sister called Fatima and she happens to work at the very (tiny and hard to find) riad where I am staying. Coincidence–I don’t think so. Unfortunately for Mohammed, we crossed the very street I had started out on, proving we had walked in a very big circle. It was all over between me and the man with the moped. I sat down in a tea shop and refused to move. He kickstarted the Yahama–Very good bike. Safe. Takes Two–and rode off in what I believe to be the direction of the big square.
I took my tea–with mint and honey–and began to seek the big square in earnest. My left flip flop post was rubbing my big toe by now, leaving me little option but to stop and buy a pair of shoes. Green hand-tooled leather. Starting price £45 reduced to a very satisfactory £17. There are very few tourists in town at present, and even fewer shopping in the morning. The apothecary was next–a most enjoyable half an hour spent sniffing sandalwood stumps and amber perfume blocks, and discussing the merits of a natural form of viagra. I was given berber tea and what looked like a tiny tagine lid which you wet with rose water (or, I suppose, any water) and circle with your finger. You use the red dye that ensues to colour your lips. I explained to Adnan that the shoe shop man had had the last of my notes. (this was true–and is the story of my life). “I will come back” I told him, and meant it, for he was absolutely sweet. “They all say that” he told me sadly “I will wait for you here…”
I walked on through the souks and to the big square where hawkers of all kinds sell everything under the sun. It is busiest in the evening, but I am in no rush to go back there for a picture with a cobra, an exchange with a tooth puller, or the chance to buy a blow-up Santa. Neither did I like the streets around, crowded with men from Ghana selling watches, and phones. Time to repair to the hamman for a lie down.