The time is 5:AM. The city of Marrakesh, Morocco is breathlessly quiet. Suddenly, chanting begins to resound from a nearby mosque. Within moments it is followed by a chorus of guttural voices, emanating from over 100 minarets. Asleep on a rooftop terrace I am jarred awake by the thunderous Call to Prayer. This is my Moroccan alarm clock.
My family and I are spending several days exploring the markets of Marrakesh. From our rooftop terrace we have a sprawling view of the city. The markets form a web of convoluted streets; alleyways thatched in bamboo and hopelessly tangled. From the central plaza, the streets radiate outward in a labyrinth capable of making anyone feel directionally challenged. In the distance loom the snow-capped Atlas Mountains.
Departing from our rooftop we gravitate towards the plaza. By the time the sun had ascended, monkey-handlers and snake charmers are already welcoming the day. However, the cobras do not appear too charmed, their mouths sewn shut to prevent them from spitting venom. The shrill pipes is enough to make the most tolerant people insane. I pity the snakes that are subjected to it.
After breakfast in the plaza we take the plunge into the markets. Everything is rich in color-vibrant scarves, jewelry, teapots and tasseled rugs. Tables are heaped with camel-leather saddles, daggers, spices and fresh produce. Our personal favorites are the stands piled in figs and dates. In the center of the stands are holes where Moroccans pop up to collect our order, reminiscent of prairie dogs emerging from their burrows. Most people in the markets are Moroccan salesmen. In order to grab our attention they try everything next to physically attacking us.
“One moment please!” they shout, beckoning us as if they are providing shelter from a tornado. “ Just look, no buy! You like? It’s like free!”
Most of the women are mummified in shawls, looking like sacks of potatoes with eyes. People were everywhere, filthy children, wizened old folks with canes, teenagers swerving erratically on mopeds, and beggars shielded under cardboard, aligning cigarette butts with Mecca. Young boys wear their hair gelled in spikes and when they swagger past my sister they holler, “Oo…la…la!”
Animals are also numerous. Donkeys haul carts containing every product from Coca-Cola bottles to propane tanks. Cats wander the streets, scavenging bits of meat and gnawing at fish bones. Roosters peck at the ground.
We wander between cracked, sunset-colored walls until we detect the stench of the tannery. The tannery is an open area with vats of water made milky with pigeon droppings. Workers slosh in the rank broth in nothing but shorts, laboring to tan sheep leather. It looks like a vast honeycomb, where men hang skins to dry and mangy cats wander the rims. We are handed sprigs of mint leaf to sniff to dull the stench.
Across the street is the building where the leather is made into cushions, purses and other accessories. A salesman removes nearly every cushion from the wall, just to convince us to purchase one, and then begins unrolling carpets and tapestries in desperation.
We leave the scene and plod onward. Five times a day we hear the Call to Prayer. From various mosques around the city, chanting and music resound for worship. Lunch calls for overpriced tea on a terrace. The tea is choked in mint-leaf and so sweet I can feel cavities forming after the first sip.
At the dyer souk, pieces of cloth are hung from lines and lifted with hooked poles. The colors are striking and vary from crimson to turquoise and cobalt blue. We climb up a spiral staircase to view the scenery from the terrace. Somehow, we find ourselves bargaining with a man who offers 8,000 camels in exchange for my sister.
By nightfall the plaza is a hive of humanity. Like moths to a flame, we are attracted towards its lit center. Men wheel in food carts and cooking tents, banishing the snake charmers and their repetitive song. Soon pungent smoke clouds the air. Small greasy chefs busily fry small greasy sausages. Buckets of snails entice the passerby. Determined tattoo artists pursue us with syringes of henna, while we pursue the aroma of frying food.
One has to be aware while roaming the plaza. The traffic is chaotic, mopeds swerving around bewildered tourists. The whine of motorbikes pierces the air. Pickpockets steal up behind us, without success.
“Where you from?” inquires a fruit salesman.
“The United States.”
“A thousand welcomes,” he exclaims, grinning gleefully. We smile back.
From dawn to dusk the markets have ensnared us. We realize a week would not be fully sufficient to see all its wonders. Returning to our rooftop terrace, we hear the fifth and final Call to Prayer, while below us, drummers pound out the heartbeat of Marrakesh.
We decided back in 2008 to travel to Morocco to celebrate the kids’ 16th & 18th birthdays. Americans were terrified of Muslims (and many still are). We were not. Our friend, Allen Hoppes, a leader of American study abroad college students in Morocco, encouraged us to bring the family over. Allen leads students into Morocco through a cultural immersion program to teach them about this Arab country and dispel some of the fears they might have. Allen expressed a desire to lead families on the same type of travel experience and asked if he could “practice” on our family. We happily obliged and indulged in a month-long trip.
As you can see from Bryce’s account, the very first night in Morocco, was impacting. But the adventures never stopped from riding camels across pumpkin-colored sand dunes and sleeping out in a nomad tent, to visiting a village (Chefchaouen) where everything is painted blue including the ground and walkways through the village.
But what made the most lasting impression was when we did a home-stay, walking from one village to the next and staying with two sister’s families and connecting with the Arab children their own age.
We were told that this family of seven grows marijuana in their fields as their cash crop. It is how they make a living and we were told not to ask any questions. We walked through fields where tender young cannabis plants were coming up. The kids were amazed but poor Todd was freaked thinking the seeds and leaves would become intertwined in his laces and boot soles and the sniffing airport dogs will catch him and throw him in jail.
For dinner, we all sat in a circle and ate from a large plate piled high with meat and veggies, with oozing juice running down the sides which we sopped up with chunks of bread. You were to eat the food that was directly in front of you with your hands. Actually, with only your right hand, never your left, as that one is reserved for wiping your butt! Allen translated that our host said, “I heard that in your country, people eat on individual plates, but I have never seen this done.”
That evening after dinner, the kids played card games with our host children, even though they were unable to communicate in their own language. My kids’ favorite card game was “Drug Dealer” where you look into each other’s eyes and try to trick them into thinking you have different cards than you have. The kids worked quickly however and renamed the game so as not to make their new friends uncomfortable. It was heartening to see such exchange of laughter and teasing, despite a deep language barrier.
Our last Moroccan experience in the public hammam climaxed the entire trip. The hammam is a segregated, traditional Turkish bath, which is an incredibly important part of Moroccan culture and life. Men, women and children visit their local hammam at least once a week, and spend two or three hours involved in long cleansing rituals while catching up on gossip with their friends. Sierra and I went with our house mom and she took us by the hand and showed us the protocol- undressing in front of everyone in the open locker room, while the young Arab girls stared at our snow white bodies; filling up buckets of warm water and her scrubbing us in long vigorous strokes that made the dead skin roll off in black spaghetti rolls, as our skin reddened and glowed. Sierra relaxed quickly in response to the warmth and openness of our host mom.
Our three boys- Bryce, Todd and Allen, however, were having a completely different experience over on their side of the hamman. These private and personal Pennsylvania German men, huddled in the corner of the wash room, hoping there was security in numbers, and no one would notice them. They watched with bulging frightened eyes as the male attendant scrubbed the bathers down, even around their crotch. They all refused any attendant’s assistance and got out of there as quickly as possible. Although grateful for having had it, the night’s experience was more of an endurance exercise for them and they were nearly emotionally scarred!
The biggest gift of our month long Moroccan experience was realizing that these Arab people in far-flung northern Africa, are barely any different than us living in eastern United States, and what was different, should be celebrated.
I have to laugh when I think of my sister’s response when she first learned we were taking the children to Morocco for a month-long trip.
“If that were my children, I’d be spending that money on their education.”
And in response I said, “I am.”
What better lesson than to understand that we are all just One People.