The train from Casablanca to Marrakesh is delayed by half an hour. This is a minor delay: in India, it might not come at all.
Marrakesh is a four-hour drive from Casablanca, and the train arrives at midnight. McDonald’s is open at the station, but all the taxi drivers have long gone, except for one. And he speaks perfect English.
Shall we try to deal with him?
The taxi driver meets the long-awaited tourists right at the exit of the train station.
“Friends, welcome to Marrakech! Where are you headed? To the center? Then you need to go with me, a hundred dirhams!”
“A hundred dirhams, isn’t that a bit steep? Fifty at most.”
“Alright, let’s go.”
Good English and willingness to bargain are the two main signs of a scamming taxi driver. There is no doubt that they will try to rip us off now. But there are no other taxis around. It’s half past midnight. Let’s go.
After a brief pause of just two minutes, barely moving away from the train station, the taxi driver starts playing a familiar tune on his music player, known to me from Varanasi.
“Buddy, what’s your hotel?”
“Well, it’s like this.”
“Give me the number, I’ll call.”
“Maybe you want my house key as well, where the money is kept?”
The favorite trick of all taxi drivers is to call the hotel and cancel the reservation, while telling the tourist that the hotel burned down and closed. After that, they will take you to their own hotel, which is no worse at all. Just five times more expensive.
“What do you mean, you won’t give it? I don’t know where to go!”
“I know, Il’al’Medina.”
“Medina is big, where exactly? Friends, I’m not going for fifty, let’s make it at least seventy.”
“Oh, you’re not going? Qyf! Min fadluk! Gunek, gunek, ahi!”
“Calm down, alright, let’s go, I won’t stop.”
“Stop! Qyf! Ahi, qyf immediately!”
The taxi driver turns to me and says something in Arabic. Pretending that I understand him, I nod affirmatively.
“Buddy, I respect you. But if you start bargain one more time, we’re out and you won’t get a dirham! I’ve had enough of your tricks back in India.”
“Alright, brother, calm down, I’ll take you there.”
Throughout the journey, I had to carefully track where the taxi driver was taking us. Gradually, the lights of the modern city transformed into increasingly gloomy, dilapidated shanties until we ended up in a completely eerie place, illuminated by dim light and burgundy walls. It was the Medina, the old center of Marrakesh.
The taxi driver stopped.
“There’s no road ahead.”
“There is. Keep going.”
“Friend, I can’t go any further!”
“And I’m telling you, keep going!”
“Andrew, he can’t drive through here! Just let him go.”
“Alright, out of respect for the lady. You’re lucky today, ahi.”
I take out 50 dirhams without any change, turn on the light, and count out the bills to the taxi driver one by one, loudly stating their denominations: twenty, twenty, ten! Fifty. Here you go. Another favorite trick of people like him is to take the money, switch the bill for a smaller one, and sincerely act outraged, saying, “Brother, you made a mistake! You gave me five instead of five hundred!”
Not this time, ahi.
The morning in Marrakesh begins with marvelous palaces and gardens. The nighttime desolation seems as if it never existed. However, that’s not the case. We will encounter it again. But for now, Marrakesh is clean and fresh.
Along the way, several marks on the map are encountered. All these marks are dull square palaces adorned with tiles, stained glass windows, and a single vase precisely positioned in the center of the courtyard. That’s how high-ranking officials lived in Marrakesh. A realm of symmetry and tastelessness.
The main place in the city, the Bahia Palace, differs from dozens of similar palaces only in its size.
There is nothing to do in the palace except capturing symmetry and the play of shadows.
Crowds of tourists occupy the palace from early morning, and they all play with the colorful reflections from the stained glass windows.
That’s how all the museums in Marrakesh look—they are absolutely identical. The house of someone, a school of someone — structurally, they are the same: square caravanserais that have preserved their expensive interiors. In residential houses and on the streets, little has been preserved, but in the museum, it has been. That’s why any museum in Marrakesh has exactly one exhibit—the museum itself.
In one museum, there were carved windows and doors with intriguing shadows. In another, a giant chandelier hung, and there was also an exhibition of contemporary art. I understood everything about the museums in Morocco when I saw price tags next to each painting.
In Eastern countries, it is not customary to visit for museum tours and exhibitions. In the East, the best museum will be the city itself, and its exhibits will be the people.
Life in Marrakesh begins at the central square. During the day, Jemaa el-Fnaa Square is utilitarian and dull. The vast open space becomes overheated in the summer, making it impossible to stay here due to the heat.
But in the evening, the square comes alive. Every day, a food festival takes place there, drawing tourists and locals from all over Marrakesh.
Food here is cooked on charcoal and grills. There are juicy kebabs, sausages, kababs, and all kinds of meat dishes. Additionally, the entire square is filled with juice stalls. Around endless market rows, endless crowds of people circulate. In night photographs, they all merge together, leaving behind a blurred, trailing streak.
Jamaa el Fna is the best evening spot in Marrakesh. There is nothing better than eating fresh kebabs straight from the grill and washing it down with cold orange juice. There is nothing better than watching the hustle and bustle of the city from the rooftop of a café.
However, there is one unpleasantness. After the carnival, it is necessary to return to the hotel at night, and along with the tourists and kebab vendors, vampires emerge onto the city streets. Marrakesh turns into a horror movie.
The taxi driver dropped us off at the beginning of the Medina, but he lied about not being able to drive further. He could have done it, he just didn’t want to. The narrow streets that turned into rough roads made us believe him.
One way or another, we had to venture out into these damn slums at midnight. Walls of a horrifying, blood-red color loomed around us. Dim, orangish-yellow lanterns illuminated them. For many kilometers ahead and behind, there stretched a straight street that resembled a roofless tunnel or a river made of asphalt. The street was squeezed between two continuous walls, and there was no immediate exit from it: one could only go forward or backward. There was a third option: turning into incredibly terrifying alleyways, completely devoid of light.
The last time I was in such a place was in Palestine when I ran through the abandoned market of Hebron at night. Back then, crazy children would jump out from around the corner with wild screams. This time, there were no children, but beggars and ragged individuals roamed the streets, while groups of drug addicts gathered in corners, inhaling hashish smoke through pipes.
We kept going without stopping until we reached the point marked on the map as the hotel. And what’s next? In front of us is a square. The compass is not working well, the arrow keeps spinning. The hotel is marked somewhere amidst the buildings, which are not even clear how to navigate through.
With a split-second delay, a wasted hashish junkie in tattered pants, greasy jacket, unwashed hair, and a week-old beard approaches us from the corner. He instantly recognized us as lost tourists.
“Got a smoke? Looking for a hotel? Let me take you.”
“Thanks, we’ll manage on our own.”
“The hell you’ll find it yourself, is this your first time here? Where are you from?”
I’m trying to pretend that I know the way myself. To do that, I take a few steps back, but the compass needle immediately turns in the opposite direction.
“Hey, are you gonna keep poking at your phone? Let’s go, I’ll guide you!”
“How much money do you want?”
“Okay, lead the way.”
I hate this. Every time you almost reach the hotel, you get lost in the city labyrinth. “Whatever” in their language means no less than 300 dirhams.
The junkie quickly finds the way to the hotel. It turns out, we had to dive into a low archway that was completely dark—it led into pitch-black darkness. Emerging from the arch meant entering dimly lit alleys barely one and a half meters wide.
I recorded the video on the next evening when the streets were still crowded. The hashishist, however, led us through those alleyways when there was not a soul in sight.
Finally, we arrived at the hotel. The door was locked, and next to it stood another ghoul, leaning his foot against the wall. One person behind us, the other in front. It seemed clear that they would pull out a knife any moment and rob us.
“Here’s your hotel, give me the money.”
“First, open it.”
The junkie spat and began pounding the door with a hammer while shouting something in Arabic. After a minute of profane exclamations, the hotel owner opened the door.
“Hello, we’ve come to you,” we quickly darted into the hotel and moved closer to the staircase.
Two ghouls remained standing on the street and started demanding money from the hotel owner. A real brawl ensued, and the thugs were already trying to force their way inside. I took out a crumpled 20-dirham note, clenched it in my fist, and approached the hashishist.
“Here you go, buddy. You earned it!”
“What’s this? Are you crazy, I want at least a hundred from you!”
“Yeah, sure! Shukran, habibi! Il’al’lika!”
The hashishist’s face changed. “Il’al’lika-a-a?” he squeezed out angrily, with a tone that seemed to say, “So that’s how it is... well, we’ll meet again!”
At that moment, the hotel door slammed shut in front of his face, and from then on, no one dared to venture outside after 10.
Marrakesh is called the Red City for a reason: almost all walls in the Medina are made of reddish clay.
Medina is very diverse. There are places in the city where tourists roam more than locals. There are also impoverished areas, at the entrance to which you might even be warned: do not enter.
But there is nothing dangerous or interesting on these streets, at least during the day. It’s better not to venture here at night, but during the day you can only find dirt and uncontrollable crowds of people. The slums of Marrakech resemble India, except there are no cows and garbage dumps.
Moroccans don’t like being photographed very much. They have long been accustomed to tourists in the city center, but residents of the slums are categorically against it and may even react negatively. Everyone here understands why these photos are taken: to later show in their own country someone else’s devastation and poverty.
The closer to the center, the more tidy the city becomes.
At some point, the market begins, and real life blossoms at the market.
The market is mostly covered. Its roof is made of long wooden planks, so it’s cool and dark even on a hot day. Light seeps through the cracks in the roof, creating intricate beams of light. In some other Britain, there would be a sign at the entrance to the market saying “Entry prohibited for epileptics.”
Here is where the Middle Eastern soul of Morocco unfolds. It turns out the medina is a huge bazaar, a labyrinth of markets that entwines the entire city.
The Arabic world begins at the bazaar. A merchant of light rests on a stool by his stall. He sits, balancing, leaning on one leg against a brick. His shop is filled with hundreds of copper lamps that cover the sky like a roof. Lamps of any shape, adorned with various ornaments — just like in the market in Persian Isfahan.
“Take photos and show them to everyone!” advertises the merchant. “More, more! From all sides!”
In the confectionery stall, on the back wall, there are photographs of the King and President of Morocco. On the left wall, there is a photo of the sacred Kaaba in Mecca, while on the right wall, there is a nighttime view of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.
The merchant beckons with his gaze to people passing by and for a moment turns his head directly into the frame.
The market in Marrakech is completely touristy, but the crowds of tourists don’t bother much — it’s too good here to pay attention to them.
Everything intertwines at the market. Traders shout in Arabic and French, luring in buyers. Local couriers bring carts with chickens and exchange them for flatbreads: bartering is common at the market.
Through the narrow alleyways of the bazaar, people pass by on donkeys or mopeds. One motorcyclist kicks up dust while another swiftly enters the beams of light and gestures on the go: “Do not take photos.”
A little further, and in the same spot, musicians in blue djellabas appear, notice the camera, and start posing.
In the medina, there are places you don’t want to leave. You can find such a spot and stay for hours to capture the perfect shot. Life will pass by, the essence of Marrakech will unfold before your eyes.
The bazaar is the epitome of Eastern life.
“Argan oil?” Vimas became suspicious, “I’m not for myself, the girls asked to bring some.”
“Well, it’s being sold right there, go buy it. Just make sure to haggle.”
“That’s why I don’t want to buy, because they all beckon and pester. Isn’t it obvious that no one will buy this way?”
“Yeah, they’re selling and don’t know?”
Vimas approaches the merchant, who is already prepared to embrace her. Instantly, the finest varieties of oil, perfumes, ointments, creams, spices, and seafood are taken from the shelves. All of this ends up in Vimas’ hands, while the merchant joyfully announces a price five times higher than the market value.
“No, no, I don’t want to take all of this! Leave me alone!” Vimas bursts, and the bewildered merchant quickly retrieves everything he had given her from her hands.
“Ahi, how much for the oil?”
“Ha-ha, look for a fool. How about 10?”
“Ahi, too little!”
“Then salam aleikum!” I turn around and prepare to leave.
“Wait! Twenty and it’s a deal!”
“I’ll take it.”
Hold my beer.
Marrakech is composed of an unimaginable number of details.
You can capture peeling walls, or find an expensive intricately carved door.
Goods at the market are displayed as if they are being prepared for a postcard-worthy photograph.
Marrakech is the informal capital of Morocco. The modern name of the country originated from the distorted name of this city, and in some countries, such as Iran, Morocco is still referred to as Marrakech.
Marrakech is a paradise for an aspiring traveler who is already tired of Europe but still hesitates to go to the Middle East.
Marrakech is also a paradise for photographers. Amazing shots practically jump into the camera; you just need to be unafraid of occasional objections from the locals.
Symmetry and asymmetry. Any types of perspective, any rules of thirds and the golden ratio.
All shades of red and blue: from burgundy to tangerine, from blue to indigo.
There is another place in Marrakech — leather workshops. These are entire factories set up right in the courtyards.
In the workshops, they finish leather: strip it, clean it, process it, and dye it in all possible colors. The whole process is done by hand. It is one of the most expensive professions in Morocco.
And, unfortunately, the most foul-smelling and disgusting. Thousands of stripped skins are dried in the sun and soaked in enormous vats with mixtures that emit a monstrous smell for kilometers around the workshops.
However, let’s not spoil the story — we will visit the leather tanneries in Fez, where there are many more of them.