Morocco has defied our expectations at every turn, but not necessarily in ways that we have expected. We turn up at campsites that bear no resemblance to their descriptions and the ever changing landscape continues to surprise and confuse us; but nowhere has confounded us more than Marrakech.
As our campsite is a good few kilometres out of town, we initially take a taxi to the Jardin Majorelle, the artist’s garden famously patronised by Yves Saint Laurent. I’m hoping that entering the city this way, surrounded by the calm coolness of the carefully tended gardens, will enable us to acclimatise slowly, to dip a timid toe into the life of this most overwhelming of cities. It’s a gentle and stress-free environment, protected from the heat and chaos outside the gates; the blue pools and perfectly swept paths soothe us all and afterwards we walk with confidence towards the medina, with its souks and famous Jemaa el-Fnaa square.We think we are ready.
Ready for all that our imaginations had promised; a sensory overload, a cacophany of hagglers, hustlers and colour. We enter the square looking for the acrobats, the storytellers and all the wonders of the world. What we see are a few sad and degraded monkeys being yanked about on leads, jumping and tumbling to order. Their fur is clogged with dust and grime, one wears a red velvet suit, another a nappy. People approach us with snakes and the boys, excited to be able to touch, are soon uncomfortable as the snakes are placed around their necks while their keepers urge us to take photographs and pay our money.
The outstretched hand, the fingers rubbed together, becomes a recurring sight. All looking must be paid for, every ‘experience’ has its price. It feels like everyone here is a tourist or after tourist money . There is a palpable desperation that goes beyond good natured haggling; our white advantage, our position of privilege is too obvious to all concerned.
We attempt to ‘wander’ in the souks, the souks that I’ve dreamed about photographing. I want to browse, to admire, to window shop. But at every stall we slow by there is a man who wants to engage in the hard sell. Before long we realise that we can’t just stroll about idly enjoying the atmosphere because the ‘atmosphere’ has a distinctly uncomfortable edge, something like sullenness or maybe even resentment hangs in the air. These men have had too many tourists tell them ‘maybe tomorrow’ with big smiles on our faces. For us tourists it can seem like a game; we’ll return home or move on in a few days with some trinket, a new pair of slippers or maybe a rug and a tale to tell of the deal we got. How we all smiled and slapped each other’s backs, shook hands over our ‘democratic’ deal.
As I walk with increasing unease I can see that the people here no longer enjoy this game. I rarely take out my camera even though there is so much I am itching to frame in the view finder. I can sense that my lens is not welcome, it makes their world a fish bowl.
As well as the entreaties to buy wares, we are constantly handed flyers for restaurants and when we turn them down they hand them to the boys to trick us. One man pulls on Monty’s arm far too forcefully, pretending to take him into his cafe – I try to laugh and join in the joke, but it isn’t funny and we both know it.
We return to the square as evening falls, thinking that maybe now it will be transformed into the dazzling affair we’d read about. But there are no fire-eaters, no spectacle really to speak of. A man with a defeated looking kestrel on his arm pushes a hedgehog about roughly and it falls forward hitting its face upon the ground. Then, trying to decide where to eat, at every stall we’re accosted by a man speaking perfect English patter, ‘Aldi prices but Marks and Spencers quality!’. Again, it’s all supposed to be good fun, but actually it seems pretty serious. So much so that when we allow ourselves, weary with resistance, to be steered into a stall to eat a disappointing dinner we are watched by a young man with black looks who’d spoken to us earlier. He must have thought that some kind of agreement had been made between us. As we walk away to find our taxi he follows us and with barely restrained fury tells us that he would be very rude to us if it weren’t for our children. I try to apologise, explain even, but it’s pointless. According to him we’ve broken a deal that we knew nothing about.
Backing away, the boys afraid and exhausted, we head for our taxi. I choke back tears and a desire to drive straight back to Hebden Bridge. The taxi hurtles through the street-lit city too fast. Our fellow passengers are young and beautiful; a tattooed, pierced and elaborately shaved group of Austrian travellers whose eyes shine as they gaze out of the windows and the Arabic music from the speaker next to us is so loud that our brains rattle and shake and I hold Eli close and I can’t work out whether I feel like I’m in a pop video or a bad dream.
Eventually, after what feels like an eternity of noise and flashing street lamps we return to our van, our oasis of sanity. As I peel off his sweaty socks, Eli looks at me with eyes huge and wet with tears and says sorrowfully, ‘the world is so big’. And I know exactly what he means, because it is, and we are so very small in the face of all the sadness, the cruelty, the injustice and the anger.
In the night Monty is sick, which seems a reasonable response to it all and the next day we drive to Essouira. As we travel, the landscape changes. There are more trees, fewer cars, less rubbish. Inside the van the mood changes too and although the world still seems big, suddenly it doesn’t feel quite so scary.