Marrakech: Souk city by night

By Graham Reid

Graham Reid finds another Marrakech worth exploring.

A quiet lane in the early morning under a canopy of sticks. Photo / Graham Reid
A quiet lane in the early morning under a canopy of sticks. Photo / Graham Reid

As anyone who has had the good fortune to go will tell you, Marrakech is a city of noise, especially in the grand central square.

By day, snake charmers and fortune tellers call for attention, motor scooters blast past, cars on the unmarked road around the perimeter sound their horns, fruit and vegetable sellers shout invitations at you to sample from their attractive displays, Berber musicians play impromptu sessions and people hold animated conversations.

At night, when the restaurant tables are set up, it happens all over again. But more of it, and louder.

Little wonder then that many retreat to rooftop cafes and restaurants to eat meals prepared in the ubiquitous tagines and sip mint tea in the quiet.

But there is another Marrakech. The silent city.

Late at night after the tourists have drifted away, when the restaurant tables have been stacked in a corner and the musicians are nodding down into low, trance-like rhythms, the lanes and blind alleys off the square - crowded by day with merchants, donkey cars and scooters - are deserted.

The wares have been stowed away and the narrow lanes now appear as wide as streets under the jaundiced glow of intermittent light bulbs and flickering fluorescent tubes. Once familiar lanes now look disorientingly different. This is a world owned by wandering cats and old men sleeping in doorways.

Footsteps echo off stone walls and heavy wooden doors, locals retreat to the inward-looking homes and riads. Marrakech can be eerily silent.

Like Venice in winter when the stones freeze to the touch and black canals are as still as death, Marrakech at midnight and beyond is a very different world.

Up ahead in a lane an unseen door closes with a low thud, down an alley hooded figures move into fuzzy pools of light and disappear again as they sink into deep shadow, a bundle of rags moves as an old man shifts into a more comfortable position.

The smells of the day - incense, spice and the dusty odour of old material and wood - seem to have disappeared into the black sky above the lane's webbing of sticks and tattered cloth. The world here is now still. A distant radio brings the barely audible sound of an exotic song, disembodied in the night.

For the late stayer, or early riser who gets into the alleys and lanes before merchants open their doors and unload wares onto the street and the calls to prayer started to echo above, Marrakech can reveal itself in a very different way.

Early one morning we walked as sleep rubbed itself out of the eyes of cool lanes. Unused to seeing tourists out at this time, vendors smiled and chatted with no thought to making a sale so early. And we were waved into a place we might otherwise never have seen.

We entered a huge store stacked floor to ceiling with Berber artefacts, bad knock-offs of Salvador Dali paintings, multicoloured shoes filed on a wall like abstract art, leather goods, pots and pans, jewellery, lamps, hookah pipes, mirrors in chequerboard frames and glassware. It was as if the exotic loot of the world had been stored in a warehouse. This was a living market yawning into the dawn as the owner shuffled around and women swept the floor.

No one tried to sell us anything, so we lingered undisturbed.

Later in the day, by chance, we passed the same place. It now seemed unrecognisable. Outside were stacks of doors and mirrors, people cajoling tourists to come inside (none did that we saw) and a sense of urgency which hadn't been there previously.

Marrakech seemed like that most of the time, urgent and busy. But Marrakech can be as quiet as it is noisy for those who make time to find the silence.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific has at least two flights a day to London via Hong Kong. Easyjet has regular flights to Marrakech from Gatwick.

Graham Reid travelled to London with assistance from Cathay Pacific but paid his own way to Morocco.

- Herald on Sunday

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