Lost in the Derbs of Marrakech

The souks of Marrakesh are a very easy place to get lost . . . For good!
The souks of Marrakesh are a very easy place to get lost . . . For good!

It’s easy to get lost in Marrakech, especially in the medina -the old city- with its alleyways which wind in torturous and seemingly endless paths. These alleys, called derbs, are not marked; there are no street signs. And to the uninitiated all the derbs look very much the same. So yeah it’s easy to get lost, but that’s part of the fun of exploring Marrakech, the crazy jewel of a city in the heart of Morocco.

A trading outpost for centuries, the strategic importance of the place was first officially recognized in 1062, when the medina ramparts were built. Later, in the 16th century Marrakech became the center of the lucrative sugar trade. Sweet!  Rule of the place changed hands a number of times over the centuries, with some proper palaces and gilded tombs established along the way. In 1912 the French got involved, and established a protectorate to rule Marrakech, as well as the rest of Morocco. Spain also had a hand in Moroccan rule until the late 1950’s when the country negotiated its independence. King Mohammed V took over from there, and the crown has been in the family ever since.

Among the Marrakshi derbs are the souqs – covered market streets – which feature palm fronds criss-crossed overhead for shade and shelter. The fun and just plain exoticness of fast-walking the souqs can’t be overstated. The aromas of spices piled ever so neatly, the laughs of toothless merchants and their bartering customers, the blazing colors of cloth on display, the shimmer of delicate silver work… all combine to assault the senses. I said fast-walking because at a slower pace one is excessively vulnerable to usually friendly but always aggressive sales tactics.

From the shadows of the labyrinthine derbs, a help to orient oneself is by catching glimpses of the high minaret of the grand 12th-century Koutoubia Mosque, the highest structure in the city. And even better is when the adhan – call to prayer- is broadcast from it. Five times a day the muezzin gives the call live – no recordings used in Marrakech – and the haunting and sublime beauty of the sound of it gives pause even to non-Arabic-speaking non-Muslims.

If one eventually navigates to the gardens at the base of the minaret one discovers why it’s been so popular with lovers for centuries, what with the romantic atmosphere of fragrant blooming flowers amid stands of palms and orange trees. Atlas cedars grow here too, named for the snow-capped  Atlas Mountains which rise from the dusty plains south of the city.

Just an orange’s throw away from the peaceful Koutoubia gardens is the thumping heart of Marrakech’s medina, the square known as Djemaa el-Fna.  The name means “assembly of the dead” and around CE 1050 the broad plaza was the scene of executions.

Today el-Fna is home to exotic food-bowls of steaming hot snails for instance – and bizarre street performances from oboe-wielding  snake charmers to charismatic hawkers of potions claimed to cure everything from caravan-borne diseases to messy relationships. There are hucksters and musicians and dancers. There are sellers of just-squeezed orange juice (heavenly!) and tassle-hatted, bell-jangling water venders.

And -get this- on the edge of the square even tooth pullers have set up shop, and they display jars of colorful rotten teeth. After dark even more food vendors move into the square, and the air fills with the aromas of perfectly-spiced lamb kabobs, and of dishes steaming with eggs and meatballs cooked in ceramic tajines.

The atmosphere of el-Fna reaches a feverish pitch as the music gets loud and the dancing commences in earnest. Marrakshi and foreign visitors alike jump and sway in the timeless quirky rhythm of the place. In accordance with the wildness, one needn’t be reminded to look out for pick pockets – not to mention the odd groper – but all in all the mood conveyed to visitors is that of bahja –  a joyous one.

Yes, it’s easy to get lost temporarily in the derbs and squares and crowds of Marrakech, and not just one’s sense of direction. More profoundly lost are one’s senses of commonplace, order, and predictability.

And that’s not such a bad thing.

 – Johnny Robinson