The Museum of Art and Culture of Marrakech (MACMA) has a small permanent exhibition called Expressions of Orientalism. It’s about the colonial European image of the Arab world as a place of exotic scenes, proud tribal chieftains and sexy harem maidens.
Orientalism in the arts and popular imagination was a huge thing in the late 19th century, when European countries were grabbing colonies in the Middle East and Asia. The MACMA show says it faded out in the 1960s, but that’s an overstatement. Keeping the flavour of Orientalism fresh is of urgent importance to everyone in Marrakech, an isolated desert city that survives on tourism. It is a screen that reflects the Exotic East that visitors want to see – and it is still in action in the narrow lanes of the Marrakech medina (old quarter), and in the medina’s vast plaza of Jemaa el-Fnaa. Here’s how to best experience it for yourself.
The labyrinthine souks (markets) are probably the most picturesque shopping mall on Earth, and they haven’t changed much over the ages. The red or dun-coloured walls and arches look medieval, and many of the crafts have been made the same way for generations. Merchants hustle to sell tourists the same kinds of pointed slippers, caftans, painted ceramics and rugs that Orientalist painters used to lug back to their studios in Paris and London. It’s a sensory overload of tiny stalls jammed with colourful handcrafts.
Some people buy spices from a stall fronted with pyramids of bright powders; or a decorative brass lamp; or a djellaba, although most of these long robes, once purchased, probably don’t leave the closet often. Ominously for the merchants, the tradition of toting souvenirs home may be yielding to the cheaper pleasure of taking selfies in exotic locales.
For most visitors, “doing” the medina is still the main reason to come here, and it takes energy. The lanes of the souks are crowded, and not just with people on foot. Moroccans on motor bikes and small delivery vehicles whiz up at frightening speed, confident that everyone will jump out of the way in time.
Competition for business is high, especially since many of the stalls sell the same or similar merchandise. The merest eye contact can bring a vendor bounding into your path to lead you toward his wares. If you’re not interested, it can be hard to break free, and when you do, a similar encounter may be waiting a few paces on. Sunglasses can be a real help.
The people are usually friendly, even when you turn them down. The exceptions are the boys and young men who try to “guide” you some short distance, even when you repeatedly say “no, thanks.” At the destination, their smiles turn to indignation when you don’t pay them, say, the equivalent of a taxi fare across town.
At one end of the medina is a high-walled royal palace, accessible only to guests and staff of Morocco’s King Mohammed VI. The 19th-century Bahia Palace nearby is open to all. Its rambling rooms include lots of gorgeous mosaic tile, as well as intricately carved stone and wood. It was built and decorated by a couple of local grandees, and taken over by French authorities after they imposed colonial rule in 1912.
The Musée de Marrakech, also in the medina, has a huge courtyard with a massive brass chandelier, a good collection of Fez ceramics, and some fabulous textiles from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
At night, tourists head to Jemaa el-Fnaa, the sprawling antithesis of the medina’s narrow lanes. The scene features many ingredients of Orientalist paintings, including musicians and acrobats performing in traditional costume, and “charming cobras in the square,” as mentioned in a classic Crosby, Stills and Nash song from 1969. The often defanged snakes rise from their baskets not because of their handlers’ flute playing, but because the wavering instruments look to them like a threat.
There are always some majestic-looking women sitting on the square’s pavement or in fold-up chairs, with textiles or dollar-store items for sale at their feet. Dim open-air dining tables and brightly lit juice trucks feed visitors who don’t feel like seeking out Marrakech’s restaurants, some of which are remarkably good.
At the end of the day, with little night life in this Muslim city, most people retreat to their riads (guest houses). A riad is a large traditional house of two or more storeys, built around a courtyard and renovated to handle paying guests. There are no windows to the outside, and few sounds from the tumult of street life.
My Riad Abjou was just inside the medina’s southern edge, on a lane reachable only on foot. The Moroccan host was a former manager at a big hotel, who had decided in retirement to try a more homey style of hospitality. He was adept at introducing guests to each other, and one evening improvised a memorable group supper in the courtyard, cooked by the two women who ran the kitchen and kept house.
A comfortable riad is a great tonic after a day in the medina, and this one was an oasis of peace. Not exotic, and not concerned with keeping up Orientalist appearances, but in its way a window into the real Marrakech.
The writer was a guest of Air Canada, which did not review or approve this article.