So much is going on in Marrakesh that people do not always notice foreigners – but people in Marrakesh are certainly worth noticing. Some just shout ‘Ali Baba’ after the bearded stranger, my fiancé – apparently a reference to a full-bearded character in a movie filmed in the city. And occasionally it really is the foreigners’ attention they want.
‘Tap-tap’: shoeshine boys tap their brushes at café tables to get attention. ‘Work mister?’: day-labourers squatting outside the old city walls, their bicycles next to them and tools laid out on cloths for potential clients to see their trade. ‘Two dirhams’: the gaudily-dressed old water-sellers who probably make more from tourists’ photos than from water-selling. ‘Help madame please’ from three beggars at the bus station: one pulls up his shirt to show his scars, one takes off his cape to show a withered arm – the third, benefitting from the others’ approach, is blind. From amongst the many children offering services we, on one occasion, chose a guide, and for two hours we are tracked by another small boy, smartly dressed in a blue jacket, waiting to pounce when the other one is finished.
Its mostly in the exotic main square, the Djema’a el-Fna’a, where strangers see Marrakesh life, and are not, in turn, seen. There are colours and smells, swirls of movement and oases of peace, words shouted and spoken, crowds and people ignored. A black umbrella: huddling under it are women in black reading tarot cards. From under a sheltering canvas comes the vile smell of goats’ head soup. Three children, their father and a man in a tartan cap perform a show: acrobatics (the kids) and a mimed story; other groups, down from the mountains, have found space to dance or play music. Monkeys are displayed in wooden boxes; there are snakes waiting to be charmed. Blind men squat on old cardboard reciting stories, attracting circles of anticipatory men as large as those surrounding the qu’ran readers sitting on their stools.
There are peaceful streets of course. Long threads of cotton or wool may be strung along the walls – and tucked in at the end we find a man spinning frantically. Poster sized gaps, carefully numbered, are painted on street walls waiting for the In Memoriam notices: death goes on, as well as normal life. And in a small square we are accosted by a small boy. Sigh! Does he want to guide us back to our hotel; does he want money? No, he wants us to move please: we are standing in the middle of his football pitch.