“Hello. Come in, I’ll show you what is in my store,” he said.
The smart thing to do was to walk away. For reasons unknown to me, maybe it was the Moroccan colors of his shop, I decided to take the young lad with bright eyes and sprightly gait up on his offer, and secretly prayed I would not regret my spontaneity. I looked around, furtively eyed the distance between his hanout (local shops) and the crowd, and walked in. He said hi again, told me his name was Mohamed, his family was Berber, and everything in-store was cultivated organically by them. Once pleasantries were exchanged, he happily led me to some of the interesting items in his well-kept corner store within Souk el Attarine.
It was a cornucopia of endless delights. There was Aker Fassi, a seemingly innocuous bell-shaped clay pot that turned out to be an all-natural lip stain made from dried poppy petals and pomegranate seeds. A tan bulb was actually dried Ammi Visnaga plant, repurposed by Berbers as toothpicks. Next to them sat Alum, gleaming white crystal-like chunks which can be used as a deodorant ― the candy-like cubes were, in fact, perfume blocks made from natural resins such as sandalwood, amber, and musk.
Soon after, he poured me a glass of hot tea ― a refreshing blend of mint, cardamom, star anise, and other herbs. As we sipped the delicious drink, he shared his dream about hosting a café and shyly asked if I would like to see the unfinished terrace. The tiny rooftop spot was far from complete, but as he pointed out his hopes for it, everything seemed to come alive. I could picture the cosy nook he described, perfect for a tête-à-tête over a pot of Moroccan mint tea.
It was no simple feat to be this trusting to a person you have just met. Yet, time and again, I was granted this healing gift in Marrakech. Through various encounters, I discovered sheer contentment in simple fresh food, the embrace of a welcoming community, and the beauty of timeless traditions in its terracotta terrains.
A Day In The Mesmerising, Confusing Souks
Marrakech’s earliest inhabitants made their living from trade and till this day, it continues to be the city’s mainstay. Craftsmen, young and old, showcase their work within the labyrinth that fills the northern half of the medina.
My journey began at Souk Semarine via an elaborate arch just north of Jemaa El-Fna, where scrims of sunlight seeped through the slated roof shades. Traditionally specialising in textiles, the cloth merchants have been eclipsed by those selling trinkets and souvenirs because earning a living was easier and less arduous than more this ancient work.
From there, I ambled into Rahba Kedima (meaning ‘old place’), when a man with salt-and-pepper hair weaving rattan bags waved at me and insisted I sat on a stool with a leather mat across from him. Yassine, 46, who has been manning his shop for more than 20 years, told me his favorite part of the job was meeting travelers from across the globe. While assiduously continuing his task, his face rapt with attention as his calloused hands sewed on a leather flap with rafia string, he then asked me a series of questions in French ― the second most used language in the country after Arabic. Sparing him the agony of my pitiful, barely conversational French, I responded in English. We sat there, in companionable and comfortable silence, a rare moment of peace in the intoxicatingly chaotic medina.
As I approached the end of Souk el Attarine, replete after a short stint at Mohamed’s, the sound of continuous clanging resounding through Souk Haddadine, the ironworkers’ quarter. It was impossible to miss. A feast for the eyes, I looked beyond the assortment of splendidly glowing lanterns to see craftsmen hammering hot metal into shape in the cavern-like workshops.
Emerging unscathed from the souks, I sauntered in Jemaa El-Fna, wading through a legion of tourists and locals, when a nut and dried fruit seller called out to me from his staggering mounds of snacks, only to ask me where I was from and what I truly thought about Marrakech. Time felt longer in Marrakech. It was as though I could pack more in amidst the clacking hooves of horse-drawn carriages, the humming drag of donkey carts, and interspersed swatches of Arabic and French.
A Home Away From Home
Marrakech turned out to be full of alluring mysteries, chiefly evinced in their nondescript doors leading to amazing, otherworldly riads. For the uninitiated, a riad is a large traditional townhouse built around a central courtyard with either a garden, a fountain, or a pool, and is often converted into a place of lodging.
I opted to stay in Riad Kasbah, and their hospitality was the best I have ever experienced in a lodging on my travels. The first sight that greeted me as I skipped into the capacious courtyard was the stunning pool, outlined with white pool beds and thoughtfully topped with straw hats. Facing the pool was a gorgeous alcove adorned with contemporary decor, where I had sumptuous breakfasts in the morning and spent languid afternoons reading and sipping mint tea.
My favorite moment during my time there was a parting gift in the form of a tight hug from one of the ladies in the riad. As we pulled away from our embrace, her hands still on my arms, she said, “You are welcome back any time.”
A Concoction Of Flavors Unlike Any Other
For a person whose schedule begins at 7:00 a.m. every day, breakfast on a work day is almost always an afterthought. Imagine my surprise on my first morning in Marrakech when I was served a typical Moroccan breakfast spread: Mahrash, a rustic and chewy flatbread made from barley and wheat with a generous garnish of barley grits; Beghrir, a porous Moroccan pancake made from semolina and that is usually eaten with homemade jams (strawberry and fig) or honey and butter; a warm croissant; a fruit plate; a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice; some local yogurt; and a pot of mint tea.
Later that day, my first evening in Marrakech was spent at the ravishing La Sultana. I arrived there early for an aperitif at their rooftop bar, which includes a coveted spot to catch the sun setting over the eternally photogenic city. A duo of a vocalist and guitarist serenaded guests with romantic, traditional renditions of famous songs. The meal crescendoed with a delightful dessert of thin orange slices soaked in a mint tea infusion, complemented with a crisp honey biscuit and tangy orange sorbet.
Another not-to-be-missed spot in town is Le Salama. I walked in and soaked in the enchanting decor. The scene that is forever seared in my memory was the sonorous chirping of a pair of lovebirds. I watched the city become bathed in a golden glow as I sipped my drink and waited for my dinner. My tastebuds are forever spoiled by the mind-blowing flavors of the Northern African city ― Le Salama’s exquisite couscous with seven vegetables and beef sausage being one of them. I still have dreams about this dish ― the fluffy couscous, the fork-tender vegetables simmered in a concoction of spices, and the smoky, savory beef sausages.
A Love Affair With Architecture and Color
The expansive grounds of Bahia Palace was the epitome of Moorish architecture, where every inch of the palatial ground was engraved in beauty. Built at the start of the 19th century by architect El Mekki for Si Moussa, the then chamberlain of Sultan Hassan I, the gorgeously decorated palace was once owned by a slave-turned-vizier, Abu ‘Bou’ Ahmed. I spent nearly half of my morning here, tracing my hands on the intricately-colored tiles and ornate geometric patterns. The most impressive was the quarters of Bou Ahmed’s favorite concubine, Lalla Zineb.
“This city taught me color,” Yves Saint Laurent once said. In 1966, Monsieur Laurent landed in Marrakech for a vacation and left with a pair of keys to his first house in the medina. Five decades later, his revelation was my inspiration. Musée Yves Saint Laurent was an impressive space. The brand’s monolith stood proud at the entrance and its exhibition hall featured some of the visionary couturier’s most iconic work, such as the pea coat, the Mondrian dress, and the safari jacket ― a voyage to the heart of what influenced the designer. The pièce de résistance, however, was the inner sanctum of the edifice, Pierre Bergé’s (YSL’s long-time partner) impressive oak-paneled library. Among the library’s most important acquisitions were books concerning the Berber people, along with Bergé’s exceptional collection of important and rare volumes. Some of these dated from the 17th to 20th centuries, tabulating the history, literature, and traditional arts of Morocco.
The Undeniable Magic of Sahara
Morocco has some of the most colorful, exciting cities in Africa, but even Marrakech plays second-fiddle to the country’s natural scenery. My adventure to the largest sand desert in the world involved steering through single-track mountain roads with ridiculous hairpin turns, where my heart beat faster than it ever should have. Amin, my driver, was an expert at weaving through the dunes at breakneck speed. In our eight-and-a-half hour journey from Marrakech to the Sahara, the scenic landscape changed from the lush High Atlas range to the Dadès Gorges. The Atlas Mountains were rife with epic ridges and secluded valleys ― I caught a glimpse of the absolutely majestic snow-capped peaks. The Gorge was home to an amazing piece of road with picturesque villages and bizarre rock formations on the way.
A few hours later, we made it to the undulating golden dunes. They are home to several distinct eco-regions and diverse variety of flora and fauna. Hiking up the flour-soft dunes ― an exhausting exercise of slip-slide-sink ― and standing atop its summit reminds me of how small we truly are.
A Warm Welcome, An Unforgettable Goodbye
While my driver and I were traveling through the arid beauty of the desert on my second day there, he spotted what appeared to be a nomad encampment in the distance. He whipped his head around and asked if I would like to visit.
Some 15-20 minutes later, we arrived and I stepped out of the 4×4, the frigid desert air was a shock to my senses after being comfortably ensconced in a car. My driver-cum-guide approached the woman dressed in a black abaya and asked if it was all right for me to look around. She tilted her head to look at me and smiled before she gestured for me to enter her canopied dwelling. I crouched and sat cross-legged beneath the tent held up by sticks and sheltered by woven goat hair, strands poking out.
The harsh living conditions were startling, to say the least. There was hardly any semblance of life surrounding the area, the nearest city was hours away, and all she had were some livestock in the form of several goats and a sheep bleating in the distance. She had next to nothing, and yet, a few moments later, brought out a tray with a steaming pot of mint tea, a basket of homemade bread swaddled in cloth, and an open container of olive oil. Tearing off a portion of bread, she handed it to me and pointed to the olive oil, indicating that I should dip the bread in it.
It was hard not to feel emotional after seeing her generosity. She exemplified how special connecting with someone from a different culture can be. We do not need to speak the same language to be hospitable and kindness is the ultimate, universal love language understood by all. I could not help but wonder, how different would our lives be if all of us are tethered to that simple, yet powerful notion of humanity? How different would our communities be? How different would our world be?
What places have been the most colorful to you? Which ones have changed you as a person the most?